Music on my mind: Fredric Jameson, Wagner’s Ring cycle and affect

Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner

I have music on my mind, again. Nick Cave (courtesy of his concert at the Opera House last week and one at the Enmore Theatre this weekend), Puccini (La Boheme), Schubert (Anna Goldsworthy’s excellent essay on pianist and Schubert interpreter Paul Lewis in The Monthly) and Wagner, thanks to a lecture given last December at the Centre for Modernism Studies in Australia by Fredric Jameson on ‘Allegory and Dramaturgy in Wagner’s Ring’.

Reading my great-aunt Cicely Gleeson-White‘s ‘Memories of an 1896 Student’ this week about her days as an opera student in London reminded me of my intention to write about Jameson’s lecture here (where she said: ‘My father [Joseph Gleeson White] was one of the earliest devotees of Wagner’s works and I was literally brought up from the cradle with his music … I was the first soprano to sing Isolde in English at Covent Garden.’ in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde)

Cicely Gleeson-White N5266_W

The abstract for Jameson’s talk was:

‘Aside from its musical genius, Wagner’s Ring cycle remains one of the most staggering achievements of the 19th-century stage, and has continued to stimulate innovative dramaturgy amidst the present Wagner revival. This lecture will focus on two interrelated topics: the relationship between the figure of Wotan and political fields of force; and the role of Siegfried as a way into Wagnerian theatrical psychology – the composer/dramatist’s specific ‘system’ of thinking psychological motivation.’

Fredric Jameson

Fredric Jameson

As he acknowledged, Jameson didn’t quite stick to his plan, but his lecture was thrillingly wide ranging and provocative. You can listen to the whole lecture online, but here are some fragments to give you an idea of where his thinking on Wagner and modernity went.

Jameson began by saying he was interested in the hot topic of ‘affect‘, sourced in the work of Eve Sedgwick and Deleuze; and wondered if there was a ‘third possible source’ of affect theory: in Heidegger and phenomenology, in ‘mood’.

He said Freudian and Lacanian psychologies are very far from the source of affect. He’s interested in ’emotion’ versus ‘affect’ – which he called a ‘new dualism’; and suggested this raised a possible distinction between two sorts of temporality: one of past, present and future, the other of the eternal present (modernism).

Emotions: as theorised by Aristotle, Descartes (Passions of the Soul), among others, where emotions are arranged in pairs and named. Their naming confers an essence on them and – in a process of objectivisation or reification – makes this inner emotional landscape appear for the first time.

The aesthetic of emotion, along with this taxonomic naming, is a very different logic from affect.

Kant distinguished emotions from feelings (which are bodily states). We can use this distinction to think of affects as nameless states. The system of the humours is the closest system of emotions to affect. Affects are ‘multiple, shimmer in perpetual mutability’.

Before the mid 19th century the body is scarcely registered in literature: Flaubert and Baudelaire are markers for the emergence of the body into literature. For example, Baudelaire’s ‘green so delicious it hurts’.

Balzac proves his point. For example in Pere Goriot the pension where the protagonist Rastignanc lives is not described with ‘affects’ but with ‘meanings’, allegories for poverty.

The two temporalities which relate to these different states: with a named emotion, there is past, present and future; whereas the temporality of affect is an eternal present, like modernism.

The Tristan prelude (premiered in 1865) marks the beginning of modernity, its theme song the first full blown emergence of affect on the world stage.

A similar thing happened in the work of Manet, a shift from storytelling painting to the materiality of paint itself.



A new type of content emerged. The Wagnerian endless melody versus the aria of Italian opera.

Sexual desire (as the source of fear which he’s not yet known), Siegfried comes to learn, is an affect.

The brilliance of Tolstoy is in his interweaving of multiple affects – the multiple, changeable inner mood swings of his characters.

‘Destiny’ is the subject of The Ring and is its formal shaping power.

Thomas Mann was the ‘perfect Wagnerite’.

Stripped of their immortal skin, ALL of Wagner’s heroines could be Madame Bovary. (By chance, Madame Bovary is the subject of my next classics post, up this weekend.)

Isabelle Huppert as Madame Bovary

Isabelle Huppert as Madame Bovary

‘Why is the once powerful idea of decadence no longer meaningful to us? Because we’re so obviously decadent.’

The romantic motif in Wagner could be read in contemporary terms: the overturning of values in the 1960s and then in queer theory, versus the ever narrowing circles of consanguinity (which produces a dialectic, of which Jameson is so fond).

Jameson mused on Shaw, his ‘The Perfect Wagnerite‘ and his account of Wagnerian capital.

He concluded by saying the two big unsolved questions in the Ring are: the nature of the ending, and the character of Siegfried (who’s supposed to be the saviour of humanity), which is ultimately a question of the nature of the potion he drinks: is it a love potion – or a potion of forgetfulness?



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2 Responses to Music on my mind: Fredric Jameson, Wagner’s Ring cycle and affect

  1. sammy says:

    you have some great content on your blog, Jane. .I am puzzled tho’ why you do not credit the creative output of so many visual artists – in fact not any!

    i am talking about the visuals you are putting up – please consider that these are the creative output of artists and at the very least tell us where you nabbed stuff from

    creative commons is all about sharing, sharing with attribution!

    cheers 🙂

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