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He was an undersized little man, with a head too big for his body-a sickly little man. His nerves were bad. He had skin trouble. It was agony for him to wear anything next to his skin coarser than silk. And he had delusions of grandeur.

He was a monster of conceit. Never for one minute did he look at the world or at people except in relation to himself. He was not only the most important person in the world, to himself, in his own eyes he was the only person who existed. He believed himself to be one of the greatest dramatists in the world, one of the greatest thinkers, and one of the greatest composers. To hear him talk, he was Shakespeare, and Beethoven, and Plato, rolled into one. And you would have had no difficulty in hearing him talk. He was one of the most exhausting conversationalists that ever lived. An evening with him was an evening spent in listening to a monologue. Sometimes he was brilliant; sometimes he was maddeningly tiresome. But whether he was being brilliant or dull, he had one sole topic of conversation: himself. What he thought and what he did.

He had a mania for being in the right. The slightest hint of disagreement, from anyone, on the most trivial point, was enough to set him off on an harangue that might last for hours, in which he proved himself right in so many ways, and with such exhausting volubility, that in the end his hearer, stunned and deafened, agree with him, for the sake of peace.

It never occurred to him that he and his doing were not of the most intense and fascinating interest to anyone with whom he came in contact. He had theories about almost any subject under the sun, including vegetarianism, the drama, politics and music; and in support of these theories he wrote pamphlets, letters, books…thousands upon thousands of words, hundreds and hundreds of pages. He not only wrote these things, and published them-usually at somebody else’s expense-but he would sit and read them aloud, for hours, to his friends and his family.

He wrote operas; and no sooner did he have the synopsis of a story, but he would invite-or rather summon-a crowd of his friends to his house and read it aloud to them. Not for criticism. For applause. When the complete poem was written, the friends had to come again, and hear that read aloud. Then he would publish the poem, sometimes years before the music that went with it was written. He played the piano like a composer, in the worst sense of what that implies, and he would sit down at the piano before parties that included some of the finest pianists of his time, and play for them, by the hour, his own music, needless to say. He had a composer’s voice. And he would invite eminent vocalists to his house, and sing them his operas, taking all the parts.

He had the emotional stability of a six year old child. When he felt out of sorts, he would rave and stamp, or sink into suicidal gloom and talk darkly of going to the east to end his days as a Buddhist monk. Ten minutes later, when something pleased him, he would rush out of doors and run around the garden, or jump up and down on the sofa, or
stand on his head. He could be grief stricken about the death of a pet dog, and he could be callous and heartless to a degree that would have made a Roman emperor shudder.

He was almost innocent of any sense of responsibility. Not only did he seem incapable of supporting himself, but it never occurred to him that he was under any obligation to do so. He was convinced the world owed him a living. In support of this belief, he borrowed money from everybody who was good for a loan-men, women, friends or strangers. He wrote begging letters by the score, sometimes groveling without shame, at others loftily offering his intended benefactor the privilege of contributing to his support, and being mortally offended if the recipient denied the honor. I have found no record of his ever paying money or repaying money to anyone who did not have a legal claim upon it.

What money he could lay his hands on he spent like an Indian rajah. The mere prospect of a performance of one of his operas was enough to set him to running up bills amounting to ten times the amount of his prospective royalties. On an income that would reduce a more scrupulous man to doing his own laundry, he would keep two servants. Without enough money in his pocket to pay his rent, he would have the walls and ceiling of his study lined with pink silk. No one will ever know-certainly he never knew-how much money he owed. We do know that his greatest benefactor gave him $6,000.00 to pay the most pressing of his debts in one city, and a year later had to give him 16,000 to enable him to live in another city without being thrown into jail for debt.

He was equally unscrupulous in other ways. An endless procession of women marches through his life. His first wife spent twenty years enduring and forgiving his infidelities. His second wife had been the wife of his most devoted admirer, from whom he stole her. And even while he was trying to persuade her to leave her first husband he was
writing to a friend to enquire whether he could suggest some wealthy woman-any wealthy woman-he could marry for her money.

He was completely selfish in his other personal relationships. His liking for his friends was measured solely by their devotion to him, or their usefulness to him, whether financial or artistic. The minute they failed him-even by refusing a dinner invitation-or began to lessen in usefulness, he cast them off without a second thought. At the end of his life he had exactly one friend left whom he had known even in middle age.

He had a genius for making enemies. He would insult a man who disagreed with him about the weather. He would pull endless wires in order to meet some man who admired his work, and was able and anxious to be of use to him-and would proceed to make a mortal enemy of him with some idiotic and wholly uncalled-for exhibition of arrogance and
bad manners. A character in one of his operas was a caricature of the most powerful music critic of his day. Not content with burlesquing him, he invited the critic to his house and read him the libretto aloud in front of his friends.

The name of this monster was Richard Wagner. Everything that I have said about him you can find on record-in newspapers, in police reports, in the testimony of people who knew him, in his own letters, between the lines of his autobiography. And the curious thing about this record is that it doesn’t matter in the least.

Because this undersized, sickly, disagreeable, fascinating little man was right all the time. The joke was on us. He was one of the world’s great dramatists; he was a great thinker; he was one of the most stupendous musical geniuses that, up to now, the world has ever seen. The world did owe him a living. People couldn’t know those things at the time, I suppose; and yet to us, who know his music, it does seem as though they should have known. What if he did talk about himself all the time? If he had talked about himself for twenty-four hours for every day of his life he would not have uttered half the number of words other men have spoken and written about him since his death.

When you consider what he wrote-thirteen operas and music dramas, eleven of them still holding the stage, eight of them unquestionably ranking among the world’s great musico-dramatic masterpieces-when you listen to what he wrote, the debts and heartaches that people had to endure from him don’t seem much of a price. Eduard Hanslick, the
critic whom he caricatured in DIE MEISTERSINGER and who hated him ever after, now lives only because he was caricatured in DIE MEISTERSINGER.

The women whose hearts he broke are long since dead; and the man who could never love anyone but himself has made them deathless atonement, I think, with TRISTAN UND ISOLDE. Think of the luxury with which for a time, at least, fate rewarded Napoleon, the man who ruined France and looted Europe; and then perhaps you will agree that a few thousand dollars’ worth of debt were not too high a price to pay for the RING TRILOGY.

What if he was faithless to his friends and to his wives? He had one mistress to whom he was faithful to the day of his death: Music. Not for a single moment did he ever compromise with what he believed, with what he dreamed. There is not a line of his music that could have been written by a little mind. Even when he is dull, or downright bad, he is dull in the grand manner. There is greatness about his worst mistakes. Listening to his music, one does not forgive him for what he may or may not have been. It is not a matter of forgiveness. It is a matter of being dumb with wonder that his poor body didn’t burst under the torment of the demon of creative energy living inside him, struggling, clawing, scratching to be released; tearing, shrieking at him to write the music that was in him. The miracle is that what he did in the little space of seventy years could have been done at all, even by a great genius.

Is it any wonder that he had no time to be a man?-Deems Taylor, from OF MEN AND MUSIC, 1937.




The core of masculinity does not derive from
being male, nor friendliness from those who
console. Your old grandmother says, “Maybe
you shouldn’t go to school. You look a little
pale.” Run when you hear that. A father’s
stern slaps are better. Your bodily soul wants
comforting. The severe father wants spiritual
clarity. He scolds, but eventually leads you into
the open. Pray for a tough instructor to hear and
act and stay within you. We have been busy
accumulating solace. Make us afraid of how we were.

Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks).

For the young who want to

Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.

Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.

Genius is what they know you
had after the third volume
of remarkable poems. Earlier
they accuse you of withdrawing,
ask why you don’t have a baby,
call you a bum.

The reason people want M.F.A.’s,
take workshops with fancy names
when all you can really
learn is a few techniques,
typing instructions and some-
body else’s mannerisms

is that every artist lacks
a license to hang on the wall
like your optician, your vet
proving you may be a clumsy sadist
whose fillings fall into the stew
but you’re certified a dentist.

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.
Marge Piercy (1936-)

Copyright 1982 Circles on the Water: Selected Poems of Marge Piercy Alfred A. Knopf. Notes  M.F.A.’s: Master of Fine Arts degrees. phlogiston: invisible hypothetical matter or `principle’ thought to combine with all combustible bodies and be expelled during burning — a concept popular in the 18th century but abandoned once oxygen was discovered.

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