Finding an Ending: Reflections on Wagner's Ring
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Few musical works loom as large in Western culture as Richard Wagner's four-part Ring of the Nibelung. In Finding an Ending, two eminent philosophers, Philip Kitcher and Richard Schacht, offer an illuminating look at this greatest of Wagner's achievements, focusing on its far-reaching and subtle exploration of problems of meanings and endings in this life and world.
Kitcher and Schacht plunge the reader into the heart of Wagner's Ring, drawing out the philosophical and human significance of the text and the music. They show how different forms of love, freedom, heroism, authority, and judgment are explored and tested as it unfolds. As they journey across its sweeping musical-dramatic landscape, Kitcher and Schacht lead us to the central concern of the Ring--the problem of endowing life with genuine significance that can be enhanced rather than negated by its ending, if the right sort of ending can be found. The drama originates in Wotan's quest for a transformation of the primordial state of things into a world in which life can be lived more meaningfully. The authors trace the evolution of Wotan's efforts, the intricate problems he confronts, and his failures and defeats. But while the problem Wotan poses for himself proves to be insoluble as he conceives of it, they suggest that his very efforts and failures set the stage for the transformation of his problem, and for the only sort of resolution of it that may be humanly possible--to which it is not Siegfried but rather Brünnhilde who shows the way.
The Ring's ending, with its passing of the gods above and destruction of the world below, might seem to be devastating; but Kitcher and Schacht see a kind of meaning in and through the ending revealed to us that is profoundly affirmative, and that has perhaps never been so powerfully and so beautifully expressed.
we achieve nothing if we are not completely successful. But there is no good reason to think in such “all or nothing” terms. We take it to be perfectly legitimate to respond to the challenge by declaring that the approximations we may actually achieve can be genuinely valuable: the doctors who minister to the victims of plague may alleviate only a fraction of human suffering, but we may nonetheless reasonably view what they do as a significant achievement. Similarly, those who contribute to our
is Flosshilde’s ear-ravishing but heartless teasing, as she urges Alberich on only to frustrate and humiliate him all the more: (“Du freitest um zwei/ frügst du die Dritte/ süssen Trost/ schüfe die Traute dir [You have wooed two; if you asked the third, your darling would bring you sweet bliss],” accompanied by a tender violin solo, and “Wie dein Anmuth/ mein Aug’ erfreut, . . . [How your charm cheers my eye . . .]).” To borrow Rupert Brooke’s phrase, this seems but “love-music that is cheap,” a
obvious symbol of this is the Ring itself, fashioned out of material extracted from its primordial condition — not, in the T 77 78 Wotan’s Problem manner of Wotan’s spear, as a means to higher ends but out of a pathological impulse to which the primordial state was always vulnerable. This Ring of Power only creates more problems as the new possibilities it represents become known, and as hatred, vengefulness, lust, and greed are amplified through competition for it. Fafner’s sudden killing
philosophical questions and expresses ideas that respond to them; and Wagner recognized that he could not formulate these ideas in a fully precise and explicit way. But we think that he was on to a number of things that are interesting and perhaps even truly important. We suspect that this is no small part of the reason so many reasonably sane and quite intelligent people are fascinated with the Ring. And we ourselves have found it very rewarding both philosophically and personally to try to come
noble. It is therefore wrong, she insists, for him to condemn her to the nightmare life of an exclusive bond and submission that is a travesty of love, having nothing whatsoever to do with her own manner of loving (which had had nothing erotic or exclusive about it). Even if what she did was a crime, the punishment does not fit it. Brünnhilde can only convey this to Wotan by way of the violence of her abhorrence of the possible fate that awaits her, but she stands before him with the blazing eyes