The Philosophies of Richard Wagner
In addition to being a great composer, Richard Wagner was also an important philosopher. Julian Young begins by examining the philosophy of art and society Wagner constructs during his time as a revolutionary anarchist-communist. Modernity, Wagner argued, is to be rescued from its current anomie through the rebirth of Greek tragedy (the original Gesamtkunstwerk) in the form of the “artwork of the future," an artwork of which his own operas are the prototype.
Young then examines the entirely different philosophy Wagner constructs after his 1854 conversion from Hegelian optimism to Schopenhauerian pessimism. “Redemption” now becomes, not a future utopia in this world, but rather “transfigured” existence in another world, attainable only through death. Viewing Wagner’s operas through the lens of his philosophy, the book offers often novel interpretations of Lohengrin, The Ring cycle, Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger, and Parsifal.
Finally, Young dresses the cause of Friedrich Nietzsche’s transformation from Wagner’s intimate friend and disciple into his most savage critic. Nietzsche’s fundamental accusation, it is argued, is one of betrayal: that Wagner betrayed his early, “life affirming” philosophy of art and life in favor of “life-denial." Nietzsche’s assertion and the final conclusion of the book is that our task, now, is to “become better Wagnerians than Wagner.”
with respect to seventeenth-century French tragedy. The attempt was made to revive Greek tragedy by telling Greek myths in modern dress. In fact, however, Racine and Corneille’s heroes’ spouting anti-tyrannical, democratic values in the court 42 Chapter 3 of an absolute monarch was nothing more than an absurd kind of “hypocrisy”: Could art be present . . . where it blossomed forth not as the living utterance of a free, self-conscious community, but was taken into the service of the very
Revolution) Bakunin. Yet, so I argue, his focus on the place of opera in a Left Hegelian vision of the future enables him to produce a philosophy that is both original and important. As with many philosophers—Heidegger and Wittgenstein are famous in this regard—Wagner’s philosophical outlook did not remain constant throughout his career. Toward the end of 1854 he discovered Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation and underwent what he himself compared to a religious “conversion” (WBK,
Although less original than the philosophy of the earlier period—its parameters are firmly established by Schopenhauer—there is nothing slavish, I argue, about Wagner’s Schopenhauerianism. Like the youthful Nietzsche, with whom he had innumerable discussions of Schopenhauer (BT Preface), Wagner is aware of the radical contradictions in Schopenhauer’s philosophy and, sometimes in company with Nietzsche, works at resolving them—resolving them in, as Nietzsche puts it, “Schopenhauer’s spirit and to
11 Since, in Kant’s language, “concepts without [sensory] intuitions are empty” (1964b, A51/B75), and since philosophy is essentially conceptual activity, “rationalism” in general and philosophy in particular can only speak of the world of experience. As far as philosophy is concerned, therefore, the non-experienceable thing in itself is ineffable and so, to philosophy, “nothing” (WR II:198). However, at the point at which all philosophy, including his own, must withdraw into silence, mysticism,
tradition. Music is, he says, a “wonderful art” (PP II:447), “sacred, mysterious and profound” (PP II:432), the source of the most “profound joy” (PP II:449), an art that “often exalts our minds and seems to speak of another world better than our own” (WR II:457). The question, however, is how it can possibly do that while being identical with pessimistic philosophy as the innermost story of the suffering will. Schopenhauer’s answer, his explanation of how music presents us with “a paradise quite