Music is the melody whose text is the world.
– Artur Schopenhauer
CHAPTER AIM: To explore of Wagner’s love of the philosophy of Schopenhauer
If reading words like ‘Philosophy‘ or ‘Schopenhauer‘ make you want to run for the hills, just hang on! Wagner is a composer with a brilliant ability to convey ideas in music, and that makes the philosophical issues we’re going to delve into much more directly accessible and enjoyable, than they might appear as words on a page. Hopefully, by the end of the final Wagner chapter, you should be able to hear Schopenhauer’s thinking in the music. What is more, Tristan & Isolde deals with issues as relevant today as they were 150 years ago, when it was composed. Fundamentals about the human conditions. Insights into our very being. Truths about our underlying desires…
Buried within our psyche are urges and compulsions beyond our daily awareness, which exhibit themselves in many aspects of all of our lives. Unsatisfied cravings, that impel us on. The need to shop, to get the latest car or must-have gadget. Our urge to play extreme sports, or have yet another go on a video game. The compulsion to collect stamps, vinyl, anything. And stronger urges, like our addictions to drink, drugs, food, gambling and so much else.Even working long office hours, keeping things in neat order, or not being able to wait for the next episode of a TV drama. We are subject to all kinds of cravings that seek satisfaction. Beneath compulsions like these lie even more primal cravings and needs. The desire to survive, the desire for sex, the desire for power. Our desires constantly – incessantly – drive us. And yet we are never fully satiated, and always seem to remain hungry for more. Whatever latest thing we get, we always seem to want something more. It’s an unending cycle of desire without satisfaction, need without respite, and it’s a suffering common to all living matter. Such at least was the world according to Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), whose philosophy was to exert a powerful effect on Wagner. “Original Sin“, according to the pessimistic philosopher, “is the crime of existence itself“.
The Philosopher’s Composer
Wagner loved philosophy. He wasn’t a dilettante: he read and thought deeply on philosophical subjects. And he projected that thought back into music. It’s the reason philosophers are amongst Wagner’s most ardent fans (and critics). Wagner himself possessed a formidable and ravenous intellect. He would consume articles, pamphlets, lectures, tracts, books, and indeed entire philosophies across the broadest spectrum of beliefs and ideas. Politics, art, religion, diet: all ideas he would argue out with his friends and acquaintances, to the point of haranguing them. And then there were the thousands of letters, articles, pamphlets he churned out. More actual words spewed from Wagner’s pen than notes. As a man-the-barricades revolutionary, Wagner’s earlier influences came from more obviously political thinkers like Hegel and Proudhon. The first half of Wagner’s career, culminating with his experiences in actual street-fighting revolution (as related ), are therefore strongly political, Republican, and even Nationalist. But it was contact with the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer that was to prove the single most important influence in Wagner’s life. If you doubt that claim, take it up with the man who made it. Wagner himself. In 1856, barely a year before beginning work on Tristan & Isolde, Wagner first encountered Schopenhauer’s mighty 800 page tome, The World as Will and Representation. The book had been published back in 1818, but was still barely known outside a small group of cognoscenti even close to forty years later, when one of those admirers handed Wagner a copy. The effect (as evidenced by Tristan & Isolde) was sudden and deep. The book quickly become a life-long obsession for the composer. He re-read the work many times, and kept a copy near him for the rest of his life, treating it like a bible that he would continually dip into.
A philosophy of music
In an abstract sense, the appreciation was mutual. Schopenhauer prized music above all other forms of art (although in practice he was inclined to Mozart). Music after all is ideally suited to exploring abstract thought (for more on that check out . Music is inherently abstract, and thus perfectly suited as a vehicle for abstract thought. And yet at the same time, music means something to us all, in a very basic and essential sense. Think how music connects with your own life. Perhaps with your religion, or your spirituality. Or your your memories, your childhood, your first love. Every culture and every civilization on the planet expresses itself through music. In Schopenhauer’s words, “Music is the true universal language which is understood everywhere“. Music’s effect on us is at once immediate and instinctive. It is abstract, yet it engages with us in a direct, emotive and intuitive way. Just look at what we will attempt in these next two chapters: you don’t have to read Schopenhauer to understand Wagner. But by listening to Wagner, we can begin to understand – to feel – something of his philosophy. As Schopenhauer himself wrote:
The composer reveals the innermost nature of the world, and expresses the profoundest wisdom, in a language that his reasoning faculty does not understand.
A philosophy of sexuality
It wasn’t just Schopenhauer’s adulation of music that drew Wagner so closely to the philosopher. Schopenhauer was probably the first great thinker before Freud to seriously examine sexuality. It was also a subject that fascinated Wagner. Sex was after all was the act that brought every single one of us into our own existence. For Schopenhauer, copulation was “the true essence and core of all things, the aim and purpose of all things”. And so, clearly a major desire driving us all on. And yet the sexual act was not an entirely selfish one. A redeeming feature of the sexual act, for the philosopher, was that an individual loses his own selfish identity by sharing it with another. Sex dissolves the barrier between the objective and subjective (as indeed does music).
The effects of such ideas upon Wagner become obvious when we turn to Tristan & Isolde. The opera (particularly in parts of Act II) is a serious attempt to convey the passion and fusion of the sexual act in music. Post-coital tenderness is also expressed. And of course we have the ‘climax’ of the opera: our own Liebestod . Remember how this music follows the structure of a female orgasm (as discussed ). Which leads us back to our desires. Sexuality is after all one of the greatest drivers of these desires. It is self-evidently central – essential – to the process of life. We are impelled by it in more ways than we admit, or even realise. Sex is crucial and critical to the condition of humanity. It puzzled Schopenhauer that other thinkers had not examined the subject in more detail, a deficit his work sort to remedy.
The World as Will
Schopenhauer was a deeply gloomy thinker, who saw the natural world as a place of pain and suffering on the hugest scale. Nature was a cacophony of murder and death, a world consisting of violence suffering and death, all of it for no reason. There was no God. There was no reason. Life was just a meaningless struggle towards death, after a life of unfulfilled and unending desires. Schopenhauer characterized the sum of all these desires and instincts impelling living matter to survive as the ‘Will-to-Live‘ (or ‘Will’ as I’ll henceforth call it). This small phrase represented for the philosopher the dynamic, the driving-force behind all life and existence. Our desires and emotions are the consequence of ‘Will‘ in action. Our own existence merely represents a series of cravings, longings, and urges that can never truly be relieved or fulfilled. Unless, of course, ultimately by death.
In our modern world, that consuming desire of ‘Will‘ becomes sublimated in so many ways. Over-eating, shopping, gambling, ambition. This is why we want more chocolate or drugs. This is why we gamble, binge, arrange, collect, consume, control, or act in whatever compulsive manner. Such are expressions of this deep-seated ‘Will‘ existing from within all living nature. We constantly crave. And yet we know none of these objects can ever ultimately fully satisfy us, can never satiate our own hunger. And yet we keep wanting more. This unresolvable conflict, according to Schopenhauer, was the reason we can never fundamentally be happy. What was to be done about it? Nothing, according to the philosopher. The only way to live satisfactorily was to renounce the earthly sphere, with its grotesque fight for survival and selfish materialism, to renounce your desires. It was an older – and rather surprised – Schopenhauer that discovered Buddha had come to these same conclusions nearly two thousand years earlier. According to Schopenhauer all the world’s great religions offered at their core this same panacea to the grief of existence: renounce all earthly things, renounce desire. You see it in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Free yourself, in other words, from the sorrow of ‘Will‘.
Art offers a similar release for Schopenhauer from the cravings of Will. Knowledge is used by Will to serve its own function, which in a practical sense means survival. But with art (as with science), knowledge has gone beyond what is necessary to live, and thus offers an alternative, even a palliative to the influence of Will. As Schopenhauer himself wrote:
Schopenhauer’s ideas were thoroughly digested by Wagner, over many years of reading and re-reading. These were after all ideas that chimed perfectly with the highly sensual composer. Throughout his life, Wagner had felt himself bound by the most intense cravings. His sexual drive was powerful, as were his wishes for material gratification (think about all those silks and perfumes that the composer adored). And of course there were the artistic and political power that constantly drove the hugely ambitious Wagner on. Yet so often those desires remained unassuaged. The composer felt the disappointments of the 1848/9 revolutions deeply and bitterly. Not to mention all the problems he was experiencing trying to stage his operas (it took six years from completing Tristan & Isolde to getting it performed). Wagner, post 1850, was deeply disillusioned by politics and public life. Schopenhauer provided a much-needed intellectual balm to a disaffected Wagner, as he nursed his wounds in Switzerland. More importantly, it also provided new creative ingredients for the composer’s own insatiably fermenting intellect. Tristan & Isolde was the potent brew concocted. And that’s what we shall turn to in detail in our final Wagner chapter….
- If you struggle (like me!) reading all 700 pages of Schopenhauer masterwork, The World as Will and Representation, try his Essays and Aphorisms (Penguin), which is shorter and much easier to digest.
- Brian MaGee’s superb The Tristan Chord (Picador), already mentioned above, is highly recommended.
- Also illuminating is Roger Scruton’s Death-devoted Heart (Oxford University Press).
- For a concise account of Wagner’s philosophical influences, read Roger Hollinrake’s essay in The Wagner Compendium (Edited by Marry Millington, Thames & Hudson).