Raising the Fallen World: Richard Wagner and the Scenic Imagination

Giuseppi Tvoli (1854 1925) - Richard Wagner (ca. 1865)

Giuseppe Tivoli (1854 – 1925): Portrait of R. Wagner (ca. 1865)

Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) intended his mid-Nineteenth Century innovation of Music Drama to instigate a thorough renewal, not simply of art, but rather of the human situation, as writ large, in society and culture; he foresaw in the late 1840s that his work would require a theoretical basis in metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics.  As it happens, all three parts of this theory entail, although Wagner does not employ the terms, both an anthropology, and a theory of representation.  Finally, Wagner’s theory of representation derives a type of primordial signification from an event in which the unavoidable beauty of a token or talisman disarms a threatening violence.  Wagner worked out this anthropology, and the accompanying theory of representation, borrowing his vocabulary and some few notions from G. W. F. Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach, in a series of essays and pamphlets in the 1840s and 50s.  In these documents, Wagner prescribed the “mimetic,” “poetic,” and “tonal” (that is to say, the combined dramatic) characteristics that would body themselves forth in Tannhäuser, The Ring of the Nibelung, Tristan and Isolde, The Mastersingers, and Parsifal.  These operas – or rather these Gesamtkunstwerke, as their author called them, using his own coinage – would recreate on the modern stage an “earliest utterance of consciousness.”[i] Their performance would inaugurate a new “breaking loose from unconscious life,”[ii] to quote from their author’s post-Idealist terminology; enacting the Gesamtkunstwerk would thus revitalize society by rescuing it from the degradations of fashion and the rabble, two of Wagner’s reliable pejoratives, in which an anthropologically acute reader will discern the theme of cultural breakdown in thoughtless spreading imitation and the unconsciousness of the crowd.

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