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I Saw The World End

Posted by acdtest on December 19, 2003

I Saw The World End

or the past couple weeks I’ve been immersed in Deryck Cooke’s I Saw The World End, an unfinished study (Cooke’s untimely death in 1976 prevented its completion) of Wagner’s great tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen. (The title of the book is taken from the closing line of an ultimately rejected closing scene of Götterdämmerung.) The book was first published in 1979, and my coming to it so late is the consequence of my ordinary practice of never reading any analysis of an artwork until I’ve worked things out for myself to the fullest I’m able. Only then can I be certain that my ideas were formed by a study of the artwork itself, and not by sources after the fact and external to it.

And a good thing I followed my ordinary procedure in this case as Cooke, an incisive and perceptive Wagner scholar and first-rate musicologist, is almost irresistibly persuasive. In this volume — which volume deals only with the texts of the first two music-dramas of the Ring (Das Rheingold and Die Walküre), Cooke’s death preventing analysis of the texts of the remaining two, the planned but not-started second volume to have dealt with the music — Cooke examines the sources consulted by Wagner in his construction of the drama of the tetralogy, and demonstrates through informed conjecture, and truly encyclopedic scholarly research, how Wagner condensed, altered, conflated, and shaped the wealth of mostly mythological material at his disposal into the cosmic drama that is the Ring, and in the process created a new mythology of his own invention (that last contention mine, not Cooke’s). What is to me astonishing, however, is Cooke’s absolutely categorical conclusion from his researches that

The central reality [Das Rheingold] is concerned with…is the social and political history of mankind.

and that Das Rheingold,

…was intended as, and stands as, an allegory of the social and political world we live in…; and is nothing else.

That idea, of course, is nothing new. Wagner himself, in his first prose sketches for Das Rheingold, was much of the same mind (his thinking was altered radically by the time he came to write the first music for the Ring). And George Bernard Shaw, in his tendentious, witty, but ultimately silly reading of the Ring — the thinly veiled socialist tract, The Perfect Wagnerite — came to pretty much the same conclusion.

Can Das Rheingold be interpreted at that level? It can indeed. As Cooke himself says, “[O]ne can in fact interpret [Das Rheingold] as symbolizing practically anything one likes….” But an interpretation at that level is a relatively trivial and earthbound one, and the music — in Wagnerian music-drama, that in which resides the essential core of the drama — argues against such an interpretation being anything more than trivial; little more than an interesting aside, if you will.

Anyone proposing seriously to put forward such an interpretation of Das Rheingold‘s “central reality” has to contend with two extraordinary episodes in the music-drama that give substantive lie to such an interpretation: the orchestral prelude to Das Rheingold, and the “tremendous, breathtaking surprise,” of the “most unexpected of all the unexpected events in the Ring,” as Cooke put it: the mystical and foreboding rising in Scene 4 of Das Rheingold of she who “know[s] whatever was, whatever is, whatever shall be”; the primordial earth-goddess, Erda.

Erda rises to warn Wotan, in ominous words and to compellingly ominous music to match, to give up Alberich’s ring (which Wotan has just stolen from the hapless Nibelung), and flee the curse placed upon it (by Alberich).

Why would Erda, the very incarnation of Nature itself — in the Ring, the controlling power of the world — rise to involve herself in the affairs of gods and men if what was concerned was merely their social and political machinations and development, both of which are exclusively the quotidian concerns of gods and men? The clear answer is: she wouldn’t. The very idea is thoroughly absurd. It’s something far more dire that provokes Erda into making her extraordinary and (presumably) never before made appearance to the gods. Alberich, as a condition for being empowered to forge the rheingold into the ring of unlimited power, was required to transgress Nature’s most sacred and fundamental law by foreswearing and cursing love forever. That cursing and foreswearing is the Ring‘s Original Sin, and that primal sin is reified and made palpable in the ring Alberich has forged. Were the corrupt and evil power entailed by its forging permitted to pass into the world, the world’s end would be the ineluctable consequence, and it’s this that has provoked Erda to make her extraordinary appearance.

Hear me! Hear me! Hear me!
All that is shall come to an end.
A dark day dawns for the gods.
I charge you: Shun the ring!

And then there’s the extraordinary prelude to Das Rheingold, with its clear intimations of First Creation, and its establishing of the vast, cosmic time scale not only of Das Rheingold, but of the entire tetralogy. Why a prelude so cosmically portentous to a drama whose “central reality” is concerned merely with the essentially quotidian and earthbound “social and political history of mankind”? Again, the very idea is thoroughly and patently absurd as Wagner himself discovered before setting pen to paper to write the prelude to Das Rheingold, the first music written for the Ring.

One cannot help but conclude that Cooke, by his extensive researches into the biographical background of, and sources for, the Ring, has been led astray by that which is extrinsic to the artwork itself. I’ve here and elsewhere more than once declared that all authentic works of art, and most particularly those works of art which are the products of authentic genius, are totally self-contained entities, and require nothing extrinsic to themselves to be understood fully, all that’s required for such understanding being contained within the artworks themselves. Cooke, it would seem — even Cooke, who I know knew better — was overcome by the intoxication of his own formidable researches and scholarly bent, and so permitted the merely extrinsic to distort his vision of the one, the only, thing that matters: the completed artwork itself.

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