RICHARD WAGNER: His Life, His Work, His Century by Martin Gregor-Dellin

RICHARD WAGNER: His Life, His Work, His Century

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KIRKUS REVIEW

No one-volume Wagner biography, it seems, can fully, fairly project more than a few aspects of his life-and-work--and this rather idiosyncratic, largely unsympathetic study (by the German co-editor of the Cosima Wagner Diaries) is weak on the musical Wagner, sporadically acute on the Wagner psychopathology, and intense (if not exactly lucid) on the political/philosophical Wagner. Gregor-Dellin starts right off with Wagneras-clinical-case: he had ""a remarkable, textbook mother fixation""; his doubts about his paternity were unfounded but obsessive; early insecurities created an ""impaired. . . sense of balance vis-à-vis reality."" Then, while following Wagner's musical apprenticeship and hapless marriage (""physical attraction triumphed over portents of disaster""), Gregor-Dellin is most interested in tracking the tricky course of Wagner's politico-philosophical actions and writings: his mixed, semi-sincere motives for ""wanting revolution"" in the 1840s; the persistent radicalism and cultural eclecticism that contributed to the Ring (he ""had at last succeeded in reconciling socialism with the German sagas!""); his grandiose writings on art--seen here as ""a religion in disguise,"" a pursuit of illusion, the product of ""unconscious psychical inflation""; Schopenhauer as ""Wagner's sedative."" And throughout, in fact, there's a view of Wagner as fundamentally disturbed or out-of-touch: the almost-affair with Mathilde Wesendonck; his paranoia in 1860 Paris; the ""shameful and insidious"" Cosima/Ludwig episode, with Wagner deliberately role-playing (""If he had ceased to be dishonest, he would have had to cease being himself""); the truth behind the Nietzsche/Wagner split (Wagner's meddling in Nietzsche's troubled sex-life); the infatuation with Judith Gautier; the overlap of humanitarianism and barbarism, as demonstrated by excerpts from the Diaries. The portrait, however, is far from consistently persuasive. And Gregor-Dellin's probing, musing approach frequently results in a loss of narrative drive: this is less absorbing as biography than several other Wagner studies--while those primarily interested in the music will also fare better elsewhere. Still: a provocative, decidedly unworshipful addition to the Wagner shelf--drawing on the latest sources (though surprisingly tame in the use of the Diaries material), offering some of the benefits (as well as the drawbacks) of a quasi-psychoanalytical approach.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1983
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich