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Wagner and Philosophy by Bryan Magee

Ralph Blumenau devours Bryan Magee’s new book about Wagner the philosophical composer.

In 1968 Bryan Magee published an influential little book called Aspects of Wagner (now in an OUP paperback) and then, in 1983, a magisterial work, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer (also now in an OUP paperback). In the superb volume under review he combines his two enthusiasms in another beautifully and lucidly written book. The front of the cover has a portrait of Wagner and the back carries one of Schopenhauer; and, indeed, the relationship between these two is the subject of the bulk of the work; but it is preceded by a discussion of the influence of Feuerbach’s philosophy on the composer; and it concludes with a fascinating chapter on Wagner’s influence on Nietzsche. This is followed by an appendix discussing whether Wagner’s anti-Semitism had any influence on his operas.

In his youth Richard Wagner (1813- 1883) was a left-wing radical and, at the age of 35, had played an active part in the Dresden uprising of 1849. The brand of left-wing philosophy he espoused was Anarchism: the theory of Proudhon, adopted and somewhat quixotically championed by Bakunin (whom Wagner knew) was that all government, being based on force, is corrupt. For his part in the revolution, he had to flee to Switzerland, and while there, he read another left-wing philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach. Feuerbach also condemned relationships based on power: they should instead be based on love. One of Wagner’s earliest operas, Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love, 1836) had already extolled a love which burst through the bounds of the conventional institutions that tried to trammel it, and in his later operas, Wagner proclaims that love should recognise no barriers, not even should they be those of adultery or incest. Feuerbach also held that all religions are man-made: they convey no theological truths, but, when we create our own myths about the gods, we express the deepest truths about ourselves. This idea was also to influence Wagner for the rest of his life, and shapes the ideas in his operas.

It was in Switzerland that Wagner began work on The Ring Cycle. He wrote the libretto for all of its four operas around 1850; but Gotterdammerung, the last of the cycle, was not composed until a quarter of a century later. The music for Das Rheingold, the first of the four, was completed in 1853. That opera had an almost overtly political message: the lust for power has destroyed the natural order of things and is destructive of love. Moreover, it does not make much difference whether the power is exercised with good intentions (as by Wotan) or with bad ones (as by Alberich and Mime) – even well-intentioned wielders of power have to use force and are drawn into dishonourable compromises and deceit. This is a view that many of the anarchists were sympathetic to, their objective being to liberate society by political means from all kinds of external control. Wagner had already in his writings (The Work of Art of the Future, 1849; Opera and Drama, 1850/51) attributed to music – his kind of music, not the commercial music which he claimed was then reigning in the Paris opera houses – the mission and the power to liberate society.

However, by the time he had finished Rheingold, he had undergone a momentous conversion. To begin with, he had become disillusioned with politics. The 1848 revolutions had failed; and when Louis Napoleon staged his authoritarian coup in 1851, he despaired that the world could ever be improved by political action. It was while he was in the deepest depression that, in 1854, he discovered the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860).

For Schopenhauer, art (and music as the highest of the arts) also has a liberating role – but for him, art did not liberate one from social oppression but from the world as a whole.

Schopenhauer had a bleak and pessimistic view of the world. We are dominated by an impersonal Will which relentlessly drives us to struggle against the sufferings of the world and which fills us with restless and unattainable longings. For Nietzsche, later, there would be a fierce joy in accepting the Will and cooperating with it; but for Schopenhauer the Will was a terrible affliction. If only we could free ourselves from its thrall! Schopenhauer thought that there were a few escape routes: one was the difficult one of renunciation, usually associated with asceticism; another was to lose oneself in art. In these ways we could escape from the sufferings in the phenomenal world (the world of appearances) into the ethereal realm of the noumenal world. After he had formulated this idea, he found it present in Buddhism and Hinduism: the Buddhist, too, aspires to Nirvana, where the coils of the world no longer tie him down.

Wagner had already expressed this longing for nothingness in The Flying Dutchman (1841); and he had already preached the redemptive power of music. He had then come to the conclusion that society was actually irredeemable, and this had plunged him into his profound depression. Now Schopenhauer showed him that redemption was possible for individuals even if it was not possible for society. He had intuitively used the motif of renunciation in The Flying Dutchman, in Tannhauser (1845) and in Lohengrin (1848). He now found his intuition articulated in the philosophy of Schopenhauer. He even found that the shape of the entire libretto for the Ring, which, it will be remembered, had been conceived as early as 1850, although the music for the end of the cycle had yet to be composed, had moved from the quasi-political nature of Rheingold to the metaphysical message of the Gotterdammerung. From 1854 until his death Wagner steeped himself in Schopenhauer; and Magee traces the way in which the composer quite specifically and deliberately introduced one Schopenhauerian idea after another into his libretti and into the music which was conceived with more intensely philosophical meaning than any music had ever been before. The whole of Tristan and Isolde (1860) is about a yearning so intense and unfulfillable that it can only end with the death that both lovers wish for and that alone can unite them: this is not only the story told on the stage, but also that told in the music, in which the only resolution of its dissonances is the final chord.

Schopenhauer had written that in the noumenal world that lies behind appearances everything is an inseparable part of the One, and we are therefore all part of one another. We sometimes glimpse this intuitively, and this recognition, he believed, was the basis of Compassion. Compassion was therefore another way of escaping the fetters of the ruthless Will that operates in the noumenal world. It is this idea which is one theme in Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal (1881). Because of the Christian symbols that figure in this work, it has often been taken to be a Christian work. Magee argues powerfully against this: Wagner was no more a committed Christian when he composed Parsifal than he had been a committed pagan when he put the Germanic gods on the stage in the Ring. In any case, in Parsifal it is a human being and not Christ who is shown as the redeemer of the world. Wagner still believed what Feuerbach had taught him – that all religions say something significant about our innermost nature. In Religion and Art (1880), Wagner had said quite specifically that “it is for art to salvage the essence of religion” which is not a literal but a figurative truth; and the figurative truths of Parsifal are as much embodied in Buddhism as they are in Christianity. Indeed, for about twenty years Wagner had toyed with the idea of writing an opera with a Buddhist scenario, to be called Die Sieger (The Conquerors, in the sense of those who conquer or overcome their thrall to the world.)

Nietzsche was one who claimed that Wagner had ‘sold out’ to Christianity in the libretto of Parsifal; and Magee’s last chapter before the appendix deals with the influence that Wagner had on Nietzsche. As is well known, Nietzsche began as a hero worshipper of Wagner. (Nietzsche was also initially a devotee of Schopenhauer, loved Greek drama, and allocated an exalted role to the redemptive power of music). Later, pace Magee, Nietzsche had an obsessive need to become independent and to escape from Wagner’s influence. He broke violently with Wagner (and with Schopenhauer also), and launched a series of tirades against Wagner’s outlook, each of which Magee parries with vigorous refutation. He accounts for the breach almost entirely in terms of Nietzsche’s psychology, although he readily admits that Nietzsche’s philosophy was itself of towering importance and influence. I think Magee’s refutations of Nietzsche’s charges are valid, although one is struck throughout the book by the superlatives which Magee constantly showers on Wagner’s thought and work. One of Nietzsche’s specific charges against Wagner – that Wagner’s anti-Semitism was vulgar and despicable – is not mentioned in this chapter at all; however, Magee does devote the Appendix to the question. In a lecture at the book-launch, Magee explained that he had put it into an appendix partly because he did not regard anti-Semitism as a philosophy and therefore not part of the subject of the book. Like any right-thinking person, he finds Wagner’s anti-Semitism totally repellent. Even if it were a philosophy, however, Magee argues that there is no justification for seeing anti-Semitism playing any role in the operas. He rejects the idea that Mime, Alberich, Beckmesser, and Kundry were intended to be Jewish types, although many productions of the operas, especially during the Nazi period, portrayed them as such, and many post-war writers have insisted that Wagner as an anti-Semite did mean to endow them with the stereotyped hateful Jewish characteristics. In any case, Magee concludes, Wagner’s genius as an artist is no more compromised by his anti-Semitism than is the genius of Dostoevsky by his. And to the genius of Wagner this book is splendid tribute.

© Ralph Blumenau 2001

Ralph Blumenau teaches philosophy at the University of the Third Age, in London. His book Philosophy and Living is due to be published by Imprint Academic in the Autumn.

Wagner and Philosophy by Bryan Magee (published by Allen Lane, £20)

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