The Classical Nihilist
David Goldman captures something well in modern society, within the setting of Richard Wagner’s operas:
Unlike Flaubert or Tolstoy, Wagner flatters his audience with the conceit that their libidinous impulses resonate with the Will of the World, and that their petty passions have the same cosmic significance as Isolde’s or Kundry’s.
That was the debut of the culture of death. What made Wagner his century’s most influential artist was not merely that he portrayed as inevitable and even desirable the fall of the old order but that through his music he turned the plunge into the abyss into an intimate, existential experience—a moment of unbounded bliss, a redemptive sacrifice that restores meaning to the alienated lives of the orphans of traditional society. On the ruins of the old religion of throne and altar he built a new religion of impulse: Brunnhilde becomes Siegfried’s co-redemptrix in Wagner’s heretical Christianity.
Music also provides an excellent context in which to discuss a fundamental problem with the attitude:
In other words, Wagner’s aesthetic purpose is at war with his methods. Once we are conditioned to hear music as a succession of moments rather than as a journey to a goal, we lose the capacity for retrospective reinterpretation, for such reinterpretation presumes a set of expectations conditioned by classical form in the first place. Despite his dependence on classical methods, Wagner’s new temporal aesthetic weakened the capacity of later musical audiences to hear classical music.
In other words, not only is the work internally incoherent, philosophically, but it spurs regression and squanders the blessings that cultural progress have secured.