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Feuerbach's influence on "Parsifal" Part 1

Posted: Wed Jun 17, 2015 7:51 am
by alberich00
Feuerbach's influence on "Parsifal" Part 1:

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By Paul Heise
Research Consultant – The Richard Wagner Society of Florida


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While it is well known that the atheist German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach’s influence upon Richard Wagner’s libretto for his music-drama "The Ring of The Nibelung" is great, it is usually assumed that Feuerbach’s influence upon Wagner’s writings and operas dropped off radically after his 1854 conversion to the pessimist philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. For this reason the librettos of Wagner’s other mature music-dramas completed after 1854, namely, "Tristan and Isolde," "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg," and "Parsifal," are widely regarded as expressions of Wagner’s post-1854 Schopenhauerian phase. It is therefore quite surprising to find in key passages from the libretto of Wagner’s last work for the theater, "Parsifal," a remarkable dependence on Feuerbachian concepts. This paper will examine that influence closely. A familiarity with the libretto of "Parsifal" is assumed. This paper has retained all the extracts from Feuerbach’s and Wagner’s writings (and recorded remarks) discussed in my original talk of 5/30/07. However, a number of key extracts which had to be dropped from the talk due to time constraints have been restored, and other extracts added, both to fill in logical gaps in the talk, and also to address certain questions posed by audience members after the talk.

This paper is a summary of several of my key arguments from what is a far more extensive interpretation of "Parsifal," which I anticipate will be a chapter in my soon to be completed book on Wagner’s "The Ring of the Nibelung," [and Wagner's six other canonic operas and music-dramas] entitled "The Wound that Will Never Heal." There are many issues raised by a fuller consideration of the libretto which are either not addressed here at all, or only casually discussed in brief. These include the influence of Schopenhauer’s understanding of Buddhism (especially his views on compassion for all life), the possibility that Wagner imported his anti-Semitism into both the symbolism of blood and Amfortas’s alleged miscegenation with Kundry (assumed, for purposes of that argument, to be a Jewess), the music (specifically the range of meaning and employment of motifs), etc. The following argument is therefore best understood as covering what I regard as the essential Feuerbachian frame of reference upon which Wagner seems to have constructed his libretto, a process which actually consumed more than half his lifetime, from perhaps 1848 onward (i.e., well before his conversion to Schopenhauer’s teachings).

There are at least six questions which the libretto raises - for which Feuerbach’s philosophical writings, and Wagner’s response to these writings, provide persuasive answers - which this paper will address. I have listed them below:





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The following passage from Wagner’s autobiography is his testimonial to the debt he owed to Feuerbach, and also expresses his ultimate disenchantment with Feuerbach:

(1A) [WAGNER] “[P. 430] [re Ludwig Feuerbach’s book "Thoughts on Death and Immortality," Wagner states that:] The absorbing questions treated here ... as if it were the first time they had ever been raised, had occupied me ever since my initial association with Lehrs in Paris ... . (...) I found it elevating and consoling to be assured that the sole authentic immortality adheres only to sublime deeds and inspired works of art. (...) [P. 431] The fact that he proclaimed what we call “spirit” to lie in our aesthetic perceptions of the tangible world ... was what afforded me such useful support in my conception of a work of art which would be all-embracing while remaining comprehensible to the simplest, purely human power of discernment, that is, of the drama made perfect ... in ‘the art-work of the future’ ... . Admittedly, after only a short time it became impossible for me to return to his works, and I recall that one of his books appearing shortly thereafter entitled "On the Essence of Religion" scared me off by the monotony of its title alone to such an extent that, when Herwegh opened its pages in front of me, I closed the book with a bang before his very eyes.” [#387W-{?/49} ML: p. 430-431]

Wagner’s last observation above is amusing in view of the fact that we will be reviewing momentarily a number of extracts from Wagner’s writings and recorded remarks, stemming from the post-1854 period when Wagner was an avowed Schopenhauerian who claimed he had outgrown Feuerbach, in which Wagner paraphrases Feuerbach repeatedly. According to Wagner’s own testimony above the essential Feuerbachian concept which influenced Wagner in developing his revolutionary art-form, the music-drama, was that what religious folk describe as divine, transcendent, and supernatural, is in actuality nothing more nor less than the product of man’s aesthetic feeling, the basis for art, which [Page 5] draws its inspiration and material from the real, physical world, and whose source is man’s physical, natural mind. This theme will be highlighted throughout this paper.


When Wagner describes in the extract above how Feuerbach’s concept provided useful support in Wagner’s development of the music-drama, in which an all-embracing artwork could be made “... comprehensible to the simplest, purely human power of discernment ...,” Wagner is referencing his concept of the “Wonder,” through which easily discerned and remembered musical motifs could distill, abbreviate, and therefore represent a vast array of characters, events, symbols, and concepts, through Wagner’s method of developing specific musical motifs (most often heard in the orchestra, but sometimes sung) and motif families in direct association with the evolution of particular characters, events, symbols, and concepts in the drama. Wagner felt that in this way his musical motifs provide a substitute for religious faith which has been lost in our modern, scientific, secular world, since a sounding motif calls up to memory all the characters, events, symbols, and concepts with which it has been (or will be) associated in the course of the music-drama, thus effectively making all time, i.e., all the past and future, present time. And this, according to Feuerbach, describes what supernatural miracles do:

“[P. 236-237] If we now turn to miracles, we shall find that they objectify, embody, realize nothing other than the essence of a wish. Wishes are not subject to the barriers of space and time; they are unrestricted, unfettered, as free as a god.” [#291F-LER: p. 236-237]

Feuerbach provides a model for the Wagnerian concept of the Wonder in his suggestion that though the religious promise of immortality to individuals is spurious, the collective body of all historical men (the human species as such, in time and space), particularly those who have enriched our legacy of art and science, unify past, present, and future in a figurative immortality, representing mankind’s eternal youth:

“[P. 137] What is true in the universal belief in immortality is that it is a sensible representation of the true nature of consciousness, the unity of past, present, and future as one essential reality is raised to the level of an object. It’s true only when it’s the belief in the infinity of spirit and the everlasting youth of humanity.“ [#21F-TDI: p. 137]

This is reflected in the childlike innocence and spontaneity of both Siegfried and Parsifal, and especially in Wotan’s proclamation to Erda that he, the God, no longer fears the tragic end Erda foresaw, since he says: “.. to one who’s eternally young [i.e., Siegfried] the god now yields in gladness.” Wagner attributes a similarly figurative immortality to music per se:

“[P. 396] R.: ‘The word ‘eternal’ is a very fine one, for it really means [Page 6] ‘holy’: a great feeling [Wagner here is of course alluding to the redemptive music he was composing for his music-dramas] is eternal, for it is free from the laws of change to which everything is subject: it has nothing to do with yesterday, today, or tomorrow. Hell begins with arithmetic.’ “[#804W-{7/25/71} CD Vol. I, p. 396]

But for Wagner music’s true “Wonder” or miracle was embodied in his musical motifs. Wagner felt that his musical motifs accomplish what the religious imagination achieved: according to both Feuerbach and Wagner religious believers involuntarily and unconsciously condensed their experience of man’s nature, and of Nature itself, into their concept of a single personality called God. Wagner tells us that:

“[P. 154] Just as the human form is to him the most comprehensible, so also will the essence of natural phenomena – which he does not yet know in their reality – become comprehensible only through condensation to a human form. Thus in Mythos all the shaping impulse of the Folk makes toward realizing to its senses a broadest grouping of the most manifold phenomena, and in the most succinct of shapes. [This] ... appears superhuman and supernatural by the very fact that it is ascribed to one imagined individual, represented in the shape of Man. By its faculty of thus using its force of [P. 155] imagination to bring before itself every thinkable reality and actuality, in widest reach but plain, succinct and plastic shaping, the Folk therefore becomes in Mythos the creator of Art ... . [#489W-{50-1/51} Opera and Drama: PW Vol. II, p. 154-155]

Wagner could condense a vast array of related experiences into succinct and memorable combinations of melody, rhythm, harmony, and orchestration, by associating such motifs and their subtle variations with particular characters, decisive events, symbols, and concepts within the drama, so that in the course of the drama particular motifs, and entire families of related motifs, carry a treasury of meaning acquired by association with various aspects of the drama. Needless to say a motif has a range of meaning generally subsumed under a guiding theme, rather than a simple meaning. For this reason motifs tend to be too ambiguous to be reducible to simple formulae. Wagner says he achieves this “Wonder” through “[P. 371] The condensation of the most varied and extended phenomena, where many members harmonize to produce one, single, definite effect; the perspicuous presentation of such a harmony, which to us remains unseizable without the deepest research and widest experience, and fills us with amazement when beheld, -- in art, ... this is to be obtained through nothing save the miraculous [i.e. the “Wonder”]. Here in poetic fiction the tremendous chain of connection embracing the most heterogeneous phenomena is condensed to an easily-surveyed bond of fewer links [i.e., symbolized by a small number of easily identifiable [Page 7] musical motifs], yet the force and might of the whole great chain is put into these few: and in art this might is miracle.” [#478W-{49-51 (?)} Notes for ‘Artisthood of the Future’ (unfinished); Sketches and Fragments: PW Vol. VIII, p. 371]

And in the following passages Wagner describes how in this way his musical motifs not only solve the problem of dramatic unity of time and space - since the sounding of a musical motif calls to mind, at least subliminally, all those characters, events, symbols, and ideas with which it has been or will be associated in the course of the music-drama - but in so doing effectively offer secular man a substitute for what otherwise religious faith promises. What Christian faith promises is the miraculous, in which man’s wishes, which could not normally be fulfilled in the real world bound by time, space, and the laws of nature, can be satisfied by transcending the limits of time, space, and natural causality. Hence Wagner tells us that through his musical motifs “[P. 350] In the singlest Space and the most compact Time one may spread out an Action as completely discordant and disconnected as you please ... . On the contrary, the Unity of an Action consists in its intelligible connexion; and only through one thing can this reveal itself intelligibly, -- which thing is neither Time nor Space, but the Expression [i.e., his musical motifs]. (...) The limitations of Space and Time, which arose from lack of this Expression, are upheaved at once by its acquirement; both Time and Space are annihilated, through the actuality of the Drama. [#550W-{50- 1/51} "Opera and Drama": PW Vol. II, p. 350]

And in our next extract Wagner makes the crucial link between his musical motifs’ capacity to make all the past and future, present, and all that is distant in space, present here before us, and the religious concept of the miracle which transcends the limits of time, space, and natural law:

“[P. 213] The Wonder in the Poet’s [i.e., Wagner the music-dramatist’s] work is distinguished from the Wonder in religious Dogma by this: that it does not, like the latter, upheave the nature of things [i.e., does not appeal to the supernatural, or the religious notion of the miraculous], but the rather makes it comprehensible to the Feeling [through musical motifs]. The Judaeo-Christian Wonder tore the connexion of natural phenomena asunder, to allow the Divine Will to appear as standing over Nature. In it a broad connexus of things was by no means condensed in favour of their understanding by the instinctive Feeling [i.e., through Wagner’s musical motifs], but this Wonder was employed entirely for its own sake alone; people demanded it, as the proof of a suprahuman power, from him who gave himself for divine, and in whom they refused to believe till before the bodily eyes of men he had shown himself the lord of Nature, i.e. the arbitrary subverter of the natural order of things [as in [Page 8] Christ’s public performance of miracles, or in God’s creation of the cosmos]. (...) A fundamental denial of the Understanding [i.e. censorship of intellectual inquiry, or science] was therefore the thing hypothecated in advance ... : whereas an absolute Faith was the thing demanded by the wonder-doer, and granted by the wonder-getter. Now, for the operation of its message, the poetizing intellect has absolutely no concern with Faith, but only with an understanding through the Feeling. It wants to display a great connexus of natural phenomena in an image swiftly understandable ... .” [#522W-{50-1/51} "Opera and Drama": PW Vol. II, p. 213-214]

It is clear from these extensive extracts from Wagner’s theoretical writings which I have assembled that for him, his musical motifs are a secular substitute for faith in the supernatural. The motif’s musico-dramatic power, its ability to carry a potent meaning of great scope and depth, and therefore to make the audience feel as if it transcends time and space and is therefore experiencing the miraculous, only becomes fully evident with multiple experiences of the complete Wagnerian music-drama in performance. This may well be the basis for Gurnemanz’s peculiar response when Parsifal observes, as they are walking toward the Grail Temple in Act One, that: “I hardly move, yet far I seem to have come.” Gurnemanz explains: “You see, my son, time changes here to space,” perhaps a poetic foreshadowing of Einstein’s theory of relativity.

This is of course also a poetic paraphrase of Schopenhauer’s concept of the ideality of time, space, and causality, the Kantian notion that time, space, and causality are not inherent to the real, objective world (Kant’s “Thing-in-itself”), but are subjective concepts imported into our experience of the world through man’s apriori knowledge, without which man cannot grasp his experience of the world to navigate his way around in it. The divine, in effect, is the “thing-in-itself” (which Schopenhauer called the will), i.e., what the world is in itself freed from man’s apriori knowledge, freed from conscious reason. Schopenhauer identified this “Will” with music, and therefore with feeling and instinct (as opposed to thinking), and noted that it links us with all of nature, disclosing to us the unity hidden behind the apparent diversity and multiplicity of our experience of the world in time and space. Even prior to his first known acquaintance with Schopenhauer Wagner expressed his belief that music restores our feeling of oneness with the external world. Music gives us this feeling of wholeness, unity, harmony, and infinity, without the burden of religious dogma and belief which stakes a claim to truth.

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The following four passages, pairing extracts from Feuerbach with Wagner’s paraphrases of them, describe how man’s religious longing for transcendence lives on, in a certain sense, in secular art, which unlike religious belief stakes no claim to represent the truth. And of all the arts this seems most true of music, which is feeling freed from the constraint of conceptual thought. The essential import of these four extracts is that art, and especially music, has the advantage over religion that, because it doesn’t stake a claim to represent the truth, yet shares with religion the expression of the deepest and most all-embracing emotions, religion in a sense can live on in art, and especially music, freed from the fear that scientific, secular, objective thought might contradict its claim on the truth:

(2A) [FEUERBACH] [P. 180-181] “ ... a God is an imaginary being, a product of fantasy; and because fantasy is the essential form or organ of poetry, it may also be said that religion is poetry, that a God is a poetic being. (...) And this brings us to an essential limitation of the statement that religion is poetry. In a sense it is poetry, but with one important difference: poetry and art in general do not represent their creations as anything but what they are, namely products of art, whereas religion represents its imaginary beings as real beings.” [#261F-LER: p. 180-181]

(2B) [WAGNER] [P. 213] “One might say that where Religion becomes artificial, it is reserved for Art to save the spirit of religion by recognizing the figurative value of the mythic symbols which the former would have us believe in their literal sense, and revealing their deep and hidden truth through an ideal presentation. Whilst the priest stakes everything on the religious allegories being accepted as matters of fact, the artist has no concern at all with such a thing, since he freely and openly gives out his work as his own invention.” [#1019W-{6-8/80} "Religion and Art": PW Vol. VI, p. 213]

Feuerbach is quite explicit that art is free from fear, or egoism, in a sense that religious faith is not, since, unlike religion, which offers man an allegedly objectively real paradise in which his desire for eternal bliss can be realized, and his fear of death and pain can be infinitely assuaged forever, the artist makes no such conceptual promise for the future, but simply delivers a feeling of transcendence now:

“[P. 196] ... the religious imagination is not the free imagination of the artist, but has a practical egoistic purpose, or in other words, ... the religious imagination is rooted in the feeling of dependency and attaches chiefly to objects that arouse it. (...) This feeling of anxiety, of uncertainty, this fear of harm that always accompanies man, is the root of the religious imagination ... .” [#269F-LER: p. 196]

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As noted in my prior talk ‘How Elsa Showed Wagner the Way to Siegfried’ (and the paper based upon that talk, which I hope to publish on the Boston Wagner Society’s website along with our present paper), Siegfried as the artist-hero is fearless, while Wotan (the God – representing religious belief) is paralyzed by fear, because Siegfried has no concern with Erda’s (i.e., Mother Nature’s) prophecy of the inevitable twilight of the gods (i.e., the end of religious belief), since, unlike the Gods (i.e. believers in gods), the artist-hero Siegfried stakes no claim to the power of truth (i.e., the power of the Ring).

And of course, in Wagner’s thinking, of all the arts music is the most able to provide us with the religious feeling of transcendence when religion as a set of beliefs, dogmas, and articles of faith cannot be sustained in the face of contradiction by the understanding in our modern, secular, scientific era:

“[P. 316] ... now, we have plainly to denote this Speaking-faculty of the Orchestra as the faculty of uttering the unspeakable.
(...) [P. 317] (...) ... this Unspeakable is not a thing unutterable per se, but merely unutterable through the organ of our Understanding; thus, not a mere fancy, but a reality ... . [* Wagner’s Footnote:] 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 be employed.” [#539W-{50-1/51} "Opera and Drama": PW Vol. II, p. 316-317]

Note that Wagner wrote this in 1851, three years before he became acquainted with Schopenhauer. Its source if anywhere is in Feuerbach, per our extracts below:

(2C) [FEUERBACH] [P. 283] “The last refuge of theology ... is feeling. God is renounced by the understanding [i.e., modern science]; he has no longer the dignity of a real object, of a reality which imposes itself on the understanding; hence he is transferred to feeling; in feeling his existence is thought to be secure. And doubtless this is the safest refuge ... . ... as certainly as I exist, so certainly does my feeling exist; and as certainly as my feeling exists, so certainly does my god exist.” [#145F-EOC: p. 283]

That Feuerbach construed “Feeling,” God’s last refuge, specifically as music, we find in the following extracts:

“[P. 63] What would man be without feeling? It is the musical power in man. (...) Just as man has a musical faculty and feels an inward necessity to breathe out his feelings in song; so, by a like necessity he in religion sighs and tears stream forth the nature of feeling as an objective, divine