Sir Roger Scruton’s passing almost exactly two years ago reminded me, sadly, of a conversation that we never had. Scruton and I did not know each other, despite the fact that we shared a number of friends and enthusiasms in common. Of the latter, the most obvious was political philosophy, but perhaps the most interesting was a preoccupation with the Ring operas of Richard Wagner. Scruton addressed this dauntingly vast subject in The Ring of Truth, which I read with admiration on its release in 2016. There was, however, one aspect of Wagner’s art about which I thought Scruton was importantly wrong: the relationship between the composer’s anti-Semitism and his music dramas, chief among them the Ring itself. I by no means took Scruton to be alone in this respect, but in his case I felt instinctively that, if I could lay out my argument for him over a glass of whiskey one evening, I would be able to bring him around.
The experience of reading his posthumously-published Wagner’s Parsifial: The Music of Redemption has now converted my instinctive feeling into a near-certainty. For in the opening pages of this new book, Scruton recognizes that “in his mature operas” Wagner meant to reject the bourgeois, liberal “world of deals and transactions”—a world characterized, as Wagner saw it, by the perverse “‘commodification’ of human relations,” rather than the longed-for “dissolving of the self in the experience of community.” This is indeed a central ideological preoccupation of the Ring. Scruton misses only the crucial fact that, for Wagner, this pathological world of bargains was essentially “Jewish.” Wagner’s anti-Semitism was therefore inextricably bound up with his critique of bourgeois liberalism. And since this distinctive style of Jew-hatred has recently returned to prominence on the political left, getting to grips with its character is, alas, no longer an imperative for deranged Wagnerians alone.
For those who have been fortunate enough to miss the past 70 years of scholarly debate about Wagner’s anti-Semitism, a brief primer is in order. Combatants have, in general, defended one of three positions. According to the first, Wagner was not an anti-Semite at all, despite whatever unpleasant things he may have said or written about particular Jews. This claim is so absurd that no serious Wagner scholar has defended it for quite some time. The second position, in contrast, goes as follows: Yes, Wagner was an anti-Semite, but, then again, so was Chopin, so was Degas, so was Virginia Woolf. The important fact, on this view, is that Wagner’s anti-Semitism had nothing to do with his music dramas, which must be seen to have completely unrelated artistic and philosophical ambitions. This is the position that Scruton defends in The Ring of Truth, thereby echoing many distinguished Wagnerians who have argued similarly over the years. The popularity of this position in the literature is partly to be explained, I think, by the highly problematic nature of the third position on offer. For beginning in the 1980s, some scholars began to argue, following Theodor Adorno, that Wagner’s undoubted anti-Semitism does in fact inflect his operas, insofar as certain characters within them are intended as sinister caricatures of Jews. Thus, Alberich and Mime, the two dwarf protagonists of the Ring, are meant to appear Jewish; ditto the pedant Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the seductress Kundry in Parsifal, and several others.
The trouble is that these sorts of claims about particular characters within the music dramas are at best dubious and at worst tendentious to the point of silliness. Alberich is, well, a dwarf, not a Jew, and there is no evidence to suggest that Wagner intended to present him as Jewish. Mahler may well have stated that “with Mime, Wagner intended to ridicule the Jews with all their characteristic traits—petty intelligence and greed.” But absent further evidence, we ought to concede that this observation may tell us more about Mahler (ambivalent Jew that he was) than it does about Wagner’s opera. The villains of the music dramas do display character traits that Wagner elsewhere projected onto Jews (lack of creativity, pedantry, lovelessness, hunger for wealth and power, etc.), but it does not follow that he would for that reason have regarded them as Jewish. To say that “group A has characteristic B” is obviously not to say that “no one not in group A has characteristic B.” The syllogism: “(1) Wagner thought Jews were obsessed with wealth; (2) Wagner portrays Alberich as obsessed with wealth; therefore (3) Wagner intended to portray Alberich as a Jew” is therefore not one that we can take seriously. And it is against this unpersuasive strand of scholarship that Scruton et al. have defended the mutual independence of Wagner’s art and his anti-Semitism.
But Wagner’s anti-Semitism does structure the Ring, in ways far more profound than those imagined by scholars who have simply been searching for racist stereotyping within it. The first suggestion that this might be the case was made under rather inauspicious circumstances. Almost 30 years ago, the late Paul Lawrence Rose published a study called Wagner: Race and Revolution, in which he pointed out that much of the German “Young Hegelian” revolutionary tradition that shaped Wagner’s thought was itself organized around anti-Semitism, in the sense that it regarded the entire liberal, bourgeois civilization of 19th-century Europe as essentially “Jewish.” The atomism, legalism, lovelessness, and alienation that constituted liberal modernity, for these crusaders of the left, were to be explained as a legacy of the pernicious “Judaizing” of the Christian West. What was wrong with Europe just was what was wrong with the Jews. The modern world required emancipation from Das Judentum—from “Jewishness.” And Rose argued that, because the Ring plainly depicts the world’s ultimate emancipation from the egoistic legalism of the order of the gods, Wagner was self-consciously dramatizing this tradition of thought. The overcoming of “Jewishness,” for Rose, is the Ring’s basic subject.
Yet Rose’s presentation of this case had serious flaws, which were immediately apparent to his many critics. To begin with, he offered no evidence at all from the music dramas themselves to suggest that Wagner had in fact absorbed and attempted to stage this distinctively left-Hegelian kind of anti-Semitism. Indeed, Rose’s entire analysis of the Ring consisted of six pages of text. He merely asserted that “in the context of 19th-century German revolutionary thought, any allegory of capitalism must imply an antagonism to Judaism as both the spirit and the practice of modern bourgeois capitalism.” That “must” was a glaring problem. Surely it was possible, even in mid-19th-century Germany—and even for someone who had read Feuerbach—to denounce bourgeois society without eo ipso assailing its “Jewishness.” Perhaps partly for this reason, Rose almost immediately retreated to more familiar, if shaky ground, insisting that various characters in the music dramas—from Alberich (“the abhorrent Jewish counterpart to Wotan”) to Tannhäuser (!)—ought to be understood as crypto-Jews.
All of this made it quite easy for those who denied the presence of anti-Semitism in the operas to declare victory. Taking aim at Rose’s claim that “hatred of Jewishness is the hidden agenda of virtually all the operas,” Bryan Magee deployed biting sarcasm: “It is no good Wagner trying to slip this past Professor Rose by making no mention of it; Rose is not to be so easily fooled.” For Magee, Rose’s insistence that “the omission of any mention of Jews or Jewishness” is no bar to a diagnosis of anti-Semitism conveniently enables him to find it “in undreamt-of places, in fact in all forms of art and ideas that are not either Jewish or about Jews.” The entire project was to be dismissed as a master class in question-begging and bad faith. And dismissed it largely has been for the past three decades. Rose, for example, is not cited in either of Scruton’s books on Wagner.
But here’s the thing: I believe that Rose’s basic intuition was sound, at least in the case of the Ring. Wagner did intend to put on stage a world that requires emancipation from its “Jewishness.” There is a great deal of evidence that Rose might have offered for this claim, much of which comes from the libretto itself. Let me begin with a clue—a small detail from the second scene of Das Rheingold (the first of the Ring operas to be scored, although the last to be written). Wotan awakes from slumber to find that Valhalla, the new home of the gods, has been completed. We learn that he has made a bargain with the giants, Fasolt and Fafner: If they build the fortress for him, he will give them the beautiful goddess Freia in payment. The bill is now due, and Wotan’s wife, Fricka, assails him for having entered into this perverse contract in the first place:
O laughingly wanton folly!
Most loveless joviality!
Had I known about your contract,
I’d have hindered such deceit;
but you mettlesome menfolk
kept us women out of the way,
so that, deaf to all entreaty, you could
calmly deal with the giants alone.
So without shame you brazenly traded away
Freia, my gracious sister,
well pleased with your Schächergewerb!
What is still sacred and precious
to your hard hearts such as yours,
when you menfolk lust after power?
The puzzle here has to do with the word I’ve left untranslated: Schächergewerb. The German word “der Schächer” is an archaic term for thief or robber, used canonically by Luther in his Bible translation to denote the thieves crucified alongside Christ. The word “Gewerbe” means trade or business, so the compound term should be rendered as something like: “thieves’ bargain.” But this makes no sense at all. Wotan is many things in this scenario, but he is no thief. And just what is a “thieves’ bargain,” anyway? English translations of the libretto most often skirt the problem by simply rendering the term as “pact,” thereby ignoring the fact that Wagner evidently has in mind a specific kind of pact. What is going on here?
The answer is that Wagner uses the term in an idiosyncratic manner, licensed by one of his habitual false etymologies (the most famous of these comes in the title of his final music drama, Parsifal, spelled with an “s” rather than the proper “z,” because he spuriously derived the character’s name from the Arabic Fal Parsi, “pure fool”). Wagner clearly has in mind the German term “der Schacher,” which denotes “hucksterism,” “sharp dealing,” or “street barter.” Grimm’s Wörterbuch of 1854 helpfully adds that the term is used “particularly of the Jewish peddling trade” (besonders von jüdischen Hausierhandel); indeed, Grimm proposes what continues to be regarded as a plausible Hebrew etymology for the term, deriving it from “sachar,” meaning trade, and suggesting that it must have entered German via Yiddish. “Der Schacher” is distinguished from “der Schächer” only by its lack of an umlaut (used to denote a now-absent “e”). Wagner is incorrectly deriving the latter from the former: “Ein Schächer” for him is one who engages in “der Schacher.” So the term Schächergewerb in fact has a perfectly straightforward meaning in Wagner’s fanciful lexicon: it refers to a huckster’s bargain, or street barterer’s bargain.
This fact, in turn, gives us a red thread to follow. For the term “der Schacher” (itself quite rare in 19th-century German prose) was absolutely central to one of the most significant left-Hegelian pamphlets of the 1840s, and one with which Wagner was undoubtedly familiar: Karl Marx’s essay On the Jewish Question (1843). We should recall that Marx’s reply to Bruno Bauer memorably turned the familiar question of Jewish emancipation on its head. Whereas most interventions in the debate about the Judenfrage had posited an incompatibility between Judaism and liberalism (on the familiar grounds that Judaism amounted to a chauvinistic rejection of Enlightenment universalism), Marx argued instead that Judaism and liberalism were in fact a perfect match. Liberalism, on his account, is simply an expression of Judaism. Man in liberal civil society is “active as a private individual, treats other men as a means, reduces himself to a means, and becomes the plaything of alien powers.” Religion in civil society is therefore “the sphere of egoism, of the bellum omnium contra omnes. It is no longer the essence of community, but the essence of division. It has become the expression of man’s separation from his community, from himself and from other men.” The notion of “the rights of man,” as understood within the liberal order, presupposes a picture of man as “an isolated monad, withdrawn into himself,” into “his private interest and private choice, and separated from the community.” The pathological focus of liberal citizens on their private, isolated needs estranges them from their fellows, whom they encounter as mere “means” to the advancement of their own interests. The result is the distinctive commodification of human life that Marx associates with the bourgeois, liberal order.
But this fact about the liberal state, for Marx, is to be explained as a manifestation of its essential “Jewishness.” The “secular basis of Judaism,” Marx argues, is “practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly cult of the Jew? Bargaining [Der Schacher]. What is his worldly god? Money.” The degeneration of “civil society” into a “sphere of egoism” is to be explained as a “Judaizing” of society, from which it follows that “emancipation from bargaining [der Schacher] and money, consequently from practical, real Judaism, would be the self-emancipation of our era,” or, as he also puts it, “the emancipation of society from Judaism” (die Emazipation der Gesellschaft von Judentum). The key term in this argument, as we can see, is “der Schacher.” Judaism, for Marx, takes the “bargain” as its paradigmatic form of encounter between agents, both divine and human. The Jew approaches God as an “egoist” aiming to satisfy “practical needs”; he promises obedience to “an unfounded, superficial law” in return for the satisfaction of those needs and tries to get the best deal possible from the party opposite—often using the “cunning” of “Jewish Jesuitism” to find loopholes in the law he purports to honor. “The bill of exchange,” as Marx puts it, “is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange.” The liberal contractarian tradition is, in turn, merely the application of this Jewish “bargain” mentality to the relationship between citizens; each approaches the other as an “egoist” trying to extract the best possible terms from his fellows. Marx’s conclusion is that “an organization of society which would abolish the preconditions for bargaining, and therefore the possibility of bargaining, would make the Jew impossible.”
When Marx associates the “bargain” mentality with Judaism, he thus primarily has in mind an egoistic fetishism of needs that reduces both the self and other people to “means,” rather than ends. Jews particularly adore money, on this account, because it is the efficient medium through which human beings (particularly their labor) can be commodified and exchanged. At the limit, Marx explains, “the species-relation itself, the relation between man and woman, etc., becomes an object of trade! The woman is bought and sold.”
This is precisely what is happening in scene II of Das Rheingold. Wotan, who “rules only by contracts” and presides over a legalistic order of self-interest, has so objectified his own sister-in-law that he has bartered her to the giants in return for a house. He has engaged in what we are now entitled to translate as “Jewish barter.” And as he is reminded of this heinous fact, the telltale descending notes of the “contract” or “spear” motif appear darkly in the strings (recall that the contracts, or treaties, that undergird the order of the gods are said to be inscribed on Wotan’s spear). Since the audience has already watched Scene I, it knows perfectly well that Alberich’s original sin was merely to take Wotan’s own logic a step further: The dwarf had renounced love in favor of power by stealing the Rheingold. He would eventually use his new wealth to purchase a mate, with whom he would father a child (Hagen) by rape.
This kind of commodification of women is itself a central thematic preoccupation of the Ring, and virtually every time the subject is broached, Wagner returns tellingly to his language of “der Schacher.” Thus, in Act I, Scene 3 of Die Walküre, Sieglinde explains to Siegmund that a mysterious stranger appeared on her unhappy wedding day:
The men from his clan
sat here in the hall,
as guests at Hunding’s wedding:
he chose a woman [i.e., Sieglinde herself], unasked,
whom low barterers [Schächer] gave him as his wife.
Sadly I sat there
while they were drinking;
a stranger then came in.
My translation of “Schächer” as “low barterers” here is, once again, a departure from the standard English versions of the libretto, which simply don’t know what to do with the word. Obviously, the men who have given Sieglinde in marriage to Hunding are only with the greatest awkwardness to be described as “robbers” or “thieves.” The well-known Jameson version fudges by calling them “miscreants.” But this again serves to efface the move that Wagner is making: On his account, those who traded Sieglinde to Hunding were engaged in “der Schacher,” the paradigmatically Jewish form of human commodification.
We should also recall that, at this point in the scene, Sigemund has only just finished explaining to Hunding and Sieglinde that he is on the run because he came to the aid of a “sorrowful child” whose “kinsmen sought to bind her, without love, to a man in wedlock.” These same “kinsmen”—who, of course, turn out to be Hunding’s own—are now hot on Siegmund’s trail. He is thus introduced to the audience from the first as the great enemy of “Der Schacher,” the hero who wishes to end the reign of contracts and bargains.
Once we’ve taken all of this on board and acknowledged that much of the Ring is, in essence, On the Jewish Question set to music, we will be in a position to recognize other straightforward thematic borrowings from Marx’s essay. We have already seen, for instance, that Marx associated Judaism with casuistic bad faith. The Jew, on this account, promises to uphold a law that is arbitrary and alienating, at odds with his proper human purposes, or “species being” (a concept the young Marx took from Feuerbach). As a result, he constantly finds himself thwarted by the very law to which he is bound, and he responds by cultivating a “Jewish Jesuitism…the chief art of which consists in the cunning circumvention of these laws.” The canonical embodiment of this charge in the anti-Semitic imagination was always the Shabbos goy, the Gentile who performs what are, for Jews, forbidden activities on the Sabbath. A Jew is, for instance, barred by the law from kindling a lamp on the Sabbath, but he doesn’t wish to exist in darkness—so he might rely on a Gentile who is not bound by the law in question to light the lamp for him. But he may not explicitly instruct or ask the Gentile to do so. This practice raises a whole set of stereotypically “rabbinic” questions about complicity: What hints, assistance, or encouragement is the Jew permitted to offer to the non-Jew in question, without converting the latter’s act into his own? When, if at all, is he permitted to pay the non-Jew for his labor? And so on.
This aspect of the Young Hegelian attack on Jewishness is crucial to the narrative structure of the Ring. In Das Rheingold, it is personified by Loge, the fire god who is also the great authority on loopholes. When Wotan tries to welch on his bargain with the giants, Fasolt reminds him that he is stuck. “Honor your contracts,” he warns Wotan, “for what you are, you are only though contracts!” The legal order that undergirds Wotan’s reign requires the keeping of contracts, but the perverse consequence is that Wotan must treat Freia as chattel (and, incidentally, die himself, when deprived of her life-giving apples). He therefore seeks a way out, a maneuver whereby he can subvert the contract without actually violating it—and for this he calls on Loge, essentially his shady attorney:
Where simple truth serves,
I ask for help from no man.
But, to turn to advantage an enemy’s grudge
is a lesson that only guile and cunning can teach,
of the kind that Loge slyly employs.
He who counselled me on this contract
promised to ransom Freia:
on him I now rely.
The order of the law requires the cultivation of “guile and cunning” (Schlauheit und List) and the practice of gamesmanship. But this casuistry is, for Wagner, always unavailing. Loge’s proposed solution to the dilemma—that Wotan should acquire the Rheingold and Alberich’s ring and then get the giants to accept them as a substitute for Freia—is what sets in motion the destruction of the order of the gods that comes finally in Götterdämmerung.
This first bit of casuistry gives rise to a momentous second one in Die Walküre. Wotan has now traded the ring to the giants, one of whom (Fafner) has killed his brother and turned himself into a giant dragon, keeping watch over his quarry. Wotan knows that the ring must be returned to the Rhine if the gods are to be saved, but his contract with Fafner stands between him and salvation: “The bargain I have made forbids me to strike him…. I who am Lord through contracts am now a slave to them.” He therefore concocts a new plan: He will father a son (Siegmund) with a mortal woman, who will not be bound by the laws of the gods (sich löse vom Göttergesetz), and this free man, uninstructed, will slay Fafner and reclaim the ring for him. He raises the boy under the guise of the wolf-man, Wälse, and leaves behind a sword for him (Nothung), which Siegmund will find “in his hour of greatest need.” But Fricka devastatingly exposes the bad faith of this maneuver during her long debate with Wotan in Act II. Wotan is made to acknowledge that by raising and nurturing Siegmund and supplying him with his weapon, he has become complicit in everything that has occurred and whatever is to follow. His pretense that Siegmund is “a hero I never helped with my counsel, a stranger to the god, free from his grace, unaware, free from command” collapses, and he is forced to decree Siegmund’s death in battle (punishment for the latter’s having had intercourse with the legal spouse of another man, who also happens to be his own sister). Once again, “Jewish Jesuitism” is shown to end in utter failure.
Wagner’s embrace of Marx’s anti-Jewish paradigm in the Ring is therefore quite comprehensive, and in this respect the music dramas simply echo the thrust of his political prose. In his notorious essay Jewishness in Music (1850), written while he was composing the Ring libretto, Wagner quotes Marx almost word-for-word when he dismisses the question of Jewish emancipation as a red herring: “According to the present constitution of this world, the Jew in truth is already more than emancipated: he rules, and will rule, so long as Money remains the power before which all our doings and our dealings lose their force.” What European bourgeois civilization requires is, rather, “emancipation from the yoke of Judaism” (die Emanzipation von dem Drucke des Judentums). Thirty years later, Wagner’s perspective on the subject remained unchanged. In his often-misunderstood essay Know Thyself (1881), this Young Hegelian assault on Jewishness becomes, paradoxically enough, part of an argument against the overenthusiastic scapegoating of Jews for the ills of liberal capitalism. Yes, Wagner writes, “the Nibelung’s fateful ring has become a stock portfolio,” and Europe’s “vanished [Christian] faith is now replaced by ‘Credit,’ that fiction of our mutual honesty kept upright by the most elaborate safeguards against loss and trickery.” But it is a mistake “to lay all the blame for this on the Jews.” To be sure, “they are virtuosi in an art [money-making] at which we but bungle.” But the nefarious “creation of money out of nothing was invented by our Civilization itself. If the Jews are blamable for that, it is because our entire civilization is a barbaric-Jewish concoction [ein barbarisch-judaistiches Gemisch].” It is, in other words, chiefly Europeans who are to blame for the ills of bourgeois Europe, precisely because they have allowed themselves to become Judaized—thus ensuring, as Wagner put it in a March 1878 article for the Bayreuther Blätter, “the victory of the modern Jew-world” (der Siege der modernen Judenwelt). The real trouble, as in the Ring, is “Jewishness” rather than the Jews themselves. But the latter always remain the great embodiments and agents of the former.
I described myself at the outset as one who is obsessively preoccupied by the music dramas of Richard Wagner. I could have added with equal honesty that I love them, at least as much as Roger Scruton did. Like him, I follow the Ring cycle around the world (or at least I did before the plague). But unlike him, I am a Jew. Jewish Wagnerism has of course long been regarded by many as a pathology, even a mental illness. If it is, I am consoled by the fact that my fellow sufferers have included the likes of Hermann Levi, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, George Gershwin, and, of course, Theodor Herzl, who selected the Tannhäuser overture to open the 1898 Zionist Congress in Basel. And this is to say nothing of the great modern Jewish interpreters of Wagner’s music, such as Daniel Barenboim, James Levine, and Kirill Petrenko. But none of these Jewish Wagnerites believed that the Ring was itself a deeply anti-Semitic artwork. I do believe this. Where should that fact leave me, or indeed us, if I have persuaded you? What are the ethics of clear-eyed Wagnerism?
The short answer, I think, is that Wagner’s music requires us to hold different thoughts in our minds at the same time—or, in other words, to grow up. I wish I could deny the anti-Semitic thematic structure of the Ring, or, failing that, simply reach the conclusion that the music dramas themselves aren’t any good (a noted Jewish anti-Wagnerite, Thomas Adès, recently referred to Wagner’s music as “fungal”). But I can do neither. The Ring, for me, is a partly loathsome work of transcendent genius. Odi et amo, as Catullus wrote: I hate and love it at the same time. I watch the cycle in unending wonder mixed with contempt. And learning to tolerate that sort of dissonance—with no Liebestod at the end to resolve it, even after 17 hours!—is, it seems to me, a requirement of any serious engagement with life as well as art.
But Wagner’s oeuvre also demands something else of us: It insists, in the here and now, that we reckon honestly with the character of the distinctive kind of anti-Semitism that he did so much to promote. During the most recent UK general-election campaign, I said to a British friend that I could not believe that roughly half his country’s population was prepared to elect as prime minister someone who was either a virulent anti-Semite or, if not, then certainly the best impersonator of one to appear on the European political stage since the war. My friend, though not at all a Corbyn supporter, replied, “No, no. Jeremy Corbyn isn’t an anti-Semite; he’s a Trot!” Well, Richard Wagner—despite his subsequent appropriation by the fascist right—was the closest thing to a Trot that 19th-century Europe was capable of producing. He conceived the Ring during the fateful years leading up to and away from 1848 and in some ways kept faith with the ideology of revolution even after his turn to political quietism in later life. Wagner, in short, arrived at his anti-Semitic worldview not despite his leftism, but because of it, and he accordingly dressed it in the distinctive garb of humanist universalism. The redemption of the fallen liberal, capitalist world was, for him as well as Marx, nothing more or less than its emancipation from Jewishness. To those who are now so enthusiastically renewing this call for emancipation, we should say in the words of the Master: Erkenne dich selbst, “Know thyself!”
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