Nano Note:

For some reason, I’ve been listening to the Ring cycle. Last week, I was about to embark on a tedious household project when it occurred to me that I’d really like to hear Das Rheingold. I’m sure that I’m not the only Wagner fan who nurses a secret preference for the first opera in the tetralogy; and I’m just as sure that I wouldn’t like it nearly so much if it weren’t so pregnant with everything that follows. Rheingold is more pageant than opera — there are no mortal characters — and its four scenes have a ceremonial sequence. (The only other part of the Ring that’s ceremonial in the same mythic way is the Q&A between Mime and the Wanderer in the first act of Siegfried. There’s lots of ceremony in the Ring, but it is subsumed within the operatic drama.) Rheingold‘s ending is stupendously pretty — “Heda! Hedo!,” followed by the shimmering Rainbow Bridge — and it always makes me think of a deeply-upholstered country-house weekend.

What the Ring has never made me think of is the critique of capitalism that it’s often said to be, and that it was made to look like in the great 1976 “Chéreau” Ring from Bayreuth, which spruced up the décor with references to Victorian clothing and Beaux-Arts design. Even after that, I was unpersuaded. The Ring has always struck me as being a lot bigger than “capitalism” — a term that is usually misunderstood by the people who throw it around. The Ring, it has always seemed to me, is about power, and that’s what makes it different from other operas, which are all about love and family. Power as an overarching, timelessly human problem. Not as an allegory of the Nineteenth Century’s bourgeoisie.

But this time, it’s different. I’m thinking a lot about contract. The problem that engenders the entire plot of the Ring cycle can be described in a short phrase: an unavoidable contract turns out to have unfortunate consequences. In sixteen hours of drama, we watch gods and heroes squirm within the constraints of the deals that they’ve made. Wagner is so good at coaxing tragedy from the Ring‘s contracts that we’re put in mind of the relentlessness of Greek drama. But Greek drama is overshadowed by divine caprice, and the Greek gods are spectacularly unfettered by the promises that they make. Wagner’s Wotan & Co is very much at home in the Industrial Revolution, which took place, after all, because the governments of Western Europe and North America invested business contracts with the same sacred insuperability that renders Wagner’s Valhalla defenseless against the flames of the pyre that Brünnhilde mounts at the end of Götterdämmerung.

The sacredness of contract has become a bit of a headache lately. At one end of the spectrum, we have bondholders, the vast majority of whom have lent their money to borrowers on the understanding that there won’t be any problems about repayment with interest. At the other end, we have the public-sector workers who were promised retirement benefits that states and municipalities can’t afford to pay. It’s important to note that neither bondholders nor pensioners are productive; they don’t do anything but collect payments. Does this make them parasites? To the worldview that Wagner’s Ring portrays, certainly not: nothing is more important than honoring the bond — the oath, the promise; call it what you like — that arises from a legitimate contract. To permit dishonor is to undo the basis of social obligation. But you know me and “honor” — I think it’s unhealthy.

I remember my father’s distress when, in the early Eighties, his 16% bonds were about to mature. Imagine paying sixteen percent in interest! But that’s what a lot of municipalities were reduced to in the late Seventies. It oughtn’t to have been necessary, but the country’s finances were already so shakily run that such inequities erupted like pimples on a teenager’ face, as they’ve been doing ever since. Dad actually expected me to commiserate: no more sixteen percent! The poor guy! Nor, by the same token, have I been able to enter into the glee expressed by government workers whom I’ve known as they’ve retailed their generous retirement benefits — benefits enacted by reckless, I’ll-be-dead-by-then politicians.

The Immolation Scene that concludes the Ring is grand opera at its grandest, and the inexorability of Wotan’s promises has a great deal to do with its power. But I’m not willing to see the world around me go the way of Walhall for that kind of reason.