Revolution, and the Re-Founding of Humanity

Written By The Wagnerian on Sunday, 22 September 2013 | 10:33:00 am

It never ceases to amaze us where writing on Wagner might turn-up. The following originated on the website People of Shambhala,  "....a webzine dedicated to exploring how we can live authentically in the contemporary era. Whether we’re discussing spirituality and esotericism, reporting on inter-communal violence, or examining ancient and modern cultural influences on fashion, our aim is to widen the debate, challenge assumptions, and to enable readers to think outside the box."

"From the moment when Man perceived the difference between himself and Nature, and thus commenced his own development as man, by breaking loose from the unconscious life, – when he thus looked Nature in the face and from the first feelings of his dependence on her, thereby aroused, evolved the faculty of Thought, – from that moment did Error begin, as the earliest utterance of consciousness. But Error is the mother of Knowledge; and the history of the birth of Knowledge out of Error is the history of the human race, from the myths of primal ages down to the present day."
"In Art and Revolution (1849), Wagner characterizes the prevailing European musical taste, always for him an index of cultural health or disease, as “a chaos of sensuous impressions jostling one another without rhyme or reason, from which each one may choose at will what pleases best his fancy.” Thus for Wagner, as for Hesiod, “Chaos was first of all.” But what was the original “chaos,” which the tasteless consumerism of the present merely distantly repeats?"

"But “The Folk” is not, for Wagner, a timeless idea; it is something, in his view, that really existed and that, like other things that really exist, must have come into existence. In the manner of Johann Gottfried von Herder, Wagner defines “The Folk,” as “from of old the inclusive term for all the units which made up the total of a commonality,” which “in the beginning… was the family and the tribe” and much later “the tribes united by like speech into nations.”

"Although the term “Folk,” later much used and abused by the National Socialists, provokes one into visualizing the Germanic tribes of the post-Roman period or their medieval descendants of the free-states and principalities, Wagner finds his model “Folk,” not in the Gothic encampments of the Sixth Century or in the trade-cities of the Thirteenth Century, but rather in the archaic city-states of Greece"


"When describing the essay’s eponymous “Art Work of the Future,” Wagner stipulates that this spectacle must take for its subject the “necessary death” of its hero because, “the celebration of such a death is the noblest thing that men can enter on.”  This hero’s death, following on his saintly renunciation of all worldly desire, shall impress and redeem the audience to the extent that it “reveals to us in the nature of this one man, laid bare by death, the whole content of universal human nature.” 

"Wagner’s last opera seems to subsume, not only the life-weary metaphysics of The World as Will and Representation, which it does in spades, but also the anthropological meditations that come between Wagner’s revolutionary period and his fateful encounter with Schopenhauer.  The redemption of the Waste Land in Parsifal requires the re-founding of humanity, through the production of transcendence in the form of an originary sign, to be enacted before the audience.  The opera reveals to the audience members their own investment in a scene of their humanity."


Richard Wagner: Revolution, and the Re-Founding of Humanity
Thomas F. Bertonneau

Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) intended his mid-Nineteenth Century innovation of Music Drama to instigate a thorough renewal, not simply of art, but rather of the human situation, as writ large, in society and culture; he foresaw in the late 1840s that his work would require a theoretical basis in metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics. As it happens, all three parts of this theory entail, although Wagner does not employ the terms, both an anthropology, and a theory of representation. Finally, Wagner’s theory of representation derives a type of primordial signification from an event in which the unavoidable beauty of a token or talisman disarms a threatening violence.

Wagner worked out this anthropology, and the accompanying theory of representation, borrowing his vocabulary and some few notions from G. W. F. Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach, in a series of essays and pamphlets in the 1840s and 50s. In these documents, Wagner prescribed the “mimetic,” “poetic,” and “tonal” (that is to say, the combined dramatic) characteristics that would body themselves forth in Tannhäuser, The Ring of the Nibelung, Tristan and Isolde, The Mastersingers, and Parsifal. These operas – or rather these Gesamtkunstwerke, as their author called them, using his own coinage – would recreate on the modern stage an “earliest utterance of consciousness.” Their performance would inaugurate a new “breaking loose from unconscious life,” to quote from their author’s post-Idealist terminology; enacting the Gesamtkunstwerk would thus revitalize society by rescuing it from the degradations of fashion and the rabble, two of Wagner’s reliable pejoratives, in which an anthropologically acute reader will discern the theme of cultural breakdown in the thoughtless spreading imitation of the crowd.

The power of the Gesamtkunstwerk’s dramaturgical-metaphysical logic would lift “Error” out of its deficiency by reconnecting the abject present with the generative potency inherent in “the myths of primal ages.” The locution “Error” covers a good deal of ground: Wagner names by it the original projection of human qualities as divine figures (the Ludwig Feuerbach hypothesis); but he also names by it the modern collapse of aesthetic judgment into commercial crassness, and the collapse of the ethical generally into mere economic pragmatism.

Although burdened by the abstract vocabulary of Kant and Schopenhauer, Wagner locates that “earliest utterance” in a scene, makes of it an event, and then derives from it various differentiated aspects of culture. Often, as Bryan Magee has pointed out, Wagner speculates about the past by transferring it to the future. Wagner believed that the antique community participated in something “necessary” (his repeated term) that the present lacked but that a sufficiently audacious artist might re-institute in some coming epoch.

Here is the passage from Wagner’s Art Work of the Future (1849) in which these various locutions appear:

From the moment when Man perceived the difference between himself and Nature, and thus commenced his own development as man, by breaking loose from the unconscious life, – when he thus looked Nature in the face and from the first feelings of his dependence on her, thereby aroused, evolved the faculty of Thought, – from that moment did Error begin, as the earliest utterance of consciousness. But Error is the mother of Knowledge; and the history of the birth of Knowledge out of Error is the history of the human race, from the myths of primal ages down to the present day.

One remarks, in this eccentric effusion, that the capitalized Man emerges from his prior natural state in a punctual moment, and that the moment has two phases, first the crisis and next the correspondent decision. For Wagner, consciousness appears under the sign of ambiguity, hewing into articulation a mass of perceptions and inclinations hitherto inarticulate, thus permitting individuation, fostering the cultural and artistic forms, and founding a continuum of reflectivity – all to the good, one might assume. But consciousness, for Wagner (we come here to the ambiguity), likewise severs the specifically human creature from its instincts, or what he calls Life, and opens the possibility of misperception, misrepresentation, and mendacity. Elsewhere Life seems to refer to the cohesion of the primitive community in its earliest phase. One might draw a line from The Art Work of the Future back through Pierre-Joseph Proudhon to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In 1850 Wagner was, while living in exile in Zurich, still a political radical and something close to a proto-Marxist, but he was about to encounter the work of Arthur Schopenhauer and, in response to it, suffer a relapse into Idealist lexical abstraction. The Zurich essays come before the encounter with Schopenhauer, which accounts for their more social orientation in comparison, say, with Art and Religion, from 1880, and their more accessible although hardly ordinary style.

What about the Gesamtkunstwerk? By providing a new benchmark of form and rightness, music drama in its novelty would also permit radical re-judgment of prevailing cultural trends culminating in a healthy rejection of cheapness and un-seriousness in the arts – that pervasive and debilitating de-culturation of culture, so to speak, that sometimes appears under the grotesque moniker of “Judeo-Utilism.” To invoke de-culturation, however, is to invoke also, at least implicitly, culturation, the beginnings of those things – like speech, consciousness, and a communal scene that confers new status on its constituents – that are now, as Wagner claims, in a state of deliquescence. As far as this concerns the Gesamtkunstwerk, the present conforms to a beginning; or rather it repeats a first beginning.

Continue Reading