Friday, September 13, 2013

Wagner's Abnormal Mind - Part 3: His Creative Drive and Pathology

Thus far in my series on Wagner’s abnormal mind, I have argued there is a connection between various mental illnesses—particularly on the bipolar spectrum—and creativity. But, in those same blog posts, I also argued against reductionism, in that each brain is utterly unique, and attempting to slot people into mental health categories can conceal as much as it reveals. I think this is particularly true of Wagner.

To begin my psychological portrait of him, I wrote here about Wagner’s formative years: his basic character traits and his difficult childhood. To summarize those traits, I believe they fall into two general categories: First, there was his extreme sensitivity, which included his emotionality, i.e his strong reaction to visual stimuli including hallucinations, nightmares, a variety of fears, intensely strong reaction to animals suffering, and so forth. Second, there was his headstrong nature, self-confidence and optimism as was revealed, for example, in choosing to, secretly, forgo school and instead write the “great” drama Leubald, and his subsequent decision to set it to music, even though he had no musical training.

Given the relative paucity of reliable accounts of his childhood, it isn’t until late adolescence and early adulthood that another of his basic character tendencies comes into clear focus: his cyclothymic nature, that is his tendency to cycle—often quickly and strongly—between feelings of ecstasy and enlightenment (hypomania) to feelings of rage or depression. I have already written about this characteristic in this general post on his personality, but I will just repeat one quote from his friend, Edward Shure, to give you a sense of it:

His high spirits overflowed into a joyous froth of acts of sheer buffoonery and eccentric jokes, but the least contradiction provoked unprecedented anger. Then he was like a caged lion, roaring like a wild animal, pacing the room, his voice growing hoarse and the words coming out like cries, his words striking at random. He then seemed like an unleashed force of nature, a volcano erupting... Everything about him was larger than life.”1

It was the interaction of the these three broad characteristics—acute sensitivity, optimistic tenacity and his cyclothymic nature— that defined him for the rest of his life, and together created the well-spring of his creative drive.

Wagner’s Creative Drive

The artist’s life cannot be otherwise than full of conflicts, for two forces are at war within him—on the one hand, the common longing for happiness, satisfaction and security in life, and on the other a ruthless passion for creation which may go so far as to override every personal desire. There are hardly any exceptions to the rule that a person must pay dearly for the divine gift of creative fire.2  Carl Jung

How gladly would I, too, stretch out my limbs and let the wonderful world outside leave its mark on me! But everyone has his own daemon, and mine is a horribly powerful beast; it completely and utterly subjugates me to it own end.3  Richard Wagner

Wagner’s creative drive, indeed, was a powerful beast. He spectacularly succeeded even in the face of enormous obstacles, with no means of solid support until late in life, with the vast majority of the cultural society doubting him, mocking him, wanting him to fail in order for him to receive the proper comeuppance for his audacity and—what even his friends considered—his quixotic quest to build the Bayreuth Festspielhaus to stage the Ring. Enemies and friends alike always credit him for this one thing: damn, he did it!

Wagner’s grand theme was always suffering, normally ending through transforming and redeeming love and death. All his works are about him, in the sense that the themes derive directly from his life: the man against the world, the man in a love triangle, the man on a journey to find his place in world, the man seeking love to redeem himself. That was Wagner’s life, but by placing it within myth, he was attempted to universalize his experience.

To quote Carl Jung again on “the artist”:

As a human being he may have moods and a will and personal aims, but as an artist he is "man" in a higher sense— he is "collective man"— one who carries and shapes the unconscious, psychic forms of mankind. That is his office, and it is sometimes so heavy a burden that he is fated to sacrifice happiness and everything that makes life worth living.4

And, indeed, Wagner felt deeply burdened by his artistic nature, and felt he suffered greatly for it. While he knew he could be a complete pain in the ass, he blamed the artist in himself, and felt his works redeemed his many flaws. Below in a letter to his friend Jakob Sulzer, he makes this case:

There is no doubt but that I cause many people pain in this way [through putting his art above all else]; but it is equally certain that I cause nobody such hellish torments as I inflect upon myself; it is the artist in me who is almost entirely to blame for this; and so, if there is anyone who can derive any pleasure from what I have created, he really has nothing to complain about if I cause him distress, since I certainly suffer more as a result than himself.5

Wagner believed that the essence of his drive was the unsatisfied desire of love. He put it simply as this in a letter to his sister Luise in 1852:

Art for me is a substitute for a life of unsatisfied desire.... I pour out into my art the violent need I feel for love, a need that life cannot satisfy, and all I find in return is that people at best mistake me for an energetic – opera reformer!6

When he speaks of the “violent need I feel for love,” this wasn’t some run-of-the-mill love he was talking about—he had no interest in run-of-the-mill anything—but instead, it was an earth-shaking, all-consuming love. Thus, there was never any chance he could get it, and only in art could he create the world that his soul wanted. And in this self-created world, he dies in rapturous love, just like his Brunnhilde, Elizabeth, Senta, and Isolde.

His life was full of suffering — in love, in health, in continual stress, in crushing disappointments — and his refuge was to fantasize about death. As he wrote to Liszt in 1954,

[w]hen I think back on the storms that have buffeted my heart and on its convulsive efforts to cling to some hope of life — against my own better judgement —, indeed, now that these storms have swelled so often to the fury of a tempest, — I have yet found a sedative and heartfelt yearning for death: total unconsciousness complete annihilation, the end of all dreams – the only ultimate redemption!7

His creative process was generally this: in the depths of depression, he would conceive of a piece, which brought him out of these depths through inspiration. He would then rally to work on the piece, but the composition process was extremely exhausting for him, so he would then have to recuperate—sometimes for months—before continuing. However, the result of his labors ultimately reinvigorated him. 

For example, when he conceived Tristan and Isolde, he wrote to Franz Liszt, “But since I have never in my life enjoyed the true happiness of love, I intend to erect a further monument to this most beautiful of dreams, a monument in which this love will be properly sated from beginning to end: I have planned in my head a Tristan and Isolde, the simplest, but most full-blooded musical conception... I shall then cover myself over, in order — to die.”8

During the composition of Tristan, he was in the flow, completely engrossed. He wrote to his friend Eliza Willie in 1859, “Every stroke of my pen has the significance of eternity for me...Tristan will be beautiful! But it is eating into me. Who knows whether there will be any part of me left.”9 

But then it was done, and he wrote to Mathilde Wesondonck, his muse for the work:

The proofs of the third act of Tristan suddenly arrive. You will, I know, understand how I felt when my gaze fell upon this last completed work of mine, a glance that brought renewed life and strength to me, a sense of fulfillment and — of inspiration. Scarcely can a father have felt such joy at the sight of his child! In a flood of tears — why deny my weakness? — I heard a voice calling out: no! You shall not end yet; you must complete what you have begun! He who has just created such a work is still full to overflowing!10

Wagner was right about this work; it is absolutely amazing and has turned out to be one of the seminal works in Western music. Leonard Bernstein called it “the central work of all music history, the hub of the wheel.”11 He certainly isn’t alone in this appraisal; it is my favorite work of music, for example. So Wagner, as usual, was absolutely right about himself and his work. This wasn’t egoism, it was simply the truth.

As much as he often said he yearned for death, there is no evidence he ever actually attempted suicide. Instead, as he put it, “I still have to overcome this wild and terrible instinct for survival which continues to cloud my vision and to cast me into a chaos of contradictions.”12 

In the book Just This Side of Madness by the poet Carol Beeman, the author proposes that a strong creative drive is just as strong as other other basic drives: for food, for sex, for sleep, and that “the intensity of the drive is directly related to the inheritance of affective disorders, especially the mood disorders, cyclothymia, hypomania, and bipolar or manic-depressive illness. The greater the affective sensitivity of the person, the greater the drive to create.”13 She further postulates that “[t]he amount of creative output of the individual artist or thinker is proportional to the control it is possible to maintain over his or her neurotic or psychotic tendencies.”14 I found this book fascinating, mostly because she so closely tracked Wagner’s feelings on the nature of his artistic drive, mental illness and suffering.

Just for one example, Beeman writes: “In the most real sense possible the drive to create is both a unique asset and a burden to the creative mind.”15 Wagner made the same point throughout his life. Here is one example from one letter to his friend Theodor Uhlig that illustrates this:

I have again been working very hard since you left: it finally affected my health, but although I do want to get better finally, I simply do not know how to go about it!... As long as I work, I can delude myself – but as soon as I have to convalesce, I can not longer delude myself, and immediately I feel – dreadfully miserable. My only salvation is to keep on thinking of work, and my only pleasure, on resuming that work, is to wear myself out! What a splendid life for an artist to live! How gladly I’d throw it all away in return for a single week of life!16
Before I am able to address Carol Beeman's argument in terms of Wagner—and I think it is spot on—I need to explore both Wagner's pathology and sensitivities in greater detail.

Wagner’s pathology

There has been a lot of speculation on what exactly was the nature of Wagner’s pathology—if he was indeed pathological—which existed from his own day right up to the present. The book The Wagner Companion has a sub-chapter entitled “Psychological Literature on Wagner” which explores the pathobiographcial literature. The writer of this article notes that “to keep the present survey within reasonable bounds,” she included only authors who are “professional, psychiatrists and or psychoanalysts.”17 It begins,

[a]s far as it has been possible to ascertain, the psychological literature on Wagner begins, spectacularly, in 1872 with the publication of Richard Wagner: A Psychiatric Study, a pamphlet by the aspiring psychiatrist Theodor Puschmann, who, out of hand, declared the composer to be mentally ill. According to Puschmann’s diagnosis, Wagner was suffering from what in his day were regarded as three of the principal categories of psychiatric pathology, namely, megalomania, persecution mania, and moral insanity.18

The publication in 1877 of sixteen letters from Wagner to his seamstress in the well-respected Vienna daily Neue Freie Press added much fuel to the fire, as it became fairly clear through them that he enjoyed women’s clothing and fine fabrics to a degree that many people concluded was pathological. I will address this in detail in my forthcoming “Wagner was Queer” post, but I bring it up here just to say that most of the pronouncements of Wagner’s pathology centered on sexuality for many decades. Sexologist Alfred Kind wrote, with bemusement, in 1913:

Since then [the publication of the Letters to a Seamstress] many value judgements have been passed: sybaritic, homosexual, dermatitic [!], fetishistic, transvestite, feminine streak. Much to the dismay of the diagnosticians, none of these assessments is wholly true. The way is therefore still open for new sub-fields of pathological morality. A competition should be set up in time for the next psychiatric congress: Wagner’s illness.19 [bracketed material in original]

Along with having some sort of sexual pathology, most of the shrinks concluded he was “a hysteric” too.  The quotes above from Wagner give the accurate sense that he was indeed very dramatic—over the top—in virtually all his letters and, from all reports, in his normal life.  He easily fits the criteria for histrionic personality, but most modern writers no longer focus on this disorder or sexual pathology.  Instead, writers have focused on fitting him into one of the other DSM categories. Thus there are works speculating that he had ADHD, Borderline Personality Disorder, Bi-Polar Disorder, and, of course, megalomania (narcissistic personality disorder), and no doubt even more could be deduced. 

But the problem is that by fitting him into so many categories, it makes the whole idea rather useless. He truly can't be forced into a particular straight-jacket, particularly because none of these authors account for his tremendous competence and the essential sanity needed to have accomplished his great feats.

While there has been a huge body of specialized literature on this subject, conversely, in all the major biographical writing about Wagner, there is a remarkable tendency to shy away from directly addressing the issue of his abnormal mind: that is, to what extent were his clearly abnormal actions pathological?

There is no doubt that Wagner was beset with both mental and physical problems all his life. Clear evidence of this exists in his letters and Cosima’s diaries, as well as through much of the other first-hand sources. While biographers do write quite a lot about the physical ailments—such as skin and digestive system problems—that plagued him throughout his life, they rarely explore whether the ailments were part of a broader mental condition, even though Wagner frequently wrote that he considered their source to be psychological. What biographers do instead is write many dozens, sometimes hundreds, of pages identifying what they all treat as character flaws—his megalomania, his relationship history, his prolifigant ways, his tempestuous temperament—but they never ask if these stem from a mental illness. This is particularly odd in that Wagner wrote letter after letter describing his mental problems and the lengths that he went to try to “cure” himself.

Here is just a short excerpt from one such letter—this one during a period of getting a “water cure”—to his friend Ernst Keitz in 1852: 

When our friend Lindemann [his doctor] looks for the present main source of my illness in the cerebral nerves, he thereby proves to me again how correctly he diagnoses my condition.... My illness then is of transcendental nature, and all other medical measures can have no decisive effect if I’m not cured up there. From my brain the affection spread to my entire nervous system and manifested itself in complete exhaustion.... That I cannot get well again, in the sense that you imagine it, is as clear as day: I’m mentally ill—and mental illness is incurable.... It is for me no longer a question of recovering, but only of making the period of my existence bearable, and I can do this only through artistic creation, since this is the only illusion that is effective with me. I therefore desire from our Lindemann not cure, but merely palliatives to make my existence as artist possible as long as this existence can be maintained at all.20 

I am not sure why major biographers haven’t taken the topic up. Historically, his ailments were written about to shame him, or to shame his memory, and to argue against his work, not to exculpate him. It's possible that biographers thought that pursuing the topic would just add unnecessary abuse on him, since historically to be “mentally ill” was not something that softened criticism, but increased it. Or perhaps they felt it was outside their expertise and couldn’t do the topic justice. (Hell, that’s not stopping me!) But, perhaps, they just couldn’t believe someone with a mental illness could do what he did. If he was in fact loaded with some combination of pathological conditions, how could he possibly have been so remarkably competent, such a disciplined worker, effective manager, fund-raiser, world-class promoter, and so incredibly creative? He set goals higher, visions grandeur, than any other composer in history. And he succeeded in virtually all his life’s plans, against huge odds, and tremendous opposition. How could that jibe with major mental illness? Or, at least, that is what I imagine his biographers think.  

I believe that it is a massive failure of the major biographical literature to not fully explore this area, and these biographers' portraits end up being as one-sided as those who just write about him as if he were only pathological. Neither side gives an adequate synthesis of the material that exists about the man.

It seems to me there are two reasons that it should be of major inquiry and importance in his biography. First, what exactly is the relationship between his mental abnormality and his creativity? He and his works were so different from any other musicians, and he was so different from most any other person, this has got to be a story worth exploring and telling. Here Wagner gives a tremendous amount of testimony within his letters, and modern neuroscience can add much to the picture.

The other reason it seems important to me is by way of explanation and, yes, some sympathetic understanding of his actions that seemed so utterly outside the norm. At this historical point in time, most writers spend a whole lot of space judging Wagner, identifying character flaw after flaw; very few spend much time trying to really understand the man. But what if he really wasn’t in control of his actions and they were, in fact, from in-born traits or pathology? Most mental health professionals subscribe to the “mental illness is not a character flaw” line, so if he was a victim of a pathological condition, doesn’t that let Wagner off the hook in full or part?

Before I give my answer to these questions, I have a couple more puzzle pieces to add in future posts.

1 Spencer, Stewart, Wagner Remembered, 181
2 Jung, Carl, Modern Man and the Search for Soul, 173 
3 Millington and Spencer, Selected Letters of Wagner, page 564, June 22, 63 letter to Malwilda Von Meysenbug; what exactly he meant by daemon can’t really be determined in that there were both good and bad daemons in the Greek; I think he saw it like his view of creative drive in general: having both good and bad aspects.
4 Jung, The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature, Vol. 15, page 101
5 Millington and Spencer, op. cit.  339
6 Ibid, 273
7 Ibid, 323
8 Ibid, 323-324
9 Ibid, 448
10 Ibid, 478
11 as quoted in Smith, There’s a Place For Us, 245  
12 Millington and Spencer, op. cit., 312
13 Beeman, Just This Side of Madness, 193
14 Ibid, 82
15 Ibid, 83
16 Millington, op. cit., 228
17 in Müller and Wapnewski eds., Wagner Handbook, Vetter, “Wagner in the History of Psychology,” 124
18 Ibid, page 125
19 Ibid, Müller, 127
20 Burk, John ed. The Letters of Richard Wagner, Burrell Collection, Sept 7, 1852, 191-192; I will talk about what palliatives he used in the final article in this series. 

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