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Wagner: The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art

by M. Owen Lee

This is a quite unnecessary yet quite engaging little book. Father Owen Lee, a life-long operaphile and this country’s most famously perfect Wagnerite, is writing to persuade us that horrible people can create splendid works of art – an issue that I thought had long been settled in the affirmative. One need only look at the history of selfish, malicious, criminal – and outrageously talented – artists, writers, and musicians to be persuaded that garden-variety virtue is no essential handmaid to genius.

The University of Toronto’s Larkin-Stuart Lecture Series, however, invited Lee to address morality and music, and this book is a transcript of his lectures.

Wagner is certainly the ideal subject. Lee describes him as “an utterly self-absorbed artist who lied, cheated, and betrayed friend and foe alike,” and acknowledges the man’s “very real and almost pathological anti-Semitism.” He uses the Greek myth of Philoctetes – that of a man grotesquely wounded and bitter, whose talents are nonetheless essential to his compatriots – to persuade us that “divinely bestowed gifts … provoke the contempt of one’s fellow men, and prompt the gifted man to express his contempt, savagely, in reprisal.” In the latter part of the book, he analyzes Wagner’s Tannhauser as a work that achieves a synthesis of the spiritual and the sensual, “a healing of a soul torn between two worlds.”

All very edifying, and Lee writes with his usual grace, lucidity, and easy command of classical literature. But he can’t avoid the trap into which most liberal defenders of the arts inevitably fall – he cannot imagine that great works of art might contain elements of the loathsome qualities of their creators. There is some controversy now, for example, as to whether certain of Wagner’s works might be given a credible anti-Semitic interpretation, and Lee is quite persuaded that they cannot. Yet I cannot see why such interpretations would not be yet more evidence of the richness of these operas. If an artist can be both loathsome and ultimately life-affirming, cannot art?