Life Without Gods
Roger Scruton in conversation with Gudrun de Geyter
"In the mature operas of Wagner, our civilization has given expression for the last time to its idea of heroism, in the form of music which endeavors with all its might to enforce this idea, and because the composer Wagner was a great genius, all that he has composed in his mature idiom is sincere in tone, and every note is utterly right and at the same time utterly surprising."
(ROGER SCRUTON, The Trial of Richard Wagner, Nexus 19)
People today are aware of the fact that they live in a disenchanted world, a world from which the gods have disappeared. They are also aware of the fact that their presence in this world is a problem: after all, they are not in this world simply like objects or even like the animals; they have a responsibility toward their own lives, they have ambitions for themselves and for each other, and they are burdened with a legacy of guilt and fear and have a great need to heal themselves of this through love.
Most people will admit that it is very difficult to live a life where they can love another person completely and totally. Wagner's importance to us is that he shows characters in a mythical setting where they themselves are the instruments of their own redemption: they themselves come to terms with this inherited guilt that they overcome through love and renunciation; they themselves come to the realization that, even if the gods are dead or gone, they can muster in themselves sufficient moral resources to make their lives meaningful and worthwhile through this gesture of renunciation and through acceptance of death. And this is something that most of us are incapable of doing in everyday life because we are only ordinary, weak human beings.
But Wagner then presents these extraordinary slightly abstract but nevertheless brilliantly orchestrated heroes who show us the possibilities and I think people, especially in our time, have a great need for these examples, to experience these examples in real life on stage, as it were; it makes us feel that our lives are less trivial. Wagner succeeds in this in part because of his musical gifts; he has been able to develop a musical language that fills some of these abstract characters with meaning and connects them to the day-to-day feelings that we as an audience experience so that we are automatically enticed to sympathize with them notwithstanding that they are miles away from us because of their mythical distance.
The urgency of the music and the way in which all psychic forces are bundled into the music gives us an insight into these extraordinary mythical dramas and enables us to experience a kind of catharsis, not a catharsis of pity and fear, but a catharsis that frees us from our feelings regarding our own weaknesses and shortcomings by telling us, "Yes, I could have done that too."
Man is his own savior and it is important to see why this is so. It would be easy, like the animals, to just do our thing and give up striving to live more worthily as nature. We don't do that because we need to feel that our lives are meaningful; after all, we have a perspective on life from birth to death. We see ourselves in this world as pilgrims moving toward some realization of our own identity. If we lack this vision of ourselves then everything starts to look bad and desolate, then we start to hate each other and become bitter, which results in such things as the drug culture among the young or the pop scene where people try to lose themselves in a kind of crazy trance and that has nothing at all to do with happiness.
And so my contention is that we need this vision where we elevate ourselves above nature. With that comes the burden of guilt and also the desire to see each other as lovable, as worthwhile. This is especially true in love relationships between husband and wife, between parent and child, etc. Wagner saw this very clearly. He was one of the few modern artists who really wanted to discover what we mean without the gods, and he does so brilliantly by presenting the gods themselves on stage as dependent on us. The gods in Götterdämmerung perish because we have taken their fate into ourselves, as it were.
Wotan's restless concern throughout the Ring is to achieve his own freedom through the freedom human beings possess to love one another and to renounce this love for one another.
The question of the legitimacy of society is highly relevant to an understanding of Wagner. The only attempt to suggest anything of a society in the Ring are the choral parts in Götterdämmerung where a rather wild chorus of primitive warriors is called upon to accompany such matters as marriage and death. What Wagner does in the Ring and also in Tristan is to address the thorny issue of the loneliness that individuals inevitably feel in a modern society from which the gods have withdrawn. After all, the gods were there as the cement of that society. But at the same time Wagner recognizes that we are also social beings and he seeks to provide a different vision of what life in society is or could be, even for a single individual. He does that in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and in Parsifal and I think Die Meistersinger is one of the great political dramas of the last century. It was an attempt to show, through Hans Sachs and Walther von Stolzing, two different ways in which individuals can find their place in the community and through their solitude and through their actions - in the case of Sachs his act of renunciation - manage to renew their participation in the community around them. This is what Wagner hoped for and what I think all decent modern people must hope for namely that through this gesture of self-dissolution one gives the energy back to the surrounding society, thus helping it to regenerate itself.
Living with guilt and shame
There are two kinds of guilt. There is the guilt one feels toward others when one has done something improper. There is the more complex guilt that Schopenhauer called "die Schuld des Daseins selbst" and stems from simply belonging to society, from being born into a state of dependence. As self-conscious beings, we do not live from moment to moment like the animals. Moreover, we look at ourselves from the outside as others see us. We undergo constant fits of shame and hesitation. We recognize the difficulty of having to negotiate our lives with others, we are constantly apologizing. All of this is an integral part of the kind of being that human beings are. No religious or psychological explanation can grasp all this because of its pervasiveness. But this reality exists and as soon as you meet someone who lives without guilt and shame you find that person repugnant. You know that the only possible object of love is also someone who can feel guilt. These emotions are deeply connected and we have to plow our lives through them, so to speak, free ourselves from them if we want to live a decent life.
One of the great mistakes of our time, which is partly responsible for most of the crises of modern and postmodern society, is the attempt to free ourselves from guilt, an attempt which took off in the sixties and seventies in the form of sexual liberation, the drug culture, the pop scene, etc.
But you can't put society into a social contract. A real society is not based on contracts but on deeper issues. There is no contract between a mother and her child. There could not be one. Even between a married couple there is no actual contract, there is only the vow and one of the reasons why marriages fail so often is precisely because people want to put it into a contract and this contractualization of society is in my opinion an attempt to escape guilt and the penalty for this is the loss of love.
Wotan is not meant to be a model example in the Ring. Wotan tries to escape his own guilt and as he does so he loses his ability to love and only by finding that ability again in the characters of Brünnhilde and Siegfried can he achieve his own freedom but as he does so he acquires the consciousness of his own guilt and the desire for the end. Thus, the morality of The Ring is absolutely applicable to the crisis that European society faces today.
Source : WAGNER IN THE GEDING, VRT RADIO 3, November 1997. Transcription & translation: Jos Hermans