May 2013

Evan McMurry

nonfiction

Genius, Power and Magic: A Cultural History from Goethe to Wagner by Roderick Cavaliero

"Their father belonged to a type that was more prominent in Germany fifty years ago than now," E. M. Forster wrote of a character near the beginning of 1910's Howards End. "He was not the aggressive German, so dear to the English journalist, nor the domestic German, so dear to the English wit. If one classed him at all, it would be as the countryman of Hegel and Kant, as the idealist, inclined to be dreamy, whose Imperialism was the Imperialism of the air."

Forster's German was a vestige of the transformation Roderick Cavaliero describes in Genius, Power and Magic: A Cultural History from Goethe to Wagner. "The air to which Germany was given the empire," opens the history, in words similar to Forster's, "was that numinous, vaporous mist of metaphysical complexity." Cavaliero's brisk and wide-ranging text follows Germany as it matures from a northern European backwoods to the land of Goethe and Mendelssohn, to, finally, the restless military power that leered at the bourgeois Brits of Howards End as World War I fast approached.

Germany was the last of the major European nations to effloresce. While England had gorged on empiricism and expanded into a colonial power, and France had terrified history with Jacobins and guillotines, Germany remained an archipelago of rural kingdoms, a land Thackeray nicknamed Pumpernickel. Its urban centers were minor; its people were provincial; its aristocracy built big goofy castles (including one that became the model for Disney's logo) but couldn't manage its relatively simple affairs. Germany's sole recommendation was that it was cheaper than Italy, which meant penny-pinching Brits and Francs sometimes slept in German inns. They found the food odd and the women ugly.

This began to change in the latter half of the eighteenth century, when Goethe and Schiller dragged German literature from fairy tales and medieval sagas into a headier Romanticism, and Kant compiled a complicated epistemology that could compete with Hume and outweigh Voltaire. While noblemen often squandered their money on ostentatious architecture, their vanity was such that they could be occasionally convinced to fund universities, where German intellectualism was nurtured. The French Revolution spooked German leaders -- even Goethe, who balked at its blood -- but they were not too rattled to introduce liberal reforms in hopes of staving off a revolt of their own. As kingdoms dissipated and governments formed, Germany as we now know it coalesced.

But what would a unified Germany look like? Such is the underlying conflict of Genius, Power and Magic, and to this end the inclusion of Goethe and Wagner in the subtitle is no accident. The two men form the poles of the book, not only chronologically -- Goethe was born in a small town in the Pumpernickel days, and was an elder statesmen by the time Wagner came along -- but morally. Goethe, the polymath humanist whose earthly tenure lasted long enough to first embody Romanticism and then surpass it, appears in every chapter and inspires every soul, overflowing with the German spirit he thought could ennoble his people. "Boldness has a genius, power, and magic to it," he supposedly wrote, a phrase that belongs more to the Germany that read Goethe than the one he experienced.

Wagner, on the other hand, is unmistakably Cavaliero's villain, almost comic-bookish in his furious struggle to become a major musician, the frustrations of which sprang the anti-Semitism crouching within him. His spite found its object in Felix Mendelssohn, grandson of the legendary Jewish intellectual Moses Mendelssohn. While never considered a great performer, Felix's superhuman skill -- having heard a piece only once, he could play it from memory, variations and all -- had made him an international star by the 1830s. He sold out performances not only in Vienna and Berlin but in London, making good on the promise of Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven to turn Germany from a land of dinky waltzes to a world player in western music.

Alas, he had the misfortune of rejecting for performance a symphony composed by a young Wagner, who nursed the insult until he finally repaid it via a seething takedown in a music journal, claiming that "it was impossible for a Jew, no matter how civilized or capable, to move both heart and soul." In place of Mendelssohn's virtuosity, Wagner substituted the tumultuous bombast for which he is now reductively famous. Where Felix Mendelssohn had seemed primed to realize the greatness of Goethe's German spirit on global scale -- to say nothing of what his famous figure could do for the Jews -- Wagner's missive reeked of the noxious, narrow nationalism that was beginning to befoul Europe.

Always impecunious, Wagner teamed up with Ludwig II, a Bavarian king whose grandfather had once nearly bankrupted his line by taking a profligate mistress named Lola Montez. (She hailed from Ireland, claimed to be Spanish, married a German nobleman, and finally widowed an American newspaperman.) Her name was synonymous with lavish ruin by the time Ludwig II fell in love with Wagner and decided to underwrite the ambitious composer's career. Wagner became a modern Lola, blowing the state's funds not on jewels and carriages but opera halls and overwhelming symphonic productions.

The men's chaste but clearly homoerotic relationship expressed itself in ownership battles over The Ring Cycle and compromised performances of Wagner's pieces that both the king and the composer refused to attend. Ludwig almost certainly had dementia, and he spent his last years making his servants perform Wagner's pieces in a boarded-up chateau. This was the final shudder of the Pumpernickel age, its obsolete nobility, rococo architecture, and aristocratic paraphernalia expiring in the pointless mansion. Ludwig II is best remembered for giving a dashing oration to local troops before a battle with Prussia, his long hair flowing behind him as he rode his white horse away, a quaint and ridiculous image even then. With no children, he was the end of the line.

Wagner went on to pick the pocket book of Kaiser Frederick I, who built the composer his Valhalla from which he trumpeted German anthems. For all that Wagner's operas mined Saxon folklore for subject matter, their scale and seriousness left Pumpernickel behind as surely as their composer did their Bavarian patron. Having laid waste to both the international bonhomie of Mendhelssohn and the Romantic innocence of Ludwig, Wagner ushered Germany to the brink of the modern era. The first of two world wars lurked around the corner. (In a fitting coda, an original Wagner score was destroyed along with Hitler in the Fuhrer's bunker, a fate so symbolically compact it is almost unbelievable.)

Cavaliero, a European and Romanticist scholar, is an enthusiastic guide to this panorama of artistic and philosophic expression, elucidating everything from Fichte's musings to Caspar David Friedrich's landscapes to Heinrich von Kleist's stories. He helpfully shines outside minds on various corners of German culture: we tromp with Coleridge, Carlyle, Wordsworth, Thackeray, and more through the fields and forests, first as tourists and then as thinkers who, especially in Coleridge's laudanum-laden case, sense something percolating in Germany's ethereality. If these excursions occasionally cause the text to detour, Cavaliero is fascinated enough by them to convince the reader to follow.

Refreshingly for the subject matter, Cavaliero has a wry humor and knack for phrasing: advances in instrumentation turned Germany into a "nest of orchestras," its architects were "drunk with decoration," a feisty French exile "approached like a ruling monarch," a nobleman is welcomed with a "grotto of trumpets," and so on. But something about proximity to penises causes his compass to spin in strange directions. Cavaliero notes of one lothario that he slept his way through Weimar "popping hymens like champagne corks," which should win some sort of simile award; later, he calls the force of Wagner's long musical climaxes "a tonal Viagra," which should not.

"It was all very immense," Forster wrote of his German, "one had turned into an Empire -- but he knew that some quality had vanished for which not all Alsace-Lorraine could compensate him." By 1910, Germany was kicking with war and industry, having taken up the gauntlet of Wagner rather than the generous humanity of Goethe. Cavaliero, in fact, slyly suggests that Goethe's true spiritual heir was a young English writer named Marian Evans, who was about to begin publishing under a pseudonym, and whose novels would flow greatly into Forster's (though he was far enough down the line to turn his nose up a bit at George Eliot's prose). Much as Coleridge and Carlyle had once rushed into Germany's thick foliage for inspiration, Forster and his airy German now viewed the Wagner-haunted land askance, shaking at its portents of violence and devastation, wondering what had happened. Cavaliero's learned study would have been a fine place for them to start.

Genius, Power and Magic: A Cultural History from Goethe to Wagner by Roderick Cavaliero
I. B. Tauris
ISBN: 978-1780764009
384 pages