Wagner as Dramatist and Allegorist - Fredric Jameson

Written By The Wagnerian on Sunday, 17 May 2015 | 12:27:00 am


Wagner as Dramatist and Allegorist
Fredric Jameson


Modernist Cultures. Volume 8, Issue 1, Page 9-41, ISSN 2041-1022, May 2013

Wagner’s architectonic and metaphysical excess, particularly in the Ring, does not encourage modesty in the critic, who also ends up wanting to say everything, rather than one specific thing. If I had to do the latter, like a good scholar or philologist, an erudite commentator, I would probably try to say something about the magic potions in Wagner; and may still briefly touch on that. But as a specialised topic that would also require us to deal more centrally with Tristan; and here clearly it is the Ring that demands our full and complete attention, not least on account of the interpretive controversies it continues to cause. So perhaps one guideline should be, not so much what Wagner really ‘meant’, but rather what interpretation and meaning might actually be in the ‘case of Wagner’. This is a dialectical problem that greatly transcends the traditional questions about the Ring: namely, whether it is about Wotan or Siegfried, and also what ‘the gods’ can be said to mean (in order for them to undergo a twilight, indeed a wholesale conflagration and extinction). On a philosophical level, this problem traditionally confronts Feuerbach with Schopenhauer; and meanwhile, in another part of the forest, lurks the question about the meaning of the ring itself and how much it may be said to represent capitalism, as Shaw famously argued.

 What it is now dialectically important to do is to suspend all the alternatives such questions ask us to choose, to step back in order to ask what such questions themselves mean. We need to ask what meaning means in this situation, and therefore what interpreting it might involve. And it is crucial to retain our specification ‘in this instance’, and to remember that the discussion engages Wagner alone, or rather his historical situation, and not music in general, drama in general, interpretation in general, or reading in general (for it is about reading that we must focus on here). Still, it seems fair minimally to generalise Wagner’s aesthetic situation to that of an early moment of artistic modernism as such, so I will venture a few tentative parallels in what follows. 

The first problem interpretation faces in this historical situation of nascent modernism is a gap between what sociological jargon calls the macro and the micro: in other words between overall form, the action or plot as a whole, and individual detail, here not merely language but also musical scoring. It is suggestive, if not altogether correct, to think of this as an opposition between the project as a whole and its pageby-page execution. In fact, though, the gap here constitutes a more dialectical distinction, between totality and the individual or empirical phenomenon. Totality is necessarily always absent, the phenomenon as its name suggests is always perceptually present in one way or another. The two levels are both dialectically inseparable and at the same time incommensurable: no synthesis is possible between them, and interpretation always ends up choosing one or the other for its focus, as much as it would like to posit some ultimate unity, some organic form, in which detail and whole might be at one.

Now this dialectical opposition is no doubt a permanent dilemma for the human mind (otherwise it would not have been necessary to invent the dialectic). But I want to argue that it is exacerbated in the modern period, and very specifically in all the arts we characterise as modernist; and that it is exacerbated in the modernist period for a specific historical reason, namely the process of differentiation characterising modernity in general. ‘Differentiation’ is a useful term and concept invented by Niklas Luhmann, and it designates the tendency of reality in the modern period to differentiate itself into distinct semi-autonomous levels which we come to think of as multiple and coexisting realities with their own specific intelligibilities, each semi-autonomous and relatively distinct from the other.1 Thus, to take an easy example, that of the academic disciplines: their differentiation from that initial, primordial magma which is theology can be documented and dated with some accuracy. The trajectory of this immense historical process – in which Philosophy separates itself out from Theology, and the Law and the Natural Sciences from Philosophy, only then to undergo further differentiation themselves, as when Chemistry and then Biology become separate disciplines in their own right – this process can stand as a kind of model of the kind of dynamic of differentiation that is seemingly reversed in our own postmodern period (where, for example, Biology folds back into Astronomy, and Linguistics and Anthropology back into the thing we now call Theory).

 This last also happens in the arts. It will thus be an interesting question to determine whether the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk is a premonition of such postmodern de-differentiation or, on the other hand, like Baudelaire’s poem ‘Correspondances’, whether it is simply (as I would be tempted to argue) an apparatus, a formal device, designed to intensify difference – either in the arts or the physical senses themselves – by way of their identification with one another. We can return to that too; and I should stress, in passing, that Luhmannian differentiation is only one philosophical language or code among others in which this historical process could be articulated.

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