Monday, January 09, 2006

Wagner's Religion and Anti-Semitism: Part I

Was Wagner a Christian?

I wanted to be perfectly clear that my belief that the operas of Richard Wagner are not anti-Semitic propaganda is not to be taken as an apology for or a denial of Wagner's racism, nor am I under any delusions about the intensity of his hatred.

Most people assume -- in large part because of the overt references in Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger, and Parsifal -- that Wagner was a Christian, but this is not true.

The young Wagner was heavily influenced by the philosophy of Feuerbach, who argued that morality is a cultural construct based on reason, that our laws and social behaviors are built upon generations of a sort of trial-and-error approach to discovering the difference between right and wrong. Wagner believed that religion revealed fundamental truths: not about divinity, but about ourselves, because into these religions we had projected onto our deities our own most valued qualities; therefore "God" is all-powerful, all-knowing, God is love, God is compassion.

The operas listed above consist of about half of Wagner's contributions to the repertoire. (He wrote three early operas which are hardly ever performed; they are not even done at his own self-established festival in Bayreuth.) The other six operas are Der Fliegende Holländer (the Dutchman refers to God and the apocalypse in his great monologue but it's not a Christian-themed work), Tristan und Isolde (which takes place in pre-Christian Britain and is most assuredly not a religious work), and the four operas of the Ring. That is to say, he wrote four operas on the subject of the Norse god Wotan, but no serious person has ever accused him of promoting that religion, even though there is an exact balance between the four Ring operas and the four "Christian" operas.

However, he did believe in Jesus Christ, in a manner of speaking. In 1854, at the age of 41, he first began to study the philosopher Artur Schopenhauer, and it changed his life. Schopenhauer had been heavily influenced by Buddhism, most especially the concept that desire is the root of all suffering. Wagner began to understand that law and morality were not artificial constructs, but were based on compassion. Murder is not wrong because there are tangible consequences, it is wrong because deep in our deepest, bottom-of-the-Rhein unconsciousness, we are aware that it is wrong to inflict suffering, and that all of our cultural rules, ranging from law to etiquette, were established for the sole purpose of limiting suffering.

Our daily "reality" is not reality at all, but rather an illusion. In the "real" reality, all living beings are interconnected, we are part of an eternal Oneness, and we feel compassion because in wounding another we are really injuring ourselves. But if desire is the cause of suffering, then the desire to reduce or eliminate suffering is self-defeating. We must accept that our present world is full of suffering, resign ourselves to that fact, and not hope for anything else. It is through this "denial of the will" that Schopenhauer argued we would transcend this illusion.

It is this idea and nothing else that forms the true base of Wagner's mature operas. Now, these operas are complex and multifaceted, and can be interpreted on many different levels, and many different themes can be understood or emphasized, but any understanding of his late operas that does not take into account Wagner's fundamental purpose in writing them is illegitimate.

Wagner, like many other people, drew similarities between the Buddha and Jesus Christ. For Wagner, Christ was the ultimate Schopenhauerian figure. He was under no illusion that life was pleasant or easy, he owned nothing, he desired nothing and though as the Son of God he was all-powerful, he surrendered himself to his fate without struggle, made no attempt to save his own life, and submitted to torture and execution not for his own glory, but for the sake of all of us who are connected in the eternal Oneness.

But Wagner did not believe in the "Christian" Christ, and this is where things begin to get weird.

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