Great artistic classics teach basic culturist lessons. Richard Wagner's magnificent opera, The Valkyrie, provides an intense and amazing example. In high drama we get answers to the "why questions" that children and youth ask. Many times we are stymied by these. Authoritarian breakdown can be traced back to our inability to answer these basic questions. This inability can be, in turn, traced back to our failure to teach the classics anymore.
Incest is at the heart of this story. Siegmund falls in love with his long lost sister Sieglinde. And, make no mistake, they know they are brother and sister and still engage in lust and plan on marriage. I can only imagine how well this romance was received when it premiered in 1870. A further monkey wrench in this affair is that Sieglinde is already married. The marriage is loveless and was not her choice, but that was common back then and she is married.
This sort of reckless romance runs in "the family." Actually their father is the god Wotan. Wotan had many affairs on his wife Fricka. Siegmund and Sieglinde are the product of one such dalliance. Here is where the morality starts to creep in, Fricka wants Siegmund killed in a fight with his love's husband to stop their marriage. It incestuous marriage is an abomination that must be stopped! As the Goddess of marriage you'd expect her to say that. We would say that. But Wotan, like many today, does not see what is wrong with their love! They are brother and sister, but they really love each other.
Fricka lays out reasons for morality. Fricka starts with a personal reason. She has put up with Wotan's adultry. And, as the goddess of marriage, this has been humiliating. But if he gives his blessings to incest coming from his adultery, it will completely humiliate her. Next she moves on to a social reason. His approval of incest will undermine the authority of the gods. If they do not condemn incest, if they do not promote any standards, people will not respect them and all the gods will lose their source of moral authority. This reasoning teaches us that the underpinnings of morality rest on the ability to distinguish good from bad, the sacred from the profane. When all is okay, there is no reason to obey.
Plato liked to give different explanation of morality for different levels of thinkers. Herein Wagener does the same thing. Humiliating Fricka was bad. The Gods losing their power was bad too. But Fricka's third reason to not endorse incest convinces Wotan. Another superhuman being, Alberich, has given up love to more fully pursue power. Competition exists. In his youth, Wotan was all about lust and appetite. He lived from one pleasure to another. But he is now facing competition from an enemy that is out to destroy all he has. If Wotan is to survive, he must retain his power amongst people by being moral. Running around being lustful will not stave off the bad people in the world. Wotan, to be an adult and to survive, must give up appetite for reason and start to consider power relations in the world.
This reasoning is something that Western nations need to consider. We are seen as lazy sex addicts by much of the world. Our reputation undermines our moral authority amongst other humans. If not in our own eyes, this brings humiliation to us in the eyes of others. But, perhaps most fundamentally, the world is hostile. Alberich's giving up all love to gain power teaches the culturst truths that diversity and competition exist. The Chinese have different values and are playing to win. If the Chinese continue to beat us up economically, we will lose opportunity and real freedoms. Islamic Jihadis have different values and are playing to win. If we do not recognize and confront this situation, we can - like Wotan - fail to survive. Wotan's realization teaches us that our power cannot be taken for granted and it cannot be sustained by constant uncontrolled, irresponsible and inconsiderate lust.
As is morality, The Valkyrie is very personal and philosophical. Wotan is a God. Having to curb his appetite hurts him emotionally. Beyond this, to prove his worth, he has to allow his incestuous son to be slain. Watching his son die will not be easy. But as his son has transgressed the basic rules of decency in society Wotan understands the necessity of killing him. He tells his daughter, Brunnhilde the Valkyrie, of his woes and to make sure Siegmund dies in his fight. She agrees, but cannot carry out this harsh morality upon seeing Siegmund and his love for his sister up close. Emotions cause her to disobey the cold moral dictates of her father and god Wotan. And so we are presented with a visual, theatrical and musical dramatization of the clash between harsh abstract morality and human feeling.
Wotan's decrees that for disobeying him and his moral dicates, Brunnhilde, his favorite daughter, shall lose all of her god-like powers. Furthermore, she is to be put asleep and the first man that finds her will take her and make her toil domestically like a common slave. Her punishment, in other words, will be a domestic straightjacket with no room for passion like the one her father is in. In a very intimate moment Wotan laments that he admitted his deep secret thoughts to her, he told her that killing his incestuous son hurt him, and she listened. As being open about his feelings has led to her needing to be punished, he will no longer speak of his love or passion to anyone again. He is going into emotional shutdown. Brunnhilde pleads that she was partially right to disobey his rules and carry out his heart's wishes. He cannot, as we cannot, totally disown our passions in the name of abstract, absolute, cold morality.
Wotan still decrees that she shall be made unconscious and the first man who sees her shall have her. However, he allows her to be surrounded by a huge ring of fire. Only a man who has passed test can have her. In other words, she shall have a man who is worthy of her, that inspires passion. A balance is struck. The domestic control that our pride, order and safety depend upon will have passion in it. Rules will happen, but our standards and desires will be considered. To marry her, the prospective husband will have to pass tests. She will have to know that he is a hero. Their domestic life will have passion and glory in it. Wotan, as a God, however, is not as fortunate as her. His lynchpin status means that he must uphold the strictest levels of morality. Unlike Brunnhilde, Wotan's passions will henceforth have to become irrelevant to his morality.
Like all great art, Wagner's The Valkyrie teaches fundamental culturist lessons about society, life and where we personally fit in. Wotan's sad fate as a god reminds us that higher morality must have standards that do not bend for human appetite. The structure of our society and moral order depend upon it. Wotan must slay his son Siegmund for moral order to continue. Yet the changing of punishments for Brunnhilde teach us that morality and the society it supports need not be a cold, distant, harsh dictates. Her fate teaches us that passion, tests, and glory can be found within the basic guidelines society must uphold. Our society would be better grounded if it spent more time with great art; pieces like Wagner's The Valkyrie are entertaining, they create a shared vocabulary within our culture and teach fundamental culturist lessons.