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).