Friday, May 24, 2013

Why Was Wagner Evil? A Lesson in Beauty and Morality

Yesterday was Richard Wagner’s two hundredth birthday, which prompted a mandatory debate in my dorm over whether the “man can be separated from the music.” (Wagner was a festering anti-Semite, and he himself claimed that his music was inseparable from the anti-Jewish principles undergirding it.) Can he? I’m going to completely ignore that question, because, in the end, we can do whatever we want. Wagner’s music is only inherently anti-Semitic if we want it to be.

But the fact that so many people take the question seriously is telling: to a lot of people, it’s upsetting that Wagner’s music is so beautiful. (Allegedly. I think it’s tuneless and boring.) It seems like we need some way of reconciling the transcendent beauty of the music with the evil of Wagner’s philosophy.

But we don’t, not at all. Goodness in music and goodness in morality are utterly different things. We are flawed human beings, and liable to associate the two. But we are also moral human beings, and that means that we're capable of distinguishing them.

The Greeks were seduced: they believed that beauty was inseparable from virtue, piety, and wisdom. Apollo’s godly beauty bubbled from the same source as his godly righteousness. It wasn't just the Greeks, though: as human beings, we're incredibly tempted to glorify beauty and call it virtue—especially transcendent beauty. At times, I confess, I have a hard time understanding how anyone who listened to Mozart could commit evil. Evil is vile, and Mozart is purer than anything!

 But I think we would do well to reject that worldview. Beauty is full of delight, and it can even “elevate the soul”—but it has nothing to do with goodness or justice. We’re obliged to recognize justice even if it’s not resplendent. Likewise, we must call out evil when it disguises itself in fine clothing, which it does often. And no marvel, for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.

Music indeed elevates the soul—but it can elevate it in any direction that it wants. Wagner used it to instill deep affection for pagan, German virtues. The Aztecs beat their drums to turn mass murder into a thrilling, sublime work of art. The sirens sang lovingly to lure their prey to destruction.


Odysseus had the same problem as us.
Now, because music is so stirring, it's to our tremendous advantage if we use it well. I'm all for putting beautiful music into the service of moral goodness. That’s why I think that religions should learn from the Catholics and hold services with ethereal chanting, flickering candles, and soaring choral music.  (Hint: if atheists want to attract more human beings, they should do something similar.) The Civil Rights Movement did very well with its stirring music. But the Nazis sang moving songs too, and anyone who thinks that Nazi music is inherently ugly and grandiose is pretending. And in Casablanca, the French soldiers aren't justified just because they sing with more feeling than the Germans. So it’s fine to be deeply moved by We Shall Overcome, but we shouldn’t think for a moment that the justice of the Civil Rights Movement had anything to do with our tingling spines.

With that, here's some good music.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

By the way, here is the article I was mentioning to you from the NYRB, written by Bernard Williams in 2000. Very good read!