Wide Angle

Wagner Was Too Big to Cancel

Alex Ross’s new book makes plain there was never any way to erase him, though that hasn’t stopped us from trying.

A black-and-white image of Wagner at a piano with his face scribbled out by pink ink.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images.

As an undergraduate composition student in the 1990s, I barely encountered Richard Wagner, aside from brief discussions of “the Tristan chord” and some specialized outlier brass instruments. (“Wagner was a brass band man,” said John Philip Sousa.) In his place, we student composers got Berlioz as the innovative orchestrator, and the various 20th century composers who populate New Yorker critic Alex Ross’ acclaimed first book The Rest Is Noise as the radical vanguard. The man Thomas Mann (the other great auteur of German apocalypse) called “the greatest talent in the entire history of art” had—at least at that institution—been effectively, if unofficially, scrubbed from the canon.

The problem of sublime art made by monstrous artists has become a stock concern of social media, marked by a reflexive iconoclasm. The question is hardly new. Before the contemporary era, Wagner was perhaps the most prominent musician to have risen to the level of political relevance and then infamy to warrant legitimate calls for the expungement of his music from public performance. (There remains a taboo on its performance in Israel, though his work remains a repertory staple generally.) Wagner’s emphatic anti-Semitism and the enthusiasm of the most notorious Wagnerite, Adolf Hitler—buttressed by American popular media, which made a trope of the Wagner-loving Nazi—made Wagner, in marketing terms, a toxic brand. In Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, Ross presents a factually overwhelming case for Wagner’s influence—if not the man himself.

Ross has been careful to emphasize that this is a book about Wagnerism, not Wagner, which is a little like talking about Christianity without Jesus: a tricky but illuminating exercise in the protean afterlife of ideas. “Wagnerism” as a term is a moving target: It includes the concepts of leitmotif, Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”), and “endless melody,” as well as an inexorably progressive “fixation on futurity” fused with a quasi-religious spiritual experience. (“Eventually,” writes Ross, “it became a synonym for grandiose, bombastic, overbearing, or simply, very long.”) Politically, Wagnerism became associated with emergent nationalism: “[A]ny community that was in the throes of forming its identity could see itself reflected in some aspect of his stories.” The book is an accounting of the uniquely wide-ranging aesthetic and political influence of a musician on the nonmusicians who were particularly receptive to his message and who would revise, reshape, reinterpret, or misinterpret him to their various ends.

The addictive soul of Wagnerism was its sensuously inspirational appeal, ideally pitched to arouse the unmodulated passions—not just of overeducated and overenthusiastic young men susceptible to macho maximalism, but also of the young women who organized group excursions to Bayreuth and of the queer milieu who used Wagnerism as a kind of identifying code. As Ross writes, Wagner’s “blend of revolution and reaction,” paganism and Christianity, utopian egalitarianism and authoritarian ego, made him an ideal cult figure, on whom could be projected virtually any ideological schema. Theosophists, Satanists, Symbolists, Bolsheviks, absolutists, nationalists—all found something to like in Wagner. In addition to the queer Wagnerites (the composer himself “pursued an ideal of androgyny,” and his taste for voluptuous pink silk and satin prompted public mockery), Ross identifies feminist Wagnerites, Black Wagnerites (including W.E.B. Du Bois, who made a pilgrimage to Nazi Bayreuth in 1936), even Jewish Wagnerites (notably Herzl, who listened to Wagner while writing The Jewish State). Opposition to Wagner further underscored his importance: “[T]he ritual of going up against Wagner … recurs in the annals of Wagnerism,” beginning with the revolt of his original intellectual propagandist, Nietzsche. Even as futurists and Dadaists “laid siege to a Wagnerian culture, they worked from a Wagnerian script” of “artistic harangues in an apocalyptic register.”

The book recalls the radicalism of the younger Wagner, the 1848er revolutionary who ranted about acts of “artistic terrorism,” invoking the potency of his combination of the evocation of a mythic past with a critique of industrial capitalism. His rapid institutionalization into the “oppressive nationalist kitsch” of the German imperial regime, “his unstoppable march from the fringe to the center,” made him a target for his successors, even as, on some level, it served as both inspiration and cautionary tale—“the greatest extant demonstration of a successful avant-garde.” For many early-20th-century modernists, a passion for Wagner was “a kind of larval stage,” a necessary but slightly embarrassing youthful indiscretion to be outgrown. Here, again, his apostate disciple Nietzsche set the template for future Wagnerites. It was once put to me that his appeal is sensual and hedonistic, the objections to him moral and rational—that he is, in other words, the ultimate guilty pleasure.

There can be an expectation, in a work of this size and profile about a controversial figure, of an emphatic judgment—perhaps a contrarian one, but at least one clear and decisive. This, Ross admirably sidesteps: If a heroic figure is tainted, it is not required that he be converted into an equally towering villain. His inconclusive conclusion is unusually but perhaps brilliantly relegated to a compact postlude, after readers’ received notions have been alternately reinforced and undermined but certainly overwhelmed. If his turns out to be, after 700 pages of rigorous scholarship, a “typical case … of passionate ambivalence” with “no clear verdict,” the reader may be forgiven for a feeling of anticlimax. But Ross is making the difficult argument for complexity, and against great-man hero worship generally, decentering the “genius” around whom classical music culture reflexively organizes its ideology in favor of an almost anthropological study of the culture that produced him and that he produced:

In Wagner’s vicinity, the fantasy of artistic autonomy falls to pieces and the cult of genius comes undone. Amid the wreckage, the artist is liberated from the mystification of “great art.” He becomes something more unstable, fragile, and mutable. Incomplete in himself, he requires the most active and critical kind of listening.

For all its authorial caution and scholarly deference, Ross has produced what feels like a deeply personal work. He dedicated 12 years to locating and consuming what appears to be nearly every word written by or about Wagner (and for many of the books summarized, better him than me). Considering its density, Wagnerism is pleasurably readable, even funny. It’s also mercifully parceled into digestible minichapters, pithy summaries and stories from both familiar and musty corners of Wagnerism. Ross finds “traces” of Wagner in Middlemarch, Waldorf schools, Disney iconography, comic-book superheroes, and the fantasies that drove Viennese urban planners and architects of Chicago skyscrapers. Virtually every major cultural figure from Wagner’s time through at least the First World War is explicitly or implicitly in conversation with Wagner: Yeats, Freud, Isadora Duncan, Proust, Woolf, Valéry, Lévi-Strauss, Joseph Campbell, and countless others. The only contemporaries who seemed to be able to resist him were the Russians, from Tolstoy (in some ways a similar figure, who called Siegfried a “stupid puppet show”) to Rimsky-Korsakov (“cacophony and nonsense”).

But if Wagner could stand for the Romantic energy of the 19th century, he was already implicated in its destruction by the First World War: “[T]he great Romantic liturgy of art-religion, enmeshed with mystical nationalism, had abetted the collective madness.” The once-revolutionary Wagner was already inextricable from German militarism at least as early as the Franco-Prussian War. The German World War I plan included a Siegfried Line, a Wotan Line, an Operation Alberich; the analogy between the Valkyries and air warfare “became a cliché almost overnight.” (That Claus von Stauffenberg’s plot to assassinate Hitler was itself called Operation Valkyrie only underscores his ubiquity in German military terminology.) Many on the Weimar left had already rejected him on the grounds of his association with “a national culture that had descended into tribal savagery.”

Wagner was hardly the only 19th-century composer adopted by nationalists (see Verdi), but he was easily the most popular among proto-fascists. To paraphrase a quip about the current American president, he may not have been a fascist and racist, but fascist racists thought he was. It is perhaps not necessary to recap the entangled history of Wagner’s anti-Semitism and Hitler’s Wagnerism, which made Wagner “the chief cultural ornament of the most destructive political regime in history”—suffice to say Wagner (with additional inspiration from American racist policy) was central to Hitler’s narration of his own development. He practically plagiarized passages from Wagner’s catastrophic essay “Jewishness in Music” in Mein Kampf and locates—albeit unreliably—a radicalizing conversion around a viewing of Rienzi. (The “Wagner scene” of arousal, seduction, or epiphany at a Wagner concert was already a trope in fiction.) If, as Walter Benjamin said, fascism was aestheticized politics, Hitler was the ultimate artist-politician, Nazi Germany his grand theatrical work, and his interpretation of Wagner inextricable from its mythology.

Ross does a subtle job of underscoring the complexities of the most sensitive and consequential era of Wagnerism in a diplomatic rebalancing of the record, which he is careful not to oversell. Wagnerism in Decadent Paris was associated with both anti-Semites and Dreyfusards. Wagner was no thoroughgoing bigot: He was notably sympathetic to the Black and Native American experiences. Anecdotes “undermine the notion that Wagner had an immediate radicalizing effect on” Hitler, and the “ethos of hardness” inculcated by the German state was in opposition to “Wagner’s philosophy of compassion. … He served the Nazi state only when he was shorn of his ambiguities, and even then his presence in mainstream Nazi culture was less pronounced than many accounts let on.”

Indeed, it is hard to imagine a later-born Wagner as, for example, a Riefenstahl-esque figure, not least because of the insubordinate ego that inflamed his relations with patrons in his own time. But Wagner’s widow and family certainly accommodated Hitler’s enthusiasm with a minimum of friction. And to point out that there was not as much Wagner played in the camps (rank-and-file Nazis preferred contemporary popular music) and on the soundtrack to Triumph of the Will probably won’t much undermine the caricature of Wagner as “the Muzak of genocide.”

If Wagnerism is a kind of rescue mission—why should Hitler get to “win” possession of Wagner?—the rescue is not just from bigotry but kitsch, and the former is easier to partition off. Wagner’s presence as the acknowledged inspiration of film music has made faux-Wagner itself a cliché, to say nothing of the multivalent uses of the “Ride of the Valkyries” from the triumphant Klan scene in Birth of a Nation through Looney Tunes and Apocalypse Now. The Valkyrie music or the “Wedding March” is as irreversibly entangled with kitsch as the opening of the Beethoven Fifth or the Mona Lisa, and kitsch-ification is a deep wound to the seriousness of “high art.” One can take seriously the question of the political problem of Wagner as a facet of a deeply problematic but undeniably formidable oeuvre, but it’s hard to approach the Ring unironically once you’ve seen Bugs Bunny in a winged helmet and braids.

A game on social media early this fall presented a quadrant of images—actors, albums—under the caption “One’s gotta go.” Aside from enabling the sadistic pleasure of dismissing scraps of outdated pop culture, the diversion was a kind of safe-mode playacting of that other online obsession, cancellation, allowing the player to imagine a world in which, for example, the movies of Tom Cruise or the records of Arcade Fire never existed. There, it seemed to say, that wasn’t so hard: Cultural omnipresence can be simply wished away.

In the wake of a documentary series laying out, in explicit detail, allegations of child abuse against Michael Jackson, Slate music critic Carl Wilson wrote that the idea of “canceling” Jackson and removing his music from distribution seemed inconceivable. Even if one stopped pressing and streaming Thriller, his influence was too pervasive to eradicate or ignore: “There are weeks when half the acts on the Billboard chart sound like they’re doing MJ imitations.”

[A]re some figures too big to cancel? Too consequential to write out of the record, especially when they’re deceased, and beyond any effective sanction? … Pretending to throw [a] foundational performer and songwriter’s work as a whole into the landfill would be an empty rhetorical flourish—if American music matters to you, it’s not a genuine option.

The analogy with Wagner is inexact. Jackson’s sins, disputed but widely accepted, are personal and acute; the most demanding accusations against Wagner are ideological and at multigenerational distance. While Wagner was hardly a figure of Parsifalian personal virtue, his carnal transgressions stopped at adultery and the writing of incest plots. Then again, Jackson isn’t implicated by association in world-historical war crimes. In any case, neither the Jackson estate nor the Wagner industry seems in genuine danger of going out of business.

But Wilson and Ross essentially share an argument about the irreversibility of cultural influence. A world without Wagner is a world without Death in Venice, or Song of the Lark, or The Waste Land, or the works of Nietzsche (at least in the form we got them). Their question is not simply the facile “can we separate the art from the artist,” but can we disentangle the equally indispensable second-order works inspired by and in conversation with that art.

Ross’ commitment to ambiguity, and resistance to reductive social media–style judgment, is bracing: “Wagner’s misogyny, like his racism, can dissipate in the face of an unexplained force that erases distinctions and brings about transcendent unity. This force was music itself—the uncontrollable factor that fools any attempt to sum up what Wagner means, or, indeed, who he was.” It demands of the lay reader an ability to compartmentalize that may be difficult for some to maintain. At times  it may recall an apostate cult member who, while acknowledging the failings of its leader, still insists on the community and healing they found there. And to displace some of the responsibility for the more pernicious manifestations of Wagnerism onto an idea that took “a life independent of its creator” resembles the petitions of medieval rebels who humbly maintain that their real target is not the king but the evil counsellors who have led him astray. Anti-Semitism (fueled by the composer’s envy, resentment, and paranoia) is as baked into Wagner as misogyny is into Nietzsche, and as hard to argue away.

Still, even in a contemporary discourse that often seems allergic to complexity, audiences retain the ability to accommodate unassimilated contradiction. Wagner himself could undercut the cultic worship of the irreplaceable genius that often attached to his person. An early proposal for a festival of his work was to end with the destruction of the theater and the score: “To those who had enjoyed the thing I would then say: ‘Now go do the same!’ ”

Jacques Barzun’s 1941 book Darwin, Marx, Wagner (“One’s gotta go!”) identified a pantheon of contemporaries, each engaged in what Barzun presents as a mechanistic, totalizing project: scientism, state socialism, artistic synthesis. Each has found his afterlife stained by the distortions of some of their followers: Darwinism by “social Darwinism” and eugenics; Marx by Lenin, Mao, and the rest; Wagner by—well, we’ve been over that. Still, both evolution and socialism remain extremely live propositions; Ross’ book and his extraordinary scholarship amply suggest that any anxiety over the survival of Wagnerism as a sensibility and theory of art, independent of its creator, is misplaced as well. If it wasn’t in my student curriculum, it was already baked into the music that was, and ambient in the culture generally.

“[A]s it distorts reality to designate people geniuses—as if that legitimizes everything about them—we should hesitate to call people monsters,” wrote Wilson of Michael Jackson: Either label is dehumanizing. For Nietzsche, as for Ross, it is the very visibility of Wagner’s most appealing and appalling characteristics that makes him modern. It is his instability—which enlists the audience in active and ongoing negotiation and interpretation, changing as we grapple with him at different historical moments—that makes him relevant. The music may be astonishing, the ideas volatile. Which will have the longer and more consequential afterlife? Perhaps more compelling than either, Ross suggests, is the irreconcilability of the problem.