Wagnerian feminism

Director Willy Decker makes a plausible case that the eternal  feminine underpins The Ring

“Brünnhilde with her horse”, by Arthur Rackham, 1910

Wagner’s personality was in many ways so monstrous that it requires an imaginative effort to place him among the ranks of the progressives in his attitude to women. How can a composer often lazily decried as a proto-Nazi deserve to be seen as an early feminist? The director Willy Decker, whose 2001 production of The Ring cycle has just been re-presented at the Semper Opera House in Dresden, thinks that such an argument can be made. The outstanding feature of this revival was the authoritative performance of the score given by Christian Thielemann and the Dresden Staatskapelle; but high praise is also due to a series of thought-provoking essays in the programmes written by the director, which deserve wider exposure to an English-speaking audience.

For Decker, all that comes into existence at the beginning of the tetralogy and is destroyed at its conclusion is bookended by the natural sounds — womb-like vibrations and undulating rhythms — of the eternal feminine. Into this gentle inertia there irrupts the male principle as the expression of the will to power — through Alberich’s theft of the Rheingold (and, as Decker might also have mentioned, by his alter ego the “Licht-alberich” Wotan’s despoliation of the world ash tree) — with violent and ultimately apocalyptic consequences. There is nothing radical in Wagner having envisaged an aboriginal female mystery: the idea is derived from (though older than) Greek mythology and had been previously expressed in German literature in the “Mütter” of Faust Part 2. Decker, however, takes it a stage further: for him the whole cosmos is the earth goddess Erda’s dream. During the prelude of Das Rheingold, when consciousness dawns and subject and object are for the first time separated, she draws open the curtain before our eyes. Although Wagner’s libretto makes clear that her knowledge will come to fail her, at the end of Götterdämmerung it is she who (as Decker sees it) bears the new, redeemed earth of which the music sings, so that her dream may begin once more. 

In his essays, Decker does not equivocate, though fortunately the production itself is more ambiguous: for him, the purity of the feminine and the guilt of the masculine are a Grundthema in The Ring, as in much of Wagner’s work. The cycle thus portrays the bitter struggle between the two principles of contrasting gender; it is man’s persistent aggression towards woman that hurls them both into catastrophe. Women are typically no more than commodified victims: Freia, for example, is exploited by her fellow gods, Sieglinde by her husband, Gutrune by her brothers. (Decker gives us an implausible but satisfying expression of girl power near the end by having Gutrune kill Hagen, as a payback for his previous incestuous attentions.) It is persistent male transgression which sickens the world.

True as some of this is, any theory of The Ring has to make sense of its three principal characters: Wotan, Brünnhilde and Siegfried, who are all imagined by Wagner in the grandest possible terms. It could never be right to reduce Wotan to the role of a participant in a game of sexual politics, on however large a scale. This supreme figure has many other facets: he is for example a monarch who rages Lear-like against a half-willed loss of power, and a father who grieves at the necessity of abandoning his beloved (male) child Siegmund. These noble and tragic aspects of his nature largely fall outside Decker’s conception, although his novel direction of Siegfried’s funeral music in Götterdämmerung as specifically Wotan’s outsized grieving for his murdered grandson is moving and convincing.

Decker also carries his point too far at the end of Die Walküre, when Wotan punishes Brünnhilde for her disobedience in championing Siegmund in the fight against Hunding. Decker sees this as exemplifying female resistance to male dominance, and her enclosure in a ring of fire as symbolic of man’s rejection of female influence. (He has then to characterise Siegfried’s subsequent awakening of Brünnhilde in Siegfried as a form of charade — the mere appearance of the rehabilitation of the female. But the music tells another story; there is no artifice here.)

A more profound and rewarding interpretation of the scenes between Brünnhilde and Wotan would start from the latter’s search for a free hero as an aspect of the insoluble burden borne by the godhead who has acquired his legitimacy by an original act of force, but who is now bound to uphold the law he himself has made. How in these circumstances can he engender a hero who will do what he may not, namely to take the ring from its owner and return it to the Rhine, and thus beyond the power of Alberich’s malice? Of course it is not without significance (and of enormous poetic heft) that when he expresses his entanglement, and the impossibility of finding a free agent, he does so by confiding in the favourite daughter who, as yet unbeknownst to him, will be that hero. Tolkien, whose deep response to Wagner’s work (despite his own denials) has been exhaustively traced by Dr Jamie McGregor, inverts this irony in The Return of the King when the Lord of the Nazgûl boasts to the brave combatant before him on Pelennor Fields: “No living man may hinder me,” to which his adversary replies, “But no living man am I! You look upon a woman.” It is the warrior-rider Eowyn, who has come to war in male disguise. The supreme emotion in the final scene of Walküre derives, as Robert Donington points out, from the hitherto opposed wills of father and daughter becoming united, as Wotan realises at last that the protective encirclement of flame for which Brünnhilde pleads as a condition of her punishment is actually the fulfilment of his own subconscious desire to bring together his cherished daughter and the fearless scion of the Wälsung race who will awaken her, so that together they will execute the god’s project to safeguard the world.

The Ring is a work of pessimism, and Wotan’s hopes founder, but there is something much larger at stake here than simple gender opposition. As Decker himself points out, it is Wagner’s great theme that the divine cannot withstand exposure to the everyday; the gods and their progeny must perish. In the same way as the twin children of Wotan are destroyed by their contact with Hunding’s quotidian values in Act 1 of Die Walküre, so their son Siegfried is brought low by the corruption and superficiality of the Gibichung clan. Problematical as the character of Siegfried is, his tragedy does not arise from any masculine antagonism to the female principle. In his true self, untainted by the potion which clouds his memory, he is loyal both to Brünnhilde and to the love and purity which render him impervious to the power of the ring. It is not as the result of any fault in his nature, let alone his sex, that his love fails. As a result of its having done so, a supreme renunciatory gesture is required; and it is a woman who must perform it.

In according this culminating ritual to the heroine who alone has made the journey from god to human, Wagner is not asserting female superiority in any political sense, nor is he envisaging a return to a specifically feminine state of innocence. He is rather expressing in poetical language the transcendent archetype which takes the form of the redemptive, self-sacrificial woman. This was a recurrent preoccupation in his music dramas, dating back to the 28-year-old composer’s earliest mature opera, Der fliegende Holländer (first performed at the Semperoper in Dresden). The fulfilments which such women attain in Wagner’s work should be seen in their own sacred terms, not as the manifestation of some anterior and, in this context at least, immaterial conflict between the sexes.