Thursday, September 18, 2008

Wagner and the financial crisis

The other day I watched Das Rheingold, the first opera of Wagner's Ring Cycle, and I think it has some important lessons about our current financial crisis. After all, there aren't many operas more obsessed with housing, contracts, and mineral resources, not to mention lying, greed, and theft.

I won't go into a full synopsis here, though you can find one elsewhere easily enough. At the beginning of the second scene, Wotan and Fricka have just awoken to find that their new home is completed -- the fortress that Wotan will later name "Valhalla" glimmers in the distance, as Fricka frets about how they'll pay for it. Two giants, Fasolt and Fafner, have built Valhalla for a price that Wotan has no intention of paying -- his sister-in-law, Freia. It may not exactly be the mortgage crisis, but there's clearly been some speculation and malfeasance happening.

Wotan has a financial adviser named Loge, who has promised they'll have no problem changing the deal at the last moment. They're just big dumb giants, right? Unfortunately, Loge hasn't shown up yet, so that when the giants arrive an irked Wotan has to stall for time. First he pretends the deal was a joke, and then he wonders why they'd want poor Freia anyway, and then he offers them anything except his sobbing sister-in-law. For all his fantastic powers, Wotan has a problem -- he just can't break a contract. He's actually the god appointed to defend contracts, so he's responsible for regulating against his own interests. When Loge finally arrives, he hasn't got any good compromise either -- Wotan will have to steal the infamous Ring of the Nibelungen, since that's apparently the only acceptable substitute for the love of a good woman.

And so thievery, deception, and operatic mayhem inevitably ensue. It's easy to fault all of the characters: Wotan is trying to cheat the giants, while they're trying to kill Wotan and all the other gods (Freia's gardening skills, it turns out, are essential to the gods' survival). Alberich, the ruler of the Nibelungen, himself stole the gold to make the ring, then forced all his people into slave labor to amass some more gold. Clearly no good will come of any of this -- just a lot of yelling, weeping, killing, and bombastic opera music.

This might not be helpful if you're already trapped in a bad mortgage or lousy investments. It seems like so much of this could have been prevented, or at least minimized, if only Wotan and Fricka had lived within their means -- just enjoyed being gods and munching Freia's magical apples, without always wanting a bigger house, fancier weapons, complete domination over every corner of the world and underworld, etc.

A contract needn't be a bad thing, after all, as long as both parties are acting in good faith, and can afford to keep their promises. When they don't, and can't, that's when people start getting cursed, transforming themselves into dragons, and then the entire world goes up in flames.


Anonymous said...

Good point! Wotan also reminds me of Al Gore...

Gottagopractice said...

That analysis is priceless.