Wagner Explains Why Christian Art Is So Morbid


This article first appeared in RENEWAL VOL 13 NO3; DECEMBER 2006. It is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.


Richard Wagner was both a great musician and a great proto-Odinist. In 1849 he wrote a work called Die Kunst und die Revolution, from which the extract below is taken. We reproduce it here, not as an exercise in Christian-bashing, but because we believe a genius’ insights into aesthetic matters can and should provide for contemporary Odinist artists.


Christianity adjusts the ills of an honourless, useless, and sorrowful existence of mankind on earth, by the miraculous love of God; who had not-as the noble Greek supposed—created man (sic) for a happy and self-conscious life upon this earth, but had here imprisoned him in a loathsome dungeon: so as, in reward for the self-contempt that poisoned him therein, to prepare him for a posthumous state of endless comfort and inactive ecstasy. Man was therefore bound to remain in this deepest and unmanliest degradation, and no activity of the present life should he exercise; for this accursed life was, in truth, the world of the devil, that is, of the senses; and by every action in it he played into the devil’s hands. Therefore the poor wretch who, in the enjoyment of his natural powers, made this life his own possession must suffer after death the eternal torments of hell! Naught was required of mankind but faith—that is to say, the confession of its miserable plight, and the giving up of all spontaneous attempt to escape from out this misery; for the undeserved Grace of God was alone to set it free.


The historian knows not surely that this was the view of the humble son of the Galilean carpenter; who, looking on the misery of his fellow men, proclaimed that he had not come to bring peace, but a sword into the world; whom we must love for the anger with which he thundered forth against the hypocritical Pharisees who fawned upon the power of Rome, so as the better to bind and heartlessly enslave the people; and finally, who preached the reign of universal love—a love he never could have enjoined on men whose duty it should be to despise their fellows and themselves. The inquirer more clearly discerns the hand of the miraculously converted Pharisee, Paul, and the zeal with which, in his conversion of the heathen, he followed so successfully the monition: “Be ye wise as serpents”; he may also estimate the deep and universal degradation of civilised mankind, and see in this the historical soil from which the full-grown tree of finally developed Christian dogma drew forth the sap and fed its fruit. But thus much the candid artist perceives at the first glance: that neither was Christianity art, nor could it ever bring forth from itself the true and living art.


The free Greek, who set himself upon the pinnacle of Nature, could procreate art from very joy in manhood: the Christian, who impartially cast aside both Nature and himself, could only sacrifice to his God on the altar of renunciation; he durst not bring his actions or his work as offering, but believed that he must seek His favour by abstinence from all self-prompted venture. Art is the highest expression of activity of a race that has developed its physical beauty in unison with itself and Nature; and man must reap the highest joy from the world of sense, before he can mould therefrom the implements of his art; for from the world of sense alone can he derive so much the impulse to artistic creation. The Christian, on the contrary, if he fain would create an artwork that should correspond to his belief, must derive his impulse from the essence of abstract spirit, from the grace of God, and therein find his tools. What, then, could he take for aim? Surely not physical beauty mirrored in his eyes as an incarnation of the devil? And how could pure spirit, at any time, give birth to a something that could be cognized by the senses?


All pondering of this problem is fruitless; the course of history shows too unmistakably the results of these two opposite methods. Where the Greeks, for their edification, gathered in the amphitheatre for the space of a few short hours full of the deepest meaning, the Christian shut himself away in the lifelong imprisonment of a cloister. In the one case, the Popular Assembly was the judge: in the other the Inquisition; here the state developed to an honourable democracy: there, to a hypocritical despotism.


Hypocrisy is the salient feature, the peculiar characteristic, of every century of our own Christian era, right down to our day; and indeed this vice has always stalked abroad with more crying shamelessness, in direct proportion as mankind, in spite of Christendom, has refreshed its vigour from its own unquenchable and inner wellspring, and ripened toward the fulfilment of its true purpose. Nature is so strong, so inexhaustible, in its regenerative resources, that no conceivable violence could weaken its creative force. Into the ebbing veins of the Roman world, there poured the blood of the fresh Germanic nations. Despite the adoption of Christianity, a ceaseless thirst of doing, delight in bold adventure, and unbounded self-reliance remained the native element of the new masters of the world. But, as in the whole history of the Middle Ages we always light upon one prominent factor, the warfare between worldly might and the despotism of the Roman Church: so, when this new world sought for a form of utterance, it could find it only in opposition to, and strife against, the spirit of Christendom.


The art of Christian Europe could never proclaim itself, like that of ancient Greece, as the expression of a world attuned to harmony; for reason that its inmost being was incurably and irreconcilably split up between the force of conscience and the instinct of life, between the ideal and the reality. Like the order of chivalry itself, the chivalric poetry of the Middle Ages, in attempting to heal this severance, could, even amid its loftiest imagery, but bring to light the falsehood of the reconciliation; the higher and the more proudly it soared on high, so the more visibly gaped the abyss between the actual life and the idealised existence, between the raw, passionate bearing of these knights in physical life and their too delicate, etherealised behaviour in romance. For the same reason did actual life, leaving the pristine, noble, and certainly not ungraceful customs of the people, become corrupt and vicious; for it durst not draw the nourishment for its art impulse from out of its own being, its joy in itself, and its own physical demeanour; but was sent for all its spiritual sustenance to Christianity, which wanted it off from the first taste of life’s delight, as from a thing accursed. The poetry of chivalry was thus the honourable hypocrisy of fanaticism, the parody of heroism: in place of Nature, it offered a convention.


Only when the enthusiasm of belief had smouldered down, when the Church openly proclaimed herself as naught but a worldly despotism, appreciable by the senses, in alliance with the no less material worldly absolutism of the temporal rule which she had sacrificed: only then commenced the so-called renaissance of art. That wherewith man (sic) had racked his brains so long he would fain now see before him clad in body, like the Church itself in all its worldly pomp. But this was only possible on condition that he opened his eyes once more, and restored his sense to their rights. Yet when man (sic) took the objects on belief and the revelations of fantasy and set them before his eyes in physical beauty, and with the artist’s delight in that physical beauty—this was a complete denial of the very essence of the Christian religion; and it was the deepest humiliation to Christendom that the guidance to the art creations must be sought from the pagan art of Greece. Nevertheless, the Church appropriated to herself this newly roused art impulse, and did not blush to deck herself with the borrowed plumes of paganism; thus trumpeting her own hypocrisy.


Worldly dominion, however, had its share also in the revival of aft. After centuries of combat, their power armed against all danger from below, the security of riches awoke in the ruling classes the desire for more refined enjoyment of this wealth, they took into their pat the arts whose lessons Greece had taught. “Free” art now swerved as handmaid to these exalted masters, and, looking into the matter more closely, it is difficult to decide who was the greater hypocrite: Louis XIV, when he sat and heard the Grecian hate of tyrants, declaimed in polished verses from the boards of his court theatre; or Corneille and Racine, when, to win favour of their lord, they set in the mouths of their stage heroes the warm words of freedom and political virtue, of ancient Greece and Rome.


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