“Kill da wabbit, kill da wabbit…” For a certain generation of pop culture junkies, the first image that springs to mind when Richard Wagner comes up is Elmer Fudd, clad in shiny armor and horned helm, mangling “The Ride Of The Valkyries” as he operatically hunts (and lusts!) after his rabbit quarry. Perhaps instead one pictures a flock of U.S. military helicopters soaring over the Vietnamese coastline in Apocalypse Now, raining down bombs and bullets as the 19th-century composer’s most famous song drowns out both whirling blades and screaming bodies. Or maybe one’s mind leaps to Nazi Germany, where Wagner’s work was “the Muzak of genocide” as author Alex Ross calls it in his latest book, Wagnerism: Art And Politics In The Shadow Of Music, a dense and illuminating examination of Wagner’s influence on culture and history.
Wagner was the monoculture event artist of his age: a composer whose ambitious operas (which included Lohengrin, Parsifal, Tristan Und Isolde, and the four-part Ring cycle) introduced techniques and concepts that influenced culture across Europe and North America. In his 2007 book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening To The Twentieth Century, Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, touched briefly on Wagner’s influence on the world of music—detailing a lineage of avant-garde modern classical music that starts with Wagner acolytes Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. With Wagnerism, Ross traces the controversial composer’s influence across what the author calls the “artists of silence”: novelists, poets, and painters.
What makes Wagnerism such a challenging and rewarding read is how Ross comes to terms with that influence. Admitting his initial negative impressions of Wagner as “the Nosferatu shadow falling on that epoch,” Ross paints a picture of Wagner that complicates his image as fascism’s favorite composer. When Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself,” he may as well have been talking about Wagner’s many philosophical about-faces.
Wagner associated with anarchists like Mikhail Bakunin and passionately made speeches about “perpetual revolution,” advocated for the dissolution of the aristocracy, and incorporated spiritual influences from Kabbalism, Islam, and Hinduism into his operatic stories about Grail quests and Nordic gods. Wagner was also an anti-Semite and a racist who praised the Civil War as “the only war whose aim was humane” for ending slavery and cheered the king of Zululand for defeating the British in the early parts of the Anglo-Zulu War. The man whose work would inspire the Third Reich once wrote “the desire to conquer other lands is ‘un-German’” and lived an androgynous, at-times campy lifestyle that would have doomed him as a decadent, depraved artist by that regime. Because of what Ross calls “the emphatic vagueness of his convictions,” entire groups who would have good reason to dismiss Wagner could still claim him as one of their own.
Ross explores these contradictory facets of Wagner’s life and work by looking at how he’s perceived by his admirers. Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism who laid the foundations for establishing the state of Israel, drew so much inspiration and energy from Wagner’s work that he said “only on the evenings when there was no opera did I have doubts about the correctness of my ideas.” In one of his short stories, W.E.B. Du Bois imagined an African American man looking back fondly on a performance of Lohengrin as his last happy memory as he is about to be hanged by a lynch mob. Feminists and gay artists saw themselves in Wagner’s Valkyries and in the homoerotic undercurrents that run through his operas.
The anarchist Emma Goldman zeroed in on the cross-cultural appeal of Wagner’s music, writing that his work is “the releasing force of the pent-up, stifled and hidden emotions of their souls.” In an age when so many different groups had to live under various forms of oppression, the transcendent power of Wagner’s music gave them an outlet to feel and express emotions they were often forced, for the sake of survival, to repress.
Over the course of more than 700 pages, Ross covers a tremendous amount of ground—touching on the Russian Revolution, the birth of cinema, both World Wars, and a who’s-who of artistic and philosophical heavyweights, including James Joyce, Willa Cather, Luis Buñuel, Yukio Mishima, George Eliot, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Wagnerism is mercifully light on the music theory terminology that made The Rest Is Noise an occasionally frustrating read for those of us who couldn’t identify a tritone by ear if you put a gun to our heads. And while Ross does offer a lot of biographical information and anecdotes about Wagner, he’s careful not to psychoanalyze him or make excuses for his subject’s major failings.
Wagnerism doesn’t advocate for separating the art from the artist. With an artist whose legacy is as confusing and complicated as Wagner’s, that kind of surgery is impossible. Which Wagner do you remove? Ross makes this point throughout the book: There is no definitive Wagner—he is a prism through which so many different artists and thinkers refracted their own light. “The essence of reality lies in its endless multiplicity,” Wagner wrote. “Only what changes is real.”
Where once was a man, there is now only a shadow. What shape that shadow takes, Wagnerism suggests, says just as much about the beholder as it does about the body that once cast it.
Author photo: Josh Goldstine