Alex Ross’s Wagernism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music was released in September to wide acclaim. In VAN, Alison Kinney described the book’s complex, nuanced approach to art and morality: “Ross recognizes, and reshapes, the world of Wagnerism as it is, for good and for bad, and makes room for the inadequacy of all our cultural criticism.” I recently talked to Ross about the book on video chat.

Alex Ross • Photo © David Michalek
Alex Ross • Photo © David Michalek

VAN: You’ve said that you spent about ten years researching and writing Wagnerism. Did you see Wagner everywhere, in all the art you consumed?

Alex Ross: I had been. I’ve let go of that to some extent. I’m no longer in this manic mode where I go to a bookstore and I’m flipping through books and looking in the index to see if Wagner is in it. When I was going to museums and galleries, I’d always be on the lookout for weird Wagnerian art. It’s a relief to be no longer in that total paranoid mode.

I always had more than enough material, but I wanted more and more and more. Sort of this addictive urge to not overlook anything, even if most of the time there wouldn’t be room for it in the book.

How did you decide when the research for the book was done?

It was never done; it was always ongoing. Right up to the end, there would be a new article in the Wagner journal, wagnerspectrum, which would have some tidbit of information I wanted to include. I think there are items in the bibliography which go right up to early 2020.

The lion’s share of the reading and looking and film viewing was done in the first five or six years of the ten-year process. After that, it was covering bases and catching up with anything I’d overlooked, but I could never be certain that I was done. There were just decisions that had to be made.

I remember coming across a citation of a book about Portuguese Wagnerism. I was going to request an interlibrary loan. But I decided, “You know what? I’m going to have to let go of Portuguese Wagnerism.”

Shortly after Wagnerism was released, I saw a tweet saying it was time to finally cancel Richard Wagner. Your book is in part a nuanced and convincing argument about why we can’t do that. To what extent do you hope to influence the conversation that we’re having about Wagner’s odious views and the important art that he made?

There was always the sense that the conversation around Wagner seemed somewhat distorted. There are broad-brush generalizations about Wagner, especially in terms of his antisemitism and his influence on Hitler and Nazism. I myself had once very much accepted these generalizations. In my whole early history with Wagner, I took it for granted that he was this supremely menacing figure who influenced Hitler. In the late ’90s, I wrote a big article for The New Yorker about Wagner which was very much in that spirit. It was heavily concentrated on the Wagner-Hitler connection, [drawing on the scholarship] of Paul Lawrence Rose, Marc Weiner, David Levin, and Barry Millington.

Then I kept delving in more deeply and reading more widely, and I became dissatisfied with that stance. I felt that it was a bit more complicated. Those major scholarly figures—most of them do actually have an extremely nuanced and careful approach to this question. It’s not as if they were retelling some cartoonish idea about Wagner. But the way it seeped out into the larger public discourse, I felt like there was a lot of simplification involved.

Every time I’ve gone back to it, every time I read a new article or a book on the subject, I’m reconsidering, wavering one way or another. It’s this unsolved case which is going to perpetually be at the forefront. Part of that ongoing process for me is coming to terms and refining and adjusting my own attitude toward Wagner.

There are a lot of simplified versions of this Wagner-Hitler relationship in circulation. Intelligent, cultured people are very surprised to learn that Wagner had been a revolutionary, that he had a powerful influence on the left. They’re astonished to find that W.E.B. Du Bois and Theodor Herzl were Wagnerians.

Wagnerism is about restoring confusion to the question of Wagner and who Wagner was: a healthy confusion, a kind of complexity. But I never want to progress to the point where I feel like there’s a fog machine that I’m using to obscure these central dark facts.

[Writing this book, I] experienced once again the tragedy of this enormously broad-spirited, passionately contradictory figure becoming confined politically by virtue of his own beliefs. It felt like a fall from a potential height of reaching an artistic status of near universality—the extremely broad appeal that you find in figures like Dante and Shakespeare, who seemed to cross all cultural boundaries; they become an obsession of everyone. Wagner has not become an obsession of everyone. He fails to make that translation to universality, and with very good reason.

One of the things that struck me about the book was that you also look at how Wagner has influenced right-wing, militaristic, racist movements beyond the Wagner-Hitler connection. You mention the Wagner allusion in “Apocalypse Now,” and also tie him to the second Iraq War and contemporary far-right movements.

Yes, and that took two different forms. One was finding the actual cases of extreme right, alt-right, and neo-Nazi people who were obsessed with Wagner. I spent quite a bit of time looking through creepy corners of websites and trying to get certain amounts of that extreme-right Wagnerism. I wouldn’t say that there’s a whole lot of that; you don’t find people citing Beethoven and Wagner all that much. But it’s there, and it’s certainly not something to be overlooked. Like the now-former Brazilian minister who gave a plagiarized Goebbels address with “Lohengrin” playing in the background.

[The other was] the bigger questions of the Wagnerian legacy and the right-wing, and even more broadly the imperialist and hegemonic mindset and white supremacy in this more oblique relationship. For me, the “Ride of the Valkyries” in “Apocalypse Now” is symbolic. It’s not the case that Wagner himself propelled American imperialism and white supremacist foreign policy. But as Americans, it directs us away from the kind of exceptionalism that says that only in Germany does this ominous linkage between culture and politics blossom. It’s always been obvious that that’s not the case. There’s a little bit of a provocation towards American leaders when I take up the question of superhero narratives and extreme Manichaean good and evil schemes in American popular culture and relate them to Wagner. [I‘m] not saying Wagner is the source, but that we are replicating this cultural, political logic.

You mentioned that Wagner fails at universality. I saw a production of “Walküre” in Berlin recently, and there was a guy in full leather gear sitting next to the most bourgeois imaginable Germans in suits. In the moment, it felt like he had a pretty broad appeal. Why does he fail at universality in your view?

[I meant] the highest echelon canonization—Shakespeare seems to belong to everyone. There are questions about Shakespeare that swirl, including the antisemitism question, but he is in this stratosphere.… I don’t know of people who refuse to go to Shakespeare plays because of antisemitism in “The Merchant of Venice,” or how he treats female characters. You’re not going to find people who refuse to listen to Beethoven because the man was awful.

[But] with Wagner, that is still so present. So many people just won’t listen to him. It’s very real, this lack of universality, and the sense that Wagner means “problematic.” Why it remains so present is a fascinating question itself.

From the very beginning, Wagner was divisive, and his extreme advocates and his sworn enemies were both at the same high volume, screaming back and forth. At the beginning, the issues were completely different: There was very little awareness of his antisemitism; it was all about his theoretical writings, the vocabulary of the music of the future, and the attacks on conventional classical music culture. His personality—in the room, on the page as a writer, and in the music—had an atmosphere, an intensity, which proved completely divisive in the beginning. Some people were swept up by it, and some people were totally repulsed by it. And there are people who resist Wagner because they just don’t like the sound of the music.

It’s the genius of the “no bad publicity” approach to marketing. As long as Wagner is being argued about, he remains a viable commercial quantity. I think you can suspect Wagner of almost consciously pursuing this marketing strategy. The most important thing is just to create some kind of stink. [Laughs]

At the same time, there’s no question that Wagnerites are an extremely diverse group of people. From the most elegantly-dressed bourgeois operagoers to, as you say, people in leather gear, or just people who otherwise have very little interest in classical music culture, but Wagner is something that they’re attracted to. The sheer global scope of the Wagner societies. Quasi-universality with a big asterisk.

As The New Yorker’s classical music critic, you frequently profile musicians, artists, composers, and directors. How important do you think Wagner is for contemporary artists?

You actually never know who is going to turn out to have an interest in Wagner. I think a lot are working composers and musicians [who] end up engaging with him on an extremely practical level. It’s not necessarily a question of dealing with these huge Wagner questions, but just, “Is there something to be learned from him right now?” He was such a fertile thinker, and you can find intriguing practical ideas in terms of how he talks about the stage, about conducting, how he works with instruments in the orchestra. It’s almost wistful for the rest of us who can’t look away from these big troubling questions. It’s the prerogative of working composers and musicians to just see him as one of a bunch of people that you can use in a practical way, pick up ideas from, forget about the rest. It’s a healthier, more positive way of looking at the canon. ¶