Wagner’s Place in the Germanic Tradition Part 7

Wagner Bicentennial Symposium

Wagner’s Place in the Germanic Tradition
Part 7: Siegfried & Götterdämerung

Collin Cleary

Siegfried and Rhinemaidens
Siegfried and Rhinemaidens

3,645 words

Part 7 of 8


If Wotan is the main character of the Ring, Siegfried is its hero. However, in dealing with the character of Siegfried we do not depart from our discussion of Wotan at all. This is because Siegfried, like many of the other characters in the Ring, is a kind of hypostatization of an aspect of Wotan himself.

We have already seen this in several cases. Loge represents the crafty, creative-destructive intellect utilized by Wotan, which eventually leads him astray. Fricka is the personification of Wotan’s rigid and barren laws. Brünnhilde is the embodiment of Wotan’s will. Alberich is Wotan’s dark side, which he finds himself tending toward, as he confesses in Die Walküre. What, then, does Siegfried represent?

Let’s consider once more Wotan’s words to Brünnhilde: “To my loathing I find only ever myself in all that I encompass! That other self for which I yearn, that other self I never see; for the free man has to fashion himself – serfs are all I can shape!”[1] Siegfried is somehow a counterpart self to Wotan. Of course, the same could be said of Alberich. But here the relationship is of an entirely different order. Alberich represents Wotan’s dark alter ego, which he abhors, whereas Siegfried represents a kind of ideal that Wotan longs for. In some sense, Siegfried possesses something Wotan lacks. But just what is this? The most obvious answer is freedom – Wotan makes this clear in the lines just quoted. Siegfried is free of the entanglements that restrict Wotan. But there is something else at work here as well.

In Act Three of Siegfried, when the god and hero confront one another, Siegfried comments on Wotan’s missing eye. Wotan responds:

Mit dem Auge,
das als and’res mir fehlt,
erblick’st du selber das eine,
das mir zum Sehen verblieb.

Rendering this into English is somewhat tricky. Spencer, the most reliable English interpreter of the Ring libretti, gives us the following somewhat inventive, but thought-provoking translation:

With the eye which,
as my second self, is missing,
you yourself can glimpse the one
that’s left for me to see with.[2]

Other translations don’t quite know what to do with das als and’re, and just leave it out. (The translation included with one CD release of Siegfried gives the lines as follows: “With the very eye that’s missing in me you yourself are looking at the one I still see with.”)

Obviously, we are being told that Siegfried possesses Wotan’s missing eye, at least in the sense that he possesses some form of perception that Wotan lacks. Of course, we know that Wotan’s powers of perception are deficient in at least a couple of different ways. First, gripped by his lust for power and hemmed in by his own laws, Wotan has grown largely insensitive to natural sentiments, especially love. Second, he lacks self-understanding. Now, when the god and hero clash, note what Wotan says his missing eye is doing, as it sits in Siegfried’s skull. It is looking at Wotan. It therefore seems reasonable to surmise that Wotan is referring to his own lack of self-awareness, and perhaps indicating that, unlike him, Siegfried truly possesses this virtue: Siegfried, in other words, stands at a higher level of consciousness.

This interpretation is certainly amply supported by the remarks Wagner makes about Siegfried in his “Sketch” for the Ring. There, Siegfried is portrayed as an innocent, free even of knowledge of the gods. At the same time, however, he is portrayed as a fully conscious, self-actualized being. When Wagner writes of Wotan’s (or, in the “Sketch,” “the gods’”) plan to sire the race of the Wälsungs, he states that “In man they therefore seek to plant their own divinity, to raise his strength so high that, in full knowledge of that strength, he may rid him of the gods’ protection, to do of his free will what his own mind inspires.”[3] A page later Wagner states that in the “rightful hero” (Siegfried) “his self-reliant strength shall reach full consciousness.” Later in the “Sketch” he has Siegfried say “Show me the chance of mastering the gods, and I must work my main to vanquish them.”[4]

And yet in the finished Ring, Siegfried comes off as anything but fully-conscious. He is a total innocent all right, but he seems completely lacking in introspection or self-awareness. And, of course, he is duped in Götterdämmerung into an even deeper state of unconsciousness. That this, in fact, came to be Wagner’s own understanding of the character is confirmed by two passages from Cosima Wagner’s diaries, summarizing conversations with Wagner. The first is from July 2, 1872: “Which is the greater, Wotan or Siegfried? Wotan the more tragic, since he recognizes the guilt of existence and is atoning for the error of creation.” And consider especially the entry from July 4, 1873: “after lunch conversation about Siegfried and Brünnhilde, the former not a tragic figure, since he does not become conscious of his position.”[5]

It therefore seems likely that Cooke is closer to the mark when he interprets the “missing eye” motif as follows: “Siegfried, Wagner’s projection of ‘natural man,’ inspired at this moment [in Act Three] entirely by his instinctive need for mutual love and fellowship (which he will soon find in Brünnhilde), has the eye (symbolizing that instinctive need) that Wotan lacks.”[6] In other words, Siegfried does not represent greater self-consciousness. Instead, he actually represents a kind of unselfconscious naturalness. This treatment of the character, by the way, is entirely in keeping with how he is portrayed in the Nibelungenlied, Völsungasaga, and other sources, in which he comes close to being a sort of heroic dolt.

Now, this interpretation may seem odd. Shouldn’t Wotan’s ideal “other self” possess the self-consciousness he lacks? Not necessarily. Wotan is flawed in that he lacks self-consciousness, and only gradually comes to attain it. But his deeper flaw – from Wagner’s perspective – is the divorce between his intellect and his natural sentiments. It is his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and control (two sides of the same coin) that leads to the death of nature itself, as represented by the ash tree. His attainment of self-awareness is a good thing only in that it reveals to him the harm he has done. Of course, it also leads him to will his own end, and an end to the world itself. Wotan’s great sin, therefore, is not fundamentally his lack of self-awareness as such, but his lack of awareness specifically of the way in which he has allowed his intellect to shut him off from the natural world, and natural feelings.

The transition from the Age of Gods to the Age of Heroes in the Ring is therefore really the transition from a kind of “head-centered,” emotionally retarded, overly “intellectual” approach to life, to one that is innocent, natural and unselfconscious, and centered in the heart. When the “head-centered” orientation comes to full consciousness of itself, it is horrified by its barrenness and the destruction it has caused, and it wills its own end. It yearns for the state of “no mind” – thus opening the door to the “heart-centered” orientation, which knows without knowing, and acts without acting.

Once again, it is hard for us Westerners not to identify with Wotan. Like him, we have also lived a head-centered existence, seeking to manipulate and control all through knowledge. And the result has been disconnection from nature and from our own natural sentiments – in myriad ways. Because Westerners are highly self-critical, we long ago realized this, or the best of us did. And we experienced a kind of self-loathing, which often manifests itself either in a yearning for a simpler, pre-modern existence, or in an idealization of “non-Western cultures.” This self-loathing is oddly characteristic of the West. There is a perennial idea that nags at us: perhaps life would be better if we knew less, and felt more. Hence the Rousseauean idealization of the “noble savage.” There is quite a generous dollop or two of this in the Ring, and in general what we find in Wagner is an expression of this perennial Western uneasiness about our Faustian nature, and longing for the peace of the primitive and unselfconscious life.

Siegfried is like Nietzsche’s “child”: he is “innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred ‘Yes.’”[7] He has thrown off all the old sins, laws, and “hang-ups” and “head games” of the “older generation.” He is the new Western man, free of all the baggage of the past. And he is, of course, the revolutionary ideal. When Siegfried kills the dragon Fafner he is striking at the very heart of greed and power lust. (The esoteric meaning of dragon slaying is the killing of the undeveloped ego and its tendency to hang on, or to grasp senselessly at things it would be well rid of – like the dragon who hoards a treasure it cannot possibly make use of.) He gains the creature’s gold as a consequence, but of course the gold comes with a curse! Wagner seems to be saying that there is no “clean” way to have wealth, that it always corrupts.

With the disappearance of Wotan from the scene, we enter very briefly into what can be described in the Ring’s cycle of time as the “revolutionary phase” (i.e., the Age of Heroes). The idea here is supposed to be that together Siegfried and Brünnhilde will create a world free of inhuman laws, hierarchy, greed, power lust, and oppression – a world ruled by love alone. The usual dream, in other words. But all this is merely suggested, never depicted in the Ring. Here Wagner is true to his anarchist roots: like all anarchists he is completely and totally vague when it comes to communicating what the promised future utopia will actually look like.

Let us now briefly consider just what Wagner meant by “love.” As I suggested earlier, one feels a rather strong urge to dismiss this as gooey, high-minded claptrap – but we need to resist that. Cooke writes that “the love that Wagner envisaged is by no means one of the kinds of love so dear to the romantics as a nostrum – idealized sexual love or a feeling of affectionate benevolence; it is an active social force, at once sexual, compassionate, self-sacrificial, and creative.”[8] But what can this mean? Here we may get some help from Feuerbach, who wrote “Love is the universal law of intelligence and nature; — it is nothing else than the realization of the unity of the species through the medium of moral sentiment.”[9] In other words, love is “fellow feeling”; a sense of identification with another person. (Though it is possible also to have such feelings for nature as a whole, for animals, and, some people claim, for God – though I don’t know what this means, unless God is here understood as the personification of nature.)

But how is love the answer to greed and power lust, and specifically to modern capitalism, which was clearly one of Wagner’s targets? The problem with capitalism, quite simply, is that it sets members of a nation against one another through class warfare. Under the ethos of capitalism, individuals are driven to benefit themselves (and, at most, their immediate family) even if this involves the exploitation of others, and the adoption of practices that may harm the larger society in the long run. (In Wagner’s view aristocracy is less pernicious, though it involves rigid class distinctions, and at its worst tends toward a hard-hearted, “let them eat cake” attitude toward the less fortunate.) The radical socialist cure for this, of course, is to eradicate the distinction between bosses and workers, haves and have-nots. But no amount of wealth redistribution can make a nation whole, unless one can foster in the people genuine fellow-feeling – love, in other words; love of one’s own.

If this could be effected, and if suitable social and economic reforms were adopted, it might not even be necessary to eliminate the market economy. There would still be bosses and workers, but they would be united in something higher than economic relations: they would have the sense of belonging together in one nation, which would promote social-spiritedness, generosity, and cooperation between all men, regardless of their “class.” This was essentially the vision promoted by Hegel in his Philosophy of Right. And it was essentially what National Socialism promised. (If Hitler was not inspired in his socio-economic views by Wagner, he at least found those views confirmed and reinforced by him.) I also can’t resist pointing out that “love” as an answer to capitalism is also the message of another great work of art, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.[10]

Did Wagner see the social role of love in these “nationalistic” terms? I noted much earlier in this essay that Wagner was a German nationalist – but at the same time a kind of internationalist as well. (And I noted, further, that this was not an unusual combination for German nationalists.) We can be fairly certain that Wagner had hopes that the love that could unite a nation could also transcend national boundaries and create a “family of man.” Of course, in the process of writing the Ring, Wagner came to see that although love was still the highest ideal, it was not the final answer. As we shall see, love has the potential to effect great change, but ultimately it never completely triumphs over wickedness.

As mentioned earlier, Götterdämmerung takes place in the final,


decadent age: the Age of Men, the Kali Yuga. Siegfried and Brünnhilde are a bit like two love-struck hippies who have actually succeeded in toppling The System – and have managed to inherit the wealth. But, of course, it is cursed. And in a world where “love” supposedly reigns, and greed and power lust are out of style, there is still human envy and vanity to contend with. This is, in fact, what ultimately destroys the love of Siegfried and Brünnhilde, and hastens the world to its end. The Age of Men could also be accurately described as an age of envy.

King Gunther needs to take a bride, but why does he set his sights on Brünnhilde? Why not a nice girl who’s not surrounded by a ring of fire, and didn’t used to be a man-eating Valkyrie? The answer is that he wants the prestige of winning Brünnhilde, who everybody knows can only be won by a hero. Of course, Gunther is incapable of doing the job himself, so he recruits Siegfried to do it for him, while keeping it a secret from others so that he can enjoy all the unearned admiration. The psychology here is nothing new, but it is difficult to fathom (unless one happens to be a self-aware Gunther-type, which is rare). How could anyone enjoy receiving the admiration of others, if they know that it is all based on a lie?

But Gunther is not alone here; his sister Gutrune is cut from the same cloth, though this is less obvious. When Hagen floats the idea of Gutrune marrying Siegfried she responds, “You mock me, wicked Hagen! How should I ever bind Siegfried? If he’s the world’s most glorious hero, the loveliest women on earth would have wooed him long ago.”[11] These words reveal Gutrune’s insecurity. Though she is a princess of Burgundy, she obviously does not think she has what it takes to win Siegfried’s love. And does she perhaps also feel a frisson of excitement at the thought of having a man wanted by so many other women? When Hagen proposes that she give Siegfried the magic potion, making him love her and forget all other women, Gutrune agrees without any hesitation whatsoever – even though she must realize that the hero’s “love” will be completely artificial, and her “winning” of him a cheat.

In the persons of Gunther and Gutrune we encounter a human trait not depicted so far in the Ring: the desire for unearned prestige, for faking it. Rousseau, with whose works Wagner was familiar, discusses this as one of the traits that emerges when men band together in civilized society. He remarks that the “rank and fate” of each man is dependent upon natural qualities such as intellect, beauty, strength, and talent: “And since these qualities were the only ones that could attract consideration, he was soon forced to have them or to affect them. It was necessary, for his advantage, to show himself to be something other than what he in fact was.” And near the end of the same text he remarks that “the savage lives in himself; the man accustomed to the ways of society is always outside himself and knows how to live only in the opinion of others.”[12] Rousseau’s is the original description of the “culture of narcissism.” Most people are content to “fake it,” and will do almost anything to gain or to preserve esteem in the eyes of their fellows. They will even destroy the highest ideal, as Gunther is willing to destroy Siegfried in order to preserve his secret.

In contrast to Gunther and Gutrune, Hagen is motivated by greed and power lust. In Hagen, child of Alberich, these old ills rear their ugly heads once more; they simply will not go away. Love cannot vanquish them for the simple reason that some people do not have it in them to love, as Hagen appears not to. When love is directed at them, they smell weakness – and use the lover’s love to their own advantage. And love fails as well because some people simply aren’t lovable. Hagen uses the vanity of Gunther and Gutrune to further his own ends: acquiring the ring of power, and killing Siegfried. He puts them in a situation where the death of Siegfried becomes necessary, mainly in order to preserve Gunther’s “honor” (since Brünnhilde claims publicly that Siegfried has lain with her – and since Siegfried could divulge Gunther’s secret). Of course, Hagen himself is really the pawn of his father, Alberich.

The vanity and narcissism of Gunther and Gutrune are really as completely opposed to love as are the power lust of Wotan and the greed of Alberich. And this is no accident, for all of these phenomena are variations on a theme. I have written elsewhere about thumos, the part of the soul that Plato understood to be neither appetitive nor intellectual (or “theoretical,” one might say); the part that seeks to aggrandize the self in some fashion, winning honor and prestige, and responds with potential violence when its honor is challenged or besmirched.[13] There are higher and lower forms of thumos represented in the Ring, and the highest is depicted in Wotan. His thirst for knowledge and mastery is thumotic in character. The only other semi-positive portrayal of thumos in the Ring is Siegfried’s heroic bellicosity.

All the other forms of thumos in the drama are degenerated by comparison. None is worse than that of Alberich, who seeks – out of pure envy and with a kind of nihilistic glee – to compel others to recognize him, or be destroyed. His brother, Mime, is essentially moved by the same desire. And one sees, of course, that Hagen is his father’s son. Gunther and Gutrune also seek recognition, as I have argued, brought about this time not through force but through fakery. Even Fricka exhibits a thumotic side: her insistence that Wotan punish Siegmund is motivated largely by the fact that, as goddess of home and marriage, she takes his love for Sieglinde as an affront against her authority and her honor.

Thus, one could argue that the major conflict in the Ring is really between thumos and agape.[14] In other words, the conflict is between two sorts of “other directed” impulse: one that seeks to raise the self above the other in one fashion or other (through thoroughly knowing it, controlling it, or compelling its recognition), and one that seeks to effectively erase the distinction between self and other, by loving the other as one’s self.

In Siegfried, agape seems to have triumphed over thumos. But in Götterdämmerung the tables are turned, and thumos proves ineradicable. That is to say, the human desire for power and prestige simply will not go away. Love does not win in the end, as Wagner originally intended. But although love doesn’t win, neither does thumos – for the simple reason that Brünnhilde puts the torch to Siegfried’s funeral pyre and sets in motion a blaze that consumes the entire world. Hagen is dragged down by the Rhine daughters, still screaming for the ring. In the end, everything is consumed – including the good (love) and the bad (power lust and greed). So the next question we must ask – our final, major question – is this: what is it that “wins” at the end of the Ring? What do Brünnhilde and her act at the finale of Götterdämerung represent?



[1] Spencer, 152.

[2] Spencer, 262.

[3] Sketch, 302-3, emphasis added.

[4] Sketch, 308.

[5] Quoted in Spencer, 371 (endnote 157).

[6] Cooke, 262.

[7] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), 27.

[8] Cooke, 275. Italics in original.

[9] Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, trans. George Eliot (New York: Harper and Row, 1957), 266.

[10] Metropolis was co-written by Lang’s wife Thea von Harbou, who later became a National Socialist.

[11] Spencer, 291.

[12] From The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Basic Political Writings, trans. Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1987), 67, 81.

[13] See especially my review essay of Ricardo Duchesne’s The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, http://www.counter-currents.com/2013/04/ricardo-duchesnes-the-uniqueness-of-western-civilization/

[14] Though there is undeniably an erotic dimension to Wagner’s championing of “love,” the “love” that he most often seems to have in mind corresponds most closely to agape, not eros.


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