Jung and Wagner

February 3, 2010

posted and written by Caroline Picard

I wrote this in response to a class I took in which we were invited to interpret Wagner using Jungian theory, a strategy outlined by Marie-Louise von Franz in here book The Interpretation of Fairy Tales. In other words, each fairy tale takes place within the psyche of a single patriarch or matriarch. In applying that strategy to The Ring, Wotan would ostensibly become the primary psyche. Each subsequent character thus represents a facet of his internal self, (i.e. anima/subconcious/conscious).

A Useless Crisis

Wagner’s Ring is a failed enterprise.

At least if we are to consider the ultimate significance of the work in the terms laid out, namely that The Ring is a portrait of a single psyche, Wotan, who destroys himself and everything he holds dear.

I have some real problems with the proposed interpretative scheme. While in one sense the Jungian quest for self offers a neat and tidy means to access the material, the result is devastating. There is no point to the pain inflicted upon the characters. Under such a light, the opera may as well depict Amy Winehouse—or some other celebrity nightmare where people make bad and even nihilistic decisions. By giving Wotan the center of the operatic universe, one is left simply with an expression of uselessness. He learns nothing in his quest, beyond proving that he is capable of both building and destroying relationships. While I’m content with tabloid stories that parallel such an arc, I cannot believe that an opera (with 10,000 books written about it in the first year of its completion) would study Wotan’s depressive personality.

At the very least I imagine a myriad of alternative interpretative platforms. For instance:

One could argue that Wotan does not seem quite at the center of the Wagner’s world. While he is presented as the patriarchal figure, he is a patriarch for only one aspect of the world he inhabits. We are aware of other orders, the Rhinemaids inhabit another. The Nibelungs, while subservient to Wotan, seem more like a colonized population with its own intrinsic hierarchy. While Alberich is their leader, Alberich happens to be subservient to Wotan. The Rhinemaids, function differently; they are not subservient in the same way and neither are the giants, who rule the land, and therefore must be bargained with. Erda, also, is an independent being; her world is one with the Norns who weave an epic story to which the world (and Wotan) must subscribe. Under this light, there one can examine the opera politically—as a metaphor for political relationships between countries.

Using such an interpretation, the characters themselves represent groups of people, or human motifs.

It also occurred to me that the characters have a peculiar relationship with their environment. They inhabit space—woods, caves, houses, cliffs, rivers etc.—as humans do. Which is to say they do not have an animated relationship with their environment; at no point does one feel like Wotan made the world. While he may affect lightening and thunder, he is an actor on a stage and he is dependent on the environment of that stage. The world, their physical geography, is the thing that supports the characters, functioning as a different center.

The characters are the surface of the opera. Their follies are not devastating because the characters are foolish; because the energy comes from something beneath them; energy manifested in the music. While Wotan, Alberich, the bird, Brunnhilde represent and realize their leitmotivs, it is the accumulated soup of the interactive and self-aware music (i.e. Wagner as a composer constructed this work in such a way that the various leitmotivs work together), which supports the libretto. The libretto cannot exist without its orchestral buoy. Looking at the work that way, the opera only seems to be about the plight of the Wolsungs. The opera is really about the energy, temporal structure and synergetic collusion of voices; a collusion that takes place in the background, just as the environment is the background. I’d make the argument that Wotan cannot be the center, because the world isn’t reliant on him. Instead, it seems like what remains in the aftermath of The Twilight of the Gods is the soup of an on-going music.

To that end, it’s possible that Wagner is critiquing the seeming infallibility of order. The authority of Wotan’s hall—what initially seemed impenetrable—explodes in fire. Yet even that sky, the thing Wotan claimed to rule, will endure. For the bird needs a place to flit, as the river needs something to reflect. In other words, the Norns will continue weaving beyond Wotan’s demise.

Other ideas that seemed fruitful possibilities in divining the meaning of The Ring Cycle related to free will, or even the Norns/Fates and what their agency was. Or even Freud’s death drive. I also found myself thinking about love, and how love played out in the work. It seems largely a loveless piece. Neither Freia nor Fricka boast any love. Wotan does not seem especially close to anyone close to him; when he is inspired to love he alienates himself from his object of affection, whether that object is Siegmund, Brunnhilde or Siegfried.

All this to say that, while I did enjoy learning about Jung and applying his binary ontology to The Ring, it felt like an oppressive framework, one which did not ultimately make sense of what the story was about, or for. Perhaps it is overly idealistic of me to assume that art provides a sense of legitimacy to the otherwise existential banality of life. At the same time, because I think it’s impossible to create something objectively, there is a necessary interpretation that goes into each and every body of work, each and every life(style). And while I’m content with the opera’s apocalyptic conclusion, it seems to me that it is only Wotan’s world that ends. In fact, the message is that the rest of everything else continues.

p.s. there was an especially funny interaction in my class where the professor argued that the dragon was a woman (in the above sequence it comes out from underground, like a vagina, say), and that Siegrfried’s subsequent ability to understand what birds/animals say, and interpret the real meaning of people’s words (even when they are trying to deceive him) is because the “blood of the dragon” that he accidentally drank is actually menstrual blood.

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