Thursday, July 22, 2010
Dreaming of Valhalla
Even though I'm obsessed with the problem of being mortal, I never really found the idea of heaven convincing as a solution.
Obviously, as an atheist I don't believe that heaven exists. But my difficulty has always gone deeper than that: even if it did exist, I thought, it wouldn't address the problem. I mean, it's supposed to be so great, heaven, but what's so great about placidity, lustlessness, nothing to do, and endless perfect weather? Sounds really boring. Even pretending to myself that I would go to a heaven-like place never made me feel any less bad about the fact that I am going to die.
But of course, heaven's not the only game in town. There's also Valhalla.
Over the summer I went to see the second opera in Wagner's Ring, The Valkyrie, at the Paris Opera. The plot of the Ring is mindbogglingly complex, but the main thing about it is that it concerns, as the last opera is titled, the Twilight of the Gods -- a time in which the power of the gods is fading and the humans are taking over. Wotan, the patriarch of the gods of the story, sets the events of the story in motion through his willingness to do anything -- even sacrifice his sister-in-law, Freia -- in order to build Valhalla.
Valhalla is a kind of mix between a palace, a military fort, and a paradise. It is there that Wotan learns that his half-human offspring, Siegmund, has fallen in love with a woman who is already married and is also his sister. It is there that he argues with his wife about how, and whether, Siegmund should be punished. It is there that the Valkyries bring the bodies of fallen heroes.
The gods have eternal youth, guaranteed for them by the apples that Freia provides. In the staging I saw, when the curtain opens on Valhalla we see a group of beautiful young persons, all dressed in white, throwing golden apples around and at each other and laughing. The physical surroundings are perfect, and somehow really oversized. After all, it is a palace. So it is blissful, not in the quiet way of heaven, but in the rambunctious way of sex and showing off and gluttony and the struggle for power.
Now that as an afterlife would be beyond suitable. If Valhalla where I was going, I would have no regrets about mortality. You can sign me up for that any time.
Of course, one of the main points of the opera is that you can't have it, Valhalla, and in the few weeks after seeing it I became a little obsessed with the question of what, exactly, Wagner was trying to tell us with this story. It's not easy to find out about what people think about this question: most of the google hits for "philosophy" "Wagner" and so on get you pages about Wagner's stated philosophical ideas about art and so on, which aren't what I'm looking for.
In the opera, two significant things about humans is that they are free, and that they love. Siegmund is free, and his love for Sieglinde is so powerful that forced to choose between Valhalla and her, he doesn't hesitate. It is partly this choice that moves Brunnehilda to disobedience and then Wotan to a resulting murderous rage.
I came up with three possible interpretations -- which I'm sure others have thought of, and some of which are probably more common than others.
First, that it's a comment on historical change and the rise of the individual. Society used to require that people play their social roles without misbehavior and despite their inclinations; the humans in The Ring represent persons of modern life, who have a new kind of autonomy and individually.
Second, that it's a thought about the inevitability of the very worst things. The gods are gods, but they behave terribly, and in a sense, it is greed that causes their downfall. This would be a kind of universal statement about the impossibility of real goodness.
Third, that it's about human nature and its better qualities. The humans are powerful, not because they have Valhalla or because of their mad fighting skills but rather because they have the possibility of caring for one another so much.
On none of these interpretations are you supposed to want to go to Valhalla. It's the site of rigidity, of terrible hubris, of military power run amok and unleavened with human kindness.
Nonetheless, it continues to exert a powerful hold on my imagination. In the production in Paris, Valhalla had in its foreground gigantic letters that spelled out GERMANIA, bringing together, perhaps, some of these ideas. You can say it's unsubtle, but it was truly spectacular. This is how the letters looked in the mirror that hung over the entire stage, as they were being carried up to their places:
Even if it's terrible, how could you not want to go?