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Wagner Bicentennial Symposium  
Wagner’s Place in the Germanic Tradition
Part 6: Das Rheingold & Die Walküre

Arthur Rackam - Die Gotterdammerung__sqs [1]2,707 words

Part 6 of 8

Das Rheingold

When the events of Das Rheingold begin, the Wotan-Loge relationship is already well-established, and the primeval crimes described earlier are long past. However, the opera begins with yet another crime against nature: Alberich’s theft of the Rhinegold. This opening scene is tied to the very end of the ring: the conflagration set in motion by Brünnhilde expiates the “original sin” of Alberich’s theft (and of Wotan’s actions), and Wagner links the two scenes musically. As I shall discuss more fully later on, we are thus left with the sense of a return to the beginning, of cycles continuing without end.

But let us now consider just who Alberich is. He represents, in fact, the darker aspect of man’s emergence from nature and quest to control her. Alberich seeks wealth and crude, lawless power. Further, he is motivated in large measure by envy and resentment. He envies the power, carefree lives, and beauty of the gods. And he resents the Rhine daughters for their rejection of him. He is an ugly, misshapen, unwanted creature. And when he renounces love, it is really life that he is renouncing. Alberich sets himself against life, and seeks to despoil and degrade all that is better than he. (It is clear that Wagner taught Nietzsche a thing or two about ressentiment.) Whereas Wotan (in a good mood) seeks to transform otherness according to his ideals, Alberich seeks essentially to annihilate it.

In The Art-Work of the Future, Wagner writes about the “absolute egoist,” who is surely represented by Alberich: “The terrible thing about the absolute egoist is that he sees in other human beings nothing but the natural means of his own existence, and – even if in a quite particular, barbaric-cultivated way – consumes them, like the fruits and animals of nature, and thus will not give, but only take.”[1]

But why must Alberich renounce love in order to acquire the power of the ring? Cooke argues that it is because wielding that power will require slave labor, and so he who would have it must renounce love for humanity. But surely what is also involved is really the renunciation of love of nature itself – of being, really. The attitude of love, whether it is love for one person, or for humanity, or for nature, involves a kind of openness to what is other.

But the power Alberich seeks really entails a total aggrandizement of the self, and a closing off to otherness.[2] This “closing off” takes the form of destroying or corrupting what is other. (It is obvious, though, that the standpoint of Wotan has the potential to shade off into that of Alberich, seeking to manipulate or destroy all that which does not conform to one’s ideals – and so in Die Walküre we do indeed find Wotan confessing that he has come to be tempted by the “dark side.”)

In addition to this psychological (or metaphysical) dynamic, there is, of course, a political dimension to what Wagner is saying. And there is a theory of history here as well. For Wagner, the rise of Alberich represents a shift in modern power relations. In historical terms, Wotan represents rule by the aristocracy, who, once upon a time, were men of adventure, daring, and curiosity. This was rule by the noble, according to laws, contracts, and a code of honor.

Alberich, on the other hand, represents the rise of the capitalist middle class, who were moved in no small measure by resentment against the aristocracy, and a lust for the external trappings of aristocratic life, without the underlying honor and nobility they served to signify. While the rule of the aristocracy might have been, at times, despotic, the middle class sought to put in its place an even more debased system, one ruled entirely by greed and power lust (devoid of any conception of noblesse oblige).

George Bernard Shaw, in his classic essay on Wagner’s Ring, describes Alberich quite well: “It is just as if some poor, rough, vulgar, coarse fellow were to offer to take part in aristocratic society, and be snubbed into the knowledge that only as a millionaire could he ever hope to bring that society to his feet and buy himself a beautiful and refined wife. His choice is forced on him.”[3] Anarchist-socialist though he may have been, it is quite clear that Wagner is much more sympathetic to the aristocracy than he is to the middle class. In The Art-Work of the Future, he blames the decline of art on its passing from the control of the aristocracy to that of the middle class philistine, “the most heartless and cowardly creation of our civilization.”[4]

Over and over again in the libretto of the Ring, Wagner describes Alberich as motivated by envy. And it is clear that wealth is merely a means to power for Alberich – a means, really, to exact his revenge upon life. When Wotan and Loge encounter Alberich in Nibelheim, the dwarf berates the two gods: “You who live, laugh and love up there in the breath of gentle breezes: in my golden grasp I’ll capture all you gods! As love has been forsworn by me, so all that lives shall also forswear it: lured by gold, you’ll lust after gold alone!”[5] Basically, he sees the gods as time-wasting, life-loving aristocrats. His is the voice of middle class greed, and of the “Protestant work ethic.”

Of course, if we return to my claim that Wotan specifically represents Western man, then Alberich takes on a whole new significance. (And so does Wagner’s contrast, which I shall come to in a moment between “Light Alberich” and “Dark Alberich.”) In this case, Wotan clearly represents European man conceived as árya, as noble: he dwells in the hyperborean regions, pursues knowledge, is “dauntless” and thumotic, is concerned with honor and the rule of law, etc. By contrast, Alberich, Mime, and the Nibelungen minions are dark, squat, consumed by envy and greed, dishonorable, and conniving. Understood in “racialist” terms (and critics of Wagner often read him this way), the threat posed by Alberich represents not the ascendency of the middle class, but the “rising tide of color.”

Reading Alberich either with this interpretation in mind, or the more conventional one about the rise of the middle class, it is important to note that it is Wotan himself who paves the way for Alberich. Over time, Wotan’s rule loses its legitimacy, as he connives and cheats and makes false promises. Wotan’s rule is also inherently harmful – and is so from the very beginning, when he rips the branch from the ash tree, thereby setting in motion the death of the natural world itself. The stifling nature of his laws is embodied by Fricka, who uses them to force Wotan into destroying his beloved Siegmund, as revenge against Siegmund’s “transgression” with Sieglinde. (And as Cooke points out, Fricka is “symbolically barren,” because Wotan’s laws are barren.[6])

The response to Wotan’s rule comes in two waves. First there is Alberich, who seeks power through wealth, not through boldness or though knowledge. And after him comes Siegfried, the innocent who would wipe away the old order. But although it is clear that Wagner sympathizes with Wotan, in fact he treats Wotan and Alberich as two sides of the same coin. This is because Wagner viewed the exercise of power as such to be inimical to life.

And so in the Ring, Wagner has Wotan refer to himself as “Light Alberich,” and to Alberich as “Dark Alberich.” This immediately calls to mind the distinction in the Scandinavian materials between the “light elves” and “dark elves.” Wagner seems to be assimilating Wotan and the gods to the upper, “light world” here. But the more obvious significance is to emphasize that both Wotan and Alberich are inflections of the same principle, the lust for power and control; Alberich is just a darker, perverted version of it. But even the “light” version is inherently pernicious, according to Wagner. (One can see that at the heart of Nietzsche’s rebellion against Wagner was his belief that the “will to power,” as exhibited by Wotan could be noble; Wagner errs in not seeing that Alberich’s power lust is something qualitatively different: the twisted, hate-filled power lust of the misshapen slave type.)

Cooke makes a number of perceptive comparisons between Wotan and Alberich.[7] Both are out to gain power by exploiting nature, and both encounter (and despoil) nature while it is under the guard of three “wise-women” (the Norns, the Rhine daughters). The contrasts, of course, are just as interesting. Whereas Wotan originally sought knowledge, Alberich sought only power. The former’s quest is satisfied, whereas the latter’s is not. Alberich gave up love in order to attain power; Wotan gave up an eye to gain the knowledge that would lead to power. And as Cooke puts it, this left him “blind to the claims of love.”[8] However, Wotan’s power was bound by his laws, whereas Alberich seeks unconditional power, motivated by envy and a desire for revenge.

Over time, however, Wotan becomes more like Alberich, tiring of love and seeking power for its own sake. He tells Brünnhilde in Act Two of Die Walküre, “When youthful love’s delights had faded, I longed in my heart for power.”[9] Wotan’s willingness in Das Rheingold to risk the loss of the beautiful Freia is indicative of his loss of interest in love. And once he has attained the ring from Alberich he is almost seduced by it: “Now I hold that which exalts me, the mightiest lord of the mighty!” And later (to Fafner): “Brazenly ask for whatever you want, everything will I grant you; but not for the world shall I give up the ring!”[10] When Erda appears and counsels Wotan to give up the ring, she does not warn that its possession will literally bring about the end of the gods. In effect, she advises him not to allow the ring to corrupt him in this, the final phase of his existence.

In the end, although Wotan clearly envies the unbridled power the ring confers on Alberich, he cannot do as the dwarf does and give up love entirely. His love for Brünnhilde, in fact, is what paves the way for her union with Siegfried (when he accedes to her wish to be surrounded by the ring of fire). And this in turn leads to the loss of his own power. In his final hours – as Waltraute informs us – Wotan pines for Brünnhilde, as his army of the dead heaps the remains of the world ash around Walhalla, to prepare for his own immolation. In the end, Wotan regains his sight, and allows love to win out over power.

Die Walküre

Initially, of course, Wotan schemes to win the ring, siring the race of the Wälsung. His plan is that Siegmund will be a “free hero” unbound by any of the agreements Wotan has made. In his “Sketch” Wagner also refers to Siegmund as a “free will” – implying that Wotan is fundamentally unfree. The truth is the god is not all powerful. He rules only by means of the agreements and the laws he has made, and he is honor-bound to uphold them. But Wotan’s plot displays his blindness yet again. There are forces at work in the coming of the Wälsung that Wotan himself does not control.

For example, why does Wotan beget twins? He only needs Siegmund, after all. And yet Sieglinde is produced as well. These two are fated to meet in adulthood, and to produce Siegfried. But Wotan does not know this, and he is not the one who has fated it to be so. Wotan is not only not omniscient, he is physically vulnerable as well, as Siegmund’s description of life with his father “Wolfe” indicates: “Outlawed the old man fled with me, deep in the wildwood.”[11] Wotan is not fully in control of the situation, and does not entirely forsee the consequences of his actions. In fact, his scheme to gain the ring actually becomes a means to the end of the gods – who cannot be saved.

It is in Die Walküre that Wotan comes to realize his own lack of consciousness. And the first to help him confront himself is Fricka, he forces Wotan to recognize that Siegmund is not a “free will” at all: Wotan has manipulated him every step of the way. But the most significant agent of Wotan’s self-understanding is Brünnhilde. She is, of course, Wotan’s child with Erda, who had counselled him at the conclusion of Das Rheingold, and from whom he had ardently sought to learn more. In Act Three of Siegfried, Erda will tell Wotan “You are not what you say you are!”[12] But it is chiefly through Brünnhilde that Erda instructs Wotan; she is a means by which he can attain true knowledge – not of the world, but of himself. Again and again it is women who reveal Wotan to himself.

It is to Brünnhilde that he speaks the following: “To my loathing I find only ever myself in all that I encompass! That other self for which I yearn, that other self I never see; for the free man has to fashion himself – serfs are all I can shape!”[13] When he speaks these words in Die Walküre, Wotan does not yet know that that free man will be Siegfried, who will fashion himself as he does the sword Nothung. And he does not know that Siegfried – together with Brünnhilde – will bring about his own destruction. Yet he yearns for this, telling Brünnhilde in the same conversation, “Let all I raised now fall in ruins! My work I abandon; one thing alone do I want: the end – the end.”[14]

Recall that Wotan also confessed to Brünnhilde that he had begun to lose interest in love, and to yearn instead or power. It is Brünnhilde that reawakens Wotan’s capacity for love, however. First, when she disobeys Wotan, acting out of love for Siegmund, she forces Wotan to confront his own love for the hero and to understand that she only acted according to his heart’s own true desire. As Cooke points out, it is only through Siegmund’s love for Sieglinde – so movingly expressed in his refusal to enter Walhalla without her – that Siegmund becomes truly independent of Wotan.[15] In both Brünnhilde and Siegmund, therefore, it is love that threatens Wotan’s carefully-laid plans. But, of course, Wotan is moved by his love for Brünnhilde and grants her request to be encircled by a fire that only the greatest of all heroes can pass through. Here Wotan sets the stage for the triumph of love itself – the union of Brünnhilde and Siegfried.

“Love” was, indeed, the original “message” of the Ring, and Wagner’s solution to our modern problems. When I first heard this, I was terribly disappointed, and for a long time I thought there was nothing in Wagner for me except the music. The ideas seemed half-baked and vaguely Lefty. I think this is one of the reasons so many who are interested in the Germanic tradition have shied away from Wagner, and seen him as a distorter. This “love is the answer” stuff has never had any appeal for me. But, as I will argue shortly, there’s much more to it in Wagner than meets the eye, and it is not quite as “mushy” as one would think. (And, of course, it must be reiterated that Wagner abandoned this “love is the answer” message – though love is still held up in the Ring as a kind of supreme ideal.)


[1] Quoted in Cooke, 261.

[2] Alberich represents what I termed “Will” in my essay “Knowing the Gods” (note that my use of “Will” is not to be confused with Schopenhauer’s). See Collin Cleary, Summoning the Gods (San Francisco: Counter-Currents Publishing, 2011).

[3] Quoted in Cooke, 269.

[4] Quoted in George S. Williamson, The Longing for Myth in Germany (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 202.

[5] Spencer, 96.

[6] Cooke, 152.

[7] See Cooke, 148-49.

[8] Cooke, 159.

[9] Spencer, 149.

[10] Spencer, 105; 111.

[11] Spencer, 127.

[12] Spencer, 257.

[13] Spencer, 152.

[14] Spencer, 153.

[15] Cooke, 306.