“Wagner and Aeschylus: the Ring and the Oresteia” by Michael Ewans

[just the first two chapters: I need to listen to the Ring itself before reading the others]

Chapter 1: Wagner and Aeschylus
This is a general introduction to them both, especially, as the book’s intended audience is more musicological than classical, to Aeschylus; from what I know of this Ewans seems to get it right, being well up on 1982 thinking on tragedy (we are post-Taplin, after all). His account of how Wagner’s thought developed is clear and enlightening, but what I found particularly interesting, especially so soon after reading Jenkins’ Re-thinking History, were Wagner’s thoughts about the relationship between history and myth, for example:

Bare history in itself scarcely offers us, and always incompletely, the material for a judgment of the inmost (as it were, the instinctive) motives of the ceaseless struggles of whole peoples and races; that we must seek in religion and saga… [they] are the fruit-bearing products of the community’s manner of insight into the nature of things and men… The gods and heroes of its religion and saga are the concrete personalities in which the spirit of the community portrays its essence to itself; however sharp the individuality of these personages, their content is of the most universal, all-embracing type… (AE 7.266)

This idea, that historical facts cannot convey truth without some sort of mythical input, is a good way perhaps of restating Jenkins’ post-modern relativism in other, more traditionally positive ways: there must be many equally “true” myth-enhanced interpretations of the same historical data. I guess for “myth” read “metanarrative”.

Similarly, in a way, it’s interesting to see how Wagner initiated a new kind of (Romantic) classicism, showing how these ancient texts can inspire completely opposed cultural movements.

What really made me think, however, is Ewans’ criticism of the translation Wagner used (by one Droysen) for making the Oresteia about morality/sin/punishment rather than (as Ewans claims) recompense/balance – this allegedly made the Ring unAeschylean: Ewans’ argument is that modern classical scholarship claims to see behind later ideas of individual responsibility to a value system based on punishment as something which needs to be done to restore balance, regardless of the intentions of moral decisions of the agent. You get this in Homer – several of the characters’ back-stories involve their arriving where they now are as fugitives from somewhere where they “killed a man”: murder or manslaughter (using our distinction) demand the same compensation – death or a suitable payment (cf. Anglo-Saxon wergild), and there’s no suggestion that they are “bad men”. I remember too a discussion of this in ?Colin Burrows’ book on Gawain and the Green Knight, centering on medieval theological debates about moral responsibility, on whether an action committed unwittingly was just as bad as if done on purpose. Bernard Williams too, on “Moral Luck”, addresses the same question: how we see it as naturally right to punish more severely the drunk driver who, through simple bad luck, kills a pedestrian, rather than the one who gets home OK, despite their recklessness being morally identical. And everyone feels that Oedipus is guilty, despite the fact that he made no moral choices either to kill his father or marry his mother (even though the reasons he himself gives in Sophocles’ play for his self-blinding are more to do with his own unwillingness to see his family again than actual moral guilt).

It occurred to me the other day that we do something very similar in our criminal justice system, while thinking that we don’t. There are three claimed reasons for judicial punishment:
Prevention: if you’re locked up you can’t attack anyone else;
Deterrence: if others know you’re locked up for attacking someone they’re less likely to attack someone;
Punishment: if you attack someone you deserve to be locked up.

My thought was that, if we dispense with the third reason, what difference would it make to our judicial practices? None: we act as a society blind to issues of blame (and rightly – it’s very hard to securely assign blame).

Chapter 2: The Oresteia and the creation of the Ring
A fascinating account of Wagner’s thinking and achievement in bringing this amazing artwork into the light, covering how sometimes he follows and sometimes distances himself from Aeschylus’ model. Not always easy to follow if, like me, you’re more or less totally ignorant of the plot of the operas, but certainly an incentive to become less so.

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