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Siegfried

27 December 2017

In the third of my Christmas posts, sadly, I have to descend into the politics of the ring-cycle.


The association of Wagner with the most evil man of the 20th century is problematic. It is asinine to dismiss it with a ‘he liked dogs too, that doesn’t make dog lovers evil’ for two reasons, firstly Wagner himself was disgustingly anti-semitic, secondly the ring cycle served as an inspiration – if that is the right word – from which some truly horrendous conclusions were reached. Both of which facts are at odds with the fundamental profundity and humanity of the four operas themselves. As I say, it is problematic.

Wagner’s personal politics are the subject of much controversy. He wrote most of the ring cycle when in exile for his participation in anti-government uprisings in 1849. George Bernard Shaw - and others – have claimed him to be a socialist revolutionary. I’ve never fully accepted that. The underlying messages of Parsifal and Die Meistersinger are traditional, conservative and could only have been written by a card carrying member of the Christian Democrat Party.

But just as Wagner’s political views are difficult to define, so too are those of Germany as an entity.

 A Christmas party game: rank countries according to their inherent political inclinations. No matter that they have a party called ‘centre left’ and one called ‘centre right’, every country recalibrates the definition of centre ground according to their own proclivities.  When it comes to economic policies a Scandinavia party of the centre right is to the left of the American Democrats. 

Where does Germany rank? I genuinely don’t know.

On a superficial level this of course matters deeply to next year in the markets. At the time of writing Germany is still in a post-election political impasse. The result of which will be key to Europe’s political leadership in 2018. But other far better qualified than I have said enough on this topic and it breaches one of my personal rules never to comment on the politics of another country.

Siegfried, as a political character is ambiguous perhaps because he is unaware of his own identity. He is able to kill the dragon Fafner (previously a giant, always an allegory of capitalism. Do try to keep up) and humiliate Wotan (his own grandfather) because he doesn’t know who he is or understand what his own role in the world should be, except perhaps at the very end of the opera.

Awareness of identity is key in politics. My favourite political poll of the year asked Germans if Germany should be doing more to help Greece address it’s debt problems. Before asking that question they asked half of the people ‘do you consider yourself lucky to have been born German?’. The other half they asked ‘are German people harder working than Greek people?’. Needless to say the first group – given the idea that national identity is a matter of luck, were overwhelmingly more sympathetic to Greece than the second group. 

It is political opinions such as these that will determine not just the willingness of Germany to be sympathetic to Greece but other, fundamental questions such as a willingness to pool deposit insurance and allow fiscal transfers cross border.

Siegfried’s putative but ambiguous socialist politics was vital to Shaw’s interpretation of the Ring. But it was failed by what happened next.

By Richard Kemmish

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