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Wagner Bicentennial Symposium  
Wagner, Nietzsche, & the New Suprahumanist Myth, Part 1

4,140 words

Richard Wagner, Gem. von Franz v.Stuck - Richard Wagner, Paint. by Franz v.Stuck - [1]Part 1 of 3

“I simply said to you that Wagner was the greatest man who ever lived. I didn’t say that he was God himself, but I was tempted . . .”

— Pierre Louÿs (letter to Debussy)

“‘Let us look one century ahead, and let us suppose my attack against two thousand years of unnaturalness and the desecration of man should succeed. That new party of life which tackles the greatest of all tasks, the upward breeding of mankind, including the pitiless annihilation of everything decadent and parasitic, that party will once more make possible that exuberance of life on earth out of which a Dionysian condition will again arise.”

— Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo


Richard Wagner’s mature artistic work (from The Ring of the Nibelung to Parsifal) is the “representation” of a new myth: a founding myth which started a new historical tendency.

Besides representing it, Wagner also attempted to formulate this myth in his theoretical writings. However, it was, above all, in Friedrich Nietzsche’s formulation that it circulated throughout Europe during the last century. The identity of a myth represented by Wagner and formulated by Nietzsche has often been felt, though rarely recognized, largely because Nietzsche deliberately concealed the Wagnerian origin of his Zarathustrian vision.

As Giorgio Locchi argued in Wagner, Nietzsche e il mito sovrumanista,[1] The Ring of the Nibelung represents, together with Also sprach Zarathustra, the eruption onto the European scene of a “Zeit-Umbruch” — a “discontinuity” with the dominant world view of the previous two thousand years; and represents also the arrival of a radically new historical tendency — though one which nevertheless claims to have its origin in the remotest past, in the founding myths of Indo-European culture.

Since an historical tendency, once it appears, will manifest itself in the most varied forms and human fields, both openly and underground, the attempt to define it will be far from  easy, especially if it must be grasped in its first articulation — which is inevitably obscure, owing to its utter novelty. In any case, at the beginning of the 20th century the emergence of this new tendency within European society and culture was becoming evident from the opposition growing towards another (bimillenial) tendency — that  which gave birth to the Christian West.

The German historian Ernst Troeltsch wrote:

Whoever believes in the existence of an eternal natural or divine law, that humanity has a common and universal foundation, will see in the anti-western part of German thought a strange combination of mysticism and brutality. But whoever considers that history is a continuous creation of individual living forms — ordered according to a law that changes incessantly — will see in western ideas the product of an arid rationalism, a leveling atomism; in short: a combination of banality and pharisaism.[2]

“Western” in Troeltsch’s text denotes the culture with roots in the value system introduced into Europe by Christianity, and also the historical tendency Nietzsche labelled the “egalitarian movement,” By “anti-western part of German thought,” Troeltsch instead designates the opposing tendency, which — diffusing throughout Europe with Nietzsche himself as point of reference — may be called “suprahumanist,” despite its being constituted historically with the work of Richard Wagner.

The characteristic traits of the new tendency reside in its particular conception of history as “continuous creation based on a law that changes incessantly,” and of historicity as the definition of what is “specifically human,” Both concepts (history and historicity) may be identified with consciousness; and they are bound to the idea of three-dimensional time — named “tri-static” by Martin Heidegger.

The adversaries of the new tendency have claimed that an aversion to rationalism — or even “irrationalism” — is the distinctive trait of Suprahumanism. Such is the thesis, for instance, of Peter Viereck in an essay that created a school: Metapolitics: From Wagner and the German Romantics to Hitler; or György Lukàcs’s Die Zerstörung der Vernunft (The Destruction of Reason).[3] Viereck’s and Lukàcs’s studies may be included in a rich literature which counts among its epigones such authors as Robert Gutman, Hartmut Zelinsky, Paul Lawrence Rose, Marc Weiner, and Joachim Köhler.[4]

The adversaries of the suprahumanist tendency confound — innocently or intentionally – “irrationalism” and “irrationality.” The exponents of Suprahumanism, even where they claim to be “irrationalists,” and therefore hostile to “rationalist” philosophies, do not consider their world outlook at all “irrational.” For suprahumanists, reason is but one of the faculties of intelligence — an instrument; for their adversaries it is both the foundation and the end of historical, even cosmic, becoming.

Essentially, the debate concerns the limits of human reason. However, from the start it has been set up inappropriately. It started at cross purposes, owing to the type of expression the suprahumanist tendency gave, and still gives, to its intuition and to its conception of man and world. This form of expression is myth. Richard Wagner has explicitly stated that he wished to “regenerate myth.” Nietzsche, in that strand of his work that may be referred to as “Zarathustrian prayer,” has deliberately proposed a “myth.” And always towards “myth” flowed the philosophical, artistic, or political currents of the 20th century associated with the suprahumanist tendency.

Characteristically, myth refers to fabulous narrative, or to a world conception expressed in a particular manner by primitive people or at the dawn of their civilization. On the contrary, suprahumanist authors connect the ideas of “myth” and of “revolution” within a vision of history in which the linearity of historical becoming is only apparent, and in which “origin’” is both in and derives from every “present,” Hence, myth is the immediate expression of a new — original and originative — world outlook — and, at the same time, the designation of a human “end” served by reason.

The gnoseological nature of the debate is highlighted by the controversy raised by Lukàcs. The Nietzschean “myth” is not offered as “objective,” Nietzsche explicitly acknowledges the arbitrariness of the “myth” he formulates, which is not interpretation of history alone, but historical project also. For Nietzsche, any “principle” concerning man and history cannot but be arbitrary; it is “moral prejudice” alone — the famous “Circe of philosophers” — which may induce man to imagine that a principle might be founded on an absolute. As with all Marxists, Lukàcs is, in contrast, convinced — and claims that — reason may “be founded on itself.” He asserts, more precisely, that reason may “be founded on itself critically,” and by so doing discover a principle that may be universally valid: of absolute value.

Marx and Marxists remain in Kantian positions: in a certain sense they acknowledge the limits of pure reason; but they also consider practical reason may respond to “ultimate questions.” In contrast, Nietzsche goes beyond Kant and becomes the upholder of absolute criticism. He asserts that it is impossible to offer “rational” responses to “ultimate questions” — including that concerning man’s freedom and historicity.

The Nietzschean critique of reason — which is absolute –discovers the impossibility for “reason” to found itself. Rather, it affirms that any “system of thinking,” any philosophy, any world conception that includes as its object of study “man as historicity,” that all such must be founded on “an act of human freedom,” Nietzsche regards all previous philosophers as mistaken about the nature of that “act,” as having interpreted it as deriving not from man’s freedom but rather from a transcendent law — to which man would be subjected. Hence, Nietzsche’s absolute critique of reason turns into an assertion that both man and historical becoming are free. It is indeed this “freedom of historical becoming” which makes possible the “regeneration of the myth” pursued by Richard Wagner. The “regeneration of the myth” is, in fact, the exercise of historical freedom by a human personality who sets his own will, as a new “origin,” against another human will: one which, deriving from the “past,” predominates in the objective “co-actuality.”

If one considers that “morality” is precisely the law that rules — or should rule — human behavior, it becomes clear that its specific content is always to be deduced from the definition of what man is: from an “idea of man,” one that is sometimes unconscious, unexpressed. Nietzsche considers that there is no single law of human behavior, and therefore of history. Rather, there exist potentially, in the absolute, as many laws as there are human personalities. In practical terms, macrohistorically, two opposed laws from time to time manifest themselves as opposed historical tendencies, incarnated by antagonistic human personalities. In history Nietzsche has observed conflict between two types of man, two adverse moralities that he describes as master and slave souls. Later, he has interpreted the evolution of this conflict — from the beginning of Christianism — as progressive assertion of slave morality: a tendency that, in relation to the end it pursued, he has wanted to label “egalitarian movement.”

Nietzsche’s “critical” and “historical” reflections are entirely independent of the “historical project” he conceives and proposes in his “Zarathustrian prayer.” Hence, his position opposes those of Marxists, liberals, and Christians, all of whom confuse inextricably — and posit an indissoluble interdependence of — theory of history and historical project.

Nietzsche conceives and proposes his “project” — together with a “morality” and “the ends to attain” — not to humankind, but exclusively to what he names “superior man.” He explicitly states that his purpose is arbitrary: that it derives from his personal taste (Geschmack), from his particular “aesthetic sensitivity,” from a personal value judgment.[5] However, his conception of history does not prejudge the future. He believes that the future of humankind — history — has two possibilities, indicated mythically: the coming of last man, or of superman. For Nietzsche, the “movement of the last man” is frighteningly palpable in Europe, and will lead to catastrophe. Such catastrophe is unavoidable, but may be transformed into a “high noontide,” should the “movement of the last man” — egalitarianism — be opposed by a counter movement — that which Nietzsche wishes to arouse with his Zarathustrian prayer: Suprahumanism.

Hence, the Nietzschean vision of history is “open.” He proclaimed the “innocence of becoming,” and also recognized — in the tracks of J. G. Herder, though long before philosophical anthropology — that man is an “incomplete animal”: always becoming. In Nietzsche, the statement “God is dead” constitutes translation of a newly-acquired consciousness of human historical freedom. By virtue of this new consciousness, man no longer believes himself governed by an historical law that transcends him, and that leads him, together with the whole of humankind, towards an end of history predetermined ab aeterno, or a principio. He knows that from hence, it is he who, in every historical “present,” must establish conflictually a law that will determine humankind’s future: a law which, at any other “present” of historical becoming, may be called conflictually into question and which hence varies incessantly.

It has been said that “humankind” does not exist historically. This means that man is not historically determined by being of the animal species. The behavior of any other animal consists, observably, in repetition of the pre-determined behaviour of that zoological species. An animal does nothing but repeat the “past”; it lives in the past of the species — a past which may certainly manifest alteration, though not because of “biological decision,” but rather from chemical or microphysical causes. The biological, along with the macrophysical, phenomenon — although in a different way, entails cyclical repetition of the past. As such it is, at any time, pre-determined. Human life also entails cyclical repetition, and hence becomes registered in the observable/phenomenological/empirical time of the species. However, man’s historical existence is not life and should not be confused with it. Man’s historical existence is not registered in empirical time, but rather in historical time. As long as it remains in that historical time, it is becoming that never concludes: becoming that becomes.

The suprahumanist myth is — in a fundamental aspect — a new vision of history, intuiting that the law of historical becoming “varies incessantly” in every present: becoming that becomes, authentic historical becoming. The suprahumanist vision considers history within a specific time which is neither linear nor one-dimensional, as with the previous visions — cyclical in antiquity and parabolic in Christianity — but is, rather, three-dimensional.

A “vision of history” is a fundamental aspect of any Weltanschauung — global vision of the world. It is not only interpretation of the past, but also commitment in actuality and project into the future. As such, it becomes part of epochal conflict — conflict that remains undecided and whose outcome cannot be predicted. Indeed, our epoch is characterized by conflict between egalitarian and suprahumanist tendencies — and choice concerns man’s historical existence.

Man’s historical existence is but possibility. The “coming of the superman” in the Nietzschean formulation of suprahumanist myth is merely an image of possibility — as opposed to that of the “coming of the last man.” The superman represents a possibility that must be eternally re-conquered: as long, that is, as man remains in history and keeps choosing historical existence. If “in the past” mankind might have believed existential-historical choice was to be made between two possible historical destinies, the suprahumanist myth, as opposed to the egalitarian tendency (in its mythical, ideological or critical expressions),[6] proclaims that the choice today concerns the very same historical existence of man: re-generation of history or end of history; reaffirmation of human historicity or leap to the “kingdom of freedom” — to pure “happiness,” the generic indifference of the animal species.


Richard Wagner may be considered the most magnetic and powerful artistic voice of the 19th century, and a profound influence on modernity. From Wagner’s death until the First World War, composers, painters, philosophers, novelists, dramatists, and poets strove mightily to come to terms with his strangely vibrant, and living, legacy. No composer before or since has left such an enduring mark on the course of cultural history. Few artists have embraced public life so assiduously, and inspired so much controversy — in politics as well as in art.[7]

Richard Wagner, especially his Ring of the Nibelung an epic masterpiece of musical genius — represents a milestone and, arguably, the completion of a parabola symbolized by the great European tradition of tonal and polyphonic music, extending from Johann Sebastian Bach and his contemporaries to Mozart and Beethoven, and culminating, after Wagner, in Richard Strauss and Carl Orff.[8]

“Classical music,” far from a universal phenomenon, constitutes a specific geographical and cultural epoch without equal in other eras or civilizations. Indeed, even in pre-Bachian Europe, the music the Church imposed on the Catholic ecumene was based on repetition of Greco-Roman musical tradition, which was fundamentally of Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern origin and, arguably, deriving from an exclusive melodic sensitivity.

Shortly after Carolingian times — with the forced conversion of Saxon tribes that followed the Massacre of Verden and the restoration of the Empire — another musical sensitivity (in this case harmonic ) starts to penetrate the musical universe of the Church, which had remained secluded until that point. What might have been the origin of such new sensitivity?

Musicologists refer to a “pagan residue” existing in the indigenous cultures of Northern Europe.[9] Undoubtedly, a tonal system emerged, after a few centuries, from the opposition of the Church tradition and that of the indigenous music culture of Northern Europe.

As for Richard Wagner, The Ring — the fifteen-hour grand cycle of operatic, theatrical, and literary representation, comprising one “Prelude” (Das Rheingold) and “three Evenings” (Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung) — has been described as “total work of art,” It is impossible to comprehend in its entirety merely by reading the poem or listening to the music privately. Full comprehension requires attending its representation on stage — ideally in the privileged emplacement of Bayreuth.

Together with Parsifal, The Ring has been, until very recently, in the annual program of the Bayreuth Festival, and it was conceived by Wagner as a sacral rite in the regeneration of history.[10] He believed art might redeem a culture, a society — and its people. Wagner likened the theatre to a temple of Aryan art and mystic rite, and through the Teutonic myth he found elements which would consecrate higher folk-consciousness, and an upward path to the Übermensch.

Only Ancient Greece offers anything similar. In fact, Wagner has been often compared to Homer, only for it to be concluded by Herbert von Karajan, that “Wagner is greater and more complete.”[11]

The key to understanding the suprahumanist myth lies in an “idea of music” that sustains and structures Wagner’s work of art: the living symbol of history’s three-dimensional time.

In Wagner, music, drama (i.e. tragedy) and myth are closely related. Music, according to him, is an idea of the world: more precisely, “an idea of the world that encloses everything.” Tragedy is born out of music, as if emerging from a maternal womb. It re-presents — realizes on stage — this “idea” of music, and does so by regenerating myth, the only form of expression able to reach and recover original purity — which Wagner names “the purely Human” (Rein-Menschliches).[12]

Wagner does not explain this idea of the world. Rather, he realizes it by means of the Wort-Ton-Drama: that is, by the association within dramatic action of word and sound. Hence, this idea organizes space-time in a radically new way: by establishing humankind’s historical becoming in the form of a tragedy governed by the law of recurrence. At any time, past, present, and future coincide. Becoming is there: only the centre changes, as well as the perspectives resulting from it. Wagner replaces a unilinear conception of time — which he rejects — with a three-dimensional time: the specific time of human becoming.

The image of the ring of the Nibelungs — which Ring gives its name to the Tetralogy — is the living symbol of the “spherical” conception of history: the music of eternal recurrence.

Always identical, though always renewed, Wagnerian discourse is structured around a certain number of “guiding images” (Leitbilder): the affirmation of becoming (in opposition to being); the premonition of a “rupture” of historical time (Zeit-Umbruch); the return to a mythical past associated with a leap into the future. To these images correspond different Leitmotive (“guiding motifs”), which constitute their musical transpositions.

The Ring constitutes dramatic representation of the ancient destiny myths of gods and heroes, whose memory the Scandinavian Edda and several German medieval poems had perpetuated. But it is more than that. Wagner’s imagination has transfigured what was hitherto a mere collection of literary fossils: the past that he has chosen and freely reconstituted, the actuality he has given to the old stories, the future that he projects — all these structure a new present of human consciousness. From the birth of a world till its demise — which is also conceived as regeneration and re-commencement — an entire history of humankind is prodigiously evoked. Moreover, that history is simultaneously past, current — and coming — and is sustained by an anthropological conception — the Rein-Menschliches — which implies radical value reversal. Brought back to life from its millennial tomb, the ancient Germanic myth acquires a new dimension, and at the same time recovers an intoxicating barbarian youth.

It is not at random that Wagner chose the mythical material of the Edda to represent his idea of the world. Rather, the choice imposed itself on him from necessity, insofar as it corresponded to the choice of one past among others: the choice of a deeper past — that of reconquest of origins and the promise of a longer future. Return to origins, which in egalitarian and Christian romantic discourse was an apparently reactionary lapsus through which pagan unconsciousness found expression, finds in Wagnerian discourse its proper logic — and hence its true countenance.

Structured by and around “the idea of music” — the three-dimensionality of time — and finally conscious of itself, Wagnerian discourse is both inspiration for a return to our deepest origins, and zeal to thrust forward into the furthest future: a revolutionary project. Hence, conservation and revolution both confound one another and fuse together in opposition to a civilization and a society that reclaim another tradition, Jewish-Christian, and another project, egalitarian.

Wotan, the central character of The Ring, is not only the Indo-European pre-Christian God of the first function, the unrecognizable noumenon of an extinct and unrepeatable religion, but is already the new post-humanist God: the Third Man,[13] who knows tragically that he has to take care of his destiny, of his own self-creation. By so doing, he tends towards the suprahuman.

For the tragedy of heroes and gods does not find realization other than in the tragedy of Wotan: in a consciousness which knows and nevertheless wills. Hence, since everything is summarized and transcended in Wotan’s consciousness, as all the characters in the Ring are aspects of the purely human — Rein-menschliches — embodied in one person, Wotan, the Ring is psycho-drama. Drama, that is, in which Wagner’s genius projects all the Leitbilder — which precede psycho-analysis by decades. Wotan sacrifices his most intimate will, suppressing what he most loves, Brünnhilde, surrounding her with fire. That fire is no other than Loge himself — the spirit who betrays Wotan — and is the very image of declining paganism accepting the fate of the Christian mask. However, his most intimate will is not destroyed: it lies dormant. Its presence invokes the person who will come to awaken it; and this is the end for which the god is waiting — the beginning of a new history: a regeneration.

The English philosopher Roger Scruton has remarked that:

contemporary Wagner productions domesticate the dramas, betraying a fear of sublime experience and the power of myth. Taking myth seriously is Wagner’s “big idea,” Wagner’s mature operas concern heroes moving in a mythic realm, and who are prompted by emotions lifted free of ordinary human contingency and endowed with cosmic significance and force. In such works as the Ring and Tristan and Parsifal, the human condition is idealised, as it might be in narratives and liturgy drawn from a religion. To take these operas seriously is to be drawn into a peculiar modern project: that of remaking the gods from human material. This project identifies both the artistic triumph of Wagner, and the hostility with which that triumph is often greeted.[14]

Today the adversaries of the suprahumanist tendency, perhaps unconsciously, fear Wagner more than Nietzsche — who for a time was considered the bigger “threat,” Ultimately, Nietzsche may have been “just a philosopher,” despite having at his disposal all the resources of poetic seduction. Consequently, he addresses himself to intelligence, making it easier to distort and falsify his message. In contrast, Wagner, although using all the means of poetry, was above all “a musician.” Music speaks directly to the soul — to sensitivity and to the imagination — and disarms ill-intentioned interpreters, rendering their blatant falsifications pitiful and ridiculous. Opponents become unaware servers of the Wagnerian project.


[1] Giorgio Locchi, Nietzsche, Wagner e il Mito Sovrumanista (Rome: Akropolis, 1982).

[2] Ernst Troeltsch, Deutscher Geist und Westeuropa (Aalen: Scientia Verlag, 1966).

[3] Peter Viereck, Metapolitics: From Wagner and the German Romantics to Hitler, 1941 (Piscataway, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, Expanded edition, 2003); György Lukàcs, Destruction of Reason (Durban, Clearway Logistics Phase 1a, 1998).

[4] See, Robert W. Gutman, Richard Wagner: The Man, His Mind, and His Music (New York: Harvest/HBJ, 1968); Harmut Zelinsky, Richard Wagner – ein deutsches Thema. Eine Dokumentation zur Wirkungsgeschichte Richard Wagners 1876–1976 (Frankfurt: Zweitausendeins, 1976); Paul Lawrence Rose, Wagner: Race and Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996) and Joachim Köhler, Wagner’s Hitler: The Prophet and His Disciple (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000).

[5] ‘What is now decisive against Christianity is our taste, no longer our reasons’ (Nietzsche, Friedrich: The Gay Science).

[6] See The Revolt of the Slaves, page 24.

[7] Wagnerism already during the composer’s life became a phenomenon of great relevance. Apart from the well-known role played by Liszt, the young Nietzsche, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Bruckner, or Houston Stewart Chamberlain, it is interesting to recall the Wagnerian fanaticism of Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, Édouard Schuré, Édouard Dujardin, Catulle Mendès, and Bernard Shaw.

[8] See Werner Kunz, Die Brücke von Bach zu Wagner (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1965).

[9]  See Thrasybulos Georgiades, Music and Language: The Rise of Western Music as Exemplified in Settings of the Mass (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

[10] “Bayreuth symbolizes the Regeneration and Redemption of humankind through Art” in Jean-Edouard Spenlé, La Pensée Allemande (Paris: A. Colin, 1934).

[11] See Richard Osborne, Herbert Von Karajan: A Life in Music (London: Chatto & Windus Ltd., 1998).

[12] See Alain de Benoist, “Bayreuth et le Wagnerisme,” in Vu de Droite (Paris: Copernic, 1977).

[13] See page 67 et seq.

[14] Roger Scruton, “Desecrating Wagner,” Prospect Magazine, April 20, 2003. See also from R. Scruton: Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Source: “Wagner, Nietzsche and the Suprahumanist Myth” is chapter 12 of a forthcoming book: Suprahumanism: European Man and the Regeneration of History. The is both a personal synthesis of the ideas of Giorgio Locchi — the “guru” of the first GRECE (1968–1979) — and an inquiry into current trends applying his analytical method. It will be introduced by Norman Lowell of Imperium Europa. More information can be obtained at the site: www.suprahumanism.com [2]
and its author contacted via e-mail: [email protected] [3]