Bye bye, Wagner


It was a minor victory, the kind of victory that tragedy loves. A group of Holocaust survivors came together last week to protest the performance of Richard Wagner''s music in Tel Aviv. And they won.


Tel Aviv University, which was to host the concert, issued a not-very-believable statement that they''d been tricked by the concert''s organizer, who is the head of Israel''s Wagner club, into thinking that it was not a Wagner concert.


No matter what the follow-up spin, the outcome is important. Israel has long observed a tradition of not performing the music of the notoriously anti-Semitic composer, whose life and works served as not just an "inspiration," as is often stated, but an aesthetic model for the Nazis.


While some want to make believe that Israel refuses Wagner out of a kind of vindictiveness -- "You didn''t like us, so we won''t like you" -- the issue goes far deeper than that.


There is a reason the Nazis loved Wagner so. If it was merely the notion of Germanic achievement they wished to embrace surely Beethoven, a bon a fide genius to Wagner''s musical brilliance, would have been a far better choice. But it was Wagner''s ideas, the ones he transmitted not in conversation to anti-Semitic cohorts, but on his stage that seemed so ideologically lucrative to the Third Reich.


Wagner was an idealist. His most deeply rooted philosophies, the ones which rung true for the Nazis, can be seen in his treatment of every opera''s primary subject: love. In Wagner''s work, the central question of love is not about what happens between two people; it''s about what happens between man and himself. It''s about redemption.


Bernard Willis, a classics scholar who studies the relationship between Platonism and the theater, has argued that in Wagner, love has the power to free man not from social constraint, but from nature, from existence. It does this through denial and, ultimately, death. It''s a negative mysticism that can be seen in his most beloved operas, but especially in Tristan und Isolde, in which both the height and the resolution of the action is the achievement (through the deaths of Tristan and Isolde) of "Liebestod," or love-death.


There could be no better representation of the mania of Nazism than "Liebestod." The Nazis sought redemption not through the rise of pan-German culture, but the death of the Jews. It was this that was first and foremost: as Hitler famously stated, "no matter what," the Jews would perish. Even if Germany were to lose the war, the death of the Jews alone would be a vindication of Nazism.

For the Nazis, this mania sprung from a desire to be "finally finished" with the Jews. Not just that they be expelled from Germany, not just that the threat they supposedly represented be eliminated, but that the world be rid of their essence.


Who better than the Jews could represent to the Germans the life force, the force of human, animal life, as opposed to the disembodied, spiritual life of German idealism? The Nazis called us not devils, but pigs. It was the closeness of Jewish life to nature -- Judaism''s absolute recognition of the limits human reality -- that the Nazis hated:


“In this historical showdown every Jews is our enemy, regardless of whether he is vegetating in a Polish ghetto or delays his parasitic existence in Berlin or Hamburg...” Goebbels said in 1941. Only biological metaphors could adequately express the idea of life-as-horror, which underpinned Nazi hatred of the Jews.


Beethoven, ink-smudged, bedraggled, writing not operas of love (for the most part), but symphonies, concertos, and quartets in which the depths of human misery can be felt, could offer the Nazis nothing. Wagner, with his ideal of redemption-by-death, gave them everything.


Friedrich Nietzsche was famously critical of Wagner, who was his close friend. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche called for a return to tragedy of the Greek style -- a tragedy that does not end with false redemption, like love achieved through death, but (as in his prime example of tragedy, Oedipus) embraces the reality of calamity, and finds resolution only in this embrace.


This week we saw the triumph of the Holocaust survivors. They are those who have had no choice but to embrace the reality of their tragic experience. They could not make the Holocaust into a joyous transcendence, a la Richard Wagner. They had to remain tragic in remembering their reality, in embracing the living history of their lives. In this they are also supremely Jewish. And in keeping the death-loving composer''s work from being performed once again in Israel, they are heroes.

Ashley Rindsberg is the author of Tel Aviv Stories.