Richard Wagner’s 197th Birthday—Are Law and Contract Evil because they are antithetical to Love and Will?


Richard Wagner was born on May 22, 1813.  He is famous for a great many things, the most sublime music ever composed and performed by mortal man being first among them.  When I say “sublime” I mean of course, capable of concentrating the mind and spirit of human beings on all emotional and physical aspects of love in a manner equated by no one.  Many hundreds of tomes have been written about Richard Wagner…some say more has been written about Wagner than anyone on earth since Jesus Christ, although I suspect there are actually at least a few competitors for the “most books and articles written” about any one person, including, of course, Wagner’s own most infamous 20th century fan.

But what I write about today is just a short note about one of the recurring themes in Wagner’s operas: whether law and specifically contract are antithetical to love and will?  Are law and contract therefore evil?  (By evil, I mean, on the net more destructive than creative or positive in support of live, in this case).   An agreement to abide by a contract or law limits our freedom and hence our ability to manifest and actualize our will.  An agreement to disregard a previous agreement becomes rather complex.  A law forbidding certain types of agreements is yet another level of complexity.

The most famous Wagnerian character who was defeated by his own contracts and laws was none other than Wotan, king of the gods in Der Ring des Niebelungen.  In essence, Wagner concluded that too many agreements, too many laws, rendered the king of the gods less than mortal, distinctly immoral, and less than human because it was inevitable that the agreements, contracts, and laws accumulated and began to contradict each other so that there was no legitimate coherence in the law or the contractual world.  Wagner was commenting, of course, in part on 19th century capitalism.  But the reality of the modern corporate world is that the truth of his metaphoric treatment is much truer now than it was 130-140 years ago.

A mortgage contract is a reasonably good example.  Nobody seems to give much importance to contracts of sale anymore.  The sale and purchase of property and assets is not nearly so important as the creation of money through debt.  The reason is that the creation of money through debt is really the sole purpose of these contracts.  So, there is no recitation of offer and acceptance, no recitation of the terms of bilateral consideration and performance, no recitation of tender and receipt.  Instead there is only the lengthy list of obligations that a mortgagor do everything that a good and prudent owner should do.

I believe that the Twilight of these particular Gods is upon us, that just as Wagner saw Wotan as so compromised and twisted into multiple pretzels that he could no longer take any action with integrity, so the modern Gods of Finance have sacrificed the productive purpose of the economy (the betterment of humans) to their own parasitic ways.   I am writing this late on a Friday night and have a seminar both to give and in which to participate starting at 9:00 tomorrow, but I will continue my commentary on Wagner’s views at a later date.  In the meantime, I urge everyone to listen at the very least to one act of Der Fliegenden Hollander, Lohengrin, Tannhauser, or Tristan und Isolde today in memory of the Shakespeare of musical drama.  Wagner’s poetry and dialogue may not have the stature of Goethe’s Faust, but his merger of music and mythic metaphor is quite simply unparalleled on the globe.

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