Roger Scruton on Paul Heise’s Interpretation of Wagner’s Ring Cycle

Having being posted on Phil-L listserv this piece is bound to attract a lot of attention – Paul Heise is quite an exceptional character. It was only a few days ago that I made reference here to Feuerbach. (This is one of the best photos of Roger I’ve come across – it brings to mind my sitting across from him in his 14 Gower Street office and offering me a cigar – those were the days!!).

No composer has ever been more of a philosopher than Richard Wagner, and in none of his works is Wagner more philosophical than in the The Ring of the Nibelung. In this work – surely the greatest drama composed in modern times – Wagner attempts to convey a picture of the human condition that will identify the origins of good and evil, the place of man in the cosmos, and the secret source of human freedom. When he wrote the poem Wagner was under the influence of Ludwig Feuerbach, the philosopher whose materialist reworking of Hegel’s social and political philosophy inspired the early thoughts of Karl Marx. And many commentators (not least George Bernard Shaw) have seen strong parallels between the vision of the Ring and the Marxist critique of capitalism. Heise shows that the influence of Feuerbach is indeed all-pervasive in Wagner’s music drama. But he also shows that the Ring is concerned with far deeper and more lasting questions than those raised by the discussion of property and revolution. The drama touches on aspects of the human psyche that are hardly acknowledged in the writings of 19th-century socialists. Briefly put, The Ring, on Heise’s interpretation, is an exploration of man’s religious sense, of the human need for the transcendental, and of the hope for redemption that endures even in our time of cynicism and materialist frivolity, and which can be satisfied, now, only through the truthful enchantment conveyed to us by art.