There is a kind of dread in the heart of any reader who approaches a philosopher in the act of pronouncing on a great work of art. Many a filmmaker’s oeuvre and painter’s catalogue have been bullied to death by the schematics and architectures of these men – they are inevitably men – who attempt to explain an artist’s meaning in the context of a particular philosophy, be it political, moral, or aesthetic. They always reveal far more of themselves than the artist they are in the process of skewering, and the result is often reductive and parasitic.
Of course, it depends on the philosopher – and the artist. Roger Scruton is a formidable example of the former, and Richard Wagner a towering example of the latter; together, they make for fascinating, if occasionally uncomfortable, reading on the subject of the German composer’s monumental achievement, Der Ring des Nibelungen, which was recently performed in Melbourne (see page 39). There is a compelling tussle at the centre of this book, brought on by the author’s sometimes problematic but always deeply sensitive attempts to grapple with the sheer weight of the opera cycle, and the work’s fiendish ability to shirk any definitive interpretative analysis. Wagner wins, but the battle is worth following.