Thursday, May 10, 2012

NYC notebooks: Mythological motifs in Siegfried

When people ask me how I enjoyed my time at Westminster Choir College, my answer is always effusively positive. While I always mention my mentors, I neglect to mention the reading list of a seminar course I audited my first term, which introduced me to Jung’s classic study, Modern Man in Search of a Soul.

Primordial images [are] symbols that are older than historical man... [they] make up the groundwork of the human psyche. It is possible to live the fullest life only when we are in harmony with these symbols.

One of the reasons Wagner’s Ring has unparalleled staying power among versions of ancient epics (in any genre) is his masterful harmony of “primordial images,” symbols and archetypes. Joseph Campbell succinctly defines symbols as “energy-releasing signs.” This helps explain why we Wagnerites feel a rush when Siegmund pulls the sword Nothung out of the symbolic “World Ash” tree, or why yet another thrill accompanies Siegfried’s re-forging of that sword. The symbol releases energy through music. And it is a potent symbol. A flaming sword guards the entrance to Paradise in the Garden of Eden. Other mythical and heroic examples range from King Arthur’s Excalibur, Lewis Carroll’s Vorpal sword in “Wonderland,” and the mighty Anduril, which Aragon wields in Tolkien’s Wagnerian-scaled Lord of the Rings.

Just as Wagner’s Nothung has a Janus-faced history representing Siegmund’s martyrdom and his son Siegfried’s promise, archetypal symbols frequently perform a double function. Siegfried will slay the dragon Fafner, win the magic Ring and shatter Wotan’s mythical rune-notched spear in one of his final trials before freeing Brünnhilde from the ring of fire. The Valkyrie-turned-mortal is a richly layered symbol herself, an untouchable warrior goddess like Athena, a mortal exile and vestal virgin. Siegfried may be the most resonantly symbolic and ritualized opera in the Ring cycle. Each stage of the hero’s progress corresponds to both the mythological path of the individual and the solemn rites that symbolically enact the heroic journey. According to Joseph Campbell (in both The Masks of God and The Hero with A Thousand Faces), the heroic journey and the sacred rites involve the three stages of separation, transformation and return.

Siegfried’s orphaned childhood represents his separation or exile, and his transformation occurs through the experience of the trials described above. Libraries full of books of psychology, human development and comparative mythology (like Jung’s and Campbell’s) have been devoted solely to this central human experience of growth, maturation and individuation. The goal of the process is the individual’s contribution to the social fabric, the “heroic return” of the “boon” to better the community. This last aspect has been compromised in the western world since the dawn of the industrial age. The boon should profit the community and not only the individual. As in so many areas of our modern experience, our rush to keep pace with our own technology has come at a price we have yet to count. Without spending too much time on the proverbial soapbox, our loss of connection to the ancient world and the mythologies that first engendered meaning for our species has impoverished not only our culture, it has stunted our collective emotional and psychic growth. As W.H. Auden put it, we need “escape art” (entertainment) like we need rest & relaxation. And we need “parable art” to educate, ennoble and enrich us, and assist us in the process of becoming fully functioning members of the human race.

To return to the final stage of the “heroic” journey every human being is called to undertake, we find Siegfried on another threshold, at another crossroads. Having successfully completed the other rites of passage, his “homecoming” will follow his union with Brünnhilde. And like all tragic heroes, his flaws will manifest and precipitate his downfall. But this happens in the final opera of the tetralogy, Götterdämmerung.

Campbell observes, “Ritual is mythology made alive.” We should experience this sense of presence at commencements and inaugurations, weddings and funerals. It should be the organizing principal of communal worship and religious ceremony. Sadly, the superficial requirements of most institutions require focus-stealing sustenance and demand a disproportionate allegiance to the structure and its functionaries. Thus the central generating principal of our communal organizations is frequently lost. It is as if our timeless primordial forest has been replaced by plastic trees constantly in need of an upgrade. In such a surface-driven culture sensationalism will trump the genuine “shock of revelation” that accompanies an authentic rite of passage.

We can experience that shock vicariously when we enter Siegfried’s world. Every rite of passage involves a wound, and sacred scars mark heroes from Christ to Amfortas to Ulysses. Though Siegfried bears no scars from his fight with Fafner, his taste of the dragon’s blood sears his tongue and opens a new window of his consciousness. The dragon is a many-layered motif itself, variable according to historical epoch and culture. Wagner’s dragon guards a precious hoard and protects secret (esoteric) wisdom. He is in the same family as the mythological “cosmic serpent,” the one who tempts Adam and Eve, at once fascinating and dangerous. The burning pain of the dragon’s blood, Siegfried’s first “wound,” enables him to discern the voice of the "Forest Bird," who shares hidden knowledge with the hero. Blake’s mystical “doors of perception” are opened via this searing tonic, yet another motif Wagner uses to great effect.

I find the most significant layer of this motif in the intuitive awakening that occurs when the forest bird enlightens Siegfried to the fact he will be able to discern Mime’s evil thoughts. This is not so much “magic” as it is the uncovering of intuition. It is an opening of the oft-neglected “right side” of the brain. This motif, like symbolism itself, uses apparent “magic” or “fantasy” to represent and communicate deeper, frequently esoteric, wisdom. Communing with animals and spirits is not a sign of madness but an indication of fuller intelligence, keener intuition and openness to the energies coursing through the universe. In Homer, Ulysses hears the voice of his protecting goddess Athena in the cry of the heron. Birds are frequently messengers of Zeus and Apollo. As noted below in the “trickster” mythologies associated with Das Rheingold, the anthropomorphic bird is a rich symbol. Communion with animals is one of the oldest and commonest motifs in so-called “fairy tales” and mythologies around the world.

What Siegfried has experienced in his series of trials is a progression of challenges, a moving through of the “inclination of the energies of the psyche,” as Campbell puts it. In addition to the Wagner-imitation score by John Williams, the Star Wars films owe a debt to the Ring. Luke facing his father, Darth Vader is a derivative of Siegfried facing the Wanderer (Wotan is his grandfather and symbolic father-figure). This mythological rite of passage requires the son to earn independence from the father. The Oedipus complex (discussed with Die Walküre below) is an example of what can happen when this central rite is violated. This sacred and universal bond is compromised for children by abusive parents. Indeed, psychoanalysis would not exist were it not for the deep-rooted and widespread failure of communities to prepare adolescent initiates for full membership in society.

The ultimate task upon our hero’s “return” as an initiated man will be his marriage to the goddess-like Brünnhilde. As noted above, the former Valkyrie turned mortal is a double functioning symbol. Their union is an example of both the ultimate human bond and the sacrificial sacred marriage. It is through Siegfried’s death and Brünnhilde’s subsequent martyrdom that the corrupt “old” world will end, enabling a new one to emerge, Phoenix-like, out of the ashes. Rilke described the human path as a journey through ever-increasing challenges, a fight with larger and stronger foes, achieving growth and finding meaning through a series of soul-enlarging defeats. The heroes of Wagner’s Ring earn their status by engaging in and not shirking from this daunting responsibility. Redemption is Wagner’s ultimate motif, and it runs like a through-line across the 10 operas for which he is known, from The Flying Dutchman through the Ring, to his final masterpiece, Parsifal.

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