Superman's dance to Wagner's tunes

Nietzsche and Wagner
October 8, 1999

It is widely assumed that Nietzsche's worship of Wagner's German nationalism and anti-Semitism was short-lived, soon to be replaced by his more generous and abundant philosophy of the superman.

Joachim Kohler argues (in Ronald Taylor's translation of Nietzsche and Wagner ) that Nietzsche's rebellion against the bullying Wagner was superficial and his break with Wagnerian racism a hollow gesture. Nietzsche's decision to attack Christian sexual repression instead of the Jews in a war of annihilation was, for Kohler, less a philosophical matter than a continuance of "Nietzsche's fantasies of destruction".

Although a successful academic, Nietzsche's compositions and burgeoning ideas were ridiculed by Wagner. Ill and overworked, Nietzsche was given numerous unpaid assignments by Wagner and his wife, Cosima, spreading the Wagnerian gospel via lectures and essays and proof-reading Wagner's autobiography. Nietzsche also scoured Germany to supply the Wagners with various esoteric items, including Wagnerian underwear. But did these bizarre tasks drive Nietzsche to breaking point, as Kohler suggests? Nietzsche's association with Wagner helped as well as hindered Nietzsche's academic career, and Nietzsche's Wagnerian The Birth of Tragedy was well received.

Uncharacteristically, Nietzsche received "admirers of both sexes" at Wagner's first Bayreuth festival. And if Nietzsche could in turn use Wagner, he could also break away.

Nietzsche's anti-Semitism was not entirely heart-felt. As Kohler admits, Nietzsche was tormented by guilt over his Wagner-commissioned attack on the Jewish theologian David Friedrich Strauss, believing that his racist sarcasm had contributed to Strauss's death. However, Kohler implies that Cosima's lecturing brought Nietzsche back to the Wagnerian fold. Wagner abandoned Nietzsche when he learned of Nietzsche's possibly homosexual friendship with a Jew, Paul Ree. Kohler ignores the possibility that Nietzsche's relationship with Ree caused a significant change in Nietzsche's ethics, preferring perhaps to see libidinal matters as simply contingent or compromising.

Nietzsche's break with anti-Semitism soon merges convincingly with his aesthetic restlessness; he becomes bored with anti-Semitism. His rejection of Wagnerian German nationalism reflects his new interest in a stateless, nomadic will-to-power. Kohler, however, refuses to engage with the rhetorical nature of Nietzsche's published attacks on Wagner's anti-Semitism. Nietzsche jokes that Wagner hated Jews because he was secretly Jewish, suggesting that Wagner was a self-destructive Christian; Kohler merely sees here more evidence of Nietzschean anti-Semitism.

After the break with Wagner, Nietzsche's obsession with Wagner and Cosima continues, but this involves a desire to re-evaluate, not to repeat, his experiences. Nietzsche's obsession with Wagner's wife intensifies near the end of Nietzsche's sanity, but does this passion reveal a life-long subservience to Wagnerian ideals? Nietzsche's love of Cosima may have contained a desire to redeem them both, and the Dionysian persona, through which Nietzsche hoped to seduce Cosima, was not completely demonic.

As a biography-oriented work of cultural history, this book ignores all-too-many biographical facts; Kohler's intention that the Nietzsche-Wagner break was not a break is not historical but rather, an interpretation. Nevertheless, this book is fascinating. It merely waits to be re-evaluated.

David Johnson holds a DPhil from the University of York.

Nietzsche and Wagner: A Lesson in Subjugation

Author - Joachim Kohler
ISBN - 0 300 07640 1
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £18.50
Pages - 186

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