Roger Scruton: Wagner and German Idealism

General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung

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Roger Scruton: Wagner and German Idealism

Post by alberich00 » Fri Sep 13, 2013 12:42 pm

Paul Heise's review of "Wagner and German Idealism," a talk by Roger Scruton recorded by BBC Radio 3 Essays as part of the Wagner 200 bicentennial celebration:

I must apologize to Roger Scruton in advance by noting that I was finally able to peruse his transcript of this talk on his personal website, and I'm afraid that having to rapidly write down whatever in the talk struck me, as he was speaking, I left out a great deal of importance. However, I don't think I should attempt to copy and paste his talk here to replace my clumsily hand-written notes on the talk reproduced below, so I'm afraid I'll have to let this poor representation of his talk stand:

German universities were in a ferment after Kant, whose works introduced the concept of transcendental idealism. On this view only ideas or appearances can be known, but we can't affirm the existence of the soul or God. Reason speaks to us in the language of duty. But freedom is the essence of the human spirit. The physical world is known to us only through appearances. Humans are selves on the edge of existence.

According to Fichte the world isn't physical, but spiritual. But there is no place for God in this. Hegel attempted to rescue Christianity from Fichte.

Arthur Schopenhauer was Hegel's rival.

According to Hegel, the Spirit realizes itself in science, politics, religion, and art. Old forms die, and new forms come. Wagner drew on this heritage for his creation of the "Ring." In his "The Phenomenology of the Spirit," Hegel said that the essence of the spirit is freedom, which can only be achieved through struggle, in a fight to the death. We must compel the world to recognize our title to freedom. This recognition must be mutual. This had a big influence on Wagner in creating his "Ring," and also on Marx.

Siegfried enslaves the one he loves [PH: Bruennhilde], and treats her as an object. Only at death does Siegfried regain his freedom.

Hegel's influence can also be seen in Alberich's self-torment in Nibelheim, and in Siegmund's and Sieglinde's tragic love.

Ludwig Feuerbach was the greatest of the Young Hegelians, a proponent of materialism. Feuerbach viewed the world as in conflict, and reality as material. On this view the human self is a byproduct of matter. Feuerbach launched a major critique of religion. The gods are projections of man, man's idealism. Wagner portrayed his gods in the "Ring" from the Feuerbachian standpoint. For this reason the humans in the "Ring" are greater than the gods.

The core religious idea is the idea of the sacred.

Fichte's theory of the self was that all things originate in me. Hence the world is spiritual, not material, yet there is no place for God. Fichte was denounced as an atheist.

Hegel felt that idealism and the spirit must be true. Spirit realizes itself in the world in objective form, becomes conscious of itself. Wagner drew a lot of his inspiration for the "Ring" from this concept.

The essence of the spirit is freedom, achieved through struggle, freedom and self-knowledge. This influenced Wagner in writing into his libretto Siegfried's quest for knowledge of himself.

For the old Hegelians the Prussian monarchy was the highest development of this spirit. Feuerbach re-wrote Hegel as a materialist. For Feuerbach the self is a byproduct of the material. There are no spiritual realities, which idealize the human condition. Humans on this view are inferior to their fictions [PH: i.e., their gods].

Only mortal humans, human selves, create value through sacrifice and renunciation. Wagner's main theme was not the idea of God, but the idea of the sacred.

Art preserves the kernel of religion symbolically, but not as truth. [PH: This idea, repeated by Wagner on many occasions, is borrowed directly from Feuerbach's book "The Essence of Religion," from the late 40's, and it is central for understanding the distinction between Wotan (and thus the first half of the "Ring," in which Wotan stands for religion, the gods, religious faith) and Siegfried (and thus the second half of the "Ring," the part which presents an allegory of the historical process through which the single secular artist, Wagner himself, i.e., Siegfried, fell heir to dying religious faith, preserving the feeling of transcendent value in his art. As Feuerbach said, the advantage secular art has over religious faith is that, unlike religious faith, it is not bound to present as truth what is actually a fiction, but can openly proclaim itself a fiction, yet still express man's longing for transcendent value.]

Through art we decipher religion's mystery [PH: Perhaps the main point of my online book on the "Ring," "The Wound That Will Never Heal." Feuerbach said that there really aren't any religious mysteries because, as the unconscious inventors of the gods and the so-called religious mysteries, we humans can sound and know them to their depths; in a sense this conveys the entire plot of the "Ring"]

The sacred is represented in moments of human sacrifice. Our redemption depends on these moments. The sacred is a purely human phenomenon. Unlike Feuerbach, however, Wagner sees the sacred as essential to man. "Tristan and Isolde" and "Parsifal" are religious artworks.

All philosophy left traces in Wagner.

PH: Roger Scruton is the one, singular member of the aristocracy of Wagner scholars who has grasped the import and value of what I've attempted to do in completing my study of Wagner's "Ring" and of his other repertory operas and music-dramas. I believe this has much to do with the fact that he recognizes the inspired legacy of secular art, particularly the art of music, as serving the need that religious faith has satisfied prior to the age of modern science, as this is the centerpiece of my own interpretation of Wagner's "Ring" and his other canonical works of art.
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Re: Roger Scruton: Wagner and German Idealism

Post by feuerzauber » Sat Sep 14, 2013 10:36 pm

Wonderful summary of a wonderful talk, whose novel content was, in part, informed by and inspired by the outcome of your decades of independent scholarship that culminated in this site's "The Wound That Will Not Heal" — [whose material existence, incidentally, we know owes much to Roger's earlier acknowledgement of your achievement and subsequent support].
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