>Kierkegaard the Wagnerian?

>I was recently giving a paper on Kierkegaard’s discussion of Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni, in Either/Or at a music and phenomenology study day.  I’d already thought about the reference to the medieval legend of the Venus Mountain in that section of Either/Or, as possibly connected with with Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser, which refers to that legend.  I was  asked by an audience member  if Kierkegaard was influenced by Wagner.  That person was I think a musicologist, but probably not a Wagnerian, as the answer is definitely no.

It is certainly possible in chronological terms that Kierkegaard might have influenced Wagner.  They were born in the same year (1813) though Wagner lived much longer (until 1883) than Kierkegaard (until 1855).  Either/Or was published in 1843, and Wagner premiered Tannhäuser in 1845.  On the other hand, it looks like Wagner was working on the opera from 1842, and it is definitely 1843 that Kierkegaard came on to the philosophical (and literary and religious) stage with two books other than Either/Or (Fear and Trembling and Repetition) and some sermons.  Wagner’s emergence as a ‘Wagnerian’ composer is associated with The Flying Dutchman, premiered in 1843 and he seems to have worked on it from 1840.

Kierkegaard was writing in Danish and was not translated at all into German until much later in the century.  I think some may have been translated in the 1870s, but Nietzsche never seems to have read Kierkegaard, despite encouragement from the  Danish literary critic Georg Brandes.  In general, Kierkegaard seems to only have had a major impact in German speaking countries starting in the early years of the Twentieth century.  Kafka, Adorno, and Wittgenstein are among the first wave of major Germanic writers with a strong awareness of Kierkegaard.

What links Kierkegaaard and Wagner is common sources, the way that German writers of their generation, and the generation before, like Heine and Tieck had dealt with the legends of Medieval Germany, and the general Germanic and Scandinavian interest of that period in folklore, legend, and Medievalism.  This common cultural influences, extend to shared attitudes towards the erotic, even if the lives of Wagner and Kierkegaard were very different on that issue.  Kierkegaard could be seen as a Parsifal figure, in contrast to Wagner’s own life, but it is of course important that Wagner could feel so drawn to that type of character.  Kierkegaard’s own interest in the seducer, which is particularly clear in Either/Or, in the long discussion of Don Giovanni, and in the novella within Either/Or, ‘Diary of a Seducer’, creates symmetry with Wagner on that issue.

Wagner’s interest in opera as the absolute work of at certainly connects with Kierkegaard’s way of writing which is often totalising and  synthesising in tendency, though also ironic, disintegrative, and fragmented.  What Kierkegaard says when discussing philosophical aesthetics and literary philosophy engages with the German Romanticism and Idealism, which is also at the background of Wagner’s aesthetic attitudes.  It would not do to say they have the same attitudes, but there is certainly much to compare, and Either/Or gives some insight into why there might be someone like Wagner, particularly when Kierkegaard makes opera the highest form of art, in which the others can be found in emergent form.  Kierkegaard connects Don Giovanni with poetry, epic, and theatre, even will emphasising the absolute purity of music.  It is the absolute nature of music which leads it to express itself as poetry, and other art forms.

The most obvious philosophical interest of Wagner’s was Schopenhauer.  As far as I know, Kierkegaard only became aware of Schopenhauer late in life, and never deeply engaged with his texts.  Schopenhauer can be brought into a discussion which Kierkegaard and Wagner, along with Nietzsche, and along with the philosophy, literary criticism, and literature of Germany from the 1780s to the 1830s.

Kierkegaard and Wagner, certainly a comparison deserving further investigation.

One thought on “>Kierkegaard the Wagnerian?

  1. A fascinating comment. Rereading ‘Doctor Faustus’ today, I noticed that Thomas Mann has Adrian Leverkuhn and his theological student circle read Kierkegaard (who seems somehow to be connected with the demonic theme) Leverkuhn also reads Hölderlin who I think was barely known in Germany before 1913 and the reprinting of his work. As an historian of sorts, this irked me a little. Your point about “folklore, legend, and Medievalism. These common cultural influences, extend to shared attitudes towards the erotic” helps make this part of the novel and its intellectual climate much more comprehensible. I have just discovered this blog, Barry, but I shall definitely revisit. Best wishes DB

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