Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Wagner and Feuerbach

(Article, ‘Feuerbach’, first published in The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia, ed. Nicholas Vazsonyi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Engraving from 1872, Die Gartenlaube

Feuerbach, Ludwig Andreas (b. Landshut, 28 July 1804; d. Rechenberg [near Nuremberg], 13 Sep. 1872) Philosopher, attended Berlin lectures by Hegel and Friedrich Schleiermacher. Feuerbach lectured at Erlangen but failed to obtain a university position, an ambition rendered impossible following revelation of his authorship of the atheistic Thoughts on Death and Immortality (published anonymously, 1830); he relied upon income from his wife’s factory. A key member of the “Young Hegelian” school, Feuerbach inspired many 1848 radicals, whilst remaining personally aloof from revolution. Following the factory’s bankruptcy, Feuerbach’s later years were spent in relative poverty. Having read Marx’s Capital, he joined the Social Democratic Party in 1870.

Feuerbach’s interests remained founded upon the theology of his youth. Unmasking the “secret” – a typical Young Hegelian conceit – of religion as inversion, he proceeded to anthropological criticism of philosophy, understood as abstraction from theology, itself abstracted religion. Man had transferred all his greatest qualities to an imagined, transcendental being, God. Humanity was impoverished; love, the essence of religion, was perverted, even denied. Love must therefore be brought back down to earth, as Wagner attempted in the Ring, most clearly in Siegmund’s rejection of Valhalla, of immortality as promised by Brünnhilde, and subsequently, her Siegmund/love-inspired rebellion against Wotan. She loses divinity but gains humanity.

Feuerbach had become, for Wagner, “the proponent of the ruthlessly radical liberation of the individual from the bondage of conceptions associated with the belief in traditional authority” (My Life, English tr., 430). The title of Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft echoed its dedicatee’s Principles of the Philosophy of the Future. Like many of his generation, Wagner not only followed Feuerbach’s critique of religion, but extended it to political and economic life. Alberich transforms value-free Rhinegold into possessed – in more than one sense – capital, a classic case of Feuerbachian inversion. What should be loved, enjoyed, and possessed though not owned by all, enslaves the Nibelungs as if it were divine. Likewise, Wotan enjoys not only religious but political power through the fortress of Valhalla. Principles that were, at least for a time, potentially good, have come to rule over mere mortals. Those principles, sapped of life just like the World-Ash tree, have hardened into law. Wotan and Alberich battle for possession of a ring whose imagined power rules the world. As Wagner explained to August Röckel, “the essence of change is the essence of reality, whereas only the imaginary is changelessly unending,” (Letter of 25/26 January 1854). Liberation “from the bondage of [such] conceptions” was the task of the Dresden uprising and its dramatic counterparts: Volsung revolution and Brünnhilde’s elevation to the “purely human.” Such sentiments remained part of Wagner’s conception until completion of the Ring and indeed of Parsifal too, neither supplanted by nor vanquishing newer, metaphysical concerns.

To take one example, that sympathy for fellow human beings (Schopenhauer’s Mitleid), which Brünnhilde exhibits in her benedictory Immolation Scene, is prefigured in Feuerbach’s “species being.” Consciousness of fellow suffering or indeed joy is what distinguishes man from beast, and what must once again be ascribed to man rather than God. Brünnhilde’s example is intended for the “watchers” – as well as us – who might therefore heed Wagner’s Feuerbachian words of 1849: “We see that man is utterly incapable in himself to attain his destiny, that in himself he has not the strength to germinate the living seed distinguishing him from the beast. Yet, that strength, missing in man, we find, in overflowing abundance, in the totality of men. … Whereas the spirit of the isolated man remains eternally buried in deepest night, it is awakened in the combination of men,” (Sämtliche Schriften und Dichtungen, 12:242). Wagner’s dialectic between Feuerbach and Schopenhauer harks back to their common Romantic roots in Schleiermacher’s theology of love, creating something dramatically new.

Mark Berry, Treacherous Bonds and Laughing Fire (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006)
Ludwig Feuerbach, Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, tr. Manfred Vogel (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 1986).
Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, tr. George Eliot (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1989).

Sunday, 12 July 2020

Wagner and Hegel

(Article, 'Hegel,' first published in The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia, ed. Nicholas Vazsonyi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Jakob Schlesinger: Portrait of G.W.F. Hegel, 1831

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (b. Stuttgart, 27 Aug. 1770; d. Berlin, 14 Nov. 1831, Berlin) Philosopher, studied alongside Friedrich Hölderlin and Friedrich Schelling at Tübingen, taught at Jena, Nuremberg, and Heidelberg. In 1818, he succeeded Fichte as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Berlin, his lectures attracting students from across Europe. Schopenhauer scheduled clashing Berlin lectures, an empty hall awaiting. A conflict embodied in Wagner’s oeuvre had already been dramatized.

zoomAs Aristotle stands to Plato, Hegel does to Kant. Hegel’s philosophy restored dynamism to neo-Aristotelian ontology (philosophy of being), long encumbered by scholastic encrustation. At the heart of Hegel’s system lies the dialectical method, owing something to Fichte and instantiated in Phenomenology of Spirit. As Hegel worked on it in Jena in 1806, Napoleon entered the city, the Consul-Emperor a model for Hegel’s “world-historical” individual, unconscious vehicle of Spirit itself. Whereas mathematics depend upon the principle of non-contradiction, Hegel’s ontology proclaims that contradiction exists, thereby going beyond Kant. Hegel’s dialectic places conflict between subject and object at the heart of being, expressed in history – revelation in time of God/Spirit – through alienation of mind. The vulgar Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis has nothing to do with Hegel’s philosophy, which posits objects growing through necessary self-negation into their full potentiality. Contradiction lies within; it is not applied from without. That radical dialectical method, rather than his accommodationist “positive philosophy” – though one should distinguish Hegel’s ideal, rational state from its empirical counterpart – proved Hegel’s greatest legacy to radical successors: first “Young” or “Left” Hegelians such as David Friedrich Strauss, Ludwig Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer, and Max Stirner; thereafter, figures such as Wagner, Mikhail Bakunin, Karl Marx, and beyond. Others, for instance, Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, revolted, yet always consciously.

Wagner’s acquaintance with Hegel(-ianism) may be categorized as follows: (i) what we know he read; (ii) what he may have read; (iii) what he learned second-hand: from Bakunin, Georg Herwegh, et al., general intellectual milieu; (iv) internal evidence from dramas and writings such as Oper und Drama, themselves a significant contribution to Hegelian aesthetics. From the mid-1850s, following Schopenhauer, Wagner tended to disparage Hegel, minimizing his influence. Yet Wagner’s works, Parsifal and the late “regeneration writings” included, speak differently: Hegel, Schopenhauer, and other intellectual currents coexist, modify, transform, even do battle, no one “side” claiming victory.

Hegel’s Philosophy of History was the sole work of modern philosophy in Wagner’s Dresden library – though we know that he read others, including Hegel’s Phenomenology. The latter’s identification of transformations in consciousness with historical eras is replicated in Wagner’s prose writings, especially those written in Zurich exile, for instance in Wagner’s typology of Greek state and tragedy, Christian negation and subjectivity (cloister replacing amphitheatre), and modern imperative to reconciliation (the artwork of the future). Hegelian contradiction forms the material of Wotan’s Walküre monologue – better, dialectical self-dialogue. Negation of Wotan’s original political intent, a monarchical state under rule of law, is revealed as implicit in that state’s founding, yet revelation may only, in Hegelian spirit, come historically, contradictions having became apparent. “The owl of Minerva only takes flight at the onset of dusk,” that Dämmerung prophetic of Götterdämmerung itself (“die Eule der Minerva beginnt erst mit der einbrechenden Dämmerung ihren Flug,” Hegel, 7:28). Hegel’s master-slave dialectic is proclaimed with thoroughgoing anarchism: “Lord through contracts, now am I enslaved to those contracts” (Walküre Act II, scene 2).

Hegel was unwilling to negate the principle incarnate in the Rechtstaat (legal state); Leftist successors, Wagner and Bakunin amongst them, prepared to forge and to wield swords of anarchism. Wagner’s world-historical individual, Siegfried, re-forger of Notung and rebel without a consciousness, serves both as celebration and critique not only of the revolutions of 1848-9, but of the Hegelianism in which Wagner conceived his chronicle. Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene interpretative wisdom, voiced as ravens take flight, dawns only at twilight: hers, the Ring’s, societal. We cannot predict what that final scene’s “watchers” will (re-)build, yet one day, it will be understood in light of what they saw on the Rhine, Minerva’s owl once again spreading its wings.
The conflict between individual and totality inherent in Hegel’s system – or, as Marx argued, inherent in its engendering bourgeois capitalism – is, consciously or otherwise, dramatized in verbal and musical terms in Wagner’s dramas. Dynamic material resists and yet is molded by demands of the whole: a prelude to subsequent analytical controversies, which might fruitfully be probed for socio-political and philosophical meaning – and vice versa.

Mark Berry, “Is it here that Time becomes Space? Hegel, Schopenhauer, History, and Grace in Parsifal,” The Wagner Journal 3.3 (2009): 29-59.
Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, Grundlinen der Philosophie des Rechts, in: Werke, 20 vols, eds. Eva Moldenhauer and Karl Markus Michel (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1969-72).

Saturday, 11 July 2020

Wagner: Über Staat und Religion

(Article, ‘Über Staat und Religion,’ first published in The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia, ed. Nicholas Vazsonyi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013))


Ludwig II, 1861
Ludwig II, 1864
Written July 1864 in Munich, this essay was intended as a private response to questioning from a “highly loved young friend,” Ludwig II (SSD  8:3). Ludwig wished to know whether and how Wagner’s views on state and religion had changed since his writings of the period 1849-51, meaning the early years of his Zurich exile following the Dresden uprising. First published in 1873, the essay was not entirely unknown before then; Nietzsche read the manuscript in 1869 during a hike outside Tribschen.


The strategy resembles that of the contemporary Mein Leben. Not least on account of the works’ common – royal – addressee, Wagner presents himself as a revolutionary primarily for the sake of (his) art. Such an attitude would eventually also characterize the Bayreuth Circle; some may even have believed that. Nevertheless, the strong relationship between politics and aesthetics endures. Wagner claims political interest to be a reflection and product of artistic concerns; ensuing discussion of his aesthetics immediately renders the relationship dialectical, just as when he had tilted the scales towards politics earlier. Moreover, Wagner does not disavow but revisits and sometimes reiterates certain key socialist themes from Dresden and Zurich, for instance abolition of the state and overcoming the constrictions of modern labor. He distances himself from a form of “newer socialist” distribution to which he had never subscribed in the first place (SSD 8:5). The word is killed that the spirit might live.


Schopenhauer is the principal agent of intellectual as opposed to circumstantial transformation, though the distinction is not always clear. The blind striving of Schopenhauer’s Will paints humanity less optimistically: egoistic individualism requires societal stability (Stabilität), which individuals have for their own protection invested in the state. Schopenhauer’s Wahn (illusion) bids individual hopes express themselves in patriotism, embodied in the monarch. (This need not entail a nation-state; Bavarian particularism would be just as well served here.) Monarchical independence furthers a number of related purposes, including restraint of the base commercial imperatives of the press – Wagner would soon be in need of that – and inspiration to redeem life by rising above it. Monarchy appears a political and metaphysical necessity. No revolution – Wagner cannot quite bring himself to use the word – has ever failed to result in restoration of that ideal representation of the state.


In a new twist upon his idea of republican monarchy as adumbrated in the 1849 speech to the Dresden Vaterlandsverein, the king, as self-sacrificing “saint” – in the vein of Schopenhauerian renunciation – dispenses “grace” (Gnade), rising above any particular interest, his own or others’. State power is mitigated and ultimately negated by two higher, ascending forms of Wahn: religion (avowedly not theology: Feuerbach’s distinction still holds) and art. Art’s superiority over religion as announced in the opening of Religion und Kunst – no one believes art must be “true” – is foreshadowed. Reading between the lines, artistic patronage would seem a good practical example of how Wahn might be harnessed, Hans Sachs-like, to public good as well as princely salvation. Ludwig’s response seems to have been of that ilk.


Friday, 10 July 2020

Wagner and Politics

(Article, ‘Politics,’ first published in The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia, ed. Nicholas Vazsonyi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013))

Aristotle’s contention that man is by nature a political animal (ζον πολιτικόν) might have been formulated with Wagner in mind (Aristotle I.1253a2). Whatever he claimed on occasion, for instance when seeking amnesty for his revolutionary deeds, or writing Mein Leben for Ludwig II, Wagner’s life and oeuvre were intimately and often explicitly concerned with political questions. “Questions” is the moot word, for, whilst Wagner rarely hesitated to proffer answers, he ultimately found them wanting. Political involvement arose from artistic need and vice versa, art and politics being inextricably related in Wagner’s conception. Inspired by Attic tragedy, Wagnerian musical drama was necessary political: communal celebration and perhaps incitement. Wagner also treated with political ideas in essays, correspondence, and the dramas themselves.

1.                Karl Marx, German idealism, and French socialism

2.               The Ring

3.               The Ring: Political order

4.               The Ring: Heroic challenges

5.               After Wagner


1.               Karl Marx, German idealism, and French socialism

Marx, 1839

Wagner was a contemporary of Marx (b. 1818) in more than a chronological sense. They shared influences, not least the philosophy of Friedrich Schiller, G.F.W. Hegel, and Young Hegelians such as Ludwig Feuerbach; they shared friends and acquaintances, such as Mikhail Bakunin and Georg Herwegh; they denounced many of the same social ills, not least nineteenth-century bourgeois capitalism. Both, moreover, were master dramatists; even Capital is as much psychopathological history as work of economic analysis. The differences between Marx and Wagner are, however, equally telling. That Marx would have dismissed Wagner’s work largely as “ideology” does not mean that we should do so, yet there lies therein much of that “true socialism” Marx and Engels excoriated in favor of their “scientific” variety. Wagner’s politics concern themselves with some issues of lesser importance to Marx, for instance despoliation of the natural world (“green politics,” one might say) and a pre-Nietzschean conception of the will to power (Liebesgelüste, see letter from Wagner to Uhlig, 11/12 Nov. 1851).


For Wagner, standing firmly in the tradition of German idealism, the Athenian polis had embodied harmony between individual and society, private and public. Tragic enactment represented the supreme manifestation of harmony – in every sense. The problem of modern political life, both for Wagner and idealism, was how to reconcile the apparently idyllic communal integration of Hellenic life with post-Classical, Christian subjectivity (individual souls: the Lutheran priesthood of all believers). Art, as life in general, fragmented following the political decline of Athens. A higher unity – Wagner aimed not at a restoration of tragedy but at its renewal – entailed wholesale transformation of the public realm: individuality would flourish, but not empty, mercenary individualism as abetted by modern civilization. Socialization of art and aestheticization of society would be one and the same. As for Schiller and the German Romantics, art was the paradigm of free, productive activity – or would be when liberated from forcible division of labor. For the divorce of “opera” from “drama” was as much a dehumanized and dehumanizing consequence as factory wage-slavery: revolution would overcome both.


French socialism – “utopian” according to the typology inherited from Marx and Engels – played an important role here too, not least via August Röckel, though Wagner also read much for himself, returning to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon after the Dresden uprising. In Mein Leben, Wagner recalls having questioned Röckel in Dresden about his “new moral order of things,” founded upon “the annihilation of the power of capital by direct productive labor.” Where, asked Wagner, would the “free spirits, let alone artists,” be found, “if everyone were to be swallowed up into the one working class”? Röckel replied, “that if everybody participated in the work at hand according to his powers and capacities, work would cease to be a burden, and would become an occupation which would eventually assume an entirely artistic character, just as it had already been proven that a field worked laboriously by a single peasant with the plough was infinitely less productive than when cultivated by several persons according to a horticultural system.” This utopian socialism stood closer to Marx than one might think, for division of labor is to be transformed into something voluntarist rather than merely abandoned in Romantic reaction. Wagner thus “took pleasure in developing conceptions of a possible form of human society which would correspond wholly, and indeed solely, to my highest artistic ideals” (My Life, English translation, 373-4). The “Zurich reform writings” – Die Kunst und die Revolution, Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft, and Oper und Drama  do just that.


2.               The Ring


One might say that Wagner’s politics are expressed most clearly, or rather most probingly, in Der Ring des Nibelungen. This is true and misleading: there is no single doctrine to be expressed, but a continual, questioning process of development. Dramatic form, radicalizing rather than resolving – there are harmonic implications here too – arguably proved better suited than essay-writing to such development, at least for Wagner, though we should never reduce the dramas to tracts.


There nevertheless remains much political truth in Wagner’s encouragement to Liszt, “Mark well my new poem – it contains the beginning of the world and its destruction!” (Wagner to Liszt, 11 Feb. 1853). At the heart of the Ring’s action lie the foundation of modern state and society, and their dissolution, the latter seeming increasingly uncertain following the apparent failure of revolution in 1848-9, yet never abandoned. Even in the 1880s, Wagner would record, recalling his earlier, highly political Jesus von Nazareth: “Jesus could foresee nothing but the end; we no less. Materially and empirically composed, we await the destructive forces which, even, for the Roman world, did not fail to appear” (Brown Book, English translation, 201). Annihilation remains political as well as metaphysical, the Christian dialectic between cyclical (Greek) and linear (Jewish), at least as understood by Wagner, Schopenhauer, and many other German idealists, re-imagined, just as in Parsifal.


3.               The Ring: Political order


Bakunin, 1843

In Wotan’s winning the Ring’s “world,” the necessity of its end (Götterdämmerung) is already clear. The Norns recall him fashioning his spear, political instrument of domination, from the World-ash tree: Nature raped in founding the artificial state. In 1849, Wagner noted, under the heading, “On the Principle of Communism,” that, historically, such arbitrary (willkürlich) deeds of possession, on the part of a people or an individual, were invariably justified by religious, mythical, or otherwise spruced-up contracts (SSD 12:254). When we hear of Wotan’s subsequent actions, we understand them as inevitable consequences of that original political sin against Nature (and humanity). His spear shattered in combat by Siegfried’s sword of (would-be) revolution, Wotan has commanded his tamed heroes to fell the withered boughs of the World-ash. “The ash fell; the spring ran dry eternal!” (Götterdämmerung, Prelude). Domination achieved, disaster has ensued, not least for Wotan himself, now surrounded by the ash-tree logs, awaiting their final all-consuming blaze: further wanton natural despoliation. The state, as Bakunin insisted, “is not a direct product of Nature; it does not, like society, precede the awakening of thought in man.” Instead, it “dominates society and tends to absorb it altogether” (Bakunin, Selected Writings, 137-8).


Wotan, however, is no mere gangster. We sense the religious aura and majesty of Valhalla: the ideological defenses of the gods’ stronghold should not be underestimated, especially as it emerges in Wotan’s musical dream. Wotan’s vision is not, moreover, of “might is right.” He restrains Donner from resolving the problem of the giants as in the Prose Edda: “Stop, you savage! Nothing through force! My spear protects contracts: spare your hammer’s power” (Rheingold, Scene 2). Such is a remnant of the originally creative urge that led him to inscribe contracts upon his spear; the problem with laws is that as soon as they are rendered unalterable, human creativity is stifled. They are transformed into their opposite; they entrap, as Wotan laments in his Walküre monologue. Conflict between love and the Law is a constant refrain in Wagner’s plans for Jesus von Nazareth. Indeed, Wagner portrays Jesus, who proclaims that his death will also bring about that of the Law, as an heir to Proudhon and Bakunin (Sämtliche Schriften und Dichtungen 11:290). Law has, in a classical case of Feuerbachian inversion, acquired divine power over the men whose original creation it was, as Valhalla (or Heaven) has in religious terms. The temporary and imaginary have become feared and obeyed as eternal and super-real. And yet, as we read in the 1848 prose sketch (“Die Nibelungen-Mythus. Als Entwurf zu einen Drama”), though the purpose of the gods’ “higher world order is moral consciousness … they are tainted by the very injustice they hunt down.” From the oppressed “depths of Nibelheim consciousness of their guilt echoes threateningly” (SSD 2:157). Wagner originally intended that the oppressed Nibelungs be liberated by revolution; experience taught him the struggle would be harder.


Arthur Rackham: Alberich
and the subjugated Nibelungs

In Nibelheim lies a more modern – at least to Wagner – instantiation of domination, and a threat to the gods’ relatively enlightened variety. For, as Marx observed, though Wagner might readily have done, “the relationship of industry and, in particular, the world of wealth to the political world is a principal problem of modern times” (Marx, “Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie”). Both extended Feuerbach’s critique of religious alienation, this time into the realm of capital. Alberich’s parallel rape of Nature – there are two creation myths in the Ring cosmos – is theft of the Rhine gold. Value-free in its natural state, Alberich transforms it into capital in the Nibelung hoard, and would-be totalitarian power in the ring, with which he enslaves his kinsmen and would vanquish ancien régime Valhalla. He may not accomplish that himself, yet his bourgeois challenge, born of his lowly place endured in its feudal order, hastens its destruction.


4.              The Ring: Heroic challenges


Subsequent challenges issue from Siegmund and Siegfried, both standing in Wagner’s line of charismatic revolutionary heroes from Rienzi (indeed from the hero of the Faust Overture) to Parsifal. Enthusiasm for the figure of Siegfried was widespread amongst Vormärz radicals, including the young Engels, for whom nineteenth-century “heroic deeds” (Heldentaten) might be endeavored by “sons of Siegfried” (see his essay, “Siegfrieds Heimat”). Brünnhilde, we might note, sends Siegfried out into the world: “to new deeds, dear hero” (Götterdämmerung, Prelude)


If our opening quotation might have been made for Wagner, so, in the Volsung context, might Aristotle’s subsequent words: “And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either a bad man or above humanity; he is like the ‘Tribeless, lawless, hearthless one,’ whom Homer [Iliad, Book IX] denounces – the natural outcast is forthwith a lover of war; he may be compared to an isolated piece at draughts” (Aristotle I.1253a2-6). Siegmund and Siegfried both appear out of nowhere, or rather out of the Teutonic forest, suggesting a world in which Franco-Roman rules (laws) do not apply – that is, a stateless place of anarchy. Wagner does not consider them “bad men”; foes such as Hunding and Fricka do. In Wagner’s attempt, confounded by state power, to have them transcend or at least transform existing society, they echo Aristotle’s “above humanity” – and prefigure Nietzsche’s Übermensch. Both heroes stand opposed to “tribe” and “law,” and are, in the face of society and its institutions, “lovers of war.” Such was Wotan’s intention, having turned against his own laws and attempted to free himself from the merciless dialectic of power-politics. “Hearthless” the Volsung heroes are too, whereas Hunding – his second line, “Holy is my hearth” – prides himself upon his outwardly respectable, internally repressive (bourgeois-equivalent) household (Walküre, Act I).

Siegmund’s rescue of Sieglinde from Hunding’s domination therefore represents dramatic progress; it is blessed with heroic progeny. By contrast, Brünnhilde’s wish that Siegfried settle down attempts (again) to render permanent what should be temporary. Marriage, symbolized with cruelest irony by possession of Alberich’s ring of power, would pervert and destroy their love through intervention of law and property. Her need to constrain Siegfried thus helps initiate, in alliance with Gibichung state corruption, the tragedy of Götterdämmerung, the undoing of all concerned. Nothing could be further from the truth than George Bernard Shaw’s claim that in Götterdämmerung, Wagner relinquished his political vision; his politics, however, stood far from Shaw’s Fabian variety.


Instead, there persisted a vision of free love inspired by Young German and Young Hegelian “sensualism,” and by French socialists such as Charles Fourier and the Saint-Simonians – despite Wagner’s Schopenhauerian recognition of love itself as a form of power. Fourier lamented: “Our legislators want to subordinate the social system to … the Family,” which he contrasted with “groups” of honor, friendship, and love, and “which God has almost entirely excluded from influence in Social Harmony, because it is a group of forced or material bonds, not a free, passionate gathering, dissoluble at will…. Since all constraint engenders falsehood … both civilized and patriarchal society, where this group is the dominant one, are the most duplicitous” (Fourier, The Theory of the Four Movements). It is no coincidence that conventional marriages in Wagner are duplicitous – and barren. Siegfried, if unconsciously, destroys the bonds of law and state as much through his betrayal of Brünnhilde as his defiance of Wotan.


5.               After Wagner


Wagner was not the first to treat with political ideas in his musical dramas, yet those coming after tended to take their leave from him. That might lie in rejection, for example, Igor Stravinsky and even Richard Strauss, in his marriage of Wagnerian musico-dramatic construction to decidedly Nietzschean aestheticism, or in continuation. Alban Berg’s Wozzeck and Lulu dealt explicitly with socio-political concerns, likewise Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, an exemplar regarding difficulties and opportunities provided by the Wagnerian-modernist tradition. Schoenberg contrasts Moses, at loss for words, and therefore lacking power, with Aron, whose dangerous political power lies in bel canto ease of communication and its catastrophic consequences. If Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill reckoned themselves resolutely anti-Wagnerian, they could hardly have done so without him; there remained, in any case, more than a little residue. Post-war “engaged” composers such as Hans Werner Henze and Luigi Nono were compelled to confront Wagner’s legacy: in Henze’s case almost equally through inescapable homage and angry confrontation.

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Wagner’s dramas have also stood at the forefront of political Regietheater. There are specific historical reasons for this, not least a post-war Adornian desire to “salvage” them from their fraught relationship to German history, but content and political purpose have proved equally important. If Wieland Wagner’s “New Bayreuth” understandably downplayed the taint of politics – itself a political act – then directors such as Joachim Herz, Ruth Berghaus, Patrice Chéreau, and Stefan Herheim have continued, in Wagnerian tradition, to question the dramas, to venture out to “new deeds.” Man remains a ζον πολιτικόν.

Aristotle, The Politics, tr. Jonathan Barnes, ed. Stephen Everson (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988).

Mikhail Bakunin, “State and Society,” Selected writings, tr. Steven Cox (London: Jonathan Cape, 1973).

Udo Bermbach, Der Wahn des Gesamtkunstwerks: Richard Wagners politisch-ästhetisch Utopie (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2004).

Mark Berry, “Is it here that Time becomes Space? Hegel, Schopenhauer, History, and Grace in Parsifal,” The Wagner Journal 3.3 (2009): 29-59.

Mark Berry, Treacherous Bonds and Laughing Fire (Aldershot and Rochester, NY: Ashgate, 2006).

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, including Theses on Feuerbach and Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1998).



Saturday, 4 July 2020

Wagner and Gobineau

(Article, ‘Gobineau, (Joseph) Arthur, Comte de,’ first published in The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia, ed. Nicholas Vazsonyi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013))

Gobineau, (Joseph) Arthur, Comte de (b. Ville d’Avray, 14 July 1816; d. Turin, 13 Oct. 1882), novelist, diplomat, essayist, ethnologist. Protégé of Alexis de Tocqueville, who as Foreign Minister appointed Gobineau his Cabinet Head. Gobineau’s diplomatic career took in Germany, Persia, Brazil, and Sweden. In Essai sur l'inégalité des races humaines (The Inequality of Human Races, 1853-5), Gobineau made racial distinction – white (intelligent, courageous), black (sensual, brutal), and yellow (materialistic, feeble) – history’s guiding principle. The white race, whether Germanic, ancient Greek, or Indo-European (“Aryan”), enabled civilization. Apparent exceptions, such as China, were ascribed to white influence. Civilization partly depended upon miscegenation, interracial breeding, yet in that dilution lay its downfall. Gobineau was not anti-Semitic; he admired the effort of “white” Jews through Mosaic Law to maintain their “purity.” Tocqueville protested that Gobineau’s argument was probably wrong and certainly pernicious.

Palazzo Vendramin, Venice, 1870, photograph by Carlo Noya

The Wagners briefly met Gobineau in Rome in 1876. There is neither evidence nor likelihood that Wagner read Gobineau or learned of his ideas until after their 1880 meeting in Venice; Wagner makes no mention of Gobineau’s theories before 1880, nor does Cosima in her diaries. Thus, despite the claims of writers such as Robert Gutman (Richard Wagner: The Man, The Mind, and his Music, ch. 13), the possibility of influence upon Parsifal, whose poem was essentially completed in 1877, its “orchestral sketch” in 1879, tends towards zero. Gobineau visited Wahnfried in 1881 (when Wagner presented his collected writings to “the Count”) and in 1882.

“Scientific” fatalism might appeal to Wagner as Schopenhauer’s disciple, though not as revolutionary. Gobineau presented not a political program, but an alleged scientific truth, echoing the Enlightenment project of discerning fundamental historical laws, akin to those of Newton – or, as later racists would prefer, Darwin. Gobineau believed in human degeneration; Wagner varied. Whereas Gobineau’s driving force was miscegenation, Wagner, in a late echo of Feuerbach, pointed to dietary change. Though Wagner seems to have come to attribute some importance to miscegenation, he introduced a gendered element and retained the prospect of regeneration or redemption through art and religion. Thus an 1881 Brown Book entry, possibly intended in part to correct Gobineau’s non-racial essay, La Renaissance: “In the mingling of races, the blood of the nobler males is ruined by the baser feminine element: the masculine element suffers, character founders, whilst the women gain as much as to take the men’s place. (Renaissance). The feminine thus remains owing deliverance: here art – as there in religion; the immaculate Virgin gives birth to the Savior.” (BB/E, 23 Oct 1881). Gobineau denied universality and founded morality upon ontology: Aryan deeds were good because they were performed by Aryans. Wagner, however, desired universal redemption, Jews included; morality should transform ontology.

Yet, as with Schopenhauer, Wagner found “confirmation” of previously held views, and “corrected” instances in which both writers erred. Cosima describes Wagner, during Gobineau’s 1881 visit, as “downright explosive in favor of Christian theories in contrast to racial ones” (Cosima Wagner's Diaries, 3 June 1881). Correspondence demonstrates mutual respect but both men standing their intellectual ground. Despite some writers’ claims, Gobineau’s influence on Wagner was minimal, differences more revealing than correspondences. However, the pan-Germanist Ludwig Schemann and other members of the Bayreuth Circle founded a Gobineau Association in 1894, transforming Gobineau’s pessimism into a racial and political opposition between Aryan and Jew. Cosima dissociated herself and the Festival.

Eugène, Eric (ed.), Richard et Cosima Wagner/Arthur Gobineau: Correspondance 1880-1882 (Saint-Genouph: Nizet, 2000).
Schemann, Ludwig, Gobineau. Eine Biographie, 2 vols. (Strasbourg: Triibner, 1913-16).

Wagner and the Dresden Uprising (May 1849)

(Article, 'Dresden Uprising (May 1849)', first published in The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia, ed. Nicholas Vazsonyi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013))

Prussian and Saxon troops attack the revolutionary barricades in Dresden's Neumarkt
(Sächsische Landesbibliothek Abt. Deutsche Fotothek)

Carl Christian Vogel von Vogelstein:
Frederick Augustus II of Saxony (r.1836-54)
One of the final wave of revolts during the 1848-9 revolutions, parallel to uprisings in Baden and the Bavarian Palatinate, all quelled by Prussian armed intervention. Across Europe, the “springtime of peoples” had witnessed liberal, constitutional victories. Rhetorical liberty, however, proved just that: initial coalitions – revolutionary socialists such as Wagner and laissez-faire Rhenish industrialists; pan-Slavists such as Bakunin and völkisch German nationalists; monarchists and republicans, etc. – proved irreconcilable. Moreover, the old order proved stronger than either it or its opponents had believed – and for many bourgeois seemed less threatening. Representatives to the Frankfurt Vorparlament moved towards national unity, promulgating a German constitution (March 28) and offering the imperial crown to Prussia’s Frederick William IV. His refusal (April 3) to “pick up a crown from the gutter” threw them into disarray. Emboldened, Frederick Augustus II of Saxony rejected the constitution and dissolved the Saxon parliament (April 30), elected in January with a democratic majority. Unlike Prussia, Saxony had long been a constitutional monarchy, and a reform ministry had governed from March 1848 to February 1849. But the king’s appointment of a reactionary movement, headed by Friedrich von Beust, and rejection of the constitution, ultimately provoked democratic opponents into a hurried response. On May 3, the town council organized the Communal Guard into a defense committee. Loyalist troops opened fire. Early on May 4, king and government escaped to Königstein; townsmen formed a provisional government.

Provisional government

Even at the time, the extent of Wagner’s involvement was obscured. Eduard Devrient reports Minna visiting him in desperation for advice concerning her husband, implicated yet not directly involved (Diary entry for 17 May 1849). Devrient is clear that she has been deceived. Wagner would downplay his role further in Mein Leben, yet nevertheless admits considerable involvement. He had the printer of Röckel’s Volksblätter print appeals to the Saxon army: “Are you with us against foreign troops?” (My Life, English translation, 394). Wagner probably ordered hand-grenades; he certainly served on the barricades and acted as look-out, observing street-fighting from the Kreuzkirche tower, whilst engaging in animated politico-philosophical discussion. Prussians entered the Neustadt on April 6. “Immediately the troops, supported by several cannon, opened an attack on … the people’s forces on the new marketplace” (ML, 397). On April 7, miners from the Erzgebirge singing the Marseillaise arrived to reinforce the opposition. However, Prussian and loyalist troops outnumbered the rebels and were gaining ground, even though barricades meant that every street was hard fought. As the provisional government began an unsurprisingly abortive attempt to retreat to the Erzgebirge, to encourage revolt across Germany, Dresden’s streets, including the opera house were ablaze. In his Introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France, Engels would bracket Dresden’s barricade heroism with that of Paris and Vienna, yet also pointed to the inevitable, once politics gave way to the “purely military standpoint.”

May 1849 barricades (Sächsische Zeitung Archive)

Repression was brutal. Many leaders, participants, and sympathizers were killed or punished: Bakunin, Röckel, and even Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient were arraigned. By chance, and with Liszt’s help, Wagner escaped into Swiss exile, intending in the Ring, as he explained, to “make clear to the men of the Revolution the meaning of that Revolution, in its noblest sense” (Wagner, letter to Uhlig, 12 Nov. 1851).

Eduard Devrient, Aus seinen Tagebüchern, ed. Rolf Kabel (Weimar: Böhlau, 1964).
Frederick Engels, “Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, 3 vols. (Progress: Moscow, 1970), 1: 300-89.
Jonathan Sperber, The European Revolutions, 1848-1851 (Cambridge UP: Cambridge, 1994).

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Wagner and Morality

(Article on 'Morality' first published in the Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia, ed. Nicholas Vazsonyi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Luise Reuss-Belce as Fricka

Historians often adopt a tone of prurient hypocrisy with figures of whom they disapprove. The Russian Empress Catherine the Great long endured persistent references to her “scandalous” love life: that is, she was a successful female ruler with the temerity to take lovers. It has become the practice for moral custodians, Frickas de nos jours, to berate Wagner for his easy way with other men’s money and women. Understanding both as property is instructive, betokening a narrow conception of “morality,” typical of the public opinion and commercial Press by which Wagner not unreasonably considered himself hounded. Wagner believed consistently that private property distorted every relationship between man and man, likewise man and woman. Shortly before his death, he lauded Wilhelm Heinse for having depicted in his novel, Ardinghello (1787), a society in which institution of property had never been permitted (Cosima Wagner’s Diaries, 30 Sep 1882).

Gustave Courbet: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon et ses enfants en 1853 (1865)

French socialism, directly and through intermediaries such as Heinrich Laube, August Röckel, and Mikhail Bakunin, was a pervading influence. As early as Das Liebesverbot, Wagner tells us, “all I cared about was to uncover the sinfulness of hypocrisy and the artificiality of the judicial attitude toward morality” (My Life, English translation, 83). Friedrich, prudishly shocked by popular licentiousness, employs state power to enforce an unnatural moral code, whilst transgressing it himself. Röckel, during their Dresden discussions provided theoretical ballast: “On the basis of the socialist theories of Proudhon and others … he constructed a whole new moral order of things to which … he little by little converted me … I began to rebuild upon it my hopes for the realization of my artistic ideals.” Wagner questioned Röckel about his desire “to do away completely with the institution of marriage as we knew it,” and was “particularly struck” by the claim that, only after eradication of coercion by money, rank, and family prejudice, would sexual morality be possible (My Life, 373-4). He returned in his final essay “Über das Weibliche” to the subject. Marriage – to Cosima, at least? – raised man and his moral faculties far above the animal world, yet he was dragged far beneath it by “conventional marriage” (Konventionsheiraten), an “abuse” (Mißbrauch) founded upon property (Sämtliche Schriften und Dichtungen, 12:343-4).

Self-justification? Perhaps, for instance when Wagner tells us that Minna “became increasingly perplexed at my seemingly incomprehensible conception of art and its relative importance,” and at his “higher delicacy in regard to moral questions,” being “unable to understand and approve my freedom of thought in such matters” (My Life, 130-1). Only up to a point, though, for the contrast between Minna’s need for financial stability and the moral purpose Wagner sought in art is real enough. That they were ultimately unsuited need not send one scurrying for blame. There is, moreover, no mistaking Wagner’s moral outrage at his perception of modern art as “industry, its moral purpose the acquisition of money, its aesthetic purpose the entertainment of the bored” (SSD, 3: 18).

Under the influence of Young German and Young Hegelian ideas, most likely including Max Stirner’s anarchistic manifesto, The Ego and its Own (1844), Wagner created in the Ring an artwork that dramatizes alternative moral possibilities. Fricka, Wagner writes, represents custom (Sitte), (Letter to Uhlig, 12 Nov. 1851). Her marriage to Wotan is fruitless; his children are sired outside wedlock. One of them, Sieglinde, experiences both brutal treatment as chattel by her husband Hunding, and passionate convention-flouting fulfillment with her twin brother, Siegmund. Fricka is outraged: “My heart trembles, my mind reels: bridal embrace between brother and sister! When was it ever heard of that siblings were lovers?” (Walküre, II/i). As the gods’ – religion’s – hold on society falters, moral prohibitions dependent upon their power are insisted upon ever more stridently. The gods would go to ruin, Fricka insists, were her moral law not to be obeyed; they already have. Wagner echoes Stirner and prefigures Nietzsche, providing a crucial link in the inversion of Hegel’s elevation of customary over individual morality: “Note how a ‘moral man’ behaves, who today often thinks he is through with God .… a customary-moral shudder will come over him at the conception of one’s being allowed to touch his sister also as a woman.… Because he believes in those moral commandments” (Stirner, 45); and “They have rid themselves of the Christian God, and thus believe that they must cling all the more firmly to Christian morality … one must, in response to the smallest emancipation from theology, reassert one’s position in awe-inspiring fashion as a moral fanatic” (Nietzsche, 80).

Mathilde Wesendonck by
Karl Ferdinand Sohn (1850)
What, then, of the pre-eminent “affair,” with Mathilde Wesendonck? One can deplore Wagner’s ingratitude towards her husband, Otto, who had offered considerable financial support, only to find himself cuckolded – at least metaphysically. Wagner opposed marriage as legal setting in stone or ring. Moreover, Wagner’s insistence that the world owed him a living – why should someone be favored because he dealt in silks instead of composing the Ring? – is borne out even in capitalist terms by the industry he created for and bequeathed that world. It has done incalculably better from him than vice versa.

One might also consider it significant that, when Wagner condensed the action of Tristan und Isolde into a few words for Mathilde Wesendonck, he did not even mention King Marke’s forgiveness. Were the sacrifices of men such as Wesendonck and Hans von Bülow as naught to such a monstrous ego? Yet Wagner sees the “custom of the time” leading to the sin of marriage for politics’ sake. The action of Tristan is not, moreover, really of this phenomenal world at all, but metaphysical. By now (1859), Wagner had partially converted to a morality founded upon Schopenhauer’s teaching. Though immediately taken by Schopenhauer’s aesthetics, “the moral principles” of The World as Will and Representation had been more difficult initially to accept, “for here the annihilation of the Will and complete self-abnegation are represented as the only true means of redemption from the constricting bonds of individuality in its dealings with the world” (My Life, 509). Either way – in practice, both – Wagner rejected the dictates of bourgeois morality.

See also:
Mark Berry, “The Positive Influence of Wagner upon Nietzsche,” The Wagner Journal, 2.2 (2008): 11-28.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols / The Anti-Christ, tr. R.J. Hollingdale, with an introduction by Michael Tanner (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990).
Max Stirner, The Ego and its Own, tr. Steven Byington, ed. David Leopold (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).