Beyond Reason: Wagner contra Nietzsche

I finished my previous book last night (They Can’t Kill Us All). I began the review of that fascinating book—filled with the keen-eyed observations of Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery—by a kind of apologetic preamble about my life in fantasyland, my blessed existence as a reviewer of opera & concerts.

Where that book was like a digression even as it seemed to bring me closer to the real world, the next book brings me back to something normal, namely the operas of Richard Wagner.  Yes you may think i live a topsy-turvy life, where exploring opera is the norm.

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I have barely begun Karol Berger’s Beyond Reason: Wagner contra Nietzsche, a colossal 412 page book from University of California Press, that includes appendices & notes swelling it well beyond 500 pages.  Every time I visit the Edward Johnson Library I poke my nose into the shelf with the new arrivals. I grabbed this when I saw it: the first book I’ve seen with “2017” on the spine and a year that is also seen in the copyright indication at the front of the book.  I am probably the first one to take it out.

Berger’s introduction proclaims his objectives.

I started out convinced that Nietzsche’s objections to Wagner were by and large well taken, and that the study of their encounter would likely illuminate Wagner’s dramas but not Nietzsche’s books.  Today I still admire Nietzsche’s critical acumen, but I see as well not only that Wagner’s works can defend themselves surprisingly effectively against some of the philosopher’s central strictures, but also that these works implicitly offer an unexpectedly perceptive critique of a number of Nietzsche’s most cherished doctrines.  That is why I felt the need to amplify Nietzsche contra Wagner with Wagner contra Nietzsche. 

I haven’t read enough of the book to be able to review it, only to express my interest in it. To read this book at all is an act of faith, an expression of interest, given how many have undertaken the project of explaining / exploring Wagner, and making sense of his works in the broader context.

I’ll be reading this for awhile, yet even here reality & politics won’t let me escape fully from the broader contexts of our world.   I am for example, drawn deeper by these passages:

   But I expect that the book will also find readers who are already familiar with these works and whose main interest is to understand the philosophical-ideological significance of the Wagner phenomenon.  These readers will want to concentrate on the final sections of chapters 2 through 4 and the epilogue, reading the prologue for the background it provided. If they resemble the author at all, they are likely to be conflicted about Wagner’s achievement, loving and admiring it and at the same time being disturbed and even revolted by it.  I do not intend to help them resolve such conflicts; rather I aim  to shift the component within this unstable mixture and hope that, like myself they will close this book equally, but differently, conflicted.
(Berger xv)

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Karol Berger teaches music history at Stanford

Berger goes on to lament the usual focus of Wagner studies.

The history over the Wagnerian roots of Nazi ideology has been succinctly characterized by Hans Rudolf Vaget: “In their examination of the Hitler-Wagner nexus, Mann, Adorno, Viereck, and others highlighted a whole range of ideological affinities, among them nationalism, megalomania, the substitution of myth and fairy tale for history, the totalitarian mind-set, demagoguery, self-praise, love of pomp, the rejection of liberalism, the espousal of revolutionary dynamism for its own sake, and the obsession with racial purity.  Today, however, it seems fair to say, that the topic of anti-Semitism virtually monopolizes the debate about the historical legacy of Richard Wagner.”  In a sense I would like to return to this earlier, and richer, stage in the debate.”
(Berger xvi)

I share that hope, and look to Berger to illuminate the subject in my upcoming reading.  I’ll get back to you when I’m done to let you know what I found.

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