Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Schopenhauer & Wagner

Schopenhauer wrote The World As Will And Idea in 1819 when still a very young man, in his early twenties, expecting its importance would soon be recognized. He had to wait for more than thirty years, until 1853 when it was reviewed in The Westminster Review. He died nine years later, alone, as he had lived for almost his entire adult life. He read everything--including, every day, the London Times. He had an independent income and could afford to attend concerts and the theater. Which brings up an aspect of his work and life that I have not touched upon: one doesn't have to become Buddhist monk, or a Shaker, in order to withdraw from the cold, brutal, egoism of the world and the Will that keeps it going. One can also withdraw, if one has the means and/or talent into another world, of disinterested esthetic contemplation: to create or contemplate representations of the world in art, music, poetry, philosophy is (he thought) to lift oneself out of the blood and muck of the world into a higher realm:

In all these reflections I wish to make clear the nature and the scope of the subjective element in esthetic pleasure--that the deliverance of knowledge from the service of the will, the forgetting of oneself as individual, and the raising of consciousness to the pure will-less, timeless, subject of knowledge, independent of all relations.

Music, which can only be about itself and is therefore in itself necessarily disinterested, is the highest form of art. ('Disinterested' of course means having no axe to grind, so Schopenhauers's principle here is implicitly moral. His esthetics, therefore, has an unacknowledged moral basis.) The religion of Art, which become such a huge part of bourgeois life in the 19th and 20th centuries, may have originated with Schopenhauer. When he finally became famous, following the publication of that English review essay, Wagner was his first great convert. He and Schopenhauer never met. The latter had never heard of him and did not answer Wagner's letters.
Since I don't care much for Wagner's music, I shouldn't talk about him at all, and will limit my comments to an arbitrary device in the plots of The Ring and Tristan and Isolde which has the effect (as it seems to me) of transforming rationally comprehensible tragedies into incomprehensible catastrophes. I'm referring to the black magic of the love potions--no different from those used for appropriately comic purposes in A Midsummer Night's Dream--that divert Seigfried's love for Brunhilde to the sister of his enemy, and force Tristan into an essentially adulterous affair with Isolde. Since magic is both inexplicable and irresistable, Tristan is blameless. His story is not about moral confusion but about a passion that has nothing whatsoever to do with morality or ethics. The Ring, similarly, is diverted from a rationally comprehensible tragedy of the will to power to a meaningless catastrophe caused by an unaccountable power beyond human control. What Schopenhauer would have thought of all this I don't know but I don't think he'd have approved.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that music can only be about itself. I agree that music is the highest form of art. But I am not at all sure that there is any connection between these two facts.

    Nobody understands what we mean by great music. Most of Mozart's music is great, but it is not particularly original in its structure, nor is it especially complex or tormented as a rule.

    I remember being overwhelmed by Mozart's Piano Concerto #26, the Coronation, when I was about 10. I recognized its greatness then, and I haven't changed my mind since. Critics sometimes look down on this concerto, which is totally lacking in sadness or conflict. That's because critics, like the rest of us, can't figure out what it is that makes great music great.