Tom Swart and Lionel Berman, two friends who enrich my life in every encounter, always setting me on a new learning curve, shared with me (March, 2015) their DVDs of Der Ring des Niebelungen staged at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York 2010 – 2011. I was ready for it. Having lived for the last twenty-one years in what the world calls democracy, I have come to recognize, with the aid of Milan Kundera, the fantasies we weave about existence in order to hide our feelings of insecurity. I used to be a naive romantic; I actually believed that democracy meant power to the people.

  • New Old Way

    • Before ‘94
    • I believed
    • even became an activist
    • stood up to resist
    • the racist rule of law;
    • marching in the mass
    • full of fight and fearless
    • fists up, spirits high
    • Viva the revolution!
    • Viva!
    • Yes, I believed
    • and knew without a doubt
    • the meaning of democracy:
    • amandla awethu, liberty
    • equality, fraternity,
    • the Freedom Charter,
    • the people shall govern
    • I knew without a doubt
    • that new, enlightened leaders,
    • sprung from the soil of oppression
    • would startle the whole world
    • with true democracy, genuine
    • liberty, equality, fraternity
    • After ‘94
    • I learned
    • it was all a game
    • the game of chess
    • transformed
    • no longer as before –
    • all white on one side
    • all black on the other;
    • with the new dispensation
    • no group area separation
    • black and white together
    • now kings, queens, bishops

      new teams, old rules
      • rooks and knights
      • black and white
      • all together
      • on one side
      • face all the pawns
      • black and white
      • all together
      • on the opposite side:
    • kings, queens, bishops,
    • send knights from rooks
    • to fire on pawns
    • marching en masse
    • full of fight, and fearless
    • fists up, spirits high
    • Viva the revolution!
    • Viva!


Now aware of the paradoxical nature of human existence and the relativity of human truth, I think I no longer have unrealistic expectations of myself and, hopefully, of others.

In Der Ring, I found extensive exposition of the paradox of being; in particular in the conflicted character of Wotan. Despite his designation as a god, Wotan’s search is the human search for secure existence in an expanding universe of relative truth.


Wotan is caught up in the very human dilemma of free will versus duty and the quest for authentic right action independent of social conditioning. It is the search for absolute truth. The sword, Nothung (meaning Born of Need), represents his desire to find this truth. It is a paradoxical quest. As a god, he represents the absolute so he is on a quest to discover his own authenticity. (Only an atheist would put him on such a quest.) I was eager to see how Wotan would resolve his dilemma. He does not. There is no solution; he and Valhalla are destroyed. Authentic action, being authentic (not the product of socialization) is beyond his control and, as represented in Siegfried, is his nemesis. When Siegfried breaks Wotan’s spear, the symbol of the power of the divine, i.e. absolute truth, he declares Wotan’s irrelevance.

The need for absolutes is a human need; it is the way we anchor our lives in an uncertain existence. It gave rise to the concept of god. Consequently, it is the divine that does not have independent or concrete existence. Gods are anthropomorphic creations, i.e., made in the human image. Wotan, therefore, cannot avoid human ambivalence. His desire for freedom from convention is human, and represents the conflict in every human between social obligation and individual desire. It is quite ironic that Wotan, the first among the gods, originator of the laws that control social behaviour, is the only one among the gods who finds them a burden. As a divided soul, he is vulnerable and his weakness is the real threat to Valhalla.

Ambivalence is inherently human and its exclusion from divinity is what makes gods symbols of perfection and gives them power. But Wotan is ambivalent. He finds the strictures of law stultifying and declares himself, ‘the least free of all beings.’ He seeks freedom in the world, a kind of red-light district to him, where he can indulge his appetites. He enters the human sphere to experience love, wins Erda, the Earth goddess, and fathers the Valkyries, the warrior goddesses. He then becomes Wälse and fathers human twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde.

In the human world, he is a libertine and does not adhere to principle. He is dishonest in his dealings with the giants, Fasolt and Fafner, and is forced, mainly by Fricka, his goddess wife, to behave with integrity. That is when he hears of Alberich and the ring he has forged from the Rhine gold. In Alberich, whose discovery of his power as a human being (as represented by the ring) he sees the great threat to the existence of the gods and Valhalla. Alberich’s ring represents Alberich’s belief in himself, in human endeavour, in the validity of human life. His affirmation of independent human existence and power, proclaims the reality of life on earth and human responsibility for human destiny.

Wotan sees this as the threat of extinction of the gods and Valhalla. As supernatural existence is shored up by human faith in predestination, it gives Valhalla reality and substance and reduces human endeavour to symbolic action that has no real meaning in itself. Human life simply becomes the means to earn points for entry into the hereafter.

Conversely, human affirmation of human power gives reality to worldly existence and reduces supernatural power to the abstract and symbolic. Human self-determination deprives the supernatural of its raison d’être. Alberich’s assumption of power is not a threat of usurpation, it is the threat of dematerialization of the supernatural. And Wotan is guilty of contributing to it by his own deep-seated longing to be human. As the survival of Valhalla and the gods is at stake, Wotan has to gain possession of the ring.

Having been forced to live up to his responsibility as upholder of the law, Wotan needs a surrogate, a human hero, who, being human is able to disregard the law and win back the ring for him. Intent on regaining the ring, Wotan does not realize that in calling for one who repudiates the law, he is calling for the repudiation of himself. Someone who breaks the law to preserve Valhalla, will destroy Valhalla which is the law. Furthermore, in wanting someone who acts independently of his will, he is actually calling for a self-determined human being. That is completely contrary to his mission which is to stifle human self-determination.

Caught in a web of contradictions, Wotan, as Wälse, has brought up his son, Siegmund, to be fearless in defying convention. Wotan, therefore, believes that Siegmund is independent of him and is the hero who will bring back the magic ring and save Valhalla and the gods from extinction. But Siegmund, the unconventional, not knowing what Wotan has in mind for him, becomes involved in the conflict between idealism and reality on a human level. He falls in love with his twin sister, Sieglinde, and flouts marriage customs. It is a practical demonstration of his ability to act independently of Wotan’s will and in doing so, determining his own way – and that has nothing to do with what Wotan wants of him. Furthermore, fulfilling his own wishes, Siegmund’s actions, being self-determined, are a negation of Wotan’s raison d’être.

Wotan is forced to repudiate Siegmund. Though he loves Siegmund, he must destroy him. He confides his anguish to Brünnhilde and his despair of finding:ÂÂÂ

    • ... one [who] may dare what to me is denied:
      a hero never helped by my counsel,
    • to me unknown and free from my grace,
      unaware, forced by his need,
      without command, with his own right arm,
      doeth the deed that I must shun,
      the deed my tongue ne'er told,
      though yet my deepest desire.
      He, at war with the god, for me fighteth,
      the friendliest foe. O, how shall I find
      or shape me the free one, by me ne'er shielded,
      in his firm defiance the dearest to me?
      How fashion the Other who, not through me,
      but from his will for my ends shall work?
      O, godhead's distress! Sorest disgrace!
      In loathing find I ever myself
      in all my hand has created;
      the Other whom I have longed for,
      that Other I ne'er shall find:
      himself must the free one create him;
      my hand nought shapeth but slaves.


He is blind to the fact that he is calling for his own doom in the words, “himself must the free one create him”. It is unwitting endorsement of human self-determination and as such, a threat to his existence.

In confiding in Brünnhilde, he plants his need for a great hero in her, and she declares that she will protect Siegmund. He absolutely forbids that and promises a dreadful punishment if she does. Brünnhilde, as blind as Wotan, does not see that Siegmund’s unconventionality is really a repudiation of Wotan, Valhalla and immortal existence. Siegmund himself is unconscious of this.

Though Brünnhilde is intimidated by Wotan and does not agree with him, she plans to obey him. But when she sees how much Siegmund and Sieglinde love each other; when Siegmund chooses Sieglinde over the honour and glory of becoming a hero in Valhalla, she is moved and despite Wotan’s threats, decides to protect him. In defying Wotan, hers is authentic action and she becomes that Other that he longs for. But Wotan sees her defiance not as independent action, but as betrayal. He does not want betrayal; he wants authentic action -- not realising that they are one and the same – both ignore convention and are a threat to him, to Valhalla. He also does not regard Brünnhilde’s actions as authentic – as arising out of her own perception; he sees them as arising from his desire, so she cannot be that Other for whom he longs.

Though Brünnhilde disobeys Wotan, she feels justified in helping the Wälsungs, not only because she believes it is what Wotan really wants but also because she believes that Sieglinde, who is pregnant, will give birth to the greatest of all heroes, Siegfried, the Other, that Wotan desires:

    • the Other whom I have longed for,
      that Other I ne'er shall find:
      himself must the free one create him;


Wotan looks past Brünnhilde as the Other, the hero independent of his will, because as she says, “Who am I, if not your will?” As such she is attuned to that aspect of him that agonises at having to uphold the law even when it cannot encompass the full humanity of those it constrains. Being privy to his innermost feelings, to his divided will, makes Brünnhilde, one with Wotan; his dilemma becomes hers and sharing his ambivalence – the split in Wotan’s awareness creates the split in her awareness – she can either obey his command or obey his desire. And so, having choice, she becomes independent of him. She does not realize this; and when she disobeys his command and fulfils his desire, she believes she is acting for him, not for herself.

But Wotan distances himself from her choice and punishes her for her presumption. He cannot see that her act of defiance is a response to his desire not his will. He does not differentiate between his desire and his will even though they are in opposition. His desire being independent of his will, in fulfilling his desire, Brünnhilde acts independently of his will and hers is as authentic an action as is possible. A totally authentic action would be totally independent of Wotan’s need. Without a connection to him, a hero’s action would be arbitrary; Siegmund has already shown this and as Wotan will discover, so will Siegfried. Brünnhilde is the only one who can act independently of him and still do what he wishes.

What Brünnhilde demonstrates is that one who experiences fear and acts despite it as she has, is one who is truly courageous. And as she acts with understanding of Wotan’s need, is a more effective instrument in fulfilling it. Though she will see the great hero for whom Wotan longs in Siegfried, Siegfried has no understanding of Wotan’s need. Being more independent than his father, Siegmund, Siegfried has total free will and does only what he himself perceives is necessary – and that has nothing to do with Wotan.,


The Ring cycle is called Der Ring des Niebelungen. Having watched it several times in succession, I came to the conclusion that the title means Alberich’s Ring. Of his own ingenuity, Alberich creates a ring that gives him control over all the Niebelungs.

The ring is the symbol of human power, i.e., human acceptance of human reality and control of human destiny – it makes gods irrelevant. Human assertion of independent reality gives validity to human existence and repudiates the belief that this world is merely preparation for the next. In his desire for love, and his ventures into the human sphere, Wotan himself, involuntarily affirms independent human existence and worldly reality. He is uncomfortable as a god; he wants the reality, the vitality of human life. When, at the end of the cycle, the ring is returned to the river, it is back where it belongs – in the real world. And Brünnhilde, who rejoices in her transformation into a human being, is the one to return it to the Rhine.

Though Alberich is presented as a negative character in the cycle, he, paradoxically, represents the acceptance of existential human reality, the validity of worldly existence. He is the independent human being who creates and controls his own destiny. Alberich, not the gods, is the author of his existence. As such he represents human freedom and the positive side of capitalism. His accumulation of money and power, which turns him into an exploiter and abuser of human beings, is the negative side of capitalism. It is the paradox of being human – a necessary condition for human progress.


I watched Siegfried, (30 March 2015), the third drama in Wagner’s tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Niebelung [Alberich’s Ring.]). I had watched Die Walküre(The Valkyries), the day before. So my expectations of Siegfried were of the stereotypical noble hero slaying the dragon, freeing the sleeping beauty with a kiss and riding off into the sunset with his prize.

  • romance
  • not reality
  • hero
  • not anti-hero
  • nobility
  • to dazzle the eyes
  • and consistency,
  • consistency,
  • consistency,
  • cause and effect
  • Jekyll not Hyde
  • the art of fiction
  • the fiction of art


After witnessing the power of the self-asserted woman in Brünnhilde (Brun–armour, hild-battle) in Die Walküre,I was preparing myself for disappointment in Siegfried. At the end of Die Walküre, Brünnhilde is disempowered – reduced to an effete fairy tale princess and condemned to the conventional housekeeping role of women. I expected to see a helpless Brünnhilde being rescued by a noble knight, falling into his arms and forever after to be known only as Mrs. To my delight, my expectations were almost completely dashed. I had underestimated Wagner; he wasn’t Wotan and the drama, Siegfried, was a wonderful surprise – a complete overthrow of convention.

The character, Siegfried, is not the stereotypical indomitable, invincible, noble hero. He is not Sir Galahad or James Bond. He is a rebellious teenager, rude, impertinent and a know-it-all. He is completely contemptuous of Mime, the gnome, who took him and his mother in and when she died, brought up the boy. Though Siegfried has grown up under Mime’s care, he finds Mime repugnant, cannot relate to him and cannot learn anything from him. What he learns, he learns from exploring the forests and familiarising himself with everything in nature. He is, in a sense, a feral being. His first entrance on stage is with a bear on a leash; it illustrates that he, unsocialized, has no understanding of fear or danger.

We naturally assume that fear is a basic human instinct; not something to be acquired through socialization. As Siegfried has not had a conventional upbringing, and knows no fear, we are made to see that fear is not merely an instinct but is also inculcated through the conventions imposed on social life – threats of punishment are inherent in socialization.

    • Cultivated Fear
    • for some
    • charity, mercy, goodness –
    • love
    • makes the world go round
    • for others,
    • peace, submission,
    • for allÂÂ
    • fervent faith
    • morality in the metaphor
    • but in the real world
    • not of any faith
    • the moral axis
    • of the world’s rotation
    • is the rule of fear –
    • the threat in regulation
    • parents know it:
    • ‘listen or be punished’;
    • friends know it:
    • ‘be like me or be alone’;
    • teachers know it:
    • ‘learn or you will never earn’;
    • priests know it:
    • ‘behave yourself or go to hell’;
    • advertisers know it:
    • ‘get this or you won’t get that’;
    • insurance companies know it:
    • ‘pay up now or suffer later’;
    • criminals know it:
    • ‘your money or your life’;
    • politicians know it:
    • ‘vote for me or no security’
    • warmongers know it:
    • ‘fight or give up liberty’
    • And everyone knows
    • if you have no fear
    • if you love, trust, believe
    • you are plainly quite naive.
    • So we live behind our bars
    • consigning love, peace, trust
    • good will, good deeds
    • to the places of their origin
    • the metaphors
    • of holy books

Siegfried has grown up outside of social convention – that means he has no connection to Wotan and has no fear. Unlike everyone else who is constrained by concepts of right and wrong, Siegfried, unaware of protocols, acts with authenticity, free from symbolic control. He lives in the natural world and takes for granted the reality and validity of human existence. Truth for him, therefore, is always relative.

Being free of convention Siegfried is free of fear but his fearlessness, is not the fearlessness of a conventional hero, a Robin Hood or a Batman, who understands the danger that he faces. Siegfried’s fearlessness arises from ignorance – he does not understand danger and, therefore, does not fear. And like a curious child, he wants to know what fear is and hopes to find it. We imagine he will know it when he encounters the dragon that guards the gold. But he does not. Not understanding danger, he simply takes the dragon for granted and his encounter with it becomes a playful dance, not a struggle unto death. Siegfried kills the dragon not because he is afraid, but as punishment for the dragon’s hostility and its threat to devour him. He then gets the ring, doesn’t understand its significance, puts it on his finger and it stays out of reach of Wotan. It is no longer a symbol of power; it is merely a bauble. Siegfried, confident in his own power, is self-reliant. The ring, as a symbol of human self-reliance, is redundant to Siegfried.ÂÂ

On his way to rescue Brünnhilde, he meets Wotan who challenges him. He breaks Wotan’s spear which represents the symbolic power of the supernatural over human existence. Siegfried’s action, like Alberich’s ring, is the declaration of an independent human being that he controls his own destiny. And Wotan leaves in despair; goes back to Valhalla to await the end.

Unaware of the effect he has had on Wotan, Siegfried continues on his quest to find Brünnhilde. When he sees her, he is overawed by a passion foreign to him that reduces his independence. Fear for him, is not associated with dragons, with danger, but with the passion of love; another reversal of conventional expectation. Siegfried, a wide-eyed innocent, in becoming aware of his sexuality, experiences fear. He has been fearless up to now because he has been in complete control of his feelings. With Brünnhilde, however, he encounters passion; it is new and strange; it takes control of him and makes him helpless. As he does not know how to deal with it, he becomes afraid – especially as she does not fall mindlessly int