Paul Heise’s response to Julian Young’s The Philosophies of Richard Wagner (published 2014)
Citations of Julian Young’s text are in boldface
Paul Heise’s responses are in light print, preceded by PH for Paul Heise
P. xvi: “… his [Wagner’s] focus on the place of opera in a Left Hegelian vision of the future enables him to produce a philosophy that is both original and important.”
P. xvi: The main criticism Nietzsche raises against Wagner is “… the move from the ‘life-affirmation’ of the early philosophy to the ‘life-denial’ of the later.”
P. xvii: “Nietzsche represents the trajectory of Wagner’s career as a self-betrayal: a matter of the ‘lower’ Wagner triumphing … over the Wagnerian ‘ideal.’ “
P. xvii: “Nietzsche described the Ring cycle as a ‘tremendous system of thought’ (WB 9) … .”
PH: It’s amazing that Nietzsche said this early on but never seems to have explained what he meant in any detail. Obviously, in his mature period critiques of Wagner he makes sport of the Ring libretto and, as my own research has shown, evidently deliberately overlooks much that had relevance to his own mature philosophy. I don’t believe that in his later critiques of Wagner he dealt with Wagner’s Ring in good faith, since there is so much there in alignment with Nietzsche’s mature outlook.
P. xvii: Young says that most English-speaking philosophers have examined his operas, not his theoretical works, to assess Wagner’s philosophy, but Young takes the theoretical works seriously. Scruton in his book on Tristan, and Kitcher and Schacht in their Finding an Ending, pay little or no heed, respectively, to Wagner’s theoretical works.
PH: So far as I know, my citations of Wagner’s theoretical works and incorporation of them into my interpretation of his Ring and other canonical operas and music-dramas, both at my website www.wagnerheim.com, and in my newly published allegorical interpretation of Wagner’s Ring, The Wound That Will Never Heal, are the most extensive in the literature.
P. xviii: “To reinterpret Wagner’s works as life-affirming rather than life-denying … is a healthy thing to do. But it is not good scholarship.”
PH: In my interpretation of Wagner’s Ring it’s Alberich who is the world-affirmer (in the sense of seeking that objective knowledge of the world and of man necessary to the accumulation of worldly power), and Wotan, the gods, and Wotan’s proxies Brünnhilde and the Wälsungs Siegmund and Sieglinde, and their son Siegfried, who are dedicated to world denial in religion, altruistic ethics, and art. Alberich’s Ring Curse is designed to punish these world-deniers, whose sin began with Wotan’s (early man’s) original sin (as described by Alberich) against all that was, is, and will be, i.e., Erda’s (Mother Nature’s) knowledge. Early, collective man, according to Feuerbach, virtually dreamed gods and religious belief into existence, but did so unconsciously, since it would be impossible to believe in the objective existence of beings if one was conscious of having invented them. Wagner captures this concept in the Valhallan gods Wotan and Fricka waking to find their heavenly home, the as-yet-unnamed Valhalla, prepared for their habitation by the Giants, who in my interpretation represent the animal instincts of desire (Fasolt) and fear of death (Fafner), the two instincts which, in combination with our gift of conscious human thought (Alberich’s Ring), gave birth to the earliest human cultures and religions.
P. xviii: “Wagner himself … gives a certain amount of dubious aid and comfort to those who would take this approach by suggesting, retrospectively, that as an optimistic, revolutionary thinker, he misunderstood himself as an artist (S&M 193, SR, 8-9). (…) It is, of course, true that the creator of an artwork does not have infallible access to its meaning.”
PH: I strongly believe, given the evidence, that Wagner, in the course of writing the Ring libretto, but prior to his first known acquaintance with Schopenhauer in late summer of 1854, concluded that he couldn’t bear to live in the kind of world which materialist, atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach affirmed, and wrote his rebuttal into the plot, the characterizations, and the music of the Ring. Wotan gives voice to Wagner’s retort to Feuerbach in his confession to Brünnhilde, which Wagner regarded as the key incident in the Ring. Wotan the religious nihilist prefers self-destruction to living in Alberich’s world which Wotan comes to see as the true and therefore inescapable one. As for Wagner being unconscious of the meaning of his own art, he confessed that for the authentic artist his art can remain as much a mystery as for his audience.
P. 6-7: Young notes that Wagner described genius as the ability to open new pathways. (…) Nietzsche saw such geniuses as untimely men, free spirits. The genius, free spirit, “… is a cultural analogue of Darwin’s ‘random mutation.’ “
PH: In my interpretation, while Wotan represents collective, historical man (based on Feuerbach’s identification of God with collective, historical man), Siegfried represents the individual artist-hero of modern times in whom the creative impulse of the Folk (Wotan) lives on, Siegfried being the inheritor of the “well-hewn causeway” laid down by his spiritual ancestors (represented, for instance, by his father Siegmund). This tradition of geniuses passing on their revolutionary impulse to future geniuses is captured in Siegfried’s reforging of his father’s sword Nothung. Nothung’s musical motif H56ab is based on Motif H1, the Primal Nature Motif which represents the period before man’s acquisition of consciousness, the period before the Fall. Nothung is a metaphor for the ultimate motive inspiring genius in religion, ethics, and secular art, man’s attempt to restore the lost paradise of man’s preconscious animal ancestors, their instinctive feeling, represented by the Rhinedaughters. Woglinde’s Lullaby H4 gives birth to the Woodbird’s second tune H138ab which the artist-hero Siegfried alone can interpret. It’s Wagner’s metaphor for his own musical motifs of reminiscence and foreboding.
P. 10: “Wagner claims that to the extent we are engulfed by the culture of modernity we are rendered incapable of genuine love. This is the meaning of his treatment of the Lohengrin myth, which, he says, has been widely misunderstood as a Christian allegory. (…) The opera’s tragic hero, Wagner surprisingly asserts, is not Elsa but rather Lohengrin himself. (…) The principle of unconditional love seemingly embodied by Elsa but in the end betrayed by her, he adds, ‘made me a revolutionary at one blow’ (CF, 347). … in Wagner’s early interpretation of his opera (one he will later abandon), the natural, human world is superior to the supernatural, heavenly one.”
PH: My interpretation of Lohengrin, published by Stewart Spencer in the May, 1995 edition of Wagner, the scholarly publication of The Wagner Society (London, UK), runs counter to this. In my reading, Lohengrin is about modern man’s loss of religious faith and replacement of it with inspired secular art, particularly the art of music. In my reading Elsa is the hero since, as Wagner stated in ‘A Communication to My Friends,’ she, Lohengrin’s unconscious, involuntary self, offers him (who requires of her undoubting, religious faith) the opportunity to preserve faith not as thought, as belief, but as feeling (music). Wagner stated there that it’s Lohengrin who can find redemption from his egoistic consciousness in his unconscious mind Elsa. Wagner stated that he had to give Lohengrin up for lost to make way for the redemption that woman, Elsa, would bring to himself as artist and to all the world. She offers Lohengrin redemption from his faith and from his service to the illusory Grail (symbol for man’s futile quest for transcendence). It’s no accident that Wagner said it was Elsa’s insistence on breaching Lohengrin’s demand of faith which made Wagner a revolutionary (i.e., the creator of revolutionary music-dramas in which, unlike his romantic operas which culminated with Lohengrin, the music has an organic rather than mechanical relationship with the drama and the words), and no accident that he also said Elsa [i.e., Elsa’s insistence on learning the forbidden secret of Lohengrin’s true identity and origin, i.e., the origin of religious belief] taught Wagner to unearth his Siegfried, Wagner’s metaphor for the unconsciously inspired, secular artist-hero.
The key is the following: Elsa’s insistence that Lohengrin share with her the secret of his true identity and origin so she can help protect him from the ’Noth,’ the suffering she believes will ensue if his secret is betrayed, is the basis for Brünnhilde’s plea that Wotan confess to her his ‘Götternoth,’ Divine Need/Suffering. Wotan knows that Alberich’s Ring Curse predestines the gods (religious belief and faith) to doom. But in Brünnhilde’s rebellion and in her becoming the muse to the greatest of Wälsung heroes Siegfried, Wotan hopes to redeem himself (religious faith) from its predestined end, since it can live on in art, particularly Wagner’s art, the music-drama. Siegfried on this view represents the music-dramatist, and the drama/word, and Brünnhilde represents his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration, and music itself. In other words, both Elsa and Brünnhilde are offering religious faith an opportunity to live on not as thought, but as feeling, in the secular art they as muses will inspire, since religious belief and faith are destined to destruction by the inevitable transition of modern man to secularism and objective scientific understanding, i.e., a move from Spirit to Nature. While Lohengrin insists she not ask the forbidden question, Wotan acquiesces in Brünnhilde’s plea that he share his secret with her which must remain forever unspoken in words (but not necessarily in music). Wotan says that in speaking to her he’s speaking to himself: this corresponds with Wagner’s description of Elsa as Lohengrin’s unconscious mind in whom his conceptual thought can find redemption. Lohengrin’s refusal, and Wotan’s acquiescence, is the philosophical/dramatic basis for Wagner’s transition from an author/composer of traditional operas into the author/composer of music-dramas in which word/drama and music join in loving union.
P. 10-11: Young notes that Feuerbach had a heavy influence on Wagner’s exaltation of sexual love, and discusses Feuerbach’s assertion that our religious belief in gods and the supernatural is self-deception, god being a fiction of our own creation. (…) “… God is thought of as an historical process, a process of self-actualization.
All this, I believe, lies behind Wagner’s inversion of the traditional Lohengrin myth.”
PH: To grasp the full meaning of Wagner’s Feuerbachian emphasis on sexual love (a heightening of the will) as an alternative to Schopenhauer’s notion of redemption as a stilling of the will, it’s important to grasp that for Wagner the sexual, loving union of hero with heroine is his metaphor for the union of the artist-hero with his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration. Feuerbach stated that inspired secular art has the advantage over religious faith that, unlike religious belief and faith, it doesn’t stake a claim to the truth (in my reading, the power of Alberich’s Ring of consciousness), but confesses itself a fiction, a game of play, and in music, escapes thought’s debate between truth and falsehood altogether, since music is feeling, not conceptual thought. Thus Feuerbach said that in modern, scientific times, God withdraws into feeling, into music (just as Wotan submerges his unbearable knowledge of his corrupt history, and of his sin against all that was, is, and will be, Erda’s - Nature’s - knowledge, into Brünnhilde, his unconscious mind and music, in his confession to her, thus giving birth to Siegfried, the timeless, mythic man). Siegfried and Brünnhilde take aesthetic possession of Alberich’s Ring of power but don’t consciously use its power. It (and Wotan’s confession to Brünnhilde) is Siegfried’s unconscious source of inspiration.
P. 14-15: Speaking of Wagner’s cultural criticism, Young describes Wagner’s viewpoint: “… the spirit of the [modern] age is essentially ‘critical,’ critical in a way that undermines the self-confidence required by creativity.”
PH: This is the basis of Lohengrin’s fearful insistence that Elsa never question his origin (his origin is Feuerbach’s theory of the natural origin of religious faith), and the basis of Wotan’s self-doubt which he confesses to Brünnhilde. While Wotan is paralyzed into inaction by his excessive consciousness of the bitter truth (Alberich’s and Erda’s prophecy of the inevitable doom of the gods, of religion), Siegfried is freed from Wotan’s fear of the end because, as the secular artist-hero, he isn’t concerned with preserving belief or faith, which are predicated on fear. Siegfried is fearless because Brünnhilde knows for him what he doesn’t know, his true identity as Wotan (religion) reborn (in secular art). Siegfried told Fafner “I still don’t know who I am,” but Brünnhilde later tells Siegfried (as we hear the Fate Motif H87), “What you don’t know I know for you.” Wagner wrote to King Ludwig II of Bavaria that Wotan is reborn in Siegfried as the artist is reborn, but forgotten, in his work of art.
P. 15: Describing Nietzsche’s interpretation of Wagner’s cultural criticism, Young states: “In setting ‘our’ ethos side by side with a myriad of other options, history (and ‘cultural studies’ in general) ‘deconstructs’ it, deprives it of its unconditional authority over us. (…) … we come to ‘distrust our instincts,’ becoming incapable of commitment and action (UM II 10). Postmodern nihilism has arrived.”
PH: I recall that in my earliest notes toward what would eventually become my interpretation of Wagner’s Ring, I noted that given Western man’s massive accumulated history of prior civilizations and religions, as well as his current experience, through extensive worldwide travel, which exposed him to other civilizations, religions, and assumptions about the nature of things, it was inevitable that Western man in particular would question his most foundational assumptions about what it means to be human. This is the bringing together in thought of many disparate things widely disbursed in time and space which, once intuited in a flash of insight, reveal a hidden unity underlying human experience in space and time. This Wagner called the “Wonder.” He also called it the “Purely Human,” i.e., what’s universal about man. His musical motifs of reminiscence and foreboding accomplish this with respect to the conceptual and emotional content of the Ring drama. Wagner noted that music, unlike language, can universally be understood by all (of course, we know that for many folks alien forms of music are indigestible, but I’m a lifelong explorer of what one might call the varieties of music found throughout the world).
P. 18: “The second strand in Wagner’s critique of modern art concerns our loss of ‘wonder’ before the artwork.”
PH: Wagner stated that religious Wonder, which depends on absolute, unquestioning faith in things which man doesn’t understand, would in modern times be replaced by secular, artistic Wonder, particularly by his musical motifs of reminiscence and foreboding, which, by virtue of being associated with different elements of the drama, seem to condense into a feeling what for thought is disbursed widely in time and space, thus granting the audience the feeling of having transcended time and space and causation. In other words, Wagner’s musical motifs were his substitute for dying religious faith. It’s no accident that Wagner regarded Brünnhilde as his metaphor for his special music, and particularly for his musical motifs, which know for the characters their deepest, hidden, even unconscious motives, and even past lives (like Siegfried’s past life as Wotan, which Brünnhilde knows for Siegfried). Brünnhilde, the secret repository of Wotan’s confession (of the hidden meaning of the entire Ring cycle), tells Siegfried that what he doesn’t know she knows for him.
P. 20: “A further aspect of the Enlightenment the Romantics found destructive was its debunking of religion. (…) / … the question the Romantics faced was this: since reason cannot support religion, … where should we look for, in Hölderlin’s words, a ‘return of the gods’? And their answer was; to art. This … is Wagner’s answer as well.”
PH: This thesis is the very essence of my life’s work, since I believe I’ve demonstrated that Wagner’s Ring plot dramatizes the dying out of religious faith (Wotan’s withdrawal from the world) and its replacement by inspired secular art, Siegfried the artist-hero’s loving relationship with his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration Brünnhilde being Wagner’s metaphor for it. Wotan himself tells Erda that he willingly embraces the twilight of the gods since his ideals live on in his heirs Siegfried and Brünnhilde, whom he believes will redeem the world from Alberich’s Ring Curse (the curse of conscious thought). It also dramatizes Wagner’s and Wotan’s loss of belief in redemption through social revolution (represented by Siegmund), and his turning inward towards his own art (Wotan’s confession to his unconscious mind Brünnhilde) as a consequence of loss of faith in religion and social revolution in the face of science’s replacement of man’s belief in his transcendent value with objective understanding of mortal man’s true place and origin in Nature.
P. 20-21: Note 4: Young describes Wagner’s employment of a Norse parable concerning the third Norn’s gift of a ‘never-contented mind always brooding on the new.’ “The capacity for continual ‘self-transformation,’ historically possessed by Europe but conspicuously lacked by China, is due, Nietzsche writes, to its ‘malcontent.’ This is very likely one of the many hidden debts that Nietzsche’s later thought owes to his earlier mentoring by Wagner.”
PH: Wagner was a great student of both biological (Feuerbach’s pre-Darwin speculations on the natural evolution of animal into man) and cultural evolution, and recognized, as Feuerbach did, that the West had a unique capacity for reinventing itself which other more traditional cultures lacked. What Wagner said of the Chinese, Feuerbach said of Islamic Nations, that they’d allowed themselves to become frozen in time, discouraging novelty, heresy, and free-thinking.
P. 21: Note 8: “There is … no sign of a Feuerbachian influence in any of Wagner’s writings prior [to] 1849.”
PH: My research has shown a great likelihood that Wagner’s librettos for Tannhäuser and Lohengrin were heavily influenced by Feuerbach. In fact, Tannhäuser’s complaint to Venus that he needs pain and the seasons and time and death is almost quoted from some of Feuerbach’s observations, and Lohengrin is Feuerbachian through-and-through.
P. 31: Young remarks that due to the innumerable, comparatively petty, contingent relations and circumstances which hobble historical figures, Wagner abandoned history in exchange for myth, abandoned Barbarossa for Siegfried, as a subject for his Ring, as a mythical hero was more suitable for musical treatment. But he also notes that in Siegfried and Wagner’s other mythic figures he wouldn’t merely present a universal archetype, but also fully fleshed out realistic characters.
PH: In my interpretation Wotan’s confession of corrupt world-history to the womb of his wishes Brünnhilde is transformed by her, his unconscious mind, into music, musical motifs, and he’s reborn as Siegfried, the hero who doesn’t know who he is (Wotan) because Brünnhilde knows his true identity for him. In this way Brünnhilde protects Siegfried from Wotan’s foresight of the end and from Wotan’s paralyzing fear. Siegfried thus is fearless. In fact, the first and only time Siegfried feels fear is when he’s about to wake Brünnhilde in S.3.3: Siegfried has intuited that he’s about to take possession of Wotan’s confession to Brünnhilde, whose unspoken secret, which he tells her he dare not say aloud, she keeps. Wotan, historical man, through Brünnhilde, is transformed into mythic, timeless man, Siegfried. For this reason Cosima recorded Wagner as stating that Siegfried lives entirely in the present, the greatest gift of the will (and Brünnhilde calls herself Wotan’s “will” just prior to his confession to her).
Through Wagner’s characterization of his protagonists he grants each a particular character but through his musical motifs always keeps in view their allegorical, archetypal significance.
P. 36: Note 10: Young speaks of Wagner’s notion that there is a fundamental ur-myth behind all specific myths, which conveys a mythic world-view.
PH: As I’ve stated both at www.wagnerheim.com and in my newly published study of Wagner’s Ring, I regard Wagner’s Ring as his Master-Myth, in reference to which we can grasp the allegorical meaning of his other operas and music-dramas. I believe he felt that with his Ring he’d unveiled man’s universal Ur-Myth with respect to which all particular myths can be understood.
P. 41: “Since Christianity is the expression of human self-disgust, it can never, claims Wagner, produce art.”
PH: Wotan confesses to Brünnhilde that he finds, with loathing, only always himself in all that he undertakes, and Alberich has taught Wotan that behind even Wotan’s most seemingly noble impulses lurks mere egoism. Wotan is, after all, “Light-Alberich,” and Alberich’s Ring Motif H17ab gives musical birth to the first two segments of Wotan’s Valhalla Motif H18ab. Wotan longs for a hero who will be free from what he loathes in himself, and this longing, confessed to the womb of Wotan’s wishes Brünnhilde, figuratively gives birth to Siegfried, who evidently is purged of all knowledge of what Wotan loathed in himself and feared, thanks to Brünnhilde knowing this for Siegfried. Though Siegfried’s birth-mother is Sieglinde, Brünnhilde knows Sieglinde is pregnant with Siegfried when Sieglinde doesn’t, and actually names Siegfried without consulting Sieglinde. It’s no wonder Siegfried confuses Brünnhilde with his mother Sieglinde who died giving him birth (Wagner’s symbol for the artist-hero’s inheritance of Wotan’s sin against Mother Earth’s - Erda’s - knowledge of all that was, is, and will be). In any case, Wotan is reborn in Siegfried as religious man’s futile longing for transcendence is reborn in Wagnerian music-drama, as dangerous thought is repressed and sublimated into blissful feeling.
P. 47: “… Wagner … seems to believe that theater depends on the unwilling suspension of disbelief: we need to be tricked, fooled, duped into a suspension of disbelief … . And that is a serious mistake.”
PH: My reading is that Wagner simply didn’t want any of the conventional distractions in the theater which break the spell he wishes to weave. He didn’t want the critical mind intervening, but wanted his audience to experience his artworks naively, and almost involuntarily, as in a dream.
P. 57: “According to the logic of Wagner’s early philosophy … Jews … must be embraced by his universalism. That Wagner never makes this consequence explicit is a failing in his character but not in his theory [of the ‘Purely-Human’].”
PH: An aspect of my interpretation of Wagner’s Ring is that Wotan is forced by Alberich to see egoism behind all of Wotan’s seemingly most noble and spiritual impulses, and Wagner identifies this consciousness of truth with Judaism. Wotan’s “going-under” by confessing all that he loathes in his own nature and fears to Brünnhilde, in whose feeling Wotan is transfigured and reborn as the seemingly innocent Siegfried, has special relevance to a proper understanding of the degree to which anti-Semitism influences the Ring. Hitler during a speech whose provenance I can’t recall once stated something quite striking while addressing the Germans. He said that they must purge the Judaism in their own hearts, or something like that. The point is that Wotan comes to see his own egoism behind all of his longings for something higher and redemptive, which is why he gives up his hope for redemption through Siegmund (Wagner’s metaphor for the social revolutionary who hopes to redeem society through compassionate, heroic social action). Wagner came to identify Judaism with his own fear (expressed by Wotan in his confession) that ultimately man is nothing more than a language-using animal motivated at bottom only by egoism, even in man’s quest to redeem himself from himself. He found this problem discussed at length by Feuerbach, and dramatized it in Wotan’s self-doubt. Wagner linked this consciousness of the bitter truth with Judaism’s claims upon Christianity, Jesus being a Jew and Christianity being, in a sense, a cult which grew out of Judaism (mixed with Greek philosophy and Zoroastrianism and other Persian and Middle-Eastern millenarian religions).
P. 58-59: “Myths, one might think, are specific to particular cultures. But Wagner suggests that they are in fact universal (CF, 333-36). (…) Underlying this diversity of myth, however, will be the unitary and unifying meaning of the Ur-myth.”
PH: Discussed previously. I’ve always taken Wagner’s Ring to be his reconstruction of what he takes to be man’s universal Ur-Myth.
P. 59: Referencing Wagner’s universal artwork of the future, Young says: “In place of Christianity’s supernaturalism, its life-denying ‘longing for death’ … , however, will be the life-affirmation, the celebration of the human condition, that he finds in the plastic arts of the Greeks.”
PH: The problem Wagner encountered as he wrote the Ring libretto is that the modern, secular, but inspired artist-hero, while not dogmatically renouncing the objective physical world in favor of a spiritual realm (of the imagination), nonetheless perpetuates religious man’s longing for transcendence, but through feeling rather than as an assertion of fact (that man can be redeemed and live eternally a spiritual life). It’s because Siegfried and Brünnhilde unconsciously perpetuate Wotan’s sin of pessimism towards the real world, all that was, is, and will be, that they like Wotan and the gods go down to destruction at the hands of Alberich’s Ring Curse, as Brünnhilde says herself in her final monologue. Alberich designed his Ring Curse specifically to punish all those whose happiness depends on sustaining the illusion of man’s transcendent value, and that includes the Valhallan gods and Wotan’s proxies, the three Wälsungs, and Brünnhilde. All go down to destruction at the hands of Alberich’s Ring Curse.
General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung
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