1788 - 1860
Arthur Schopenhauer reads Richard Wagner
auteur: Karl S. Guthke
Schopenhauer and Wagner--we tend to think of them hand in hand, as Goethe and Schiller are depicted in the monument in Weimar. And why not? Didn't the composer lavishly acknowledge his indebtedness to the philosopher-who supposedly gave his follower his blessing? Yet, how firm is that handshake?
Those of us who hold, with Miss Marple in Murder in the Vicarage, that theory is "so very different from practice, isn't it?" can explore the matter through the single document of an actual "meeting" of the minds of Wagner and Schopenhauer (who in real life never met)-the extensive marginal notes Schopenhauer penciled into a copy of Der Ring des Nibelungen that its author had sent him. This copy, now housed among the treasures of Harvard's Houghton Library, in its hands-on way may tell us more about the relationship of these two giants of cultural life, Teutonic style, than any number of in-depth analyses of their relationship deduced from intellectual history. (I quote the annotations by permission of Houghton Library.)
In his autobiography, Mein Leben, Wagner describes vividly his encounter with Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation: "The impact was extraordinary and decisive for the rest of my life." He read the hefty volume four times between the autumn of 1854 and the following summer. Like a revelation, the book illuminated for him the meaning of his own work. "I looked at my Nibelungen poem," he wrote, "and realized to my own surprise that what was now stupefying me [befangen machte] as theory had long been familiar to me in my own poetic creation. In this manner, I came to understand my own Wotan."
Throughout his theoretical writings, he would invoke the authority of Schopenhauer's understanding of music as the manifestation of "being" in its true essence or essential truth; no other aesthetics of music had, to Wagner's mind, any claim to validity-or was better suited to further Wagner's own cause. Schopenhauer, on the other hand, whose magnum opus had appeared with little notice in 1819, owed his overwhelming upsurge of fame in the second half of the nineteenth century to a considerable extent to the phenomenal ascent of his ardent follower, who incorporated the Weltanschauung of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung not only into his musical aesthetics but also into some of his later operas-Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger, and Parsifal.
Schopenhauer confirmed Wagner's own philosophical mood of resignation, which declares everyday reality an illusion; he enlightened Wagner about himself. Wagner stated this unequivocally in letters written at this time; he recommended Schopenhauer to any and all of his friends in the warmest terms and before long had surrounded himself in his Zurich exile with a crowd of Schopenhauer fans. One friend was even dispatched to Frankfurt to visit the notoriously disgruntled sage with an invitation to come to Switzerland to be lionized. Schopenhauer played coy: he no longer traveled, he responded. Undaunted, the Zurich Wagnerians intensified their veneration to the point of promoting the establishment of a professorship of Schopenhauerism at the University of Zurich. Schopenhauer acknowledged that "would be a great honor for me."
The project failed. But that did not dampen the enthusiasm of the Zurich cénacle for the grim old man in Frankfurt-nor Schopenhauer's gratitude for their attention: he had, after all, been chafing for decades at the inattention of the reading public. Yet the beautiful Zurich-Frankfurt relationship wouldn't have been quite the same if Wagner had known how Schopenhauer the reader reacted to the copy of Der Ring des Nibelungen that Wagner had sent him in December 1854 "in veneration and gratitude," as the autograph dedication of the Houghton copy proclaims. Wagner's autobiography discloses a slightly embarrassing secret: Schopenhauer never did send a written reply. Like the good Schopenhauerian that he was, Wagner claimed in Mein Leben that he had "resigned himself" from the outset to the prospect of not receiving a reply. But in fact he did suffer from Schopenhauer's chilling silence; Cosima Wagner's diary records his grief and chagrin as late as March 1878-a generation after the fact.
Still, Wagner did not hold this disappointment against Schopenhauer. His forbearance was made easier by reports from two friends who had visited the philosopher. They told him that Schopenhauer "had made significant and favorable comments on my poem." That the truth was cosmetized more than a little in this formulation is proved by wording reported in Schopenhauer's Conversations. But what the sage of Frankfurt penciled in the margins of his presentation copy of the Ring was even more drastic. For Schopenhauer did look this gift-horse in the mouth, and what he saw didn't please him in the least.
Taking a good look at these marginal notes is not without some voyeuristic thrill. Do they, for example, confirm what we are told in the authoritative Wagner-Handbuch, published in 1986-namely, that the philosopher's comments, no matter how biting, "evidently appreciated the literary rank" of Wagner's ambitious work?
No doubt about it: Schopenhauer, reading Wagner's Ring in the winter of 1854-55, pencil in hand, was in a difficult position. The book had been sent to him as a token of reverence, and yet only the
preceding May he had been flattered by reports that music critics were using his "pronouncements" about music in their polemics against Wagner's operas, "and rightly so," as he wrote to a friend. What exactly did Schopenhauer indicate about his admirer and adversary in his marginal annotations?
It is obvious from the start that it is Schopenhauer the famed stylist, the universally acknowledged master of German prose, who was wielding the pencil. Wagner's language was offensive to Schopenhauer-as it still is to many readers for precisely the same peculiarities that irritated Schopenhauer. And the sage of Frankfurt read the text most carefully. Of course, much of Schopenhauer's criticism loses its pungency in translation, but a few examples of his stylistic comments may give anglophone readers some idea of his objections.
Schopenhauer was particularly annoyed, as his vigorous question marks and critical underlinings (sometimes accompanied by multiple exclamation marks) suggest, by Wagner's artificially archaic vocabulary. Nobody but an expert in things medieval would know today, any more than Schopenhauer did then, that a freislicher Streit is a "terrifying quarrel." Nor did infelicitous constructions, stylistic awkwardness, and illogical turns of phrase escape Schopenhauer's angry pencil. Some of these passages are mildly funny, like the one suggesting that Erda does not know--to judge by her syntax in Rheingold--whether she gave birth to her three daughters or whether they were created at the dawn of time. Another such stylistic aberration, which rated one of Schopenhauer's quizzically amused exclamation marks, eventually caught the dull eye of Wagner himself when he revised his text slightly: Wotan originally says about Wala in Walküre, "News I received from her; / but from me she received a child."
What Schopenhauer found consistently exasperating about Wagner's style were his characteristic composite nouns, like Felssteine, Felsensaum, Felsspitze (rocks, rocky edge, rocky peak). "Ears!" Schopenhauer repeatedly penciled in the margin in his powerful hand, "he has no ears! the deaf musician." It is the sound of these and other such difficult words that go against Schopenhauer's grain. The implication is, clearly, that Wagner is a poet-composer who is at odds with the building materials of his trade, "the deaf musician." Schopenhauer summed up this criticism in large letters: "Language should be the serf of the master."
Other marginal notes remark on elements of substance and subject matter, rather than style. In one instance, Schopenhauer was reminded of Goethe's Faust, writing in the line that came to mind, without implying any criticism or worthwhile comment. But the running commentary becomes more interesting when the text becomes more immoral. The prime bone of contention is the adulterous and incestuous love scene of Siegmund and Sieglinde that concludes the first act of Walküre. Sieglinde's seductive suggestion that, were she to find "the sacred friend," her arms would embrace the hero, is translated into plain English (Schopenhauer was notoriously anglophile) in a firm marginal note: "Go, and murder my husband." Near the beginning of this fervid scene he writes in large letters, "One may forget about morality on occasion, but one should not slap it in the face," and a little later, "Infamous!" Likewise, it is the dubious morals of the sibling lovers that the austere critic has in mind when, at the end of the scene (after brother and sister have recognized each other, which only increases their turgid infatuation), he comments as the curtain falls, "High time, too." Understandably, Schopenhauer couldn't let pass such unbridled abandon to what he called the "will," in the sense of animal drive.
The "slap in the face of morality" occurs a second time in the first act of Siegfried, when the uncouth young hero turns brusquely against Mime, who has raised him with paternal love and sacrifice. "Outrageous ingratitude," says Schopenhauer, "maulschellirte Moral." The philosopher who preached abnegation of the world (and who in private life was much less inclined to such abstinence) here took the position of conventional morality and pedestrian propriety-rather an unexpected spectacle. In any case, and contrary to what the Wagner-Handbuch tells us, Schopenhauer seems to see neither hide nor hair of literary value, be it stylistic or substantive, as he goes over the Ring, pencil at the ready.
This is confirmed by a few additional, satiric comments, all pointing to something unintentionally comical in Wagner's writing. How else should one take Schopenhauer's comment on Fricka's obstreperousness toward her husband, Wotan, in Act II of Walküre? "Wodan henpecked," he writes in the margin (Wotan "under the slipper" is the somewhat more domestically picturesque German). A stage direction soon after is annotated by the remark that Wotan-a god, after all-"cowers and obeys."
At the beginning of the third act of Walküre, Wagner isn't doing much better, his critical reader thinks. Die Wolken spielen die Hauptrolle, we read: "The clouds play the lead role." Schopenhauer also seems to be amused by the inept and tongue-twisting description in Siegfried of the dragon, Fafner, which he underlines and marks with an exclamation mark: eidechsenartiger Schlangenwurm (lizardlike serpent-worm) is apparently just a bit too much for him. (In 1904 Wagner biographer W. A. Ellis, who knew of Schopenhauer's comments, came to his hero's rescue, somewhat unhelpfully, by pointing out that this was a zoologically accurate description of an iguanodon.) Siegfried's simplemindedly blunt self-introduction to Gunther in Götterdämmerung--"Now fight with me, or be my friend!"--rates three astonished exclamation marks in the margin. Nor does the pencil-happy critic seem able to take Brünnhilde entirely seriously. When she announces her intention to be burned alive, and on horseback, too, on Siegfried's funeral pyre, Schopenhauer, who drew so much inspiration from Indian culture, writes "Suttee" in the margin. This is hardly a compliment; more likely it indicates amused surprise about the inappropriateness of such fulsome expression of sorrow in the world of Nordic mythology.
What, then, was Schopenhauer's overall impression of Wagner's Ring as a text? Nothing in the marginal notations points to any kind of appreciation of the "literary rank" of the work. On the contrary, both the infelicitous style and the questionable morality of the Ring provoke Schopenhauer the stylist and the moralist, and the evidently amused reactions to involuntarily comical scenes continue this critical vein. When latter-day Wagnerians (as represented magisterially in the Wagner-Handbuch) claim that on the whole Schopenhauer approved of the text of the Ring, they take into account the conversational remarks he reportedly made about the work shortly after reading it. But remember that these remarks, to the effect that Wagner-or rather, "the jerk" (der Kerl), in one honest report-was a poet, not a musician, were repeated to Wagner by friends who no doubt heard what they wanted to hear and told him what he was eager to hear. The remarks, moreover, were suspiciously similar, and by the time they reached Wagner they had already been purified to unadulterated flattery. In Cosima Wagner's diary of 16 January 1869, some 14 years after the fact, they are: "I admire Wagner as a poet; but a musician he is not."
So, would "admiration" for Wagner the poet have been Schopenhauer's last word on the subject? The marginal notes to the Ring in Houghton Library suggest nothing of the sort. Not one of his notations appears favorable, by any stretch of the imagination. The Weltanschauung of mystical resignation both men may have shared. But in their literary and musical tastes (Schopenhauer preferred Mozart and Rossini), they were antipodes. Harvard's copy of the Ring demonstrates this only too clearly. That handshake (symbolically celebrated at Bayreuth year in, year out) could only have been somewhat backhanded. But that pose is not quite suitable for a monument.
Karl S. Guthke is the Kuno Francke professor of German art and culture and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Institute of Germanic Studies.