Wagner Hated Jews; Should We Hate His Music?

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Fafner the dragon became a fitfully pulsing blob (crab crossed with jellyfish) on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera Thursday night. As Siegfried pierced him in the heart with his sword Nothung, the blob emitted a dying puff of smoke (as if a pope had just been elected).

Brunnhilde awoke at length, in full and beautiful voice. But her almost satirically Wagnerian bulk tended to subvert the magic of the moment. After more than five hours of sitting in the dusk of Richard Wagner's German prehistory (the vile, crafty dwarf Mime tapping on the anvil in his cave or swapping riddles with Wotan, with blats of ominous gloom emitted from time to time by the tuba and other horns — the flatulence of foreboding), I found myself thinking, sacrilegiously: "It's not over till the fat lady sings." The Met is doing Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen" all this week. It is a grandly ambitious project that is, as always with Hitler's favorite composer, morally unsettling.

Is it possible to separate the work from its creator, and to judge the two independent of one another? It is an old question. In Israel, for half a century it has been taboo to perform Wagner. The anti-Semite Wagner's linkage to the cultural underpinnings of the Third Reich caused a natural gag reflex in the survivors. Two years ago, it was proposed to lift the ban on Wagner, but such a storm of anguish blew up (especially among older Israelis) that the plan was dropped.

Now Mendi Rodan, conductor of the Israel Symphony Orchestra, is preparing a performance in October of Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll." The 71-year-old Rodan has the moral credentials to take the step. When he was 12, the Nazis killed his father and uncle in the Romanian village where they lived. Rodan has told Reuters that he considers performing Wagner to be a kind of revenge, an act of cultural freedom that the Nazis would not have tolerated.

Condemn the sin, not the sinner. Is it possible to praise the art, but leave the artist to a separate fate? Is it possible to erect a wall between church and state (church being the artist's art and state being his possibly disgusting life)? Cellini was a murderer, a fact that did not compromise the beauty of his art. Ezra Pound during World War II became a crackpot anti-Semite propagandist for the Fascists — a vicious misadventure that did not make his poetry any worse (or, for that matter, any better). Ernest Hemingway, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost and other writers who helped to rescue the ungrateful Pound from the gallows and get him assigned instead to a mental hospital in Washington, D.C., made the dignified, civilized point that time (as Auden said) pardons some for writing well.

Time tends to sort it out — eventually discarding the politics (even the most evil politics) and keeping the art. Something of a reverse problem arises, of course, when a new politics (as today, with political correctness, assembled in the Legions of Diversity) attempts to dethrone (for example) the Dead White Males of Western tradition in favor of other gods, or the transiently fashionable.

The process, in fact, is positively Wagnerian. In gloomy academic caves, wily, invidious usurpers scheme against The Giants (Homer, Shakespeare, Milton and the rest). As with "The Ring," it is about Power, dressed up as Art. "Siegfried" is also, to a surprising degree, an epic of a sort of cleansing stupidity — another distinctly contemporary theme. As the dwarf Mime remarks while Siegfried forges his invincible sword: "His stupidity guides him."