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.