wagner’s anti-semitism -- 5/17/23

Today's selection -- from Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma by Claire Dederer. Famed composer Richard Wagner’s anti-Semitism was an obsession:
"'[For Richard Wagner, anti-Semitism] was more than a bizarre peccadillo, beyond a prejudice: it was an obsession, a monomania, a full-blown neurosis. No conversation with Wagner ever occurred without a detour on the subject of Judaism. When, towards the end of Wagner's life, the painter Renoir had a sitting with him, Wagner interrupted his own pleasant flow of small talk with a sudden unprovoked denunciation of Jews which rapidly became rancid,' [said Simon Callow].

"Wagner also wrote at length about his obsession -- that essay Fry would have liked to forestall, 'Judaism in Music,' was pub­lished anonymously in 1850, the same year Lohengrin premiered. It describes the nature of 'the Jew musician' -- we've barely got­ten started and we're already in choppy waters. The use of the word 'Jew' as an adjective is generally speaking not a good sign. My friend Alex Blumberg once observed to me as we walked through the Chicago neighborhood historically known as Jew Town: 'The word Jew is fine as a noun, starts to be a problem as an adjective, and is totally not okay as a verb.'

Wagner in 1871, by Franz Hanfstaengl

"Writes Wagner, 'The Jew -- who, as everyone knows, has a God all to himself -- in ordinary life strikes us primarily by his outward appearance, which, no matter to what European nation­ality we belong, has something disagreeably foreign to that nationality: instinctively we wish to have nothing in common with a man who looks like that.' 

"Wagner is ramping up, working himself into a frenzy, and the modern reader in turn feels a mounting abhorrence, as well as a kind of lofty disdain for what we perceive as his clueless­ness. But we tell ourselves he didn't know better.

"And yet Wagner bases his entire rant on the fact that he did know better. He positions his screed as a dose of Limbaugh­esque real talk in the face of liberal platitudes calling for an end to anti-Semitism: 'We have to explain to ourselves the involun­tary repellence possessed for us by the nature and personality of the Jews, so as to vindicate that instinctive dislike which we plainly recognise as stronger and more overpowering than our conscious zeal to rid ourselves thereof.'

"He's making the point that he and his brethren don't want to revile Jews. This is some real 'I'm the victim here' shit. Wag­ner insists that he possesses -- we all possess -- a 'conscious zeal to rid ourselves' of the 'instinctive dislike,' but an honest man must wrestle with these feelings of 'involuntary repellence,' Hey, man, he's just describing how everyone really feels. Inci­dentally, this is an example of how insidious the word 'we' can be -- by employing it, Wagner normalizes and universalizes his own demented and hateful perspective, and suggests that all those fighting against anti-Semitism are simply deluded or eva­sive when it comes to their own natures.

"From Wagner's perspective, to say one is not anti-Semitic is to lie: 'Even to-day we only purposely belie ourselves, in this regard, when we think it necessary to hold immoral and taboo all open proclamation of our natural repugnance against the Jewish nature. Only in quite the latest times do we seem to have reached an insight, that it is more rational (vernünftiger) to rid ourselves of that strenuous self-deception' -- he means here the self-deception that we actually might not be repelled by Jews­ -- 'so as quite soberly instead to view the object of our violent sympathy and bring ourselves to understand a repugnance still abiding with us in spite of all our Liberal bedazzlements.'"

 | www.delanceyplace.com


Claire Dederer


Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma


Alfred A. Knopf


Copyright 2023 by Claire Dederer


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