Review: Peter Brooks on Alex Ross’s “Wagnerism”

The first time I sat through Wagner’s complete Ring cycle, early in the 1990s, the neighboring seats held a planeload of Germans who had come over for the Met’s version because it was more to their taste than the modernizing Regietheater dominant in various German cities: Otto Schenk’s Met production would not have been out of place at Wagner’s own theater in Bayreuth, in the 1890s. And when the last glorious notes of Götterdämmerung had faded away, they were on their feet, cheering wildly for the conductor, James Levine. In my own mythologization of the moment, I was surrounded by Prussians applauding the great Jewish conductor. And that, I thought, was the Wagner story all along: unlikelihood and contradiction that can never be resolved.  

It’s one of the many merits of Alex Ross’s new book, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, that he doesn’t try to resolve these contradictions. He instead lays out what Richard Wagner has meant over two centuries in all its paradoxical complexities, including his antisemitism and reliance on Jewish musicians, his revolutionary ideas and his capture by right-wing German nativists. The French, very good at -isms, first defined “le wagnérisme” as the onset of modernism. That was work of poet Charles Baudelaire in his essay of 1861 saluting the arrival of Wagner’s work (Lohengrin and Tannhäuser principally) in Paris. Wrote the great French poet: Wagner’s music is “ardent and despotic,” like an opium dream; he “possesses the art of translating in subtle gradations all that is excessive, immense, ambitious in spiritual and natural man.”

But Wagnerism in Ross’s understanding is far more than wagnérisme—he follows what he calls the “endlessly relitigated case of Wagner” through virtually all its cultural and political twists and turns. Not only is Ross—as readers of The New Yorker, where he is a long-time critic, know—an expert and evocative guide to the music, he proves as well a persuasive intellectual historian. His book is an extraordinary undertaking—he has tracked the presence of the composer, and the myth of the composer, seemingly everywhere, past the inevitable Friedrich Nietzsche, who moved from idolizing Wagner to disillusion with what he saw as his religiosity and “Teutonic chauvinism,” but also James Joyce and Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust and T. S. Eliot and (more surprising to me at least) American novelist Willa Cather, and of course Thomas Mann, who was deeply ambivalent about the composer to whom he returned again and again in his writing. He convinces us that Wagner reaches throughout the modernist spirit, for better and for worse. He is also very good on the “erotomania” apparently induced by Wagner’s music, and also on gay Wagnerism and how it responds to “the texture of Wagner’s music—its uninhibited sensuality, its androgynous merging of opposites.”

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Ross recounts the improbable creation of an opera house dedicated to the performance of Wagner’s works, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, and its annual festival, a testimony to the domineering magnetism that Wagner evidently could exert—certainly in convincing mad King Ludwig to support the project—and then the posthumous life of the creation under the iron will of Wagner’s widow Cosima. And then, its takeover in the 1930s and 1940s by Nazis, led by Hitler himself who more or less imposed Wagner-worship on his followers. And then after 1945 the attempt of Wagner’s descendants to de-nazify it and clear the cobwebs from Third Reich styles of production. With notable success: if you have a mind to go to Bayreuth for the festival, you will probably have to wait some four years for a ticket.

Litigating the relation of the Hitlergeist to the Wagnergeist is an endless process with no clear outcome. Is there in Wagner’s use of Teutonic mythology something that calls to, or even calls for, the ideology of National Socialism and the proposition of a master race? I have never been able to take Wagner’s somewhat clunky plots seriously enough to believe so. More sinister is the question of whether the music itself promotes “the German spirit,” whatever that is, and a kind of amoral heroism of the Übermensch. The best answer I think may come from Thomas Mann, who declared his continuing admiration for Wagner despite “the malicious abuse to which its great object somewhat lends itself.” That is, Wagner offers a handle for his own exploitation. I think ultimately Ross’s sympathies lie in the direction of a quotation he takes from Susan Sontag’s journal: “the music is about sex—eroticism—voluptuousness. That’s why one goes on loving Wagner.”

Ross makes his book a compendium, and any future discussion of the topic will have to return to it. I found myself wishing it had been reduced in size and given a firmer architecture: the wish to include absolutely everything that might be said about Wagner’s permeation of modern culture tends to make everything seem of equal importance. Reading the book has something of the endlessness of Wagner’s music. I was intrigued by Ross’s mention of the Italian Futurist F. T. Marinetti’s proposal of a forty-minute Parsifal. Maybe not a bad idea?


Peter Brooks is Sterling Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Yale University. His most recent book is Balzac’s Lives.


Book notes
A while back we reflected on the different year-end “best of” book lists and what they had to say about the country’s state of mind. Although we did recently notice a swell of visible Asian and Asian-American books in the limelight, this year’s year-end lists don’t seem to lend themselves to generalizations. One notes that the convulsive experiences that have defined our days recently have not yet registered in our literature. A big job for the books of 2021! Perhaps the urgency of assimilating what we have lived through will give publishers a new vein to mine now that Washington tell-alls may be tapped out.

For those drawn to a look further back, the Library of Congress initiated its “Behind the Book” series of about book-making with a conversation on Thursday between biographer Robert Caro and his editor (for most of that time, at Knopf), Robert Gottlieb. They are amusingly frank about how much they fought. Caro complains that Gottlieb could go back to his office to fume when they reached an impasse but Caro had to stalk about the halls with the staff.  Gottlieb notes that some of his writers (not Caro, apparently), were easy to work with because they had an “editorial mind.” These included Toni Morrison (not surprisingly, because she was his colleague) and (more surprisingly) John le Carré. He tosses off that he once liked one of le Carré’s characters so much that Le Carré was prompted to add thirty pages about the guy to a novel. “Too much,” said Gottlieb. Le Carré took some out. Gottlieb claims it was his preference have a sandwich in the office with his authors rather than reward them with the fancy lunches for which the guild is famous. His unruffled self confidence in wading into his august authors’ work seemed a part of his gift and also a signature of his time and type. At the end the two express joint determination to live long enough to finish the last volume of Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon Johnson. The exchange, including its mighty introducers, former President Bill Clinton, broadcaster Diane Rehm, and agent Lynn Nesbit, captures quite a bit of the esprit of the old world of publishing that was already starting to eclipse when I was a kid in the eighties.

Fun Caro fact: New York journalists have made it a bit of a secret sign to put Caro’s legendary first book, a biography of metropolis-striding city planner Robert Moses, The Power Broker (we learn in the conversation that it took Gottlieb a year to cut it down by a third), within the frame on their bookshelves in Zoomed TV appearances, generating even its own Twitter feed: @CaroOnRoomRater.

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