Thursday, June 12, 2008

It Will Do

The conversation had begun innocently enough, expressing a mutual disdain for the band of old Germans on the stage in the basement of the kneipe (Berliner terminology for a pub/café) which hosts the weekly Goethe-Institut stammtisch (an actually-existing German phenomenon wherein people meet at the “same table” at the same bar on a regular basis for drinks and conversation, or general merry-making (the best of example of a stammtisch that I can recommend is in Fassbinder’s The Man of the Four Seasons)) playing shitty Dixie-Land jazz music—there’s no piano player this week but they’ve added a trombone, which is about the worst exchange possible, I think (I would rank only, perhaps, a soprano saxophone suddenly appearing (it didn’t) as worse (not that I dislike trombone, or even jazz trombone, so much as I dislike shitty German ersatz-Dixie-Land trombone))—but suddenly I find myself talking to a Spanish woman (reasonably well-known to me (my living in Miami but not speaking a drop of Spanish had been a topic of relative popularity with the Spanish-speaking students here at the Institut for the first couple weeks of class, so I was thereby introduced to many of the Spanish-speaking students as word of my locally-dissonant lack of knowledge got around (this is, though, my explanation, not theirs (that is, that may be fiction, above (within the parentheses only))))) about Wagner.

And my usual, half-assed “Wagner is problematic.” answer isn’t good enough. And “Wagner sucks.” isn’t even an option. This woman seems something of an expert, though, for lack of a better way to put this, she’s something of a Wagner apologist, of the “Wagner wasn’t really an anti-semite, as such; he was just trying to get his music played” sort. This conversation is taking place, at least at first, mostly in German-as-a-foreign-language with splashes of English (though by the end that balance had reversed itself (its hair parted on the other side, as it were)), and I find myself trying to decide how best to say “You can’t explain away Wagner’s anti-semitism that easily.” auf Deutsch. Weg erklären? Entklären? Verklären? (It turns out that “verklären” means ‘to transfigure,’ which is interesting, but not what I was looking for.)

The basic sticking point of the discussion was whether or not Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerke can be interpreted in a de-politicized context. My answer being “No, it can’t.” Though my friend (I suppose, after having such a conversation with an acquaintance, one might go ahead an upgrade the known-status to ‘friendship’) was of the opinion that you can. That Wagner was only political when he was young, and that his usage of mythologies was related to expressing his personal ideas, which just happened to be very Germano-centric (what’s the right term for that?), and had nothing to do with telling people what to think. And that, most importantly, Wagner was not personally responsible for anything that came after him, so we shouldn’t let the fucked-up-mess of post-Wagnerian Germany influence our interpretation of his (works of total) art. Which I disagree with, but didn’t really argue well against (it not really being in my nature to argue with people that I’m not already friends with (since, again, you can’t claim an acquaintance as friend until after a conversation such as this is finished)).

Though it’s not really important to settle these sorts of matters. Both of us will still most certainly go see Rattle conduct the Philharmoniker’s concert performance of the first act of Siegfried tomorrow, whether or not Wagner was really just another mensch. It’s interesting, though, to meet someone with this kind of attitude towards the man, since I don’t think I’ve ever encountered it before. Nobody’s minds were changed, but as my friend pointed out once we were done talking, it is nice to hear other people’s perspectives on the same things, since they can be so wildly different. And, similarly to the conversation which this post is a record of, this post is now fizzling out and leaving me with a lingering sense of disappointment in myself.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

All 'this makes me wonder whether Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's work is highly considered, or considered at all in Germany, or on the continent by people our age. His Parsifal, but, certainly Hitler - ein Film aus Deutschland [it's US title is 'Our Hitler') directly confronts the Wagner/German problematic through its own materials, adding only one element missing from the original - critical self-awareness.
It's a shame you're going to see the first act of Siegfried, though, if it were Die Walküre, you guys could have just kept your conversation to the topic of incest, with only occasional references to antisemitism and xenophobia.


6/12/2008 11:47 AM  
Blogger Pete said...

I'll blog about the concert itself soon enough, but I must admit to ducking further conversation with my friend about Wagner there-during, limiting it to a more absolute "Wow isn't that band amazing?" "Yes that band is amazing." kind of convo.

I don't know how well known Syderberg is - but I figure I'll just start stopping passers-by and asking them. There IS, however, a lot of talk going on in terms of how the current generation appraises/is going to appraise their Nazi past, so I reckon Syderberg'd be a useful require reading (as it were).

6/16/2008 2:43 PM  

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