View from

Sir Roger Scruton’s Wagner

(Ken Howard/Met Opera)

“Scruton loved Wagner. The two were a match made in heaven, or hell, depending on your perspective and appreciation of irony.”

“Wagner was an artist with an agenda, and this agenda was nothing less than the redemption of humankind,” writes Sir Roger Scruton. I consider it a great blessing of my life that I had the opportunity to study with Scruton at the University of Buckingham just prior to his death. I entered my studies intending to write on musical aesthetics, Schubert, to be specific but instead ended up writing on the political aesthetics of Edmund Burke. There was still an aesthetic connection to the switch. Despite Scruton’s public reputation as a political theorist of conservatism, his grander works—and the works so lauded and loved by his many students—were on art, aesthetics, and music, and he openly said his greatest loves were art, music, and literature.

Wagner’s Heart

Scruton loved Wagner. The two were a match made in heaven, or hell, depending on your perspective and appreciation of irony. Before his death, Scruton was working on a manuscript on Wagner’s Parsifal. It was published in the summer of 2020 and completed a de facto trilogy of Wagner’s great works by the eminent bard of aesthetics: Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, and Wagner’s Parsifal: The Music of Redemption. In examining Wagner through the eyes of Scruton, we must ask ourselves: Is there a link between Wagner’s great operas and, if so, what is the message that has been lost in the politicization and bastardization of Wagner’s artistic agenda?

We all know the familiar story of Richard Wagner. Among artists, especially in music, Wagner was an avid reader of philosophy. Young Wagner read Hegel and Feuerbach, an older Wagner developed a mentoring friendship with a young Friedrich Nietzsche before their falling out, and the late Wagner would fall in love with his philosophical soulmate Arthur Schopenhauer. While there is no hard evidence that the composer of romantic mythology read Marx, many are tempted to see—especially the Prologue of The Ring cycle—as echoing Marxist sentiments concerning socioeconomics and the nature of capitalism through the depiction of Nibelheim. The philosophical story of Wagner is one in which Hegel, Feuerbach, and Schopenhauer (and probably Marx) careen through the Wagnerian dramas in their own various ways leaving their imprint on his magnificent works for those with eyes to see and ears to hear to tease out.

This story of a philosophical Wagner is one that Scruton also sought to tell, but he differed from the post-Shaw and post-Freudian and Jungian analyses of Wagner in a significant way. The philosopher who unlocks the mysterious dramas of Wagner is none of the above. Instead, it is the philosopher whose shadow looms large over the long 19th century: Immanuel Kant.

It is the post-political Wagner, the philosophic Wagner, that attracted the attention and admiration of Scruton.

In 1848, during the tumult of mostly failed revolutions that shook post-Napoleonic Europe to its core, Wagner was a passionate socialist and revolutionary who was forced to flee the Germanies for Switzerland. Having already started his composition of The Ring while under the spell of socialist idealism, the post-revolutionary Wagner entered his epiphany phase in life. Socialism had failed not for want of political will but because socialism was antithetical to the human condition and soul. While The Ring still echoes with the traces of political criticism, Wagner shelved The Ring and began his inward turn to metaphysics, philosophy, and mythology. It is the post-political Wagner, the philosophic Wagner, that attracted the attention and admiration of Scruton.

Wagner’s turn toward metaphysics and philosophy has long been seductive to philosophers before Scruton. Bryan Magee, perhaps one of the finest public intellectuals of the past century alongside Isaiah Berlin, also felt aroused by the power and philosophic spirit of Wagner’s music. In The Tristan Chord, Magee writes, “His significant movement was not from left to right but from politics to metaphysics.” Scruton follows in Magee’s footsteps in eschewing the pedantic politicized reading of Wagner as insufficient; the metaphysical Wagner is the king who needs deconstruction. Inevitably, any artist moved by the currents of 19th century German philosophy must necessarily start where the river begins: Kant.

Kant features prominently in all of Scruton’s writings but especially so in his writings on Wagner. All of Scruton’s commentaries on Wagner, Death-Devoted Heart (especially), The Ring of Truth, Wagner’s Parsifal, and Understanding Music have Kant as a central or guiding peripheral spirit over the works. In particular, Kant’s personal morality, theory of the person, and philosophy of self-consciousness (the transcendental unity of apperception) serve as the hinges to unlocking the music that has puzzled and mystified audiences for a half-century.

If Scruton followed in Magee’s footsteps by examining Wagner’s shift from politics to metaphysics, we begin to understand Wagner’s declaration that “It is reserved to art to salvage the kernel of religion, inasmuch as the mythical images which religion would wish to be believed as true are apprehended in art for their symbolic value, and through ideal representation of those symbols art reveals the concealed deep truth within them.” In 1848, Wagner passionately believed politics could bring forth human salvation. Disillusioned and having grown mature, Wagner abandoned politics as the medium for salvation but did not abandon his belief in salvation; as Magee said, Wagner came to see salvation as only possible through metaphysics. It is not that Scruton would disagree, but we might get even more specific on this metaphysic and salvation through myth and symbols that came to preoccupy the mature Wagner: love.

Scruton writes that “Myth dawned on Wagner as a form of social hope.” Additionally, that higher social hope “occurs through love, which, in the brief moments when it denies the reality of Verwandlung and wills its own eternity, re-creates, though in a higher and self-conscious form, the pure act of praise—the Rheingold, reines Gold—which is our human salvation.” Love, kindness, compassion (Mitleid) is what Wagner’s greatest operas try to communicate to us as the “social hope” to bring forth the fruit of salvation and renewal that politics fails to achieve.

The Drama of Love: From Tristan and Isolde to The Ring and Parsifal

If love is the great theme that preoccupied Wagner, was there a change in Wagner’s conception of love as our salvific force? In other words, does Wagner’s treatment of love change from Tristan and Isolde through The Ring to its final form in Parsifal? In reading Scruton, the answer seems to be yes and no. Yes, in the sense that the eroticism that governs Tristan and Isolde, even Siegfried and to a lesser extent Brünnhilde, seems to evaporate by the time witness Parsifal in action. Not in the sense that Wagner’s philosophy of love and persons is still the guiding spirit in all of those operas; Wagner does not renunciate the philosophy of love and persons. He refines it over time. Moreover, the theme of love’s renunciation of worldly power is the same in Tristan and Isolde, The Ring, and Parsifal.

The sexual love that permeates Tristan and Isolde is one borne out of the codes of courtly love in Eleanor of Aquitaine’s reign as Queen of England and France. Wagner situates the love of Tristan and Isolde in a brilliant pathology that is underscored by the music. The lack of a tonal center, best exemplified in motive 15, is meant to capture the turbulence of destructive emotions, a pathology leading to inevitable destruction. As we listen, we know something is off. Meanwhile, the harmonic melodies, as in motive 27, bring our lovers into unitive harmony with each other, offering an emotional respite and social hope in the midst of social chaos, scheming, and tyranny. The music brings us that feeling of serenity with the starstruck lovers, reminding us of the serene power of love in a dying world.

Moreover, love is not something begotten. Love begets. Love is dependent on the other. Wagner unknowingly endorses Saint Augustine’s understanding of love and human persons; we are attracted to the object of our love as a lover who, also as a subject, reciprocates that love in an ever-flowing waltz of joy. The climax of Tristan and Isolde, where Tristan cries out for Isolde as a ship appears over the horizon (her ship), encapsulates this desirous need of the other to complete the mystery of love: “By pinning this cry of joy, as it were, to the mast of Isolde’s ship, Wagner helps us to envisage the utter dependence of Tristan on Isolde’s arrival, and the total fusion in his own emotions of the life that she is bringing with the death that he craves.”

In their dynamic relationship, as subject and object, the very subject-object dualism that preoccupied Kant, the love that governs Tristan and Isolde is also the highest manifestation of their freedom. Tristan’s love for Isolde and Isolde’s love for Tristan break down the artificial barriers of the political; these star-crossed lovers forge ahead in love and break free of the constraints imposed on them by their human, political communities. Yet this freedom in love is what is also moving them to their death. The freedom that they find in each other’s arms is not a freedom leading to life but death, for in death—paradoxically—there is life. We can say that Tristan and Isolde lived life by dying together in their love for one another. That is what makes the story so dramatic, moving, and eternal. What Tristan and Isolde experienced and lived by is the highest aspiration of the human heart.

The erotic love that liberates Tristan and Isolde is one that also brings out the fullness of their personalities and particular beings. Trapped in their respective political communities, they are nothing more than cogs in the machine. Once liberated from those bonds through their mutual love for each other, each is individualized for a higher-end: the end of love (the Kantian kingdom of ends). Tristan loves Isolde as Isolde and is completed by Isolde, and Isolde loves Tristan as Tristan and is completed by Tristan. As Scruton writes in a grand Kantian revision of erotic love, “erotic love is essentially individualizing, its intentional object is the irreplaceable incarnate subjectivity of the other, as he is in himself, irreducible to his attributes or to any characteristic that he might share. Such indeed is the meaning of the [love] shared by Tristan and Isolde, which sets the whole drama in motion.” Furthermore, “Sexual virtue does not forbid desire: rather, it makes true desire possible by reconstituting the physical urge as an interpersonal feeling.” That interpersonal feeling afforded in erotic desire is, as Scruton noted, “individualizing.” We might go as far as to say humanizing.

Underneath the current of Scruton’s reflection on Tristan and Isolde is the timeless commentary on the danger of love in relation to the political. Are love and politics antagonistic foes? In Tristan and Isolde, the answer is an undeniable yes. Love is not only incomprehensible to the political; love threatens the political. The love between Tristan and Isolde threatens the marriage arrangement to King Marke which threatens to destabilize the world of contracts, oaths, and politics.

Yet why do Tristan and Isolde have to die? They have broken their oaths; as such, they are not sacrificial outlaws (homo sacer), existing—in their love—outside the bounds of the political community. But their love does not lead to resentment but renewal; the love that Tristan and Isolde share for each other becomes something aspirational for us all.

Love is worth dying for because love is worth living for; that is the great paradox of love. Love, not politics, is the highest manifestation possible for human freedom and sanctification. In the erotic, the totality of the human condition makes itself known. It is the precious heart of the erotic that Wagner latches onto in Tristan and Isolde and sails to the gates of eternity with. As Scruton poignantly concludes, “through their sacrifice [Tristan and Isolde] restore belief in our human potential and renew in us the will to live. Hence the redemption of the lovers in death is also a renewal of the community in life.” After all, despite all that has transpired (i.e. love, betrayal, reunion, and death), the political forces threatened by the love of Tristan and Isolde do not erupt in conflict but embrace a serene new beginning inspired by their example.

This theme of star-crossed lovers is also the cornerstone of The Ring cycle. But whereas Tristan and Isolde dramatized love between humans, The Ring dramatizes the love between a divine and a mortal and how, in choosing love, we choose mortality instead of the cold indifference of Valhalla and its bastardized child called politics.

Of all Wagner operas, none have been as polarizing as The Ring. Is it a political opera? Is it an erotic opera? Is it a philosophic opera? Is it about the end of the world? Is it about the renewal of the world? The only thing that critics seem to agree on is that it is Wagner’s undisputed magnum opus.

Scruton understands the essence of The Ring, changing from its original conception from its Feuerbachian beginnings, as pitting power and love against each other in a more dramatic way than even witnessed in Tristan and Isolde.

The love that permeated Tristan and Isolde, while threatening the political, was not wholly antithetical to the political. After all, the ostentatiously political figures who witness the deaths of Tristan and Isolde are so moved by the sacrificial love that they withdraw in presumed peace. Political life goes on, hopefully for the better—through the example of the love that bound Tristan and Isolde in life and death.

The Ring of the Nibelung does not share that possible view of love influencing politics for the better. Rather, The Ring eschews politics altogether. The political world, seen in Nibelheim, Valhalla, and the realm of the Gibichung is one of tyranny, subjugation, and backstabbing; rivalry, envy, and murder.

Yet The Ring unmistakably bears the print of Wagner’s metaphysical shift away from politics. One must renounce the world of the political to find love.

But The Ring is much more than a political commentary as pedantically imagined by George Bernard Shaw. The Ring is also a commentary on human history and the spirit, from the ur-myth of primordial nature ruptured through theft and a fall, to the formation of political communities by oaths and bonds, to the awakening of human consciousness through activity in the world of nature. Scruton, magisterially, recounts all the currents of myth, theology, philosophy, politics, and history that move Wagner’s composition to its sublime conclusion.

Yet The Ring unmistakably bears the print of Wagner’s metaphysical shift away from politics. One must renounce the world of the political to find love. This is seen even in the relations of the gods, where Odin and Fricka grow cold toward each other after the construction of Valhalla and the cascading series of events that drive Siegmund and Sieglinde to their deaths, Brünnhilde to her renunciation of divinity for the joy of mortal love with Siegfried, and the love and betrayal of Siegfried which ruptures all the relationships he forged in the world during his short, youthful, and impetuous life. What began in bliss and hope, the Rhinemaidens and the construction of Valhalla, ends in blood, death, and an immolating fire.

Moreover, the nature of love is refined over the course of the opera. We witness erotic desire in Alberich’s lust after the Rhinemaidens which spirals into Alberich’s forsaking of love to gain possession of the gold from which he forges the ring. Erotic desire, without the forsaking of love for power, manifests itself in sexual union in Die Walküre between the siblings Siegmund and Sieglinde. So powerful is the moment of compassion turned to sexual ecstasy that Scruton even writes:

“For erotic love, at its highest, is neither sensual delight nor domestic harmony, even if both are in some way implied in it. At its heart lies sympathy, and the sense of the absolute value of the individual, to whose being the lover is attached and whose sufferings he suffers in turn. Such is love between mortals, the love between Siegmund and Sieglinde, and it is a higher and nobler thing than the love enjoyed by the gods or the conventional tyranny of the hearth since it involves a gift of the self, and a readiness to sacrifice self for other. Moreover, the capacity for this kind of love is the greatest gift of personality, and without it, our journey into freedom will be incomplete.”

Furthermore, echoing his sentiments of erotic love in Tristan and Isolde: “The object of erotic love is not the abstract man or woman, nor even the attractive instance: it is that thing we address as ‘you’ and know as ‘I’—the individual self, which confronts the other from that strange horizon where no other can go.” Despite the beautiful intoxication of erotic lust to erotic love from Das Rheingold to Die Walküre, the second part of Wagner’s operatic masterpiece still reveals the limits of erotic love. Siegmund and Sieglinde die. Fricka enforces the contract against incest; punishment is, therefore, enforced by the gods. But not before Brünnhilde aids Sieglinde, inspired by an act of love, from which the hopeful savior son is born with the first stirring rendition of “Redemption through Love” leitmotif. Yet the love manifested by Siegmund and Sieglinde, that interpersonal and subjective love born of erotic desire in contrast to Alberich’s erotic lust, is not enough to bring forth the salvation of the world and the renewal of nature.

Siegfried, the begotten child of “sublime wonder” (O hehrstes Wunder!) from Siegmund and Sieglinde’s love, is the new subject on whom the fate of the world, and the gods, seemingly rests. Siegfried is sheltered by Mime, Alberich’s banished brother. But Mime has not abandoned the spirit of Nibelheim in the woods of the Rhine. Mime does not love Siegfried; he merely wants to use him to gain the treasure hoarded by the fratricidal giant-turned-dragon Fafner.

In a drama of awakenings, Siegfried is awakened to consciousness through his wilderness frolics and observation of nature in the most Hegelian of all the operatic parts. Siegfried’s heart is wounded by absence: the absence of parents, the absence of a lover, and the absence of personal recognition (denied to him by Mime who treats him as a mere object to his own desires). Siegfried eventually forges the shattered sword Notung back together, slays Fafner, kills Mime, liberates himself from the spell of Nibelheim, and defeats Odin—disguised as a mystic wanderer—to find a slumbering Brünnhilde who has been punished for her solidarity with Siegmund and Sieglinde from the preceding act.

Here, Brünnhilde is awakened by the simultaneous fear and appetitus inveniendi that compels Siegfried to kiss the Valkyrie turned mortal woman and free her from her trance. She is awakened by the free love that was promised to her as her liberative spirit. Love has resurrected Brünnhilde. And love has united Siegfried with a lover, a companion, and a subjective person—the very subject of love he had been seeking during his eponymous act of the drama. In Siegfried, erotic yearning unites two as one in the most sublime and beautiful awakening of human consciousness: the full flourishing of subject persons brought to the fullness of life through their interpersonal love.

But the world of the Gibichung—the mortal world of human politics and scheming—is soon to intervene and destroy this romance of life and resurrection.

As a token of their love for each other, Siegfried gives Brünnhilde the ring which he had acquired from slaying Fafner as a sign of their love. Having shattered Wotan’s spear of governance, the gods are frozen in a trance, and the human world becomes the center of all the action in Götterdämmerung. The gods are still waiting for the free hero to return the ring to the Rhine, and we are left believing that Siegfried is that hero. So Siegfried, having freed Brünnhilde and departed to Gunther’s hall, is about to become ensnared in the pursuit of power that forsakes love as it always has throughout the opera.

Brünnhilde, meanwhile, rebukes her Valkyrie sister Waltraute who visits and implores her to forsake the ring that Siegfried has given her and return it to the Rhine to free their father and the rest of the gods. Brünnhilde, however, so moved by Siegfried’s love, renounces the world of divinity to live for the mortal world of human love. Scruton writes of this moment, “Brünnhilde berates her sister, saying that one flash of the Ring’s sacred luster is more to her than the eternal joy of the gods, for its shines with the blessing of Siegfried’s love, and the music conveys the substance of this blessings, with the theme of Wotan’s second bequest, that of ‘World inheritance.’”

We are meant, here, to be awed by the majesty and power of love. Siegfried has freed Brünnhilde from her captivity. Brünnhilde has rebuked her family, even her father Wotan who loved her more than all, for the love offered by Siegfried. Yet the first monumental betrayal occurs after these grand moments of love; Brünnhilde is confronted by Siegfried in the shape of Gunther, wearing the Tarnhelm and drugged by the wine of forgetfulness. He seizes the ring for the machinations of Hagan. The cry for revenge rings out. The love we have just witnessed has been betrayed, even if unwillingly so.

Siegfried, Gunther, and Hagan, along with Gutrune and the now scorned Brünnhilde, form a cadre of persons caught in the drama of love, politics, and scheming and our protagonists hastily move toward their demise. If Siegfried was a dramatic act of awakenings, Götterdämmerung, as Scruton notes, is an act of awakenings to betrayals. The betrayal of Gunther and Gutrune upon Siegfried as they drug him with the wine of forgetting spurred on by Hagan. The betrayal of Brünnhilde by Siegfried. The betrayal of Siegfried and Gunther by Hagan.

Before the infamous murder of Siegfried, the free heroic son has the opportunity to cast the ring back into the Rhine. Wandering the watery forest streams, Siegfried comes across the Rhinemaidens who taunt him. They see the ring and subsequently implore him to give the ring to them as they sing of its theft long ago. Siegfried balks, then changes his mind, then balks again. The Rhinemaidens need someone to return the ring who is fully aware of its potency and power, not someone oblivious to it—and Siegfried is oblivious to the ring’s real power. Hagan and Brünnhilde, by contrast, are not. But Hagan, as we know, seeks it for his own power. Brünnhilde kept it as a token of a love now betrayed.

Out on a hunting party with Gunther and Hagan, Siegfried is finally betrayed. Hagan stabs Siegfried in the back. Siegfried cries out wounded. Hagan has concocted the whole scheme. By having Siegfried tell his story, he is able to claim the legalistic high ground in Siegfried’s murder. Siegfried has betrayed his oaths. Yet, in this moment, we have nothing but sympathy for Siegfried who was but a pawn and not really the free hero we thought: “This consummate passage,” Scruton writes, “built from motifs that represent all that is heroic in Siegfried’s past, shows a Siegfried reborn in death, his innocence restored, and all the criminal schemes in which he has been embroiled washed away by his blood. In some way, the music both rescues Siegfried’s character in our eyes, and also casts a new light on the entire story.” We subsequently listen to the immortal “Funeral March” that remains a staple of Wagnerian music.

In Gunther’s hall, the final unraveling occurs. As Hagan approaches Siegfried’s corpse to seize the ring, the hero’s hand rises up in a flashing horror that startles the half-Nibelung. Brünnhilde enters and pieces together all the pieces of the scheming and politicking puzzle. She accosts her abusers and forgives Siegfried. Hagan kills Gunther in the scuffle. Brünnhilde takes the ring as a moment of restoration of her love for Siegfried in the midst of the chaos.

Brünnhilde, filled with a renewed love, turns to the Rhinemaidens to return the ring. She renounces its power and curse and pledges her love to Siegfried once more in the most sublime moment of the entire opera. Siegfried! Siegfried! Sieh! Selig grüßst dich dein Weib! “Siegfried, Siegfried! Look! Your wife comes to greet you in bliss.” She rides into the immolating fire to consummate her love with Siegfried in eternity as the “Redemption through Love” leitmotif sounds triumphantly for its second and final time. The ring is now returned; Hagan leaps to his death for power, rather than love (as witnessed by Brünnhilde) and fights with the Rhinemaidens as they swim to the bottom of the Rhine, drowning the power-hungry beast in the process. At the end of Götterdämmerung, Scruton gives us his poignant and insightful appraisal of all that has transpired: “Throughout this cosmic coda the orchestra takes the various motifs associated with the end of the gods, with the Rhine, with Loge and Valhalla and resolves them first in the motif of Siegfried as hero, and then in the melody of Sieglinde’s blessing, recalling the holiest moment in the cycle, when a god sacrificed herself for a mortal, and the mortal understood. That, we now recognize, was the moment when all machinations were forgotten, when the feminine triumphed, and the world was turned towards its end.”

According to Scruton, the highest freedom that Wagner sought to express in The Ring was the freedom of sacrificial love begotten from erotic subjectivity and liberation (witnessed principally through Brünnhilde but also Siegfried). After all, it was Brünnhilde who was so moved by the love shown by Siegmund and Sieglinde that she disobeyed the gods and threw in her lot with the mortal lovers; it was Brünnhilde’s want for love that caused her punishment and liberation by the love of Siegfried; it was Brünnhilde’s love for Siegfried that led her to renounce the ring and leap into the immolating fires to join her beloved in eternal bliss. Brünnhilde’s sacrifice is the highest testament to her love and freedom.

In Tristan and Isolde and The Ring, erotic love plays an essential role in Wagner’s presentation of myth, sacrality, and salvation. However, Parsifal does not seem to share the same centrality of the erotic in the love that will heal the world. Tristan and Isolde’s erotic love lead to their death but with the possibility that their erotic sacrificial love can spur the political world to a better future. That is rejected in The Ring altogether. The erotic love that brought Brünnhilde’s incarnation into the world of mortal flesh leads to her renunciation of immortality and power to be with her beloved in death (much like Tristan and Isolde), but there is no redemption of the political world in The Ring, as love and power are dialectically and antagonistically contrasted with each other. In Parsifal, the erotic seems to be conceptualized as the enemy. What happened?

As we know, Parsifal is Wagner’s reimagining of the Grail Myth placed in a late German Idealist construction blending Christian ethics with Buddhist metaphysics. But the heart of Parsifal is a religious yearning. Scruton notes, “Parsifal invites us to believe in the Redeemer.” But what kind of Redeemer and why are we in need of redemption?

Sin, contextualized in Parsifal, is the ruptured relationships we have with the world and with others. We have forsaken love for the pursuit of power, forgetfulness, and lust. Klingsor, Amfortas, and Kundry each represent these sinful realities for us. Klingsor seeks the Spear and Grail for purely political, power-seeking ends. Amfortas, the head of the knights, once entrusted with the mission of the Grail, has forgotten the spiritual meaning of his mission and so slipped in decadence and decay. Kundry, of course, mocked the Savior at his death and is now imprisoned in a whirlpool of her own lust.

Enter Parsifal, the “pure fool” who “knows through compassion” to help bring about the restoration of the right order of relationships between humans and humans and the world. Parsifal enters having killed a harmless, innocent swan. The journey that Parsifal now undertakes is one that will see the restoration of the world in all its magnificent beauty and love.

Erotic love, or lust, presents itself in two key events. First is with the flower maidens who have defeated many a Grail Knights with their sultry spirits and voluptuous bodies. Yet Parsifal perseveres through the temptations of the flower maidens. Then, he encounters Kundry in the castle of Klingsor. Kundry desires the kiss of Parsifal to extend her sin to the heroic knight but also to tempt his chastity and so be redeemed by his purity. “In her frenzy,” Scruton writes, “she lays bare her soul for Parsifal’s compassion, longing for the love that would wipe her agony away…To lie weeping on the breast of the one whom I once despised, she cries, for one brief hour with Him, with you, united, cleansed, and redeemed.”

According to Scruton, Wagner masterfully orchestrates a brilliant revision of the love-lust dichotomy begun by Saint Augustine. If we return to Tristan and Isolde and The Ring, erotic love is that love that reveals the full subjectivity of persons. While this is wholesome and endearing in the budding love between Tristan and Isolde, we see the darker side of this dialectic in The Ring, especially with Alberich and the erotic scorned into revulsion and hatred through Brünnhilde’s betrayal. Erotic love does reveal the totality of the human soul in this moment in Parsifal. Kundry’s conflicted sentiments, her desire to force her misery onto another, her desire for redemption are all revealed in her kiss to Parsifal. Likewise, Parsifal’s chastity in not succumbing to the darker motive forces of Kundry’s kiss of seduction utterly eviscerates the sinful side of eros and washes her clean of sin and brings forth the desire for redemption healed by Parsifal’s chaste compassion. Kundry’s eroticism reveals the magnanimity of Parsifal. Her eroticism brings out her full individualization and Parsifal’s heroic character.

Scruton argues that Wagner, in Parsifal, manifests a great transvaluation of our understanding of the two key spirits of love: agape and eros. We tend to think agape, compassion, as being only between humans—a certain magnanimity of interaction between soulful subjects. Eros, on the other hand, destroys the self but also can be seen in the animal kingdom. Wagner inverts this as Scruton says: “[T]his brings us to a profound observation at the heart of the Parsifal story, which is that the compassionate core of agape does not extend only to other persons, but reaches into the animal kingdom too. Eros, properly understood, extends only to another person, only to the one who can say ‘I.’”

Out of erotic love comes agape. According to Scruton, that is the message of Wagner’s grandest operas.

Wagner therefore understands—or asserts—in Parsifal that redemption and love is not something that extends merely to other humans. It must extend to all of nature. Erotic love, as Scruton noted, is only between subjective selves. Agape, in this respect, is superior to eros because it has the possibility of encompassing the whole breadth of the world. Subject and object. Human and beast. Mortal and divine.

Thus Parsifal’s revelation is not merely in how he acts with the wounded souls in Monsalvat but in how he embraces a new relationship with the natural world as a whole, and his spirit of magnanimous kindness extends to human and beast alike. So Parsifal saves Kundry by her erotic desire for him which reveals the redemptive cry deep in her soul and the chaste purity of Parsifal, Kundry’s eroticism reveals Parsifal’s healing compassion. Parsifal also heals Amfortas with the Spear and Grail, wielding these sacramental instruments not for power but for redemptive healing. Having restored the right relationships of human action and relations to each other, the dove descends on Parsifal as the symbol representing our renewed relationship not merely with one another but with the whole of the world. Compassion to humans, compassion to nature, has revealed itself in total redemption. Wagner might well have agreed with Saint Paul that “whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.”

The love that Wagner comes to celebrate in Parsifal moves beyond the erotic which was celebrated in Tristan and Isolde and The Ring. It does not, however, dispense with it as we have just shown. Rather, the erotic aims for compassion in love—the highest manifestation of which is agape. Agape “is the path taken by Parsifal, and it is a path that is open to us all,” Scruton concludes in the culminating chapter of his short but indispensable analysis of Parsifal. Parsifal reveals the erotic-to-agape movement in Wagner, though a careful reading of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and The Ring also reveals as much. Out of erotic love comes agape. According to Scruton, that is the message of Wagner’s grandest operas.

The Maestro of Love

Reading Scruton’s voluminous works on Wagner have been among the greatest treats of my life. They reveal two masters in conversation with each and growing and learning more deeply because of that Socratic conversation. “Wagner believed that the critical moment in the development of personality is the erotic: the point at which sympathy for another person is precisely fed by nature, so as to translate the great force of species-life into a project in which freedom and personality are fulfilled and also jeopardized.”

The 21st century world should not scorn or mock Wagner. On the contrary, the very themes that moved the maestro of Bayreuth are still the pressing issues of our time: the tension between lust and love; the violence of the sexes; the false promise of political salvation; the yearning for the transcendent as individuals when the mystical allure of religion has lost hold of us; and the need for greater compassion between all people that is the highway to freedom, love, and serenity in this life.

Richard Wagner was an artist with an agenda. Wagner sought to re-enchant the world with the mystic spirit of love that has driven “the best which has been thought and said in the world” and the best of human excellence and ingenuity. Since the mid-2oth century, Wagner has fallen into demystification himself; the Wagnerian world is now a cruel parody of what it once was and what it offered.

If Wagner was an artist with an agenda, we can also say that Scruton was an artist with an agenda. He followed the maestro of love in his pursuit of re-enchanting the world with that spirit of love. Scruton attempted to re-enchant Wagner for the 21st century. And any reader of Scruton’s writings on Wagner cannot help but feel he came oh so close to achieving the unachievable fight that we are called to wage for the salvation of our souls. So in the words of a great saint of yesteryear, Tolle Lege.

Paul Krause is a teacher, writer, and classicist. He is the author of the forthcoming book The Odyssey of Love and contributed to The College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory.

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