Roger Scruton’s most recent book, The Ring of Truth, is densely packed with insight. His discussion, very early into the book, of the influences of J.G. Fichte in the moral and philosophical world in which Siegfried struggles for “freedom and individuality” were entirely new to me and very much valued.
Among the many helpful analyses in this volume is a suggestion about the import of the final D-flat motif in the Ring – the one accompanying Brünnhilde’s self-immolation heard first from Sieglinde in Walküre Act III and afterwards never again until the end.
This theme was labeled “Redemption Through Love” during the first 100 years after the work’s premiere. Since then it has been the subject of much speculation, and this Blog has reflected questions concerning its relevance to concepts of the persistence of life, or the promise of children, among other interpretations.
Scruton suggests that sacrifice is the essence of the Ring and of this musical theme. The theme is heard upon Sieglinde’s decision to sacrifice her life so that her child may live, and Brünnhilde’s decision to sacrifice her own life that Siegfried’s love may be vindicated. And Scruton is specific:
Wagner is not trying to persuade us that sacrifice is the meaning of life. Rather, as in the Greek tragedy, he is showing through represented acts of sacrifice that life has another meaning than the pursuit of status and power, and that it is our ability to accept death that makes this meaning real to us. He is showing, through the sacrificial moment, that there are things in all our lives that are sacred, and which vindicate what we are.
To Scruton, Wagner posits human love as a symbol of “the ability of human beings to discount their own interests.”
I also found Scruton’s treatment of Siegfried – a character I and many others find intrinsically distasteful rather than heroic – to be brilliant and even uplifting.
In the end we just have to accept that Siegfried is what he appears to be: not the new man or the artist-hero; not the forger of a freer world or the fitting deposer of a supernatural god; but someone who never quite grows up, an adopted child who is unable to form secure attachments, and who exists fully as a person only by moments, when the armour of his belligerence falls away. [He serves as] a symbol of the individual’s search for self-knowledge and self-identity in a godless world.
Siegfried is, thus, most effective and recognizable to us when, during the forest murmurs, or when trying to understand his parentage, or riven by erotic excitement as well as a deep yearning to be made whole through attachment to another, we see ourselves — not our heroism, but our imperfect strivings.
This is a challenging book – I took it up and put it down over a period of 18 months, I blush to admit. But throughout that time it gave me nothing but pleasure.