Sunday, August 26, 2007

Are you sleeping, Hagen my son?

I'm a big fan of Wagner's Ring Cycle, and if I had to pick one moment in the 17-hour, four opera marathon to call my favorite, it would be the weird, creepy conversation between Alberich and his son Hagen in the final opera, Gotterdammerung.

Alberich (a powerful dwarf from deep in the earth) and Wotan (the chief of the Norse gods) are in a multi-generational battle to obtain the Ring of the Nibelung and gain ultimate power. They have both sired off-spring to unwittingly act as their agents. Alberich's son is Hagen, and one night while Hagen is sleeping Alberich creeps up to him to give him instructions. Hagen is not in a natural sleep. He answers Alberich, and in his sleep he promises to steal the ring for his father. Several times during the conversation Alberich asks, "Are you sleeping, Hagen my son?" (Schlafst du, Hagen mein Sohn?)

The father-son conversation (with beautiful bass/baritone singing) has a languorous, almost lullabye aspect, except that the father is making his unconscious son swear to do monstrous acts. (Lack of free will is a recurring theme in Wagner, and in this case Alberich can beat Wotan because Alberich has the free will to make his son the tool of his bidding, while Wotan is constrained to let his offspring act freely.)

In the Ring Cycle, Wotan's agent (his grandson Siegfried) is powerful because he is fearless. But Alberich's agent, his son Hagen, is powerful because of his hatred. In the end hatred beats fearlessness, but hatred also kills itself. Hagen literally stabs Siegfried in the back, but the result is that the ring is lost to Alberich forever. in addition Valhalla burns and there are no gods left to replace it, so the next era of history begins.

I was thinking of all this while reading James Benjamin over at Left End of the Dial v2.0; he has written a series of posts about Dolchstosslegende as practiced by supporters of the Bush government. The Dolchstosslegende propaganda technique was used in Germany during its two world wars and deliberately references the legends Wagner based the Ring Cycle on. It blames failure in war on a populace that is insufficiently patriotic: it implies that the government, like the hero Siegfried, has been stabbed in the back by factions that questioned government policies for their own ends.

I think we're all aware that Dolchstosslegende has been a big part of the Bush spin about the US invasion of Iraq. There has been nothing subtle about it. (Benjamin's posts are still well worth reading.) The Bush government feels that it has been stabbed in the back by Democrats who have questioned its policies. It alleges that the troops have been stabbed in the back by anti-war protestors. Debate is reduced to the unproductive question: Who is a patriot and who is a traitor?

Dolchstosslegende propaganda can only reference the legends Wagner based his tale on, and not the Ring Cycle itself, because Wagner (for whom the term "moral ambiguity" was coined) paints a much less black-and-white picture of the back-stabbers and the back-stabbed. None of that directly applies to the Bush use of the propaganda technique... except in that Bush is unwittingly referencing the end of World War 2 and the new world that never would have emerged without it, and similarly is referencing the result of the fall of Valhalla - the rise of humanity. The Wagnerian conclusion may be that our only hope is the fall of Superpower-America and the beginning of the next era.


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