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Wagner, Schopenhauer and the Mystics

Richard Wagner did not think highly of mainstream religion, especially the teachings of "priests and parsons" from the established Christian churches. In religion, as in other subjects, Wagner read widely and took particular interest in books that had been written by anyone outside of the mainstream. Therefore it is not surprising that he was intrigued by those writings of Meister Eckhart that became available in his lifetime, notably with the publication of Eckhart's German works in 1857 by Franz Pfeiffer. Wagner had read about Eckhart in books by Schopenhauer and Görres respectively, both of whom saw Eckhart as a mystic working outside of the religious mainstream. Schopenhauer wrote (in WWR) about mystics and ascetics who were sometime able to arrive at the truth by working outwards from their inner being; while philosophers could reach the same conclusions by working inwards, from the external world. In this respect, he claimed, his philosophy was unique in its agreement with the conclusions of mystics and ascetics. Even before Wagner had discovered the philosophy of Schopenhauer, in which he found praise of Sufi mysticism, he had already discovered the poems of Hafiz.



Meister Eckhart (1260-1328)

open quotes In the evening R. opens Meister Eckhart, some sentences occupy our thoughts completely, seeing and hearing, seeing bringing the realization that through knowledge one is bound to attain ignorance — so profound: "here I feel myself at home", says R. close quotes

[Cosima's Diaries, entry for Thursday, 23 September 1875. Tr. Geoffrey Skelton]

The German Dominican, philosopher and theologian Johannes Eckhart, variously known to history as Meister Eckhart or Eckhart von Hochheim, taught what has been called a mystic pantheism that was to influence later religious mysticism and speculative philosophy. Joseph Görres (in his book Die christliche Mystic, The Christian Mystics, 1836-42) called Eckhart a miraculous, almost mythological Christian figure, half-shrouded in mist. Two years before his death, Eckhart was accused of heresy but died before the proceedings had been completed. It is sometimes said that Eckhart was condemned by the Church authorities but it would be more accurate to say only that some propositions in his teaching were condemned. Perhaps as a result of this, many of his works were lost or mislaid. Interest in Eckhart's teachings developed in the nineteenth century and was fed by Pfeiffer's publication of the German works. These sermons and other vernacular writings were interpreted as revealing Eckhart as a lone mystic who had not been understood in his own time: for example, the title of Georg Lasson's study, published in 1868, is Meister Eckhart der Mystiker (Meister Eckhart the Mystic). By describing him in this way, Lasson and other commentators implied that he stood outside of the Scholastic tradition, which they regarded as in opposition to mysticism. Only later, with the rediscovery (by Heinrich Denifle in Erfurt and in Cusa) of Eckhart's substantial Latin works, did a more complete and rather different picture of Eckhart begin to appear. Denifle published some parts of the Latin works already in 1886.

As more of his writings were published, it became clear that Eckhart was a Scholastic in the same tradition as Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus and Dietrich of Freiberg. Although Eckhart took some bold departures from it, his philosophy developed from the mainstream Christian tradition. His approach was unusual mainly in its reliance upon reason rather than on scripture. On the more complete basis of the Latin works in addition to the German works, it becomes difficult to keep applying the label of "mystic" to Eckhart. Recently Kurt Flasch, who calls Meister Eckhart a philosopher of Christianity, has stated that the concept of "mysticism" has no value in discussions of Eckhart. As Schopenhauer noted, Luther spoke approvingly of Eckhart's (German) writings but this should not be taken to mean that Eckhart was some kind of early Protestant: indeed, many of his doctrines are incompatible with those of Luther. There have been attempts both by Protestants and by Catholics to claim Eckhart for their own. During the Nazi era there was even an attempt, in the writings of Josef Quint, to claim Eckhart for National Socialism.

Schopenhauer's claim (in WWR vol.2 ch.48) that ... we find generally that Shakyamuni [Buddha] and Meister Eckhart teach the same thing is one that we should take with a good pinch of salt. There are points of contact between teachings of the Buddha and of Eckhart respectively but on closer examination their concepts are quite different. In particular, whereas Buddha taught that there is no self, for Eckhart there definitely is a self and that is the problem: he taught that we have to let go (much of Eckhart's philosophy is about "letting go" or detachment) of our self, so that God can take its place.


Hafiz the Poet (1325-1389)

open quotes I would also like to introduce to a poet whom I have recently recognized to be the greatest of all poets: it is the Persian poet "Hafiz", whose poems now exist in a most enjoyable German adaptation by Daumer. Familiarity with this poet has filled me with a very real sense of terror: we with our pompous European intellectual culture must stand abashed in the presence of this product of the Orient, with its self-assured and sublime tranquillity of mind ... close quotes

[Richard Wagner to August Röckel, 12 September 1852. Tr. Spencer and Millington.]

open quotes This Persian "Hafiz" is the greatest poet who ever lived and wrote poetry. close quotes

[Richard Wagner to Theodor Uhlig, September 1852.]

open quotes The Sufis are the Gnostics of Islam; hence also Sadi describes them by an expression that is translated by "full of insight". Theism ... places the primary source of existence outside us, as an object. All mysticism, and so Sufism also, at the various stages of its initiation, draws this source gradually back into ourselves as the subject, and the adept at last recognizes with wonder and delight that he himself is it. We find this course of events expressed by Meister Eckhart, the father of German mysticism, [as] a precept for the perfect ascetic "that he seek not God outside himself" ...close quotes

[Arthur Schopenhauer, WWR in the translation by E.F.J. Payne, vol.2 ch.48 p.612]

open quotesThe waves run high, night is clouded with fears,
And eddying whirlpools clash and roar;
How shall my drowning voice strike their ears
Whose light-freighted vessels have reached the shore?
I sought mine own; the unsparing years
Have brought me mine own, a dishonoured name.
What cloak shall cover my misery o'er
When each jesting mouth has rehearsed my shame!

Oh Hafiz, seeking an end to strife,
Hold fast in thy mind what the wise have writ:
"If at last thou attain the desire of thy life,
Cast the world aside, yea, abandon it!"close quotes

[Hafiz translated by Gertrude Bell, 1897.]

The Sufi poet Hafiz (Hafez, Hafis), or Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muhammad Hāfez, is widely regarded as the greatest of Persian mystical poets. He lived and died at Shiraz. The ghazals of Hafiz are sweet poems on sensuous subjects: wine, flowers, beautiful women, with esoteric meanings beneath what appear, on the surface, to be love poems. Wagner discovered this poet in 1852 while he was working on the poem of Das Rheingold.




© Derrick Everett 1996-2019. This page last updated (added an introduction and expanded other sections) --- Mon 2 Dec 2019 23:30 CET ---