NIETZSCHE AND WAGNER
by The Spectator
September 15, 1900
The attitude which an intelligent and enthusiastic Wagnerian is (or at any rate was) capable of assuming in regard to hostile criticism of his hero is strikingly illustrated in the only reference to Nietzsche which occurs in Mr. H.T. Finck's very interesting and useful Life of Wagner, which appeared some seven years ago. "Nietzsche, the well-known philologist," writes Mr. Finck, "was at first an ardent Wagnerite and wrote obscure stuff, of which Dr. Hanslick truly wrote that the reader 'might fancy himself in a lunatic asylum.' A few years later he suddenly changed about and wrote in a similar style against his former idol (see Der Fall Wagner, in which Bizet is represented as the operatic god and Wagner as the devil). Facilis descensus Averni! Shortly thereafter the perpetrator of this pamphlet was placed where he belonged -- in a lunatic asylum." We hardly think that Mr. Finck, if he were writing his book to-day, would have used such brutal language as that which we have italicised. Even in the last few years the tone and temper of controversialists on the Wagner question have greatly improved. The champions of his genius, realising that they were for the most part engaged in the task of knocking in an open door, have found it unnecessary to indulge in any violent exertion; while the anti-Wagnerian scribes have largely abated their hostility, going in some instances even to the length of expressing a chastened admiration for the works they formerly abused with the utmost heartiness. Nietzsche, however, stands in a category by himself, being, if we mistake not, the only instance in which the usual process has been inverted, and Wagnerolatry has been succeeded by Wagnerophobia. The consistent depreciation of Dr. Hanslick might extort a certain reluctant respect, while one can imagine a certain subdued exultation over the comparative recantation of Mr. Joseph Bennett. But to forgive, or even listen to, the renegade Nietzsche must still be the hardest test to which a sensitive Wagnerian can be subjected. Whether his panegyrics of Wagner were incoherent or not we have no means of judging, but to accuse Der Fall Wagner of obscurity argues either ignorance or prejudice on the part of Mr. Finck. You may call it wrong-headed, wild, extravagant, and disfigured by an egotism which verges on effrontery, but as to his pungency, its sparkle, its happy audacity of phrase, and the incisive brevity (so rare in a German prose-writer) of its crisp staccato sentences, there can be no question. What is more, we feel sure that the time has now come when sincere admirers of Wagner can without any disloyalty appreciate the wit, and even admit the justice, of a good deal of Nietzsche's impeachment. The two men were both invincible egoists, and as such bound to clash sooner or later; but it should not be forgotten that Wagner discountenanced the excesses of his extreme followers, and complained bitterly to Liszt of the class of silly enthusiasts "who write rubbish about him and then expect to be praised." It was one such, as Mr. Finck reminds us, who declared that "if everything that other musicians, poets, and philosophers have left us were burned and only Wagner's Nibelungen remained, the world would not only be no loser, but it would gain, because it could then at once and uninterruptedly devote itself to the study of the Nibelungen." Such extravagances provoked reprisals, and (once more on the authority of Mr. Finck) we learn that Wagner "felt keenly the fact that most of the wits in the Press were arraigned [sic] against him."
With characteristic audacity Nietzsche prefaces his pamphlet (of which an excellent translation by Mr. Common will be found in the third volume of the edition recently published by Mr. Fisher Unwin) with a frank confession of his original intimate adhesion to Wagnerism. "No one was more perilously mixed up with Wagnerism than I was;" and again: "I was one of the most corrupt Wagnerians." But it was his destiny to extricate himself from the influence because he was a philosopher, to get beyond Wagner as he got "beyond good and evil"; it was an act of self-conquest, an emancipation from the maladie du siecle, from the trammels of the modernity, decadence, and neuroticism summed up in Wagner. It is the especial duty of the philosopher to fathom the recesses of the modern soul, and Wagner is indispensable as the best guide through that labyrinth, and just as it is perfectly intelligible for a musician to say: "I hate Wagner, but I cannot put up with any other music," so, continues Nietzsche, the attitude of the philosopher is perfectly intelligible who asserts "Wagner sums up modernity. There is no help for it but to begin by being a Wagnerian." The opening eulogy of Bizet's Carmen, and the invidious comparisons drawn between it and Wagner's operas, are highly piquant and characteristic. The absolutely non-moral nature of the plot, entirely "beyond good and evil" as it is, appealed vividly to Nietzsche, and the contrast he draws between the sincerity, elegance, and clarity of Bizet's music and the boorish brutality of Wagner's (which he compares by turns to a sirocco and a polypus) is amusing when one remembers that Bizet, no prophet in his own country in his lifetime, was violently attacked by French critics for his Wagnerian proclivities! The exotic, denationalised standpoint of Nietzsche in regard to art is remarkable throughout this pamphlet. No Frenchman could have been more severe in his denunciations of Teutonic "stodginess," of the humid North, of the mugginess of Wagner's ideals. "Il faut mediterraniser la musique," he cries, and finds in Bizet's masterpiece the true musical atmosphere, and the true conception of love, -- as the most egotistical and least generous of sentiments, and in its essence the deadly duel to the death of the sexes.
But Wagner, he admits, was a magician. "The first thing that his art offers us is a magnifying-glass; one looks through it, mistrusting one's own eyes, -- everything is magnified, even Wagner himself." Then follows an exceedingly irreverent but highly entertaining reductio ad absurdum of Wagner's eternal preoccupation with the problem of redemption, a ludicrous list of the various ways in which redemption is achieved, and a number of other lessons to be derived from the music-dramas. Nietzsche's remarks on the redemption of the "wandering Jew" by marriage are highly characteristic. If, he says, it were possible that the love of a good wife could give stability to the most unstable, is such a consummation to be desired? What becomes of a wandering Jew who "ranges himself" on his marriage? He simply ceases to be a wandering Jew, and loses all interest. In other words, Nietzsche continues, the great danger for an artist or a genius -- the wandering Jew of real life -- is a wife; adoring wives are their ruin; and he proceeds to draw an ingenious parallel between the life of Goethe, who shocked his contemporaries by his pagan tendencies and horrified the superior young person (die hohere Jungfrau), and the plot of Tannhauser. Wagner simply set Goethe's experiences to music, "redeeming" him of course, but at the same time taking the side of the hohere Jungfrau. And then he answers the question, what would Goethe have thought of Wagner? by quoting what Goethe said would be the fate of the Romanticists, -- "to be suffocated by ruminating on moral and religious absurdities," in which Nietzsche finds a perfect description of Parsifal. In the story of the Ring he finds Wagner, the revolutionist, with Siegfried, the typical revolutionary, as his hero, after triumphantly demolishing the old morality and inaugurating a golden age of happy emancipation from all laws, conventions, and institutions, suddenly wrecked on the reef of Schopenhauer's philosophy, heartily ashamed of himself for his "profligate optimism," and consequently obliged to revise the legend in accordance with the tenets of the philosophy of decadence, to convert Brunnhilde from his confident anticipation of a Socialistic Utopia and to put into her mouth a metrical version of the fourth book of "The World as Will and Idea." Schopenhauer, continues Nietzsche, rendered Wagner an incalculable service: it was only the philosopher of decadence who enabled the artist of decadence to realise himself. Here an interlude of seriousness begins which is indistinguishable from vituperation. Wagner is not a man at all, but a disease -- von Bulow's remark about the tenor; nihil quod tetigit non depravavit, music first and foremost. He increases exhaustion, and on that account attracts the weak and exhausted; Wagner est un nevrose; the Cagliostro of modernity; who has discovered in music the instrument for exciting fatigued nerves; and has made morbid art remunerative. Nietzsche further accuses Wagner of deliberately composing music which should inflame and upset, of organising his orchestration as an engine of physiological disintegration, of proscribing melody, of cultivating the gymnastics of the loathsome on the rope of enharmonics, and of hypocritically masquerading in the guise of a Christian moralist. After further accusing him of the audacious habit of "invariably positing a principle when he lacked a faculty," Nietzsche suddenly lapses into a strange panegyric of Wagner as our greatest miniaturist in music, and "only worthy of admiration and love in the invention of minutiae, in the elaboration of details," a strange contrast to Rubinstein's charge that in Wagner's operas tous ses personnages marchent sur des cothurnes, that the stream of his melody was monotonously and invariably broad and ample. As for Wagner's boasted dramatic instinct, Nietzsche will not allow that it rose beyond the talent of the histrio, the mime, the scenic artist, in which province he admits his supremacy. Not a musician by instinct, he nevertheless made out of music a wonderful theatrical rhetoric, "a means for expression, for strengthening attitudes, for suggestion for the psychologically picturesque," and so immeasurably increased the oratorical power of music. As for the deep significance of his texts, Nietzsche professed to be able to explode their boasted significance by the simple test of translating them into terms of modern experience. Stripped of their heroic trappings his heroines were so many counterparts of Madame Bovary, while Parsifal found his modern parallel in a "divinity student with a public-school education (the latter indispensable for pure folly)." Nietzsche's dislike of Parsifal, for a reason that we shall presently disclose, amounted to a positive detestation. Always more successful in his damaging criticisms of Wagner on his literary and philosophic side than when attacking him as a musician, Nietzsche lets fly some telling shafts in passing at Wagner's writings, -- e.g., "None of the music written up till now has had need of literature: one does well here to seek for a satisfactory reason. Is it that Wagner's music is too difficult to understand? Or did he fear the contrary, that it would be understood too easily, that it would not be difficult enough to understand? In fact he has all his life repeated one phrase: That his music does not simply mean music, but more, infinitely more! ... "Not simply music' -- no musician speaks in such a manner." Hence the conclusion that Wagner does not belong to the history of music, but stands for the advent of the stage-player in music. An astonishingly bitter passage describes the state of the theatre since the spirit of Wagner began to rule there: --
Yet, strange to say, in spite of Nietzsche's glorification of every other nation but his own, we find him in the postscript trying to make capital out of the story that Wagner was not a German, but a Jew. Finally, he attempts to count the cost to civilisation of the adherence to Wagner. It has, he says, exalted the idiotic art-amateur, glorified insolent dilettantism, and established the tyranny of theatrocracy: as for the effect on the mind, his music represents the "blackest obscurantism concealed in the luminous husks of the ideal," the "mortal hate of knowledge," and lastly, the fascination of corruption, as the late Mr. Pater would have put it.
It only remains for us to add to a necessarily imperfect sketch of this brilliant but unconvincing pamphlet, that the clue to Nietzsche's extraordinary antipathy to Wagner is furnished in another of his works, the "Nietzsche contra Wagner." There, in the section "How I Got Free from Wagner," he tells us how as far back as 1876 he felt forced to take farewell of Wagner by the painful discovery that Wagner, in whom he had thought to find the modern expression of a "Dionysian exuberance of soul," when apparently at the zenith of his career, but "while in truth he had become a decayed, despairing decadent, had sunk down suddenly, helpless and disjointed, before the Christian Cross." This appalling discovery entirely unnerved Nietzsche, and condemned him to more profound isolation than ever. Previous to that, though "condemned perpetually to the Germans" he had had Wagner. Now there was absolutely no German with whom he found himself in sympathy. In the preface he says that he has readers everywhere "save in Europe's Flatland, Germany." It is hard to say which Nietzsche hated most, Wagner, Christianity, or Germany. But for all their vitriolic animosity these essays are well worth reading. It is certainly a curious coincidence that Wagner's most bitter assailant as well as his most exalted patron should have both died insane.
C. L. G.