Archive for March, 2013

The quotation game

Recently, browsing through the net, as one does, I came across this quote:

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

This quote was attributed to William Butler Yeats. I must admit I was surprised. Yeats is one of my favourite poets, and I am reasonably well-read in his works; but I certainly don’t remember anything remotely resembling this. Of course, I haven’t read everything he has written, but this sounds so very un-Yeatsian: the sentiment expressed is fairly trivial, the imagery banal, and the sonorities and rhythms of the aphorism not of a standard one might expect from a supreme master of the English language. Of course, none of this proves that Yeats didn’t write it: he may have had an off day, or was tired, or was drunk, or whatever. So I decided to research this. Is one of my literary heroes responsible for so trite a piece of cod wisdom that might embarrass even a Paolo Coelho or a Deepak Chopra?

On googling it, I find that the quote has appeared all over the internet, and always attributed to Yeats. And always, suspiciously, without a reference. It seems I am not the first person to have harboured suspicions on this quote: the writer of this article has researched this matter far more extensively than I have done, and has failed to find any evidence to trace this quote back to Yeats. He does concede that this does not prove that Yeats never said it, but given that there is no reason to accept any attribution without a reference, it does seem to me a reasonable conclusion to draw. (Unless, of course, someone can provide a reference – in which case I shall be happy to eat my words.)

This kind of thing is quite common on the internet, of course. Make up a saying, and attach a famous name to it. Preferrably the name of someone who is not alive, so they can’t deny having said it. Why? Well, to confer some weight and gravitas on what would otherwise be unremarkable. And also, I think, to convince ourselves that the truth is really a simple and straight-forward matter, capable of being expressed in a few words. Take, for instance, education, the subject of the quote above attributed to Yeats: education is, in reality, a very complex and intricate topic, full of subtlety and nuance; is it really likely that anything worthwhile or profound about it may be said in just a few words?

Poets do not give us moral precepts; they do not give us wisdom that we may live by. Or if they do, that is not what confers greatness upon their work. The world is too complex for simple slogans: nothing that is worth discussing, nothing that deserves to be taken seriously, can be resolved in a few words, no matter how well-chosen those words may be. One should not come to literature to find pat answers to difficult questions: difficult questions don’t have pat answers; and the simpler questions that do are inadequate topics for serious literature.

All this makes serious literature a very troubling matter. It addresses difficult issues, and yet refuses to answer them, telling us instead that there is no answer; or, at best, that there is no easy answer. How much easier to reduce all these messy, intractable complexities to a few easily digestible messages! How much more satisfying to pretend that the unfathomable intricacies of our lives can be pinned down with a few pithy soundbites! Even if we have to make up these soundbites ourselves…

In the meantime, there’s nothing to prevent us joining in the fun, and flooding Facebook and other social media with a few invented quotes – the more trite and portentious, the better – and see how quickly they start spreading. Here are a few for starters that I have just made up off the top of my head – and do please free to add to them:

“A single act of human kindness is of greater value than all the science in the world” – Niels Bohr

“No matter how far the branches of the tree diverge, they grow from the same source” – Emily Dickinson

“The more advanced our means of communication, the less we have to communicate” – Ludwig  Wittgenstein

“Wisdom is more, far more, than merely the sum total of our earthly knowledge” – George Eliot

“There is no evil greater than the failure to see the divine spark in our fellow man” – Dietrich Bonnhoeffer

“Another double scotch please, barman!” – Mahatma Gandhi

Harsh, but fair…

Those of us who write blogs are used to deleting spam messages containing computer-generated and generally semi-literate gushing praise. But recently, I deleted a spam message that had this to say:

“Maybe if you could write better, I could be bothered to read this crap.”

I’m now wishing I hadn’t deleted it. For it does have a ring of truth to it…

All is but toys

We live in godless times. I don’t mean the mess the BBC made of the sublime Blandings stories, although I am sure that this too can be put into the balance with all the other evidence. No – I mean our refusal to concede that life is, at heart, a rather serious matter, and that gravitas, or even reverence, is not necessarily indicative either of pomposity or of pretentiousness. And even if it were, even the pompous and the pretentious may be right: failings of character are not, after all, refutations of points of view.

On my Facebook page recently, I have had posted two items from Decca, the once respected classical label that boasts in its back catalogue, amongst other riches, recordings of Benjamin Britten performing his own works, and the first studio recording of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. But the album they were advertising on my Facebook page was called “Sleep”. “Want to get a great night’s sleep?” the posting asked. “Here are some great classical tracks to help you unwind, relax, and prepare for bedtime…” Well, one gets used to the constant trivialisation of that which is precious; one even learns not to mind too much: it’s only Facebook, after all. Facebook is a good way of keeping in touch with people one might otherwise lose touch with, but it’s foolish taking it too seriously. So I let it go. But today, those awfully nice marketing people at Decca were back with this: “Are you finding the frantic pace of modern life getting you down? Take a break with 101 of the greatest pieces of music ever written.” And in between these two, another unsolicited post on Facebook informed me “’Liking’ Mozart on Facebook makes you clever”. Well, I never! And the music of Mozart should, apparently, be played to babies: people actually take music of this stature, and, instead of listening to it, play it to their babies because some idiot somewhere reckons it will make the babies more intelligent? What is the matter with people?

Yes, yes, I know, it’s all commerce, it all advertising-speak. Mustn’t take it seriously, and all that. But advertisers would not promote this sort of piss-a-bed gibberish were there not a large section of the public prepared to respond to it. And no matter how hard I try not to take this seriously, it is hard not to be irked when centuries of so profound and so enriching a musical tradition are reduced merely to sounds to fall asleep to. Must everything be reduced thus? Can we not accept an essential seriousness in anything?

The Hell where nothing really matters very much: it is a sort of Hell that even Dante had not envisaged in his survey of the various types of damnation that humans engineer for themselves. Shakespeare, though, knew of this Hell: this is the Hell into which Macbeth damns himself.

After the murder of Duncan, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth go their own separate ways to their damnation. Lady Macbeth soon realises that:

‘Tis safer to be that which we destroy
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.

Not that she dwells in any kind of joy, doubtful or otherwise. She is crushed by a burden of guilt so terrible, that her mind soon buckles under the strain. Even sleep brings no respite, as she re-lives, over and over and over again, that fatal night when she lost her soul for ever.

But Macbeth’s route to damnation is different. Shortly after the murder, he realises that the only way he can live with the knowledge of what he has done is to convince himself that it doesn’t matter. And if even this doesn’t matter, then nothing matters:

Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had lived a blessed time; for, from this instant,
There ‘s nothing serious in mortality:
All is but toys

But a life in which all is but toys, in which nothing matters because there is nothing serious in mortality, is also a Hell. And in this Hell, Macbeth might as well carry on – because it makes not a blind bit of difference what he does:

I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er

Whether he kills more or whether he kills no more, it’s all the same, it’s all equally tedious. Life itself is merely “a tale told by an idiot”: it’s all mere sound and fury, and it signifies nothing. Trying to avoid the Hell of Guilt to which his wife is damned, Macbeth backs instead into a rather different but equally potent Hell – the Hell of Tedium.

Of course, one cannot miss what one does not acknowledge. But there is a part of Macbeth’s soul that does acknowledge, that does understand what it is that he has lost: he has lost all sense of seriousness. All that matters most, all that is most serious, “honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,” he cannot hope to have. And that is his tragedy. Not his death, but the meaningless, trivial rigmarole his life has become.

Well, at least Macbeth had his reasons for forcing himself to believe that all is but toys. But what possible reason can the rest of us have, I wonder? What excuse can we have for reducing the music of Mozart or of Debussy to the level of aural valium? How can we justify the insistence that even Tolstoy’s War and Peace is but a soap opera? The Hell of Triviality is, rather paradoxically, as serious a form of damnation as any other.

A bit of shameless advertising

If you’re within reasonable distance of Egham in Surrey, and don’t have anything in particular to do this Saturday evening (March 16th), why not pop over to the Egham Free Church, on Egham High Street, for a piano recital by Lara Melda?

Ms Melda was the winner of the prestigious 2010 BBC Young Musician of the Year competition.

And here she is, playing the slow movement of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto.

So why am I advertising this concert on my blog? Simple. I happen to be the current chairman of the Egham and District Music Club, which is organizing this concert.

See you there!

Tasting the Pierian spring

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

– from “An Essay on Man” by Alexander Pope

That’s all very well, Mr Pope, but have you any idea just how much there is to learn?

There’s nothing like walking into a well-stocked bookshop to make one feel inadequate. Everything from Byzantine architecture to microbiology, from macro-economic theory to Icelandic sagas, from theories of linguistics to statistical analysis … well, statistical analysis I do happen to know a bit about: that’s my job after all. But on just about everything else, I am so ignorant that it really is quite embarrassing. It isn’t just a single Pierian spring, it’s many – and there just aren’t enough years in a lifetime to drink deeply out of all these Pierian springs. Dammit, there isn’t even enough time to take a sip from each.

So, against Mr Pope’s excellent advice, I am trying to learn a bit, just a bit, about philosophy. Nothing particularly deep as such: I don’t have that lifetime to spend on it that is required for a deep understanding. But a smattering, at least, so I don’t feel a complete idiot. So next time I come across a mention of Kant’s categorical imperative or whatever, I’ll have at least something of an idea what it means.


So I started recently Sir Anthony Kenny’s A New History of Western Philosophy. Although an introduction to the subject for a layman like myself, it runs to over 1000 pages, but it’s in four self-contained parts – which had previously been published separately – making it quite easy to split the reading into four less intimidating chunks.

I’ll not attempt a review of this: how can I review a book written by an acknowledged expert on a matter on which I am so very ignorant? I mean, I’m hardly in a position to offer a critique Sir Anthony’s interpretation of Aristotelian epistemology, am I? I’m lucky if I know what “epistemology” means, if it comes to that! But I can, at least, report that the very clear, precise and elegant prose is a delight to read. It does, admittedly, exercise the old intellect a bit, but that’s only to be expected given the subject; and given, further, that the author refuses to patronise the reader.

The four parts of the book are: “Ancient Philosophy”, “Medieval Philosophy”, “The Rise of Modern Philosophy”, and “Philosophy in the Modern World”. In each, we are presented with sketches of some of the major philosophers of that era, and of their contributions; and then, chapters dealing with specific themes – e.g. “logic and language”, “physics”, “metaphysics”, and so on. The last chapter of each of the four parts is called “God”, and deals – presumably – with ideas about the divine. I am nearly at the end of the first of these four parts, and the journey so far, though challenging to a novice such as myself, has proved fascinating and enlightening. Rarely have I come across so lucid and so elegantly expressed an exposition of ideas of such complexity.

Of course, it is a question of what one is used to: I am not used to reading on this topic. When I came to the chapter on logic, I found it initially difficult to follow the necessarily precise wording of the various arguments; but after a while, I hit upon the expedient of translating what I was reading into mathematical terminology, and then, everything fell naturally into place. This shouldn’t perhaps be too surprising given my own academic background, but I hadn’t realised till now how much better I understand certain things in the language of mathematics than in even the clearest of English. But where the argument cannot be translated into mathematical terms, I do, I confess, find myself struggling to absorb the arguments, or even the concepts. I can’t remember when was the last time I read a book quite so slowly as this. I should stress, though that the difficulties I am encountering are the difficulties inherent in the subject, and in no way a reflection on the quality of the writing.

I’ll give this book a rest after finishing the first part, and move on to a few other things before returning to the next part – “Medieval Philosophy”. But return to this I certainly shall. Although I am in no position to offer a review of it, I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who, like me, needs an introduction to the subject, but who does not like the idea of being patronised. Anthony Kenny’s writing is a model of lucidity, and an object lesson in how even the most abstruse of ideas can be expressed clearly, with charm and with elegance.

Wagner’s “Parsifal”: some confused thoughts of a layman

It is not the least of the lunacies inflicted on us by the internet that everyone gets to pretend to be an expert on everything. Or, rather, that expertise is any matter is seen not to count: everyone’s opinion is equally valid and equally important. That certain opinions aren’t really opinions at all, but judgements based on knowledge and on understanding, matters not a jot. After years of finding myself annoyed by this, I decided to join what I couldn’t beat: hence this blog, where, on the basis that a cat may look at a king, I freely pontificate on all manners of things I know next to nothing about. True, I do admit to my ignorance, and have no pretence of being anything other than a layman, an amateur – a dilettante, even. But even if I didn’t admit to all this, I don’t see why I shouldn’t add my voice to the cacophony when other voices sometimes even less qualified than my own freely make themselves heard, and, indeed, often get paid for doing so. But that’s the modern world for you.

Now that’s done with, I can with a free conscience write about a work I really do not understand, despite having been acquainted with it now for some thirty years and more: Wagner’s Parsifal. In my previous post, I wrote about the apprehensions I had in going to see a cine-cast of it from the Metropolitan Opera; having now seen it, and still somewhat shaken by the experience, I feel I need to get something down in words on what I feel about it. Not a review of last night’s performance: there are those better qualified than I for that sort of thing. But rather, an attempt to articulate the various wild and whirling and frequently conflicting thoughts I have about this work, in the hope that in attempting to articulate, I may come across a clearer understanding of it myself.

Firstly, the plot. It is a commonplace, and, I think, a mistaken one, that operas invariably have silly plots, and that one should simply forget about the storyline and enjoy the glorious music instead. But that won’t do. Opera has its conventions, true; more accurately, different types of opera have different conventions. But within those conventions, the drama of opera has to be taken seriously, because the music is in service of that drama, and cannot, must not, be considered in isolation to it. Even with plots that may be silly outside the confines of opera, the music must be able to create a world – and not necessarily a realistic world – in which the drama may be communicated with conviction. If it cannot do this, the opera has failed in its most basic terms. But that is not so with Parsifal: whatever else it may be, it is an artistic triumph. And that being the case, we must take seriously its content.

Here, the problem is not so much that the plot is silly: it is, rather, that it cannot be adequately understood without, at the very least, some degree of sympathy with its religious content. The nature of the religious content, however, has been subject to much interpretation and controversy. And even ridicule. It would be the easiest thing in the world for me to ridicule it here, especially given that in the secular age we live in, ridicule of religion is commonplace. But ridicule won’t help explain why I was so affected by the performance last night. If I wish to come to a better understanding of that, I need to put aside any cynicism I may have about religion, and try to understand, as best I can, what it is the opera communicates – what it is that I am reacting to.


So here, for what it’s worth, is the plot, which I will try to summarise without any snide comments that are all too easy to make. (And if you already know the plot, please feel free to skip this section.)

It’s a work about the mythical Holy Grail, but it’s not a search for the Grail: the Grail, symbolising, presumably, the presence of the Divine in our world, is already here. But its power to sustain is diminished. Amfortas, the King who rules over the Knights of the Grail, has sinned, and as a consequence, the Grail appears to be losing its potency. The sin was sexual in nature: in setting out to vanquish the evil Klingsor, Amfortas had allowed himself to be seduced by a beautiful temptress. This temptress was an instrument of Klingsor’s, and, while he had been in her embrace, Klingsor had stolen from him his spear – the sacred spear that had pierced Christ when on the cross. With this spear, Klingsor had wounded Amfortas, and the wound, a constant reminder of Amfortas’ sexual sin, and also of his neglect for that which was holy, now refuses to heal. This spear now in the possession of hands that are defiled, and the land ruled by Amfortas and the Knights of the Grail is consequently in decline; and Amfortas is in constant pain, both physical and spiritual.

Into this environment come two outsiders: a mysterious woman, Kundry, who, though seeking to serve, is despised by the knights, but to whom the saintly Gurnemanz shows compassion; and then, Parsifal himself, a lad who is a “fool” – a young man utterly bereft of education or of knowledge, ignorant even of his own name, living and acting merely by his instincts. Kundry knows about him: his mother had deliberately raised him to be ignorant, so he won’t be drawn into battle and killed as his father had been; but one day, the young Parsifal had seen soldiers pass the house, and, enchanted by the sight, had wandered with them away from home. Now, Kundry tells us, his mother is dead.

Parsifal, as he enters, has, in his ignorance, shot dead a swan. Gurnamanz reprimands him, but wonders whether this could be the “holy fool” promised in a prophesy as one who will restore to the Kingdom of the Grail that which has been lost. So he takes the lad to witness the ritual of the Grail. But it means nothing to Parsifal. He is no holy fool, Gurnemanz decides – just a fool.

In the second act, the music seethes and writhes with a sense of evil: we are in the realm of Klingsor. Gurnemanz had earlier told us about Klingsor: he had, in the past, attempted to join the Knights of the Grail, but had been refused because he had not been “pure”. (The subtitles last night said “pure in heart”, but Wagner’s libretto is uncompromising: “pure”, it says, without qualification. It should be noted, however, that if Wagner does indeed mean racial purity here, he does not say that either: we are free to provide our own definition of “purity”.) After the refusal to admit him, Klingsor, to rid himself of sexual desire, had castrated himself; and he had then acquired demonic magical powers. Now, we see him in his realm. He has under his power Kundry, whom he awakens from her sleep. It was indeed Kundry who had seduced Amfortas on that fateful day the sacred spear had been lost. Now, she is summoned, against her will, to seduce the young Parsifal, who is approaching.

Parsifal is still the fool, the innocent we had seen before. He is enchanted by the seductive warbling of the Flower-Maidens, whose singing we may find either sensual or sickly, depending on how sybaritic we are. Then, Kundry appears, and calls Parsifal by his name. She tells Parsifal, much to his distress, how his mother had died, heartbroken by the absence of her son. With Parsifal now emotionally subdued, Kundry gives him a more than motherly kiss. But the kiss has on Parsifal an electrifying effect: suddenly, he understands. He understands now what he had failed to understand when he had witnessed the ceremony of the Grail; he understands now the spiritual agony of Amfortas, and the need to restore to the Kingdom of the Grail the stolen spear. He understands also his own guilt in not having understood before; he understands his responsibility – both what he is responsible for, and also, what he is responsible to. Kundry’s further advances are resisted. As she becomes increasingly desperate, she reveals her past lives: in a past incarnation, she had seen Jesus carry the cross, and had laughed at him. And for this, she is cursed in all her future reincarnations. She is now doomed to be for ever, through all her lives, in Klingsor’s power, unable to do the good she so craves, unable to escape the endless cycle of evil. Kundry’s seduction resisted, Klingsor appears himself to vanquish Parsifal: but his spear, that sacred spear, sticks in the air; and, on Parsifal making the sign of the cross, Klingsor’s evil empire collapses.

In the third act, we are back in the Kingdom of the Grail. Many years have passed since we had been here last. With the power of the Grail in decline, the place is now virtually a wasteland: there is no longer a community of knights – they now each forage for themselves. Society is in a state of utter dissolution.

Kundry is again present, but all she can now utter is an inarticulate moan: “dienen … dienen…” – “to serve, to serve”. Gurnemanz, now older, still has compassion for her; but he is powerless. Again, Parsifal enters, but he too is aged now, and tired with much travel and with worldly suffering. He carries with him the sacred spear. Having reached this place he had been seeking for so long, he disarms himself, plants the spear into the ground, and prays. Gurnemanz recognises him now, and recognise also the spear. The day is a sacred one: it is Good Friday, when nature renews itself. At this, the climactic point of the work, Gurnemanz anoints Parsifal as the new king, and Parsifal baptises Kundry; she, mistaking him for Jesus, wipes his feet with her hair. She is at last freed from the cycle of suffering and of evil, and her eventual death brings release – nirvana, if you will – from the cycle.

Amfortas is finally made whole, and Parsifal now presides over the ceremony he had previously failed to understand. The final chorus tells us of the “Redeemer redeemed”.


What is one to make of all this? Especially in the secular age that we now live in? Is this all mere lazy sentimental religiosity, as so many claim? It’s tempting to think so, for that saves one the very considerable trouble of trying to untangle it all. The Christian eucharist, the sacred symbol of the Holy Grail, the Buddhist concepts of reincarnation and of renunciation (themselves derived from Hinduism), the Schopenhauerian ideas of relinquishing will and desire, the European pagan tradition of the Fisher King presiding over a waste-land and awaiting redemption … What a curious hotchpotch it all is! Is it actually worth untangling? Or should we just say “the music is wonderful”, and leave it there?

No, that isn’t enough. I have often wondered why and how it is that even those of us who are not religious believers can nonetheless be affected by religious art; the consensus of opinion appears to be that we respond despite the religious content, but I am inclined to think that we respond it not despite, but because of it; that, no matter how advanced the position we may place ourselves on the scale of more-atheist-than-thou, there remains that embarrassing but significant aspect of our psyche that responds to religious concepts; and this being the case, we should put our embarrassment to one side and try to understand just what it is that we are responding to. Even if it means trying to negotiate the deep waters of theology of which I know and understand so little. But, I can only re-iterate, I am not speaking from the perspective of an expert: this is but a layman’s view.

The first point that strikes me is that in the theology underpinning this work, divine presence in the world, as symbolised by the Grail and by the spear, is not unconditional: whether this is because God is not absolutely powerful, or because God chooses to exercise His power only in certain circumstances, humans must by their own actions justify the presence of the divine if they are not to turn the world they inhabit into a moral and physical waste land.

So far, so understandable. But I start to have problems when I consider the nature of the transgression that has caused the efficacy of divine presence to diminish. There are many terrible crimes in this world – crimes that may justifiably be described as “sinful”: disdain for compassion, unrestrained greed, wanton cruelty, defilement of innocence, genocidal hate, and so on. Does illicit sex really score so highly on this scale? Amfortas was caught in what we would nowadays call a “honey trap” – tempted by a beautiful woman on a mission specifically to tempt him. And yes, he had neglected his sacred duty, and had failed to protect the sacred spear. Reprehensible though all this is, one can’t help feeling that the punishment greatly outweighs the transgression. To attach so great a weight to a sexual transgression seems to me to reek of an obsessive censoriousness regarding sexual matters that so many secularists – myself, I confess, included – find so distasteful about so many religious codes of morality.

Unless, of course, we are to take his failure to protect the sacred spear as symbolic of a greater desecration; but what it may be symbolic of, I am not too sure. I remain worried by the linking of a sin that is not forgiven (insofar as Amfortas’ wound does not heal) with an act of sex that is consensual, not accompanied with violence, and not even a betrayal of any living partner.

But the wound does remain unhealed: not even the proximity of the Grail can bring divine forgiveness here. It is unclear to me whether God deliberately does not heal, or whether He can not heal: in the context of the dramatic situation, I suspect the latter. To ensure divine presence in this world of ours, to suffuse the Real with the Eternal, humanity must play its part. Divine presence cannot be taken for granted.

Fair enough. Let us move on.

A holy fool, we are told, must resolve this. The holy fool is a figure familiar to Russian culture: we have one in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (based on a play by Pushkin), and Dostoyevsky’s Idiot is, of course, a variation on it. The potency of this character comes, I presume, from the fool’s innocence: a fool is, after all, unaware of evil. But by the same token, the fool must also be unaware of good: Parsifal’s first act in the opera is, after all, to kill a presumably symbolic swan. I don’t really understand the concept of the “Holy Fool”, and neither do I understand the significance of the prophesy that only a Holy Fool can restore divine presence to the world.

But there are further puzzles to come: the point surely is that this fool we see doesn’t restore the divine. The Parsifal we see restoring the sacred spear is not a fool at all, holy or otherwise, but a man of wisdom and of understanding. How did this wisdom come about? The prophecy speaks of a fool made wise through compassion; and indeed, Parsifal does indeed feel compassion – for Amfortas, for Kundry, for the state to which the kingdom of the Grail is reduced. But is not the compassion felt after he has attained wisdom and understanding? These qualities are not attained through compassion, but through a moment of magical transformation: he become wise instantaneously, when Kundry kisses him. Where does this magic come from? From the divine? Presumably so: it is hard to imagine where else it might have come from. But if this divine presence is powerful enough, and willing enough, to grant him this wisdom and understanding, then why had it not been powerful enough, or willing enough, to forgive Amfortas for his transgression, and heal his wound? Why does it not forgive the penitent and suffering Kundry, and release her from the cycle of evil and of suffering? Either there is a gap here in Wagner’s scheme, or there is something very important that I am missing. It is not merely a detail of the plot: on the contrary, it seems to me central to the whole thing. If humans are to play their part in ensuring divine presence in the world, then what part is it precisely that we are expected to play? If it is to feel compassion, “mitleid”, then Gurnemanz already feels this; what is it that Parsifal brings to the proceedings that Gurnemanz cannot?

This is where I feel lost. Human action is insisted upon, and yet at the same time denied, insofar as the human action that redeems the world is presented as a consequence solely of divine intervention. It doesn’t, for me, add up, no matter how hard I try to empathise with the religious perspective underlying this work.

It would be easy to dismiss all this as irrelevant – to say, as so many have done, that the music is wonderful, and let us merely be satisfied with that. That was effectively Nietszche’s position: he loved the music deeply, and yet was revolted by its Christian sentiments. For to Nietzsche, belief in God, in the transcendent, is to devalue the human; such belief is to admit that human values, on their own, are not sufficient. To present the world bereft of divine presence as but a wasteland is, according to this viewpoint, to impoverish human life itself:

Everything that has grown up in the soil of impoverished life, the entire false coinage of transcendence and another world, has in Wagner’s art its sublimest advocate…
– from “The Wagner Case” by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by T. Common

Once again, I feel out of my depth commenting on this. (In case anyone is marvelling at my erudition on this matter, let me confess that I am not at all well-read in Nietzsche, and was only guided to this quote by Lucy Beckett’s book on Parsifal.) But I can’t help wondering whether belief in “human values” and the desire for transcendence are necessarily as mutually exclusive as Nietzsche appears to have thought. My beloved Wordsworth, I suspect, would not have thought so.


So there we are. I have rambled on long enough about things I do not understand. I know what I experienced last night was tremendous: whatever doubt I may have about it in the cold light of day were swept away in the presence of that extraordinary music. To such an extent, indeed, that one may even begin to resent the music for being so powerful, and forcing us to accept and even be moved by that which otherwise we would reject. Settembrini was, perhaps, right: music, as John E. Woods’ translation has it, is “politically suspect”:

“Music is invaluable as the ultimate means of awakening our zeal, a power that draws the mind trained for its effects forward and upward. But literature must precede it. By itself, music cannot draw the world forward. By itself, music is dangerous.”
– from “The Magic Mountain” by Thomas Mann, Part 4, Chapter 4, translated by John E. Woods