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Did Wagner intuit concepts in modern physics?

Posted: Mon Jun 20, 2011 8:31 pm
by alberich00
Dear Forum Members:

With respect to 20th century physics I'm a mere novice, but I've always been struck by a couple of remarks for which Wagner claims responsibility, one of which is expressed by his Gurnemanz in "Parsifal." When Parsifal remarked, while making a transit from the mundane moment into the Grail realm, that he had scarcely moved yet seemed to have come far (more or less), Gurnemanz said: "You see, my son, time here becomes space."

And on another occasion Wagner stated that God and Nature are parallel lines which merge outside of time and space (I'm offering a paraphrase from memory and don't have the actual quote in front of me, but it can be found in's anthology, Appendix II).

Speight Jenkins, Director of the Seattle Opera who produced the "Ring" there - Bayreuth of the Western Hemisphere - many times, asked an audience at a round table discussion in Washington, DC (the occasion was a seminar on the "Ring" co-sponsored by the Wagner Society of Washington, DC, and the Smithsonian Institution) if anyone could explain what Gurnemanz meant in his remark I quoted above. He stated that in all of his years of involvement with production of Wagner operas, he'd asked that question of all the pundits, and no one had ever offered a satisfactory answer. I offered him the following answer: I noted that Wagner was referencing two things which for him were one. The first was Schopenhauer's concept of the ideality of space and time (in which space, time, and causation are qualities which we humans impute to things, but which are not necessarily truly reflective of those things in themselves). The second was Wagner's concept of the "Wonder," his notion that through his musical motifs of premonition and reminiscence, all time and place in his "Ring" becomes present, here and now. Jenkins remarked that he'd never before heard such an explanation, and, when another member of the panel challenged my remark, rose to my defense.

Any thoughts, further observations, queries, or quibbles?

Re: Did Wagner intuit concepts in modern physics?

Posted: Wed Jun 22, 2011 3:13 pm
by parzival
This is certainly a difficult line, though Schopenhauer is a clear place to start. As you rightly noted, in Schopenhauer's epistemology, time and space, and consequently causality, are the forms by which the intellect perceives objective reality. To transcend these intellectual categories (mere "presentations," according to Sch.) is to breach the "veil of Maya," the illusion of individuality, the false distinction between subject and object, self and non-self.

The suggestion that it refers to Wagner's aesthetic conception of the music drama itself is certainly a fruitful reading, in which time (music) becomes interchangeable with space (drama). The self-referential aspect of "Parsifal" as music drama is also reflected in its emphasis on "durch Mitleid wissend," that intuitive emotion, the spontaneous and redemptive feeling of pity for suffering, is only possible with the suspension of false intellectual perceptions, specifically that of selfhood. In a certain sense, "Parsifal" expresses the intuitive experience of the Wagnerian drama, as Wagner envisioned it, blurring the boundaries between the aesthetic and the spiritual.

That's how I've understood it, and I imagine this is a fairly orthodox interpretation. In the vast wilderness of Wagner studies it's hard to say anything new.

Re: Did Wagner intuit concepts in modern physics?

Posted: Wed Jun 22, 2011 6:37 pm
by alberich00
Dear Parzival:

Thank you for your thoughtful remarks. I would be interested to learn more about your conception of the relationship of "Mitleid" in "Parsifal" to Wagner's concept of the "Wonder," as embodied in the magic of his musical motifs and their capacity to solve the problem of the unity of time and space in drama. I also look forward, with immense anticipation, to your critique of the various arguments presented on this website. Thank you for a stimulating contribution to our newborn discussion forum.

Re: Did Wagner intuit concepts in modern physics?

Posted: Wed Jun 22, 2011 8:13 pm
by feuerzauber
Did Wagner intuit concepts in modern physics?

The answer, of course, is no!

Wagner wrote Gurnemanz's words over a decade before the American physicists Michelson and Morley performed the experiment which precipitated the great crisis of Classical Physics and that was eventually resolved through the unification of Space and Time in Modern Physics.

The apprehension that something was fundamentally wrong with Classical Physics challenged a band of adventurous theoreticians to seek resolution not within its framework but, at least in part, outside of it.

In terms of Thomas Kuhn's "Structure of Scientific Revolutions", this band of physicists ceased engaging in "normal" science — for which they lived and died by the current theory (or loosely by the Current Paradigm) — and perforce became engaged in "revolutionary" science — an extra-ordinary response to crisis which drove them on to rethink the Current Paradigm from its very foundations in light of disturbing counter evidence, while simultaneously being held in check by every fibre in their intellectual bodies compelling them to salvage as much of the mightily successful past as they could.

Among the theoretical casualties of the ensuing scientific revolution was the Classical conception of Space and Time. To see how shocking and thoroughgoing a revolution was wrought within the physicist's world view, we need only recall our own immediate disbelief/contempt upon first encountering the claims of Special Relativity and then of General Relativity (let alone of Quantum Mechanics).

Despite logician of science Karl Popper (who despises scientists who aren't perpetually "revolutionary" without really making it clear how they should actually go about working in such a fundamentally destructive fashion), no-one (not even Wagner) is likely to come up with a meaningful new world view without building upon the foundations of the old, i.e. without responding to a deeply-felt critical problem within the established world view. The alternative is to blindly grope in the forlorn hope that a random breakthrough lies in Penelope's endless task of dismantling today's mighty works by starting afresh ab-initio every morning.

In this light, there is no way that we can construe Wagner's wonderful Space and Time as a meaningful challenge to Classical Physics — Gurnemanz neither habituated the Classical Physics Paradigm nor sought a solution to a deep crisis within that world view.

In passing, it is evident that Thomas Kuhn's account of the revolution that transformed Classical into Modern Physics, by simultaneously transcending and preserving it, is thoroughly dialectical in the Hegelian sense. Feuerbach (whose renaissance owes something to Wagnerheim) would have enjoyed it. In fact, there are fewer clearer examples of the Hegelian negation-of-the-negation — the Modern solution actually contains the Classical solution as a limiting case.

On the other hand, Kuhn's account is anathema to latter-day Kantians (like Karl Popper and presumably Brian Magee). What Wagner, with his long-suffering personal commitment to conscious revolutionary activity both inside and outside the musical world, would have made of it remains an open question.

Kant's critical philosophy doesn't challenge the concepts of Space and Time from inside the framework of Classical Physics. Rather it builds upon them as givens from outside that framework. It uses these apparently settled Classical concepts as unassailable a-priori categories of the mind to "solve" the crisis in John Locke's empiricism posed by David Hume's skepticism. But at what a price — our inability to ever know the world (the thing-in-itself) as it really is!

To return to Parsifal. Prescient Modern Physics it ain't. Transcendent music and theatre it is! Surely that is enough.

Re: Did Wagner intuit concepts in modern physics?

Posted: Wed Jun 22, 2011 9:01 pm
by alberich00
Thank you, Feuerzauber, for that review of Kuhn and Popper. I recall Kuhn made a deep impression on me an age ago, and I also read Popper. You may be amused to hear that I inadvertantly shared a breakfast with Brian Magee (he accidentally sat down at my table, something I'm not sure whether he would recall with chagrin or amusement) at Bayreuth during the 2001 festival. In any case, we had a most pleasant 1/2 hour chat about his book "The Tristan Chord."

I'm not entirely convinced that there isn't some underlying homology (if that is the right word) between certain trends in philosophy and the arts, and the sciences of a given period. Of course, that is quite different from saying that Wagner intuited the findings of modern physics. Curiously, I recall seeing a multi-hour documentary on Einstein's life on PBS some years ago during which, if memory serves, one could hear an excerpt from the score of "Parsifal" in the background as someone in the documentary was discussing either the special or general theory of relativity. I don't recall if the excerpt was specifically that associated with Gurnemanz's remark, but in any case it seems to me now like an inside joke.

It is implicit in my interpretation of the "Ring" that it contains a covert assumption, which resides somewhere in the backside of my mind, that there is some underlying relationship between the conceptual structure of Wagner's "Ring," and the laws of nature, in the broad sense that I take mankind to be, in a sense, nature become self-conscious. This at least is what I take science to be, in a certain sense. In other words, why is it that natural evolution produces, presumably rarely, conscious being, which seeks knowledge of its own nature, origin, natural context, and future? This question I believe lies at the heart of Wagner's "Ring" as I understand it. In that broad sense I think what Wagner says in the "Ring" has some underlying relationship with science.

Thank you for the clarity and reasonability of your astute remarks. I have dreamt, for longer than I can tell you, of a Wagner discussion forum in which such commentary is the rule rather than the exception.

Re: Did Wagner intuit concepts in modern physics?

Posted: Mon Jun 27, 2011 9:57 am
by alberich00
Dear Feuerzauber:

I forgot to thank you for noticing that "The Wound Which Will Never Heal," the largely original interpretation of Wagner's "Ring" which is the centerpiece of this website,, might well play a role in a reviving interest in Feuerbach's thought. I regard this is a key byproduct of this website.

Yours from Wagnerheim,

Alberich00 alias Paul Heise

Re: Did Wagner intuit concepts in modern physics?

Posted: Sun Aug 07, 2011 11:27 pm
by feuerzauber
Hans Sachs's Kuhnian Crisis

Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger has a higher claim to "anticipating" an aspect of modern physics than Gurnemanz in Parsifal.

Hans undergoes a crisis of confidence in his art that is recognisable to physicists. Philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn (far too modestly) confessed that his theory of paradigms was common knowledge in the arts.


(He tries to work again, leaves off and reflects)

And yet — it haunts me still. —
I feel it, but I can't comprehend it;
I can't forget it, — yet I can't grasp it.
And if I do grasp it, I can't measure it!
But then, how should I evaluate it?
It was measureless to my mind.
It breaks all the rules
Yet I can't really fault it.
It seemed so old, and so new —

[Note the pun on "measure" — for Sachs: a standard; for music: a rhythm. Thomas Kuhn wisely hijacked the related mathematical term "incommensurable" to convey the conceptual chasm between two conflicting world views upon the same subject matter.]

Wagner takes us through the depths of Sachs's crisis — its beginning, anguish and resolution — after all, the topic "music that breaks with the past" concerned Wagner throughout his mature working life.

Walther — the Junker (non-Guild) outsider — precipitates the crisis. Sachs struggles to accommodate it and, in his gentle wisdom, finds the Kuhnian resolution.

So, when Wagner finally came to handling his own art, Schopenhauerian resignation didn't get a look in. Here Wagner confronted a crisis that had to be resolved in the flesh (and not through some philosophically ideal redemption).

Re: Did Wagner intuit concepts in modern physics?

Posted: Mon Aug 08, 2011 1:14 pm
by parzival

I think the Kuhnian interpretation of Sachs crisis is both original and insightful, but I don't it necessarily renders the Schopenhauerian aspects obsolete. I'm not sure how one can extricate Sachs from the metaphysical system in which he is so carefully placed.

Schopenhauer's view of life, of art, can be compared to a kaleidoscope, endlessly turning in different permutations of shape and color, but the pieces that make up its form remain eternal, without past or future, ahistorical (e.g. Walther's dream inspiration). With this awareness, Hans Sachs accepts the transience of intellectual and artistic forms, which is a very Schopenhauerian response, and a practical application of his metaphysical insight into "Wahn". (And Schopenhauer insisted that all philosophy ought to have a practical application, power to explain the world and be lived "in the flesh". I think Sachs embodies this admirably, in an all too human fashion.)

I am no expert in Kuhn, and please correct me if this is wrong, but as I understand it he regards the history of ideas and science as a dialectal historical process of shifting paradigms; there is no metaphysical significance behind this at all. Schopenhauer (and Wagner, I believe) articulate that change of cognizant forms is inevitable, but reject the notion of historical "progress," a revolution of human understanding, as a result of that process. In other words, light simply enters through a different window, illuminating the same eternal Ideas from a different aspect.

Re: Did Wagner intuit concepts in modern physics?

Posted: Tue Aug 09, 2011 7:16 pm
by feuerzauber
I think the Kuhnian interpretation of Sachs [doesn't] necessarily render the Schopenhauerian aspects obsolete. I'm not sure how one can extricate Sachs from the metaphysical system in which he is so carefully placed.
My narrower point is that, when Wagner comes to handling something as close to him as his musical art, he automatically adopts a Kuhnian/Hegelian stance.

Meistersinger provides evidence that Feuerbachian love and Schopenhauerian metaphysics, though strongly held convictions, were always subordinated to the practice of Wagner's art — and could be dropped, quite consistently from his standpoint, if they didn't suit that end.

Evidence: Wagner resolves the "love triangle" (that heightens Sachs's artistic crisis) through personal resignation of a clearly normal kind — not one of Schopenhauerian proportions. And Sachs finds his apotheosis in popular acclamation — not in transcendental redemption.

Wagner, the artist, trusted his artistic instincts above his world views. Quite consistently, he used Feuerbach and Schopenhauer when they suited his artistic themes — the Ring, Tristan and Parsifal. Those masters are the stuff of his grand designs.

Meistersinger deals with humbler folk and their beloved craft. Wagner, the ever-prescient judge of art, refuses to admit craft apprentices Feuerbach and Schopenhauer into full membership of their guild.

Re: Did Wagner intuit concepts in modern physics?

Posted: Tue Aug 09, 2011 7:48 pm
by feuerzauber
I forgot Beckmesser.
The "love triangle" is a quadrilateral whose fourth side (to borrow Sachs's words) "is measureless to my mind".