Wagners

For a long time, and more or less inexplicably, I have coveted the diaries of Cosima Wagner. They are voluminous. Well, actually, they are in two volumes, but each volume is truly immense–volume one, which I have before me, is 1010 pages (in manuscript form! Imagine it handwritten). There is a set of them at the cool bookstore downtown, but it’s $32, and I’d been on the fence about paying so much about something that wasn’t going to aid me in my work. Most of my colleagues would not appreciate my longing for these diaries–Wagner is a sticky wicket for us, hardly anyone wants to deal with him and a lot of us find his music unbearable. NOT ME! I think it’s great, plus I love the era and I’m so interested in all the creepy late German Romanticism stuff. These diaries are amazing. You open them at random and they give up their glimmering jewels, time and time again. The Wagners were BONKERS. Everyone knows about Richard’s virulent anti-semitism and fascist leanings, but he was also truly a shitty person like just in regular life. A great backstabber, self-promoter, and opportunist. But then when you get to know his operas (excuse me, “music dramas”) you see that they are legitimately the product of someone who is a true genius in that old-school way where they are also a madman. He’s a very complicated figure in my field, obviously. Probably in any field.

Cosima (his second wife and the author of these diaries) was the daughter of Franz Liszt, the famous piano virtuoso and, later, avant-garde composer (who, at age 18, saw the great Paganini play upon the violin and renounced his life and spent a year not performing or going out in public, breaking down his piano technique and building it up again according to what he’d seen Paganini do on the violin. And thence was born a whole new performance style). Then she married the composer Hans von Bulow. Then she fell in love with Richard Wagner, the hot young opera star, and ran off with him, leaving her two children (and Hans) behind. The diaries are full of descriptions of nightmares in which Hans comes to her as an old man, begging and sobbing, and she is filled with horror at the great sin she has committed against him and the two children she had with him. And yet she would do it again, for Richard is her whole life, etc. For his part, Richard sometimes dreams that her father (Liszt) is disappointed in him, or else he dreams about Beethoven. At one point she says R couldn’t sleep and stayed up all night, pacing and listening to a haymaker yodeling. In the afternoons they talk about Homer and give the children French lessons. There’s an entry where she praises Richard for saving the baby–the baby was crawling all over a bunch of shattered glass, and was holding a big jagged shard of it, and was about to eat it, when Richard finally noticed and snatched him up. That’s 19th century parenting for you! Most of your babies died of typhus anyway, so like, why bother too much.

“up to the hour in which I recognized my true inner calling [to be with Richard], my life had been a dreary, unbeautiful dream, of which I have no desire to tell you anything,for I do not understand it myself and reject it with the whole of my now purified soul.” She describes Richard as “that being who swiftly led me to realize that up to now I had never lived.” She swears to seal her love “through death, through pious renunciation or complete devotion. What love has done for me I shall never be able to repay…I cried out to him: I shall come to you and seek my greatest and highest happiness in sharing the burdens of life with you. It was then that I left you, my two precious eldest children. I did it and would do it again at any moment, and yet I miss you both and think of you day and night.”

Every other entry is like “R reads me his essay on the Jews and we discuss some of its ideas. The children are sick but I have hope of their recovery. How I long for death, yet must remain alive for R’s sake, indeed I would sacrifice anything, including my children, if it would increase his happiness one atom. After breakfast R continues work on ‘Siegfried’ and receives a telegraph from the King”

Anyway my point is that I’ve been coveting these diaries even though I certainly will never work on Wagner (my god, can you imagine) and really should be spending my time reading Marx if I’m going to read anybody from the 19th century. But I kept going to the bookshop and fondling the diaries and opening them at random and laughing (“My dear long life, R exclaims to Fidi, who is now beginning to walk! As he embraces me, he says, ‘Yes, a fair wife, that is something poor Beethoven did not have, it was reserved for poor old me, which is why I have such ridiculous faith in myself.'”). But $32 for a whim is stupid, and for several years I have been trying very hard to only buy books I will actually read, and obviously I’m not going to read 2,000 pages of this crazy anti-semite’s diary for no reason.

But then we went to this INCREDIBLE bookstore tucked away in the middle of nowhere out in the farmland. And they had so much stuff. And they had the diaries! For ten dollars!! It was a sign from Fate, so I bought them. I also bought Milton Friedman’s book about how capitalism is the only thing that will save us from the Nazis, and Friedrich von Hayek’s legendary THE ROAD TO SERFDOM, in which he argues that government regulation of the economy leads to fascism and/or socialism (they are the same). So I am in for a very delightful time, obviously. I wanted to buy more books but wisely limited myself. They have the complete collection of the letters of Clara Schumann and Brahms! And a whole shelf of “homesteading” books about making your own beehive.

I love bookstores so much. The thought of them disappearing literally makes me feel like at that point I will be done, and will begin longing for death, for my time will truly have passed from this earth.

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