Nietzsche's Portraiture: Wagner as Worthy Opponent

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Nietzsche's Portraiture: Wagner as Worthy Opponent

ABSTRACT: Richard Wagner always represented for Nietzsche the Germany of that time. By examining Nietzsche's relationship to Wagner throughout his writings, one is also examining Nietzsche's relationship to his culture of birth. I focus on the writings from the late period in order to clarify Nietzsche's view of his own project regarding German culture. I show that Nietzsche created a portrait of Wagner in which the composer was a worthy opponent-someone with whom he disagreed but viewed as an equal. Wagner was such an opponent because he represented the disease of decadence which plagued the culture and from which Nietzsche suffered for a time, but of which he also cured himself. In other words, Nietzsche emphasized his overcoming and revaluation of Wagner because he wanted his readers to understand it as a metaphor for his larger battle with decadence in general. The goal of this portraiture is to demonstrate on an individual level what could be done on a cultural level to revitalize culture. Through an analysis of Nietzsche's portrait of Wagner in the late period, I will claim that in order to understand Nietzsche's revaluation of decadent values in nineteenth century German culture, one must understand his relationship with the composer.

From The Birth of Tragedy, where Wagner's music represented the hope for the re-birth of pre-Socratic Greek culture to The Case of Wagner, where Wagner was the artist of German decadence par excellence, Richard Wagner always personified nineteenth century Germany for Nietzsche. By examining Nietzsche's relationship to Wagner throughout his writings, one is also examining Nietzsche's relationship to his country of birth. In this paper, I carry out such an investigation with a focus on the late period (the writings after Thus Spoke Zarathustra) in order to clarify Nietzsche's view of his own project regarding German (and by extension European) culture. I show that in the late period Nietzsche created a portrait of Wagner in which the composer was a worthy opponent; meaning someone with whom Nietzsche disagreed but viewed as an equal. Nietzsche himself took on several worthy opponents, and he claimed that in his battle with "these objects of resistance" he learned about himself. Wagner was such an object of resistance because he represented the disease of decadence which plagued the culture and from which Nietzsche emphasized his overcoming. The goal of this portraiture was to demonstrate on an individual level what could be done on a cultural level to revitalize the culture and make it healthy.

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