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IN THIS AGE of doorstop biographies, the actor and biographer Simon Callow’s breezy 200+ pages on Richard Wagner, Being Wagner, appear to be a quirky, quixotic venture. How to squeeze so tumultuous a life and oeuvre and philosophy into so short a volume?
In fact, in this book Callow succeeds in taking us on a rapid trip through the highlights of the great composer’s life, not lingering too long over anything, but never leaving the reader feeling that any of the substantial events are ignored.
Wagner’s early life, his decision while still young to dedicate his life to composing and not performing, his discovery of his vocation as an opera composer, his trials in getting his vision of his works made reality, and his perseverance in seeing that this would finally happen, resulting in his meeting of Ludwig II of Bavaria and the construction of his custom-built theater in Bayreuth, are all well told.
The story of the writing and mounting of Wagner’s operas is a stirring one, and it is impossible not to be impressed by the composer’s dedication to his work, and his amazing output. His involvement in all aspects of the production of his operas, their incredible germination periods, the vision behind them, are all well described in Being Wagner.
Callow also makes some interesting and valid points about the ideas underlying the operas, correctly seeing that, from the time of The Flying Dutchman, “the idea of redemption -- through love, through sex, through God, through art -- underpinned everything he ever wrote.” In saying this, Callow does not underplay the other -- and perhaps principal -- element of the Wagnerian oeuvre, and what Wagner early on “recognized as the underlying source of his underlying energies -- his Germanness.”
This is most definitely a popular and not a scholarly volume, so there are no footnotes. Some of the facts cited might have called for at least a mention of the source, such as Callow’s statement that Hitler allowed Jews to perform in Bayreuth even during the war, an assertion so outlandish and improbable that a source is certainly called for.
IF CALLOW does a reasonable job explicating the philosophers and philosophies that influenced Wagner’s Weltanschauung -- Hegel, Feuerbach, Schopenhauer -- he nevertheless betrays the superficiality of his own understanding of them by giving Hegel’s philosophy a name that does not belong to it: “dialectical materialism” is Marx’s philosophy, not Hegel’s.
Callow fails, however, to address or even understand much that is implied in Wagner’s operas. If he doesn’t evade or excuse Wagner’s antisemitism, he leaves it at the level of the personal. Yet, as in the later case of Heidegger, Nazi elements can be found within the work, intimately tied to music and character and characterization, not just in the life of the individual. Wagner’s operas themselves, even if seeming to eschew antisemitism, are nevertheless carriers of the virus.
The lightest of his operas, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, in its insistence on Germanness in music, is a counterpart to Wagner’s infamous antisemitic screed of 1850, “On Jewishness in Music.” Whether the portrayal in this opera of the critic Beckmesser is antisemitic is still being debated, but the argument for antisemitism is plausible, since Beckmesser is widely considered to be based on the anti-Wagner music critic, the half-Jewish Eduard Hanslick.
Callow also rather glibly accepts, and states as virtual fact, that the Ring Cycle is “a proto-Marxist” text -- a possible way of viewing it, to be sure, but only one of many. To accept this so blindly requires ignoring its overwhelmingly völkisch character, as well as an antisemitic characterization within the work, that of Alberich, who in his love of gold bears the Jewish (and capitalist) taint. Wagner was too concerned with issues of degeneration, racial degeneration in particular (as attested to by his affection for Gobineau), to be a Marxist or to dedicate years of his life to the delineation of class struggle. Can it be found if you look hard enough? Yes. Did he put it there? Not too likely.
When Callow stays within his comfort zone -- that is, when he restricts himself to simple storytelling -- Being Wagner is a fine introduction to the composer’s life and work. But there is far more to Wagner than a mere life of composing and philandering, and Simon Callow is way out of his depth when he ventures into the mind of the man.
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.