False Beauty?: The tension between ethics and aesthetics in Wagner

I first listened to the operas of Richard Wagner when I was 11 or 12 years old. I have come to realize that spinning Wagner recordings was more an impish attempt at bravado than evidence of any great love for opera. When I found thick albums of Wagner at the local library and impulsively brought them home in the basket of my bicycle, I was reacting rebelliously as an emerging teen to that moment in history. It was near the end of World War II, and everything German, especially the guttural language being sung, was suspect—you might say verboten. There was an edginess about it, even though I had only heard rumors of the intimate connection between Wagner’s music and the Nazis.

What still fascinates me about Wagner, almost 70 years later, is the question of the relationship, if any, between art and ideology, between aesthetics and ethics. Years before I listened to opera, I was aware that what was perceived wrongly as beauty could camouflage something evil. Wasn’t Satan once the most gloriously beautiful of all the angels, according to my second grade teacher, Sister Mary Caspar? And in the 1940s world of my childhood, wasn’t there something enticingly beautiful about Hedy Lamarr in the role of Tondelayo in “White Cargo,” a movie thought to be so evil that it was forbidden even to adults by the National Legion of Decency?

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Oscar Wilde writes of this relationship in The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I read while a freshman at Marquette University. It was at about the same time that a Jesuit priest and professor told me that goodness, truth and beauty were all necessarily concurrent facets of the same object. This was true, he said, of painting, music, literature, architecture—all the arts. If an object had an aesthetic flaw and was therefore not truly beautiful, it was also neither good nor true. And if its goodness and truth were questionable, it might not be beautiful. Each despicable act the fictional Dorian commits changes his youthful portrait into a dark reflection of the evil he embodies, even though he himself neither changes nor ages from the handsome young man that he had been when the portrait was modeled and painted.

As Wilde’s short novel again demonstrated to me, our identification of beauty may be mistaken. Faked or false beauty is everywhere. How do we decide? Can we objectify beauty? Or is beauty “in the eye of the beholder”? These exact words were written by Margaret Wolfe Hungerford in 1878 but had been expressed earlier in different forms by philosophers and poets as early as the third century B.C. If they and my Jesuit professor were correct, then goodness and truth are also detectable through the eye or mind of the beholder. If we think about it this way, beauty might solve an essential problem for all of us in our constant search for truth and goodness.

Critical Controversy

When my Jesuit professor suggested his formula about the relationship of beauty to goodness and truth, I immediately thought of Wagner and wondered if there was a way to determine if his music was truly beautiful or if it contained a fatal flaw that made it false or even immoral. I was not the first. The operas of Richard Wagner have been the focus of continuing controversy among critics since the late 19th century.

One of the critics whose early praise of Wagner is said to have begun the Wagner-mania that swept Europe in the mid-19th century was Charles Baudelaire. Baudelaire was a poet who united the themes of beauty with the illicit and the “sensuous,” which is the word he used to describe Wagner’s operas. He is perhaps a key to Wagner because Baudelaire boasted about the conjunction of evil and what he called the beautiful when he entitled his notorious book of poems Les Fleurs du Mal, or The Flowers of Evil. Baudelaire’s “flowers” bloomed in the world of the prostitute, the bordello, the demimonde. He declared the opposite tenet from that of my priest teacher, while being overwhelmed by the sensuous beauty of the music of Richard Wagner. It is not surprising that this Frenchman shared with the German Wagner one other passion: virulent anti-Semitism. For both, it was not just the blindness of the age. It was seminal and can be found explicitly in Baudelaire’s poetry and, some think, in light disguise in the librettos of Wagner’s operas and openly in his letters, notebooks and diaries.

How does anti-Semitism make a difference when one is listening to music? If it does, does it become an irrelevant argument against Wagner’s music when Wagner’s defender is Daniel Barenboim? If as a Jew, who bravely led the Berlin Staatskapelle in a selection from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” in Jerusalem in 2001, Mr. Barenboim can love Wagner’s music and play it, there must be a way to separate the music from the text and from the man. (No Wagner opera has ever been staged in the State of Israel.) In an article in The New York Review of Books (“Wagner and the Jews,” 6/20/13), Mr. Barenboim explains how he uses mathematical latticework to appreciate Wagner’s work:

In Wagner’s operas, there are frequent cases in which the musical material swells up and down in two bars the first time it appears. The second time Wagner allows the same material to grow for two bars with a subito piano—sudden quiet—immediately afterward. Only the third time is there a climax after four bars of crescendo. A mathematical equation therefore gives rise to sensuality and fervor.

I fully respect Mr. Barenboim’s musical genius, but can an objective mathematical equation give rise to subjective emotions like fervor and sensuality? Does it happen every time to every listener, as if we were robots and a button had been pushed? And is pure mathematics the critical way to listen to music? Even if that is so, how many music lovers have the skills of a musician like Daniel Barenboim to hear equations? It would be as if a poet analyzed Baudelaire’s “Flowers of Evil” by emphasizing the scan of the meter and noting the rhyme scheme, forgetting that the meter and rhyme gave meaning and allure to the words. Would we read Baudelaire in prose, or stage Wagner’s librettos without music?

Friedrich Nietzsche, in his youth, was as enthusiastic about Wagner’s operas as Baudelaire. But Nietzsche, whom some have called the anti-anti-Semite, derided Wagner for sinking to the vulgarity of anti-Semitism. Nietzsche also recanted his early praise of Wagner’s music and accused him of being at best an actor’s musician whose music was only a support for the libretto, the theatrical, somewhat the way Baudelaire’s meter and rhyme are for his words. As music, Nietzsche said, it played second fiddle to the play. This criticism points to the problem. Wagner’s music is one with the theater, and even with its mathematical, musical brilliance, I don’t see how anyone except Mr. Barenboim and a few others can listen only to the equations and forget the incest, lust, ethnic nationalism and perhaps latent bigotry the music enhances.

Considering ‘Parsifal’

“Parsifal” is the exception, some Wagner apologists say. The hero is a gallant and pure-hearted knight who is tempted by the magical beauty of Kundry, a demonic woman. (Even Wagner seems to agree with my teacher’s theory of evil possibly being cloaked as beauty.) Parsifal’s compassion is his Christian badge. Since there are scenes that take place on Good Friday, “Parsifal” is traditionally performed during the Easter season almost as a religious rite. But Wagner’s Christian theme is his version of the myth of the Holy Grail, never part of Christian doctrine, and his treatment of it is as fictional (though less logical, if that is possible) as it is in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The plot is “ludicrous,” as the composer Claude Debussy said after he attended a performance. And because “Parsifal” and many of Wagner’s other librettos are ludicrous, Wagner is easy to parody, as the comedian Victor Borge so often demonstrated in his comic musical routines. While in no way as evil, Wagner’s over-the-top pomposity (demonstrated in characters like Siegfried in the “Ring” cycle) is a prequel to the Nazi superman parodied with equal effectiveness by Mel Brooks in “The Producers.” That which can easily be tipped over the line from the superserious to the supercilious is always suspected of untruth.

But of course, like Dan Brown’s novels, Wagner’s colorful musical storytelling is entertaining in a way, particularly the seduction scenes in “Parsifal” with Kundry and the flower maidens. Pauline Kael’s comment in The New Yorker (3/14/70) about the moviemaker Cecil B. DeMille, who also often depicted Christian themes, is perfectly applicable to Wagner. She called Mr. DeMille “ a sanctimonious manipulator—[who] used to satisfy the voyeuristic needs of the God-abiding by showing them what they were missing by being good and then soothe them by showing them the terrible punishments they escaped by being good.” Kundry’s attempted seduction of Parsifal, which occurs before the sweet music of religious feeling appears, is of the same kind as Hedy Lamarr’s seduction of Victor Mature in DeMille’s “Samson and Delilah” before the temple comes crashing down.

The questions raised by Wagner/DeMille’s use of sexual fantasy prior to a religious denouement do not comport with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s rule that “ethics and aesthetics are one.” Ms. Kael is correct in describing this strategy as “manipulation.” Wittgenstein was an analytic philosopher and one-time student of Bertrand Russell, who said: the “incorporation of mathematics and its development of a powerful logical technique...is thus able, in regard to certain problems, to achieve definite answers, which have the quality of science rather than of philosophy.”

You would think that Wittgenstein might agree with Barenboim that aesthetics is the logical extension of mathematical formulas. But while Wittgenstein wrote very little about aesthetics, he did specify one rule. He declared that there was no objective standard for aesthetics and that beauty must be judged on a case-by-case basis, using comparisons. I would interpret this as saying that beauty can be judged by the educated eye of the beholder or, in this case, the educated ear of the listener.

Without having Daniel Barenboim’s ear, I can only judge by my mental state when listening to Bach, Chopin or Stravinsky as compared with Wagner. From the initial trio, I perceive no mathematical equation that gives rise to sensuality and fervor, only the pleasures of joyous serenity. Does each of these composers use permutations of certain equations to achieve this? If so, their equations are more attuned to goodness and truth, as my Jesuit professor demanded.

Despite my inclinations, differing opinions of sound and words should be honored, and I agree with Barenboim that censorship is unjustified. I would not picket a Wagner performance, and I must admit that if given a free ticket to the annual Wagner festival in Bayreuth, Germany, I might make airline reservations. For me, those subito pianos do not bring on nightmares, and so the spectacle might be entertaining, like DeMille’s movies, if not sublime. I can still enjoy those moments of fervor and sensuality as I did when I was a preadolescent, while knowing I can wash out my ears with Mozart.

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