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Slavoj Zizek
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• - La Clemenza di Tito, or the Ridiculously-Obscene Excess of Mercy

• - The Sex of Orpheus

Walhalla's Frigid Joys


Perhaps the most touching scene of the entire Ring occurs towards the end of Act II of Walkure, when Brunhilde, in her cold majestic beauty, approaches Siegmund, informing him that every mortal who sees her will soon die - she is here to tell him that she will take him to Walhalla after he will lose the battle with Hunding. Siegmund refuses her offer if Sieglinde cannot join him in Walhalla, preferring the love of a miserable mortal woman to Walhall's sproeden Wonnen. The shattered Brunhilde comments on this refusal:

So wenig achtest du ewige Wonne?
Alles waer'dir das arme Weib, das mued und harmwoll matt von dem Schosse dir haengt?
Nichts sonst hieltest du hehr?

This is the core of Wagner's critique of religion: one has to get rid of the old Platonic topos of love as Eros which gradually elevates itself from the love for a particular individual through the love for the beauty of a human body in general and the love of the beautiful form as such to the love for the supreme Good beyond all forms: true love is precisely the opposite move of forsaking the promise of Eternity itself for an imperfect individual. What if the gesture of choosing temporal existence, of giving up eternity for the sake of love, is the highest ethical act of them all? Ernst Bloch was right to remark that what is lacking in German history are more gestures like Siegmund's.

Jurgen Flimm's Ring, which will be repeated in Bayreuth till 2006, is strong precisely at this level of intense intimate interplay; his staging is full of insightful ideas which, of course, sometimes work and sometimes not. Fricka is in Rheingold a careful saving Hausfrau, not the usual majestetic matron; Alberich is in the Act II of Siegfried accompanied by a boy, the young Hagen, whom he already trains for his future combat with Siegfrid (Hagen-boy plays with the small model of a dragon); etc. And Hagen is, together with Wotan and Alberich, the key person of Flimm's staging which presents the Ring as a drama of corrupted state power (Udo Bermbach was Flimm's official ideologue).

The dark figure of Hagen is profoundly ambiguous: although initially depicted as a dark plotter, both in the Nibelungenlied and in Fritz Lang's film, he emerges as the ultimate hero of the entire work and is redeemed at the end as the supreme case of the Nibelungentreue, fidelity to death to one's cause (or, rather, to the Master who stands for this cause), asserted in the final slaughter at the Attila's court. The conflict is here between fidelity to the Master and our everyday moral obligations: Hagen stands for a kind of teleological suspension of morality on behalf of fidelity, he is the ultimate Gefolgsmann.

Significantly, it is ONLY Wagner who depicts Hagen as a figure of Evil - is this not an indication of how Wagner nonetheless belongs to the modern space of freedom? And is Lang's return to the positive Hagen not an indication of how the XXth century marked the reemergence of a new barbarism? It was Wagner's genius to intuit ahead of his time the rising figure of the Fascist ruthless executive who is at the same time a rabble-rousing demagogue (recall Hagen's terrifying Maennerruf) - a worthy supplement to his other great intuition, that of a hysterical woman (Kundry) well before this figure overwhelmed European consciousness (in Charcot's clinic, in the art from Ibsen to Schoenberg). What makes Hagen a proto-Fascist is his role of the unconditional support for the weak ruler (King Gunther): he does for Gunther the dirty jobs which, although necessary, have to remain concealed from the public gaze - Unsere Ehre heisst Treue. We find this stance, a kind of mirror-reversal of the Beautiful Soul which refuses to dirty its hands, at its purest in the Rightist admiration for the heroes who are ready to do the necessary dirty job: it is easy to do a noble thing for one's country, up to sacrificing one's life for it - it is much more difficult to commit a CRIME for one's country when it is needed... Hitler knew very well how to play this double game apropos the holocaust, using Himmler as his Hagen. In the speech to the SS leaders in Posen on October 4 1943, Himmler spoke quite openly about the mass killing of the Jews as "a glorious page in our history, and one that has never been written and never can be written," explicitly including the killing of women and children: "I did not regard myself as justified in exterminating the men - that is to say, to kill them or have them killed - and to allow the avengers in the shape of children to grow up for our sons and grandchildren. The difficult decision had to be taken to have this people disappear from the earth."

This is Hagen's Treue brought to extreme - however, was the paradoxical price for Wagner's negative portrayal of Hagen not his Judifizierung? A lot of historicist work was done recently trying to bring out the contextual »true meaning« of the Wagnerian figures and topics: the pale Hagen is really a masturbating Jew; Amfortas' wound is really syphillis... The idea is that Wagner is mobilizing historical codes known to everyone in his epoch: when a person stumbles, sings in cracking high tones, makes nervous gestures, etc., everyone knew this is a Jew, so Mime from Siegfried is a caricature of a Jew; the fear of syphillis as the illness in the groin one gets from having intercourse with an impure woman was an obsession in the second half of the 19th century, so it was clear to everyone that Amfortas really contracted syphillis from Kundry... Marc Weiner developed the most perspicuous version of this decoding by focusing on the micro-texture of Wagner's musical dramas - manner of singing, gestures, smells - it is at this level of what Deleuze would have called pre-subjective affects that anti-Semitism is operative in Wagner's operas, even if Jews are not explicitly mentioned: in the way Beckmesser sings, in the way Mime complains...

However, the first problem here is that, even if accurate, such insights do not contribute much to a pertinent understanding of the work in question. One often hears that, in order to understand a work of art, one needs to know its historical context. Against this historicist commonplace, one should affirm that too much of a historical context can blur the proper contact with a work of art - in order to properly grasp, say, Parsifal, one should ABSTRACT from such historical trivia, one should DECONTEXTUALIZE the work, tear it out from the context in which it was originally embedded. Even more, it is, rather, the work of art itself which provides a context enabling us to properly understand a given historical situation. If, today, someone were to visit Serbia, the direct contact with raw data there would leave him confused. If, however, he were to read a couple of literary works and see a couple of representative movies, they would definitely provide the context that would enable him to locate the raw data of his experience. There is thus an unexpected truth in the old cynical wisdom from the Stalinist Soviet Union: "he lies as an eye-witness!"

What further complicates the issue is the ambiguity of Wagner's depicting. Let us return to the most convincing case: Mime as the caricature of a ghetto-Jew - but was Wagner not also critical of Siegfried's cruel treatment of Mime? There is effectively in Wagner's Siegfried an unconstrained "innocent" aggressivity, an urge to directly pass to the act and just squash what gets on your nerves - as in Siegfrid's words to Mime in the Act I of Siegfried:

seh'ich dich stehn, gangeln und gehn,
knicken und nicken,
mit den Augen zwicken,
beim Genick moecht'ich den Nicker packen,
den Garaus geben dem garst'gen Zwicker!.

Is this not the most elementary disgust, repulsion felt by the ego when confronted with the intruding foreign body? One can easily imagine a neo-Nazi skinhead uttering the same words in the face of a worn-out Turkish Gastarbeiter...

And, finally, one should not forget that, in the Ring, the source of all evil is not Alberich's fatal choice in the first scene of Rhinegold: long before this event took place, Wotan broke the natural balance, succumbing to the lure of power, giving preference to power over love - he tore out and destroyed the World-Tree, making out of it his spear on which he inscribed the runes fixating the laws of his rule, plus he pluck out one of his eyes in order to gain insight into inner truth. Evil thus does not come from the Outside - the insight of Wotan's tragic monologue with Brunhilde in the Act II of Walkure is that the power of Alberich and the prospect of the end of the world is ultimately Wotan's own guilt, the result of his ethical fiasco - in Hegelese, external opposition is the effect of inner contradiction. No wonder, then, that Wotan is called the "White Alb" in contrast to the "Black Alb" Alberich - if anything, Wotan's choice was ethically worse than Alberich's: Alberich longed for love and only turned towards power after being brutally mocked and turned down by the Rhinemaidens, while Wotan turned to power after fully enjoying the fruits of love and getting tired of them. One should also bear in mind that, after his moral fiasco in Walkure, Wotan turns into "Wanderer" - a figure of the Wandering Jew like already the first great Wagnerian hero, the Flying Dutchman, this "Ahasver des Ozeans."

And the same goes for Parsifal which is not about an elitist circle of the pure-blooded threatened by external contamination (copulation by the Jewess Kundry). There are two complications to this image: first, Klingsor, the evil magician and Kundry's Master, is himself an ex-Grail knight, he comes from within; second point, if one reads the text really close, one cannot avoid the conclusion that the true source of evil, the primordial imbalance which derailed the Grail community, resides at its very center - it is Titurel's excessive fixation of enjoying the Grail which is at the origins of the misfortune. The true figure of Evil is Titurel, this obscene père-jouisseur. (Perhaps comparable to giant worm-like members of the Space Guild from Frank Herbert's Dune, whose bodies are disgustingly distorted because of their excessive consumption of the "spice").

This, then, undermines the anti-Semitic perspective according to which the disturbance always ultimately comes from outside, in the guise of a foreign body which throws out of joining the balance of the social organism: for Wagner, the external intruder (Alberich) is just a secondary repetition, externalization, of an absolutely immanent inconsistency/antagonism (of Wotan). With reference to Brecht's famous "What is the robbery of a bank compared to the founding of a new bank?", one is tempted to say: "What is a poor Jew's stealing of the gold compared to the violence of the Aryan's (Wotan's) grounding of the rule of Law?" Flimm was right to focus his staging on this political drama of power: this is what accounts for Wagner's continuous actuality.

So where do we stand with this actuality? When one approaches the Festspielhaus during intermissions, the first impression, of course, is that of a scene from a Fellini film: aseptic old men in dark dresses silently roaming around, accompanied by ladies with too much make-up, a true dance of the vampires, a reunion of living dead playing high society... Is, however, this the entire truth? Or was Boulez right when, back in the 1960s, in one of his memorable anarchic-avantgarde outbursts, he said that all opera houses should be bombed - except Bayreuth.

The fact remains that the Bayreuth stagings (or, rather, the stagings of Wagner in general) provide the most accurate registration of our global spiritual and political preoccupations. Recall the Parsifals of the last decades: everything was there, from ecological concerns to New Age spirituality, from space-technology to political revolutions and youth rebellions... More generally, do the great shifts in Wagner stagings not condense the triad of Traditionalism-Modernism-Postmodernism? Before the World War II, traditional settings of the Ring predominated: naturalistic background of wild rocks and trees, Viking-like heroes... Then, in 1950, there occurred the New Bayreuth explosion of radical modernism: ascetic, pseudo Ancient Greek tunics, empty stages with strong lights and just some minimal simple object with runes here and there. In the 1960, Wagner stagings were at the frontline of postmodernism in all its versions: the inconsistent mixture of heterogeneous styles and settings (Rhine daughters as prostitutes, the conflict between Siegfried and Hagen as a conflict between SA and SS, Walhalla's executive offices...), the changes in the narrative (Isolde stays at home and Tristan dies alone, the Dutchman is Senta's hysterical hallucination...).

In this way, Bayreuth - and Wagner's work itself - is more and more emerging as an insurpassable canon, comparable only to Greek tragedies and Shakespeare: not a foundation with a fixed meaning, but the permanent frame of reference which calls for new and new stagings, which has to be fed by them in order to remain alive. It is through a new staging of Wagner that we make it clear to ourselves where do we stand, in the most radical existential sense, and the power of Wagner's opus is precisely that it survives new and new interpretations.

Imagine - my private dream - a Parsifal taking place in a modern megalopolis, with Klingsor as an impotent pimp running a whorehouse; he uses Kundry to seduce members of the Grail circle, a rival drug gang. Grail is run by the wounded Amfortas whose father Titurel is in a constant delirium induced by too much drugs; Amfortas is under a terrible pressure from the members of his gang to perform the ritual, i.e., deliver the daily portion of drugs to them. Parsifal is a young inexperienced son of a single homeless mother in search of drugs, and he "feels the pain" and rejects Kundry's advances while she is performing fellatio on him... Such experiments, of course, are risky, they often ridiculously misfire - however, not always, and there is no way to tell it in advance, so one has to take the risk.

Bayreuth, which was proclaimed dead, dismissed as outdated, at its very conception, is today more alive than the majority of those who organized its funerals. Again and again, it reemerges as the Mecca of European cultural fundamentalists - the site of their hadj, sacred pilgrimage - you have to do it at least once in lifetime if you want your soul saved. And the core of this fundamentalists is no longer composed by hard-core conservatives: as an American critic recently remarked, Wagner's Ring was in the last years almost kidnapped by Leftist Jewish directors - in a weird case of poetic justice, you have to go to the American West (to Seattle) in order to enjoy the "authentic" Teutonic Ring...

There was, in the last months, after the public letters from Jurgen Habermas, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty, and other philosophers, a lot of talk about the revival of the core European values as an antidote to the Americanized New World Order. If there is a cultural event in which, today, this European tradition condenses and embodies itself, it is Bayreuth - so, to paraphrase Max Horkheimer, those who do not want to talk about Bayreuth should also keep silent about Europe.


to be continued...

Slavoj Zizek's Bibliography

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