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The Ring, an allegory of triumphant 19th century capitalism

Wagner, critic of the industrial age

By Jean-François Candoni 09 October 2020

© Goskino / Proletkult - Collection Christophel

La grève. Film muet russe réalisé par Sergei M Eisenstein, 1925. Collection Christophel

The Ring, an allegory of triumphant 19th century capitalism
Begun in 1848 – the year in which Marx and Engels published their Communist Party Manifesto – the conception of The Ring of the Nibelung was contemporaneous with the revolutionary events in Dresden in which Wagner took part alongside the anarchist Bakunin. Within this context of insurrection, the composer formulated an economic and social critique of his own era, several facets of which inform The Ring.

Wagner the realist

Whilst in the midst of writing the libretto of Das Rheingold, Wagner stated that he was “one of those people for whom the very idea of capital associated with dividends is a perfectly immoral phenomenon” (letter to Julie Ritter, 9/12/1851). In accordance with this, his artistic oeuvre did not remain indifferent to either the phenomena of rampant industrialisation in the second half of the 19th century, or the rising tide of the capitalist system. Although the scenario of the Ring draws on ancient Germanic and Scandinavian myths, Wagner brings them up to date in a rather spectacular manner, and stages a veritable allegory of the 19th century world, placing much emphasis on the questioning of power relationships and the place of man and nature in modern society.

Qualified by his contemporaries as a “modern romantic realist” (Eduard Krüger), and even as the “Courbet of music” (François-Joseph Fétis), in the Ring, Wagner offers us moments that illustrate in striking manner, both realist and poetic, the world of industry. In the scene of the Nibelheim in particular, he paints a truly sombre picture of a universe in which the proletariat is ruthlessly exploited by the new dominant class, embodied by Alberich. Everything is there: the deafening racket of the forges, the columns of vapour and the stench of sulphur, the foggy half-light interrupted by showers of sparks, not forgetting the piercing cries of the Nibelungen people enslaved by a tyrannical and megalomaniac master.

The composer himself suggests a parallel between the forges of the Nibelheim and the industrial sites that sprang up throughout Europe in the second half of the 19th century. During a trip to London in 1877, he lingered over the spectacle of the industrial and commercial activity spreading over the banks of the Thames and exclaimed: “It is here that Alberich’s dream has been accomplished. Nibelheim, world domination, activity, labour, everywhere one perceives the pressure of steam and fog” (Cosima Wagner’s Journal).

The Ring, a stockmarket portfolio

References to economic relations in the modern capitalist world are not, however, limited to a few isolated tableaux, however spectacular they may be; they underpin the entire Cycle and are articulated around an important symbol, the ring. It is around the latter that cupidity, egotism and the desire for power in all its forms, are crystallised. In one of his last essays, Know Thyself (1881), the composer qualifies gold as the “demon strangling manhood’s innocence” and compares the ring of the Nibelung to a “stockmarket portfolio”. The ring is a symbol, and as such presents two facets: it is a visible object that attracts the eye (the material dimension is essential to any symbol), but it also refers to something abstract, which allows it to crystallise any number of fantasies, in particular the desire for possession and power. In a paraphrase of Karl Marx in Das Kapital, one could argue that Alberich’s ring, a seemingly simple object, is in fact a sort of fetish, “a highly complex thing, full of metaphysical subtleties”. In Wagner, the particularity of this symbol resides in its fluidity, in its capacity for constant circulation, passing rapidly from hand to hand – a quality it shares with money and shares. 

Contrary to the theories of the laws of modern economics, the circulation of the ring does not take place within a framework of freely consented exchanges, but in a violent manner, through brutal dispossession and even through murder. Taking up Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s famous formula, “Property is theft”, in the Ring, Wagner shows that gold cannot be owned if it has been stolen from others. After the original crime, Alberich’s theft of the gold, it is Wotan who steals the ring from the Nibelung; under constraint, the master of the gods is forced to give up the treasure he has stolen from Alberich to the giants in order to pay the debt he owes them; Fafner then slaughters Fasolt to become sole possessor of the ring; Siegfried then kills Fafner, takes the ring and offers it to Brünnhilde, before wrenching it out of her hands in a scene of unprecedented violence, akin to rape. Finally, Gunther and Hagen make a vain attempt to take possession of the ring over Siegfried’s corpse, thus precipitating their own downfall.

La grève. Film muet russe réalisé par Sergei M Eisenstein, 1925. Collection Christophel
La grève. Film muet russe réalisé par Sergei M Eisenstein, 1925. Collection Christophel © Goskino / Proletkult

The spectral life of the ring’s owners

In Wagner, the theory of free competition characteristic of modern capitalism takes on the hideous face of relationships of pitiless rivalry, constructed out of wickedness, hatred, violence and attempts at destabilisation, whether between Alberich and his brother Mime or his son Hagen, between Fafner and his brother Fasolt, between Siegfried and Mime, his adoptive father, or between Wotan and Alberich. To these damaged relationships, to this alienation of people in relation to others must be added the self-alienation of the individual: during the two final days of the Ring, Alberich, the all-powerful master of the Nibelungen, is no more than a miserable vagabond devoured by desire and rancour; Wotan, for his part, is transformed into a ghost-like voyager, the powerless spectator of his own, ineluctable downfall; in Götterdämmerung, Siegfried, the incarnation of innocence and spontaneity, becomes a party to (and consenting victim of) the sordid intrigues contrived by Hagen. But the most spectacular metamorphosis is that of Fafner, the giant, transformed, after having taken possession of the ring, into a hideous dragon and reduced to a somnolent existence. Indeed, the phrase he utters when Wotan and Alberich come to awaken him has become emblematic of the attitude of the capitalist slumped over his accumulated wealth: “I lie here and I possess. Let me sleep.”

The ring’s victims are victims first and foremost of their own cupidity and have no more than a spectral existence, as if the ring has emptied them of their vital substance in order to feed itself. One is reminded here of Karl Marx’s famous analysis (an author that Wagner had not read but with whose theories he was, to all evidence, familiar): “...all the things which you cannot do, your money can do. It can eat and drink, go to the dance hall and the theatre; it can travel, it can appropriate art, learning, the treasures of the past, political power – all this it can appropriate for you – it can buy all this: it is true endowment.” (1844 Manuscripts). Without using irony with the same skill as Marx, in an essay published in 1848, Wagner affirmed that the “emancipation of the human species” could not be accomplished until the “demoniac notion of money” had faded like a bad dream provoked by “an evil nocturnal gnome”.

Wagner: a composer who unleashes passions

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Wagner: a composer who unleashes passions

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