Nietzsche's Portraiture: Wagner as Worthy Opponent
From The Birth of Tragedy, where Wagner's music represented the hope for the re-birth of pre-Socratic Greek culture to The Case of Wagner, where Wagner was the artist of German decadence par excellence, Richard Wagner always personified nineteenth century Germany for Nietzsche. By examining Nietzsche's relationship to Wagner throughout his writings, one is also examining Nietzsche's relationship to his country of birth. In this paper, I carry out such an investigation with a focus on the late period (the writings after Thus Spoke Zarathustra) in order to clarify Nietzsche's view of his own project regarding German (and by extension European) culture. I show that in the late period Nietzsche created a portrait of Wagner in which the composer was a worthy opponent; meaning someone with whom Nietzsche disagreed but viewed as an equal. Nietzsche himself took on several worthy opponents, and he claimed that in his battle with "these objects of resistance" he learned about himself. Wagner was such an object of resistance because he represented the disease of decadence which plagued the culture and from which Nietzsche emphasized his overcoming. The goal of this portraiture was to demonstrate on an individual level what could be done on a cultural level to revitalize the culture and make it healthy. The paper is divided into 3 parts: in the first part I define decadence and Nietzsche's relationship to it, in the second part I state Nietzsche's four criteria for his worthy opponents, and in the final part, I sketch Nietzsche's portrait of Wagner in the late works; namely as a worthy opponent because the composer was the personification of decadence.
Nietzsche and Decadence
While Nietzsche used the term "decadence" throughout his published writings, in the late works he used it more frequently, and it took on the status of a technical term. Decadence, for Nietzsche, refers to the decay of values, which Nietzsche thought was inevitable because they are basically rationales for existence, and since there is no objective truth they can only be subjectively true-true only for certain people and certain times. When they are no longer true, they decay. Nietzsche claimed that decadence was the problem which "preoccupied [him] more profoundly" than any other because this inevitable decay of values was a threat to the culture, and by extension, the human species. (1) Values or rationales for existence are so important because in order to survive, let alone flourish, human beings require the creation of values. These values provide rationales for why we suffer and aid us in surviving and hopefully flourishing in spite of that suffering. (2) Without them, Nietzsche claimed that we would be in a condition of nihilism which would lead to mass suicide. Since Nietzsche placed value on a culture based on the type of great, flourishing individuals it produces, if its values are in decay, then it will be unable to produce these great individuals and it will be in decay. This then is the paradox of decadence: human beings have to create values, but any values that they will create will eventually decay.
Nietzsche contended that in post-Socratic western cultures, the proposed solutions to this "problem of decadence" had been unhealthy. In general, they had created values whose goal was to protect the weakest type of human beings from the inherent meaninglessness of life by claiming that there was objective truth, and instead of helping the culture to flourish, it had led to what Nietzsche saw as an encroaching nihilism as this objective truth had begun to outlive its usefulness ( e.g. "God is dead"). In short, post-Socratic western culture values had led to the stagnation instead of the enhancement of the culture. Though Nietzsche did not explicitly make a distinction between types of decadents, his writings indicate a hierarchy of decadents similar to the distinction between weak and strong pessimists. (3)
The decadents whom Nietzsche found the most problematic (I call them weak decadents) tend to value life as something negative and to be condemned. In order to attain their goal of preserving the species (especially the weak majority), they attempt to assign blame to someone or something for the suffering in life, and then remove this source of suffering from existence. (4) Another symptom of weak decadence is the need to take a personal perspective of life, claim it as objective truth, and then by persuasion, make it a universal law (CW 5).
Weak decadents can be either optimists or pessimists. The optimists require the comfort that life is basically good and they tend to deny those parts of existence labeled "evil". In other words, they must lie about reality in order to make life bearable. Nietzsche argued that this universal optimism was so dangerous because its adherents were unable to contend with the rigors of existence, and suppressed anyone or thing that contradicted their values. (5) The pessimists, according to Nietzsche, were less problematic because they at least admitted to the inexplicable suffering in life, but they resigned themselves to overwhelming feelings of powerlessness in the face of the inexplicable, and suffered from the resulting inhibiting effects of nausea. Both types tend to suffer from ressentiment in that they resent those who are stronger and are able to create values despite the inherent meaninglessness of life. Because these values appeal to the weakest in society who are in the majority, weak decadents are timely.
In contrast, strong decadents aim to affirm the whole of life (the good and the evil), and as opposed to being frozen into inaction by the lack of objective truth in existence, they revel in creating values which help them to flourish as individuals. Because flourishing is their goal, they are even willing to risk their own preservation in order to feel the joy of Überfluß that accompanies expressions of one's will to power. They are able to hold such affirmative views of life because they recognize the problem of decadence and realize that any values they create will eventually decay. So unlike the weak decadents, who are wedded to static values, they are always prepared to overcome old values and create new ones. Strong decadents are still decadents in the sense that they place values on life (cutting it in to pieces), but these values concern a particular life and not life itself, and their goal is to serve ascending life as opposed to serving descending life which leads inexorably to nihilism. Therefore, to be a strong decadent, one must have to do battle with the disease of decadence-one must confront the reality of existence, resist the paralyzing effects of weak pessimism, and create values which act as a stimulus to life.
It should come as no surprise that Nietzsche classified himself as a strong decadent, but he also proclaimed that he had been a weak decadent. In fact, one of the major themes of the late works is recovery and convalescence, and more specifically, Nietzsche's recovery from both literal and physical illness. Nietzsche, as a strong decadent, contended that he was experienced in "questions of decadence", and it is with this idea of Nietzsche's overcoming of weak decadence, that I finally turn to his relationship with Wagner (EH, "Why I Am So Wise", 1). To Nietzsche, Wagner represented the weak decadence of nineteenth century Germany, and so, as with other figures, Nietzsche highlighted his battle with the composer as an example for "those who have eyes and ears" for his writings as to how one might make oneself a strong decadent by overcoming weak decadence.
In other words, Wagner was one of those whom Nietzsche deemed worthy opponents and against whom he waged "war" to make himself healthy and stronger. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche claimed that those who are strong require "objects of resistance" because their strength "can be measured in a way by the opposition they require: every growth is indicated by the search for a mighty opponent-or problem". The point of taking on these opponents was not to defeat them, but rather to stake all one's "strength, suppleness, and fighting skill"; to express one's will to power. For this reason, I label these opponents as "worthy" because they must in some sense be equals. In this same section, Nietzsche listed his four criteria for choosing these opponents:
His battles with these worthy opponents were not meant to be an indication of personal rancor, in fact, he even claimed: "attack is in my case a proof of good will, sometimes even of gratitude". Wagner seemed to be the perfect case of a worthy opponent. While Nietzsche admitted in the late works that he had been infected by Wagner at earlier stages in his career, he had overcome this stage, and he now felt gratitude for Wagner as one of the factors in his revaluation into a strong decadent (CW, Preface). Because of this gratitude, the portrait of Wagner during this period is surprisingly sympathetic. Nietzsche wanted his culture, or future German cultures, to come to view Wagner has he did: a worthy opponent whom one should respect, but also whom must be overcome.
Wagner as Worthy Opponent
In the late works, it is clear that for Nietzsche, Wagner was merely a symbol of German decadence. In the section entitled "The Case of Wagner" in Ecce Homo Nietzsche only mentioned Wagner's name twice, while the section is devoted to a discussion of German decadence. It might be helpful to summarize the specific characteristics that made Wagner a decadent.
Schopenhauer, the "philosopher of decadence" made Wagner "the artist of decadence" (CW 5). In that role, Wagner made corrupted music by using it as a means to an end-the promotion of a particular rationale for existence. Upon adopting Schopenhauer's philosophy as his personal world view, his next move was that of a typical decadent, and he attempted to universalize it as a world view for everyone (CW 5). The leitmotiv he appropriated was redemption from our sins, and in this Wagnerian view, only through this redemption could we escape this corrupted world. According to Nietzsche, Wagner was a seducer of the weak in that he offered them a narcotic to help contend with existence: if they led virtuous and pure lives then they could escape from inexplicable suffering (CW 3). In reality, this narcotic offered only a temporary escape, and it fact, it actually weakened his listeners' ability to contend with the inescapable and inexplicable suffering in life. Wagner's music was such a narcotic.
With Wagner, music was no longer meant to be beautiful and melodious, instead, it was meant to instruct people about how to attain virtue (CW 6). His style was decadent because it betrayed an inability to contend with the whole. He had to reduce his music to pieces and symbols, infuse each piece with meaning, and then explain each piece. Each piece then obscures the beauty of the whole. Nietzsche likened this style to taking the vitality of life and putting it into small, "composite, calculated, artificial" (CW 7). It was by way of such a style that Wagner was able to seduce the people of his time and to become a child of it. This music was meant to seem complex and difficult to understand so that the audience was required to think and de-code the motifs and symbols. By placing the "it means" in the foreground of his music, Wagner focused on the discovery of truth and meaning in his music. He, thereby, convinced his audience that in his music, truth was to be found (CW 8).
His motifs, and theory in general, were not meant to be easily understood because he thought that a German audience, who could find truth in Hegel, would only take something seriously if it were "obscure, uncertain, full of intimations" (CW 10). This charge of the corruption of music is similar to Nietzsche's charge against Euripides in The Birth of Tragedy of causing the death of Attic Greek tragedy. (6) Both are charged with making their art form too rational and with having the cunning to make their corrupted views the norm. It is for this reason, that Nietzsche charged both of them with being decadents. Wagner's genius was that this was all expressed in a music that was not awkwardly formulaic, but instead was "a persuasion of sensuousness which in turn makes the spirit weary and worn-out. Music as Circe" (CW, Postscript).
The problems of Wagner's characters are the problems of modern, decadent Europe: how to contend with the meaninglessness of life when one is too weak and weary to create affirmative values. I must emphasize that Nietzsche did not see Wagner as the progenitor of decadence in Europe; he was merely the most typical and shining example of the sickness (CW, Postscript). In Nietzsche's portrait, then, Wagner was a worthy opponent against whom Nietzsche had had to battle, and to whom he was later grateful. Nietzsche thought that Wagner has been misunderstood by his contemporaries, and that his worth needed to be revalued. Wagner needed to be understood as the artist of decadence, and this decadence was corrupting "our" health and music (CW 5). Nietzsche respected the fact that Wagner attempted to act as a cultural physician, and the philosopher only wished that Wagner could have recognized the problematic nature of his "cure" for his culture (recognized his own weak decadence) and given up his timeliness in order to overcome himself. It was with Wagner that Nietzsche claimed that he learned to see the problems with traditional "German virtues" (EH, "Why I Am So Clever", 5). He also said that he would never forgive Wagner for turning his back on this revolutionary stance, "condescend[ing] to the Germans", and becoming "reichsdeutsch" (EH, "Why I Am So, Clever", 5). It is this later Wagner who had become the standard bearer for weak decadent German culture, and the earlier Wagner had been forgotten. According to Nietzsche then, Wagner should have been championed in Germany and Europe, but it should have been the pre-Schopenhaurian Wagner; the Wagner who had many characteristics of strong decadence.
With this portrait of Wagner in the late works, Nietzsche wanted to indicate the extent to which Wagner had been misunderstood after his death. While Wagner might have been blameworthy for failing to resist weak decadence, and for trying to be appeal to the masses by being timely, Nietzsche also thought that his readers were to be blamed if they failed to overcome Wagner as he had. Nietzsche claimed that his goal in CW was not to attack Wagner because he had "loved" his former mentor, and, instead, the goal was to present an attack on the decadence of German music-more specifically the fact that it had "been done out of its world-transfiguring, Yes-saying character" (EH, "The Case of Wagner", 1).
As a worthy opponent, Nietzsche did not attack Wagner himself, and instead he attacked that which Wagner represented-in this case, European decadence. The aim of this attack then was to push German (and by extension European) culture to revalue its weak decadence by first re-examining its understanding of "the greatest name" of this disease by following Nietzsche's own example. In the end, Nietzsche seemed to have created a portrait of Wagner which not only helped him to put personal quarrels and ressentiment aside, and to "overcome" the weak decadence within himself that Wagner represented, but it also was a way for Nietzsche to provide an example for those willing to listen to him as to how one might "cure" nineteenth century German and European culture (CW, 2nd Postscript).
This type of portraiture is not unusual because in the late works Nietzsche created portraits of those whom he deemed worthy opponents in order to show both the danger they represented to Nietzsche (and for the culture in general), and the way which he contended with that danger in his own quest to "overcome" the decadent within himself and in the larger culture. Wagner represented the danger of the disease of weak decadence-both to Nietzsche and to the culture in general. Nietzsche's concern was twofold: that Wagner had been misunderstood as the savior of German and European culture (that the "Wagnerian had become master over Wagner") instead of a symptom of the disease, and that Nietzsche himself would be similarly misunderstood (EH, "Human, All-Too-Human", 2). In this portrait, then, Wagner was the worthy opponent to whom Nietzsche expressed gratitude for helping him to overcome his weak decadence, but was also the master of weak decadence who must ultimately be overcome. In order, then, to understand Nietzsche's revaluation of decadent values in nineteenth century German culture, one must understand his relationship with the composer.
(1) Friedrich Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner [CW], trans., Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Random House, 1967), Preface.
(2) Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals [GM], trans., Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1967), III, 28.
(3) Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science [GS], trans., Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 370.
(4) Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols [TI], trans., R.J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin Books 1968), "Expeditions of an Untimely Man", 35.
(5) Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo [EH], trans., Walter Kaufmann (New York: Penguin Books, 1980), "Why I Am A Destiny", 4).
(6) Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, in The Basic Writings of Nietzsche, Walter Kaufmann, trans., (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), 10-12.