Christopher Janaway: The Influence of Schopenhauer on Wagner

General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung

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Christopher Janaway: The Influence of Schopenhauer on Wagner

Post by alberich00 » Thu Sep 12, 2013 4:07 pm

Paul Heise's review of "On the Influence of Schopenhauer on Wagner," a talk by Christopher Janaway recorded by BBC Radio 3 Essays as part of the Wagner 200 celebration:

Wagner first read Schopenhauer in 1854. Wagner found at least three key ideas there:

1. Music is a unique art
2. Human existence is one of unfulfillment
3. There can be redemption through meditation, in which conscious desire ceases

But Wagner had already completed the libretto for his "Ring" cycle. However, he claimed that only now, thanks to Schopenhauer, could he grasp his Wotan.

Schopenhauer had a mixed response to Wagner's art, and preferred Mozart and Rossini.

In Europe, from 1851 onward Schopenhauer's philosophy started to catch on. There was to be found no god, no divine purpose in Schopenhauer. The question his philosophy asks: does existence then have any meaning?

Schopenhauer looked at life both as representation (in human consciousness of it), and life in itself. In the world considered as Will, all striving is either unconscious or conscious. There is the will to life, including reproduction of life. But there is only striving and suffering, which is unsatisfactory. And too much satisfaction brings boredom. Romantic love, for Schopenhauer, was a facade, and procreation was a blind expression of the Will. Schopenhauer anticipated some of Freud's insights.

In "Parsifal," Amfortas's unhealing wound springs from his desire. [PH: In my reading Amfortas's unhealing wound is caused, ironically, by man's unfulfillable longing for transcendent meaning, for a spiritual realm of being which transcends the physical world and man's physical nature. It is unfulfillable because man deludes himself into believing that only a realm of being outside the world and his human nature can satisfy his infinite striving to fulfill what are ultimately merely natural needs to quench desires and escape from fear. Amfortas can only heal what had heretofore been mankind's unhealing wound by ceasing to strivce any longer for transcendence, by ceasing to posit the realm of the spirit, and recognizing the Grail for what it is, not the divine, but the earthly, Mother Nature. Parsifal, as the reincarnation in modern times of all of Parsifal's spiritual ancestors among the seers who created the religions, and the secular artists who fell heir to religion's modernly defunct quest to grant man transcendent value (secular art offers only the feeling that we have transcendent value, without establishing the fact), wakes up to the fact that he, as the Wagnerian music-dramatist, representative of all of his spiritual ancestors, has, along with them, unwittingly been guilty of perpetuating religious faith's delusion that man has transcendent value, and has therefore been guilty heretofore, in all past ages, of creating and perpetuating Amfortas's (mankind's) unhealing wound. Parsifal therefore decides that he will no longer, as he had in his past lives, have loving union with his reincarnate muse of unconscious artistic inspiration, Kundry (in whom Venus, Elsa, Bruennhilde, Isolde, and Eve have been reincarnated), and that he will therefore, in no longer seeking escape from conscious knowledge of the bitter truth in unconsciousness and illusory consolations like religious faith and art, destroy the function of Kundry as his unconscious. Becoming fully awake to who he is, Kundry, his unconscious mind, ceases to be, and is in this sense redeemed from the former sin against the truth, the hero's sin of matricide (against his mother, Nature). The hero thus both heals Amfortas's unhealing wound, and restores Mother Nature to her rights, so she can regain the innocence lost to her when religious man denied his true mother, Nature, in favor of the illusion that man has a divine spark and is the product of a spiritual being.]

For Schopenhauer, aesthetic experience can allows us to escape from the Will. Music expresses the World-Will directly. [PH: Funny that the very incarnation of the Will should be precisely where we can look for redemption from it. I believe Michael Tanner once commented on this irony of Schopenhauerian theology.]

Wagner's music is the best exponent of Schopenhauer's views. Schopenhauer influenced Wagner to grant music supremacy among the arts, even in his own works.

In Schopenhauer's philosophy, the only true value is resignation and compassion. Morality stems from compassion for suffering in both animals and man. [PH: In my interpretation of "Parsifal" Parsifal has compassion for a particular kind of suffering experienced by his audience Amfortas (mankind), and that particular suffering is man's universal propensity to be unable to accept the world as he finds it and to attempt the impossible, to construct a realm (of the imagination, but considered by the faithful to be the one dependable truth) of the spirit which transcends the limitations of the physical world.

In Schopenhauer's thinking the goal is to see through the illusion of individuation to the oneness of all things. To do this we must penetrate the veil of Maya, illusion. Wagner gave expression to this idea in his prose version of his prospective Buddhist opera [PH: for which Wagner evidently never wrote any music, though many of its ideas live on in "Parsifal."] "The Victors."

Schopenhauer's notion of redemption is that grace is an inner transformation, the Will's self-negation. One must look on the world as if one is not in it. This is blissful emptiness. One looks forward to losing one's ego, one's "I." This is a religion with no god.

Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" was inspired by Schopenhauer. The sexuality of this work is just a surface manifestation. Desire is a force of nature which eliminates individuals. One is redeemed by losing oneself in the night. Tristan and Isolde penetrate beyond their individuation to become each other.

For Schopenhauer, redemption is a stilling of the Will, with no sexual component. One must lose one's attachment to others. [PH: I have long noted that Isolde throw up in Tristan's face the "Und," her awareness that their love only has meaning as a bond of two individualities, and might lose its value in a complete union in which their individual selves is erased.]

Tristan's and Isolde's words are inadequate to convey all that is intended. So music engulfs the lovers in the World Will.

Parsifal stands for the Will's negation, so he recoils from Kundry's kiss [PH: I've already written my objection to this thesis above].

Nietzsche was appalled by the Christianity of "Parsifal," yet "Parsifal" may not be Christian. Did Wagner follow Schopenhauer in creating "Parsifal"? Janaway says Schopenhauer truly found a place on the world stage in "Parsifal."

PH: I strongly suggest that there is more Feuerbach than Schopenhauer in "Parsifal," though Schopenhauer, as Wagner's more recent obsession, obviously influences some of the language and tropes in Wagner's post-1854 librettos. You may want to consult my essay, based on a talk of the same name, "The Influence of Feuerbach on the Libretto of 'Parsifal'," which can be found at, by clicking on "Resources," and then on "Texts on Wagner."
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