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Richard Wagner, Fritz Lang, and the Nibelungen: The Dramaturgy of Disavowal.

By David J. Levin. (Princeton Studies in Opera.) Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. [xi, 207 p. ISBN 0-691-02621-1. $29.95.]

This is a smart and thoroughly absorbing book. Its focus is not on a single genre but on the uses that have been made of the Nibelung legend to help shape German national and cultural identity. Yet what might easily have turned into a predictable and obvious ideological analysis here becomes a subtly argued study of how the works under consideration "render their politics in an aesthetic register" (p. 5).

Although Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen is obviously the central text under consideration, less than half the book is actually devoted to the tetralogy. The Wagnerian version of the Nibelung story shares the author's attention with Fritz Lang's silent film Die Nibelungen, whose first part, entitled "Siegfried," provides what is at once a complementary and contrasting example to the music drama.

Besides these musical and cinematic embodiments, two additional manifestations of the Nibelung material are treated briefly. At the beginning of his narrative, Levin depicts the role that the newly rediscovered Nibelungenlied played in helping shape German national consciousness early in the nineteenth century; this poem, as Levin puts it, "has repeatedly served as a privileged object - if not a fetish - in the fervent search for an origin in German cultural identity," (p. 19).

To create this identity, the medieval poem and its descendants in music and film have posited "bad objects" - for example, Wagner's Mime and Lang's Alberich (p. 10) - to contrast with the "good objects" - Siegfried above all - with whom Germans could identify. In a postscript, Levin takes up a 1989 German film, The Nasty Girl, which, though set in the contemporary world, prints the poem's opening lines on the screen as a means of establishing its ideological distance from the material and to allow its heroine to play the role of "bad object" and thus establish "the integrity of an identity as social pariah" (p. 150).

Levin's study of the Ring builds upon two traditions that have become prominent in Wagner scholarship in recent years. On the one hand, he develops in his own way the emphasis on the conflict of narration and representation (Darstellung) in the Ring that Carolyn Abbate presented in her pioneering book Unsung Voices ([Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991], 156-247); on the other, he seeks a more nuanced understanding of Wagner's use of Jewish stereotypes in his stage works than sortie recent commentators have presented.

For Levin, the conflict of narration and enactment is not only central to the tetralogy but helps explain Siegfried's ultimate tragedy. As Levin puts it, "Narration hounds the work and ultimately causes its hero's demise" (p. 41). Within the framework of the Ring, this hero is associated with the world of nature as against the world of' culture central to the Gibichungs. Anti as a person of action rather than of reflection, he "functions as an agent of Darstellung whose impatience with narration is presented as well-founded by years of disinformation" (p. 60).

Much of the Ring, both in the first two sections and in the two Siegfried music dramas, consists of narration that reinterprets the past in thc deceptive ways that we come to associate with the world of culture. Siegfried's "death stages . . . the reemergence of the language of culture and, concomitant with that reemergence, what we might term the second death of natural language" (p. 51). Earlier, Levin had cited Wagner's theory of natural language that stood behind his use of Stabreim in the Ring and his attempt to fend off the complexities of modern life by seeking musical and textual embodiments of an earlier language of feeling.

Levin's analysis of narration as deceptive language leads directly to his treatment of the anti-Semitic component within Wagner's art. "I propose to seek out the traces of anti-Semitism in the aesthetic register rather than the political or biographical" (p. 88), he announces as a means of separating himself from the tradition initiated by Theodor Adorno, for whom Alberich and Mime serve as caricatures of Jews (In Search of Wagner, trans. Rodney Livingston [London: Verso, 1981], 23-27). For Levin, the characters of the world of culture such as Mime and Hagen "stand in as the embodiment of language gone astray as language (that is, language that has lost touch with nature)" (p. 85). These characters, whether or not we are meant to see actual Jewish features in them, impede the reconciliation of language and nature central to Wagner's aesthetic project. Jews serve above all as symbols of the non-German other "dogged by aesthetic qualities that the composer loathed" (p. 88). Moreover, the expulsion of a character such as Mime becomes necessary to create "the bond binding the rest of the characters" (p. 94) as well as the national bonding that Wagner seeks to establish among the members of his ideal audience.

If narration is symptomatic of the downfall of Wagner's hero, it is ocular vision that defines the failure of the cinematic Siegfried central to the first half of Lang's Die Nibelungen. Just as the Wagnerian Siegfried remains naive to the deceptive narration of Mime, so Lang's figure "remains a naive viewer" (p. 107), time and again failing to heed the visual cues presented to him. Indeed, given the differences between the two media, it seems only natural that what constitutes a failure to listen correctly in a music drama should become a failure to see in a silent film. Moreover, Lang utilizes the cinematic possibilities of the gaze to distinguish sharply between Siegfried and Hagen, with the first demonstrating a gaze that. is "transparent, naive, and exuberant," the second one that is "dark, calculating, and restrained" (p. 103).

Lang's film adds a special perspective the national bonding that the Nibelung material has brought about since its revival two centuries ago, for, as Levin argues, it provided an opportunity for the German film industry to assert what were considered traditional German values - for example, the naivete and naturalism embodied in Siegfried - against the encroachments of the Hollywood movie industry, which during the early years of the Weimar Republic threatened German film with its overtly commercial products. Indeed, the vision of Nibelungs building a crown that Alberich "screens" for Siegfried as a kind of film within the film becomes a symbol for Hollywood crassness. As Levin puts it bluntly, "Alberich is the foreign film man" (p. 125). Whatever position we may take in the debate on whether Wagner actually intended his Alberich to appear Jewish, Lang's cinematography, with its use of the "reigning German stereotypes of the Jewish body and Jewish nature" (p. 123), can leave no doubt. It goes without saying that the conspicuous role of Jews in the making of Hollywood films remains an underlying assumption here.

Levin's book exemplifies certain key characteristics of the study of opera today. For one thing, opera is only a single, though also central, manifestation of the phenomenon the author is presenting. Above all, this is a cultural study, a serious attempt to locate Wagner's achievement in the Ring within a larger cultural tradition. It does not attempt music analysis, nor is its author a trained musicologist, though he has worked as an opera director; like many working on opera today, he is located in a nonmusical field - in his case, German studies. And the book is notable for the variety of intellectual domains that the author is able to invoke to create his own narrative: contemporary literary and cultural theory, psychoanalysis, and film theory, among others. Through its ability to bring these areas into focus upon a single tradition, this book should serve as a model for others.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Lindenberger, Herbert
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1999
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