In Search of Wagner
By Theodor Adorno, trans. Rodney Livingstone
New Left Books, London 1981
l59 pp.

Reviewed Meanjin, 41 (1)
April 1982
pp. 84-88.

' But in listening to The Ring I felt that every scene could stand not only the most extensive cuts but also the most extensive expansion wrote the anti-Wagnerian critic Eduard Hanslick after the premiere at Bayreuth in 1876. The same point can be made against Theodor Adorno's ln Search of Wagner, which has just appeared in English. The book breaks most of the rules for good writing that Adorno laid down in his magnificent Minima Moralia, especially his warning that 'The thicket is no sacred grove'. Paragraphs in his Wagner book average almost three pages in length because distinct ideas have been run together, so that his interpolation of 'or put more simply' in the middle of a muddled sentence is as infuriating as it is insulting: Adorno forgot his own dictum that 'When several sentences seem like variations on the same idea, they often only represent different attempts to grasp something the author has not yet mastered.' The weight of the title falls heavily upon 'Search'.

Adorno's poor constructions are particularly annoying because he was so well equipped to master Wagner and was in no sense just another recycler of biographical details spiced with some freshly uncovered primary source. As a pupil of Alban Berg's and the author of two other books on music -Philosophy of Modem Music and Introduction to the Sociology of Music - Adorno's training meant that he could follow a score and thereby check his social-philosophical commentary against Wagner's composition. Adorno's appreciation of these wider issues grew from his involvement with the Institute for Social Research, the so-called Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, where he became close to Walter Benjamin before working in New York with Max Horkheimer. Horkheimer's 1936 essay on bourgeois egoism provided much of the grounding for Adorno's study of Wagner, which was also written and partly published in the late 1930s, a complete German edition appearing in 1952.

Despite the period during which Adorno wrote this book he made few directly anti-fascist asides apart from picturing King Mark as 'the ancestor of appeasement' and Rienzi as the 'first bourgeois terrorist'; the composer-conductor whose gesturing expropriates the audience's responses was implicitly compared with the Hitlerian demagogue who dominated his listeners by expressing an egoism that was denied to them. While anti-Semitism was barely mentioned, Adorno's handling of this aspect of Wagner provides a necessary corrective to those biographers who, like Ronald Taylor, want to diminish Wagner's culpability by arguing that all his Jews were also his best friends; just so, con- tended Adorno, since Wagner's psycho-pathological make-up required that Jews be on hand in order to be humiliated.

Adorno's attitude towards Wagner the man is condescending and he endorsed Thomas Mann's suggestion that Wagner was a dilettante by adding that 'till the end of his days the entire pleasure of reading was inseparable from the thought of rows of classics bound in gold' while 'Even          his boldest master strokes were unable to overcome the fundamental stance of the amateur, that of enthusiastic respect'. Adorno considered Wagner's works from the vantage point of an expert who felt no need to illustrate his argument with snatches from the scores. Some of Adorno's judgements were standard ones and, following Nietzsche, he developed the idea that Wagner had said 'No' to life by identifying pleasure with sickness. This point leads on to a passage which displays Adorno's typical irreverence plus an all too rare liveliness:

Many of Wagner's heroes perish without physical pain, and indeed without any explanation other than that of the exigencies of the plot . . . Brunnhilde's death on a funeral pyre is nothing but a piece of Indian ostentation. In the teeth of the cult of the prevention of cruelty to animals, she even insists that her horse should neigh with joy as it leaps into the flames. Fear is repressed and becomes farce; only the sub-human Mime can scream 'ouch!' when he is beaten.

Similarly, Adorno believes that the rapturous 'motive of the resolve to die' in Tristan can offer an 'impression of frivolous gaiety' and in general that Wagner trivialises Schopenhauerean suffering through 'the accoutrements of grandeur' and profundity. From this standpoint, Adorno defends Parsifal against the common charge of 'false religiosity' by arguing that 'it carries out a legitimate critique of the ornamental components in Wagner's characteristic style of orchestration.'

Adorno drove his attack was driven into the core of Wagner's compositional practice where the motiv was found to be infected with 'allegorical rigidity' and constantly fell back into being little better than incidental music or, worse still, a film sound-track; the ease with which hit songs could be extracted from the music-dramas sheds 'light on the fragmentariness of the whole'; and 'a harmonic monotony corresponds to the metrical monotony'. In short, Adorno argued that 'Wagner . . . found it hard to achieve standards of good musicianship . . .'. Yet Adorno could be as fulsome in his praise as he was trenchant in his disapproval, asserting that 'the art of orchestration . . . did not exist before Wagner.' Wagner's strengths were wrested from his ambiguities, moral and musical : dissonance and consonance were mixed in his efforts to express his (false)identity of joy with renunciation, and his 'harmonic innovations lead well beyond . . . impressionism' to 'the threshold of atonality', but no closer. Wagner's mastery of instrumentation is analysed around his practice of combination and through the roles that he allotted to horns, oboes and, on one occasion, to flutes.     

Adorno rejected the charge that Wagner's music was formless because this 'reactionary cliche' avoided 'the really productive element in Wagner' namely 'sonority', by which process, 'time seems transfixed in space', thereby enabling Wagner to establish the importance of orchestral 'colour'.

From his explication of Wagner's apparent formlessness Adorno proceeded to a devastating criticism of the timelessness inherent in the music-drama, whose static qualities were expressed in the plot as well as in the score. Wagner's 'art of the future' was all located in pre-capitalist times; 'Gods and men perform on the same stage' while The Ring concludes as it begins with nature's Rhinemaidens playing with the gold which has escaped from the historical world of work embodied in the giants and the dwarfs. Musically, Wagner's atemporality is produced by the 'gesture' of beating time, a device through which his 'social impulses are translated into technique', and whose repetition 'evades the necessity to create musical time' and thus 'abandons the struggle . . . mastered in the symphony'. When Wagner revokes time in favour of the gesture, he also 'refutes all history by confronting it with the silence of nature.' Adorno perceived something much worse than ahistorical attitudes in Wagner's gesturing, since along with the prospect of change across time there disappeared that struggle against Fate which had inspired opera since Monteverdi's Orfeo. In Wagner, 'music has sold its right to protest'. Similarly, the responses of the audience are disciplined by the gestural beating of the composer-conductor who 'both represents and suppresses the bourgeois individual's demand to be heard.'

We have gone as far as we can towards an innocent summary of Adorno's book and to proceed further it is necessary to deal openly with the ideological underpinnings which the author drew from the Frankfurt School's indebtedness to Marx and particularly to his interlocking understanding of the individual, the division of labour and the commodity within capitalism. These concepts are not spelt out in Adorno's book, nor are they always employed there as accurately as they should be, a failing which stemmed partly from the group's over-emphasis on cultural matters.

With important exceptions like Franz Neumann's investigation of the Nazi economy, Behemoth, the Frankfurt School did not pursue the laws of capitalist development but instead examined the fate of individualism by penetrating the falsehoods encrusted around it. Here, at least, they could be at one with Marx in arguing that 'the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.' When trying to unravel the processes by which the debauchment of individualism had occurred under late capitalism, and been disguised as a triumph for individualism, the Frankfurt School refurbished two further concepts from Marx, namely, commodity fetishism and the division of labour, which in Capital were given defined functions but which in the Wagner book are loosened to accommodate weaknesses in Adorno's thought. The crux of Adorno's problems was his failure to identify the emergence of a new and monopoly stage of capitalist development (Lenin's Imperialism) within which the social categories of individual, commodity and particularisation acquired fresh and more pressing meanings. Adorno accepted that some kind of change had taken place when he talked about 'late' capitalism, but lateness is a formulation of time from nature, not from history.

One result of Adorno's failure to grasp the fullness of economic developments was that he analysed Wagner in relation to ideas about history as well as in a given historical context. Wagner died in 1883 and all of his work, except Parsifal, had been completed by 1875, that is, before the appearance of the joint stock companies, trusts and cartels that marked capitalism's monopoly stage. Because Adorno evaded this transformation he had to wring from Wagner matters which the artist never had to meet: Gotterdammerung should be related to the debasement of Romanticism and not to the rise (and fall) of Nazism. Some of the confusions generated by Adorno's ahistorical lapses can be seen in the slackness with which he treated the commodity; his account of the impact of the division of labour is also confused.

In Marx's vocabulary, commodity meant more than an item for sale since it embodied expropriated labour power while disguising the alienation that arose from that expropriation and from the division of the labour processes. The social need to disguise exploitation produced what Marx in a notorious passage called 'the fetishism of commodities', by which the social relations between wage- labour and capital were reproduced as relations between the workers and the objects which they manufactured. For as long as Adorno discussed Wagner in terms of commodity fetishism his analysis was on safe, that is to say historically appropriate ground, and it allowed him to explicate what he called the 'Phantasmagoria' in Wagner's output as that which conceals 'the labour that has gone into making it':

In this respect Wagner's oeuvre comes close to the consumer goods of the nineteenth century which knew no greater ambition than to conceal every sign of the work that went into them, perhaps because any such traces reminded people too vehemently of the appropriation of the labour of others. To make works of art into magical objects means that men worship their own labour because they are unable to recognise it as such.

Adorno traces Wagner's attempts to remove all evidence of production through his instrumental combinations and his spurious Gesamtkunstwerk, which confused the real unity of the totality with the false identity of its parts and which depended upon 'intoxication, ecstasy' since 'a moment of reflection' would reveal its 'underlying fragmentation'. Equally, the senses were to be deprived of their specific tasks while the allegorical substance of his alleged symbolism allowed 'everything to mean the same as everything else'.

While it is possible to quarrel with Adorno's account of Wagner's 'Phantasmagoria', its historical possibility cannot be denied. The same cannot be said for his extrapolation of the 'commodity' beyond the realm of production (where in Wagner's lifetime it had fetishistic attributes) and into that era of mass consumption which had scarcely been glimpsed before Wagner's death. Adorno wisecracked that the leitmotiv anticipated the advertising of mass culture and he was smart-arsed when he wrote that Wotan's slogan

Who ever fears the tip of my spear Shall never pass through the fire!

could easily be supplemented by copy in praise of a piece of equipment that would enable the cautious but resolute buyer to pass through the fire notwithstanding.

These clevernesses could be considered extraneous to Adorno's main argument. No such plea can be sustained for his free-ranging use of the division of labour to include everything from the guilds to Wagner's introduction of the short score (orchestral sketch) between his compositional sketch and the full score. The abolition of history involved in Adorno's usage here is doubly significant because he believes that

Works of art owe their existence to the division of labour in society, the separation of physical from mental labour'; having said this, he immediately contradicts himself by recognising that 'their medium is not pure mind; but the mind that enters into reality.

What is wrong here is not only Adorno's notion of art but his misconception of work, whose medium is not pure reality but reality reconstructed in advance of labour by the mind; that is, he neglects the difference between the architect and the bee. Adorno's error at this point is at odds with the Frankfurt School's defence of Reason against mere technique and against phantasms.

The difficulties that abound in Adorno's study of Wagner have more sources than those touched on above. When Adorno wrote this book he was still learning his way into social philosophy, and his uncertainties and contradictions derived from this fact as much as from the inherently intractable task of producing a coherent account of Wagner. Another element was Adorno's cultural attitudes which were snobbish as well as justifiably elitist.

In Search of Wagner shows that a Marxist critique of culture cannot proceed without an understanding of Marx's economic analysis which, let it be underlined, does not require any return to the economic base determines the cultural superstructure model. What is needed is a more thorough-going materialism with which to combat, as Adorno puts it, 'the idea of an unvarying human nature'; otherwise, we show ourselves, like Wagner, 'to be bourgeois through and through in [the] conviction that poetic depth is synonymous with the omission of historical specificity.'

Adorno's comment that both Wagner and his works suffered from 'garrulous longueurs' can be turned with equal justification against In Search of Wagner. After grappling with its 150 pages for more than a month my equivocations about both Wagner and Adorno have been raised to a higher plane. Nonetheless, of this much I remain sure: Tristan and Minima Moralia are works to which I can return with expectations that are never disappointed.