Wagner & Buddhism: email to Bassett & Schofield

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Wagner & Buddhism: email to Bassett & Schofield

Post by alberich00 » Mon Mar 07, 2016 3:53 pm

Dear Members of (and visitors to) the wagnerheim.com discussion forum:

In 2012 Peter Bassett and Paul Schofield presented a lecture on Wagner and Buddhism at the University of San Francisco. I found much of interest in this lecture, and have written the following response to them. Here is part one:

Wagner & Buddhism: Lecture - Peter Bassett & Paul Schofield: (2012 Univ. of San Francisco)


Dear Mr. Bassett and Mr. Schofield:

I was tipped off to the youtube video of your discussion of Wagner and Buddhism in 2012 at the Univ. of San Francisco recently, and watched it with great interest. Since I have been developing an interpretation of Wagner’s “Ring” and his 3 other music-dramas and 3 canonic romantic operas since 1971, which demonstrates the conceptual unity of Wagner’s art, and posted the portion of my research which concerns the “Ring” (and its conceptual links with Wagner’s 6 other artworks aforementioned) at http://www.wagnerheim.com in April of 2011, and since my own research has a remarkable bearing on many of the issues you discussed in your dual presentation, I present below a few examples of the relevance of my own research for your discussion. It is my hope that if you have not already done so, you will look closely at my very extensive discussion of Wagner’s “Ring” at http://www.wagnerheim.com, where you will find more detailed treatment of the points I make below. I will be posting this email in the discussion forum at http://www.wagnerheim.com upon completion, so others can share in our discussion.

I have followed the order in which your ideas were presented, and have distinguished those portions contributed by each of you, by name. Please let me know if I accidentally misrepresented any of your views below: I had to write notes on your remarks quickly while listening to your presentations, and my penmanship and writing speed are not high octane.


PB: Referencing Schopenhauer’s influence on Wagner, and Wagner’s understanding of Buddhist theology, you noted that Wagner equated night with music, and day (samsara) with poetry. You also spoke of the distinction between the conscious and unconscious (what we think we are, and what we actually are), and referenced Schopenhauer’s identification of music with Schopenhauer’s concept of the Will, and with the unconscious. Lastly, you recalled Wagner’s statement that only after reading Schopenhauer did he fully understand his Wotan.

PH: In my interpretation (independently developed in the 1970’s, but having a few points of similarity to that of Jean-Jacques Nattiez), Wotan is construed not only as godhead but (following Feuerbach) also as Wagner’s metaphor for collective, historical man, godlike in transcending the limits of individual men. Bruennhilde in my interpretation is not only Wotan’s daughter but also his own unconscious mind, and a metaphor for the language of the unconscious mind, music. As the figurative daughter of collective, historical man she is therefore the collective unconscious, into which inspired artists (such as Wagner) tap.

PH: Siegfried in my interpretation is Wagner’s metaphor for the poet-dramatist whom I call the artist-hero, and Bruennhilde, Siegfried’s lover and muse, or music, is Wagner’s metaphor for Siegfried’s own unconscious mind and muse of unconscious artistic inspiration. Their loving union gives birth to the revolutionary Wagnerian music-drama. Wagner’s metaphor for his own music-drama, the “Ring,” in the context of the “Ring,” is the narrative of his life which Siegfried sings to the Gibichungs in “Twilight of the Gods” Act Three, Scene Two, in which he describes how he came to grasp the meaning of birdsong. There are solid grounds for this interpretation (as for all aspects of my interpretation) in Wagner’s libretto, music, writings, recorded remarks, and corresponding passages in Feuerbach.

PH: Wagner once told Kind Ludwig II that Erda is not aware that Wotan lives on in Siegfried, as the artist lives on (but hidden) in his work of art, that Siegfried is, in effect, the reincarnation of Wotan. This has great bearing on my interpretation. When Wotan confessed to Bruennhilde what he regarded as a corrupt personal history and awareness of his craven personal identity so terrible that he couldn’t afford, as he said to her, to speak it to himself aloud, Wotan, in my interpretation, was effectively repressing thoughts too terrible for his conscious mind to tolerate, into his unconscious mind Bruennhilde. Though Wagner wrote this text prior to reading Schopenhauer in the fall of 1854, Schopenhauer wrote a very detailed description of such a process of repression and sublimation [In his essay on madness]. Bruennhilde will later (in “Twilight of the Gods” Prelude, Part Two) describe Wotan’s confession to her as a hoard of runes which the gods imparted to her, and which she in turn imparts to Siegfried. Wotan told Bruennhilde during his confession that he found, with loathing, only always himself in all that he sought to undertake. The point is, Wotan was expressing his wish to actually be someone else, someone who could unwittingly and unconsciously, and therefore innocently, do what Wotan himself can’t do. God the father Wotan was, in effect, inseminating the womb of his wishes (as he described Bruennhilde) with both his fear of Erda’s prophecy of the inevitable twilight of the gods, and his perhaps futile hope for redemption from that fated doom through a free hero who would be freed of consciousness of serving Wotan. Therefore, thanks to his confession of this seed to the womb of his wishes Bruennhilde, Wotan is virtually reborn in the hero Siegfried, minus consciousness of his own true identity and history (a karmic history, if you will). Thus, Siegfried will say to Fafner: “I don’t yet know who I am,” and Bruennhilde will tell Siegfried “Your own self I am if you but love me in my bliss; what you don’t know I know for you,” accompanied, by the way, by the Fate Motif (#87 in my interpretation). This reincarnation of Wotan in Siegfried, who doesn’t know who he is, is Wagner’s metaphor for Feuerbach’s notion that when religious faith in god can no longer be sustained in the modern, secular, scientific, skeptical world, god lives on figuratively in feeling, i.e., in music, and the arts in general.

PH: With respect to my (and Wagner’s) identification of Bruennhilde with music, note that Wagner also said that through his musical motifs the audience knows what the characters on the stage don’t know. So, Bruennhilde, Siegfried’s unconscious mind and music, knows for him what he doesn’t know. This corresponds with Wagner’s comment, re the plot of “The Victors,” that the Buddha knows all of Prakriti’s former lives. Wotan’s thoughts of his corrupt history and craven identity and fear of Erda’s prophecy have been repressed and sublimated into music/motifs. Thus Bruennhilde tells Siegfried in “Siegfried” Act Three Scene Three that what Wotan thought, she felt, and what she felt was just her love for Siegfried. God, dying religious faith, lives on now in the music which Siegfried the artist-hero wakes, thereby inheriting subliminal knowledge of Wotan’s unspoken secret, his confession to Bruennhilde (this, by the way, explains why Siegfried feels fear prior to waking and winning Bruennhilde).


PS: You noted Wagner’s remark that the value of religion for him, i.e., for his art, was not its claim to truth, but its symbols. You also spoke of art as the new religion.

PH: One of the pillars of my interpretation is Wagner’s frequent paraphrasing of Feuerbach’s hypothesis that religion’s great disadvantage in comparison to secular art is that the religiously faithful posit the truth and actuality of their articles of faith, the literal existence of their gods, whereas the secular artist is not bound by that falsifiable claim to truth and therefore is free to express him/herself in a way those bound by religion’s false claim to truth can’t be. The artist, as Wagner himself put it, confesses his work is fiction [or play], not fact, and in music, which is non-conceptual, his art is freed altogether from the conflict between truth and falsehood. But Feuerbach also noted that when religious faith can no longer sustain itself in the modern world in the face of contradiction by objective, secular thought and modern science, it can safely retreat to feeling, and Feuerbach, like Wagner, particularly associated religious feeling (minus thought, or faith) with music. Wagner, echoing this, once said that when god the father had to leave us, he left us, in remembrance of him, music. Note that god the father Wotan leaves Bruennhilde, in remembrance of him (so to speak), to Siegfried, and in Wagner’s prose writings and in Cosima’s Diaries we find strong evidence Wagner saw Siegfried as a metaphor for himself, the poet-dramatist, and Bruennhilde as music.

PH: Note that Wotan leaves Bruennhilde, within the ring of Loge’s fire, to one freer than Wotan, the god. Wotan confessed to Bruennhilde, the womb of Wotan’s wishes, that he was the least free of all men, and that he longed for a hero who could freely do what the gods cannot. Wotan is the least free because as God, i.e., Wagner’s metaphor for religion and religious faith in particular, Wotan is not free in the sense that the secular artist, not bound by faith and by having to affirm the truth of religious belief (in the gods), is free. Feuerbach stated that religious faith, in comparison to free secular art, is prose rather than poetry, because it is bound by fear (fear of the truth, and fear of death), whereas art can be equated with love and its freedom from egoism. As Wagner put it, art, unlike religion, simply expresses wonder, and doesn’t appeal to an ulterior motive such as self-preservation, or fear (represented in the “Ring” by Fafner). Christianity, Feuerbach said, is bound by fear because it offers man immortality (in response to man’s fear of death), whereas inspired art makes no such offer, but simply makes man feel “as if” he/she is immortal. Here we have a basis for why Siegfried is fearless and Wotan is not. Because the love of Siegfried and Bruennhilde (Wagner’s metaphor for the unconscious inspiration of the artist-hero Siegfried by his muse Bruennhilde, which gives birth to the the revolutionary, redemptive music-drama) is freed from Wotan’s fear and the constraint of faith, Wotan makes Siegfried and Bruennhilde his heirs. Because secular art isn’t bound by religious faith (by fear, or Fafner), it is free from Wotan’s fear of the twilight of the gods. It is in this sense that art is the new religion, the religion of artistic “Wonder.” Note that in order for Siegfried to win the muse of unconsciously inspired art, Bruennhilde, to create the new religion of secular artistic wonder, he had to kill Fafner, the embodiment of Feuerbach’s thesis that religious faith is predicated on fear.

PH: As, I believe, Peter stated elsewhere during your presentations, Wagner described the motif which sounds as Wotan is telling Erda in “Siegfried” Act Three Scene One that what he once resolved to do in despair (i.e., let the gods go down to destruction), he now accepts with joy, since he now leaves the world he once in anguish bequeathed to Hagen, to Wotan’s heir Siegfried instead, as sounding as if it heralded the birth of a new religion. In my online book on Wagner’s “Ring” at http://www.wagnerheim.com this motif, sometimes described as “World’s Inheritance,” is #134. This is the only motif in the “Ring” which Wagner ever described as a redemption motif. Since the product of the love of Siegfried and Bruennhilde is Wagner’s metaphor for his own revolutionary music-drama (the loving union of drama with music), this suggests that for Wagner redemption by love is actually redemption of religion (the gods) by art.

PS: You stated that Parsifal discriminates true redemption (through compassion for all) from the faux redemption Kundry offers Parsifal by begging him to join her in sexual union. You have also stated in your book and in this presentation that you see Parsifal and Kundry as the reincarnations of Siegfried and Bruennhilde, respectively.

PH: I concur with this, but note it is also true with respect to equally significant correspondences between Siegfried and Bruennhilde and characters from other Wagner operas and music-dramas. You may have noted in your book (I can’t remember) that Cosima recorded Wagner’s remark that Kundry has effectively experienced Isolde’s transfiguration innumerable times in former lives. My interpretation demonstrates the remarkable conceptual coherence of Wagner’s operas and music-dramas from at least “Tannhaeuser” onward, and perhaps even from “Dutchman” onward. With respect to your present point about Parsifal’s distinguishing true from false redemption, since, in my interpretation, the Wagnerian hero’s and heroine’s loving union is a metaphor for the unconscious artistic inspiration of the artist-hero by his muse, his own unconscious mind, this means that Kundry is offering Parsifal the temporary redemption of art (which was what Siegfried’s and Bruennhilde’s love offered Wotan/religion), and Parsifal (having presumably lived many former lives as a version of Siegfried the artist-hero) is now rejecting the muse of art in rejecting Kundry. You may recall that late in life Wagner sometimes expressed doubts about his own art and even described it as a cowardly evasion of the earnest nature of the world. When Wagner distinguished the hero (Siegfried) from the Schopenhauerian saint (say, Parsifal) in his late writings, he was actually distinguishing his secular artist-hero, who remains unconscious of who he really is (Wagner stated that for the authentic artist his art may remain as much a mystery to him as to his audience), from the artist-hero who becomes wholly conscious of who he is and wakes up, enlightened, and frees himself from the burden of his former lives. I explain my reasons for this interpretation later in this letter.


PB: You mention that Siegfried wonders if the Woodbird can tell him something of his mother, and that the Woodbird can be understood as Siegfried’s mother Sieglinde reincarnate. Wagner on several occasions said that the Woodbird is the spirit of Siegfried’s mother Sieglinde. However, Wagner on various occasions contradicted himself, or at least elaborated an idea far beyond its original parameters, thus rendering some former opinions moot. Here is an instance. The Woodbird tells Siegfried three big things, after Siegfried's tasting the dead Fafner’s blood allows him to understand its song conceptually: 1. Go get the Nibelung Hoard, the Tarnhelm, and the Ring, and the Woodbird even tells Siegfried that through the Tarnhelm he can perform wonders, and that the Ring will make him lord of the world. It then tells him about Mime’s planned treachery, and that he’ll be able to grasp what Mime’s is thinking but keeping secret. Lastly, it tells Siegfried of the sleeping Bruennhilde. Sieglinde (incarnate as the Woodbird) could have been expected to tell Siegfried of Mime’s treachery, because she had first-hand knowledge of Mime, and Sieglinde also could have been expected to tell Siegfried of the sleeping Bruennhilde, because Sieglinde had once foreseen that the as-yet-unborn Siegfried would smile on Bruennhilde someday. But there is no reason to assume Sieglinde would have known anything of Alberich’s Hoard, Tarnhelm, and Ring. On the contrary, it is only Wotan who has a motive for Siegfried to acquire these items, particularly the Ring. Since I have noted that Wotan makes Bruennhilde the repository for his unspoken secret, his hoard of runes, and have identified Bruennhilde with music, and since the Woodbird’s song (#128 and #129 in my interpretation) is a variant of Woglinde’s Lullabye (#4), and Wotan himself described Bruennhilde as the womb of his wishes, and imparted his secret wishes and fears to her, it is much more logical to construe Bruennhilde as a source of the Woodbird’s knowledge and intent to impart this to Siegfried, since Bruennhilde is a sort of surrogate mother for Siegfried who figuratively gave birth to him. It is no accident that Sieglinde is in “Valkyrie” Act Three Scene One ignorant of the fact that she is pregnant with Siegfried until Bruennhilde tells her, and it is no accident that Bruennhilde names Siegfried for Sieglinde, and of course it is no accident that Siegfried initially confuses Bruennhilde with his own mother (who died giving him birth). Similarly, Parsifal confuses Kundry with his mother who died due to Parsifal’s neglect, and it is also noteworthy that Kundry knows for Parsifal (in this like Bruennhilde) what he doesn’t know, his own identity. Furthermore, since I have suggested that Bruennhilde (and ultimately Wotan) is the ultimate source of the Woodbird’s messages to Siegfried, and that Bruennhilde is Wagner’s metaphor for the special kind of music he composed for the “Ring” (and by extension for his other mature music-dramas), it is no accident that Hagen says to Siegfried in “Twilight of the Gods” Act Three Scene Two, with respect to Gunther, that: “If only he (Gunther) understood her (Bruennhilde), as you do the singing of birds!”


PS: You stated that Wagner intuited the concept of reincarnation before reading about Buddhism. You also mentioned that Karma is the accumulated consequences which follow from human actions, which can follow a person throughout his/her many lives.

PH: I mentioned above that in my interpretation Siegfried is Wotan reborn, minus consciousness of his past history and true identity, hidden knowledge Wotan imparted to Bruennhilde in his confession and repressed into her, his unconscious mind, a sort of seed which inseminated the womb of Wotan’s wishes Bruennhilde, and figuratively gave birth to the hero who is fearless and ignorant because he doesn’t know who he is. I also stated that as the repository of Wotan’s confession Bruennhilde knows this for Siegfried, thereby redeeming Siegfried from suffering the fear and self-disgust which paralyzed Wotan. Thus, Siegfried is Wotan minus the consciousness of knowledge so terrible that it paralyzed Wotan with fear, thanks to Bruennhilde, who, as his unconscious mind and as redemptive music, redeems Siegfried from Wotan’s terrible self-knowledge, and even temporarily redeems Siegfried from Alberich’s curse on his Ring. Wotan’s history which he imparted to Bruennhilde can, following the logic of your Buddhist perspective, be construed as the karmic consequences of Wotan’s actions, his guilt. Siegfried is thus a sort of pre-fallen being because he has been freed from Wotan’s guilt, and in a sense freed by Bruennhilde from suffering from Alberich’s curse on the Ring, which I construe as the curse of human consciousness itself. I can’t recall whether or not you mentioned this in your book “The Redeemer Reborn” (I believe I read all, or part, of it online years ago, but I’ve ordered it off of Amazon so I can read - or reread - it entire), but, as I noted above, Wagner wrote to King Ludwig II that (Erda doesn’t know that) Wotan lives on in Siegfried, in the sense that an artist lives on in his artwork. And of course Wagner wrote the libretto with that plot element prior to reading Schopenhauer in 1854.

PH: Taking into account Wagner’s remark to Ludwig that Erda does not know that Wotan lives on in Siegfried, it is worth recalling that at the beginning of Wotan’s confession to Bruennhilde she called herself Wotan’s “will” (though Wagner wrote this text presumably before he had read Schopenhauer in 1854, so presumably it meant something special to Wagner prior to his becoming aware of Schopenhauer’s key idea). Later in his confession Wotan complains to Bruennhilde in despair: “What use would my own will be to me; I can’t will a free man … .” Bruennhilde’s use to Wotan is precisely that, by communicating to his other self, his unconscious mind, his fear of the twilight of the gods and his perhaps futile hope for a hero freed from the gods’ laws (i.e., free from the constraint of religious faith), who can redeem gods and world from Alberich’s curse on his Ring, Wotan’s unspoken secret, he thus plants the seed which gives birth to Siegfried, the secular artist-hero in whom Wotan hopes that man’s religious feeling will live on when the gods themselves can no longer hold a place in man’s heart, in the redemptive art which Siegfried’s muse will inspire him to create. This is the use of his “will,” Bruennhilde, to Wotan. In this way Siegfried is born with a new kind of consciousness which lives only in the present, not the past and future (and thus freed from Wotan’s guilt about the past and Wotan’s fear of the future). Thus Wagner told Cosima that Siegfried is the finest gift of the “will” (i.e., the finest gift of Bruennhilde), as he lives only in the present. It is surely no accident that Bruennhilde tells Hagen in “Twilight of the Gods” Act Two Scene Five that through her magic she protects Siegfried only at the front, i.e., from foresight of the end, and thus from fear (Wagner’s inspiration for this was Prometheus in “Prometheus Bound”). Wagner also stated that through his musical motifs of remembrance and foreboding, he could make present to the mind and feelings of his audience, in a flash of intuition or clairvoyance, what is past, future, and distant in space, thereby transcending the limits of time and space through music. And of course, music of its very nature, according to Wagner, blinds us to the outer objective world and replaces it with a subjective world of feeling which looks inward, which puts us in a timeless and spaceless, dreamlike, mythic state of mind, not bound by the mundane details of waking history. Wagner described this as the “Wonder,” through which the music-drama offers mankind a substitute for religious faith in transcendence. Again, in this way, Wotan (religion - the gods) is reborn in Siegfried, the secular music-dramatist and artist-hero.

PH: In “Siegfried” Act Three Scene One, Wotan tells Bruennhilde’s mother Erda: “… your knowledge wanes before my will … .” Since Bruennhilde is Wotan’s will, what Wotan is saying is that Erda’s fearful knowledge, the knowledge Wotan confessed to Bruennhilde, has waned before Bruennhilde, Wotan’s unconscious mind, and given birth to Siegfried, who seems to live only in the present and transcend Erda’s knowledge and the fear it engenders. Wagner said his web of musical motifs would free his characters from having to explain themselves, so they could live and act instinctively and innocently, and their dialogue would regain its natural naivety, and this of course gives birth to the naive Siegfried. Erda (Mother Nature) possesses the knowledge of all that was, is, and will be, and Alberich informed Wotan in “Rhinegold” Scene Four that if Wotan stole the Ring from Alberich Wotan would be sinning against all that was, is, and will be. In my interpretation, following Feuerbach’s perspective, Wotan’s sin is the sin of religious belief, which renounces the real, objective, natural world, of all that was, is, and will be, the world of natural law and fate, or determinism, and replaces it with an imaginary, transcendent world of the spirit in which we feel freed from the constraints of natural law, mortality, and even our natural egoistic instincts or drives. Alberich of course, unlike Wotan, lives solely within the real, objective world, and therefore can obtain real, earthly power through his Ring (the Ring of human consciousness, of thought). But according to Wagner’s theory of the music-drama his “Ring,” a redemptive artwork freed both from the constraints of illusory religious faith (which stakes an indefensible claim to the power of truth), and scientific knowledge, could transcend the limits of both religion (the gods of Valhalla) and science (objective knowledge of the real world in which Alberich is master, as in Nibelheim).
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