Friday, October 4, 2013

Wagner's Abnormal Mind - Part 6: Conclusion

Over several posts, I have been laying out various puzzle pieces to understand the very abnormal brain of Richard Wagner. I am going to do a synthesis in this post; for the details consult the other posts here

Wagner’s life of stress

Wagner was born with various attributes that manifested when he was still a boy: very high sensitivity, high sensation-seeking, and an optimistic and tenacious will that proved to be extraordinary. None of these things are pathological in and of themselves, but in combination they contributed to the enormous stress he endured throughout his life, and led to his developing both mental and physical problems.

In his childhood, Wagner's stress stemmed partly from his head-strong nature, which led him to often pit himself against family and authority. He also had stress from his sensitive nature, particularly in his family environment. For instance, nightly dreams of terror were met with upbraiding, not tenderness. Throughout his life, he considered himself to be singular: a man against the world. Adding to the problems that his natural temperament gave him was the financial stress his family was under via the loss of his father and step-father, the aftermath of war, and his frequent exiles from the family as he was so difficult to contend with.

He had no benefactor, no family money to help him along his chosen path. Virginia Woolf wrote that “a poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for two hundred years, a dog’s chance.”1 What is incredible about Wagner is that he was one of those with not a “dog’s chance” and yet he managed to become the most famous and influential composer of the 19th century. His drive to create, to promote his vision, to defeat all obstacles before him, was completely single-minded and nothing short of miraculous and awe-inspiring. All this came at a high price: chronic stress that wrecked havoc on his body and mind.

His biography as an adult is filled with one major stress-inducing event after another, usually self-created, but almost always in service to his vision. I will just give a short summary:
  • He had no regular means of support until he was 50; he was constantly in debt, often fleeing creditors.
  • He escaped from Riga at high risk, to avoid imprisonment for debts.
  • He suffered through abject poverty in Paris for three years while trying to make it as a composer.
  • He escaped Germany after an arrest warrant was issued for his revolutionary activities; his co-conspirators ended up in jail for over a decade.
  • His marriage was full of strife for decades, including infidelity on both sides.
  • He had tremendous difficulty getting any of his operas staged outside of Germany (and many inside of Germany).  His only clear triumph until late in life was Rienzi (which he later denounced).
  • He was attacked regularly in the press for both his music and his lifestyle.
  • Even after King Ludwig rescued him financially, he was at the center of scandals from his affair and marriage to Cosima and with the release of the letters from his seamstress.
  • He was attacked in the press and via demonstrations—very logically and rightfully—by the Jewish establishment after the re-release of his article “On Judaism in Music.”
  • He took on a near-impossible task of building Bayreuth to stage the Ring. The whole enterprise was on the edge of collapse when King Ludwig saved him again.
But beyond the stress that life events put on him, Wagner put stress on himself through the composition process. In this letter, he describes this process.
I recognize now that the characteristic fabric of my music...owes its construction above all to the extreme sensitivity which guides me in the direction of mediating and providing an intimate bond between all the different moments of transition that separate the extremes of mood.
But this art is very much bound up with my own life. Extreme moods in a state of violent conflict will no doubt always remain part of my nature: but it is embarrassing to have to consider their effects upon others. To be understood is so indispensably important. Just as, in art, it is the most extreme and the grandest of life’s moods that must be made intelligible (moods which on the whole remain unknown in ordinary people’s lives, except in rare times of war and revolution), this understanding can be achieved only through the most well-defined and most compelling motivation of these transitions, and my entire work of art consists very much in producing the necessary and willing emotional mood by means of this motivation.2 [emphasis added]
Essentially, he became extremely good at triggering the emotions he needed to produce the extreme lows and the soaring highs of his music. Wagner played with emotional fire, putting his health at serious and continual risk, in order to be in the “state of violent conflict” necessary to compose his works. Thus, his musical talent centered on his ability to access deep, wildly varying emotions easily and fully, and then create a musical language to compose those feelings. That was his creative genius in a nutshell. Is it any wonder that after composing, he often needed to go to a sanitarium for recovery?

There is now a large body of evidence that stress is the trigger for both physical and mental problems, as I wrote about here.  Physically, Wagner developed life-long problems with hemorrhoids and irritable bowel syndrome, a variety of long-term severe skin problems, including recurrent erysipelas and shingles, migraines, leg ulcers and abscesses, respiratory problems, bilateral hernias, nervous exhaustion, and, finally, the heart disease that killed him.3  Every one of those problems can be caused or made worse by stress. Wagner himself believed that most of these physical ailments were related to his stress, and all his biographers agree.

In the case of some conditions, there can be a genetic predisposition to it. For instance, via a number of studies summarized here, it is clear that bi-polar disorder has a genetic component. However, just because you have inherited a genetic predisposition for that disorder does not mean that you will develop it. That is where gene expression comes in.

I will take a quick detour regarding gene expression, because it is so interesting (and relevant). You know those killer African bees? They aren’t different, genetically, than our honey bees. So why are they so aggressive? A scientist had a hunch that it was really about environment, so he took a bunch of African bees and implanted them in a honey bee colony and visa versa. Guess what? The implanted African bees became as docile as their adopted mates and the implanted honey bees became just as aggressive as the others. This article discusses this example among others, in both humans and animal species. Its conclusion is: “When it comes down to it, really, genes don’t make you who you are. Gene expression does. And gene expression varies depending on the life you live.” Stress is hypothesized to be a central culprit in the gene expression of a wide variety of illnesses, both physical and mental.

This is where the “who was Wagner’s father” issue comes back. I wrote about it here, and pointed out that there was evidence on both sides. However, the fact that his step-father Geyer seemed to have the same disposition as Wagner to both manic and depressive states, not to mention creative talent in several fields, has tipped me to the “Geyer is the father” side of the equation.

I have argued that Wagner was on the bi-polar spectrum as he clearly had periods of depression alternating with manic, or at least, hypomanic periods. All the usual signs of mania or hypomania as specified here existed in Wagner, according to everyone’s account of him, along with his own self-account:
  • Unrealistic, grandiose beliefs about one’s abilities or powers
  • Feeling unusually “high” and optimistic OR extremely irritable
  • Sleeping very little, but feeling extremely energetic
  • Talking so rapidly that others can’t keep up
  • Racing thoughts; jumping quickly from one idea to the next
  • Highly distractible, unable to concentrate
  • Impaired judgment and impulsiveness
  • Acting recklessly without thinking about the consequences
  • Delusions and hallucinations (in severe cases)
Beyond the last symptom (and the fact that he had the will and the wherewithal to complete all his unrealistic, grandiose plans), all of those symptoms describe Wagner perfectly. As for depression, he fit all those via self-reports, too:

  • Feeling hopeless, sad, or empty
  • Irritability
  • Inability to experience pleasure
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Physical and mental sluggishness
  • Appetite or weight changes
  • Sleep problems
  • Concentration and memory problems
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Thoughts of death or suicide 4
Throughout his life, his letters contain many references to a number of depressions. Here is part of a letter to a friend describing a long depression in 1937 at the age of 24:

My light-heartedness has long been consumed by the financial misery that battened on my natural, sanguine resilience... All cheerfulness, all freedom, all openness fled before me: I can describe my state in no better way than by telling you that this was a year when I wrote scarcely a single note, conceived noting & comprehended nothing. I was deeply unhappy!5 

By his 30s, thoughts of suicide became a constant theme:

I finally began to pine away and my thoughts turn increasingly towards death. I was on the point of returning to Zurich when I was again beset by my old complaint: I am paralyzed, overcome by melancholy and unhappiness....6

Hell, his entire oeuvre was suicide ideation

If you want to read more about his bi-polar nature, the author John Louis DiGaetani makes the case in his book Wagner and Suicide.

As for the other DMS categories of mental illnesses that people want to slot him into: sure, he fits into a bunch of them. I will leave it to those with expertise to sort that out, but there can be no doubt he would have received a diagnosis of mental illness if he presented to any therapist with his behaviors, actions and feelings. But concentration on his pathology does not explain his massive success in a large number of pursuits. Which brings us back to the question:

How could he have done it?

That is, how could Wagner have been so massively successful in doing what he did in the face of so much illness? My argument is that due to his very strong will and single-minded focus, he learned to control his conditions enough to be able to be productive. It wasn’t a smooth process, as he was often derailed by illness, but it was a very deliberate process. He learned to control his conditions in two large ways: through creating and following a workable routine, and through medication (both prescribed and self-medicated). And then he succeeded because—in spite of the risk-taking that would have derailed most folks, as well as his often demented personality—he had so much talent that others kept saving him from himself. And they did so often in the nick of time; thus in this, he had massive luck.

Let’s see then what Hans Sachs can weave to turn the madness his own way, to serve for noble works. – Hans Sachs talking to himself in Die Miestersinger


By his mid-30s, Wagner knew he was in deep trouble in terms of his ability to continue working in the manner that he did. For him, it was the nervous exhaustion that he found most debilitating. He could work through physical pain, but not emotional shut-down. When he over-worked, it would often take a month or two to get over the effects of it. Thus, as he wrote to his friend and benefactor Julie Ritter in 1852,

...if I am to produce anything else, it can only be achieved by subjecting my entire nervous system to a most elaborate course of treatment. Above all, I need a will of iron to keep a close check on myself, more especially to be able to break off completely from my work, both quickly and at frequent intervals, so that, by dint of regular outings, I may distract my cerebral nerves form their present self-destructive course.

Of course, only my art can sustain me and disguise from me how insipid my life has become. The enormous effort it takes to do so is something I must seek to lessen as best I can.7

In terms of his “course of treatment,” he took a 9-week course of a water and dietary treatment at a sanitarium the year before, in 1851, which had little positive effect, as he describes in his diary briefly: “Dreadful nervous state: very thin and pale. Total insomnia.”8 In 1852, he tried another course of treatment, but this one in his own home: concentrating on diet, quiet and exercise, which he describes to Theodor Uhlig here:

I have now made a proper start on my course of treatment: apart from my diet—from which I do not exclude the occasional glass of good wine—it consists of a cold bath in the morning and a fifteen-minute warm one (22 degrees). Its effect on me is most soothing and gently invigorating. Above all, it does me good to get out into the open air, where I wander for 2-3 hours every morning before I settle down to work. The time I spend on work never lasts more than 2 hours: through working for 5-6 hours, as I often used to do in the past, I seriously overtaxed my nerves.9

He tinkered with his routine throughout his life, but he always kept a set one with a mix of walking, specific dietary times, proscribed period of composition, and relaxing through socializing in the evening. His general routine with Cosima went like this:
  • 9:00 – small breakfast with Cosima
  • 10:00-2:00 – work (no interruptions)
  • 2:00 pm – large lunch (on the dot)
  • 3:00 – rest
  • 3:30 – correspondence if he had any, otherwise start walk
  • 4:30 – walk
  • 7:00 – light meal
  • 8:00 – salon where there was nightly talk, music and reading with guests
He intensely disliked a change in routine.  For instance, Cosima wrote on October 15, 1874, “R has to write a letter in the morning, which always upsets him.”  This sort of mastery via routine was certainly a key ingredient for him to tame his volatile and changing moods.


Wagner self-medicated all his life in a some very normal ways: he was addicted to nicotine, which he took regularly primarily via snuff, but also through cigars and cigarettes; he drank, principally wine and champagne, though he also drank beer and, I am sure, spirits when the occasion did arise; he also was a regular coffee drinker.

Wagner offering Bruckner snuff
He used them in the usual manner: caffeine and nicotine throughout the day to bring him up; alcohol in the evening to calm him down.

However, as a young, manic man, he had regular insomnia. For that, he needed something stronger. He wrote to his friend, Keitz, in 1852 that he “required from our [doctor] Lindemann not cure, but merely palliatives to make my existence as an artist possible as long as this existence can be maintained at all.”10 The palliative he received was laudanum, which is a tincture of opium. He used this to help him sleep and calm his nerves until the end of his life. 

Wagner had a five and one half year period when he composed not a lick of music, which is singular in the history of great composers. This writing block ended very soon after he started taking the laudanum. As related in Wagner, Last of the Titans, “In December 1853, he told his benefactress Julie Ritter that thanks to Lindemann’s ‘method’ he not only felt ‘far better’ but was writing music ‘with the greatest and most consequential delight’.”11 To his friend Keitz, he wrote in June 1854 that, “I keep up my spirits merely by intensive work... I really feel pretty much as I should like to, even though there is not a day without bad hours. I often take some of Lindemann’s powders.”12 Thus, the medications, his rise in spirits, and the end of his unproductive drought were clearly connected.


Something will turn up! – Mr. Micawber, David Copperfield

But the Fates intervened, as they always did in some mystic way or another, when it was a question of saving Wagner for posterity. – Alfred Newman, Wagner biographer

I make my luck. – that obnoxious guy from the movie Titanic

Wagner was on the edge of the abyss many times in his life. Here are a few highlights.
  • As a young man, he managed to get into and out of three duels, all with “formidable duelists” and, luckily for him, without a shot fired.13
  • He was the trustee of his mother’s pension, and got within one thaler of losing it all via gambling. But he doubled down and rebuilt, luckily, enough to replace the pension amount and to settle his existing debts.14
  • In 1839, he made a desperate flight from Riga, in Russian territory, to escape creditors and debtor’s prison. His passport had been impounded; he, with wife, dog and possessions in tow, had to slip through a well-guarded border, with armed sentries every 1000 feet. Luckily, he did it without getting caught or shot.15
  • He made another desperate flight from Dresden to escape an arrest warrant for his revolutionary activities. Luckily for him, and with the help of Franz Liszt, he made it out, unlike all his other close co-conspirators who spent many years in prison.
  • Once again trapped by debts, and debtor’s prison still an ever-present threat, luckily for him a rich industrialist, Otto Wesendonck, paid his debts and offered him a quiet place to compose. And, yes, then he promptly fell in love with his wife, and the gravy train came to an end, but still it was a good period, all in all.
  • He once again had to flee his creditors in March of 1864. He wrote in a deep despondency to one friend, “some good and truly helpful miracle must befall me, otherwise it will be all over!”16 Luckily for him, one did: King Ludwig II’s courier found him on the run, and told him the King wanted to pay all his debts and provide for him so he could write the rest of the Ring.
  • He decided to build his theatre in Bayreuth, as opposed to King Ludwig’s wishes of a site in Munich, so Ludwig withdrew his support. Wagner desperately tried to raise the money, initiating a fund-raising program that is the template for modern-day funding raising,17 but it came up far short. The project was about to go bankrupt when, luckily for Wagner, Ludwig changed his mind and saved the project.
  • By the age of 40, Wagner had developed plans for all his later operas, and for building his theater.  Luckily for him, his health held out just long enough to finish all his work at age 70. He died seven months after the premiere of Parsifal.
I bring up all this luck here, because it relates to his mind. Wagner was always optimistic, though often thwarted as a result of the excessive risks he took. Yet, on the edge of failure, he was always saved in the nick of time. Thus, his optimism would return, he would feel fated to succeed and so it would continue. He never got the comeuppance—except in leading an extremely stressful life—that he probably deserved. Lucky for us.

But it certainly wasn’t primarily fortune. He had all the ingredients of success: passion, motivation, initiative, persistence, vision, resilience, energy, self-knowledge and talent. These things all helped him make his own luck.


Wagner’s chief area of genius was, of course, musical composition. But he was wildly creative and influential in all sorts of ways well beyond just that, which I will be writing about much more in coming blog posts. While he did not show any particularly strong creative gifts as a child, as I wrote here, he was a highly sensitive child: to the arts, nature, beauty, animals as well as to things that were horrible, frightening or disgusting.  To live his early life among creative artists certainly was crucial in setting his path, but I believe that his particular talent arose primarily from his sensitivity. 

It certainly wasn't clear that he would become a musician.  As quoted by Thomas Mann, Nietzsche said of Wagner’s childhood:

His youth was that of a dilettante all-rounder who didn’t seem to know where he was going. He was not confined by any inherited family tradition to one particular artistic discipline. Painting, poetry, acting and music were as much as part of his life as a scholarly upbringing and an academic future; a casual observer might well have supposed that he was born to play the dilettante.18 

Mann then comments, “...Wagner’s art is a case of dilettantism that has been monumentalized by a supreme effort of the will and intelligence—a dilettantism raised to the level of genius.”  I think that insight captures some truth about Wagner's breadth of accomplishments, but it doesn't really give enough due to his innate music genius.  In any case, he made the absolute most of all his talents, but it was his will that was the truly incredible part of the equation.

To summarize Wagner’s awesomely abnormal mind, I would say that through his world-defying will, he was able to harness his talent, which sprung in large part from his unusual sensitivity, to create an oeuvre of exception beauty and depth. However, his risk-taking, which became clearly pathological, put him on a life-long figurative tightrope—foreshadowed by that literal tightrope he learned to walk at age 10—that always kept him close to the abyss. Luck and tenacity, with the help of many staunch supporters, got him across the chasm safely. 

All that said, I believe that his will, his talent, his behaviors, his thoughts were all beyond his conscious control as I argued in these posts. Yes, his life and mind are awe-inspiring, if sometimes horrifying, but the good and the bad in him and his works were really just a direct product of an interaction between his genetics and gene expression, upbringing and environment, brain processes and brain chemistry, none of which he had more than very minor control of, at best. He was absolutely unique, and his works reflect that completely, but I truly believe his massive will was not free, but just a product of his abnormal brain.

1 Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, page 26
2 Millington and Spencer, ed., Selected Letters of Wagner, 475
3 Wagner Experience, 74-76
4. From here.
5 Selected Letters, 71; this letter was Wagner's attempt to get money from his friend; some therefore discount his pain.  I do not.
6 Ibid, I forgot to note the page, dammit, but it’s in there!
7 Ibid, 265-266
8 Millington, Wagner, 50
9 Selected Letters, 260
10 Burrell Collection, Letters of Richard Wagner, 192
11 hler, Wagner, Last of the Titans, 305
12 Burrell, 198
13 Newman, The Life of Richard Wagner, Vol 1, 78-79
14 Ibid., 79
15 Ibid., 244-245
16 Selected Letters, 583

18 Mann, Pro and Contra Wagner, “The Sorrows and Grandeur of Richard Wagner,” 103

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