Saturday, 5 November 2016

Book Review: The Ring of Truth by Roger Scruton

The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung
By Roger Scruton. Allen Lane. 416pp. £25. ISBN: 978-0241188552

[From Opera, November 2016, pp. 1484-6]

Over a decade after tackling Tristan und Isolde in his first book devoted to Wagner, Roger Scruton has turned his attention to The Ring. The result is characteristically heartfelt and uncompromising—combative, even—and suffused throughout with a feeling of ideas mulled over and developed over decades. Whether or not it represents the ‘truth’ or merely has the ‘ring of truth’ (it’s unclear whether the author is aware of his title’s ambiguity) will vary according to each reader, but there’s certainly no shortage of wisdom.

There’s also something undeniably appealing and refreshing about Scruton’s robust and unapologetic belief in the work and its composer, in its irresistible power, its status as ‘one of the greatest works of art produced in modern times’, to quote the very first sentence of his introduction. Certain key favourite passages crop up again and again, and you can almost imagine him closing his eyes and slipping back into his armchair to savour them.

Yet I suspect that the armchair, rather than a seat in the theatre, is exactly where Scruton does tend to experience The Ring. Throughout the book he (rightly) berates writers who interpret the work through the words alone; close readings of the music of the cycle plays a central role in many of his chapters. What is notable is the almost total absence of discussion of The Ring as theatre, as drama enacted by singers on a stage.

This he seems quietly to justify by calling upon Wagner’s authority: ‘it is by implanting the principle of musical development in the heart of the drama that Wagner is able to lift the action out of the events portrayed on the stage, and to endow it with a universal, cosmic and religious significance’, he writes early on, adding that: ‘Reflecting on his art in his later years Wagner insisted on this aspect, suggesting that what passes on the stage is nothing but “an act of music made visible”.’ Scruton is not the first subtly to misrepresent Wagner on this point; the composer is actually saying, in something hardly amounting to an aesthetic manifesto, that he sometimes might have felt like describing drama as such.

Scruton’s concern often seems to be to save The Ring from interpretation. He is immediately and loftily dismissive of Bayreuth’s centenary production, ‘when Pierre Boulez sanitized the music, and Patrice Chéreau satirized the text’, seeing it as the source of many a subsequent misdemeanour. ‘Since that groundbreaking venture,’ he goes on, ‘The Ring has been regarded as an opportunity to deconstruct not only Wagner but the whole conception of the human condition that glows so warmly in his music.’ At the end of the same paragraph, he describes writing his book in part so as ‘to enter a plea on behalf of a work that is more travestied than any other in the operatic repertoire’. At no point, however, does he suggest how it should be staged today: are we left to assume he believes Wagner’s scenic requirements as they exist in his librettos are genuinely realizable, or is he simply unconcerned about such practicalities?

This stance also colours his limited engagement with what others have written on The Ring. He dresses up his conservative attitude to the work in theoretical clothes when he argues for its status as symbolic rather than allegorical: individual elements of it have symbolic significance, he writes, but the work’s essential meaning is fixed. Allegorical interpretations from those writing on The Ring are unnaturally imposed, then, and doomed to failure, as are, one is left to infer, any similar directorial interpretations. The sense throughout is that The Ring for Scruton exists in a state of grace, a state of perfection, despite its long gestation, the Tristan-and-Meistersinger-shaped caesura in its creation and the changes in Wagner himself in the quarter-century he took to write it. Scruton’s aim is to explain that, rather than explore any of the fissures other have detected and found fascinating.

This he does impressively, no doubt, although his arguments are not aided by the book’s structure. We start with a fascinating, if heavy-going, 40-page chapter on the intellectual, philosophical background against which Wagner composed his tetralogy, a tour de force in many ways, even if Scruton is not the first not to explain—or acknowledge any contradiction in—why all this would seep into Wagner’s work while his anti-Semitism wouldn’t. Chapter 3, ‘The Story’, is a synopsis, peppered with telling insights and sides, but which nevertheless feels dogged, long and largely superfluous—this is very much a book for Wagner initiates, I feel—at some 90 pages in length. The remaining five chapters would seem to be clearly delineated given their titles: ‘How the music works’, ‘Understanding the Story’, ‘Character and Symbol’, ‘Love and Power’, ‘Siegfried and Other Problems’. There’s a wealth of wisdom and insight to be found in them. Each, however, feels a little unwieldy, the boundaries between them rather too porous, precisely when the reader could do with a little more structure and guidance.

I was concerned, too, by the general lack of engagement with vast swathes of the literature. Reference to Dahlhaus might have helped join the dots between discussions of the way leitmotifs function and the prevalence of narrative throughout the cycle, for example. Additionally, reference to John Deathridge’s chapter on Don Carlos, Götterdämmerung and Walter Benjamin’s Trauerspiel in his Wagner Beyond Good and Evil might well have added something to the discussion of The Ring in terms of allegory and symbol. This selective reading also makes for some Parsifal-like realignment of time: for Scruton ‘recent’ scholarship can mean the early ’80s; elsewhere we read that Hans von Wolzogen’s description of one particular leitmotif ‘has been exploded by Deryck Cooke’, as if this were the latest scholarly development.

Such things might bother those of a more academic persuasion, as will the scant scholarly apparatus: no bibliography, a slightly unsystematic attitude towards the end notes. Others, however, will simply lose themselves in Scruton’s ideas: always forthright and heartfelt, and particularly poignant on the very impossibility of reconciling human idealism with political reality, which, as I read it, he sees as being one of the central themes of Wagner’s cycle. Ultimately, while this book might provoke agreement and disagreement in equal measure, it is undeniably stimulating, and forces the reader to engage with and wonder at The Ring anew. That can only be a good thing.

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