Nietzsche, Wagner, and Ascetic Ideals
Nietzsche wrote several works focusing on Richard Wagner. “Wagner in Bayreuth” was published in 1876 as the last of four essays comprising his Untimely Meditations. The progression of those essays may be simplified as follows: the first meditation on David Strauss showed that German culture had become superficial, the second meditation argued that historical thinking had contributed to cultural impoverishment, the third essay on Arthur Schopenhauer credited him with revealing culture’s need for art, and the final essay on Richard Wagner presented him as the type of artist that German culture needed. But even as he was finishing UM, Nietzsche was entertaining doubts about Wagner’s ability to resurrect an artistic culture. Indeed, from then on Nietzsche characterized Wagner as a decadent artist. The Case of Wagner (published in 1888) is an abridged collection of his comments on Wagner, and it can be reconnected with Nietzsche’s concerns in the Untimely Meditations by this line of reasoning: (1) values express either ascending or descending forms of life; and, (2) all higher types of humanity in modern culture are forms of degenerating life; and, (3) Wagner is a case in point, i.e., Wagner is a typical artist and a form of degenerating life. This paper will explore what Nietzsche means when he refers to Wagner as a ‘decadent’ artist. More precisely, this paper will analyze Nietzsche’s account of Wagner’s relation to ascetic ideals found in GM III.
Nietzsche had no problem with asceticism as a means for spiritual growth and for refining one’s personality—what he attacked was the ascetic ideal. The problem with the ascetic ideal is that it is no longer functioned as a means for human development but became the ultimate goal of human life as an end in itself. This situation arose because sick animals lower their goals. According to Nietzsche, humans came to possess a psychological sickness which termed the “bad conscience.” Just as wounded soldiers typically change their goals away from engaging the enemy toward self-preservation, so members of European culture changed their goal from suffering for the sake of spiritual growth to merely suffering for the sake of continued existence.
In GM III: 2-5, Nietzsche provides an analysis of Wagner’s relation to ascetic ideals. This discussion is crucial for understanding what Nietzsche meant when he categorized Wagner as a decadent. One of the points Nietzsche makes in these early sections of GM is that Wagner was not bound by any kind of necessity to treat the relation between chastity and sensuality tragically. Even though he was not bound to do so, he pandered to what Nietzsche called “tragic swine.” Through Parsifal, Wagner pandered a superfluous antithesis of chastity and sensuality to members of his audience. Not only do ascetic ideals embody decadence, but Wagner, as an artist, would have been free to overcome their influence if he only had the strength and independence to do so.