There was a moment’s silence. Then the uproar began.
Boris Pasternak, Dr. Zhivago.
“Yes, yes, he’s right!”
Emile Zola, Germinal.
Wagner’s anti-Semitism? Despicable. Horrible. Unacceptable.
Daniel Barenboim, The Great Composers: Wagner.
“Oh yes, it’s terrible, absolutely terrible.”
J. Moussaieff Masson, Final Analysis: The Making and Unmaking of a Psychoanalyst.
Edward Said: Wagner and the Jews. It’s a question that, in a certain sense, can’t be avoided. If I might just add one other thing and that is that in his operas Wagner uses Jewish caricatures to represent characters who themselves are not Jewish. For example, Mime is not Jewish in the work – he’s not identified that way – and the same is true about Beckmesser – whereas in his prose works, Wagner does speak directly about Jews.
Daniel Barenboim: Well, I think it’s obvious that Wagner’s anti-Semitic views and writings are monstrous. There is no way around that. And I must say that if I, in a naïvely sentimental way, try to think which of the great composers of the past I would love to spend twenty-four hours with, if I could, Wagner doesn’t come to mind. I’d love to follow Mozart around for twenty-four hours; I’m sure it would be very entertaining, amusing, edifying, but Wagner…
Edward Said: You wouldn’t invite him to dinner.
Daniel Barenboim: Wagner? I might invite him to dinner for study purposes, but not for enjoyment. Wagner, the person, is absolutely appalling, despicable, and, in a way, very difficult to put together with the music he wrote, which so often has exactly the opposite kind of feelings. It is noble, generous, etc. But now we are entering into the whole discussion of whether it is moral or not and this becomes too involved in a discussion. But suffice it to say for now that Wagner’s anti-Semitism was monstrous. That he used a lot of, at the time, common terminology for what could be described as salon anti-Semitism, and that he had all sorts of rationalizations about it, does not make it any less monstrous. He also used some abominable phrases which can be, at best, interpreted as being said in the heat of the moment – that Jews should be burned, etc. Whether he meant these things figuratively or not can be discussed. The fact remains that he was a monstrous anti-Semite. How we would look at the monstrous anti-Semitism without the Nazis, I don’t know. One thing I do know is that they, the Nazis, used, misused, and abused Wagner’s ideas or thoughts – I think this has to be said – beyond what he might have had in mind. Anti-Semitism was not invented by Adolf Hitler and it was certainly not invented by Richard Wagner. It existed for generations and generations and centuries before. The difference between National Socialism and the earlier forms of anti-Semitism is that the Nazis were the first, to my knowledge, to evolve a systematic plan to exterminate the Jews, the whole people. And I don’t think, although Wagner’s anti-Semitism is monstrous, that he can be made responsible for that, even though a lot of the Nazi thinkers, if you want to call them that, often quoted Wagner as their precursor. It also needs to be said for clarity’s sake that, in the operas themselves, there is not one Jewish character. There is not one anti-Semitic remark. There is nothing in any one of the ten great operas of Wagner even remotely approaching a character like Shylock. That you can interpret Mime or Beckmesser in a certain anti-Semitic way (in the same way, you can also interpret The Flying Dutchman as the errant Jew), this is a question that speaks not about Wagner, but about our imagination and how our imagination is developed, coming into contact with those works.