What did the world sound like when it came into being, I once asked a class of first graders? Many raised their eyes to the sky as if trying to remember that sound and then, one by one, without the self-consciousness that afflicts those who are much older, began to offer their answers. A bang?–one said. A clang?—another one added. A bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz?–still another offered.
I then played them a recording someone at Harvard had made of a simulation of the Big Bang and watched as eyes widened in response. Some of them shook their heads as if doubting it could be true while others nodded as if retrieving the sound from memory after a long night of forgetting.
After this, I played them the first 136 bars of Richard Wagner’s eighteen hour opera, The Ring of the Nibelungen, and watched as their eyes opened wide again at the sound of that low E flat, humming the world into existence. Once again heads nodded and shook after which, improbably, they asked to hear some more.
Six year old children asking to hear more of the Ring Cycle, one of the most complex works of art ever created, is surprising only if you forget how open children are to narratives—musical, visual or just plain old once upon a time storytelling.
And so I began to tell them of the many stories we had about how our world came into existence. I told them about the Big Bang, about how they were actually 13.7 billion years old because their bodies contained some of the very same hydrogen molecules forged in that first explosion which, recycled, had become dinosaurs, rhododendrons and each one of them. And then I told them about Wagner’s imaginative world which began on an E flat and ended on a D flat four nights and many hours later because the world does not stay the same–it transforms, it changes, it evolves in an ongoing process of renewal.
During the past few days I have been revisiting the Ring Cycle through the explorations of Father Owen Lee, that great educator of opera who, to my mind, best understands this work. In his book on the Ring, Lee quotes writer C.S. Lewis on the subject of being awakened by Wagner:
“….there arose, at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country.”
Being fascinated with the world that Wagner created in the Ring puts you in an odd moral universe. While his work was truly sublime, Wagner the human being was anything but. Much has been written about Wagner’s rabid anti-semitism, his habit of stealing his friend’s money and wives, his stomach-turning egotism which had him seeing the world only in terms of how much he could take from it. In a word, Wagner the man was an abomination.
While the man was singularly lacking in compassion, his work is full of it, almost as if he lived his golden shadow side completely through his operas. The idea that a good man has dark shadow qualities is easy enough to digest for most but that the opposite may also be true—that a man as unpalatable as Wagner may have contained some good is much harder to accept. And yet his works seem an attempt to touch the very best of human nature and it is that element that most attracts me to them despite the shadow of the man himself who forever lingers uncomfortably in the background.
In Lee’s words, Wagner wrote his music dramas out of an abundance of need—an inner urging that sought to balance the insanity of his exterior life. His operas seem an unconscious attempt to connect to his feminine inner self, the inner self that placed compassion as the highest value—a compassion he rarely exhibited in his own life.
At the heart of the Ring Cycle are two acts of violation—Alberich’s stealing of the gold at the beginning of the work and Wotan’s earlier transgression which evolved from his fashioning of a spear from the severed limb of the World Ash Tree. Alberich’s theft comes at a price–in order to possess the gold he agrees to renounce love. Wotan pays for his theft by losing an eye and thus the ability to gain self-awareness. Both of them acquire worldly power in return—Wotan as the chief of the gods and Alberich as the Lord of the misty realms that lie beneath the world.
The hero of the Ring is actually a heroine—Brunnhilde, Wotan’s daughter, whose act of self-sacrifice at the end allows for the renewal of a world where power ruled into one where love and compassion reign. In the language of the chakras, it is an ascent from the seat of power represented by the third chakra into the fourth chakra where the heart resides. Seventy years after Wagner began composing this work, Carl Jung would talk about the evolution from the third to the fourth. We were, he believed, living in a trinitarian world but were evolving into a consciousness that would allow for the establishment of the fourth–a number of wholeness and integration.
In Jung’s conception what was missing was Brunnhilde–the power of the feminine, the relational, life-asserting,”being” energy represented not by women literally, but by the feminine in all of us. The representation of this ideal came into public consciousness in a big way a number of years ago with the release of the film, Avatar. Suddenly, support groups sprouted up to help those who felt bereft in a world without those one-dimensional blue people living in a natural paradise where the feminine was able to counter the domination that evolves from the over-doing of the masculine principle in its most debased form.
Such public exhibitions of grief may seem bizarre but they point to how far we have strayed from the energies that keep us in balance. This too is a central problem in The Ring. Once Wotan tears the limb off the ash tree to make the spear that will grant him worldly power, the tree begins to decay and the world in that form begins to end. All gods will die, the ancient way of doing things will perish but what will replace them?
Brunnhilde’s act of compassion at the end of the Cycle points to the possibility of a new direction and the music that accompanies it is one of the most powerful in all of opera.
For we who find ourselves living over one hundred and fifty years after Wagner conceived this work, it is interesting to contemplate the image of that ash tree perishing from Wotan’s violation. It is a powerful metaphor for what is ailing our own world, both the one out there as well as the one within each of us. Though the circle rounds in the end, the world created in the Ring does not end on an E flat but shimmers away to the tune of a D flat instead. Evolution is possible with awareness and consciousness.
For Wagner the person, the opportunity was lost. But his art, a product of his deep unconscious, can point the way to a world where compassion and love reigns. It is up to each one of us to do the work.
To listen to the world coming into being in Das Rheingold go to this link:
The world at its end —here are the last moments of the Ring Cycle: