This is a guest blog by Dan Leeson, a member of the Humanities-Net discussion group “The History of Antisemitism.” What follows is his case against Wagner. My own view is that works of art should be constantly historicized and interrogated, but not censored. If Leeson’s analysis is correct, then the obvious question for us today, is what accounts for Wagner’s attraction to barbarian myths? Why was there a significan medieval revival in 19th century European high culture, and not just in Germany? What are the implications of neo-medievalism for today’s political culture in the West? How should scholars write program notes for performances of Wagner’s operas? Would anyone publish them, were they fully to engage with the folkloric stereotypes that Leeson lists?
What follows is Dan Leeson’s argument against the generally favorable article on the German performance of Hacking Wagner.
[Leeson:] In the link: http://www.timesofisrael.com/hacking-richard-wagner/ the argument is made (over and over again) that the reason behind those who insist on a permanent and perpetual ban on Wagner’s music in Israel is directly related to Wagner’s vicious antisemitism.
Not so, and very seriously not so. There have been other composers who held negative views on Jews and no one is calling for the same fate as that proposed for Wagner. So what is so special about Wagner?
The point that Wagner lovers (and I used to be one) fail to see is that in Wagner’s case the operas themselves (though not all of them, but certainly the Ring, Meistersinger, and Flying Dutchman, at a minimum) are nothing less than anti-Semitic theater; i.e., when one sees those operas, one is watching a medieval antisemitic play with music.
For example, the characteristics exhibited in Beckmesser in Meistersinger generally pass unnoticed by contemporary audiences, mostly because our generation has little experience with and hardly any memory of coded nineteenth century antisemitism. The heritage of the Shoah has gone far to desensitize us to all but the most naked, uncamouflaged, and flagrant antisemitic actions. Our sensitivity to how the German world saw Jews at the time of the premiere of Meistersinger has become clouded, unfamiliar, and distorted by time, which makes it difficult for the contemporary world to recognize the subtle characteristics of coded antisemitism.
For example, we no longer remember the Grimm fairy tale, “The Jew in the Thornbush,” which appeared in 1815 though derived from a story dating from 1618. Theodore Adorno (1903-1969), a German-born Protestant intellectual, sociologist, philosopher, musicologist, and composer (of Jewish descent) claimed that Wagner identified the character of Beckmesser with the Jew in the Thorn-Bush, though his assertion is disputed. It is interesting to note that those who quarrel with Adorno’s contention have neither experience in the details of pre-20th century antisemitism or exposure to antisemitic theater.
In the case of The Ring, the personalities of the drama fall into two groups having opposite characteristics. One such group is the “Volk,” roughly translated as “the race” or “the nation,” but not “the common people.” The other is the “outsider” who differs from the Volk in many specifics.
Wagner assigns various characteristics to the good Volk, and then displays the opposite attributes as being present in the evil outsiders. One such characteristic is that the Volk walk in a poised and confident manner while the outsider staggers and stumbles. This stage device is derived from the medieval superstition that Jews had goat’s feet. In the middle ages, the billy goat was presented as a symbol of satanic lechery and the devil’s most usual disguise. The Jews, believed to be Satan’s minions, were also accused of having the same attribute. That the Jew’s feet were shod in public was interpreted as using the cloak of civilization to disguise his corruption. This acceptance of Jewish deviltry gave rise to the concept that the Jewish foot could not function at a normal gait; i.e., the Jew stumbled and staggered. In The Ring, the gnomes walk in this fashion while the Volk are surefooted, a characteristic also seen in the stumbling of Beckmesser as contrasted with the graceful dancing of the townspeople in Meistersinger.
In Sander Gilman’s, The Jew’s Body (1991), further significance is given to the Jew’s feet. They became a source of disease and the pace at which Jews walked was perceived as a sign of their affliction. The seventeenth century Orientalist, John Schudt, commented that the crooked feet of the Jews made them physically inferior and, ultimately, the general belief about the Jew’s feet influenced liberal efforts to include them in the modern state. This is particularly true with respect to serving in the military where it was believed that Jews would be worthless as soldiers. In Austria, for example, weak feet were said to be the main reason why Jews inducted into the military were subsequently detached.
Another example of a characteristic with hidden antisemitic meaning is that of vocal patterns. Wagner’s formulation of a large-scale male and female voice, for example, the “heroic tenor”, is used for the Volk whereas the outsiders sing in distinguishing non-Volkish ways. The gnomes in The Ring have high and piercing voices, the same coded message for the confusion between castration and circumcision as found in Meistersinger, as well as a related claim connecting circumcision with effeminacy in the Jewish male. Thus the Volk sing with heroic qualities while the outsider screams in a high-pitched voice.
Going beyond the visual and acoustic, Wagner employs the allegory of smell to evoke images of character. Sulphurous fumes and the noxious stenches that emanate from the outsider often accompany them. The central theme of this coded idea is especially despicable because it is derived from the belief of the “Jewish stench,” or “foetor Judaicus.” The assertion that the Jew has a distinctive and unpleasant odor is a particularly grave accusation, first because of the origin alleged to be the stench’s cause, and second because of the several ways Jews were said to act in order to eliminate it. Common belief during the middle ages associated good spirits with emitting a pleasant fragrance while evil spirits, particularly Satan and his minions, gave forth an obnoxious stench.
For example, when the coffin of St. Stephen, the protomartyr, was opened, his body was said to have filled the air with a sweet fragrance that insinuated the odor of sanctity. In the case of the Jews, the stink was said to be a punishment for their alleged crimes, which included accusations of host desecration and deicide. (A personal comment here. My retirement community has several Austrian survivors of the Holocaust. One Viennese expatriate told me that his mother and grandmother would never cook with garlic and when asked why, they refused to discuss it.)
The Jews were said to have two ways to eliminate the smell, one of which involved murder and cannibalism; i.e., it was said that Jews killed Christian children to obtain their blood for ritual purposes, one of which was said to occur during the Passover Seder. It was alleged that Jews consumed cups of this blood as an alleviate for the Jewish stench. The other choice was acceptance of baptism. A direct quote from the time states that “the water of baptism carried off the Jews’ odor” and that this left them with a fragrance “sweeter than that of ambrosia floating upon the heads touched by the sanctified oil.” This accusation went beyond those expressed in the extreme anti-Jewish rhetoric of Martin Luther, causing him to say, “So long as we use violence and slander, saying that [the Jews] use the blood of Christians to get rid of their stench…, what can we expect of them?”
Another discriminatory feature used by Wagner is that of vision. Poor eyesight is a class attribute that was never applied to anyone but Jews. The medieval view was that Jews were blind to Christianity, that the synagogue was veiled, etc. Statues of a blindfolded woman, an allegory representing “the synagogue defeated,” still decorate churches in Europe. One stands today in an alcove on the exterior of Strasbourg’s cathedral, and postcards of it may be purchased at nearby shops. This notion eventually was concretized as weak eyes, which, among other things, caused squinting and blinking, characteristics that are found in the outsider.
Wagner carried the idea of good vision of the Volk to a higher dimension in suggesting that they recognize each other by glance alone, and they can “see” the outsider as being different.
Finally, in The Ring, Wagner gives coded messages about the dangers of race mixing. The character Hagen, who has a gnome father but a Volkish mother, bears no good maternal characteristics. Instead he retains the depraved character of his father, namely that of a liar, usurper, and villainous murderer. But his racially pure counterpart, Siegfried, the product of an incestuous twin brother-sister relationship, is an idealized hero who is handsome, honest, virtuous, and brave, and whose most significant flaw is that he is too trusting of strangers.
In effect, those who think the ban on Wagner to be entirely derived from Jewish reaction to his personal antisemitism are blinded to the presence of the medieval antisemitic characteristics of (1) stumbling and staggering, (2) vocal patterns, (3) sight, (4) smell, and (5) race mixing. By being ignorant of and insensitive to these elements in the Wagner operas, they focus their attention away from the central issue, namely that Wagner’s Jew hatred is made part and parcel of his operas. [End, Leeson remarks]
[Clare:] Note that “the Flying Dutchman” is widely considered to be a variant of the Wandering Jew myth. That character should be better known as a figure of the artist, like Pierrot, alienated from his culture. In the case of Wagner, his own writings accuse Jewry of infesting the modern world. In one recent documentary on Wagner’s life, I recall Alberich’s theme from Das Rheingold as a recurrent motif. On Alberich and gold, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alberich. For more on the Wandering Jew myth see https://clarespark.com/2010/11/16/good-jews-bad-jews-and-wandering-jews/.