The Case of Wagner Against the Grain

Written By The Wagnerian on Wednesday, 20 August 2014 | 11:13:00 pm

The Case of Wagner Against the Grain: The Disagreement between Nietzsche and Adorno and its Relevance Today

João Pedro Cachopo

Published in:  PARRHESIA: A JOURNAL OF CRITICAL PHILOSOPHY. Issue 19. August 2014

Wagner’s oeuvre might amount today to no less conformist positions than those maintained by the composer himself—whose operas, rather than the more or less confused or confusing ideas, should be at issue. This does not mean either to suggest that ideological issues should be totally left aside from discussion, or to assume that the work is absolutely independent from the author. The refusal of reductionism of whatever kind (biographical, sociological, historical...) must not lead to the opposite assumption that artworks should be dealt with as purely
ideal entities. Both extremes are partial, and consequently faulty.

Therefore, if one draws a distinction between the composer’s more or less explicitly political ideas and the politics of his work, while by the same token not losing sight of how deeply Wagner’s operas and their reception were affected by social, ideological and political forces, the conditions are eventually met to acknowledge that the writings of Wagner’s critics—not less, at least, than his own essays—are of the utmost importance to discuss the “afterlife” of his work both aesthetically and politically. The avatars of its critical and artistic reception crucially bear on what Wagner’s work became and is today. They are the historical constituents of the work itself—not mere instances of an allegedly exterior process of reception. This view prompted me to take “the case of Wagner” as an epitome of such an “afterlife,” rather than, stricto sensu , as a reference to the Nietzschean quarrel with the composer of Parsifal.

Seen in this context it is hardly surprising that a comparative re-reading of the seminal texts of Nietzsche and Adorno will play a crucial role in this article. And yet, just as I will start out calling attention to a peculiar consonant point behind Lacoue-Labarthe’s and Badiou’s dissonant pronouncements on Wagner (“Wagner(ism)—between the aestheticization of politics and the politicization of aesthetics”), my aim, regarding Adorno and Nietzsche, is on the contrary to spot heir disagreement behind the long-standing presupposition of their compliance (“A barely noticed disagreement,” and “Neither... nor...”). At a first level this article—as its title allows the reader to hint from the outset—is indeed anattempt to revise the assumption that Nietzsche’s and Adorno’s criticisms
on Wagner complement each other. In fact, against this assumption, I will try to make apparent that they differ in practically all aspects and even undermine each other in the most decisive ones.

At end of the article (“Chronicle of an end foretold”) I will argue that such a disagreement sheds light of the very tensions inherent in Wagner’s operas to a degree—and this is the crucial point—that prevents any criticism on them from finding a stable vantage point. The aim, to be sure, is not to propose a newly resuscitated apologia of Wagner, but to raise the critical discussion on the set of his works to a level where their ambivalent, though unabated, untimeliness
might be brought into light.

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