‘Five Lessons on Wagner’ reviewed by Paul Sutton

Five Lessons on Wagner

Translated by Susan Spitzer, Verso, London, 2010. 239pp., £16.99 pb
ISBN 9781844674817

Reviewed by Paul Sutton

About the reviewer

Paul Sutton has written on Iain Sinclair and Frank Zappa and is now, at least in the intervals left …


Of the four `truth procedures’ identified by Alain Badiou – art, love, politics and science – it has been the last-named, in the form of mathematics, which has received his most original and substantial attention. Nevertheless, Badiou, who is also a novelist and playwright, lards even his most technical texts with considerations of those artists whom he considers ‘evental’. These are drawn largely from the high modernist canon, principally Mallarmé, whom he never tires of proclaiming as one of the great dialecticians, and also Beckett, Pessoa, Celan, Schönberg and Picasso. In a manner analogous to that of the mathematicians who have proved so seminal for Badiou’s philosophy, such artists struggle to confer form on ‘inconsistent multiplicity’. Wagner, or rather, the proto-fascist impresario he stands accused of being, would, on the other hand, surely be inimical to such aporetic subtlety. Indeed, Badiou, notwithstanding his lifelong admiration for the composer, admits to a certain diffidence in this, his first Wagner text (x), and goes on to provide a scrupulous and extensive rehearsal of the anti-Wagner case. Five Lessons on Wagner was collated and translated by Susan Spitzer from the notes to lectures given by the author in the early 2000s. Fellow Wagnerite Slavoj Zizek provides an afterword in which he playfully complicates what we think we know about the composer.

Badiou’s starting point is the work of a recent Wagner commentator, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe: ‘I will be following in the footsteps of Lacoue-Labarthe, who, like Adorno and Nietzsche before him, considers it essential for a philosopher to take on Wagner’ (55). Badiou eschews the density, self-sufficiency and immediacy of his writing on Mallarmé and Beckett, seeking instead to grasp the Wagner problem in its historical unfolding, comprehending Lacoue-Labarthe as the latter, in turn, seeks to comprehend his predecessors. Lacoue-Labarthe identifies four quarrels with Wagner, those of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Nietzsche and Adorno. He contends that all these thinkers, despite themselves, are ‘secretly in thrall to what is essentially dangerous in Wagnerism’ (8). It is not merely the ‘proto-fascism’ of an individual artist, but the very nature of art’s claims on our attention which is brought into question. Wagner is to be condemned not simply for having written an anti-semitic pamphlet but for ‘restoring high art … [for] the contemporary world can longer produce anything in terms of high art except extremely reactionary, dangerous, even secretly criminal political configurations’ (9). Wagner’s deployment of myth, technological effects, totalisation and unification anticipates not just the 1930s but the contemporary role of music as ‘a crucial vector in contemporary ideological configurations’ (2).

Badiou does not so much seek to refute the anti-Wagner case, as suggest that there are new truths – the inventiveness of truth procedures being a central concern of his thought – to be derived from Wagner. His argument is at one operatic and philosophical. On the one hand, he finds in the operatic tradition performances which suggest a less monumental and terroristic Wagner than Lacoue-Labarthe is prepared to acknowledge, and on the other, he derives from Adorno an anti-fascist aesthetic with which, it transpires, Wagner turns out to conform.

While Lacoue-Labarthe is all too ready to take Wagner the ideologist at his word, Badiou embraces the contingency of performance. Bayreuth’s post-war self-rehabilitation in the form of Wieland Wagner’s decisive turn to abstraction belies the claim that the work is necessarily in the service of national mythology. Even more importantly, the ‘French Wagner’, the centenary production of the Ring by Patrice Chereau and Pierre Boulez, offers a revolutionary ‘post-May 1968’ interpretation in which the play of opposing forces in Wagner is theatricalised, not suppressed in a spurious mythological unity (6). At the end of the cycle, for example, Chereau has the surviving crowd of humans confront the audience directly. This is not the fulfilment of a national destiny but a generic, open-ended questioning – what is to be done? Similarly, Boulez’s analytical conducting lays bare the operation of what Lacoue-Labarthe regards as coercive techniques.

In the second chapter, Badiou turns his attention to Adorno. Before discussing it, however, it would be well to consider the symptomatic void at its heart, indeed at the book’s heart: namely Adorno’s magisterial In Search of Wagner. Written in exile in the 1930s, and informed by a prodigious talent for both philosophy and music, the book could hardly fail to be authoritative. The objections raised by Lacoue-Labarthe to Wagner, although originating with Nietzsche, were given their definitive form by Adorno. However, the book is no mere hatchet job; indeed, it is the very ferocity of Adorno’s critique (‘vicious’ according to Slavoj Zizek (193)) that renders his closing recuperation of Wagner all the more effective:

Anyone able to snatch … gold from the deafening surge of the Wagnerian orchestra, would be rewarded by its altered sound, for it would grant him that solace which, for all its rapture and phantasmagoria, it consistently refuses. By voicing the fears of helpless people, it could signal help for the helpless, however feebly and distortedly. In doing so it would renew the promise contained in the age-old protest of music: the promise of a life without fear. (Adorno, 2009, 145)

It would seem, then, that Lacoue-Labarthe is justified in regarding Adorno as insufficiently anti-Wagnerian. By ignoring In Search of Wagner, Badiou deprives both himself and Lacoue-Labarthe of an invaluable resource. Instead, perversely but ingeniously, Badiou takes as his text Negative Dialectics, a book of which ‘we cannot fail to note that Wagner is completely missing from it’ (27). The book is Adorno’s response to his own injunction ‘to arrange [our] thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen’ (42). By insisting on suffering as the non-conceptual ground of thought and favouring constellation over configuration, Adorno seeks to circumvent the terrorism implicit in identity thinking. Badiou derives from this three themes which bear directly on the aesthetic: disunification, ‘waiting in vain’ and negativity. Disunification is ‘a process of formal “doing” that is simultaneously a disintegration of form, … [a] struggle against identity’s dominance’ (50). ‘Waiting in vain’ insists upon the persistence of suffering. ‘We must wait for justice to be done but we cannot entertain the idea of an already accomplished, established, irrevocable justice … music must produce something akin to waiting, albeit an unresolved waiting wherein no real outcome of what is awaited ever occurs’ (50). Negativity is the watchword; goals, results and positive achievement are to be rigorously eschewed. The injunction not to repeat Auschwitz implies a music with no resolution, a music that terminates the unifying processes of form and tolerates real difference and multiplicity.

Wagner stands accused, then, of subordinating musical logic to crass theatricalisation, forcing unity on heterogeneous material in the service of German nationalism. What appears to be difference is mere postponement and the attention to suffering is tainted by showmanship. Wagner’s own statements, together with the more conservative strains in the performing tradition, certainly lend credence to the charge of a fascistic aestheticisation of politics. However, Badiou insists upon making a ‘distinction between what Wagner saw as his own greatness … and the place where his greatness really lies, namely, in the accomplishments that we can discern today’ (129). Badiou tentatively extracts from Wagner five rules, or clues, concerning greatness (greatness being conformity with the anti-identitarian strictures Badiou derives from Negative Dialectics). The most important of these concern present tense subjectivation, multiplicity and ‘transformation without finality’ (131). ‘At their heart … lies an incomparable mastery of the transformations whereby local cells are capable of configuring a global situation’ (132). The much-maligned leitmotif, then, is not reified mythology, but a fluid node for the articulation of historical forces. Badiou concludes by putting his conclusions in the service of a consideration of Parsifal. Unsurprisingly, his argument has more of the suggestiveness and contingency of French symbolism than the stridency of German nationalism.

 An eloquent and engaged, if sometimes tentative, defence of its eponymous composer, Five Lessons on Wagner is, more intriguingly, a coded and oblique engagement with the ‘Adorno question’, itself a variant of that ‘Hegel question’ which has conditioned so much French thought, Badiou’s included. ‘The French can be defined as those who claim to know what France is, while the Germans can be defined as those who do not know what Germany is’ (101-2), Badiou suggests, to which it is tempting to add that the French can also be defined as those who claim to know what Germans really mean.

26 July 2011


  • Adorno, Theodor 2009 In Search of Wagner trans. Rodney Livingstone (London: Verso)

Make a comment

Your email address will not be published.