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.


Reading Adorno: In Search of Wagner (3) ‘Motiv’



In this essay I will address a view that I acknowledged in a post last year in an extended discussion I had about film soundtracks and leitmotif, in my critique of a Chris Bateman talk. I will examine Adorno’s view of Wagner’s use of Leitmotif, where the former effectively thinks that leitmotif has been diluted to become simply a marker of a character’s presence. Adorno also has specific points of critique to make about the nature of how leitmotif is applied by Wagner.


I shall firstly go into an attempt at exegesis on this essay, to try and get down to the charitable perspective of Adorno’s reservations about Wagner’s use of leitmotif. I should also say that I’ve had a struggle reading and trying to work out this essay. I might read this essay again in 20 years and have a completely different reading!


Exegesis – motif 


Adorno makes the bold point that leitmotif is being degraded in some way, cheapened even. It is suggested by Adorno that Wagner inter alia reflect the degredation of leitmotif to what it had eventually become:


“The degeneration of the leitmoti[f] is implicit in this: via the ingenious illustrative techique of Richard Strauss it leads directly to cinema music where the sole function of the leitmoti[f] is simply to announce heroes or situations so as to help the audience to orientate itself more easily.” [p.36]


Adorno makes the point that Wagner makes no progress beyond Viennese Classicism. Wagner advances a particular heritage of classicism that emphasises individuality, which then led to Wagner’s exploitation of communicating ambiguities. I take this kind of ambiguity to refer to a generic sense: psychological, musical (harmonic) and symbolically.


Adorno quotes Paul Bekker, a contemporamous music critic, who says that expression is fundamental ‘category’ of Wagner’s work. Adorno examines expressivity specifically through the development of the motif. A motif is a recognisable unit that can constitute melody, harmony or rhythm at its most basic sense. Leitmotif is the effective use of repeating a motif in a notable way. If I were having a cafe conversation with limited time, I would probably say ‘its sort of like a theme tune’. However, it is exactly Adorno’s point that leitmotif should be a more superior thing to just a theme tune. It is this revulsion to considering leitmotif as theme tune-motif  that I want to try to explore, Adorno’s critique of Wagner’s use of leitmotif.


The specific allegations 


Adorno points out the ambiguities in Wagner’s motifs, of lacking a temporal nature but rather appearing ‘totalising’ like some kind of Kantian or Post-Kantian system of metaphysics. Adorno also points out, with the specific example of the Tristanunde Isolde leitmotif, the use of chromaticism and its consequent ambiguitiy which has an allegorical nature.


Adorno says something that almost sounds like a compliment. Wagner’s richly forged chords (with a very overly complicated terminology for non-musicians) allows for a variety of possible interpretations, which could lead to different places, that do many things simultaneously. At the same time this richness of harmony I think Adorno considers as creating an other-worldly unity. One which is very much outside of the established principles of Viennese Classicism.


I think Adorno acknowledges that some of the innovations that Wagner makes in his harmonies are very clever. The use of secondary dominants and the particular harmonic progressions that Wagner makes, are psychologised to have a particular philosophical significance. Adorno considers it to be totalising, like the thinking of systematic philosophies, such as (allegedly) Kant, or Hegel, the refusal to return to the tonic is psychologised as a form of psychological regression. This is a very bold claim and one I am almost willing to take seriously.


Adorno considers such motifs regressive. There is an irony here. Adorno acknowledges how Wagner is refusing to be classical stylistically in the vein of Mozart, at the same time he uses the innovations of the ‘First Viennese school’. This very fact is an interesting contradiction. Wagner is classically informed, yet romantic. Anti-romantic, and yet anti-classical. I would consider this an interesting form of subversion. Very clever.

Adorno points out another juxtaposition. Wagner stylistically is classical in an atomistic sense, but in a wider global sense is anti-structure. Wagner gives the interesting impression of accessibility to the philistine. I think it is worth having in mind Adorno’s views on totalitarian thinking here, which he exhibits in another essay. Adorno is cautious of instrumental thinking, of rationalisation and totalising thought. Although these are from other essays beyond this collection.


Adorno considers the way in which Wagner’s motif is applied as bourgeois. Why? Because within the totality of it, there is a constant allusion and development and emergence of a single motif, that motif is constantly played with and treated as an individual. But it is an illusion, Adorno says. There is a lack of dialectic or antagonism towards the development of such a motif. These things make Wagner distinctly different from Viennese Classicism.


The contrast to Viennese Classicism is a significant one. I consider this to underpin the formalism imbued within Adorno’s musical criticism. I think that Adorno is advocating the view of formalism, namely, that it is the structural components of music that construe its aesthetic merit. It is often considered that the ‘First Viennese School’ were the great masters of such form. The allusion to Viennese Classicism is significant for the same reason I am constantly referring to it as the ‘First School’. A first school surely requires a second school, and the second school of Viennese Classicism would be Schoenberg and his disciples.

Adorno speaks of how Wagner appropriates disperately contrasting elements. Wagner attempts to combine opera seria with opera buffa. Wagner is genuinely altering the bourgeosie sensibilities of the time yet also entice a new set of sensibilities while gaining the respectability of a more ‘serious’ or learned audience. Wagner creates an overall more intensive musical experience as the drama and libretti merge with the musical composition and the directions of the conductor.  This sense of unity represents politically repressive themes of Wagner’s overall outlook: the totalisation of his music represents: “a halt to the action and […] the life process of society”.

Perhaps another way of communicating this is when we think about fictional worlds, we often take it at face value due to our lack of familiarity, and rarely, unless the text allows us to do so, critique it. When we look at a film like the Lion King, we are in awe at what is portrayed as the natural order and we do not question it. We become in more modern terminology, passive consumers, accepting the vision of the text that is given to us, because the construction of the cultural artefact encourages that limiting interpretation.


In Search of Wagner: a preamble

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.