Book Review: Richard Wagner’s Women - "We know no one crueller"

Written By The Wagnerian on Thursday, 29 November 2012 | 7:22:00 pm

Originally published in Times Literary Supplement and made available by the author,  under a  Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

In her book Richard Wagner’s Women Eva Rieger examines the presentation of feminine-gendered qualities in both female and male characters in Wagner’s operas. Her focus is on negatively construed feminine qualities, but in this TLS review I suggest that feminine characters like Isolde, Brünnhilde, and the ‘feminine’ figure of Hans Sachs all occupy the Lacanian position of the hysterical subject who sees that the irresolvable lack in their own character is reflected by the inconsistency of the big Other. Their rejection of the big Other’s limited range of ideological scripts makes them truly feminist characters, whose proposed solutions to the deadlock of modern sexual relations are so radical that we perpetually choose to cover them over with fantasies.



J. P. E. Harper-Scott

Review of Eva Rieger, Richard Wagner’s Women (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2011). Published in the Times Literary Supplement, 18 May 2012, p. 13.

In a vital sense, women were for Wagner the chief means of achieving revolutionary change. The most obvious artistic examination of the tension between the bourgeois fantasy of marriage and Wagner’s sympathy for revolutionary overthrow of existing economic and social structures takes place in what Rieger calls ‘the feminine realm of love’.
Reminding us that intellectual, moral, and political superiority is traditionally assigned to the masculine and inferiority to the feminine, in Richard Wagner’s Women Rieger traces the presentation of masculine and feminine qualities, in stage characters of both sexes, across the operas from Rienzi to Parsifal, as a way of demonstrating Wagner’s commitment to his society’s belief in the essential link between feminine gender roles and flesh-and-blood women. Time and again the role played by women tends towards ‘sacrifice, pain and negation’, with Senta (Der fliegende Holländer) and Elisabeth (Tannhäuser) being typical cases. By contrast, those women who seek a higher political or sexual status than their sex ‘essentially’ allows them conform to the misogynist stereotype of the harridan. ‘In the whole of history we know no one crueller than the political woman’, Wagner wrote to Liszt about Ortrud in Lohengrin. Certainly no female political leader who adopted such a ‘cruel’ Wagnerian mantle could do anything but bad for women’s political representation.
Men are typically represented by strident, masterly music, or else (as often with Wotan) music of great nobility. The strong, brassy orchestration and on-stage phallic props (swords and spears abound) add to the sense of their essential and natural domination of women – whose contrastingly drooping melodic lines and softer woodwind or string accompaniment Rieger frequently highlights. Men who adopt feminine qualities are either rejected as of little account (as Erik in The Flying Dutchman, whom Senta guiltlessly rejects in favour of the more thrusting and dangerous Dutchman) or else satisfyingly killed off (Siegmund ‘must die’ because he falls too deeply into the ‘feminine’ world of love). Conversely, the wickedness of men is excused so their predominance can be maintained. For instance, Siegfried’s betrayal of Brünnhilde is forgiven because he was acting under the influence of a magic potion.
All this is astute but, as may already be obvious, Rieger seems unwilling to conceive of positive expressions of feminine-gendered qualities, and it is this failing that prevents her from answering the excellent question she poses towards the beginning: how can we love Wagner’s music despite its apparent misogyny? The answer is that, just as he does with his anti-Semitism, Wagner subverts his insupportable message at the same time as he enunciates it. Specifically, it is the stereotypically ‘feminine’ figure of the hysteric who rejects the world whom later Wagner considers the greatest and most insightful figure of all.
The central character of Die Meistersinger, Hans Sachs, is one of the most interesting of Wagner’s hysterical ‘women’, and typical of his conception of the role of the ‘feminine’ in his later work (after Das Rheingold). Rieger notes that Sachs renounces his love for Elsa in order that the younger man, Walther, can win her in the song contest (like Freia, Isolde, and Brünnhilde before her, Elsa is in important respects just an exchange-value). But while she draws out the Schopenhauerian resonance of much of late Wagner’s renunciations – that of Tristan and Isolde being only the most famous – Rieger misses the more striking fact that Wagner’s great later characters do not renounce love as such but rather the delusion that existing templates for its acting-out, which build female subjection into their core, are a guarantor of universal human happiness (‘Wahn, Wahn, überall Wahn!’, ‘Delusion, everywhere!’, is Sachs’s characteristic reflection).
Two of the last of Wagner’s ‘women’ to accede to the fantasy of stable erotic union are Siegmund and Siegfried; their ends are, significantly, shaped not by choice but by force. Isolde, Brünnhilde, and Sachs, by contrast, achieve their radically different ends by their own volition. Isolde rejects life itself as the essential framework for human suffering, but Brünnhilde goes a step further. She returns the Ring to the Rhinemaidens from whom it was stolen in the form of primordial gold, and so reverses the process by which nature was metabolized into a surplus value that sustained male power – which is to say that she destroys the capitalist economy of her world. Since, in the Ring, women are merely something to be exchanged for gold (as with Freia) or lain defenceless on a rock to be raped and taken by the first man to find them (Brünnhilde’s own fate), they function as erotic commodities, valuable insofar as they are sexually desirable to more powerful men. Having relieved Wotan of his commitment to the pursuit of social power, Brünnhilde’s final act is to throw herself, the female erotic commodity, onto the fire along with everything else. It is therefore strange for Rieger to claim that Brünnhilde achieves nothing because ‘the love of women for their men is hardly going to create a new society. On the contrary, those same men, strengthened by love, can continue their dominance – a dominance grounded on the pursuit of power.’ The world of power mediated through commodity exchange and propped up by the faithful love of women is precisely what Brünnhilde has destroyed. There can be no return of the same.
Our reluctance to swallow Wagner’s vision entirely is perhaps best illustrated by Sachs himself. Although we, like the people of Nuremberg who hail him with the last words of the opera, recognize his greatness and probably even nod sagely at his diagnosis of universal delusion, in the closing minutes Walther’s gorgeous prize song and the final choral big sing bring us ineluctably back into the presence of the fantasies that he implores us to reject. We succumb again to the surreptitious promptings of perpetual, devoted marital love, the wisdom of youth’s erotic vision, and finally the smokescreen of social cohesion that smoothes over tensions within human society (the controversial final paean to the German spirit) – knowing full well that Sachs is right about its emptiness yet nevertheless wanting to retain the psychological benefits of the fantasy. Greater sensitivity to this kind of psychological ambivalence in Wagner’s music would have made this a much more satisfactory study.
As it is, readers dismissive of feminism will doubtless find the language of ‘phallocentrism’, ‘patriarchy’, and ‘gendering’ offensive, while readers who are at home in the discourse will find the arguments a little shallow. As an introduction to how music reflects cultural assumptions about gender this book has value, but as an examination of the ways that music can criticize of those assumptions, it lacks imagination.