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The Rhinegold: Page 197
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“The works of the poet, of the philosopher, can be regarded in the light of merit only as considered externally . They are works of genius – inevitable products: the poet must bring forth poetry, the philosopher must philosophise. They have the highest satisfaction in the activity of creation, apart from any collateral or ulterior purpose.” [169F-EOC: p. 321]

And here we have Wagner’s take on Feuerbach’s distinction of labor under outside coercion from the labor of love, whose value lies in the act of creation itself:

“Annulled be the fancy that makes man bondslave to his handiwork, to property. Man’s highest good is his fashioning force, the fount whence springs all happiness forever; and not in the created, in the act of creation itself, in the exercise of your powers lies your true highest enjoyment. Man’s work is lifeless; the living shall not bind itself to what is lifeless, not make itself a thrall to that.” [399W-{4/49} The Revolution: PW Vol. VIII, p. 236]

[P. 48] “The true artist finds delight not only in the aim of his creation, but also in the very process of creation … . (…) The journeyman [say, Alberich’s Nibelung laborers] reckons only the goal of his labour, the profit which his toil shall bring him; the energy which he expends, gives him no pleasure; it is but a fatigue, an inevitable task, a burden which he would gladly give over to a machine; his toil is but a fettering chain. (…) [P. 49] [This] … is the lot of the Slave of Industry; and our modern factories afford us the sad picture of the deepest degradation of man, -- constant labour, killing both body and soul, without joy or love, often almost without aim.” [406W-{6-8/49} Art and Revolution: PW Vol. I, p. 48-49]

Wagner’s remarks above about the soul-killing effect of labor undertaken solely under the compulsion of the owner’s profit-incentive, which makes the laborer himself a dispensable object, and labor itself a burden rather than a joy, gives us insight into the conceptual background of the Nibelung Labor Motif #41, which calls to mind their incessant hammering on their anvils in ceaseless forging to satisfy Alberich’s insatiable desire for ever more treasure.

But Wagner is sensitive to the fact that if, as Feuerbach himself admits, egoism is the primary motive behind all human actions, behind both the Nibelungs’ fearful obedience, and Alberich’s tyrannical command, then nothing can stop tyrants. In such a world it is quite natural that in order to avoid becoming a slave one must make all others one’s slaves. In such a world there could be no moral imperative to sacrifice one’s own interests for others, no compassion, no love.

However, there is more going on here than George Bernard Shaw supposed when, in his The Perfect Wagnerite, he concluded that the Nibelungs’ enslavement in Nibelheim is Wagner’s indictment of the ill-effects of rampant capitalism and the exploitation of labor in the industrialization of Europe. Though Wagner surely had the wage-slaves of capitalism and industrialism in mind when he first conceived this scene which so influenced Shaw’s interpretation, in the event his Ring libretto grew to embrace a far more timeless, universal understanding of the nature of man, of which the terrible condition of the working class of 19th century Europe was just one instance. As I will explain in detail shortly, the Nibelungs’ forced labor has more to do with the Biblical notion that fallen man, having lost his preconscious paradise founded on animal instinct, must laboriously learn and work now in order to satisfy his needs. Their labor under duress, in other words, is a metaphor for the very nature of man.

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