Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Reading List: rein GOLD

Elfriede Jelinek's 2013 Rein Gold is a text of many complexities, not the least of which is its genre. The prose work is subtitled as a “Bühnenessay,” an essay for the stage, and the audience is sometimes directly addressed as if sitting in a theater, applauding or restless or hissing. But the identity of the text as writing is also discussed. Brünnhilde is imagined as armed with a typewriter, to wield against her father’s rune-written spear. It is a meditation on the events of the Ring Cycle, on the creation of the Ring Cycle, and on its reception. It is also a meditation on the ways in which Wagner and his work have been interpreted, fetishized, and abused. The sprawling, death-marked, perhaps-renewable system of 20th- and 21st-century capitalism is also woven into the texture of the work, appearing like a reflection of the Ring’s events... or a transformed leitmotif. If I were putting it on my bookshelves, it would be at home next to the libretti or Zizek’s Living in the End Times.

The language itself is musical and dense, deliberately repetitive and deliberately poetic. “I keep returning, though I only seek to move forward,” laments Brünnhilde as she tries, almost stammering with rage, to make her father understand his guilt, and beseeches him to help her find a way out of the situation where they are trapped. Her torrent of language is countered hesitatingly: “I--child--never before have you spoken so much at once, and yet what have you said? I no longer know...” The dialogue functions on multiple levels, as meditation and as metaphor. Many phrases from the Ring find their way into the text, some in unexpected places. In one instance, Wotan addresses to Brünnhilde Siegmund’s words to Sieglinde, “Raste nun hier, gönne Dir Ruh’...” and then specifies, “Yes, that’s meant for you...” There are also some gloriously dense sentences which echo Wagner’s deliberately Klangfreudig poetry.

As Wotan and Brünnhilde search for meaning, the language they use constantly shifts; Jelinek plays with, inter alia, the pairings of Wert/Werte (value/values,) and Wahre/Ware (true/merchandise.) This jouissance has deep reverberations in the text as a whole, which describes and laments the commodification of labor, the folly of the god who hires giants because he fears what others might ask of him, and the absurdity of Freia's apples. Not least among Rein Gold's remarkable properties is the fearlessness with which it tackles subjects from sex and gender, to capitalism, to music performance history, to national identity. The "Made in Germany" stamp as a path (back) to collective pride is satirized until it first seems foolish, then sinister; the image of the Erlkönig surfaces in the background, as does that of Bayreuth's Green Hill. Siegfried and Brünnhilde's ecstatic and strange duet is deconstructed with ruthless intelligence, and the figure of Fricka is discussed "as one of those 'strong women' everyone seems to want now."  While Brünnhilde engages with these questions, Wotan is preoccupied with meditations on heroism and sacrifice. “There was one, that Jesus, who sacrificed himself completely for love, but then it had to be all humanity at once... I never could stand him.” Brünnhilde remains skeptical: “The hero is one who hopes that death is where he is not.” (There are echoes, here, of Schubert’s "Der Wanderer:" Dort wo du nicht bist, ist das Glück.) We keep building opera houses for our hero, says the valkyrie, but he never comes. The non-progress of the Rheingold from opening to closing chords becomes a terrifying allegory for the unreal, reality-shaping movement of markets in Frankfurt, New York, Tokyo, etc. And yet, sometimes, there remains the chance for transformation. One can is recycled into another. Gold starts in the Rhein and ends there. Jelinek provides a savagely dark meditation on the Ring and the societies which attend it without eyes to see with or ears to hear. But at the end, with a suddenness like a swell of strings, redemption becomes visible. Sample via the publisher here.


  1. Thanks for writing about this! The Stemann production of this text was the highlight of the Wagnerjahr for me. 'Schatten (Eurydike sagt)' is somewhat similar and also excellent, if you've caught the Jeli bug & want to check out more of her recent stuff.

    1. Oh, fascinating! Curiously, I found it hard to imagine how it would come across on stage. I'm always open to more Jelinek; thanks for the recommendation! I saw the Jelinek/Goethe "Faust In/Out" this fall, but "Schatten…" is new to me.


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