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

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12 responses to this post.

  1. I found your first paragraph amusing, entertaining but containing much truth.

    I think that I have seen a taped version of Parsifal once, and have listened to highlights numerous times. The music is indeed breathtaking. It has been a while, however. Perhaps I will at least give it a listen through again soon.

    I find that when it comes to art I find little discomfort in stepping out of myself to appreciate, and yes feel beliefs sentiments that are not necessary compatible with my own viewpoint. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that great art is so profound.

    Reply

    • Hello Brian, I agree: what is the point of art if one goes there only to have one’s own perspectives confirmed? Wagner’s perspective is very different from my own: I do find his works very alien. But also fascinating. And I am trying to understand Wagner’s perspective – and probably not succeeding too well!

      Reply

  2. Himadri – thank you for another Blog which I have found a joy to read. My preference is for people to speak from the heart and not always from a pre-conditioned, intensively informed standpoint by which it is too tempting to base one’s own opinion entirely on the thoughts of published works and previous discussions. Everyone is different and has such varied emotional and intellectual responses to art which should not be shoe-horned into the words or ideals of others. I am so glad you spoke more from your heart and soul in this blog.

    For me, response to music and opera should be from the heart and I would implicitly trust the intuitive judgments you make whilst enveloped by the music and surrounded by the magic of the visual production and dramatic context , ie: very much ‘in the moment’ with the far removal from the mundane and cold light of day. You should dispel all sense of reality and of course be carried emotionally by the music and drama. The greatness of Wagner is that he totally dominates what the audience is going to feel by his clever orchestration, not just of notes on a score but by his extraordinary understanding of the human psyche and how controllable it can be on through immersion into a medium which bypasses the rational and draws you into the subliminal and innate.

    I am, as you, a secular person. I shy away from all organized religion and have a very personal belief system which is open to the possibility of there being more to life than our understanding and I hope that if there is anything so ‘Almighty’ in existence, that it ‘should’ be beyond our comprehension, never mind the arrogance of the thought that we humans should be fashioned in its own image! That aside, I find myself drawn to Religious motifs in many art forms, choral music moves me incredibly, religious horror based fictional films are a genre I am continually drawn to and my personal taste in artworks and architectural accomplishments reach their pinnacle in religious edifices, which I often visit.

    When Christianity is drawn into a tale, I respond to it as I would any legend of human making, as I would similarly respond to Le Morte D’Arthur, Grimm’s Fairy Tales or a Norse Saga. This is because beneath all the fictitious flim-flam you can learn and appreciate real truths and benefit from some guidance as to what constitutes a good way of living and of treating other people. Aesop was more important to me than the Bible in this respect, as were the Narnian Chronicles – C S Lewis brought religious ideals into his books but translated them into his chronicles in such a way that a child could learn the consequences of transgression without the hellfire and damnation that churches were wont to inflict on the young mind. Making the Christ figure a Lion was also beneficial to me, relating to animals far more than I did people!

    In Parsifal, the Arthurian Legend is just that. Legend implies a tale told in a truthful vein, but which is ultimately a fiction. Therefore, this renders the basic story no more responsible for rationalization as does a Fairy Tale. Therefore, should we not consider Kundry’s inability to redeem herself any more significant than we would consider the frog for whom the Fairy Tales demand that only the kiss of a Princess may induce his transformation into the redeemed Prince? Kundry is no more able to orchestrate her own rise from evil entrapment, than is the frog, other than by the innocent fool who resists her seductions. But we don’t question why the frog cannot by his own instigation, cast off the wicked charm that ensnares him. Likewise Amfortas. Great Legends and Tales do not require reason, the way things are, purely and simply, is just the way they are. We accept them because it is the very nature of the tale that the final outcome is what really matters. The instillation of the sexual guilt of Amfortas’s dalliance with Kundry is just an adult variation of the King who neglected to invite the witch to the christening of the Sleeping Beauty. The Christian ‘flavour’ instilled into Parsifal brings about the frankly diabolical misconception of sex being sinful and therefore the punishment does fit the crime – an ideal based right back to the first ever Original Sin. Through sex, man lost entitlement to Paradise – compared to this, an unhealing would and wasteland almost seem mild!
    Wagner, himself, was guilty of sexual misconduct in his life with affairs outside marriage, adultery, one of the seven deadly sins. It is interesting to speculate whether he was trying to work through his own conscience via this, his final opera – perhaps he related to Amfortas in his own way? Amfortas did not commit the sin of adultery, but the Christian belief that chastity is somehow divine (although the recent news puts that into its proper light) means that to lose something so intrinsic to his Godly position as the Divine Spear that pierced Christ on the cross, through the sinful and mindless act of sex (bearing in mind that Kings were thought to represent the ultimate in man’s Godly representation on Earth), can really be seen, in an Orthodox Christian mind, to be the ultimate of crimes. This predisposition to sex has been in the Christian consciousness for two thousand years, so it does not need to justify, in its own sight, the damnation that the temptation of women induces. As far as crimes go, this is a biggy!

    The dramatic content should not be viewed in isolation of the music – especially in Wagner’s case, as he was such a believer in the ‘whole’ operatic experience – musical theatre was his imperative and he succeeded in this more than any other composer in my opinion. But a suspense of belief and an allowance to be enveloped by a tale that defies rational logic, is a ‘must’ I think. I find when presented with drama of this nature, that I regress to the time when I would allow myself to become fully absorbed by fantasy and sometimes the best of tales leave great big plot-hole devices that the intellectual mind screams at for answers but the answers never come. The satisfaction comes from the ultimate and sometimes even ‘happy ending’ which may not tie all the loose ends together, but which stays lodged in the memory and haunts, and to some extent ‘shapes’, our own psyche in the years to come, as a long term ultimate response.

    I’m not sure what I have been trying to say here, but I just feel that there is nothing within the dramatic context to belittle the musical experience in Parsifal – not if you view it in the intention to which it is presented – as a Legend. There is a lot of wisdom bound in the words of the most child-like of fantasy writing and it is not to be scoffed at or denounced as invalid just because it does not always follow a rational route. We can get too clever for ourselves and miss important messages by trying too hard to find the answers or reasoning to the story itself.

    Whilst we are still on Wagner – it interested me that you talked of Wagner as this musical genius but of abhorrent ideas and ideals. Wagner has bad press as being this horrible man who inspired one of history’s biggest monsters. I think through distortion of time and through being too tied in with the atrocities of Hitler, that we are too ready to see him this way. He must certainly have been a man to whom people were drawn towards. His wife did not shut him out of her life, despite his sexual infidelities, he had mistresses and an enduring second marriage. King Ludwig II was infatuated by him. This man, Wagner, he must have had a magnetic personality. Yes, he was antisemetic and wrote from extremes of Nationalistic viewpoint – but as a person was he horrendous? I don’t think Wagner ever actually killed anybody? Writing of deeply held beliefs that puts a whole race of people in an abhorrent light is ‘dangerous’ but he did not put these ideas into practice as far as I am aware – he even had Jewish friends, it is said. I don’t know, but I question how history has painted him. If Hitler had never risen to power and the Nazi party never committed the atrocities it did, would history have written differently of Wagner? Arthur Machen, in his story, “The White People”, makes this point about sinners and saints.

    “Great people of all kinds forsake the imperfect copies and go to the perfect originals. I have no doubt but that many of the very highest among the saints have never done a ‘good action’ (using the words in their ordinary sense). And, on the other hand, there have been those who have sounded the very depths of sin, who all their lives have never done an ‘ill deed.'” ……

    “So with the sinners, as with the saints. If you met a very evil man, and recognized his evil; he would, no doubt, fill you with horror and awe; but there is no reason why you should ‘dislike’ him. On the contrary, it is quite possible that if you could succeed in putting the sin out of your mind you might find the sinner capital company, and in a little while you might have to reason yourself back into horror.

    http://gaslight.mtroyal.ca/whtpeopl.htm

    Apologies for babbling on so much, just wanted to try and formulate a response to your excellent points raised.

    Reply

    • Hello Kathy, and thank you for your fascinating comments.

      Works such as Parsifal obviously make a huge emotional impact, and it is perfectly legitimate to record that. Indeed, if done well – i.e. if it is, as you say, “spoken from the heart”, and spoken articulately – then recording one’s personal response can even be inspiring. However, any great work of art does requires also to be understood; and to this end, “speaking from the heart” is not, I think, enough: the intellect, such as it is, needs to be engaged also. And when, as here, there is much to be understood, then having an awareness of what has already been thought and said by some of the finest thinkers and speakers can only help rather than hinder one’s own thoughts. Of course one shouldn’t base one’s own interpretation purely on what has been said before: that is merely to assimilate information rather than to think for oneself. One should always examine critically. But one should examine. If one is to obtain a fuller view of a work, one must look beyond one’s own personal perspective; and where better to look than in the writings of those who have thought long and hard? To do so is not, I think, to inhibit one’s own thought.

      I have, I’m sorry to say, come across a great many articles in the arts pages of newspapers on works of art that require a great deal of thought, but where the writer has merely spouted simple-minded and often misguided banalities. I could link to a few choice examples of this sort of thing, but let’s not point finger too specifically here.

      Parsifal is, I agree, a myth: it’s a myth of Wagner’s own making, from elements derived from diverse sources, re-interpreted and synthesised by his own genius. But, unlike “The Frog Prince”, we do, I think, need to ask questions about Wagner’s mythologising: we need to ask questions because, once again unlike “The Frog Prince”, Parsifal is very clearly underpinned by certain philosophical and theological concepts. So, if divine intervention can help Parsifal, but fails to help Kundry or Amfortas, then it is legitimate, I think, to ask why. If we don’t, we fail to understand Wagner’s concept of the divine presence – a concept which, if my reading of the work is along the right lines, at the heart of the work.

      The problem for me is that, as far as I can see (and I am happy to be put right on this), the internal logic doesn’t hold. The work ends with the chorus of “The redeemer redeemed”. So we need to understand what the redeemer needed to be redeemed from, and why, and how. And, once again from what I can discern from it, the redeemer needs to be redeemed because, without divine presence in our world, we decay both morally and spiritually. And this divine presence is not unconditional, but is subject to certain types of human behaviour. When the opera opens, divine presence is receding as a consequence of Amfortas’ sin; and it is to be won back by a holy fool “made wise through compassion”. I’ll leave aside my unease about the nature of Amfortas’ sin: I find it difficult to attach to it the significance demanded by the drama, but I’m happy to put that down to my own values being out of step with the values of the theology underpinning this work. What concerns me more is the nature of the human action that is required to win back the divine presence. For, although it is frequently repeated that redemption will come from a fool made wise through compassion, this does not happen in the action of the drama: Parsifal is not made wise through compassion; the compassion does not precede the wisdom, but, rather, the two come simultaneously in a moment of magical transformation. The nature of this magical transformation is not explained. Is it a consequence of divine intervention at this point? If so, this contradicts the premise of the work – which is that divine power is receding from the world, and is powerless to help even the penitent, such as Amfortas and Kundry. And if the magic of this instantaneous has its origins in something other than the divine, then what is it?

      This is not merely a gap in the storyline, but a gap in the philosophy that underpins the work. The most likely possibility is that I am missing something: it is not reasonable to imagine that I have hit on issues that had eluded a genius such as Wagner over many, many years. But nonetheless, I find myself stuck on this question: “If it is a condition of divine presence that it is to be obtained and sustained through human action, then what should that human action be that obtains and sustains it?”

      I am certainly not scoffing at the wisdom contained in this work. I just want to understand what that wisdom is.

      (I have, incidentally, tried to make a point of not judging Wagner’s work on the basis of what we know about him as a person, but to focus purely on the internal evidence of the work itself. There can be very many arguments over the rights and wrongs of such an approach, but bringing into this what we know about Wagner’s openly expressed and frequently unpalatable ideologies really is a potential minefield that I’d prefer not to go near! 🙂 )

      All the best for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  3. I am delighted by this post. I missed out on tickets to the Melbourne performance of the Ring Cycle (which I’ve never seen) so I bought the Met production on CD and we are going to watch it on our big screen TV with other friends who also missed out on tickets. And now thanks to you I know that my next Opera-at-Home event will need to be Parsifal!

    Reply

  4. Posted by severalfourmany on March 7, 2013 at 9:55 pm

    These are excellent questions and get right to the heart of the issues most people have had with Parsifal even from the very beginning. I think you are correct that there is a consistent set of ideas behind the story, just as there is behind the music. Wagner created a rather elaborate philosophical system which he described in several books and articles. They are a bit complex and draw upon some ideas that are less familiar today than they were in late nineteenth century Germany.

    I have tried to outline how Wagner applied his philosophical system in Parsifal here:
    http://severalfourmany.wordpress.com/2013/03/07/parsing-parsifal/

    And for those wanting to understand that philosophy in more detail there is an extensive outline here:
    http://severalfourmany.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/the-philosophy-of-richard-wagner/

    Sorry for the late reply. I have been wanting to put these thoughts down on paper (or pixels) for some time and it was not a quick process. I hope this is helpful for those wanting to better understand what Wagner was trying to accomplish. I welcome any comments and criticism. I’m sure there is always more to learn.

    Reply

    • I think it’s my turn to apologise for being so late in replying! I’m afraid that for various reasons, the time spent on here is pretty irregular!

      But thank you very much for this. i had, indeed, read both posts on your blog on Parsifal, and they certainly clarify a number of issues. But of course, since a work of art isn’t a crossword that relies purely on the solution to puzzles, I shall need to consider the whole thing, and listen to it again, bearing your interpretation in mind. There are still many aspects to the work that puzzle me, and, perhaps, will continue to puzzle me: no work of art of such stature reveals all its secrets.

      However, I think I do need to accept that however much I may be struck by Wagner’s works when experiencing them, or even after I have experienced it, I am not by nature a Wagnerian: his view of the world does remain alien to my sensibilities. My loss, I know. But this is not to say that I will stop listening to his works. And the next time I return to Parsifal, I shall certainly keep your lucid interpretations in mind.

      Reply

  5. I found this article and thought of our discussion on Facebook, which I couldn’t find, so I thought I’d put it here, as it seems to echo some of your thoughts.
    Have a good weekend! 🙂

    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n07/nicholas-spice/is-wagner-bad-for-us?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=3507&hq_e=el&hq_m=2395266&hq_l=5&hq_v=aa79dfa352

    Reply

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