Monday, February 25, 2013

Lyric Opera's "Die Meistersinger": Wagner, Hitler, and the Nightwatchman State

The most striking phrase coined by Leo Strauss is reductio ad Hitlerum.  In National Right and History, Strauss argues that Max Weber's teaching about values leads to nihilism.  Just as he begins to make this argument, Strauss observes:
". . . In following this movement toward its end we shall inevitably reach a point beyond which the scene is darkened by the shadow of Hitler.  Unfortunately, it does not go without saying that in our examination we must avoid the fallacy  that in the last decades has frequently been used as a substitute for the reductio ad absurdum: the reductio ad Hitlerum.  A view is not refuted by the fact that it happens to have been shared by Hitler." (42-43)
 As Will Altman has noted, Strauss never again mentions Hitler in the book, which leaves the reader wondering where exactly in the book "the scene is darkened by the shadow of Hitler."  We might also wonder, as Altman suggests, why Strauss doesn't identify this fallacy as a noble fallacy.  After all, why isn't it good that our scorn for Hitler is so deep that we assume that a view is refuted by the fact that it happens to have been shared by Hitler?

I thought about that Saturday night while attending a performance of Richard Wagner's opera Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.  This was Hitler's favorite opera, and it was often performed in the Third Reich with Nazi sponsorship.  Consequently, many people have been disturbed by the thought that this opera promotes the anti-Semitism, the German nationalism, and the nihilism that led to Hitler's movement.

Of course, a similar reductio ad Hitlerum has been used to criticize Charles Darwin and Friedrich Nietzsche.  Just as Wagner provided Hitler his music, it is said, Darwin provided him his science, and Nietzsche provided him his philosophy.  And thus Wagner, Darwin, and Nietzsche are all refuted by their connection to Hitler.  Even if this is a fallacy, it is surely reasonable to question any view of the world that supports such evil.

As I have argued on this blog, there is nothing in Darwin's writing that leads directly to Hitler.  In fact, as far as I know, Hitler never even mentioned Darwin's name, although he did use some of the phrases associated with Darwin.  Even when Richard Weikart argues that there is a history of movement "from Darwin to Hitler," he must admit that there really is no clear connection between Darwin's writings and Hitler.

By comparison, Hitler's connection to Nietzsche and Wagner seems much clearer.  Even so, as I have been arguing on this blog, the Nietzsche of Human, All Too Human provides no encouragement to Hitler and the Nazis.  And Wagner's Die Meistersinger is his one opera that presents a view of the world similar to that of Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human.  Neither of these two works support the anti-Semitism, the fanatical nationalism, or the nihilism of Hitler and the Nazis.

It's significant that just as Die Meistersinger is generally the least popular of Wagner's operas among the Wagnerites, Human, All Too Human is generally the least popular of Nietzsche's books among the Nietzscheans.  My view is just the opposite--that Die Meistersinger is Wagner's best opera, and Human, All Too Human is Nietzsche's best book.  It all depends on whether you prefer explosive frenzy, as the Nietzscheans and Wagnerites do, or sensible moderation, as I do.

Die Meistersinger was first performed in 1868.  Of the ten operas of Wagner's mature work, this is the only comedy and the only opera not based on myth.  The story of the opera is set in sixteenth-century Nuremberg.  The guild of Mastersingers in Nuremberg preserves a proud tradition of German singing governed by rigorous rules.  On Midsummer's Day (St. John's Day), they will conduct a song contest.  The contest is sponsored by Veit Pogner (a wealthy silversmith), and he offers as a prize for the winner marriage to his beautiful daughter Eva.  Eva is free to reject the winner if she chooses, but whoever she marries must be a Mastersinger.  Walther von Stolzing is a young man who has recently arrived in town, and he and Eva have quickly fallen in love.  So Walther must win the contest if he and Eva are to marry.  The problem is that although he can sing beautiful love songs in a passionate style, Walther does not know--and does not appreciate--the complex rules for singing enforced by the Mastersingers.  To win the contest, he will need to follow the wise instruction of Hans Sachs, an older man who is equally skilled in making shoes and mastersinging, and who is the most respected man in town.  In fact, Hans Sachs really did exist as a famous poet and singer in sixteenth-century Nuremberg.  (For the Lyric Opera performances, the role of Sachs has been sung by James Morris, one of the greatest Wagnerian singers of our time.) 

Walther's primary challenger in the contest is Sixtus Beckmesser, an older Mastersinger who wants to marry Eva.  While Beckmesser has mastered the rules of mastersinging, his pedantic stiffness lacks the intuitive insight and youthful passion of Walther's singing. 

Although Sachs does teach Walther the art of mastersinging, while helping him compose the song that will win the contest for him, Sach feels some conflict about this.  Sachs has helped to rear Eva from the time that she was an infant.  And now that she is grown up, he has developed romantic feelings for her, which she reciprocates.  Sachs is a widower whose wife and children have all died.  Marrying Eva would give him both a wife and a child at the same time.  After some struggle with himself, Sachs decides that the marriage of Eva to Walther would be best for everyone, and that he must restrain his longings for Eva in serving the greater good of his community through her marriage.

There are at least three features of the opera that have been seen as points of contact with Hitler's Nazism.  First, Beckmesser has been said to be an ugly anti-Semitic depiction of a Jew who earns a humiliating defeat in his German town.  Second, the opera ends with a speech by Sachs warning that German art needs to be defended from Germany's enemies, which sounds like the German nationalistic rhetoric that favored the rise of Nazism.  The third point brings up the deepest philosophical issue of the opera:  Sachs muses darkly about how all of life is ruled by delusion and madness, for which there is no cure except using the noble delusion of art to redeem human beings from the ugly truth that all that seems real to us is only illusion.  This looking into the nothingness of the world seems to be the nihilism that Strauss saw as primary source of Nazism as a product of the Third Wave of Modernity.

On the first point, it's clear that the anti-Semitic remarks by Wagner in his prose writings provided plenty of material for the Nazis.  For this reason, many people have looked for anti-Semitism in Wagner's operas.  But if one were unaware of what Wagner had said in his prose writings, one would not see any clear evidence of anti-Semitism in his operas.  Particularly, in Die Meistersinger, Beckmesser is never identified as a Jew.  Furthermore, even though he is depicted as ridiculously foolish--the sort of fool we expect to find in a comedy--he also elicits some sympathy from us, and he is a respected and honored member of his community.

Similarly, while one can easily find some anti-Semitism in some of Nietzsche's writings, especially in his attacks on the Jewish sources of "slave morality," Human, All Too Human and other writings of his middle period contain passages where he praises the Jews for what they have contributed to the evolution of culture.  Examples of this would be section 475 of Human, All Too Human and section 205 of Dawn. 

The second point--the reference to Germany and its enemies in Sach's final speech--is a more serious problem for the defender of Die Meistersinger.

After Walther has won the singing contest, Pogner offers him a golden chain with three medals.  Walther refuses the chain, because he is still bitter about the earlier rejection of his singing by the Mastersingers.  Sachs grabs him by the hand and exhorts him to respect the Masters for what they do in preserving their art.  Sachs then warns:
"Take heed!  Ill times now threaten all; and if the German folk [Volk] and Reich should fall, and foreigners should rule our land, no king his folk would understand, and foreign rule and foreign ways would darken all our German ways; what's German and true could not abide were't not for German Masters' pride!  I beg of you: honor your German Masters, and thus you will ban disasters!  And if you have their work at heart, though the Holy German Reich fell, there still will remain the holy German art!"
Walther then accepts the golden chain.  The Masters pay homage to Sachs with upraised hands, and all join the people of the town in singing praise for Sach: "Heil Sachs!  Hans Sachs!  Heil Nuremberg's poet Sachs!"

This opera premiered in 1868, just two years before the Franco-Prussian War, at a time when a war between France and Prussia was widely expected.  So this final speech by Sachs could easily have been interpreted as an exhortation to German militaristic nationalism.  Similarly, when Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy announced in 1872 a rebirth of tragedy in Germany through Wagner's music, this appeared to be a clear reference to the Prussian victory over France and the proclamation of the Second German Reich. 

At one point in his revising of the libretto, Wagner struck out this final speech by Sachs.  But then he was persuaded by his wife Cosima to restore it.  So Wagner had his doubts about whether this ending to the opera was appropriate.

In any case, one should see that Wagner's patriotism here is more cultural than political, and not at all militaristic.  After all, it's clear in the opera that art is more important for preserving the German nation than is military or political power.

Furthermore, what one sees in Die Meistersinger is a depiction of a self-governing bourgeois city that is organized primarily through the institutions of civil society--family, church, and voluntary associations.  The only sign of governmental force is the minimal power of Nuremberg's night-watchman.  When a violent riot breaks out at the end of Act 2, the crowd disperses when the night-watchman walks through on his rounds.

It was in 1862, only six years before the premier of Die Meistersinger, that the German socialist Ferdinand Lasalle ridiculed the classical liberals for advocating "the night-watchman state"--the idea that government should be limited to punishing violence and fraud to protect property, liberty, and peace.  Some of the proponents of classical liberalism have actually embraced the phrase "night-watchman state" as a good label for their position.  In his book Liberalism (3rd edition, 1985), Ludwig von Mises observed: "it is difficult to see why the night-watchman state should be any more ridiculous or worse than the state that concerns itself with the preparation of sauerkraut, with the manufacture of trouser buttons, or with the publication of newspapers" (37).

In a liberal regime, the cultivation of the arts and of cultural life generally comes from the natural and voluntary associations of a free society that requires only limited governmental intervention.  That's the case in Hans Sach's Nuremberg.

In the same way, Nietzsche in Human, All Too Human endorses a largely liberal view of society and government in which "higher culture" and the excellence of "higher men" is fostered by the freedom of civil society.  Culture is largely free from political regimentation, and culture is more important than politics.  According to Nietzsche, "the state is a prudent institution for protecting individuals from one another," but any ennobling of the state into a "perfect state" tends to bring a dangerous suppression of the individual (HH, 235). 

Just as is the case in Sach's Nuremberg, Nietzsche presents the majority of people as devoted to the ordinary concerns of life, and they display little human excellence, but a few people with higher aspirations and talents can develop their moral and intellectual virtues through the self-regulating order of civil society.

Much of the appeal of National Socialism came from the claim that liberalism is degrading in its bourgeois mediocrity and thus cannot cultivate the heroic human excellence that goes beyond the base materialism of the "Last Man."

Wagner's Die Meistersinger and Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human deny this claim by showing how a free society can foster the full range of human virtue, from the low to the high, including the virtuous cultural activities of art, science, and philosophy.

I will take up the third point about the connection of Meistersinger to Nazism--the apparent nihilism of Sachs--in my next post.

One of the best performances of Die Meistersinger--in 2001 at the Metropolitan Opera with James Morris as Sachs--can be seen as an online video at the "Met on Demand" website.  There's a free seven-day trial that allows immediate access.  You need to be well rested before you watch this opera.  If you take two 30-minute intermissions, the opera will take five and a half hours! 

I recommend watching it with a good bottle of pinot noir.  My wife and I had two bottles over dinner before the opera and snacks during the intermissions at the Pederson Room at the Lyric Opera House.  A very civilized evening indeed.

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