“It can’t be helped: one must first become a Wagnerian.” In this pithy, knowing phrase, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche summed up the immense influence that the composer Richard Wagner exerted not only on music but on broad swaths of culture. Nietzsche knew better than most: By the time he wrote those words, he had progressed from being one of Wagner’s most devoted acolytes to excommunication from the master’s inner circle, and finally to becoming one of his sharpest critics. As his words testify, though, even those who rejected Wagner were compelled to deal with the shadow he cast.
That long afterlife, the cult-like power of Wagner’s art and the multitude of realms in which it cast its spell, is the subject of “Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music,” a monumental new study of the composer’s legacy in all its dizzying variety by New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. Drawing on an immense body of research, Ross follows the effects of Wagner’s artistic achievement through spheres as diverse as French Symbolist literature, post-Impressionist painting, early-20th-century Chicago architecture, and Hollywood. He also examines the barbed question of Wagner’s ferocious anti-Semitism and his iconic status in the Third Reich with both nuance and moral clarity. Best of all, Ross brings his journalistic skills to bear, meaning that however weighty the topic at hand, his prose is vivid, lyrical, and a joy to read.
Ross will discuss “Wagnerism” with fellow New Yorker critic James Wood in a Sept. 16 virtual event hosted by Harvard Book Store and the Boston Wagner Society. He spoke to the Globe about the book from Los Angeles.
Q. It’s amazing to encounter some of the strange and unlikely traces of Wagner’s influence you uncovered.
A. I like to think of it as a kind of theme park of fin-de-siècle weirdness and decadence. [Laughter] But some of the most pleasurable activity was going down one strange, dimly lit corridor after another and discovering these curious phenomena having something to do with Wagner.
Q. Early in the book you write that while Wagner’s musical influence was vast but commensurate with that of other composers, his effect on related art forms has never been equaled before or since. Why is that?
A. I think there are a couple of different but intersecting explanations. First, the work itself is remarkable. And the nature of it is that it’s not simply musical; it’s also a literary achievement. Beyond that, I think there’s something specific that happens with how the words act upon us. They’re so intense from moment to moment, but they’re also tremendously vague in terms of what their implications are. This was the brilliance of his manipulation of myth, where people constantly see themselves mirrored in these old mythic structures.
I think the final factor may be the historical context. He happened to come along at the perfect moment for this hugely ambitious project of art essentially proposing itself as a sort of nonpolitical means of revolution. The religion of art in Europe in the late 19th century was primed to find this kind of artistic god, and Wagner essentially proposed himself.
Q. The diversity of groups that put a claim on him is astonishing — you have chapters on the gay Wagner, the Black Wagner, the feminist Wagner. What explains this thicket of contradictory approaches?
A. To some extent, this is how art works — an artistic object can be seized upon by radically different groups and personalities in very different ways. You have this music entrancing W.E.B. Du Bois, early advocates of gay rights, characters in Willa Cather’s stories and novels, Theodor Herzl as he’s imagining the future Jewish state. At the same time, he entrances Houston Stewart Chamberlain and the young Hitler.
What is that about? I think it comes back to the sense of Wagner as a vivid mirror, in which we see ourselves in a kind of hyper-real, super-real form, magnified or intensified. In the book I describe it as a sort of young person having a glimpse of future greatness, a sense of something. Your own imagination races ahead to your future as you’re listening to Wagner, and it somehow becomes more real and more possible.
Q. Wagner’s anti-Semitism and his iconic status in the Third Reich is the thorniest aspect of the Wagnerism phenomenon. But the relationship isn’t as simple as some think, and you give a very complex treatment of it.
A. I wanted to give it complexity without unduly muddying the waters. You should never lose sight of the absolute, unambiguous fact that this man was just overwhelmed with hatred for Jewish people. I spent a great deal of time working on that section of the book, going through the question point by point — the emergence of this anti-Semitism, the reaction to it, and the very thorny question of whether it’s present in Wagner’s works.
Even if you think, as I do, that this relationship between Wagner and Hitler and his influence on Hitler’s political views is somewhat overstated … you still need to confront the fact that people came to that conclusion; you have to understand how that perception came to be. And Wagner is himself very much to blame for that picture of his own influence.
Q. Even if it’s a caricature, he made the caricature possible.
A. Exactly. I come back to this masterly formulation that Thomas Mann came up with. He said that Wagner lent himself to his own misuse. And that’s such a perfect phrase, because on the one hand, it does say that the caricature Wagner of Nazi Germany is a misuse — you have to ignore so much about Wagner to make him some monumental prophet of German world domination. And yet, he lends himself to that characterization.
Q. You excavated some truly weird Wagnerian subcultures — Satanists, theosophists, other bizarre characters.
A. Yeah, that was enjoyable as well as somewhat unsettling to explore. I think that was part of the service I could do with the somewhat maniacal thoroughness of my exploration — not only touch upon major figures but also this underground texture, which I think gives you a sense of the pervasiveness of Wagnerism. A lot of this literature and art isn’t particularly good or particularly worth revisiting. But it gives you a palpable sense of how he was seeping into every odd cultural form of expression of the period — Wagner had to be there as part of the equation.
Q. What, if anything, do you think Wagnerism means today?
A. That’s a good question. It definitely has petered out to a great extent. The First World War already put a serious dent in Wagnerism as a global phenomenon because of the identification of Wagner with German militarism, and World War II certainly bought it screeching to a halt. And it was really during and after the war that the sort of grand critique of Wagner as a major source of Nazi ideology took hold.
I think that Wagner’s presence in film remains very interesting and worthy of comment. You have all these cartoonish uses of Wagner blaring in the background of evil Nazis plotting in scenes in Hollywood blockbusters. But you also have this very poetic and thoughtful use of Wagner — especially in Werner Herzog’s scenes of apocalyptic ruin during the Iraq war [in “Lessons of Darkness,” 1992], or the extraordinary use of Wagner’s “Rheingold” at the beginning of Terrence Malick’s “The New World” . Those are a couple of the most striking usages of Wagner on film, and it just shows how much the music and the ideas behind the operas can play a vital and constructive role in contemporary culture. It doesn’t always have to be about Wagner as a sort of zone of cultural disaster.
Interview was edited and condensed. David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.