|Die Meistersinger, image credit http://www.roh.org.uk|
One of my greatest heroes is Daniel Barenboim, and I'm enjoying reading his conversations with Edward Said at the moment. Barenboim has flouted Israeli taboos against playing Wagner on multiple occasions, beginning with a highly controversial encore in Tel Aviv where he conducted the prelude from Tristan and Isolde. He has been outspoken and eloquent about what he is thus trying to achieve, in terms of reinterpretation, moving forward and refusing boundaries.
If this is right, then we can listen to, and enjoy, Wagner (and many others of dubious moral background) with a clean conscience. Great art is constantly to be reinterpreted, given new meanings. The poetic competitions which feature in the Meistersinger and Tannhäuser give us a bit of a clue here: they remind us that medieval literature was, in a sense, drama and spectacle. It was performed. It's easy to forget, since we are reliant on surviving written texts, but even into the late Middle Ages, this was a very oral culture. Even texts which were written down were most often intended for oral performance. And as they were performed, and re-performed, they were adapted and mutated according to the needs and interests of particular audiences. These were texts which were constantly in flux, where the notion of authorship (though obviously central in the contests) was often lost amongst the multiple layers of performance and reception.
But not only does this allow us to listen to Wagner. It reminds us of our responsibility as part of the creative process. As readers, viewers, listeners - we are part of the creation of meaning. One of my other great heroes is Michel de Montaigne, who in the late sixteenth century, tried to suggest new ways of reading through the construction of his Essais. Through a complex writing style, frequent interpolations, and deliberate contradictions within the text, he successfully reminds the reader of his or her own responsibility - that the onus is on us to read pro-actively.
Montaigne's response to those who worry that Wagner's anti-semitism automatically accompanies his art would be the following:
'It's an indication that it hasn't been cooked properly, and a sign of indigestion, when someone regurgitates the meat that he's just swallowed. The stomach hasn't done its job if it hasn't changed the appearance and form of what it's been given to cook' (Essais, 1. 26)