Julian Young "The Philosophies of Richard Wagner" Part 3

General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung

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Julian Young "The Philosophies of Richard Wagner" Part 3

Post by alberich00 » Wed Feb 23, 2022 12:37 pm

P. 99: “It is, perhaps, Sachs’s (and Wagner’s) understanding that life is a mere ‘comedy’ that enables him to preserve his ‘external cheerfulness.’ “

P. 99: Speaking of Wagner’s understanding of Schopenhauer’s theory of music as described by Wagner in his essay ‘Beethoven,’ Young states: “What makes music unique … is its capacity to disclose to us ‘another world,’ a world that is ‘beyond the barriers of time and space (B, 73).
How can this be so? How can so quintessentially temporal a medium as music be about atemporal reality, how can it communicate timelessness?”


PH: It isn’t just that music transports us to an experience deep within ourselves which seems freed from all that troubles us in the real world of time, space, and causation, but that Wagner’s musical motifs of reminiscence and foreboding make all situations and moments in his music dramas with which they’ve been associated seem here and now, present, since, when we hear a motif, our mind subliminally intuits all those widely disbursed moments and situations with which the motif has been, or will be, associated in the course of the drama. This is the Wagnerian “Wonder.” His musical motifs allow us to intuit the entirety of the drama and its hidden meaning in a flash of intuition.

P. 100: “That music is redemptive means, says Wagner, that the essence of music is identical with the essence of religion.”

PH: Discussed previously.

P. 101: “… if (absolute) music gives us the reality of things while literary arts offer only their ‘shadow,’ why sully the purity of music with words? (…) And how can Wagner still maintain … that the great artwork must be a literary as well as musical work, an aesthetic Gesamptkunstwerk?”


PH: The answer seems simple enough: Wagner wanted to place before us the complete human being, both male and female, both thinker and feeler, both conscious and unconscious.

P. 102: “If one does grasp something of the words, ‘one grasps at most that which in the composer stimulated him … to music’ (ibid [‘Beethoven’]).”

PP: This is an interesting question which I raised in my Ring study. I asked if the allegorical interpretation I attribute to Wagner reflects something that privately or even subliminally inspired Wagner but which (as Scruton put it in his critique of www.wagnerheim.com in his book The Ring of Truth) isn’t something experienced by Wagner’s audience, doesn’t become part of what they respond to in responding with their aesthetic sense to the Ring. Wagner stated that though great works of music are probably inspired by outer events, by the time the composer is stimulated to compose music inspired by such events they’ve been transmuted into music.

P. 102: Re Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, Young notes: “The opera itself Wagner thoroughly dislikes. What he finds interesting is the overture which, he says, ‘contains all the drama within itself.’ “

PH: This of course corresponds with Wagner’s view that music is indeed about something, that music compels us to ask the question, why? Wagner related this to Elsa’s insistence on asking Lohengrin the forbidden question. It’s also natural to ask why anyone should ever forbid knowledge: that’s a red-flag before any bull of intellect. In fact it was Lohengrin’s forbidden question which prompted my first scribblings trying to get to the bottom of what’s up with Wagner. But it’s also part of Wagner’s worldview that music gives birth to drama in the same way that instinctive feeling evolved into thinking in the evolutionary transition from animal to man, something he tried to capture in his musical Prelude to his Prologue to the Ring, The Rhinegold. He never stopped thinking of music in this way, as the precursor to language, symbolic thought, drama. But he also never really stopped thinking of drama as the most fit to inspire musical form. Of course I’m aware of his desire in old age to compose only symphonic tone poems which would, lacking all drama, merely spin out the possibilities of a single theme, sort of akin to Indian Raga, which remains, however, in one key. Wagner I’m sure would never give up modulation, which is part of his magic, along with playing around with dissonance.

P. 103: “Is he [Wagner] … able to reconcile the idea that music is ‘dramatic,’ … that is, about the will - a position he needs to adopt in order to render opera a legitimate art form - with his affirmation of its redemptive, religious function? (…) / (…) His essential move is to apply Schopenhauer’s theory of the sublime to music - which, for reasons that remain obscure, Schopenhauer himself fails to do.”

PH: Wagner seems to have believed that music in some sense restores the instinctive feeling we lost with our evolutionary advance from non-lingual animal ancestors to symbol-using man, and restoration of lost animal innocence is as close as he comes to transcendence, i.e., restoring the time before the Fall, the Fall through our acquisition of reflective consciousness, represented in the Ring primarily by Alberich’s Ring with its Curse, and secondarily by Wotan’s Spear of Divine Authority and Law. And then, of course, there’s the Wonder of his musical motifs of reminiscence and foreboding, which seem to condense all that we experience disbursed widely in space and time and make it feel here and now, allowing us to intuit, or feel, the entirety of the Ring in a flash of musical intuition. In this way his musical motifs offer secular man a substitute for religious faith in man’s transcendent value.

P. 104: “Recall that, following Kant, who in turn follows Burke’s conception of the sublime as a ‘delightful horror,’ Schopenhauer analyzes the sublime as a bittersweet feeling in which the latter element predominates … .”

PH: Note Siegfried’s final words in T.3.2: “(H151:) Sweet extinction [“Süsses Vergehen”], - blissful terror [“seliges Grauen”] (:H151): (H87:) Brünnhilde gives me her greeting (:H87)!” Siegfried is alluding to the fact that the ecstasy he drew from inspiration by his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration Brünnhilde was a sublimation of Wotan’s repressed, unbearable hoard of self-knowledge which he dare not say aloud, which must remain unspoken in words (but not in music). The two musical motifs heard here, H151 and H87 (Fate), reference that moment in S.3.3 when Brünnhilde sings to Siegfried (in response to his query whether Brünnhilde might be his mother who died giving him birth, in one sense an allusion to the fact that Brünnhilde is Mother Nature’s - Erda’s - daughter, and Wagner regarded music as Nature’s gift to man, not something of divine origin) (H151 orch:) Your own self I am, if you but love me in my bliss (:H151 orch); (H87:) what you don’t know I know for you (:H87): (H143:) And yet I am knowing only because I love you (:H143)!” Brünnhilde knows for Siegfried what he doesn’t know, his true identity as Wotan reborn. Through Brünnhilde, Siegfried has inherited the hoard of intolerable knowledge Wotan repressed into his unconscious mind Brünnhilde by confessing it to her. Wagner stated not only that Wotan is reborn in Siegfried as the artist is reborn, forgotten, in his work of art, but also stated that his motifs of reminiscence and foreboding were particularly apt (when discussing the subject of reincarnation) for informing the audience (but not the protagonists of his dramas) of the past lives of his characters, past lives unknown to them. He also considered Brünnhilde a metaphor for his music, and particularly his musical motifs. Let me add that H143 is the so-called World-Inheritance Motif which Wotan introduces when he tells Erda in S.3.1 that he, the god Wotan, has nothing to fear regarding her prophecy of the fated doom of the gods (the collapse of religious faith at the hands of man’s accumulation of a hoard of objective, scientific knowledge) at the hands of Alberich’s Ring Curse, since Wotan’s ideal and hope of redemption from Alberich’s Ring Curse lives on in his heirs Siegfried and Brünnhilde, Wagner’s metaphor for the secular artist-hero and his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration.

P. 104-105: “Wagner says that although thunderstorms are frightening events, our serenity is not disrupted because we find our primary identity to be that of the ‘world-creator Brahma.’ As Brahma, we exist beyond all fear of natural occurrences, given that, as the first sentence of The World as Will and Representation tells us, ‘the world is [our] representation.’ (…) It is because the Brahma knows this to be true that he ‘laughs’ at himself. He laughs because he knows that, in his empathetic identification with the moral individual, he has partially ‘duped’ himself (B, 92-93). Music, musical experience, can thus be both dramatic - narrate the ‘secret history of the will’ - and redemptive - provide us with an intimation of, in Kant’s phrase, ‘the supersensible side of our being’ (1968, sec. 28) - at one and the same time.”

PP: Wagner also said that foreknowledge of the end is the saddest of all things, and that Wotan, fearful of the end, is like Brahma before Maya (Wahn) masked the true nature of the world from him. The implication is that Brahma would never have created the world, having foreknowledge of its evil (The Will-in-Nature as evil, once it becomes conscious in man), had not Maya (Wahn) deluded him so that he could freely create. This heavily influenced Wagner’s conception that thanks to Wotan having repressed his fearful foreknowledge of the inevitable end of the gods in Brünnhilde, the womb of his wishes, during his confession, this gave birth to Siegfried, who is protected from foreknowledge by Brünnhilde’s Wonder, her magic. Brünnhilde tells Hagen and Gunther in T.2.5 that her magic protects Siegfried (unbeknownst to him) only at the front. It’s Siegfried’s unconsciousness of the bitter, intolerable truth, the truth which has paralyzed Wotan into non-action, that allows him to be a creator and redeem Wotan’s ideal, at least temporarily. This reading of Brahma Wagner derived from Feuerbach. It also influences what Wagner found in the Prometheus (foresight) myth as found in Prometheus Bound, that Prometheus allowed mortal man to cease to foresee death (“Oh merciful boon to mortals”) because Prometheus made blind hopes dwell in man. This is the Wahn that masks the terrible truth. The influence of the Prometheus origin myth (the ancient Greek equivalent of the Jewish account of the Fall, man’s exile from paradise, both being unconscious metaphors for man’s acquisition of reflective consciousness, the true cause of the Fall) on Wagner’s characterizations of Brünnhilde and Loge is self-evident.

P. 105: “Since words inextricably tie us to this world of suffering it can only be in absolute music that we transcend that world completely. Opera can be dramatic and redemptive at the same time. But in its supremely redemptive moments, its moments of complete transport, it, too, must become absolute music.”


P. 107-108: “… the Schopenhauerian turn produced two fundamental reversals in Wagner’s philosophy of music. First, absolute (purely instrumental) music ceases to be regarded as trivial [Young alludes to the fact that in Wagner’s book ‘Opera and Drama’ it’s the word, the drama, that gives birth to the music in his music-dramas] and becomes not just respectable but actually the highest form of music. And, second, within the artwork that combines music with words, the governing element changes from being the words to being the music. Notice that the cause of these changes is not simply a change in musical aesthetics. The cause, rather, is philosophical. As long as Wagner believed ‘redemption’ to be a this-worldly phenomenon, in order to be an ‘ethical deed,’ art needed to talk about arrangements in this world, about ‘relations of a social [and] political nature (WW 4:276), about individual things and events. (…) With the turn to Schopenhauer, however, redemption becomes an entirely other-worldly phenomenon. (…) And in the great artwork that combines music with words, the only purpose the words can ultimately serve is to remind us of our need for redemption, redemption of whose possibility only music can assure us.”

PH: This change in Wagner’s philosophical outlook corresponds with his increasing objections to Feuerbach’s idea that everything that we’ve construed as spiritual has a material, physical, natural origin.

P. 108, Note 5: “The later Wagner often claims, not merely that he was already a pessimist before discovering Schopenhauer, but that ‘intuitively,’ as both man and artist, he had always been a pessimist, and that his revolutionary optimism was a superficial intellectualism that represented a ‘remarkable alienation from self’ (S&M 193). (…) He tries to suggest that the unifying theme of his operas of the 1840’s, Rienzi, The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, is, in fact, ‘denial of the will’ (S&M 193). Although possessing a superficial plausibility with respect to The Flying Dutchman, this seems to me to attribute to the youthful Wagner a philosophical seriousness that I doubt either he or his operas possessed prior to the revolutionary period.”

PH: Though Wagner may not have been entirely conscious of the full implications of his operas Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin [I don’t think that Rienzi belongs in this group, at least not in Wagner’s mind], I agree with him that his primary subject in all three is world-denial, though in each of the three he grasps man’s longing for redemption from the real world in light of its true context, the evolution of man from animal forebears and his true nature as a physical being without a divine origin. He starts right off the bat with the thesis that, having sworn to defy the laws of nature to round the Cape of Good Hope, the Dutchman is cursed to sail the seven seas forever without hope of redemption, unless a loving woman sacrifices herself for him. This is a figure for religious man’s curse of pessimism, that in renouncing Nature man is condemned to a futile quest for redemption from the true mother who gave him birth, Nature, and man suffers from a permanent feeling of homelessness, of not belonging in the real world. Note that the Dutchman (somewhat like Wotan the Wanderer), though seeking redemption, accumulates instead a hoard of treasure, which is Wagner’s metaphor for collective, historical man’s accumulation of that hoard of objective knowledge which pushes his hope of redemption through religious faith in another world further and further away. The Dutchman’s hope for a woman’s fidelity unto death is a prefiguration of Wagner’s heroines as metaphors for the hero’s unconscious artistic inspiration, inspired secular art, and music, which grants modern, homeless man the feeling of being at home, of being transcendent. The Dutchman’s curse is a prefiguration of Alberich’s Ring Curse, man’s punishment for seeking redemption from the real world in the face of its futility.

Tannhäuser is a partly Feuerbachian critique of religious faith. Note that just as Siegfried and Tristan give their muses of unconscious artistic inspiration to another man (a figure for Wagner’s audience), and thereby betray their secrets, Tannhäuser similarly betrays the secret of his unconscious artistic inspiration by Venus in the course of singing his contest song for the hand of Elizabeth at the Wartburg. What’s so horrible about this revelation is that what the knights and ladies of the Wartburg, and even Elizabeth, had supposed to be of divine inspiration, including man’s hope of eternal life, actually has a physical, natural, carnal origin. And Lohengrin likewise is a Feuerbach-inspired critique about religious man’s tragic dependence on faith (i.e., fear of self-knowledge) to preserve his happiness. Elsa, Wagner’s Feuerbachian figure for Eve in Paradise, breaches faith so Lohengrin (like Wotan), man’s hope for transcendence in the Grail realm, must leave the world forever. But in his and its place Wagner (Elsa’s question) offers secular man the redemption of his music-dramas.

It’s also worth noting that the Shepherd’s tune to which Tannhäuser wakes from his unconscious artistic inspiration by Venus is a basis for both Tristan’s old tune (the alte Weise) and for Siegfried’s Woodbird Song. Both Tristan and Siegfried meet their demise after interpreting the Old Tune (which Tristan heard while he was being born of his mother’s death, and which he also associates with the futility of seeking transcendence through his love for Isolde) and the Woodbird’s tune, respectively. These tunes represent music as a portal to the artist hero’s unconscious mind, his muse.

P. 114: The claim that dramatic form provides a satisfying musical form represents Wagner’s final position on the question of the internal economy of the music drama [in ‘On the Application of Music to the Drama’ of 1879]. (…) His own works in this genre have, he claims, attained ‘the [musical] unity of a symphonic movement,’ precisely what is lacking in traditional opera which possesses neither overall musical nor dramatic unity (AMD, 183). This, he says is the musical function of his so-called ‘leitmotif’ technique … . Only here, he says, it is the ‘needs of the dramatic action’ rather than the ‘motions of the dance’ which ‘dictate the laws of parting and combining.’ “

PH: It seems to me he’d always been aiming at this goal, even in his occasional divergences from it.

P. 114: “Any drama … presents us, more or less clearly, with a ‘secret history of the will’ … that is prior to the outer drama of action in the sense of allowing us to understand why the hero’s actions are as they are. If, then, music is the ‘secret history of the will’ it follows that dramatic form is indeed musical form. This, I think, is the point obscurely made in the ‘Beethoven’ essay in which Wagner writes that music may be defined as ‘man’s qualification a priori for fashioning the drama’ … .”

PH: This is also part of Wagner’s effort to grant man a mystical rather than Feuerbachian-materialist-natural origin. The idea is that music, which in a sense restores man’s pre-Fall instinctive feeling (for which there existed no conflict between science and religion, thought and feeling), is man’s origin, and therefore he needn’t trouble himself with what the Fall through man’s acquisition of reflective consciousness wrought. The idea of attaining redemption through plunging Alberich’s Ring into water also reflects this concept, since Wagner repeatedly identifies water with both the unconscious and with music, even in Dutchman. Music as man’s a priori qualification for creating the drama is just another way of saying that man’s aesthetic sense (of which music is the essence) guides man in reinterpreting the events and characters of real life in an artistic fashion.

P. 115: “Wagner’s … revolutionary step is to make the idea of a ‘secret history’ the principle of unity of an entire artwork rather than an account, merely, of a single melody.”

PH: This is a really good way of putting it, because Wagner’s web of allusive musical motifs tells a subliminal, unconscious story about what’s going on upstairs in the drama. The fact is, virtually no one has exhaustively elucidated the implications of all the motifs’ references. I believe my newly published book comes the closest to having achieved this, not least because I examine literally hundreds of motival allusions utterly neglected by the prior commentators known to me. And an exhaustive elucidation exposes a great deal about the drama that seems never to have been suspected before, as anyone will see who reads my book The Wound That Will Never Heal.

P. 116: In reference to Feuerbach’s and Wagner’s emphasis on love, particularly sexual love as a foundation for human value, Young points out that Kitcher and Schacht claim that Feuerbach’s influence (in spite of Wagner’s admiration for Schopenhauer) sways Wagner right up through his completion of the Ring.

PH: Though I’ve found much to criticize in K&S’s Finding an Ending, I agree with them wholeheartedly on this one. You’ll find my 53 page critique of K&S’s book and of Scruton’s The Ring of Truth at the homepage of www.wagnerheim.com by clicking on Epilogue on the left side of the page in the table of contents.

P. 117: “Once we recognize the glorious necessity of love, Wagner writes Liszt in 1853, we can hope that we will ‘one day lay the foundations for a state on earth where no one need yearn for the other world (a world which will then have become wholly unnecessary) for they will be happy - to live and love. For where is the man who yearns to escape from life when he is in love?’ (S&M 161)”

PH: Again, Wagner is referencing his metaphorical conception of the love his heroes and heroines share, in which the hero is the artist-hero and his lover his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration. It’s his inspired secular art which he offers as a modern substitute for religious man’s hope of immortal life in paradise, which Wagner (like Feuerbach) traces back to fear of death. Where Wagner speaks of love he generally means music.

P. 117-118: “As to the objection that even if one is in love and loves this world one still needs belief in another world to overcome one’s abhorrence of death, Wagner points out to Röckel in January, 1854, that in the Ring, Erda does not say to Wotan ‘a gloomy day dawns on the gods: in shame shall end your noble race if you do not give up the ring!’ But rather ‘All that is - ends: a gloomy day dawns for the gods: I counsel you shun the ring!’ Wagner continues: ‘We must learn to die, and to die in the fullest sense of the word: fear of the end … is generated only when love itself is already beginning to wane’ (S&M 171).”

PH: Yes, in Wagner’s worldview his inspired secular art is the natural heir to dying religious faith during the modern, secular, scientific age. Erda (Mother Nature, the source of scientific man’s objective knowledge of all that is, was, and will be) informs Wotan of the historical inevitability of the decline and fall of religious faith (twilight of the gods) in the face of Alberich’s (and Wotan’s, since he’s “Light-Alberich,” and like Alberich accumulates a hoard of knowledge from Mother Nature as he wanders the earth) accumulation of a hoard of objective knowledge which eventually will overthrow belief in the gods of Valhalla (and religion in general). Wagner’s secular art’s flourishing depends, in other words, on the death of God, the death of man’s faith in the promise of his redemption to immortal life in a restoration of paradise.

P. 118: “Love, for Feuerbach is the ‘submersion’ of individual desire in collective desire … . (…) Hence, writes Feuerbach, ‘true religion’ - the religion that recognizes that ‘theology is [and ought only be] anthropology’ - ‘is only possible when the human being recognizes that [individual] death is true, real and entire’ (1980, 17). (…) / Feuerbachian love … consists … in the transcendence of individuality. But since both Feuerbach and Wagner are … ‘materialists’ …, the transcendence in question has to be transcendence to, identification with, some natural entity - human community … .”

PH: In my interpretation, I conceive of Wotan the way I believe Wagner did, based on Feuerbach’s notion that what religious folk call God is really an unconscious metaphor for collective, historical man. Feuerbach said that what man regards as God’s omniscience is actually an unconscious description of collective, historical man’s gradual accumulation over time of an ever-increasing hoard of objective knowledge. This gives birth to Wagner’s reinterpretation of Alberich’s Nibelung hoard of treasure as an accumulating hoard of objective knowledge, for knowledge is power, and The Rhinedaughters promised Alberich that if he formed a Ring from the Rhinegold by renouncing love (i.e., by evolving from an instinctive animal of feeling to thinking man), he could obtain limitless world-power. This is a description of man’s advantage over all other animals, that he can accumulate and pass on knowledge symbolically. Thus, for man, cultural evolution replaces what for man’s animal ancestors and other animals is somatic, genetic evolution of species.

P. 118: “Whereas Feuerbachian love is … transcendence to something within nature, Tristan love, infected as it is by Schopenhauerian metaphysics, is transcendence to something behind the dream of nature, the primordial meta-physical unity that lies beyond the illusion of space and time. (…) As Wagner moves from optimism to pessimism so love changes from being world-affirming to being world-denying.”

PH: However, in Wagner’s worldview, since there is no supernatural realm of redemption from this world, no transcendence, the natural equivalent for that is pre-Fall, preconscious animal instinct, or feeling, which Wagner suggests music restores. Music, according to him, grants us a dream-like involuntariness, an escape from mind and the limitations of time, space, and causation (nature’s coherence). It grants us the feeling, but not the fact, of being transcendent. It offers us an ordering principle entirely distinct from reason.

P. 119: “… while Wagner professes to be a Schopenhauerian, the love that Schopenhauer values and views as redemptive, Mitleid, the love of sympathetic compassion … , is exclusively non-sexual; not eros but agape. (…) What follows is that Tristan love is not, or not fully, Schopenhauerian love.”

PH: Wagner’s primary critique of Schopenhauer was that Wagner didn’t conceive of redemption as Schopenhauer did, as will-less meditation, a quieting or stilling of the Will, but sexual love’s attainment of oneness with the all through a heightening of the Will. But when he references sexual love as the path to redemption he’s speaking of it as his metaphor for the love the artist-hero enjoys with his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration. And according to Wagner music grants us the feeling of oneness with the all, that oceanic feeling in which we lose ourselves and dissolve our ego (Alberich’s Ring dissolved in the Rhine). In Parsifal, Parsifal does indeed identify himself in the end with the entire objective world and with all of life, as opposed to the Christian abhorrence of physicality and animality. See P. 119 below:

P. 119: Young cites Wagner’s penning of a letter (never mailed) to Schopenhauer in which he explained how he might amend Schopenhauer’s concept of redemption by showing how sexual love can offer a redemptive path to self-knowledge and denial of the will (WW 12:289).

P. 120: “The yearning for the merging of identity can … , in life, never be properly consummated. And hence extreme sexual passion is a yearning for death.”


PH: Which of course is a theme of Tristan. But Wagner knows that after death there’s no consciousness or feeling to enjoy an alleged union of souls. Wagner doesn’t believe there’s any life after death. This explains Wotan’s nihilism, his will to self-destruction. He confesses to Brünnhilde that if the world doesn’t contain, or won’t grant him, transcendent value, then everything can go hang, and he wills his self-destruction and the destruction of the world predicated on self-deception that he built up, his longing for redemption. That’s why he sacrifices Siegmund.
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