Monday, June 23, 2008

Against Wagner

I never really got Wagner. Mind you, all I know about Wagner I learned from Bugs Bunny. But I never really understood him, or liked him much. Thanks to Nietzsche, I probably never fully will.

I've only just finished reading the first of two aphorisms published together, The Case of Wagner: A Musician's Problem, which is followed up with Nietzsche contra Wagner: The Brief of a Psychologist.

Wagner's music is big — bombast. Nietzsche explains it this way:

Taste is no longer necessary, nor even is a good voice. Wagner is sung only with ruined voices: this has a more "dramatic" effect. Even talent is out of the question. Expressiveness at all costs, which is what the Wagnerian ideal — the ideal of decadence — demands, is hardly compatible with talent. All that is required for this is virtue — that is to say, training, automatism, "self-denial." Neither taste, voices, nor gifts; Wagner's stage requires but one thing: Germans! . . . The definition of a German: an obedient man with long legs. . . . There is a deep significance in the fact that the rise of Wagner should have coincided with the rise of the "Empire": both phenomena are a proof of one and the same thing — obedience and long legs. — Never have people been more obedient, never have they been so well ordered about. The conductors of Wagnerian orchestras, more particularly, are worthy of an age, which posterity will one day call, with timid awe, the classical age of war. Wagner understood how to command; in this respect, too, he was a great teacher. He commanded as a man who had exercised an inexorable will over himself — as one who had practised lifelong discipline: Wagner was, perhaps,the greatest example of self-violence in the whole of the history of art [...].

There is great irony in that the embrace of decadence is an act of self-negation. This actually makes some sense to me. We see something like it in the rockstar lifestyle. I'm not saying Wagner was a rockstar of his day — simply that artistic or spiritual acts might be analogous to this kind of self-destructive behaviour vis a vis our physical being in the world.

Years ago, in Krakow for the summer, I took a course in 20th century Polish literature. For context, it was vital to know on what footing the the 20th century started — culturally and spiritually, which is nigh inseparable from politically and socially — from what ashes it was arisen. And it was here that I learned about Secessionism and decadence. The switch over from one century to the next often takes hold of people, inspiring a (completely irrational) sense of great significance. It feeds end-of-the-world hysteria, the sense that all reason and structure is spiralling out of control. Anything goes, but this is counterbalanced by the need to rein it in or describe a new order.

Anyway, thanks to Nietzsche, I can hear in Wagner the birth of decadence.

For all I know about Wagner, I know just about as much regarding Nietzsche. This is my first foray into his writing — his name seems to be popping up everywhere lately — but I'm finding he makes a great deal of sense. Nietzsche gives three altruistic requisitions:

That the stage should not become master of the arts.
That the actor should not become the corrupter of the genuine.
That music should not become an art of lying.

So, Herr Nietzsche: Tell me, how do you know when music is lying and when it is true?


Bybee said...

I don't know #$%$@ about music, but Wagner always seems to blustery to me.

Ella said...

I really enjoy listening to Wagner, but at the same time, it makes me think, wow, dude must have been at least a little crazy. But I think the same thing about Nietzsche, so where does that leave me?