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Nietzsche, Wagner, and the Fraught Modern Search for New Mythologies

Updated: Feb 3, 2019

in the late nineteenth century, friedrich nietzsche declared the death of God, and the image has not faded from the modern human's sub-consciousness, like a sudden flash that lingers negatively in the eye. to say it this way, that God is dead, was to express an historical reality mythologically.

the nordic peoples had a mythic expression for this idea. it was called ragnarök, the twilight of the gods—auf deutsch: götterdämmerung. this is the mythic tragedy recounted in richard wagner's most famous operas from the late nineteenth century.

apparently, the death of God was in the air much in the late nineteenth century.

closer to our time, joseph campbell would advocate for individuals having their own "creative mythologies" after the death of God. these mythologies would be reflections of an individual's soulful experience. not "coercive" mythologies but simply "evocative," they express a single individual's truth, inviting but not forcing you to affirm it, support or believe it. such mythologies, created through an individual's exercise of meaning-rich imaginations, are "personal mythologies," and they are one way to inherit the psychological benefits of a mythological life, of finding Gods in the dawn after their twilights.

but another form of conscious myth-making is also possible: the making of mythologies which are coercive, which do try to universalize themselves—to take hold upon the population's imagination, and to pressure that population to conform to it.

friedrich nietzsche and richard wagner were both exploring how best to move on after the death of God. they, too, were worried about the decline of myth and how the population would control themselves once free from the coercive hand of popular mythology. both were attracted to the romantic notion that artists were now the new priests. but what kind of art, and for what kind of audience?

for anyone interested in the topic of art and meaning-making, the relationship between wagner and nietzsche provides a crucial, cautionary tale. for in the moral-of-the-story taken lies what's gained or lost in all the fruitful possibilities of new mythology. those who would revive Gods had better understand the darker powers one can summon, wrenching so rudely into the underworlds of the collective psyche.

such was the topic i pitched to my partner for my yale institute of sacred arts captsone presentation (equivalent to one's "thesis" or "dissertation" for the ISM certificate). we gave the presentation on january 18, 2017, at yale divinity school. in it, we explore the relationship between nietzsche and wagner, examining the radically different approaches each took as he attempted to revitalize "decadent" modern society with a revitalizing new mythology.

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