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Wagner Bicentennial Symposium  
Wagner, Nietzsche, & the New Suprahumanist Myth, Part 2

Wagner-Death-Mask-Syberberg-Parsifal [1]2,373 words

Part 2 of 3


Given the concept of “tendency,” it is easy to see an intimate relation between the work of Wagner and of Nietzsche. They constitute the two poles of the “mythical field” of the suprahumanist tendency created in our age. It is important to stress this relation, for Nietzsche himself made a major maneuver of distraction, intending to demonstrate — perhaps first of all to himself — that his work distinguished itself, and even opposed in its intentionality, that of Richard Wagner. This exercise of concealment has often influenced determinatively the judgment of philosophers and intellectuals, naturally inclined to pay more attention to the “intellectual” work of Nietzsche than to Wagner’s “artistic” work.[1]

When young, Nietzsche had prostrated himself before the altar of “the god Wagner,” offering in homage Die Geburt der Tragödie (The Birth of Tragedy), followed by Richard Wagner in Bayreuth. However, the “wonderful days at Tribschen” were not to last. Nietzsche soon distanced himself from Wagner. The fervent disciple became an apostate: apologist became denigrator and uncompromising adversary. Nietzsche’s late work — Der Fall Wagner (The Wagner Case) and Nietzsche contra Wagner — gives every appearance of the venomous attack of disciple on former master. Wagner is “seducer,” “corrupter” — a “rattlesnake”: presenting himself as opposite to what he actually is. “Schopenhauerian,” “life hater” — Wagner becomes the ne plus ultra of decadence. Worse, with the creation of Parsifal he is seen to have fallen back into the Christian faith.[2]

Having started with an assault on Wagner’s music — decadent art par excellence — Nietzsche concludes by criticizing almost all German music — for leading inevitably to Wagner. He sets “pure melody” — described as “Mediterranean” — against “harmony” — “Nordic.” Frequently, his exegesis becomes mere caricature — as when, for example, he summarizes the “intrigues” of Wagnerian drama. At times his remarks become overtly malignant.

Nietzsche’s confrontation with Wagner has a tragic aspect. Nietzsche suffered greatly in distancing himself from the only man he had ever loved. However, this suffering arose from a kind of metaphysical jealousy. Nietzsche would have wished for the place in history accorded to Wagner. Hence, he needed to show that Wagner was not what he seemed — creator of a new myth, regenerator of history — nor could be, since music was itself a “final art.”

Many have remarked on Nietzsche’s jealousy. Thomas Mann addressed Nietzsche’s love-hate relationship with Wagner in Leiden und Grösse Richard Wagners.[3] Stefan George — who reproached Nietzsche with having “betrayed” Wagner — is more positive: “Without Wagner, no Birth of Tragedy, without the awakening initiated by Wagner, no Nietzsche.”[4] Although his jealousy was essentially intellectual, it crystallized around the person of Cosima Wagner. From the time of his first meeting with her at Tribschen (May 1869) Nietzsche was fascinated by her. He idealized her in the guise of Ariadne. Wagner was simultaneously Minotaur and Theseus, a human — all too human — hero; he, Nietzsche, was the divine Dionysos. In relation to this there are many revealing passages in the work of Nietzsche — in particular the dialogue between Dionysos and Ariadne in Die Götzen-Dämmerung (Twilight of the Idols).

Nietzsche saw himself as the unique harbinger of perpetual becoming, eternal recurrence — and superman: only he had reached the foot of the abyss of decadence; only in him did the beginning find its origin. Nietzsche alone was the true Dionysus. The German public had allowed itself to be led astray by Wagner the seducer; Ariadne had mistaken him for God, and married him.

In short, Nietzsche, the philosopher of perpetual becoming, could not endure Wagner’s expression of the philosophy in music. Nietzsche established the philosophical myth of the superman — Übermensch. He explained its logic and created a language for it. However, the myth existed already in the form of Wagnerian opera. Nietzsche merely gave a name to what already existed in music — but this he could never admit.

The structure and elements of the suprahumanist myth are already present in Wagner’s “Wotan myth.” In Nietzsche and in Wagner the same view of history, the same intuitive conception of man, predominates. Nietzsche’s “willing of the superman” corresponds to Wotan’s “will to regenerate the world.” To the “will to accept the end” in Götterdämmerung corresponds the Zarathustrian amor fati, the new conscience of the “superior man.” The temporal structure of the Wort-Ton-Drama, which represents the tragic history of humanity, is given a name by Nietzsche: “eternal recurrence” — “linear” representation of the historical sphere of becoming. The “high noon” of Zarathustra prefigures a similar breaking with time — Zeit-Umbruch — evoked, in the final scene of Götterdämmerung, by the wonderful Leitmotiv which has already promised the regeneration of Siegmund through his son Siegfried. The “return to origins” — another essential element of myth in The Ring — is represented doubly in Nietzsche’s writing: by the exaltation of the “blond beast” of the Indo-Europeans, and, at an artistic and cultural level, by pre-Socratic Greece. Both are lost forever, “historically unrenewable,” and must be recreated just as, for Wagner, the “end of the gods” is prerequisite for return of new gods.

In their respective works, Wagner and Nietzsche pursued the same end: the regeneration of history. The myth prefigures this aim and is also the means of attaining it. The myth is a “didactic account” which is to create the new man in his own words. The kinship between Wagner’s music dramas and the poetical philosophy of Nietzsche is comparable to the kinship, within egalitarian myth, of different Christian theologies and those with democratic, socialist, and communist ideals. If the kinship of Wagner to Nietzsche appears to be very close — as it is in fact — this is because both men mark the beginning of suprahumanist mythology: the moment of birth. They are the double star of a new planetary system of human thought.

That they belong in the same “mythical camp” does not, however, imply that in the myth they manifest the same ideological identity. In Richard Wagner in Bayreuth (1876), Wagner was still, for Nietzsche, a universal genius: simultaneously philosopher, historian, artist, master of diction and mythology — and mythic poet. In fact, Wagner the philosopher never succeeded in drawing philosophy from the myth created by Wagner the poet and musician. In his theoretical writing Wagner’s style is still that of Romanticism; and the mythical elements appear as if deformed by a discourse alien to them. Nietzsche realised this and became conscious of his superiority as a philosopher, a superiority Wagner was happy to acknowledge. Hence, Nietzsche’s opposition to Wagner, on the grounds that his theoretical work was imposture, was spurious.

However, Wagner and Nietzsche did genuinely diverge in the interpretations they gave to certain aspects of the civilization and culture they execrated. In the triumph of the “Judaic principle” Wagner identified and denounced the essential cause of the decline of humanity: the “poison” he claimed was destroying all real culture. For Wagner this was a relatively recent phenomenon. He attributed it, somewhat naïvely, to the rising social influence of the Jews, and to a resultant Jewish ascendancy in political, artistic, and cultural spheres. Consequently, the different “forms” of German culture — and European culture, also, beginning with the religious form, Christianity — are negative, insofar as they have been “invaded” and “perverted” by the “Judaic principle.” For Wagner, the necessary response to this was to revitalize the “Germanness” of cultural and social forms, and to begin doing so meant removing Jewish influence. Inevitably, Wagner’s analysis auspicated social and political anti-Semitism on his part.[5]

Nietzsche also considered the “Judaic principle” had provoked the debasement of man: that it is at the source of “the radical falsification of all nature, all naturalness, all reality”; that it initiated the revolt of the slaves; and that the West has been in decline since “God became a Jew.” To this principle — “a declaration of war against everything on earth that represents the ascending tendency of life, to that which has turned out well, to power, to beauty, to self-affirmation” — Nietzsche gives a socio-political definition, which he summarizes as the principle of equality. For Nietzsche, however, this is not a recent phenomenon: it began with Christianity.

Christianity cannot be understood separate from its place of origin: it is a consequence of Jewry, a logical progression from it. Nietzsche’s anti-Judaism does not lead to anti-Semitism. He doubted the existence of a “Jewish people” as such and believed that the Jews wished above all else to assimilate. On this basis all anti-Semitism is dangerous as it obliges the Jews to collaborate in self-defence. Furthermore, according to Nietzsche the damage done is in any case irreparable: no preventive measures might check the decay of European civilization. Nietzsche’s conclusion is that it is best even to accelerate the process of disintegration. Only on the ruins of Europe would it be possible to rebuild; only once Europeans have become a mass of innumerable slaves resigned to their fate might the master race arise from the abyss. In the autobiographical Ecce Homo, Nietzsche confirms that his “attack” on Wagner is also an attack upon a “German nation which is becoming ever more lazy in spiritual matters, ever more impoverished in its instincts.” The “blond beast” must be “reconceived” in the form of the future “good European.” Nietzsche did not altogether abandon hope in the German people; he was unable to see to what other people might one day be awarded the honor of being the “first anti-Christian people of Europe.”[6] However, his condemnation of Bismarck’s Germany — according to him socialist and democratic — is uncompromising. Wagner’s ironical compromise with the Kaiserreich was another source of disagreement.

Wagner and Nietzsche fought in the same cause, but their strategies were opposed. Nietzsche’s initial enthusiasm, his subsequent reconsideration — and finally his intensified criticism — took place only within, and can be explained only by the Wagnerian myth. Nietzsche was conscious, and spoke of, a Sternenfreundschaft: the friendship of two stars condemned in their predestined eternal course never to meet.

Moreover, Nietzsche qualified his venomous attack in Der Fall Wagner: “I loved Wagner and no other . . . Needless to say, I allow no one the right to appropriate my present judgment on Wagner.” Nietzsche saw his quarrel with Wagner as a family quarrel: his “anti-Wagnerian” polemic should have been the concern only of those whose attachment was already to the myth of the superman and the theme of eternal recurrence.

Perhaps the true reason — the necessity of the betrayal of the master — is to be found in the Apollonian commandment to every noble soul, to every “superior man,” to discover himself and to realize himself. Where the egalitarian precept demands the imposition of a truth unique and absolute – and, concomitantly, the adaptation of all to the same human model – the opposing precept necessarily pledges each person to the search for true identity in eagle-like solitude.

Such provides a new perspective to the suprahumanist myth, a myth which neither demands nor requires one mien. Wagner and Nietzsche each gave a different faith to the myth, and the myth has gained from the tension between its Wagnerian and Nietzschean aspects. Yet again we are reminded of the image of two stars. The immense philosophical, artistic, literary and, finally, political consequences of the suprahumanist myth — a movement to which Armin Mohler[7] gave the name “Conservative Revolution” — have always been characterised by tension between the Wagnerian and Nietzschean poles. It is Wagner, in his theoretical writing, more than Nietzsche who provides that “conservative revolution” with a coherent entirety of themes which remain emotive and relevant; meanwhile the political sketches drawn by Nietzsche prove too abstract in their concern with a future too distant. From that perspective, the “theatricality” which Nietzsche deplored in Wagnerian drama is actually effective — enabling the myth to penetrate where it had not previously been evident. The so-called “theatricality” of Wagner — which answers only to a superficial understanding of the drama — has become the exoteric aspect of the myth. This subordinate quality of the work conforms to the same principle: where an equality of intelligences and sensibilities does not exist, “information” has to be pluridimensional, in order to apply at every level.

Created at the dawn of the age of masses, Wagnerian drama is a Kunstwerk der Zukunft — a work of art of the future, by virtue of the hierarchical plurality of “information”: simultaneously initiative and propagandistic. What we call “propaganda,” and scorn or condemn, is the only effective means of reaching the masses. The misfortune today is that propaganda is unidimensional; what should be the adornment of more serious information is today the only information. In the realm of art this leads either to the disposable products of consumer society, or to the sterile self-indulgence of “experts.” Furthermore, from this perspective the pluridimensionalism of Wagner’s work exemplifies what a work of art should be in our time.


[1] See Richard Wagner 1, Nouvelle École no. 30 (Autumn–Winter 1978) and Richard Wagner 2, Nouvelle École nos. 31/32 (Spring 1979).

[2] A failed attempt to try to denigrate Wagner among suprahumanist partisans, not only because Parsifal, in its avowed intention to “redeem the redeemer” — Erlösung dem Erlöser — is simply “scandalous” from a Christian perspective, but also because its representation is intended to short-circuit and transfigure the Christian myth in the spirit of the spectator, in order the better to express values which are diametrically opposed to those advocated by all Christian denominations.

[3] See Thomas Mann, Pro and Contra Wagner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).

[4] See Robert E. Norton, Secret Germany: Stefan George and His Circle (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002).

[5] Wagner’s music is still unofficially banned for public performances in Israel.

[6] Germans and Jews are the two most tragic peoples in history. They are the two “theological” peoples of this universe — feeling endowed with a “cosmic mission,” and hence its spiritual leaders and protagonists. The world may resent these two peoples — and indeed does so — but it will have to follow their lead so long as it believes in their theology, their philosophy, their morality. Several authors have noticed the existence of this competition that opposes Germans and Jews for the spiritual leadership of the world. See, for instance, Oscar Levy, The Spirit of Israel (Geneva: The Review of Nations, 1924); and, more recently, Dietrich Schuler, Kreatismus als geistige Revolution (Bad Wildungen: Ahnenrad der Moderne, 2009).

[7] Armin Mohler, Die Konservative Revolution in Deutschland 1918–1932. Ein Handbuch (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1994).