My complicated relationship with Richard Wagner

Warning: this post contains serious spoilers for my queer feminist fantasy novel The Second Mango. Here there, as the expression goes, be dragons.


Spoiler space! Hi.

Wagner was a genius. He wrote his own librettos along with some of the most glorious music ever written, and it brings me ecstasy, comfort, and a sense of belonging. Before I get hopped all over by other Wagnerians accusing me of insulting the great man, let me just say that it is because his operas (specifically, the Ring Cycle) mean so much to me that I even bother expressing these opinions. If it weren’t such a key part of my soul, I could easily just dismiss it as yet another problematic piece of artwork from an older, less enlightened time. That would certainly be easier.

But. I was raised with this stuff; yes, we’re Jewish, but my father was German-Jewish; my grandfather was German-Jewish before him, and both of them were huge Wagnerians. So what we had to do was love him in spite of the anti-Semitism and around the anti-Semitism, because for us that would be the only way to love him. It’s not like it’s possible to ignore it.

It’s not just anti-Semitism that plagues his works, though. He’s a product of his time, and his gender, and some of the sexual politics in the Ring–especially in Siegfried–have been the pebble in my size 7 feminist shoes since they were only kid’s sized sneakers from Stride Rite. I also hated the way he approached dragons. Perhaps instinctively realizing that Siegfried was the great Aryan hero the Nazis lionized, I reacted to his almost sociopathic attack on the dragon Fafner as if it represented the attacks on my own people, the attacks my own ancestors had escaped and in some cases not escaped from. (Mind you, I was five years old and managed to completely miss the fact that Fafner, as he’s depicted in the opera, is a completely unredeemable character. I may have gotten him mixed up with Figment from Epcot. Five year olds are strange.)

Meanwhile, we have the character of Brünnhilde, who seems to be the incarnation of the patriarchal trope that a male partner by nature “conquers” a woman, diminishing her power. Or that a woman doesn’t get anything out of sex, but only gives. I resent both these ideas and believe that a healthy heterosexual relationship involves both parties giving and taking equally. I’m not talking about or dissing D/s. I’m talking about the culturally pervasive idea that convinces us that the ideal woman has no sex drive of her own and has to be manipulated into sex in order that “her man” may be assured her sexuality will only exist at his convenience.

~spoilers after this line — highlight to read~

I am seeking to challenge these ideas in the Rivka/Isaac romantic subplot of The Second Mango. There are literary references to the Siegfried libretto scattered into their story–the most obvious being the chapter headings of chapter 15 and 16, which I translated out of German and implanted wildly out of context. (“Is it here that I learn fear?” and “Has the dragon a heart?”) When Isaac comes back from the curse, he greets his love with the same words as Brünnhilde–“awakened” as he is by my female, Jewish answer to Siegfried. And when he has just finished making love to her for the first time — which is the first time for either of them — he repeats (with the gender switched) the words Fafner says to Siegfried after Siegfried has fatally stabbed him. What I’m trying to say is that we need more stories of women rescuing men, and also that the most ideal form of love is that in which both are vulnerable to each other, but trust in each other and will lift each other up.

And that women having a sex drive and wanting to get laid is a thing. He isn’t destroying her or conquering her by having sex with her; he’s giving himself to her just as much as she’s giving herself to him.

The reason I created this brawny, tough woman and then made her heterosexual is that for years I’d been feeling like my hetero side was my weaker side, mostly because it had gone down some self-destructive paths that left me more vulnerable. I wanted to convince myself that loving men wasn’t a weakness, and I am MORE than satisfied with the way Rivka came out. I never expected to fall in love with the Rivka/Isaac ‘ship as much as I did, but I can tell you this–it’s one of the parts of this whole Mangoverse adventure I feel the luckiest and most blessed about.

So, as for Wagner — I criticize him because I love him, because otherwise I wouldn’t bother. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have to. What do I think he’d think of Rivka? I can tell you this much–she probably doesn’t care!

rivka and sword-flatRivka illustration by Rachel Matz and inked by Jane Dominguez. Dragon illustration by Mina V. and inked by Jane Dominguez.

About Shira

Queer Jewish feminist author
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1 Response to My complicated relationship with Richard Wagner

  1. J.L. Douglas says:

    Although it’s definitely different, I have feelings for several male writers in the English Renaissance. There was just no getting around some of the cringe-worthy stuff back then (Like how they’re all mostly men because the women almost exclusively wrote devotional poetry; however feminist it was, I find it harder to read!). I complain about it, but I still like those authors too!

    I hadn’t expected to fall in love with Riv either, for what it’s worth. (And Isaac even less!). But it’s clear you put a lot of heart into this particular relationship, and it’s awesome.

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