What I’ve been reading (November 2020)

Alex Ross, Wagnerism – Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music: I recently rewatched Apocalypse Now which features possibly the most infamous use of Wagner in film history, a helicopter attack on a Vietnamese village to the tune of the Ride of the Valkyries. I can report that the spell of that scene remains unbroken. The Valkyries bring out the latent thrill of abstract, mechanized violence to a degree that they completely override any satirical intentions of the film makers. It was maybe inevitable that this use of the music would transcend the screen and subsequently those same brass fanfares would be deployed during real military operations. Alex has a great video recapping the mad ride:

This is just one fairly contemporary instance of a Wagnerism. The book catalogs the dizzying variety of ways in which Wagner’s ideas and music influenced artists and commoners alike over the centuries. After following Alex’s writing in the New Yorker for more than a decade I feel I have a handle on his passions, and I think the book is strongest where he is most invested personally – as in Willa Cather, who gets a whole luxurious chapter of her own, and as in Thomas Mann, who pops up all over since his life is entwined in such an exemplary way with the art and politics and Wagnerisms of his time.

Because of a noticeable emphasis on proto-queer figures – Ludwig II, Cather, Mann, Proust – at times the book feels like a project of queering Wagner. Until this party of aesthetes is broken up by Hitler, of course, and then incinerated by fictional military helicopters. Such is the Wagnerian question hovering in the background of it all: How is it that one artist’s body of work would accessorize both Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and a Nazi state philosophy of murderous antisemitism?

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