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Archive for August, 2002

Concerning Meaning In Great Art

Posted by acdtest on August 19, 2002

Concerning Meaning In Great Art

he following extended quote has been excerpted from a discussion on a Wagner list on Usenet. The author is Derrick Everett.

A large part of what I read, here and elsewhere, about Wagner and his works concerns the meaning of the Wagner dramas, i.e. the meaning of each of the musico-dramatic art-works that Wagner created. The question that I should like to consider today is this: what do we mean by “the meaning of the drama”?

I am proposing a simple framework for discussing the meaning of the dramas. […] At present it consists of four categories of meaning, which can be placed in chronological order and described as follows:

A. Wagner’s initial conception, his original poetic intent
B. The semantic content of the final poem *
C. Wagner’s reflections after completion of the poem
D. Public reception of the performed drama

(* By the final poem I mean one that was complete as a poem, ignoring any changes of word order, replacement of words or deletion of lines during composition of the score. In practise this means either the poem that was first published, if not earlier then later, in “Gesammelte Schriften undDichtungen”.)

I find that the greater part of what has been written about the Wagner dramas during the last half-century is entirely concerned with their C-meanings, rather than with the A or B meanings that are in my view far more important.


…in general my thinking about the meaning of the dramas has been, and continues to be, a quest for the A- and B-meanings. In this process I believe that it is important to guard against being misled by the C-meanings, as most authors writing about Wagner’s dramas in recent decades have been. With few exceptions I believe that any interpretation of any of the dramas based on C-meanings is guaranteed to be “wrong” in the sense that it misses the A- and B-meanings.

It remains to consider the D-meanings; the subjective meanings formed by individual members of the audience. There are an infinite number of such meanings. Each audience member has the right to their own interpretation — to find the meanings in a work such as “Tannhäuser” or “Parsifal” that are relevant to their own lives. […] We should not delude ourselves, however, into believing that these personal meanings are intrinsic to the art-work; if our meaning and Wagner’s meaning coincide (except where the “author’s message” is clearly stated in the text or music) then it is more likely to be the result of coincidence than insight. In the final analysis, the paradox of Wagner is that a man who so desperately wanted his work to be understood has failed to communicate what he really meant.

My response was as follows.

My answer to that thoughtful commentary is that I partially agree. The authority for the “C-meanings” are indeed the ones relied on by most writers, and those meanings are the least reliable of all. Worse, they’re often purposeful or calculated distortions concocted by Wagner to comport with whatever new thing, or rethink of an old thing, happened to be occupying his always theory-constructing brain at the moment. Even at best (i.e., those rare occasions when he was being innocent and honest about things) his after-the-fact reading of meaning is no more or no less authoritative than is any other intellectually and dramatically competent reading. Once a work of genius leaves its creator’s hands it assumes a life of its own, and is as much a mystery to its creator as it is to any informed receiver.

Where I disagree is with the assertion that the “A-” and “B-meanings” are more important. I would argue that both A- and B-meanings are of no importance whatsoever — in fact are as misleading as “C-meanings” (but for different reasons) — except as matters of strictly historical and biographical interest. As regards the A-meaning, Wagner’s “original poetic intent” is of importance to Wagner alone as no other can even begin to understand how his mind “processed” that material during the period of the creative act. One may get intimations and hints of that processing, but such are a product of the mind of the one to whom the intimations and hints make themselves known, and have little or nothing to do with what actually went on in Wagner’s mind, which, it ought to be manifest, was sui generis.

As to the B-meaning, much (but not nearly as much) the same applies. Wagner’s texts are one thing. Wagner’s music married organically to those texts make them something else again, and something quite different and often unexpected. Were Wagner a music-dramatist of ordinary gift — or even of ordinary genius, if I may risk such an oxymoron — that would not be so. When Verdi, for instance, puts music to his libretti, the meanings residing in the texts stay precisely the same as before the music was added. The same could be said for every other composer of opera, excepting, of course, the Divine Wolfgang who’s music, like Wagner’s, transforms textual meaning, although not nearly to the same degree as in the case of Wagner.

It’s the hallmark of all genuinely great art that there’s no such thing as a meaning, as was noted. It’s always meanings, and those always self-generating, and not knowable in their totality even to the creator of the work. And so it turns out that the step-child, so to speak, “D-meaning” is, in the last analysis, the only reliable one, and different for each, or groups of each, also as was noted. Such may be intellectually uncomfortable, especially for scholars, but then, that’s what genuinely great art is all about, isn’t it. It subverts the intellect in order to adduce its greater if at times enigmatic truth, and thereby enriches all who are open, and respond, to the manifold and often contradictory and ambiguous things it has to tell us.


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