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126 6 Nietzche contra Wagner on the Jews Yirmiyahu Yovel “Wagner’s Antipode” The mature Nietzsche once described himself as “Wagner’s antipode.” In his own view, he was as opposed to Wagner as the North Pole is to the South. Moreover, it was his break with Wagner in the mid 1870s that finally allowed Nietzsche to find his own identity, to develop his own intellectual personality and mission. In the 1880s Nietzsche continued to take Wagner seriously even as a fierce opponent. He looked upon Wagner as a temptation he had to overcome, as a servitude and even as an “infection” or “disease” he had to experience before liberating himself and coming into his own. Under the heading of “Wagner,” Nietzsche did not only mean the music dramas, but a whole complex of attitudes and a worldview, which included romanticism, Schopenhauer’s negation of the will, German nationalism, and anti-Semitism, among others. Similarly, in calling Wagner his “antipode” Nietzsche intended to dissipate all these intertwined shadows—including anti-Semitism— which Wagner’s domineering figure had cast in his way. For Nietzsche , his overcoming of Wagner was at the same time a powerful selfovercoming for Nietzsche—so deep had Wagner penetrated his own self, albeit as an alien and self-alienating force. Nietzsche was Wagner’s junior by thirty-one years. When he first met nietzsche contra wagner 䡲 127 the Master, Wagner was nearing the height of his creative career, while Nietzsche was still a student in Leipzig. A few years later Nietzsche became a young professor in Basel and used to visit the Wagner’s home and stay at their Tribschen villa in Switzerland. In those years Nietzsche developed a strong affective link to both Wagner and Cosima, though in different ways. In Wagner he saw not only a great artistic innovator, the most exciting in Europe, and a personal patron, but also, in a certain sense, elements of a substitute father; while Cosima (whom Nietzsche secretly dubbed “Ariadne”) seems to have taken for him the role of an idealized, imaginary lover. Even in later years, when he fiercely opposed Wagner, Nietzsche remembered those Tribschen days with warmth and nostalgia, saying he “should not want to give them away out of his life at any price,” because his first contact with Wagner “was also the first deep breath of my life” (EH, “Why I Am So Clever?” 5). Another person who commanded Nietzsche’s mixed veneration was the eminent Basel historian Jakob Burckhardt, who remained an ambivalent Master-figure in Nietzsche’s life until his last lucid hours; yet unlike Wagner, Burckhardt did not let his relationship with the younger man become too intimate. Burckhardt severely criticized the Jews and was chillingly indifferent to their historical plight; whether or not he was anti-Semitic, there is no doubt that Nietzsche perceived him as such.1 And, of course, in Wagner and Cosima, Nietzsche met passionate anti-Semites, as virulent as Bernhard Förster, his future brother-in-law, who, to Nietzsche’s great distress, struck a deep chord in his ambivalently beloved sister Elisabeth. Thus, in those important and problematic years—which later Nietzsche described as his “residence in the zone of the disease”2 —some of the persons most intimately related to him were fiercely anti-Semitic: this fact is significant if we are to realize how momentous—and painfully liberating—was Nietzsche’s subsequent overcoming of Wagner’s influence several years later. Even during his years “in the zone of the disease,” Nietzsche’s negative feelings against the Jews were relatively mild and conventional, the result of a Christian upbringing and prevailing prejudices against emancipated Jews. He lacked the hatred, the ideological anger, and the bite of professed anti-Semites such as Wagner. Still, he often willingly expressed his anti-Jewish bias, especially when talking or writing to more assertively anti-Semitic friends like the Wagners, or like Carl Von Gersdorf, his old, not-too-bright buddy from their student days in Leipzig. The latter had praised Wagner’s pamphlet on the Jews as brilliant after reading only a few pages. In one letter Nietzsche told Gersdorf that he was going to decline an attractive offer—travel to Greece as companion to one Professor Mendelssohn of Freiburg—who was no other than the son of the composer, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. As Ronald Hayman 128 䡲 yirmiyahu yovel points out, Nietzsche could not have accepted the invitation without deeply offending the author of Das Judentum in...


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