The Wagner Complex


Tom Artin, of Sparkill, NY, has been kind enough to send me a copy of his book The Wagner Complex: Genesis and Meaning of The Ring (Free Scholar Press 2012).  It is an interpretation of the characters and action of the Ring through a Freudian lens, and it has been an interesting though challenging read.

Freud Wagner Arc de triomphe

I became prejudiced and close-minded about Freudian interpretation of art in my undergraduate years at Dartmouth College, when I read the screamingly funny parody on that theme that appeared in The Pooh Perplex by Frederick Crews.  I’m not talking skeptical here, I’m talking close-minded.  And I looked forward to Mr. Artin’s book as an opportunity to give Freud a fairer shot on the 41st anniversary of my Dartmouth graduation, on the ground that one hopes to learn more, not less, as one ages.

As I say, it has been a challenge.  This time, though, I will try to explain why.

Artin explains that “Freud coined the term complex to characterize a complicated affective system; complexes, he explained, are ‘circles of thoughts and interests of strong affective value.'”  Thus, the title of Artin’s book refers to a “dynamic economy” that evolves around the characters and events in the Ring, including the person who imagined them in the first place.  Illustratively (and simplistically), Wagner’s loss of a father when young, his vagueness with respect to the real identity of his stepfather Geyer, the loss of Geyer, and being shipped off to school outside the family circle plants the seed for later convictions, imaginings, behaviors and artistic depictions in which frustrated infantile development and the consequences of an absent father may be gleaned. 

All well and good so far.  And Artin is admirably frank about the objectives of his study:

My aim in this study is not to construct an exhaustive interpretation of the Ring.  In fact its view is purposely somewhat narrowly focused on the tetralogy’s striking semantic and figural parallels to the insights and terminology of psychoanalytic theory.  … The Freudian concept of the Oedipus Complex (including its pre- and post-oedipal ramifications) and the Freudian metapsychological hypotheses offer paradigms that illuminate many of the obscurities of the Ring.

Again, this seems perfectly legitimate, and even promising.  Artin reminds us, for example, that the society that Freud observed and that gave support to his descriptions of the id, the ego and the superego, is the very same society in which Wagner was a leading and critical participant.  Artin sets forth two questions that, he says, guided his inquiry:  “To what Freudian paradigms do the elements of Wagner’s text correspond?  And to what concrete social reality, or actual experience, might each element refer?”

Artin’s discussions of the four works each is subtitled.  Rheingold is “Anxiety,” Walküre is “Melancholia,” Siegfried is “Family Romance,” and Götterdämmerung is “Splitting.”  Disappointingly, these subtitles, while justified within each chapter, seem largely arbitrary.  Could not one just as easily consider Walküre a Family Romance?  And in discussing the family paradigms found in Siegfried, is it intellectually acceptable to discuss Siegfried’s killing Fafner with Notung in terms of his wresting his father’s penis and committing incest with it (Fafner having exhibited maternal roles in Rheingold, unknown to and unknowable by Siegfried)?  And does Artin offer a basis for his conclusion that “the slaying of Fafner and the awakening of Brünnhilde are parallel episodes — if not equivalent in meaning, then complementary, and equally tinged with the aura of necrophilia”?

Another example of what I am terming “arbitrary” is the emphasis by Artin of the role of water in Wagner’s life and (therefore) in the opening scene of Rheingold.  Isn’t water much more significant in Götterdämmerung, where it provides the means for Siegfried’s movements in Act I, the way Brünnhilde arrives in Act II, the source of the fateful and prescient warnings in Act III, and the agency of purgation and moral expiation that finishes the entire epic?

Artin’s search within the text of the Ring for “Freudian paradigms” also relieves him of the responsibilities of critical discernment.  Ascribing interpretive meaning to an event in a narrative is of use only when that interpretation can be distinguished from alternative interpretations in some compelling way.  This obligation seems to be absent in Artin’s writing — and, I suggest, is an unfortunate attribute of Freudian analysis generally. 

An example is Artin’s treatment of Erda in Rheingold and then in Siegfried.  Having distinguished between the promise of maternal comfort in a woman’s breast and the promise of erotic enticement/threat in a woman’s genitals, Artin then speculates:

[S]he rises out of the earth only to her waist, only enough, that is, to reveal her breasts (her “executive organ,” to use Brunswick’s terminology).  Wagner’s stage direction is provocative.  Why only to her waist?  Would exposing more of her body reveal possession of a male organ?  Breasts signify the feminine, but Erda also rises, like a tumescent penis.

Like a tumescent penis?  Why not like a corn stalk?  Or an actress?  Or an earth god arising from the earth? Why doesn’t she rise like the sun?  Or like the moon?  Indeed, Artin himself writes in the chapter on Siegfried that, when Wotan awakens her, “Erda rises from the cave’s mouth as though from her grave.”  How about that?  Erda as vampire?

So here is the problem:  In seeking Freudian paradigms in which to place elements of the Ring, Artin seems entirely casual about which paradigm to use.  A rising god is a rising penis is a rising sun is a rising plant is a rising member of the Living Dead.  Is Erda not showing a penis or a pair of jeans or a tatoo or bare feet or… what?  One interpretation is as justified as the other, leaving the entire analysis specious, not because of its audacity, but because of its inability to explain why a particular thing means one thing and not the other. 

And it’s all over the place.  Discussing Hagen’s spearing Siegfried from behind, Artin notes: “The thinly veiled fantasy of anal rape suggests a homosexual component of the Ring’s meaning.”  What does one do with a statement like that?  “The tree dominating the Act I set [in Walküre], with Wotan’s sword embedded to the hilt, constitutes an emblem of parental intercourse.”  Does it, now?  And why is that so, as opposed to any other possible interpretation?  This is just bare ipse dixit, as are these postulations:

[T]he agent of control over feces (the “gold horde”) is the anal sphincter, that circular muscle resembling the golden ring at the heart of the tetralogy.  That elsewhere in the tetralogy the ring symbolizes the vagina (as, for instance, when Brünnhilde gives it as love token to Siegfried) does not contradict its anal character; the association of anus and vagina is well attested in psychoanalytic literature.

Where did all this come from?  Whose anus resembles a golden ring? Whose feces is a horde? When does Brünnhilde give Siegfried the ring? What literature equates the asshole with the vagina?  I’m lost.

I have learned a very great deal from this book and of course I have it on my shelf alongside Donington, Deathridge, Cooke, Newman, Shaw and many, many others.  And I believe I am no longer close-minded and prejudiced with respect to Freudian art criticism. 

I just reject it, that’s all.


  • You wrote:

    >Artin explains that “Freud coined the term complex to characterize a complicated affective system; complexes, he explained, are ‘circles of thoughts and interests of strong affective value.’”

    The above comment by Artin should have made his scholarship suspect from the get-go. The term “complex” in psychoanalytic usage was NOT Freud’s coinage, but Jung’s. Freud found the term a useful shorthand at first, but later found its usage more obfuscating than otherwise.

    And from your above description of Artin’s Freudian take on the _Ring_, you’re quite right to reject it. It’s mostly gibberish — psychobabble — as applied to the narrative of the _Ring_. And this criticism of Artin’s ideas is coming from a lifelong Freudian.


  • Good review as always

    It must be said I have always found Freudian analysis of anything somewhat “amusing” (sorry AC) especially from those who do not “make their living at it”. But then I am probably more of a Jungian – to which I oddly came to via neurophysiology in my youth – but that is another story.

    However, given the influence that Schopenhauer clearly had on Freud’s thought – more so than on Jung (and despite Freud’s hard to believe, insistence that he did not discover Schopenhauer till much later in his life) I have always thought there was room for a good Freudian analysis of the Ring. There have of course been enough prominent Jungian analysis but not Freudian – or at least as far as I am aware?

    Alas, without reading it, this does not seem to be it perhaps? I am, as AC points out a little confused by the the use of Complexes and Freud – did not Freud only ever define only the two? But it is certainly an idea that dominates Jung’s thoughts and theories.

    By the way, not meaning to be pedantic but wasn’t it Theodor Ziehen that actually “coined the term”?

  • I saw this review of The Wagner Complex on only a few weeks ago. It is a thoughtful, though skeptical, response to the book.

    Without addressing the various points raised in the review, I want to respond to one over-arching issue, viz., the reviewer’s contention that to be persuasive, a literary interpretation has to explain why it, and not alternative readings, is the correct one. This is a generally dubious critical principle, but here I’d like to focus on its relevance to The Wagner Complex in particular.

    In the book, I state explicitly at several points that my psychoanalytic reading of The Ring does not purport to be exclusive, but rather that it should be seen as complementary to other readings. The Ring, like all great works of fiction, is a highly complex structure, both architecturally and semantically, and not amenable to simple interpretation. I don’t, in other words, contend that The Wagner Complex lays out what The Ring really means, but what it also means. In fact, it could hardly be otherwise, since psychoanalysis itself is based on the premise of multiple, even contradictory meanings. Unconscious meanings teased out in an analytic session or in the analytic exegesis of a text are necessarily layered beneath other (more and less conscious) meanings.

    In response to ACD’s comment: an astute reader pointed out to me a year ago that “complex” was not Freud’s coinage. Nor was it Jung’s, although Freud may well have adopted the concept from him. The term was coined—as the 2nd commenter here correctly notes—by Theodor Ziehen. I have made the correction in subsequent printings of The Wagner Complex.

By PeterP

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The Wagner Blog is a forum for discussion of contemporary themes arising from the works of Richard Wagner. Discussions relating to Wagner’s musical, literary, theatrical, philosophical, political and theoretic work are all appropriate for this forum.

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