Alex Ross, renowned New Yorker music critic and author of the international bestseller and Pulitzer Prize finalist The Rest Is Noise, reveals how Richard Wagner became the proving ground for modern art and politics—an aesthetic war zone where the Western world wrestled with its capacity for beauty and violence. Neither apologia nor condemnation, Wagnerism is a work of passionate discovery, urging us toward a more honest idea of how art acts in the world. In this excerpt, Ross takes us through the writer Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s obsession with Richard Wagner. FSG will be publishing Wagnerism on September 15.
"He always brought in a festival,” Stéphane Mallarmé said. “Time annulled itself those nights.” The Goncourt brothers recalled the “feverish eyes of a victim of hallucinations, the face of an opium addict or a masturbator, and a crazy, mechanical laugh which came and went in his throat.” This absinthe-breathed bohemian was, in fact, the scion of an ancient family, as his page-wide name testifies: Jean-Marie-Mathias-Philippe-Auguste, Comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. Born on the Brittany coast, Villiers could claim proximity to the romance of Tristan: the hero comes from a Breton line, and, in Wagner’s version, dies in the family castle. One of Villiers’s distant ancestors had been the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, and family lore held that he left a great treasure buried somewhere. Villiers’s father, Joseph, engaged in ill-advised real-estate ventures in order to carry out excavations in Brittany. According to Villiers’s biographer, Alan Raitt, the only thing Joseph ever found was a dinner service. His son inherited the fixation on lost glory, transmuting it into literary fantasy. Auguste gained early notoriety for having declared his candidature—seriously or not, no one could be sure—for the throne of Greece.