7 Nov 2008

Nietzsche contra Wagner, summary

Corry Shores
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Nietzsche Admires Wagner’s Suffering:

Nietzsche believes that artists are often too vain to notice how new, strange, and beautiful in real perfection their creations are, because they aspire for something they think prouder.

Wagner’s talent is expressing depressed tortured suffering. As the “Orpheus of all secret misery,” he has contributed to art “things that had hitherto seemed inexpressible and even unworthy of art — the cynical rebellion, for example, of which only those are capable who suffer most bitterly.”

However, Wagner does not want to be thought this way; he “prefers large walls and audacious frescoes,” never noticing that his own inner spirit “prefers to sit quietly in the nooks of collapsed houses,” within which he composes his masterpieces. Nietzsche, then, admires Wagner for his suffering.

Nietzsche Objects to Wagner’s Base Audience and Unhealthy Music:

Wagner’s music is unhealthy; it makes Nietzsche sick: he ceases to breathe easy, his feet want to rebel from the spirit of the music and dance with delight. Likewise every other part of his body is disturbed. The reason is not because the music is agitating, but because it has no soul, no “easy, bold, exuberant, self-assured rhythms.” Its “golden, tender, oil-smooth melodies” take the gravity out of “iron, leaden life.”

Wagner subjugates the music and drama to the dictates of the prose, and the theatrical component of his operas degrades his music:

No one brings along the finest senses of his art to the theater, least of all the artist who works for the theater—solitude is lacking; whatever is perfect suffers no witnesses . . . In the theater one becomes people, herd, female, Pharisee, voting cattle, patron, idiot—Wagnerian: even the most personal conscience is vanquished by the leveling magic of the great number; the neighbor reigns, one becomes a mere neighbor . . .

Wagner’s Rhythm is Dangerous:

Recent music pursues “infinite melody,” which Nietzsche illustrates with the story of someone walking into the sea, losing footing, and needing thus to swim. Older music danced. “The measure required for this, the maintenance of certain equally balanced units of time and force, demanded continual wariness of the listener's soul.”

Wagner wanted a different sort of movement, overthrowing the “physiological presupposition of previous music;” his was a music of swimming and floating, not of walking and dancing. His

"infinite melody" seeks deliberately to break all evenness of time and force and even scorns it occasionally; the wealth of its invention lies precisely in that which to an older ear sounds like a rhythmic paradox and blasphemy.

This is a danger to music, this “complete degeneration of rhythmic feeling, chaos in place of rhythm.”

Music should not jump out from the performance and “and shake the Listener to his very intestines;” the sorts of listeners who are so affected are “the mass, on the immature, on the blasé, on the sick, on the idiots, on Wagnerians!”

Wagner’s Music has No Future:

Music is the last art to develop, often just while “the culture which belongs to it is fading.” “All true, all original music, is a swan song,” Nietzsche writes.

Wagner’s music and themes are based on a fading and falling culture. The old Teutonic mythology along with its “thirst for ecstatic sensuality and desensualization” is now laughable. The wars and turmoil of the current era may “help such an art as Wagner's to a sudden glory, without thereby guaranteeing it a future. The Germans themselves have no future . . .”

Wagner is Nietzsche’s Antipode:

Nietzsche has been criticized for the optimism of his youth; he belived that the 19th century’s pessimism was “a greater strength of thought, of a more triumphant fullness of life.” Nietzche regarded the tragic insight of his times as its “most beautiful luxury” and likewise he interpreted Wagner’s music as a tragic expression of a “Dionysian power of the soul.”

But his assessment of Wagner, Schopenhauer and even himself missed the point that “every art, every philosophy, may be considered a remedy and aid in the service of either growing or declining life.” This requires suffering, but there are two types of sufferers: “those who suffer from the overfullness of life and want a Dionysian art as well as a tragic insight and outlook on life—and then those who suffer from the impoverishment of life and demand of art and philosophy, calm, stillness, smooth seas, or, on the other hand, frenzy, convulsion, and anesthesia.” Those of the second sort want revenge against life, and Schopenhauer and Wagner both provide the calm and frenzy. Because their efforts negate and slander life, they are Nietzsche's antipodes.

Those who are rich with life’s fullness can deal with the questionable, the ugly, and the terrible, and with destruction, decomposition, and negation. However, those who are poorest in life need “mildness, peacefulness, and goodness,” and “a god who would be truly a god for the sick, a healer and savior; also logic, the conceptual understandability of existence even for idiots.”

Nietzsche does not make the mistake of backward inference from “work to the maker, from the deed to the doer, from the ideal to him who needs it, from every way of thinking and valuing to the want behind it that prompts it.”

Hence he wants to begin at the source, and wonders which is the creational force: the hatred against life or the excess of life?

The hateful creators are the unegoistic ones. “ ‘Selflessness’ "— the principle of decadence, the will to the end, in art as well as in morals.”

Wagner Belongs in France:

Refined culture and taste are found in France, whose people are “partly fatalists, somber and sick, partly pampered and artificial, such as have the ambition to be artificial—but they possess everything high and delicate that is still left in this world.” The pessimism of this French culture befits Schopenhauer more than German. Likewise for Wagner: “the more French music develops according to the needs of the 'âme moderne, ' the more it will Wagnerize.” Artists of this culture are “virtuosos through and through, with uncanny access to everything that seduces, lures, forces, overthrows, born enemies of logic and of the straight line, covetous of the strange, the exotic, the tremendous, and all opiates of the senses and the understanding.” And yet, they are sick.

Wagner’s Sick and Immoral Chastity:

Wagner’s music is not so much German as it is Roman Catholic.

Chastity and sensuality need not be opposed, and when so, it need not be a tragic opposition; for, “such contradictions actually seduce to existence.” However, those who are animalistic will adore chastity after seeing their opposite in it, and do so with “tragic grunting and fevor.” Toward the end of his life, Wagner set up this opposition in his operas.

Wagner’s Parsifal seems to mock tragedy. It curses the senses, reverts to “sickly Christian and obscurantist ideals,” and self-abnegates its creator, who previously strove for the highest spiritualization and sensualization” in his art and life. Its “preaching of chastity remains an incitement to anti-nature,” and it attempts to assassinate basic ethics.

Nietzsche’s Breaks from Wagner’s Christianity to his Personal Task:

After breaking with Wagner in 1876, the composer fell to Christianity, which devastated Nietzsche.

He then attained the “courageous pessimism which is the opposite of an idealistic mendaciousness” and found his life’s task, which relentlessly demands like a cruel tyrant to be obeyed. “Every time, sickness is the response when we want to doubt our right to our task, when we begin to make things easier for ourselves in any way.” When we ease ourselves from the burden of this task, we have done a wrong whose atonement only makes our burden even heavier.

Nietzsche the Psychologist Speaks Out against Higher Men:

Psychologists who treat “higher men” develop pity, seeing their corruption, their “eternal ‘Too late!’” Such a psychologist escapes to ordinary patients and to forgetting. The psychologist keeps his mouth shut when around such “higher men,” and eventually he learns the "greatest veneration precisely where he has learned the greatest pity coupled with the greatest contempt.” It could be that he adored the higher man as a god, but found him no more than a “poor sacrificial animal.” So-called ‘great men’ – statesmen, conquerors, discoverers, artists, philosophers – are “pieces of wretched minor fiction: in the world of historical values, counterfeit rules.”

Many renown poets created out of inner weaknesses, feelings of revenge, and need for escape.

Many who suffer deeply develop a “spiritual nausea and haughtiness,” which also allows them to know “more than the cleverest and wisest could possibly know.” “Deep suffering makes noble; it separates.” Some who suffer deeply cover it over with a variety of cheerfulnesses; they are “free, impudent spirits who would like to conceal and deny that at bottom they are broken, incurable hearts.”


What is necessary is also the useful, hence one should not only bear one’s suffereing, one should love it. “Amor fati: that is my inmost nature.” He owes more to his sickness than to his health; he owes it a higher health, “one which is made stronger by whatever does not kill it.” As well, he owes his philosophy to his sickness. “Only great pain is the ultimate liberator of the spirit.” He writes:

Only great pain, that long, slow pain in which we are burned with green wood, as it were—pain which takes its time only this forces us philosophers to descend into our ultimate depths and to put away all trust, all good-naturedness, all that would veil, all mildness, all that is medium things in which formerly we may have found our humanity. I doubt that such a pain makes us "better," but I know that it makes us more profound.

No matter how one bears his pain, he emerges as a different person, “with a few more question marks — above all, with the will to question more persistently, more deeply, severely, harshly, evilly, and quietly than has ever been questioned on this earth before.”

Yet even though such a man loses trust in life, he need not become gloomy; for the love of life is always possible.

One emerges from abysses of suffering “newborn, having shed one's skin, more ticklish and sarcastic, with a more delicate taste for joy, with a more tender tongue for all good things, with gayer senses, with a second dangerous innocence in joy, more childlike and yet a hundred tunes more subtle than one has ever been before.”

In the face of such joy, pleasure is crude. Those who emerge disdain the artist who peddles “spiritual pleasures." “How the theatrical scream of passion now hurts our ears, how strange to our taste the whole romantic uproar and tumult of the senses have become, which the educated rabble loves, and all its aspirations after the elevated, inflated, and exaggerated.”

Those who recover from such suffering hunger for a different kind of art, a “mocking, light, fleeting, divinely untroubled, divinely artificial art, which, like a pure flame, licks into unclouded skies. Above all, an art for artists, for artists only!” What is needed is cheerfulness.

Such people do not believe that “truth remains truth when the veils are withdrawn;” they never wish “to see everything naked, or to be present at everything, or to understand and ‘know’ everything.”

Tout comprendre—est tout mépriser.

To understand all is to despise all.

We should respect the way nature hides herself “behind riddles and iridescent uncertainties.”

Like the Greeks, we must appreciate “the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance, to believe in forms, tones, words, in the whole Olympus of appearance.”

Which is to say, we must be artists.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Nietzsche contra Wagner.

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1 comment:

  1. a composer's thoughts on the matter:

    nie's problem with wagner also seems to be a problem of the eternal return's manifestations on the cultural level. contra wanger is about nie's disappointment in wagner and in german culture.

    by nie's critique, wanger's music lacks "a future". is there perhaps no future because this kind of music cannot return? does the music fail to affirm differences in some way? what forces it to be declining? its problematic. nie critiques wagner's art as essentially reactive, negative and a symptom of an era, a history, etc.

    for me, nie's words point us towards a deeper sense of music, one that has to come to love and affirm the depths and still be one of dance and cosmic joy. is it the tragicomic? what ever it is, it has nothing to do with wagner. nie's problem here is my problem too when he implies to ask: can music have a future? with wagner, the answer seems to be no. but also in the implication is the possibility of a yes, but only if we are we contra-wagner. this perhaps is the deeper way in which nie has come to see wagner. wagner plays a cultural role.

    nie demands cultural transvaluations by the creation of new values, ones which are essentially contra-wanger. could we go so far in our transvaluation as to to allow music to be original and not left to be the last art to develop in culture, but now the first? would this not be at the limits of being contra-wagner on the cultural level? would these artist still be supreme nihilists or are that now the artists who find the new in that which returns.

    nie is saying yes to "art for arts sake", the mask it bears, and "the whole Olympus of appearance". to sing an original song we must sing the swan song of a culture which is always returning. its a cosmic refrain and of a culture which wagner is not a part of of.

    be it a return to the greeks for literature, or to the "grand style" for music. nie seeked the musical artist of aptheosis in wagner. whats that? "Music has not yet had one". wagner may have failed because perhaps nie's apothetic musician is always an untimely man like himself or perhaps in order for music to maintain its tragic qualities it must always be a swan song that eternally returns. either way i am hopeful.