Years ago, when I first read the libretto of Die Meistersinger, I thought I detected the odor of nihilism around Hans Sachs, particularly in his famous monologue on Wahn. But with more study of the opera, I changed my mind and decided that this is the one opera of Wagner's that is free from nihilism, and thus free of the nihilist connection to Nazism.
At the end of the Second Act, Sachs interferes with Beckmesser's attempt to serenade Eva with a love song at night, which is to be his rehearsal for the singing contest the next day. It turns out that the woman he's serenading is actually Magdalene, Eva's nurse and the fiance of David, Sach's apprentice. When David sees what's happening, he attacks Beckmesser, and the noise of their altercation draws many townspeople into the streets, who then pick fights with one another, starting a general riot that stops only when the night-watchman appears.
At the beginning of the Third Act, Sachs is in his house reading a book of world history and apparently pondering the riot of the previous night. After speaking briefly with David, who apologizes for starting the fight, Sachs is left alone, and he launches into a dark, meditative monologue on how everything is full of Wahn. This German word cannot be easily translated into a single English word, because it can variously mean "delusion," "madness," "feigning," "folly," or "irrationality." Here's a translation of this monologue, leaving the word Wahn untranslated:
"Wahn! Wahn! Everywhere Wahn! Wherever I search in city and world chronicles, to discover the reason why, till they draw blood, people harass and torment one another in useless, foolish rage! No one has reward or thanks for it. Driven to flight, he deludes himself that he is the hunter; he does not hear his own cry of pain; when he digs into his own flesh, he is deluded that he gives himself pleasure! Who will give it a name? It's the old Wahn, without which nothing can happen, either to change or to preserve. It it halts somewhere in its course, it sleeps only to gain new strength: it suddenly awakens, and then, see who can master it!"
"How peaceful, with its sound customs, contented in deed and work, there lies in the middle of Germany my beloved Nuremberg! But late one evening, to prevent a mishap caused by youthful ardour, a man does not know what to do; a cobbler in his shop plucks at the thread of Wahn; how quickly in alleys and streets it begins to rage! Man, woman, journeyman and child fall on each other as if mad and blind, and if the Wahn will bless it, it must now rain blows, with cuffs, punches and thrashings to quench the the fire of rage. God knows how that came about? A goblin must have helped there: a glow-worm failed to find its mate; it set the trouble off. It was the elder tree: Midsummer Eve!"
"But now is come Midsummer's Day! Now let's see how Hans Sachs can manage to guide the Wahn subtly to perform a nobler task. For if it will not leave us in peace, even here in Nuremberg, then let it be for such a work that seldom in commonplace matters, and never without touch of Wahn, is achieved."This monologue shows the influence on Wagner of Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation. Lucy Beckett has shown this very clearly in her essay "Sachs and Schopenhauer" (in John Warrack, Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg [Cambridge University Press, 1994], 66-82).
Schopenhauer adopts Kant's dualistic metaphysics that separates the phenomenal world of nature (things as they appear to us) from the noumenal world of freedom (things as they are in themselves). The apparent world of nature is ruled by the natural necessity of each individual to preserve itself. This is the world of egoism in which each individual wills its own life, which is the world of the Hobbesian war of all against all. This is the world of suffering and unfulfilled longing. The only escape from this world is for the will to renounce itself--to will not to will--which frees us from the apparent world into a world of empty nothingness. Schopenhauer sees this as a metaphysical statement of the Christian dogma of human life as ruined by the original sin of willful self-assertion and as redeemed by the denial of all willing in self-renunciation.
In 1862, while he was working on Die Meistersinger, Wagner expressed his version of this Schopenhauerean teaching in an essay "On the State and Religion," in which he formulates this teaching through the idea of Wahn. To overcome the destructiveness of human egoism, we need the Wahn of patriotism to delude us into sacrificing for the state as if this were in our selfish interest. But the state cannot satisfy the deepest human longings. For that we need "true religion," and its "inmost kernel is denial of the world--that is, recognition of the world as a fleeting and dreamlike condition reposing merely on illusion--and struggle for redemption from it, prepared for by renunciation, attained by faith." As religious belief fades in the modern world, the redemptive function of religion can be carried on through art, by which we enter a "conscious Wahn in place of the reality": through art, we can willingly deceive ourselves while accepting "the nothingness of the world," and escaping from that world through an ecstatic self-annihilation (like that of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, whose frenzied erotic longing was finally consummated in death).
Here we see Wagner's Gnostic nihilism--the thought that the world as we know it, the world of ordinary human experience, is an illusory world of suffering and unfulfilled longing, but that we can free ourselves from the prison of this world through a redemptive self-renunciation. As Nietzsche and others have seen, this theme of redemption runs through Wagner's operas, in which art takes the place of religion in appealing to the transcendent longings traditionally served by Biblical religion.
And yet Die Meistersinger is the one opera that departs from this Wagnerian theme of Gnostic redemption from the world. Many commentators think they see redemption in Sach's decision to give up his chance to win the song contest and marry Eva, and instead he choses to teach Walther how to use the Wahn of artful and beautiful singing to win the contest and marriage to Eva. But there is no ecstatic self-annihilation in Die Meistersinger like that in Tristan und Isolde. In Die Meistersinger, there is no fleeing from the world, but rather a healing reaffirmation of the world of ordinary experience.
Sachs explains to Walther that while it's easy for a young man with the erotic longings of springtime to sing a beautiful love song, it's hard for older men to sing once they have experienced the stresses and suffering of married life, children, work, and business. The older men who become Mastersingers have developed the formal rules of poetry and music so that they can sing even when the erotic passions of youth have faded.
We see this early in Act Three:
SACHS: Follow my advice, short and good: fashion your mood into a Mastersong.
WALTHER: A beautiful song, a Mastersong . . . What's the difference?
SACHS (softly): My friend, in the charming time of youth, when from powerful sprouts, we are captured in our first love, when the heart is beating and swelling, to sing a beautiful song is granted to most: spring sings for us. Through summer, fall, and winter's time, when trouble and care press on our life, though at the same time, as marital happiness, with children's christenings, business, discord, and strife, only those who still manage to sing a beautiful song will be called Masters.
Through their singing art, Sachs explains, the Mastersingers preserve the memory "of all the springs that once they knew." When Walther asks how these men can recover their image of spring once their spring has been long over, Sachs answers: "They start afresh as best they can."
M. Owen Lee is a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto who became famous for his opera commentary, particularly during intermissions of the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts. He is a fan of Wagner's operas, and he regards Die Meistersinger as perhaps his best. Although I always find his remarks on Wagner insightful, I think he is wrong in claiming that the theme of redemption from the world runs through Die Meistersinger as it does through all of Wagner's operas.
The contrast between Die Meistersinger and the other operas can be seen by comparing two passages from Lee giving overviews of Die Meistersinger and Tristan und Isolde:
"The wounded, haunted Tristan comes painfully to see that the human condition, inherited from father and mother, nurtured by ambition, intensified by sexual passion, never fulfilled, driving him ever onward, is not the real world, and he summons up all his strength to renounce it. Only then is he rewarded with a vision of Isolde coming to him, walking over the sea on waves of flowers. Tristan at that moment has suffered through to what Wagner thought, at that time of his life, was the ultimate human truth, buried deep in the unconscious, but clearly stated in the wisdom of the East--that only when a man renounces his insatiable desires can he find the Nirvana-peace which is his true fulfillment." (Wagner, The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art, University of Toronto Press, 2007, p. 53)
"Can we sum up Wagner's aesthetic, as expressed in Die Meistersinger, in the half-minute that remains to us before we listen to the rest of his opera? If we read the music and the metaphors rightly, we can say five things. Art, for Richard Wagner, is fashioned from both intuition and honest craftsmanship, from both innovating spirit and respect for tradition. It can speak powerfully to us if we have within ourselves the capacity to respond to it. It can survive the fall of empires to speak to future civilizations about the civilization that produced it. It can tell us what we need to know about ourselves, perhaps most of all about the flaw in human nature that makes mysteries of our lives. And it can help us to accept the inevitable sadness in life--as well as to sing like songbirds from the sheer joy of being alive." (Wagner and the Wonder of Art: An Introduction to Die Meistersinger, University of Toronto Press, 2007, p. 85)So, in Tristan und Isolde, the "human condition"--the world of human love, marital bonding, parental care, and ambitious striving--"is not the real world." To reach the "real world," we must renounce all of our natural desires to achieve the annihilation of "Nirvana-peace." By contrast, Die Meistersinger affirms the natural goodness of our human, all too human life, even with all its flaws and suffering, so that we can "accept the inevitable sadness in life--as well as to sing like songbirds from the sheer joy of being alive."
Like Wagner, the Nietzsche of the early and later writings shows a need for redemption from the world that leads him to an atheistic religiosity expressed in the Dionysian ecstasy of Wagner's music or Zarathustra's poetry. But the Nietzsche of Human, All Too Human rejects the need for redemption as showing a sickly refusal to accept life as it is--even in all its transience, vulnerability, and pain--as having a sweetness that makes it all worth it.