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Feuerbach's influence on "Lohengrin" Part 1

PostPosted: Tue Jun 16, 2015 11:24 am
by alberich00
Dear members and visitors to the discussion forum:

Having posted a couple of days ago my email which offers a thumbnail sketch of my potential solution to the problem of Lohengrin's forbidden question, it dawned on me that I ought to post at this discussion forum a couple of the papers on the relationship of "Lohengrin" to the "Ring" which I mentioned in that email, and for which I offered links so one can read these papers, so readers can save a step. I've already posted my published 1995 paper "How Elsa Showed Wagner the Way to Siegfried" in the portion of the archive of our discussion forum covering 2011, in three parts. However, the other paper to which I alluded, the much expanded version of that paper which includes, for the first time, major documentary evidence of Feuerbach's influence on the libretto of Wagner's "Lohengrin," I am posting here in 4 parts, each about 10 pages apiece. I have copied and pasted this 40 page paper from the "Texts on Wagner" section (under "Resources") of the website: See Part 1 below. Also, I will be posting my paper (which also can be found at the same location at on Feuerbach's influence on the libretto of "Parsifal" here, in several parts, especially since it has a bearing on "Lohengrin," as both artworks concern the Holy Grail. Last but not least, I'll copy and paste here my thumbnail sketches of my original interpretations of "Dutchman," "Tannhaeuser," "Lohengrin," "The Ring of the Nibelung," "Tristan and Isolde," "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg," and "Parsifal," so readers can get a sense of how my interpretations of Wagner's ten canonic operas and music-dramas relate to each other conceptually.

I was initially inspired by Jim Holman's (Jim is the Chairman of the Wagner Society of Washington, DC) question, what is behind Lohengrin's forbidden question?, to email him, Dr. Simon Williams, and Dr. Jeffrey Swann, with a brief overview of my solution to this problem, and to post my email in this discussion forum, a few days ago, but it dawned on me that I may as well post all of my relevant papers which offer this solution in greater detail right here in the forum. Since I am now re-writing my online book about Wagner's "Ring," "The Wound That Will Never Heal," for publication in hardcopy, I decided to post my other important online papers here to place this argument in its full context.

Feuerbachs' influence on "Lohengrin" Part 1:

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[TDI] "Thoughts on Death and Immortality" (1830);
[EOC] "The Essence of Christianity" (1841);
[PPF] "The Principles of the Philosophy of the Future" (7/9/43);[/b]
[LER] "Lectures on the Essence of Religion" (1848) – Based on The Essence of Religion – Published in the early 1840’s to fill certain voids left by The Essence of Christianity.

All quotations from Feuerbach’s four works are identified by the abbreviations tdi, eoc, ppf, and ler. All other quotations, with the exception of one from an English translation of Aeschylus’ play "Prometheus Bound," are drawn from Wagner’s artworks, writings and recorded remarks: source and page number where the original can be found follows each quotation from Wagner’s writings and recorded remarks. All passages in the context of quotations which are closed off by brackets – “[ ]” – were provided by me as clues to interpretation.

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My talk was inspired by an observation from Wagner’s essay "A Communication to My Friends" which has the most far-reaching implications. Wagner says here that Elsa taught him how to strip the historical hero of his historical and natural context, the bonds of fate, in order to create, or rediscover, his mythic, “purely-human” hero Siegfried:

(1A) “I plunged into the primal mythic roots of Germany. (...) I peeled away the layers to find the real ‘naked Man’ . Historical human subjects offered only relations, which order him instead of him ordering them. With the conception of Siegfried I jettisoned all arbitrary historical garment [Wotan’s historical constraints], and his joy in life was unphased by any outward threat or error [Siegfried doesn’t feel fear]. Elsa showed me the way to this man: to me he was the masculine embodiment of the eternally and uniquely creative instinct (“Unwillkuer”) [the creative unconscious].” (6-8/51 A Communication to My Friends: GS IV, 357-358; PW I)

What did Wagner mean? A key clue can be found in Wagner’s observation that the atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach exposed the human and natural origin of divine myths, a task which Wagner intended to complete in "Lohengrin":

(1B) “Not one of the most moving, distinctive Christian myths belongs to Christianity, which inherited them from the purely human intuitions of pagan times. Feuerbach tried to purge these of such alien influences, a task the poet must now complete.” (6-8/51 A Communication to My Friends; PW I; 333-335)

On the whole, throughout his life Wagner dismissed the idea of a personal creator god, and mocked the Christian concept of redemption in paradise as being nothing more than a euphemism for egoistic, self-indulgent fantasy. He agreed with Feuerbach that man is the product of a natural evolution of species, and that man unwittingly and involuntarily invented the gods, including the Christian God. God in Feuerbach’s view was the product of the collective imagination – a process of collective dreaming, or unconscious artistic inspiration – shared by the primal folk at the beginning of our human history. This was the final phase in the evolution of our conscious human mind, before we awoke to full consciousness of our status as unique living beings. In a sense, we woke to find ourselves already in full possession of an intact, coherent culture and belief system, just as the gods of Valhalla in Wagner’s "Ring" wake to find that the giants – i.e., man’s animal instincts of fear and desire – have built Valhalla (religious civilization and its discontents) while they were sleeping.

I just quoted Wagner describing Siegfried (as taught to him by his heroine Elsa) as the “naked man”, stripped bare of all historical context, preconditions, and identity. Feuerbach himself described the “naked individual” as the artificial, unnatural, disembodied human being we obtain when we proclaim man’s divine origin and [Page 3] immortality. According to Feuerbach, in order to purge man of all that hinders the free expression of his feelings and imagination, something we do when we imagine ourselves redeemed from the real world in a spiritual, immortal life, we must strip man of all that defines him as a man, strip him of life itself:

(1C) [tdi133] “Only when history is nothing, when the naked individual who is stripped of all historical elements [Siegfried], all destiny, determination, ... and measure, ... when the vain, abstract, meaningless, empty individual is something, and history is nothing, is the nothing after death something. ... as they [Christians] posit a future life, they negate actual life.”

Is it possible that Wagner’s romantic opera about the Grail Knight Lohengrin is actually a Feuerbach-inspired critique of religion, and that in this sense Wagner, ironically, collaborates with Ortrud, and with Elsa herself, in exposing the mortal, human, natural identity and origin of the allegedly divine, immortal, and celibate Lohengrin?


I believe the answer to this question can be found by comparing Elsa’s offer to help Lohengrin protect the secret of his identity, with Bruennhilde’s offer to hear Wotan’s confession of his divine anguish (“Goetternoth”). If we follow through the implications of this comparison to their logical conclusion, we may well unveil Wagner’s inner thought-world, his original source of inspiration, as never before. It all begins with Lohengrin’s injunction to Elsa never to inquire after his true origin and identity:

(2A) “Lohengrin: Elsa, if I am to be your spouse and guard your land and people, if nothing is to tear me from you, you must make me one promise: never ask me nor desire to know whence my journey brought me, nor my name and lineage!” (Act I, Scene Three; GS II, 75)

Is Lohengrin demanding traditional religious faith of those to whom he offers redemption, a faith which can’t be explained in words because it is so holy, so noumenal, that it is inaccessible to our reasoning mind? Or, as Ortrud claims, does Lohengrin insist on keeping his identity and origin secret because he has something to hide whose revelation would bring him harm?

Ortrud threatens to reveal that Lohengrin’s power for redemption isn’t divine, but dependent on a magical spell, which we will later recognize as an “artistic” spell:

(2B) “Ortrud: [to Frederick] ... should he [Lohengrin] be forced to reveal his name and lineage, all his power would be ended which is only lent by magic spell.” (Act II, Scene One; GS II, 82-83)

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“Ortrud: [to Elsa] It would mean great anguish (“Noth”) for him, so the clever hero forbade the question! (...) This innocence of your hero, how quickly it would be tarnished were he forced to show the source of magic through which he wields such power here!” (Act II, Scene Four; GS II, 93-94)

The range of meaning of the German word “Noth” embraces need, necessity, lack, anguish, and danger, among other things. It has a very peculiar resonance in Wagner’s artworks (witness the Waelsung heroes’ sword “Nothung”), which will become clearer as we proceed.

Elsa, fearing – as Ortrud suggested – that Lohengrin might be in danger if he reveals his true origin and identity, promises herself to guard his secret, but – and here is the key point! – only if he shares it with her:

(2C) “Elsa: It might well bring him danger, were he to tell his secret here to all the world; woe is me ... if I, whom he saved, should betray him and cause it to be known! If I knew his secret, I would guard it truly! Yet my heart trembles, filled with doubt!” (Act II, Scene 5; GS II, 97)

Is it possible that deep down Elsa suspects Ortrud’s accusation is true, that Lohengrin’s power, instinctively accepted as divine in origin by both King Henry and his people, has a mundane, earth-bound origin, and that he is merely posing as divine through a magical spell? This seems to be implicit in Elsa’s apparent acceptance of Ortrud’s charge that Lohengrin would be in danger if his true identity was exposed.

If this were true, perhaps Elsa could best show her love for him by preserving his unspoken secret, and thus becoming complicit with him in preserving a fraud. Elsa’s intuition tells her she can express her love by sharing knowledge of this secret with Lohengrin.


Wagner has a lot to say about such numinous secrets. According to him, laymen – i.e., the religious faithful, or the artist’s audience – possess in revealed religious texts, or in the artist’s finished artwork, respectively, only a dreamlike allegory, a sort of waking-dream. This waking dream known to the layman is a poor reflection of its original source of inspiration in the religious seer or inspired artist. Speaking of such divine revelations, Wagner says that:

(3A) “What’s imparted to the people can only be an allegory, i.e., a rendering of the unspeakable, into common human speech and erroneous knowledge. The relation this sacred allegory has to the divine revelation is a relationship like that of the day-told dream to the actual night-dream. (...) If our memory of a deeply moving dream is only an allegorical paraphrase, whose intrinsic disagreement with the original remains a trouble to our waking consciousness, yet this allegory is the only possible [Page 5] way of representing it to the layman. This is how dogma is formed, and the world must take it on authority to become a partner through faith in what the eye never saw. The religious [visionary] is a sharer in salvation through [his own] eye’s beholding, while the layman needs unconditional faith.” (64-2/65 On State and Religion; PW IV; 27-28).

This waking allegory is only the conscious manifestation of the true, unconscious source of inspiration, which remains hidden, sometimes even from its author. Similarly, the origin of our own dreams is often mysterious to us. As Wagner once wrote to his friend August Roeckel, for the authentic artist his own artwork remains a mystery: “... how can an artist hope to find his own intuitions perfectly reproduced in those of another person, since he himself stands before his own work of art – if it really is a work of art – as though before some puzzle, which is just as capable of misleading him as it can mislead the other person.” (8/23/54 Letter to August Roeckel; SLRW; P. 357)

Why must the source of inspiration remain hidden? Is it because it is so divine, or so much the product of preconscious feeling, that human reason can’t grasp it? Or does this magic, the magic of religious faith and art, have a more mundane origin, as Ortrud’s charge suggests? I believe this is the key question which "Lohengrin" poses, and that Wagner’s "The Ring of the Nibelung," the next artwork Wagner completed after "Lohengrin," provides Wagner’s answer to it.

As both poet and musician, both conscious architect and unconscious creator of his art – who both willed and dreamed it into existence, Wagner had a unique insight into the creative unconscious, which he sometimes called the “unspeakable” or “unutterable secret”:

(3B) “... there was never another who was poet and musician at once (in my sense), and thus to whom insight into inner processes [i.e., into his own unconscious artistic inspiration] is possible such as to none other.” (12/8/58 Letter to Mathilde Wesendonck; RWLMW, P. 78).

To my knowledge Wagner’s earliest reference to this “unutterable secret” is from 1842, a passage in which he suggests that this secret is kept by music: “It is terrifying ... to gaze into the awful caverns of the human heart. For the poet it is impossible to render in words all that passes at the bottom of this stanchless fount, which responds in turn to the breath of God and of the Devil; he may speak to you of hate, of love, of fanaticism and frenzy; he will set before your eyes the outward acts engendered by the surface of those depths: but never can he take you down into them, unveil them to your look. It is reserved for Music alone, to reveal the primal elements of this marvellous nature; in her mysterious charm our soul is shown this great, unutterable secret.” (2-4/42 Halevy and ‘La Reine de Chypre’; PW VIII; 179)

And in the following passage from 1851 Wagner conflates music, as an expression which is “unspeakable” through the understanding or words, with religion: “... the speaking faculty of the orchestra ... [is] the faculty of uttering the unspeakable. (...) [Music [Page 6]
expresses] ... that which, ... from the standpoint of our human intellect, is the unspeakable. (...) This easy explanation of the ‘unspeakable’ one might extend , perhaps not altogether wrongly, to the whole matter of religious philosophy, for although that matter is given out as absolutely unutterable, from the standpoint of the speaker, yet mayhap it is utterable enough if only the fitting organ [i.e., music] is employed.” (5-1/51 Opera and Drama; PW II; 316-317)

But Wagner, like Ortrud and Elsa, had an intuition that danger might lurk in the secrets kept – kept even from him – by his own creative unconscious. Cosima noted that:

(3C) “... he [Wagner] says he sometimes has the feeling that art is downright dangerous – it is as if in this great enjoyment of observing he is perhaps failing to recognize the presence of some hidden sorrow.” (7/27/69; CT)


By taking a closer look at the nature of Ortrud’s threat to undermine faith in Lohengrin, perhaps we can unearth the great problem which I believe underlies both "Lohengrin" and the "Ring." By challenging the faith Lohengrin has demanded of the people and his spouse Elsa, and instilling doubt in Elsa, Ortrud has, in effect, threatened to expose the natural, human, magical – i.e., artistic – origin of the transcendent Christian God.

She makes the full scope of her threat quite clear to Frederick when she tells him that his belief in the Christian God is an expression of “cowardice”, and says “Give me power and surely will I show you how feeble is that God who shields him.”

It’s important to remember that Feuerbach regarded the pagan gods - such as Wodan and Freia, whom Ortrud worships – as nature gods who, unlike the Christian God, do not claim to transcend the real, natural world, but are instead physical - though superior - beings subject to time and fate (though in Wagner’s "Ring" they proclaim their immortality): [ler86] “The religions or rather mythologies, both of the Greeks and of the Norse if not of other Germanic peoples, both of which, particularly the latter, were nature religions to begin with, looked upon nature as the source not only of men but also of the gods – clear proof that the gods and men are one, that the gods stand or fall with mankind.”

Just as Ortrud instills doubt in the validity of the redemption Lohengrin brings, and doubt in his divine origin which the people have simply taken for granted, Wagner came to the conclusion that modern science would ultimately explain away all the mysteries of religion and art:

(4A) “As the progress of the natural sciences ... involves exposure of every mystery of being as mere imaginary secrets after all, the sole concern must henceforth be the Act of Knowing ... . (...) We justifiably conclude from this that the purely [Page 7] comprehending subject [i.e., the objective scientist, who leaves subjective feeling, or love, out of his equations] is left with the sole right to existence [note that Alberich remains unaccounted for at the end of the "Ring"]. A worthy close for the world-tragedy!” (3-7/78 Public and Popularity; PW VI, 75-76).

Wagner’s fear of this historical catastrophe, which Feuerbach looked forward to with optimism, increased the more Wagner formed the idea that his art was the last refuge for mankind’s religious sentiments in a secular age. Though Wagner wrote the above-quoted passage as a critique of his former protegee Friedrich Nietzsche’s recently published atheist books, Wagner could with equal justification be alluding to Feuerbach, who said that:

(4B) [ler219] “ ... no barrier to human knowledge can excuse us. In the realm of nature, to be sure, there are still many things we do not understand; but the secrets of religion spring from man himself, and he is capable of knowing them down to their remotest depths. And because he can know them, he ought to know them. (...) The elimination of this lie is the condition for a new, energetic mankind.”

I suggest that the threat which the Nibelung dwarf Alberich poses for the gods of Valhalla – embodied in his curse on his ring – is actually the threat of scientific thought to undermine belief in divinity, i.e., belief in the existence of a spiritual realm which transcends Mother Nature. In this sense Alberich is akin to Ortrud, to Feuerbach, and to Wagner himself to the extent he once embraced Feuerbach.

In consequence I have reinterpreted Alberich’s hoarding of the earth’s – i.e., Erda’s – treasure, as Wagner’s metaphor for historical man’s gradual acquisition of that scientific knowledge of himself and his world which might some day overthrow religious faith and all the values and ideals, like selfless love, which faith supports. According to Alberich his Hoard will ultimately rise from silent depths to daylight and overthrow the gods’ rule. But the essence of Alberich’s curse on the Ring is that all men, particularly those who dispossessed him of it, will seek its power (and by extension the power inhering in the accumulating hoard of earth’s treasure) and thereby renounce love just as he has. Translated into the terms of our new allegorical interpretation of the "Ring," this means that the human species as a whole has to pay the same price of “Noth” (existential anguish and lovelessness) which Alberich did in order to stake a claim to the power of his objective knowledge of the world, the power of truth.

Metaphorically speaking, historical man, or rather, religious man – for all human societies have gone through a religious phase – will eventually accumulate that hoard of objective knowledge of himself and the real world (Mother Nature, or Erda), which will overthrow belief in divine beings. A couple of passages from Feuerbach which very likely influenced Wagner illustrate my point:

(4C) [eoc274] “To place anything in god, or to derive anything from god, is ... to withdraw it from the test of reason, to institute it as unassailable, sacred, without rendering an account why. [Think here of Lohengrin’s prohibition on knowledge.]. [Page 8] (...) Thus the work of self-conscious reason in relation to religion is simply to destroy an illusion ... .” [Think here of Ortrud’s and Alberich’s threat against belief in divinity.]

(4D) [ler216-17] “[This illusion’s] ... elimination is the indispensable condition for the rebirth of mankind ... . ... it requires – if we wish to retain the word – a new religion!”

For Wagner, though, as we will see shortly, this “new religion” which will replace belief in the gods is not necessarily objective scientific thought, but rather, his own artwork of the future, the music-drama. Wagner came to see his redemptive music-dramas as the antidote to the despair which science would bring us if it eliminated the consolations of religious belief. Feuerbach himself noted that as religious faith gradually declines in the face of rising secularism, science and art fall heir to religion’s heritage, science inheriting religion’s role in explaining man and his world, and art expressing religious feeling: [ler209-210] “Everything which later became a field of independent human activity, of culture, was originally an aspect of religion: all the arts, all the sciences ... - for as soon as an art or science achieves a high state of development, it ceases to be religion – were originally the concern of religion and its representatives, the priests.”


To grasp Wagner’s allegorical logic we should recognize that for him, as well as for his mentor Feuerbach, belief in the actual existence of divine, supernatural beings denies our true mother, Nature, and figuratively kills her. As Feuerbach said:

(5A) [tdi86] “If you imagine nature has its ground outside itself [i.e., that God created the physical world] you strike nature dead.”

(5B) [tdi249] “ ‘To a pietist maiden’ ”: Young maiden, when you sacrificed nature for belief, you committed your only sin.”

(5C) [ler85] “How untrue we Germans have become to our source, our mother, and how unlike her, thanks to Christianity which taught us that heaven [or Valhalla] is our home.”

Clearly, Wagner was on Feuerbach’s wavelength:

(5D) “Let us glance, then, for a moment at this future state of Man, when he shall have freed himself from his last heresy, the denial of Nature, - that heresy which has taught him hitherto to look upon himself as a mere instrument to an end which lay outside himself [i.e., God’s will or providence].” (6-8/49 Art and Revolution: GS III, 33; PW I, P. 57).

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In the following two portions of my essay - (6) & (7) - I’ll show how Lohengrin is guilty of this sin, and then describe Wotan’s complicity in it:


Just listen first to what Wagner has to say about the Christian God, and compare this with what he says about Lohengrin:

(6A) “The Classical Era ended with the worship of an abstract god brought from Asia, who wanders aimlessly in the melancholy joy of immortality. (...) Man was thus governed by the incomprehensible will of God [think here of Lohengrin’s demand that none share in the secret of his true origin], not instinct, nature’s necessity.” (2/50 Art and Climate; PW I, 255; PH: 148).

Wagner suggests in the following passage that it is Lohengrin who sought redemption from the sterile bliss of the allegedly divine Grail realm in Elsa’s mortal, physical love:

(6B) “... he [Lohengrin] wanted nothing more than to become ... a full and complete human being, able to give and inspire love, - that is, authentically human and not divine ... . Thus he yearned for womankind – the human heart. And so he descended from his blissful but empty loneliness when he heard this woman’s cry for help.” (6-8/51 A Communication to My Friends; GS IV, 296; PW I, 341).

Wagner’s critique of the “melancholy joy” of the abstract Christian God brought from Asia is more or less the same as his critique of Lohengrin, and his explanation of Lohengrin’s longing to be redeemed from the meaninglessness of his existence in the divine Grail realm through Elsa’s mortal love. It is as if the abstract heavenly realm of the Grail from which Lohengrin descended to offer Elsa redemption were lacking the very thing for which those who seek spiritual transcendence long, true substance.

The Grail knights, for instance, are regarded as celibate and immortal. But both Feuerbach and Wagner wrote that the religious man’s emphasis on divine celibacy, and his longing for redemption from his earthly, mortal limitations in immortality, express his artificial quest to redeem himself only from those aspects of the earthly life which he finds abhorrent, painful, and frightful, such as misery and death. He then hypocritically smuggles into his conception of heaven the blissful aspects of physical life, artificially purged by the imagination of their necessary connection with life’s anguish. As Feuerbach put it when describing the religious man’s conception of heaven: [eoc137] “Even if that which pleases him cannot exist without being associated with that which displeases him, the subjective man is not guided by the wearisome laws of logic and physics, but by the self-will of the imagination. Hence he drops what is disagreeable as a fact, and holds fast alone what is agreeable.”

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Wagner applied Feuerbach’s logic to his own critique of the high value Christianity places on immortality and chastity, i.e., on the denial of man’s physical, animal nature. He noted, for instance, that “(343) There is considerable difficulty with this ‘Paradise’. (...) (346) This act of denying the will is the true action of the saint: that it is ultimately accomplished only in a total end to individual consciousness – for there is no other consciousness except that which is personal and individual – was lost sight of by the naïve saints of Christianity ... . They were able to deceive their confused imagination by seeing that longed-for state as a perpetual continuation of a life freed from nature [i.e., freed from the body and from Erda’s law that all which exists will end].” (6/7/55 Letter to Franz Liszt; SB VII, 204-208; SLRW).

And the religious emphasis on celibacy comes under Wagner’s axe for the same reason: “We decide that the excesses to which the insistence on chastity led constituted a terrible feature; they were due to the impossibility of realizing something felt to lie deep within the human character, the desire to set oneself outside Nature [i.e., freed from the constraints of man’s mortal body and Erda’s natural laws] and yet to go on living.” (11/3/78 CD II; 188)

In the following two passages Feuerbach describes graphically not only what we can recognize as Lohengrin’s desire to restore to himself on earth, through Elsa’s love, what is missing in the divine Grail realm, but also provide us with what is arguably the basis for Tannhaeuser’s complaints to Venus about his need to escape the endless bliss of his immortal life of love in the Venusberg, and return to the mundane physical world of pain and death:

(6C) [eoc183] “The soul yearns after its lost half, after its body; as God, the departed soul yearns after the real man. As, therefore, God becomes a man again, so the soul returns to the body, and the perfect identity of this world [Nature] and the other [Spirit] is now restored.”

(6D) [ler163-164] “[man] ... cannot break with his nature; even the wish fantasies which depart from it are determined by it; they may seem to go far afield, yet they always fall back on it, just as a stone thrown into the air falls back on the ground.”


In a passage from the "Ring" which in my view has been consistently misinterpreted, Alberich seems to paraphrase Feuerbach’s denunciation of man’s religious impulse to transcend nature, in his denunciation of Wotan for trying to steal what rightfully belongs only to Alberich, his ring of power. By taking Alberich’s ring – Wagner’s symbol for the very nature of human thought and imagination, which insists on completing what experience of the world presents to it as incomplete – from Alberich, Wotan renounces the objective truth of existence in order to sustain man’s delusion that the gods exist, are immortal and rule men and earth. Listen closely: