The Fatality of Romanticism vs. The Metaphysics of Sexual Love: Wagner's Love Letter

Written By The Wagnerian on Thursday, 23 October 2014 | 6:05:00 pm

The Fatality of Romanticism vs. The Metaphysics of Sexual Love: Wagner's Love Letter to Schopenhauer and the Break-Up with Nietzsche.

Robert Cowan

Journal Article Monatshefte 106(1) 1-16 (2014) 

"Goethe hat sich einmal die Fragevorgelegt, was die Gefahr sei, dieu¨ber allen Romantikern schwebe: dasRomantiker-Verha¨ngniss. Seine Antwortist: ,,am Wiederka¨uern sittlicher undreligio¨ser Absurdita¨ten zu ersticken.“Ku¨rzer: Parsifal".—Friedrich Nietzsche, Der Fall Wagner: Ein Musikanten-Problem (1888) 

Introduction: How to Achieve Transcendence

Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche are well known as embattled dis-ciples of Arthur Schopenhauer and both, like their mentor, struggle to rec-oncile conceptions of immanence and transcendence. But for Wagner, thisbattle does not center around questions of happiness, as it does for Schopen-hauer, or power, as it does for Nietzsche. For the composer, immanence andtranscendence are bound up in the battle between sexual union and chastity.


In “Metaphysik der Geschlechtsliebe: Anhang zum vorhergehendenKapitel” in the fourth book of the second volume of his masterwork Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1844), Schopenhauer argues that love is ultimately just a means to procreation. This is echoed in the notes Schopenhauer madein the margins of the libretto of Der Ring des Nibelungen that Wagner sent him in 1853, in which he chastises Wagner for the improper relationship between Siegmund and Sieglinde. Wagner’s position on whether sexual union or chastity is a more effective path to transcendence appears to change overtime, however. In an unfinished and unsent letter to Schopenhauer from 1858,Wagner implies that sexual love can lead to transcendence. Yet, in his finalopera Parsifal (1882), he clearly indicates that chastity is the way. This shift in Wagner’s position on the issue of sex, in the context of his interpretation of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, is one of the precipitating factors in Nietzsche’s eventual break with him, and in Der Fall Wagner (1888) and Nietzsche Contra Wagner
(1888–89), Nietzsche argues that the chastity in works such as Parsifal is an incitement to anti-nature—a misreading of the resignation of the will, a misunderstanding of both critical philosophy and religious dogma.

Such criticisms and shifts in view indicate that this was a loaded issue for all three men. Yet both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche appear to take their own sexual frustrations out on Wagner. I would thus like to trace the arcs of the three thinkers’ views from 1858 (when Wagner wrote to Schopenhauer)to 1889 (when Nietzsche finally fully denounced Wagner) in an effort to understand how we might make sense of their various views on the relation-ship between sexual union and chastity. Although I’m not sure either path could save the declining Europe Nietzsche and Wagner saw all around them

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