Judith Lebiez, excerpts from “Confronting the Dragons,” The Wagner Journal, Nov. 2014

Tom Artin in The Wagner Complex has commonalities with Wagner’s hero Siegfried.  He boldly follows his intuitions . . . There is something heroic in going so deeply into Wagner’s cavernous mind to confront the dragons sleeping there.  Artin comes back from this quest with a few golden truths and an ability to understand what Wagner’s characters really mean. 

Artin . . . indulges in his brilliant analogies that sometimes recall the scholastic exegesis of the Bible in their eagerness to reduce a fiction to concepts.  Yet the book cannot be reduced to them.  Artin’s insights often reach deeper levels.  And unlike scholasticism, his work cannot be said to give comfort to any dogma, not even the Freudian one.  His freedom of thought is really stunning, and makes the book a pleasure to read, whether or not one agrees with its thesis. 

I find his pages on the link to the mother of special interest.

His passage on necrophilia seems to me a piece of bravura.

He analyses Wagner’s ambivalence towards his putative father Geyer to argue that Alberich and Wotan are the two faces of a unique paternal figure, and in that perspective he sheds new light on Wagner’s anti-Semitism.  Artin is not a Wagner scholar, nor an analyst, and this actually seems to be a good position for developing bold ideas.  Nothing holds him back.  He does not have to comply with academic or methodological exigencies.  Free to follow his own intuitions, Artin plays with Wagner and Freud as he fancies.  That a form of ingenuousness is the best way to great achievements might after all be the ultimate lesson of the Ring.


Gerald Dugan:

"THE WAGNER COMPLEX could easily become one of the classics of psychological criticism, on the same order as Freud's excellent study of Leonardo Da Vinci or the Ernest Jones Hamlet and Oedipus."


John Harbison:

"In his bold Freudian study of The Ring, The Wagner Complex, Tom Artin takes an angle that would have pleased the great Sorcerer of Bayreuth--he deals with the Poem, the text, with great appreciation for its psychological richness and literary value.

This fresh approach links up with an equally unfashionable stance:  Assuming Wagner and Freud to be contemporaries--not chronologically but intellectually--Artin uses Freud to unlock Wagner, biographically and artistically.

Beware anyone squeamish about feces, urine, semen, penises and vaginas, anyone unready for examinations of necrophilia, castration anxiety, and infantile eroticism, beware, idealists reluctant to be reminded that greed, rape, murder, and incest drive these plots.

And take a good grip when Artin undertakes a tough tour of Wagner's virulent anti-Semitism, finding in the master's fear of being himself, perhaps, Jewish, a paradoxical enrichment of the Ring's dramatic texture.

Each time the author pushes his insights to their most dangerous point, we emerge with an expanded respect for Wagner's intuitive genius.

Artin . . .has paid the not always delightful price of slogging through a great deal of the Wagner literature and many of the composer's own writings.  Quite ascetically he has denied himself comments on the music, but obviously he hears it well.  Points of textual emphasis match the musical syntax convincingly.

This book will make you squirm with discomfort and pleasure as you begin to grant that Artin's assertions of Freudian-Wagnernian conjunctions are far from a stretch.  They appear to be part of the deep uncomfortable fundamental truthfulness lodged in this sprawling overweening uncontainable profound unholy lucid mess we know and love as The Ring."


Jay Y. Gonen—Independent Scholar


Review of Tom Artin,

The Wagner Complex:  Genesis and Meaning of The Ring.

Published in Clio’s Psyche, Vol. 19, n. 3, December, 2012.


Robert Donington's highly impressive psychological analysis of Richard Wagner's operatic ring cycle appeared in the last mid-century.  It utilized a Jungian approach that viewed the cycle mostly as a depiction of Wotan's intra-psychic journey toward shifting control from the ego to the self.  In his new book The Wagner Complex, Tom Artin delivers the long-awaited comprehensive analysis of the ring cycle as well as its author from a Freudian standpoint.  This time, the intra-psychic journey depicts the trials, tribulations and subsequent failure of the tragic pre-oedipal and Oedipal struggles to fuse with mother and yet to separate from her.  It is a brilliant work.

The book proceeds along three basic tracks that interact with each other.  The first is the operatic text itself, which receives a careful inspection for significant psychological themes as well as for loaded terms.  For this purpose, the author frequently goes back to the original German terms in order to uncover nuances that might be lost in translation. This extra care makes the entire study more convincing.

The second track consists of summoning essential insights of psychoanalysis and demonstrating that the basic psychoanalytic story of human development is already imbedded in the text of the ring cycle.  In order to do this, Artin goes back to classical psychoanalysis rather than more recent developments.  Freud is not teamed up with Erik Erikson nor Heinz Kohut but rather Otto Rank, Melanie Klein and Ernest Jones.  In this classical psychoanalysis, instincts had the upper hand and were able to overcome repressions, not to mention conscious reason.  Artin's ability to delve into numerous and minute details adds a convincing touch to his basic hypothesis that central Freudian credos are imbedded in the text of the ring.  Non-Freudian readers may therefore conclude that, as usual, the devil is in the details.

The third track purports to show that the contents of the previous two tracks—the psychological loadings of the text of the ring and of psychoanalysis—formed the woof and weft of Wagner’s own personality.  Utilizing material from Wagner's life, Artin is able to jump back and forth between the operatic text and details of Wagner's life to illustrate psychological issues involving relations to mother, to sisters, dual father images, and the more general issue of carrying split images of close relatives or significant others.

The opening remark of the book is that “The Ring is a circle.”  It therefore ought not to have a beginning or end.  As befits a mythology, it operates in a circular, not linear, time and serves as an elaborate metaphor for existence.  Nevertheless, the timeless framework in which gods and giants and dwarves operate serves to express the inner world of Wagner as well as modern audiences.  In this connection, one is reminded that the 1976 new choreography of the ring cycle in Bayreuth by Patrice Chéreau depicted on one occasion a hydroelectric plant and on another a run-down neighborhood of deserted tenement housing.  This stage setting that was greeted at first with raised eyebrows by both audience and critics evolved in time into le succès de scandale.  It serves as another reminder that timeless mythology can be very timely indeed.

What better way to dramatize a mythology that sets up an entire world to live in than the Gesamtkunstwerk—usually translated as the total artwork—that was Wagner's brainchild for the ultimate integration of the dramatic arts into an all-encapsulating performance.  Wagner’s megalomania, a trait that was acknowledged by many including Donington and Artin, embraced architecture as well.  His own design for the special theater in Bayreuth that would be suitable for a performance of the ring cycle placed the orchestra in a pit and therefore out of sight.  Nothing was allowed to distract the audience from the dramatic events on the stage.  Within the total artwork, the captive audience should become completely captivated and shaped by the performance. This is how, with quite a bit of megalomania, the genius artist becomes the shaper of man. It was a great historical misfortune, however, that later on an art model designed for the stage was exploited in politics. In Nazi Germany, the total artwork inspired a totalistic political work.  Comprehensive controls were applied to the inhabitants of the so-called Volksgemeinschaft, or people's community, to shape them into new improved German persons.  Everything became political theater in the folkish state.

TheWagnerComplex is written in the classical tradition of depth psychology and is a timely reminder of how rich and far-reaching this approach can be.  It portrays a worldview and/or a conception of the psyche that is replete with oral, anal, necrophilic, and Oedipal hurdles.  In this intra-psychic world, an ironclad double-bind law rules supreme. The necrophilic fantasy implies that only one life can be shared between mother and a newborn son.  What is more, even for a trickster such as Wotan, it is impossible to act out Oedipal urges without guilt.  The truth always lies in the depth, in primordial waters, in the unconscious where instincts forever crave satisfaction through an illusionary infantile omnipotence.  Does the myth of the ring cycle offer any promise of redemption?  Could the reborn gods of the next cycle finally grow up to successfully shed off their babyish omnipotence and become mature mortals?  Wagner's mythological text is ambiguous on this point.  As for the author of The Wagner Complex, he seems to be pessimistic on this issue.  In unraveling how the ring cycle is actually Freudian to the core, Tom Artin has produced a masterful illustration of the fragile balance between civilization and its discontents.

Jay Y. Gonen, PhD, is a psychologist and psychohistorian who is the author of The Roots of Nazi Psychology: Hitler's Utopian Barbarism and other books.

October 25, 2013, Svenska Dagbladet

Isabelle Ståhl

Wagner’s longing for dark water

The wish to drown or dissolve in the darkness of water is a recurring theme in Wagner’s works. Interesting parallels can be drawn between Freud’s and Wagner’s worldviews and the new mythology the composer wished for.

In Christof Loy's new staging of Richard Wagner's Parisfal, currently running at the Royal Opera , the focus is on unfulfilled desire, castration anxiety, weakness, and longing, rather than stoicism and integrity.  Kundry’s attempt to seduce Parsifal ends with him collapsing in guilt, whimpering:  “Mother! Mother!”

Long before Sigmund Freud wrote his works on the Oedipus complex, the death instinct, and the incest taboo, Wagner set to music the same themes in pregnant dissonance.  In his fascinating book The Wagner Complex (Free Scholar Press, 2012), literary scholar Tom Artin draws interesting parallels between Freud’s and Wagner's world views.

One of the things Wagner deplored about his period was its hypocrisy over sexuality and love relationships.  He spoke often of the psychological significance of the Oedipus myth, and maintained that incestuous desires were natural and normal.  In his biography of Wagner, Joachim Köhler has underscored his attraction to his older sister Rosalie.  Wagner often sought out married women.  He lived for a long period with Cosima Liszt and parented her children before she divorced from Hans von Bülow.  As the years progressed, so did Wagner's infatuation with aphrodisiacs, extraordinary costumes, fancy underwear and perfumed baths.

Ultimately, it was Wagner's fictional heroes who had to break the taboos he himself could not--like Sieglinde and Siegmund, the enamoured siblings who become a couple, or Siegfried , the powerful hero who breaks through the fire her father had imprisoned Brünnhilde within.  Like many romantic thinkers in the 1800’s, Wagner mourned the disintegration of myth and wished with his Gesamtkunstwerk to establish a new mythology capable of healing the divided German soul .

It was no easy matter to create a unifying mythology for a populace fragmented by religious and political strife. Paradoxically, the mythology Wagner sought was right under his nose.  Freud would soon argue that modern life with its social prohibitions had in effect become a modern mythology.  Men and women lived distanced from the real life of intuitions, emotions, and instincts concealed under the surface.  As Artin shows, it is precisely this mythology that becomes fuel for Wagner's creativity.

According to Artin it is no coincidence that The Ring of the Nibelung opens at the bottom of the Rhine.  The Rhinemaidens' childish games and babbling in the dark peace of the river-bottom depicts a timeless state of harmony in the world, before the beginning of time.  The Rhine is in other words an emblem of the womb, but also of the unconscious, says Artin.  Of the glittering gold in the depths, the Rhinemaidens sing that security and the truth is to be found only there:  false and cowardly are those who enjoy themselves above (“Traulich und treu ist 's nur in der Tiefe : falsch und Feig ist , was dort oben sich Freut!”)  Truth resides in the unconscious; the surface of life is all distortion.

Anyone who suspects this starts to sound farfetched should know about Wagner's lifelong fixation with his mother.  In “Art and Revolution,” Wagner describes the revolution he longs for as a woman, a life-giving but simultaneously life-destroying mother.  In Wagner's letters to his mother, he describes his feelings for her as the highest form of love, and professes his gratitude that she took care of him so well.  To judge from his autobiography, Mein Leben, his mother was in fact emotionally distant, not even hugging him once throughout his childhood.  When as a child he is sick, she says she wishes to see him dead.  At night he wakes up screaming from ghostly visions and nightmares.

So the family may escape his crying, he is forced to sleep in the room as far away as possible from the rest of the family. There, furniture and portraits can suddenly seem alive and make him scream in terror.  When he is afraid, the severe reprimands and spanking from his mother come as a blessed relief.  These offer rare moments of maternal attention, albeit in the form of anger and punishment.

It is interesting to speculate how Wagner's emotionally barren upbringing may have fed his hateful thoughts about the Jews. When Wagner is six months old, his mother marries Ludwig Geyer, he takes the place “in the lap” of the family, as Wagner writes in his autobiography (“lap” has the double meaning of “womb” in German, as in Swedish).  Geyer is possibly his biological father, and Wagner may suspect he is of Jewish ancestry.  Wagner's unfulfilled longing for intimacy with those he saw himself most closely related to— mother and sisters— may have fueled his fantasies about blood purity.

When then Geyer dies, Richard was left in a household of five women:  his mother and four sisters.  Wagner's sisters are more loving than his emotionally distant mother.  Just to caress their clothing with his hands caused his heart to beat wildly, he writes in Mein Leben.

When then the hook-nosed dwarf Alberich appears in the Rhine river, we have a caricatured image of the Jewishness insinuating itself into the family, and that Wagner feared in himself, Artin believes.  Alberich is small and disgusting, and his sexual desires redolent of taboo render him ridiculous, just like the boy who compares himself to his father and realizes he will lose the battle for mother's love.

Perhaps creation is always a form of sublimation of unfulfilled desires.  In the operas about Siegfried, Tristan and Parsifal, the father dies at the birth of the hero, and the hero wins an unavailable woman.  In Die Walküre, Wotan's son rescues Sieglinde from a loveless marriage with Hunding, an event with numerous parallels in Wagner's own life.

In his autobiography, he connects these childhood fantasies of ghostly terror with the theater's allure.  Despite the unpleasant fear of spirits and the uncanny, he is drawn masochistically to them.  It is not entertainment he is seeks at the theater, but finding himself in an element completely different from ordinary life, a world that is purely fantastic, and attractive in an almost gruesome way.  Contact with this world lifts him up out of ordinary life into the “delightful realms of the spirits.”

In 1855 he writes in a letter to his friend Franz Liszt that listening to his music, “I feel every time as if I had dived into a deep crystal flood, to be there quite by myself, leaving all the world behind me, and living for an hour my real life.”  In 1859 he writes to the same friend that he is not living life in the truest sense of the word, and that all that can help him is art—“art to the verge of drowning and world-forgetfulness.”

The wish to drown or dissolve in the darkness of water is a recurring motif in his work. Amfortas tries obsessively to heal his unhealable wound with baths in the sacred lake.  The wound can be seen as a metaphor for the libido, the corrupting force that threatens to overpower Grail Knights and make them vulnerable to desire.  The Flying Dutchman is liberated from his odysseys at sea by drowning in the water he cannot escape.  Isolde metaphorically transforms the fancied breathing of Tristan’s corpse step-wise into music, then breezes, then water, in which she ecstatically drowns. The water is simultaneously the cause of illness and its cure.

Baths are just as ineffective for Amfortas as for Wagner.  In 1851, he checks into the Albisbrunn hydropathic institution, convinced that the water treatments' healing power will cure his lifelong, putatively hypochondriacal symptoms of stomach and back. Although the state of his troubled intestines and nerves are rather aggravated than alleviated by the interminable baths, he cannot relinquish the idea that cure and redemption lie therein.

In 1853 he lies sleepless and uncomfortable at Spezia's best hotel, unable to begin the music of The Ring of the Nibelung.  On a hard couch he falls into a somnolent state in which he suddenly feels he is sinking through fast flowing water.  The rushing sound shapes itself into the music within him.  E flat major echoes in fractured shapes and bestows “infinite significance” to the water he is sinking through.  The prelude to Das Rheingold has been revealed to him.

In psychoanalysis, fantasies of overflowing water are sometimes seen as a wish for re- identification with the mother—never to have been born, resting in weightless passivity, spared the painful instincts and desires that inevitably arise with the emergence of the self.  Birth is the first experience of anxiety, and thus the source and prototype of all anxiety, Freud writes in “The Interpretation of Dreams.” Fantasies and unconscious thoughts about life in the womb at the same time explain the striking fear many people have of being buried alive, he writes further.  The womb is thus both an object of desire and a source of anxiety, a dark nothingness we ever long to return to.

According to psychoanalytic theory repression of anxiety-provoking thoughts and traumas renders us unconsciously fixated on the past and alienated from the present.  We attempt to repeat past traumas to give them a solution and set things aright. The search for new experiences rests on the subconscious desire to return.

Tension between regressive repetition of the past, and longing for the future, appears over and again in Wagner's works.  His deep displeasure with his philistine , commercialized era led to a grandiose vision of the future in which economic, artistic, and sexual liberation would prevail.  Siegfried is a hero who with death defying courage frees himself from society’s inhibiting structures, a “man of the future.”

At the same time there is, in Wagner's operas, a backward-looking longing for a lost nature, a regression to the animal state, says Artin.  In “The Artwork of the Future,” Wagner writes that whoever is unsatisfied with the modern present must look backward at human nature, where he will see an image of all future things.

Wagner's works can of course not be explained as a manifestation of neurotic family complexes.  A compulsion to psychologize art can be just as limiting as the reduction of emotions to biology.  The sheer bulk of research on Wagner and his work also shows the difficulty of avoiding intellectualized speculations.  But as Christof Loy lets us sense with his brilliant closing scene of Parsifal—in which an enormous library emerges on the stage—no interpretations suffice to exhaust the myths; more likely they drain them of their beauty.

Hans Ruin writes in Dagens Nyheter (17/10) that younger opera audiences seeing Wagner's Parsifal  let themselves be seduced blindly without thinking critically about the anti-Semitism and misogyny which according to Ruin is the root of the work.  But that we of the younger generation allow ourselves to be seduced does not mean we give up thinking critically.  It may be that from time to time we have to allow ourselves to drown in the Wagnerian music . . . in order to sober up when the music dies away.