Nietzsche, Wagner, Biopolitics, Race, & Music

“Wagner makes music sick” (Nietzsche Contra Wagner, 664).

“Life itself has become a problem” (Nietzsche Contra Wagner, 681).

To mark Wagner’s bicentennial, the Guardian published this essay on the connection many of his contemporaries made between his music and mental illness, specifically, the mental illnesses associated with decadent fin-de-siecle modernity. For example, it explains:

The idea of music being a potentially unhealthy form of stimulation, similar to drugs or electricity, had been commonplace during the 19th century,” says Kennaway. “But with Wagner, the danger became specifically associated with modern music and modern urban lifestyles in diagnosing the fashionable disease of the time, neurasthenia. Critics even suggested that Wagner’s music was sickly and feminine, a suspicion that prompted a popular link to be made between Wagner and homosexuality – viewed then as a medical condition – which was said to be connected to the erotic power of music.

Some of Wagner’s critics thought his music was a threat to one’s mental–and perhaps even physical–health. Basically, it corrupted a healthy constitution. This is, as the Guardian article notes, also Nietzsche’s diagnosis, not just of Wagner’s music, but his philosophical and aesthetic agenda as well.

What’s interesting is that this critique of Wagner is exactly the same charge he makes against “Jewish” music–that it is unhealthy, feminizing, excessively “modern,” and thus a threat to the health of the German nation and German art. So both Wagner and his critics were engaged in a debate about the “health” of music, the nation, the individual, etc. The stakes or epistemic framework within which this debate occurred are biopolitical in the sense that Foucault lays out in Society Must Be Defended. This is really clear in both Wagner’s essay “On Judaism in Music,” and Nietzsche’s mid/late-career writing on Wagner (The Gay Science, and what is collected in “Nietzsche Contra Wagner”). Both Wagner’s essay and Nietzsche’s explicit critiques of Wagner both ground their objections–Wagner, to Jews and Jewish culture, Nietzsche, to anti-Semitic Wagner–in loosely biopolitical arguments about health and life.

I want to consider the biopolitical tenor of this debate not just to more fully understand 19th century reception of Wagner, nor even the role of race discourse in both his own work and the work of Nietzsche/his critics, but also to provide another angle from which to consider the question of Nietzsche’s neoliberalism.

Corey Robin’s fabulous essay in The Nation has everyone talking about the relationship between Nietzsche and neoliberalism. The essay focuses more on Nietzsche’s impact on the famous theorists of neoliberalism (his, “marginal children,” as the title puts it). I want to focus more narrowly on Nietzsche’s aesthetics. His aesthetics, especially his critique of Wagner, reveals the central role of what Foucault (one of Nietzsche’s other really influential “children”–though this kinship language does make me sorta uncomfortable) will later call a “biopolitical” concept of life plays in his mid-late work (e.g., The Gay Science, the Geneaology). Though Nietzsche doesn’t get into the statistical/mathematical aspects of contemporary biopolitics, he does treat life–its affirmation or its negation–as the central term of his analysis. This centering of life is key to Foucault’s general theory of biopower: biopolitics is broadly, as Foucault puts it, “the power over life,” or the power to “make live and let die” (HSv1). This type of power works by investing disproportionately in the lives of privileged groups (because this investment will augment the “life” of the body politic)–by augmenting and maximizing their “health.” So, biopolitics centers on life, and works to affirming (some) life as healthy.

This question of biopolitics might help us consider the more general sense in which Nietzsche could be read, somewhat retroactively, as a  “neoliberal” (and, again, this shouldn’t be totally surprising, given his influence in/on Foucault, one of the major diagnosticians of neoliberalism…). But, more narrowly, it definitely gives us a more robust account of both Wagner’s concept of race and Nietzsche’s critique of Wagner.

Wagner’s Biopolitical Racism

Wagner’s anti-Semitism is a textbook example of the biopolitial racism Foucault outlines in Society Must Be Defended: the non-white race poses a threat to the health of the nation (or rather, the nation’s art), and therefore must be eliminated.  As Foucault explains:

racism makes it possible to establish a relationship between my life and the death of the other that is not a military or warlike relationship of confrontation, but a biological-type relationship…the death of the other, the death of the bad race, of the inferior race (or the degenerate, or the abnormal) is something that will make life in general healthier: healthier and happier (SMBD 255).

Wagner begins “On Judaism in Music” with a classic white supremacist denial tactic: reverse discrimination. It’s not we Germans who are oppressing the Jews, the Jews, he argues, are oppressing us Germans, he argues. They’re oppressing the German people with their “inner incapacity for life” which alienates healthy Germans and healthy German society from “faithful, loving contemplation of instinctive Life, of that which only greets its sight amid the Folk.” In its pure, uncontaminated form, German society, the German nation, is itself full of Life; it is healthy. When music reflects this, “so long as the separate art of Music had a real organic life-need in it, down to the epochs of Mozart and Beethoven, there was nowhere to be found a Jew composer: it was impossible for an element entirely foreign to that living organism to take part in the formative stages of that life” because, according to Wagner, Jewish culture and Jewish art an infection to which a healthy art/culture would be immune. However, as German society has itself been led astray, its “body’s inner death is manifest” and “outside elements win the power of lodgement in it–yet merely to destroy it.” Wagner thinks that Jewish music is a morbid affliction plaguing the already-vulnerable health of the German body politic: “that body’s flesh dissolves into a swarming colony of insect life.” Jewishness has, as Wagner argues, disconnected German culture “from the real, the healthy stem” that feeds its life-force. The cure for “German” music is more “life,” a re-connection to that healthy, unblighted stem: “In genuine Life alone can we, too, find again the ghost of Art, and not within its worm-befretted carcass.” For Wagner, healthy life means “connexion with its natural soil…instinctive life,” which is only found “amid the Folk.”

Nietzsche’s Biopolitical Critique

Nietzsche thinks Wagner has made the wrong diagnosis. It’s actually Wagner who has “made music sick,” whose music and ideology is life-negating. It’s Wagner who is the the threat to health and life:“But does not my stomach protest too? my heart? my circulation? Are not my entrails saddened? Do I not suddenly become hoarse? To listen to Wagner I need pastilles Gerandel” (664). The problem with Wagner, according to Nietzsche (and the other critics in the Guardian article) is that he’s unhealthy.

Nietzsche posits life as his fundamental value, his ultimate measuring rod. Yes, yes, Nietzsche did advocate that each of us create our own values, our own “suns,” as it were. But, in his own writing, “life”–physical health–is the value he most often appeals to when making many different sorts of judgments–aesthetic, ethical, philosophical, etc. After all, his objection to European morality is that it is life-negating, or rather, that European culture has benefited from this reactive, life-negating practice (it’s what made us rational, what gave us science, and, as Nietzsche says in the Genealogy, it’s in part what makes us “interesting”), but we’ve now reached the point of diminishing returns. Nietzsche thinks we need to “upgrade” our value-system, to find a practice that is better at promoting life and flourishing. (We should also ask here: WHOSE life, exactly?)

“Every art, every philosophy, may be considered a remedy and aid in the service of either growing or declining life” (669). The problem with Wagner, as Nietzsche sees it, is that his music and his ideology leads to “degeneration” (666), not flourishing. “Richard Wagner…in truth a decaying and despairing decadent, suddenly sank down, helpless and broken, before the Christian cross” (676); he exemplifies the type who “suffer from the impoverishment of life” (669).


ife” and “health” are his chosen value/measuring rod not just in the case of Wagner, but more generally. “My objections to the music of Wagner,” he explains, “are physiological objections” because “after all, aesthetics is nothing but a kind of applied physiology” (NCW 664). So for Nietzsche “life” and “health”–physiology–is the privileged measure of value. It grounds his aesthetics, and, as he lays out in the Genealogy, his ethics.

Art is healthy when it “suffers from the overfullness of life” (669)–that is, when it is affirmative and resilient…when, you know, what doesn’t kill it makes it stronger:

He that is richest in the fullness of life, the Dionysian god and man, can afford not only the sight of the terrible and the questionable, but even the terrible deed and any luxury of destruction, decomposition, and negation: in his case, what is evil, senseless, and ugly seems, as it were, permissible, as it seems permissible in nature, because of an excess of procreating, restoring powers which can yet turn every desert into luxurious farm land. (670).

Health means resilience; the eternal return is, in a way, Nietzsche’s way of framing what we neoliberals call resilience–it’s the affirmation of crisis and suffering as opportunity. In fact, in order to be truly and optimally healthy, we need to fight and overcome illness. As Nietzsche argues,

one should not only bear it, one should LOVE it. AMOR FATI: that is my inmost nature. And as for my long sickness, do I not owe it indescribably more than i owe to my health? I owe it a HIGHER health-one which is made stronger by whatever does not kill it.” (680)

“Overcoming” is more or less resilience. This resilience or “self-mastery” (681) is, in Nietzsche’s estimation, more like ancient Greek moderation/sophrosyne than it is like Christian morality, which he describes as (ironically) “hedonism” (670): Christian morality, especially its emphasis on “selflessness” is grounded on “the principle of decadence” (671). Christianity is decadent because it indulges the spirit/soul at the expense of the body’s health, at the expense of life itself. Greek moderation is, for Nietzsche, the opposite of Christian decadence. Moderation fosters health because it refuses to subsume the body to the mind:

all the better turned out, more cheerful mortals, who are far from counting their labile balance between angel and petite bete as necessarily among the objections to existence; the finest, the brightest…such contradictions actually seduce one to existence” (673-4).

The best and brightest, the most lively and healthy, are the ones who are most balanced–who are both mind and body (angel and devil), who know what/when to forget, and what/when to remember. Like good neoliberals, cheerful Nietzschean latter-day Greeks know how to solicit and manage risk: they ascend to the peak, teeter on the edge, but don’t ever fall off:

Oh, those Greeks! They knew how to live….And is not this precisely what we are again coming back to, we daredevils of the spirit who have climbed the highest and most dangerous peak of present thought and looked around from up there–we who have looked DOWN from there? Are we not, precisely in this respect, Greeks? Adorers of forms, tones, of words? And therefore–artists?” (683)

So, what Foucault (in HSv2) talks about in terms of the ethics of self-mastery, or the art of self-fashioning, Nietzsche discusses in terms of the “art” of Greek “overcoming” (what in the Gay Science he calls “giving style”). More narrowly, I would argue that this Greek “moderation,” this “daredevil spirit” that knows how to balance on the very tip of the highest peak–this is precisely where we see something like the idea of “marginality” in Nietzsche. In order to balance on that peak, to be the most daring of daredevils, you have to know precisely the right tipping point on which to balance–the precise limit beyond which you really will fall off that cliff (and into the abyss of diminishing returns/disease). So, moderation–what Foucault talks about in the “Freedom & Truth” chapter of HSv2–is in this way a sort of marginality-of-the-self. The resonance between Foucault and Nietzsche shouldn’t be at all surprising: it’s like one huge feedback loop—they’re both reading the ancient Greeks, but Foucault’s reading is itself filtered through his own (significant) debts to Nietzsche.

Which sort of brings us back to the question of biopolitical racism: Nietzsche’s pretty much making a biopolitical case that Wagner is the “racial” threat to the health of European culture. It’s the same logic Wagner uses in his anti-Semitic screed, but Nietzsche has turned it against him. It’s at this point that we need to introduce Robert Gooding-Williams’s and my own readings of Nietzsche’s critique of white masculinity–racially non-white femininities (e.g., Italian ones, Ariadne from Naxos, etc.) are the key to his philosophical overcoming…