Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Schläfst du, Hagen, mein Sohn?

Who is Hagen? my friends and I are discussing. Is he evil by choice or by nature? are we all Hagens to some extent? Understanding Hagen helps elucidate the moral dilemmas in the Ring.

Hagen is Gunther's kid brother via Grimhilde who for some reason was seduced by Alberich. But it's not all that clear how the relationship came about. In any case Grimhilde told Hagen to respect Gunther. So despite his envy, he does what his mum tells him. Gunther's pretty laidback about having an illegitmate half-dwarf for a brother and admires him for his brains. Very interesting family dynamic - if only we knew more.

When did Grimhilde die and what was she like? These do pertain to the relationships and to Hagen's character. What we do know is that Hagen knows about the gold and about Siegfried and the dragon.

But Gutrune, who knows Siegfried must have a past, has no qualms about accepting a potion that will ensnare the hero. She's not evil, but potions don't play fair. So she's compromised morally. She does this because she thinks she can't win any other way. But low self-esteem doesn't justify cheating. When she finally acknowledges Brünnhilde it's too late, the damage is done. In Gunther's case the moral perjury is even greater. The Gibichungs are no different from the gods who grabbed Valhalla without paying the builders. only pettier and more venal.

Whatever Hagen may be, he's not a mediocrity aiming above his station. That is why he's interesting, he has moral potential. He's dutiful, in his own way, guarding Gibichung interests, whatever they may mean to him - Gibich wasn't his dad. So he's an unhappy, tortured soul: on some level he can't surpress his traumas. So Alberich comes into his subconscious : Schläfst du, Hagen, mein Sohn? Notice, Hagen is asleep, but he's not at rest.

Thus Alberich weaves the plot, carefully playing on Hagen's insecurities. The poor guy resists der schlimmer Albe, even dissing his mother, perhaps the only person who loved him, because she gave him courage. (Mut in this case meaning I think more than ordinary valour but a strong personality). Alberich cuts straight to Hagen's weak spot, his insecurity and envy. Hassen die Frohen! Hate those who are happy and have what you have not. Alberich has no values other than to destroy. Just as he mistreated the Nibelungs, he manipulates his son's unhappiness. Alberich is a troll in the modern sense of the word, which is why he can't understand what Siegfried stands for. Fool as he is, Siegfried wants to seek adventures, so much so that he dumps Brünnhilde to seek the unknown. Hagen has never had that freedom of choice, he's trapped in the hall of the Gibichungs because of his past (which is why it's interesting to ponder).

Hagen has no beef with Wotan. He's manipulated into acting out Alberich's revenge. There's little emphasis on what Hagen will gain from grabbing power, but plenty on why Hagen must take sides with Alberich's vendetta. You belong to me, Alberich implies, we're both of the night. Die wir bekämpfen mit nächtigem Krieg, schon gibt ihnen Not unser Neid. and in doing so, liebst du (mich), wie du sollst! Talk about toxic parents!

So is Hagen evil? He does evil things and eventually stabs Siegfried. Hagen and Gunther only fall out when Hagen claims the Ring, which according to Alberich is "his" inheritance. And look what happens when Brünnhilde does her thing and asserts her moral authority by throwing the Ring back to its rightful owners and sacrifices herself to the flames. Hagen cries Zurück vom Ring! Keep away from the Ring and all it implies. He loses his cool and jumps into the river, presumably to die. Has he found some kind of redemption in a sub-Brünnhilde purification? Hagen has more personality depth than Gunther or Gutrune so it's he who can make the connection with what the Ring stands for, and why he can't go on.

So Hagen isn't a bad guy per se, but a kind of Everyman. Most people feel insecure and jealous of others and are easily swayed by what others think. Perhaps it's human nature to knock tbose who have what the rest of us don't have. We all get dragged along by leaders with persuasive powers. It's the story of Bayreuth, post-Wagner. It leads to things like Kristallnacht. Some never wake up and realize. But Hagen has his moment of illumination (lit up by the fires around Brünnhilde), so perhaps he redeems his conflicted soul.


Mark Berry said...

And crucially, of course, Hagen's musical figure is that of the tritone: both the diabolus in musica and the gateway to atonality. It frequently and successfully undercuts other, diatonic figures, perhaps most savagely of all in the enforced merriment of the ceremonies for the 'wrong' marriages, those of Gunther and Brünnhilde, and Siegfried and Gutrune, both of which Hagen has brought about. As Adorno, noted, in Wagner's music, 'all the energy is on the side of the dissonance.' Like Mephistopheles, though, Hagen can only negate, for he has never learned to love, and therefore to live. This curse he has inherited from his father, who sired him only in order to win the ring.

A.C. Douglas said...

Nice. Your analysis, that is. Thoughtful, too.

My compliments.