Reading Adorno: In Search of Wagner (6): Phantasmagoria


The only reason why Wagner’s characters can function as universal symbols is that they dissolve in the phantasmagoria like mist.

Adorno’s essay on ‘Phantasmagoria’ starts like a conversation that doesn’t have an introduction or preamble or any kind of context-setting. In the terms of modern gaming or films, it’s a cold beginning. The term Phantasmagoria is one which alludes to something in Marx’s Kapital, so says a translation note from Livingstone in my text. Marx’s Phantasmagoria, according to Livingstone, is the character of the effect that a commodity (that is, a product of human labour) is made to seem separate from the process of being constructed, or the fact that it is itself a result of human creation. Adorno does not lay this out, but presumably relies on our readership to have this familiarity. It’s not helpful to write about a concept without defining it. To describe a concept is not to define it. To ascribe what the concept is, is hardly explicative. Of course Adorno is dealing in a different set of intellectual standards to the likes of the contemporaneous Carnap – the former does not look so favourably in this particular essay. However I shall attempt to salvage some kind of thread from this very poorly written piece.

Wagner’s work is described with this concept ‘phantasmagoria’. Phantasmagoria in this context is a character or illusory status on the music. The illusory character that this work is not of this world, with no relationship with a grounded concrete reality. Surely this is a pretty neat innovation or property? Such a description reminds me of the impressionism of Debussy.

Through certain musical decisions, the instrumentation, the dynamics (volumes) and tempi, we may find ourselves in a world much different to the one that a 19th Century opera-attending audience had outside of the opera house. The air of a mystical fantasy world seems real with Wagner’s instrument choices in his part-writing, and the range of pitches he employs.

Phantasmagoria pertains to the effect an audience has from the music. Wagner successfully puts forward the dramatic worlds of the libretti text through music. A world of magic, of archaic character. This sense of convincing portrayal is illusion to Adorno. What the illusion consists in, is the concealment of the fact that this is a work of music, a work of performing instrumentalists following a score. Phantasmagoria is the end product and outcome that colours the whole experience and the whole process of tens of string players playing.

Adorno seems to suggest that this magic effect or phantasmagoria is the culmination of a Romantic ideal. A preoccupation with mystic, spiritual and dream-like imageries imbued in the musical text. What makes Wagner’s phantasmagoria different, is that this mysticism, this mist is a character of the commodity, it is a character of a wider capitalist, rather than aesthetic story. The problematic quality of the phantasmagoria is that it is a work of human effort, but effectively succeeds to conceal that fact. Perhaps an oversimplified way of describing this is to say that this is Marx’s alienation cashed out through the terms of culture.

Adorno considers phantasmagoria to have some relevance to a Schopenhauerian moral perspective, at this point I’m not knowledgeable enough to comment on this too much. Phantasmagoria disguises an audience to the process of making music, conceals the fact of its construction. In doing so it contributes to a passive audience, phantasmagoria is conducive to duping audiences. In this way the Wagnerian compositional decisions are of a moral quality. Moral in the sense that they pertain to character traits: docility, passivity, subservience. We as the phantasmogorised (sic) audience are duped by the ephemera of fairy dust and glitter. I suspect that is as true today of pop music as it was then with the ignored fiddlers and horn blowers in the orchestra box.

Within the libretti of Wagner’s operas, Adorno (81) identifies an ascetic, self and pleasure denying mentality, which he describes as Feuerbachian (alluding to the Feuerbach idea that the Christian God is an internalisation of our desires and that our self-denial is key to achieving Christian moral ideals of character). Wagner seems to employ a sort of reversal of values, our suffering is a moral good and our pleasures are a form of sickness (82). To do so, according to Adorno is a phantasmagoria. In this description I find what is contained in this concept of phantasmagoria to be exceptionally broad, perhaps too broad to actually be rigorous.

I will focus subsequent attention to the essays as if they were a sequel to the thought begun in the essay on phantasmagoria. This is for two reasons, one is that to me these essays do not seem to make sense to me at all in terms of having some kind of unitary or thematic significance, and secondly, the only way to understand these essays in my view is in relation to Adorno’s concept of phantasmagoria.

Oddly enough, the essays in In Search of Wagner after Phantasmagoria tend to be the more philosophical yet for me, the most difficult to understand.



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