- Wagner at 200
The anniversaries of the births and deaths of major cultural figures have always been of great importance to the collective self-understanding of the German people. "Wir Deutschen feiern in Goethe eigentlich unsere Verklärung und Glorifikation," so the poet's literary executor Friedrich Wilhelm Riemer noted in his diary as early as 1833, and the "Goethe years" of 1899, 1932 and 1949 each in their own way gave truth to this assertion.1 Schiller, too, has had his share of noteworthy anniversaries (in 1859, 1905, and 1955, among others) as has Beethoven (1870, 1927). More recent anniversaries, such as Goethe's 250th birthday in 1999, have not been subjected to quite the same degree of nationalist cathexis, but still provide welcome occasions for the hand-wringing self-examination of an imperiled Bildungsbürgertum in the pages of Der Spiegel or the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
And then there's the case of Richard Wagner, born in Leipzig on May 22, 1813. [End Page 661] Wagner anniversaries represent limit cases that probe the meaning of other bourgeois-humanist jubilee years. For one thing, every year in a sense is a Wagner year, as "the Master" himself ensured when he founded the Bayreuth Festival. Whether the recent productions mounted in Bayreuth really represent the pinnacle of performative and interpretive art is admittedly an open question. But nobody will dispute that the Festival itself is a singularly effective tool for furthering the Wagnerian brand. Nor, given its unofficial role as a red carpet for politicians during the dog days of summer, is it difficult to see the intricate connection between the destiny of this brand and that of the German nation as a whole.
Mainly, however, Wagner anniversaries represent limit cases of bourgeois humanism because Wagner himself remains such a polarizing figure. The aesthetic controversies that surrounded the composer during his lifetime and caused some to dismiss him as the purveyor of mere noise or of vastly inflated banalities ("Monsieur Wagner a de beaux moments, mais de mauvais quart d'heures," as Rossini quipped) have long subsided, of course.2 Wagner now is to modern music what Flaubert is to modern literature or Manet to modern painting. But the controversies surrounding the undeniable antisemitism of his theoretical writings and the alleged antisemitism of his musical compositions remain, as do the debates about the genealogical relationship between his aesthetics and fascist spectacle, between "total work of art" and totalitarianism. What, exactly, do we thus celebrate when we celebrate Wagner?
This is a question that one might reasonably ask of all seven of the works under review here since—with the lone exception of Alain Badiou's Five Lessons on Wagner—their publication was timed in order to capitalize on the composer's bicentenary. It is a question that most of them studiously avoid, however. Tellingly, only the volume by Jens Malte Fischer contains the word Wirkung in its title, even though the "impact" or "continued relevance" of a historical figure surely is foremost at stake in any commemorative celebration. The other volumes speak instead of Wagner's "world," his "time," or his "century," as if this world and time did not have a significant overlap with our own.
Perhaps, however, this assessment is unfair. There...