Bibliophiles, lend me your ears: I come to praise Alex Ross, not to bury him. He's already buried me beneath his many genius New Yorker pieces and in his breathtakingly erudite "The Rest Is Noise," which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism. For years he's been laboring over his sumptuous "Wagnerism," an encyclopedic account of composer Richard Wagner's influence over modernism right up to our own turbulent times. He fleshes out his story with consummate authority and élan, even if he occasionally falls into the trap of elites-speaking-only-to-elites.
But perhaps that elitism is purposeful, given Wagner's audiences. Ross is an unabashed Europhile, and he evokes how the composer's oeuvre — landmark works such as "Tristan und Isolde," the Ring Cycle, and "Parsifal" — lit up the continent's cultural capitals throughout the 19th century. Long before Lady Gaga, the crowds went gaga for Wagner.
Despite his mythical Norse gods, steely-eyed Valkyrie and sinister trolls, Wagner's ear was ever attuned to the fashions of his time. His famed anti-Semitism was real and relentless. While he glorified women in his art, he treated them with a chauvinism typical of the era's great men.
Ross is particularly adept at highlighting sexual tensions, not only in the operas but also in the composer's life: "While there is no reason to believe that Wagner acted on such desires, his language sometimes waxes homoerotic. … Parsifal, with its imagery of spears, wounds, and fluids, has been inducing giggles among gay listeners for generations."
Ross charts how the influencers of the day claimed Wagner as their artistic father, from Nietzsche to Mallarmé to Cézanne to Joyce. He's equally incisive when he shifts focus to American acolytes: Willa Cather and Hollywood filmmakers among them.
Layer by layer, he builds his case for Wagner as the 19th century's Übermensch. All this detail threatens to diffuse his through-line, but his later retracing of Wagner's role in the rise of Nazism grounds his narrative, beaming a light into the dark hangover of High Modernism. As an aimless young man Hitler stumbled across Wagner's operas and clung to them for the rest of his life, flaunting that passion as a mark of cachet as he ascended the ladder of German politics. He purportedly piled Wagner albums next to his bed, and in his final bunker "he kept Wagnerian artifacts close by. ... Hitler said that having Wagner's handwriting in his vicinity meant a great deal to him."
Ross' ambition and broad command of cultural history are peerless; it's no wonder, then, that he lacks the common touch. With each name dropped one senses he's preening before his peers. Fortunately, he dials down the complex musicology that saturates "The Rest Is Noise," allowing him to stick to a history of ideas that winds right up to our moment. Wagner may be a name that most Americans wouldn't recognize, but Wagnerism is the air we breathe. Rich and dense, Ross' book is one of this year's intellectual triumphs.
Hamilton Cain is the author of "This Boy's Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing" and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Brooklyn.
By: Alex Ross.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 784 pages, $40.