1 True Redemption In every human society, there exists a burning and inexhaustible need for order and cultural definition. Usually, cultural identity is enforced through traditional customs and rituals, which unite a modern community with its ancient founders. However, societies inevitably mesh with foreign elements, and cultural identity can often become blurred. In situations in which the cultural identity of a community is in doubt, in which disorder is rampant and members of a community are at odds with one another, scapegoats are selected and offered up in sacrifice to rid the society of internal contradictions and establish once again order and cultural unity. Wagner s Ring of the Nibelung, among other things, is a story of the "corruption" of a culture by pernicious foreign elements. For Wagner, a German nationalist and anti-semite par excellence, the real tragedy of the Ring is not just the physical despoliation of nature by ruthless, cupiditous industrialists, but the pollution of a race and culture by the Jews. Two of the opera cycle s principal villains, Alberich and Mime, are embodiments of nineteenth century stereotypes, while Hagen, the half-jew, is a physically exhausted racial hybrid. Somewhat ironically, the corruption of a once pure Germanic race and culture by these three elements is expiated not through the ritualistic deaths of these interlopers, but by the sacrifice of a living symbol of German cultural vitality, Siegfried. This sacrifice, one of the most important events in the entire Ring, is replete with hidden meaning for the two individuals who willed it the most, Hagen and Brünnhilde, who themselves could not be further apart. The opera cycle fittingly begins with a scene of beautiful, pristine nature, as represented by the Nature motive and the Rhinemaidens child-like joy in the gold. Alberich, who represents the antithesis of all things German, intrudes on this scene and sends an entire civilization into ideological turmoil. Alberich is directly responsible for the pollution of the German race and culture. He is a walking nineteenth century anti-semitic stereotype: short, fat, ugly, roundheaded, greedy, and lecherous, without a modicum of respect for "civilized" life, let alone the pulchritude of pristine nature or the German creative genius that, in Wagner s ethnocentric eyes, is responsible for the great artistic achievements of the world. By renouncing love, abnegating all that is natural and human in quixotic pursuit of patriarchal control, Alberich comes to represent for Wagner all that is wrong with contemporary German culture. While the Germans of antiquity were free from Jewish influence and consequently fully in touch with the natural world and their human feelings, contemporary German culture for Wagner, because of Jewish cultural pollution, was nothing but a parody of its once proud self. For Wagner, the "Jewish question" was not so much about the emancipation of the Jews from oppressive German political rule as it was about the emancipation of German culture from Jewish financial hegemony. In his most blatantly anti- Semitic essay, Judaism in Music, Wagner addresses this issue directly: we can only regard this prayer for emancipation of the Jews from us as a singularly childish petition, seeing that our own condition is much rather one justifying an appeal to be delivered from them. In the present state of things the Jew is more than free, for he dominates; and, as long as money continues the power before which all our doings and strivings are as naught, he will continue to do so. (Wagner, Richard. Judaism in Music. p.5 Tr. Edward Evans. William Reeves Publishing: London, 1918) The ring, which Alberich has forged, is a symbol of both Jewish financial control and its pernicious effect on German culture. Specifically, Wagner manipulates the relationship between the rapacious Jew Alberich and the ambivalent Germanic god Wotan to stress the corrosive influence of Jewish cultural intrusion. Wotan himself can be described as a symbol of Wagner s contemporary culture once a mighty and ideologically steadfast god who is the direct victim of
2 an artificial, Semitic desire for wealth and patriarchal control. Wotan s identity crisis, his inability to make a decision between patriarchal power and natural, egalitarian love, is symptomatic of a broader internal contradiction that plagues the society he represents. Wotan s lack of a fixed identity separates him from his foil, Alberich, and his descendant, Siegfried. In Die Walküre especially, it would seem as if there were two Wotans: one steadfastly committed to a hollow patriarchal ideal based on world domination and loveless subjugation of women, the other dedicated to the cultivation of a natural, fatherly love for his daughter Brünnhilde and the restoration of the Germanic cultural ideal in his support of Siegmund. Wotan is a living ideological contradiction that ultimately must be snuffed out. It is as if he is torn apart, physically and psychologically, from an internal conflict between two antipodal value-systems. This would explain his metamorphosis from mighty king of the gods in Das Rheingold to an anonymous, insignificant, impotent Wanderer in Siegfried. Wagner makes the corrosive influence of the Jews more apparent in the relationship of Siegfried with Mime and Hagen. Siegfried is clearly the most anti-semitic opera in the Ring simply because the contrast between the Jewish stereotype, Mime, and the Germanic hero, Siegfried, is so great. While Wotan wavers between Jewish and German cultural ideals, Siegfried does not allow Mime to alter his fundamentally German nature. What Mime does represent for Siegfried is cultural stultification. Siegfried is a living symbol of all things German. He is, as Wotan repeatedly mentions, free of the gods and consequently free from the cultural pollution that so tragically plagues them. He is everything a traditional German hero should be: freespirited, fearless, virile, instinctual, creative, forthright, and true to his word. Mime, who so vainly tries to manipulate Siegfried, is the very antithesis of these qualities. He is cowardly, conniving, unreliable, and incompetent, not to mention being intellectually, artistically, and sexually stagnant. Mime s artistic stagnation is particularly important to the Ring s theme of cultural pollution. Wagner s most anti-semitic essay, Judaism in Music, specifically deals with the corrosive artistic influence of the Jews on German society, and all signs point to Mime being the agent of Siegfried s artistic stultification in the Ring. After all, it is Mime who is unable to forge the fragments of Notung a task which took the innovative Siegfried just minutes to accomplish. In his book Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination, Marc Weiner clarifies the distinction between the artistically inept Mime and the Promethean Siegfried: The Mime of Siegfried, then, is an apelike Francophilic copycat; Metaphorically, he is that which his name reveals him to be, a mime, while Siegfried, among other things, is a metaphor for the superior artist, the idealist, privy to the essence of relationships discernible for him behind appearance. (Weiner, Marc. Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination: 89. University of Nebraska Press, 1989) Indeed, the contrast between Mime and Siegfried is not simply one between villain and hero, but one between two antipodal cultures. In Wagner s racist worldview, Jewish cultural intrusion has held the German artistic spirit in thrall. Mime is entirely valueless, he is a foreign element, an interloper and parasite that must be expunged in order for the German artistic Geist (symbolized by Siegfried) to reach its full potential. Given the Ring s theme of German cultural adulteration through contact with the Jewish world and the general importance of ritual scapegoating in quashing insurrection and internal contradictions within a society, one might expect one or all of the three Jewish villains to be publicly reprimanded for their subversive behavior. Yet when one considers that the Jewish patriarchy these characters represent was, in Wagner s mind, truly in charge of society, it comes
3 as no surprise that Siegfried, the bold and iconoclastic hero with little respect for societal conventions (as seen in his confrontation with Wotan in Act 3 of Siegfried), is the individual designated to assume the frustrations of a society at odds with itself. Hagen, the misbegotten son of Alberich and a violated German woman, serves as a foil to the Germanic hero in the fourth opera. Hagen is clearly a perplexing figure. As Marc Weiner points out, Hagen s quiet, solemn demeanor hardly seems consistent with his Jewish background, as Jews in Wagner's day were often perceived as obstreperous and hyperactive. Hagen is stolid, phlegmatic, unmotivated and altogether incapable of the kind of heroic deeds that Siegfried, his German foil, so effortlessly accomplishes. He is a man tormented by his racially hybrid nature. The surreal scene in Act 2 Scene 1 of Götterdämmerung with Hagen and Alberich demonstrates both Hagen s physical weariness and his inability to live up to the German cultural ideal. Repeatedly in this scene, Alberich questions Hagen s energy: Wake from your slumber,/strive for the ring!/for fearless and bold/you were bred;/so that you d fight my foes/when I needed./though you were too weak/to fight with the giant/whom only Siegfried could slay (G: 2.1) Despite the fact that Hagen was bred to be "fearless and bold," he is hardly that. Hagen realizes that he is a disappointment not just in the eyes of his father, who repeatedly questions his motivation and vitality, but also because of his inability to live up to the very German cultural paradigm that Siegfried embodies. This failure to be a true German, which indubitably can be traced to Hagen s Jewish background, becomes a source of great enmity not just against Siegfried, but against the pure Germanic culture the Wälsung seeks to revive. Since Hagen cannot embrace Germanic existence, since he is "too weak to fight with the giant whom only Siegfried could slay", he must turn to the other side of his nature Judaism. That is, he must take up the Jewish cause of winning the ring, establishing ascendancy over the world, and extirpating, through the ritualistic murder of Siegfried, all that is human, instinctual, natural, creative, and Germanic. It is important to note that the murder of Siegfried and the retrieval of the ring are not to be done for Alberich, who for Hagen is the cause and symbol of his inadequacy. For Hagen, Alberich is a constant, tormenting reminder of his Jewish nature, a kind of albatross that impedes him from achieving Siegfried-like greatness. Alberich s repetition of "Schläfst du, Hagen, mein Sohn?" would indicate that the entire interlude is a nightmare for Hagen, who is caught between two antipodal racial and cultural backgrounds. Siegfried, as a symbol of everything that Hagen cannot be, becomes then the ultimate object of antagonism for the son of the Nibelung. The public sacrifice of Siegfried, the symbol of all that is pure and German, would allow Hagen both to redeem himself on a personal level and unify his community around the Jewish, rather than the German cultural model. In his highly influential work Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Rene Girard captures the essence of the human scapegoat mechanism, which can be identified in all cultures: In many rituals everyone assembled is required to participate in an immolation that might easily be mistaken for a sort of lynching. Even when the sacrifice is performed by a single person, that person usually acts in the name of everyone involved. The community affirms its unity in the sacrifice, a unity that emerges from the moment when the division is most intense, when the community enacts its dissolution in the mimetic crisis and the abandonment to the endless cycle of
4 vengeance. But suddenly the opposition of everyone against everyone else is replaced by the opposition of all against one. Where previously there had been a chaotic ensemble of particular conflicts, there is now the simplicity of a single conflict: the entire community on one side, and on the other, the victim. The nature of this sacrificial resolution is not difficult to comprehend; the community finds itself unified once more at the expense of a victim who is not only incapable of self-defence but is also unable to provoke any reaction of vengeance (Girard, Rene. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World: 24. Stanford University Press, 1987). So for Hagen, the sacrifice is not just a reflection of his personal enmity toward Siegfried, but an act which would expunge once and for all from his society all traces of Germanic culture. This would unify both Hagen s personal identity (which clearly, because of his dual-nature, seems in doubt) and, more importantly, the cultural identity that before the crisis was in serious question. The scapegoating of Siegfried would, in Hagen s warped eyes, eliminate all that is artistic, egalitarian, instinctual, and German and create a truly Jewish patriarchy in which money reigns supreme. The call to arms scene in Act 2 scene 3 of Götterdämmerung is chock-full of ritualistic imagery. Not only does Hagen assemble a mass of people heretofore unequaled in the Ring, but also his solemn, urgent manner of address sets the tone for the serious business of ritualistic sacrifice to come. In this remarkable scene, Hagen employs all the tricks of the good rhetorician. He opens his litany on a balcony above his audience to establish his force as a speaker. He then partakes in the common custom of descending down on his audience, becoming one of them physically and metaphorically, in an attempt to unite them around his message of vengeance. The masses, who themselves appear amazingly gullible and obedient, repeatedly petition Hagen with "what should we do?" They are as children, and Hagen, the paternalistic stalwart of Jewish culture, prepares them for the task at hand: Sacred oxen must be slaughtered;/on Wotan s alter/pour forth their blood!/ Take a boar as offering,/kill it for Froh;/and a goat is in its prime/ strike down for Donner!/ Sheep should then be slaughtered for Fricka,/ and then she will smile on this wedding!/ Hagen s reference to such atavistic animal sacrifices has a twofold purpose here. Since the goal of Hagen s rhetorical performance is to unite the community of gullible vassals against Siegfried the insurgent, the references to animal sacrifice register subconsciously as human sacrifice. After all, in Girard s eyes, animal sacrifices and human sacrifices serve essentially the same purpose in human societies, since human victims are often assigned "monstrous", animalistic attributes (Ibid p. 69). Secondly, the animals are to be sacrificed to the gods of the old patriarchal order against which Siegfried seems to rebel in the Ring gods that have already been thoroughly contaminated by Judaic culture. What Hagen fails to realize is that his sacrifice of Siegfried in the name of Jewish patriarchal order is doomed from the start, since another, more powerful individual is using the scapegoating of Siegfried for an entirely different end. While one might expect Wagner to depict a villainous half-jew as the sole culprit behind Siegfried s death, Brünnhilde, the heroin of the Ring also calls for the demise of the hero. In Act 2 scene 5 of Götterdämmerung, Brünnhilde does not hesitate to join Hagen and Gunther in denouncing Siegfried: He betrayed you; and me you all have betrayed me!/ If I had my rights,/ all
5 the blood of the world could not revenge me for your crime!/ So the death of one must now content me:/ Siegfried s death atones for his crime, and yours!/ (G: 2.5) Here, the scapegoat mechanism is perfectly illustrated. Instead of waging wars with each member of a patriarchy who has wronged women, Brünnhilde singles out Siegfried as a surrogate victim to expiate the wrongs of an entire society. And what makes this so ironic is that Siegfried does not truly represent the kind of patriarchal values that Brünnhilde so vehemently opposes. Siegfried s great tragic flaw in the Ring is not his choice of patriarchal power over true, unpinioned love, but instead his ignorance, his childlike gullibility that allows him to be corrupted by civilization (represented by Gibichung Hall). Even so, he is singled out by Brünnhilde to represent the crimes of a male-dominated world against slighted women everywhere. If Siegfried is the most anti-semitic opera in the Ring, then Götterdämmerung is the most feminist. The tragedy of Götterdämmerung is the rending asunder of the beautiful union of Siegfried and Brünnhilde, of masculine might and feminine compassion. But the split between the two lovers is ultimately not the doing of either, but is brought about by the intrusion of a foreign, loveless element into an otherwise untarnished world. It is indeed interesting that the three Jewish villains of the Ring exhibit distorted views of sexuality. Both Mime and Hagen seem asexual while for Alberich sexuality is nothing but another form of hegemony (as evidenced by his references in Das Rheingold to the sexual subjugation of women). The foreign, corrosive Jewish culture these three represent is therefore devoid of all human love, and it is set in opposition to the kind of natural, free-spirited love we witness in the relationship between Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre and Brünnhilde and Siegfried at the opening of the last opera. Thus, Hagen and Brünnhilde both seek the death of Siegfried, but for different reasons. Hagen seeks to use Siegfried as an example of the collapse of German culture to Judaism both to allay his personal feelings of inferiority and to unify his community in the name of Jewish patriarchal order. Brünnhilde seeks the exact opposite. Naturally, the death of Siegfried is for Brünnhilde a matter of personal retribution, but the sacrifice of the hero is also desired with a greater societal goal in mind. The public punishment of Siegfried for his infidelity would strike a blow for mistreated women everywhere and unify the community, once and for all, in the name of pure, Germanic, egalitarian love. As we know, Hagen s scapegoating of Siegfried backfires, since it results neither in the personal redemption of the son of the Nibelung (but instead further estrangement) nor in the establishment of a fully Jewish, loveless, patriarchal community. However, Brünnhilde is indeed successful in bringing about the kind of expiation she so stridently demanded. The death of Siegfried made him, both for the community and for Brünnhilde, more powerful than ever. Sacrificial victims are often regarded as sacred beings, since their deaths restore order and identity to a community in need of assistance. Once again, Girard provides interesting insight into the situation: At the moment when violence ceases and peace has been established, the community has the whole of its attention fixed on the victim it has just killed; it discovers the first cadaver, in other words. But how could this discovery be made in our habitual sense of naturalistically conceived death when the cadaver signifies the return to peace for the entire community, the beginning of the very possibility of culture, which means, for human beings, the very possibility of life? The reconciliatory powers of the surrogate victim are responsible for the human discovery that joins, over one cadaver, all that can be called death and all that can
6 be called life (Ibid p. 81). By living and dying for the sake of German cultural unification against Jewish patriarchal control, Siegfried becomes a kind of Germanic Messiah. Just as Christ s crucifixion freed humanity from its own sins, so does the sacrifice of Siegfried baptize the Germanic world into a new cultural era. Moreover, the self-immolation of Brünnhilde on Siegfried s funeral pyre is a final ritualistic act aimed at mending the gap once and for all within the Germanic world between men and women. It is only fitting that the Ring concludes with the redemption motive, since after all the sacrificial deaths of Siegfried and Brünnhilde are deaths of expiation which cleanse a tarnished German society of its impurities (as symbolized by the burning of Valhalla) and give it new hope. Unfortunately, the same anti-semitic ideals that Wagner seems to champion in his magnificent opera cycle ultimately contributed to the modern day Götterdämmerung we know as the Holocaust, and this random act of violence is hardly a source of hope and inspiration for future generations.