What on earth (or in heaven) did Wagner mean?

General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung

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What on earth (or in heaven) did Wagner mean?

Postby alberich00 » Sun May 19, 2013 10:33 pm

Dear Discussion forum members and visitors:

Wintersturmer broached the never ending question of just what we should take the finale of the "Ring," and Wagner's final word "Parsifal," to mean. So I post his query here and my initial response:

"A topic that you've raised in the forum regarding the music dramas is: what is to replace the comforting, but ultimately reality-denying illusions of religion? Wagner seems to say that "the New Art" will take its place in the human quest for transcendence, but it too is also ultimately tainted. So what replaces art...nihilism, Ayn Rand's self-centered Objectivism, or Buddhist detachment? As much as I find Buddhism (the philosophy, not the religious practice) interesting, I've found that too many of its adherents devolve into a sort of narcissistic navel-gazing where personal salvation and fulfillment seems to become the primal preoccupation at the expense of everyone else. Like it or not, we are still societal animals, which means that our actions must be constrained by considerations of the common good to maintain social cohesion. But what is the "common good"? It's imperative to avoid falling in[to] the sanctimonious trap of dividing humanity in[to] the unenlightened "Them" and the "Us" who "have all the answers. In his recent book "Religion for Atheists," Alain de Botton proposes a set of "10 virtues" to replace the fear- and superstition-based "10 Commandments" (the runes on Wotan's spear), and also proposes a series of secular rituals and festivals. One book reviewer remarked that atheists already have their temples: they're called museums and theatres. While I have a vague form of a life philosophy that is based on objective truth and empathy, the challenge seems to be how to break the attractions and allure of the "easy solutions" of magical thinking (always fertile ground for demagogues and megalomaniacs) in the public at large: how to nurture"virtue" without resorting to fear? I'm still searching, and probably will for a while yet.

All these problems will eventually be resolved when I'll become philosopher-king.
the Wandering Wintersturmer"

Paul Heise responds:

It's interesting to note that in his four mature music-dramas Wagner actually explored the different ways of responding to meaninglessness which you outline below, and in the finale of the "Ring" he seems to have expressed all of them simultaneously; I mean, one could reasonably argue either that the whole world, and mankind, are renewed for a new cycle at the end of the "Ring," or that all things have been consigned to oblivion. But either way it will all come back again, whether we like it or not, as a consequence of natural law, which produces both an entropic universe and local evolutionary exceptions. "Tristan" is of course Wagner's experiment in nihilism but it can also be argued that it expresses Buddhistic navelism (as you put it).

"Mastersingers" of course offers secular art as modern man's substitute for religious faith. The "Ring" offers Wotan's nihilistic intent to destroy everything because the world didn't support his fantasies of transcendent meaning and value. "Parsifal" offers the prospect that we can finally acknowledge ourselves part of nature, and in no way special (except for the not insignificant fact that unlike the rest of nature, we are conscious of these issues as a problem, a perhaps irresolvable problem), but that to live with ourselves and nature we have to renounce our bid for transcendent meaning, i.e., renounce our very longing for redemption.
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