In defence of Wagner’s Israeli enthusiasts

Imagine a history rewritten: would it be a victory for the Nazis if they were forced to live side by side with the Jews they most vehemently disliked? Of course it wouldn’t be, and though it upsets and astounds me that today I have to share oxygen with people who hold views so unpalatable it makes me wince, part of my support for multiculturalism is heightened in the knowledge that we live in a society where to be law abiding means respecting people of cultures and sharing experiences together; and there is not a thing racists of any colour can do about it.

I think about this today, as I see news of outrage that an Israeli orchestra should be able to play a festival in Bayreuth, Southern Germany, dedicated to the music of Wagner.

The great granddaughter of Wagner, Katharina, who was to visit Israel to formally invite the orchestra, will now have to cancel her visit – which she said was an opportunity to “heal wounds”.

According to a report in The Guardian, Holocaust survivor groups are saying “it was inexplicable that the orchestra would break a decades’ old unofficial boycott to perform music by Hitler’s favourite composer, who also held antisemitic views”.

Furthermore, Israeli historian and Holocaust survivor Noah Klieger, on the topic of the boycott, told the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle: “It’s a sentimental ban. As long as some of us are still alive, people should refrain from imposing Wagner on us.”

Far be it for me to disagree with holocaust survivors; so I’ll quote from two of our most loved media figures: Stephen Fry and Slavoj Zizek.

Fry recently gave a question and answer session at the Wagner Society following the showing of his film Wagner and Me where he said: “You can’t allow the perverted views of pseudo-intellectual Nazis to define how the world should look at Wagner. He’s bigger than that, and we’re not going to give them the credit, the joy of stealing him from us.”

My point about the Nazis living side by side with the Jews relates very closely to Fry’s point; that Hitler appreciated Wagner should not stop Jews from appreciating Wagner too – and certainly not at the order of certain Israelis – as this only serves to divide those able to enjoy good art. But further still, as Wagner was an anti-Semite himself, nothing should please us more that orchestral representatives of the Jewish state make steps to end the taboo which allows Nazis to define how the world looks at Wagner.

In a piece called Why is Wagner worth saving? Zizek vents his criticism on what he calls the “historicist commonplace” that says “in order to understand a work of art, one needs to know its historical context”. To this end, Zizek notes “too much of a historical context can blur the proper contact with a work of art”.

Zizek claims that there is the temptation when listening to Wagner to imagine that every sub-text is anti-Semitic, but, using the examples of Parsifal and the Ring, tries to prove this isn’t always correct. In the Ring according to Zizek, it is not Alberich’s renunciation of love for power that is the source of all evil, but rather Wotan’s disruption of the natural balance, “succumbing to the lure of power, giving preference to power over love”, which spells doom, meaning also that evil does not come from the outside, but is complicit with Wotan’s own guilt. With Parsifal, the elitist circle of the pure-blooded is not jeopardised by external contaminators such as copulation by the Jewess Kundry, but rather from inside; “it is Titurel’s excessive fixation of enjoying the Grail which is at the origins of the misfortune”.

The point being is Wagner “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 joint the balance of the social organism”.

The overarching thesis of Zizek is that the anti-Semitic sub-text is not always appropriate when engaging with Wagner, and if this art is separate from the evil of the early twentieth century, then there is reason to save Wagner.

The Wagner boycott is one example of denying the world a great artist, and allowing the Nazis a small victory. The point is Wagner can, and must, be enjoyed by anyone who wishes to, regardless of race, if not for the reason that he would’ve disliked this himself.

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