Monday, January 19, 2009

The Wagnerian

Richard Wagner surpassed everyone Nietzsche had ever met before. Fritz almost worshipped the man and Wagner soaked in the bright young man’s intellect and passion, as perhaps Wagner’s primary disciple. This would not last. But, upon becoming a professor at Basel, Fritz was fairly close to Wagner’s home on Lake Lucerne.

When told of his offer of professorship, "Nietzsche was so overcome by his good fortune that he spent an entire afternoon walking up and down the Leipzig promenade humming tunes from Tannhauser - appropriately, since one of the great attractions of Basel was that it was only a stone's throw from Tribschen, Wagner's place of exile." (Young, page 79)

Fritz initially approached Wagner boldy yet in awe and not without some trepidation. "On Saturday, May 15, 1869, interrupting a paddle-steamer trip around the lake, he alighted at the Tribschen pier and arrived unannounced at the Wagners' villa. He stood irresolute outside the house for a time listening to the insistent repetition of a plantive chord on the piano - it later proved to be from the third act of Siegfried, on which Wagner was working. He eventually plucked up enough courage to knock on the door, only to be told that the master was working and could interrupted by no one, not even Cosima. He was however, invited to return for dinner two days later on Whit Monday." (Young, page 107)

Hollingdale explains at length: “From then onwards he was a regular visitor, staying with the Wagner family twenty-three times between May 1869 and April 1872, when Wagner departed for Bayreuth. He was a guest for Christmas 1869 and again in 1870….Before the 1869 was over he had been accepted – one might almost say adopted – as a member of the household, with a room of his own which he might use any time he chose to; often he had charge of the Wagner children, who treated him like an elder brother. The importance in Nietzsche’s life of his relationship with Wagner can hardly be exaggerated. The experience was an awakening: his eyes were opened to the possibilities of greatness that still existed in human nature. He learned the meaning of genius and strength of will, expressions he had used without any lively sense of their real significance.” (pages 56-57)

The attraction was mutual. Wagner appreciated Nietzsche’s young, brilliant mind. The two shared a profound appreciation for Schopenhauer. Of course, music was the primary basis for the relationship. Fritz was versed enough and talented enough to understand and admire what Wagner was creating both technically and aesthetically. Wagner, weak in his understanding of earlier cultures that served as the inspiration for much of his musical works, found Nietzsche to be almost a boundless source of information.

Safranski sees the essential connection between them as regarding the place of myth in modern life. “Nietzsche and Wagner each attempted to resuscitate myth, and refused to put up what Max Weber later called the ‘disenchantment’ of the world by rationalization, technology, and a bourgeois economic outlook. They agonized at the mythlessness of their times and saw in the sphere of art an opportunity to revitalize or re-create myths.” (page 88)

But it was precisely on the place of myth that their break occurred. “For Wagner, art assumed the place of religion. The idea intrigued Nietzsche, but ultimately struck him as too pious, and he retreated from it in favor of an artistic approach to life. He sought enhancement of life in art, not redemption. In a borderline case – and Nietzsche always had borderline cases in view – one should fashion an unequivocal work of art out of one’s life.” (Safranski, page 89)

Fritz not only visited Wagner’s home but traveled as much as his teaching schedule allowed to see the premiers of Wagner’s operas in various German cities. Nietzsche was especially fond of Die Meistersinger and performed piano pieces from the opera on numerous occasions for his own pleasure and for others. He was personally invited by Wagner to the laying of the foundation stone for Bayreuth and Wagner frequently invited Fritz (more as a summons than an invitation) to pay him a personal visit as the great composer traveled through Germany. Occasions when Fritz was unable (due to illness or previous commitment) to answer the call to Wagner’s side infuriated the composer. Clearly, this wasn’t a friendship for Wagner. It was a matter of respect for the art projects he had undertaken, revealing how esteemed he considered Nietzsche as a component in his life’s work at the time, but also how much of an object Fritz was from the composer’s perspective – an instrument of Wagner’s vision.

Often, while Wagner was busy composing during his visits to Tribschen, Fritz found himself alone with Cosima, Wagner’s wife. They exchanged many letters, took long walks together, and performed in small skits together (along with Wagner’s children) to entertain Wagner. “Nietzsche and Cosima spent hours conversing together in the upstairs study, now christened the Denkstube (‘think-room’) in honour of the pensive professor from Basel, even though it was intended to be a classroom for the children.” (Cate, page 105) It is probable that in the association Fritz had deeper feelings for Wagner’s wife than he revealed at the time. Certainly, he had never interacted with another woman so intimately outside of his own mother and sister.

One indication of this was the giving of gifts to Cosima. For Christmas 1870, he offered her an essay entitled The Genesis of Tragic Thought (Cate, p.121) which was one of the fore-runners of The Birth of Tragedy. For Christmas 1871, he presented her with a performance and completed score of his Eine Sylvesternacht composition. (Cate, page 133)

Wagner left Tribschen soon after the publication of The Birth of Tragedy to start his massive Bayreuth project. This marked the beginning of a gradual deterioration of Nietzsche’s relationship with him. Soon, Fritz saw Wagner in a new light. By 1874, Nietzsche began recording private criticisms of Wagner in his notebooks. He remained publicly supportive and this dichotomy resulted in all manner of psycho-somatic sickness for Fritz, as will be recorded in the next post.

As Bayreuth became a reality, for Nietzsche it represented a kind of decadence that was far removed from his original interest in Wagner as a key to cultural transformation. Instead, Wagner was making himself into a demigod. Meanwhile, Nietzsche was beginning to see himself “not as a mere appendix to Wagner.” (Hollingdale, page 91)

Safranski writes of the tension building in Nietzsche’s mind in the summer of 1875. Wagner had come to rely too much on “the aesthetic mysticism of redemption. Nietzsche explained that his investigations served to differentiate which evils are ‘fundamental and incorrigible’ and which can be ‘improved’. In this way, the original plan for personal detoxification evolved into a universal program of enlightenment. Myths, the meaning and significance of which had just finished defending – notably, the Wagnerian mythology of art – now struck him as mystifications that would need to be combated.” (page 157)

This dawning realization troubled Fritz deeply. He was torn between a powerful emotional link with Wagner and a strongly original, independent intellectual need to blaze his own path, a path in which Wagner seemed an adversary. This, in turn, led to a breakdown in Nietzsche’s health.

Walter Kaufmann summarized that Nietzsche became “firmly convinced that Wagner had been thoroughly corrupted by his belated ‘success’ and ‘power’ and that, to maintain and increase them, he had made his peace with State and Church and bowed to public opinion. Wagner’s retreat into conformity can only have strengthened Nietzsche’s conviction…that power, i.e., worldly power, is essentially evil.” (page 180)

The transformation of Nietzsche the disciple of Wagner into Nietzsche the critic of Wagner took place slowly over the course of about 5 years. Ultimately, the physical and mental consternation caused by his break with Wagner directly influenced his first great purely philosophical work, Human, All Too Human.

But, before that occurred, Nietzsche would defend Wagner vehemently in two of his four Untimely Mediations. Wagner would remain a constant influence, troubling Nietzsche to such an extent that he was, in fact, reviewing proofs of another work entitled Nietzsche Contra Wagner at the time of his collapse in 1889. Clearly, the wound of his association cut deeply and never truly healed.

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