I thought that we’d begin a new ‘Reading’ series, as I’ve not done one in a very long time. After the passing of Gary Banham and seeing the end of his ‘Inter Kant’ blog being updated, I thought about the influential way that his blogging style has been so informative to me, particularly his ongoing commentaries on Kant monographs; his commentaries on Parfit and Ethics, as well as his commentary on ‘A Theory of Justice’. If there’s one thing that exercises philosophical ability is the role of commentary and exegesis, which in turn may be a useful reference for our thoughts later on down the line.
I’m going to start on a book that was unknown and new to me. I did not truly realise the breadth of Theodor Adorno’s writing on music beyond individual essay vignettes. The book I wish to review in serial format is Theodor Adorno’s ‘In Search of Wagner’. In this piece I shall have some reflections propaedeutic. This piece primarily reflects on the introduction note written by Adorno and the Verso publication introduction which was written by Slavoj Žižek, which is notably interesting in its own right.
Why should we be interested in Wagner?
Let’s start with the question: why should we be interested in this book? I’m no expert in Wagner studies or 19th Century musical history. Žižek’s introduction, and Adorno’s own introduction preface seem a little bit disingenuous to me. Both of them effectively acknowledge that the main subject of this book: the ideological baggage of composer Richard Wagner’s work in a way that prefigures the later cultural tropes and notions of the later 20th Century, particularly when located within the context of class. Adorno acknowledges in the preface how surviving copies of the original work were limited as a consequence of the Second World War, and so a few additional essays were added and some edits made. Adorno also acknowledges that his views had moved on slightly since the original time of writing, and so this book is in a strange way already outdated.
Why should we be interested in Wagner? Perhaps Žižek answers this in the most interesting way:
In 1995, at a conference on Wagner at Columbia University in New York, after the majority of participants had exceeded each other in the art of unmasking the anti-Semitic and proto-Fascist dimension of Wagner’s art, a member of the public asked a wonderful naive question: ‘So if you all are saying is true, if anti-Semitism is not just Wagner’s private idiosyncracy, but something which concerns the very core of his art, why, then, should we still listen to Wagner today, after the experience of the Holocaust? When we enjoy Wagner’s music, does this stigmatize us with complicity or acquiescence, at least, in the Holocaust? The embarrassed participants – with the honourable exception of one honest fanatical anti-Wagnerite who really meant it, proposing that we stop performing Wagner – replied with confused versions of ‘No, of course we did not mean that, Wagner wrote wonderful music…’ – a totally unconvincing compromise, even worse than the standard aestheticist answer: ‘Wagner as a private person had his defects, but he wrote music of incomparable beauty, and in his art, there is no trace of anti-semitism…’ […] The battle for Wagner is not over: today, after the exhaustion of the critical-historicist and aestheticist paradigms, it is entering its decisive phase.
This thought reflects the uncomfortable tension. To acknowledge a composer whose sign of influence is significant even by those who would oppose him; a composer whose rich chromaticism has taken us musically into directions that we cannot turn back from; whether we like it or not, in terms of harmony; and a composer it seems, who has a deeply troubling set of ideas underlying his work. In Žižek’s essay, the Lacanian goes into detail of how characters such as Mime, or the cultural text of the Ring Cycle alludes to the 19th Century context of a discussion of what at the time had been described as ‘The Jewish Question’. The issue of Wagner’s anti-semitism is a very deep one. Considering that the oft-attributed quote of Adorno that ‘After the Holocaust, poetry is barbaric’, for me the Wagnarian themes of folk-culture revival, mysticism, sentimentality, the place of the bourgeoisie, and big narratives of ‘love’ and ‘death’ are not harmless and isolated cultural phenomena, they are ideological, and subjects for ethical and critical analysis.
If there is such a thing as being an Adornian, I would like to think that it is someone who takes a critical view at our mass culture, and sees the ideology that underpins it. Whether that is the misogynist and anti-authority narratives of NWA’s ‘A Bitch iz a Bitch’ or ‘Fuck tha police’, and not seeing these cultural items as anodyne. Culture reflects our sentiments and the better we can be aware of it, the more we can realise that the ways in which culture affects us when we are in our downtime forms of an influential force that affects our decisions which in turn affects consumption, environmental and social behaviours and perhaps even things as high up as ideology. We cannot take the ideologies underlying cultural texts sitting down, we must take it as seriously as say, a speech from a politician or a newspaper headline, as politically and ideologically significant.
Who should read this?
I should say that the more I give Adorno a bit of charity and favour, the more I should be aware of the ways reading Adorno may be problematic. A side question to this is: how should we read ‘In Search of Wagner?’ This is a book of interest to critical theorists (which I’m not); maybe sociologists; and more likely Wagner scholars. Adorno writes in a way that is so expansive that one does need to have a good amount of familiarity with a variety of subjects before really engaging with him. It so happens that many of the subjects Adorno appeals to (such as early social theory, German Philosophy and the European tradition of classical music) are not unfamiliar staples to me. Reading Žižek’s introduction makes me understand slightly more the anecdotal ways in which he appeals to cultural references to explain something philosophical. Just as an interesting aside, I am completely astounded at the description of an Eastern European marriage custom to reflect the sexually confused nature of Wagner’s Siegfried character. I’m always amused by Žižek’s anecdotes even if one should be wary of how he uses them (we’ve discussed the topic of Žižek‘paraphrasing in a previous post).
In search of Wagner
Žižek points out how long after the publication of these essays in ‘In Search of Wagner’, Adorno’s views slightly softened and he came to appreciate Wagner more. Perhaps there is a general philosophical question here which has come from times ancient: how can we be drawn to something that gives us such an adverse reaction? Back to the likes of Aristotle, Plato and Hume we go to the topic of how it is that we are drawn to tragedy and sad emotions in theatre. Or perhaps to reframe the question in less general terms: can we consider something like Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will to be a great work, knowing how it is an obvious propaganda tool for the Nationalist Socialists of the time.
Digging into the cultural dimensions of Wagner is fruitful enough. I must admit I didn’t really understand what Žižek was trying to say about Wagner’s sexually repressive attitudes as it bordered on psychoanalysis and perhaps a perspective too eccentric for me to understand. When I read this book, I am in search of a view of musical history. I’ve spoken about my performing aspects of being a musician in the past, but in my practicing and performing, and more recent engagements, there is something of a connection between my musical mind and my cultural thoughts. Or I should say the former informs the latter in some ways.
Coda: Why read Adorno?
I am convinced of the genius of Theodor Adorno’s work. I hold that Adorno’s breadth of work and topics are so wide they cannot be constrained in the ways that they have been, by introductions to critical theory overviews that don’t go into depth, or speaking of the genius in the same breath of his inferior peers like Benjamin or Mercuse; without in some way undermining what is deep and unique about this thinker. I am curious about the internal contradiction I have: of this period of history I have followed an interest in movement of philosophy from Vienna completely different to the Frankfurters. I am also interested in the magician-like way in which Adorno escapes a definition: is Adorno a Marxist? Is Adorno a philosopher? Is Adorno a musicologist? Is Adorno a Sociologist? Is Adorno part of the Frankfurt School? I am interested in the fact that many people call Adorno elitist but also in the same breath admit they cannot understand many of the notions he appeals to. I am attracted to the fact that like Kant, Adorno was not exactly an easy writer to read. Questions like these are in the back of my mind in this exploration. I am in search of a method of doing philosophy. I thinking about what it could mean to be a musical philosopher. I am thinking about how being theoretically minded about culture may be of contemporary relevance. I am in search of Adorno.