At the end, Ross performs a cleansing ritual. Taking up the spear with which Parsifal closes the wound of Amfortas in Wagner’s last opera, he uses it to heal his own psychic scars, which, as he somewhat creepily discloses, include being dumped by a boyfriend after a performance of Die Walküre and an ensuing alcoholic slump. My long slog through his book was not so cathartic. After Ross’s hungover postlude, I recalled his claim, made 700 arduous, enfevered, over-charged pages earlier, that Wagner’s influence was actually less extensive than those of Monteverdi, Bach or Beethoven. It’s good to be reminded that music does not always leave us with an aching libido and shredded nerves or threatens the universe with extinction.
Ross’s focus on Wagnerism is at its sharpest when he addresses the long-term ideological implications of what Wagner himself saw as the socially transformative power of opera. The book also offers fascinating insight when Ross considers the more private significance of Wagnerism as a force for shaping personal identities. While these public and private aspects of Wagnerism constitute a valuable counterpoint, Ross doesn’t bring them persuasively into relation with one another, and some of his strategies for structuring the material are not entirely satisfying: the sixth chapter yokes together “Jewish and Black Wagner”, while the seventh combines “Feminist and Gay Wagner”. These are potentially awkward pairings, even if they yield some unexpected insights
The section on Wagnerism and philosophy describes the composer’s influence on various thinkers without confronting this question at all. Given that we are reeling from 700 pages scattergunning us with intensely individual and often ludicrously contradictory responses to Wagner, we might choose to agree with the philosopher Alain Badiou and the painter Edvard Munch and indeed with Nietzsche, all of whom believed that, once created, the artwork is a being-in-itself, its infinity completely independent of both originator and interpreter. Wagnerism’s endless shape-shifting, reflected in the mirror of Ross’s temporal world, only confirms that distinguished triumvirate’s belief that the true artwork itself composes truth as it moves forward through time.
Ross’s rebuff to this ingrained, toxic Wagner is to offer a choice. Wagner can corrode, but he can also enrich, putting us deeper in touch with who we really are. With rhetorical flourishes and an eye for detail Ross extols the art made by Wagnerians who were able to meet “the Meister” on their own terms and follow the composer’s famous injunction: “Children, make something new!” The roll call takes in the words of Mallarmé, Woolf and Joyce (Ulysses owes at least as much to Wagner as it does to Homer) as well as the abstract canvases of Wassily Kandinsky and, more recently, the compassionate dreamscapes of the film director Terrence Malick. Yes, taking Wagner really seriously can be destructive. Ignoring him, however, is just stupid.
Ross’s book is excellent, and extraordinarily thorough. Though one occasionally misses a musically literate person saying something intelligent about Wagner — Debussy on the orchestration of Parsifal appearing illuminated from behind, or Berlioz saying that the Tristan prelude was nothing but appoggiaturas — there are plenty of books about that. Leaving the music to one side, Ross’s is a very thorough account of apparent delusion in search of a fugitive meaning.