Parsing Parsifal

Parsifal 01

We are somewhat removed from the ideas and issues that informed Wagner’s opera Parsifal. As a result it can often appear as a haphazard blending of Christian ritual, German myth and French romance that borders on the incoherent. Many have commented on how great the music is, but are puzzled and confused by what to make of the story. But the story is as carefully constructed as the music. In fact, underlying the story is an elaborate philosophical framework that Wagner devised in the early 1850’s. Wagner used these ideas in all his stage works starting with Rheingold in 1854. They provide a consistent philosophical vision for the entire Ring cycle, Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger von Nuremburg and Parsifal.

There are hints and fragments of these ideas throughout his writings and we can even see them developing in early works like Tannhauser. They reach their mature form in three works written just after the revolutions of 1848: Jesus of Nazareth (1848-49), “The Revolution” (1849) and Opera and Drama (1851). They show up again later in Religion and Art (1880). The philosophical ideas in these works were heavily influenced by David Friedrich StraussThe Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835) and Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation (1844). Both of these are well over a thousand pages each, so it will not be possible for me to provide full and complete explanations of all the relevant details but I will try to sketch out, as best I can, the key points that relate to Wagner’s operas, particularly Parsifal.

[Those interested in the philosophy can read a more detailed version here.]

So how does this apply to Parsifal? First we need to be aware that Wagner, like most Germans in that era, shared Goethe’s distinction and preference for symbolism over allegory.

“It is a big difference whether the poet looks for the particular in the general or whether he sees the general in the particular. The former produces allegory, where the particular has validity only as an example of the general; the latter, however, is the actual nature of poetry; it expresses the particular without thinking of the general or without pointing at it. He who grasps this particular vividly gets the general with it at the same time without being aware of it, or only late.”
Goethe, Werke, Hamburger Ausgabe, Band 12, pp. 470-1

So we can be sure that this is not going to be a neat and tidy affair. And there is more at stake here than just telling an entertaining story. As with Goethe and Schopenhauer, art has a moral dimension. In the case of Wagner it is practically a religion. Following David Friedrich Strauss, Wagner will use art to express the truth of religion to save religion from becoming stale and impotent dogma.

“One might say that where Religion becomes artificial, it is reserved for Art to save the spirit of religion by recognizing the figurative value of the mythic symbols which the former would have us believe in their literal sense, and revealing their deep and hidden truth through an ideal presentation. Whilst the priest stakes everything on the religious allegories being accepted as matters of fact, the artist has no concern at all with such a thing, since he freely and openly gives out his work as his own invention. But Religion has sunk into an artificial life, when she finds herself compelled to keep on adding to the edifice of her dogmatic symbols, and thus conceals the one divine Truth in her beneath an ever growing heap of incredibilities commended to belief.”
Richard Wagner, Religion and Art (1880)

While I am fairly confident of the details of Wagner’s philosophy, I think there is a great deal of flexibility in how they are applied to the particular music dramas. Fans of Wagner will of course notice that many of these symbols and relationships occur in all his works written after 1850. It is an interpretive framework that works equally well with Tristan or any of the Ring operas. Anyway, here is how I think this works out in the details:

Act I
When the opera opens we see Gurnemanz leading the Grail knights in prayer. These are the “good” guys, they try their best to obey the law, they follow and preserve the religious rituals, they aspire to be better and more worthy. As we will gradually see, this is where their trouble lies. Law opposes freedom and love, religion has become life denying dogma and the knights are still trapped in desire which leads to conflict and suffering.

Amfortas, the king of the grail knights, has been wounded by his own spear and it will not heal. He lost the spear when he was seduced by a woman when he went to fight Klingsor. As we saw in Der Ring des Nibelungen, the spear is the symbol of law and authority. As we are in the realm of symbols this is not a minor dalliance, this is a breech of law. Marriage is a contract and the law, represented by the spear, was created to enforce contracts and possession. If the ruler does not support and enforce the law, there is no law, hence Amfortas loses his spear, his ability to lead and enforce law. This wound causes Amfortas great suffering and shame.

Kundry provides a potion to help Amfortas. Gurnemanz thanks Kundry but she rebukes him. This seems an odd behavior but, according to Wagner, gratitude is not part of the path of self-divestment. Gratitude expresses appreciation for benefits to the ego or self and as such does not move us in the direction of selflessness. The grail knights express distrust of Kundry, which shows their lack of compassion. They view her sexuality as lust and sin, a misconception that comes from the perspective of law rather than of love.

Gurnemanz tells the story of the spear which pierces the side of the Redeemer and the grail which collects his blood. Again, the spear represents the law and its opposition to the Redeemer’s message of love and both symbols thus become associated with the Redeemer’s selfless sacrifice, his death and transfiguration, the final step on the path of self-divestment.

We finally meet Parsifal who kills a peaceful mating swan to the horror of the knights. Parsifal is unable to answer Gurnemanz questions nor is he able to understand and appreciate the significance of the grail. In order to escape the hostile world of dogma and law the creates conflict and suffering we need someone outside that tradition, the pure fool. This episode recalls Adam, innocent in the garden, but experiencing the fall and expulsion from the garden. But it is a felix culpa, a fortunate fall, as it will ultimately lead to redemption.

The knights assemble at the hall for communion. Amfortas says he is unworthy and begs for forgiveness. In return voices tell him that he will be redeemed by the pure fool. It is not about forgiveness it is about redemption through self-divestment and that process is just now beginning.  The pure fool  grasps at his heart, suffering with the pain of Amfortas. (Mitleid is usually translated as “compassion” but in German it is a compound of “suffering with.”) Gurnemanz gestures for Parsifal to participate in the grail ritual but he is distracted and cannot. Parsifal is focused on feeling compassion rather than participating in a dead ritual. This is where the grail knights fail, and viewing this event from the false perspective of law rather than love, Gurnemanz rejects Parsifal and sends him away. Yet another parallel with the fall and expulsion from the garden that starts us along the path to redemption.

Act II
In Act II we meet Klingsor, the “bad” guy. His realm is one of unrestrained desire: lust, greed, power, the grail, you name it, he wants it. Klingsor once wanted to join the knights of the grail, and he has much in common with them. Both sides are mired in their respective desires. Klingsor for the things of the material world, the knights for more spiritual things. But desire, no matter the object, leads to conflict and suffering. Klingsor summons Kundry to seduce the approaching Parsifal as she once did Amfortas.

Parsifal enters the garden of maidens whose lust leads them to fight and quarrel. Parsifal is at first attracted to them but is put off by their bickering. Kundry calls his name and tells him of his mother, Herzeleide (Heart suffering) and her attempt to prevent him from joining the knights and suffering his father’s fate. Here we see an example of parental love, one of the steps in self-divestment, where a person loves and is thinking of those outside of the self. This is just a small step, though, as this love is limited to the small circle of family.

Kundry says that with a kiss she will help him understand his mother’s love. When he kisses her, he remembers Amfortas and feels the sharp pain of his wound. Kundry, in trying to stir passion, has instead made Parsifal compassionate. Kundry, still trying to confuse passion with compassion, again tries to seduce Parsifal but he now understands the difference. His rejection of her advances will ultimately lead to her release but she does not understand this and curses him.

Klingsor throws the spear at Parsifal. Parsifal does not follow the law, so the spear cannot harm him. He takes the spear and uses it to make the sign of the cross. The symbol of law has now been transformed into the symbol of love. “With this sign I banish your magic. Just as it will heal the wound you made with it, it will now destroy this fraudulent luxury!” Without the law there is nothing to support and uphold the realm of possession and property and Klingsor’s castle collapses and the garden turns into a desert.

After wandering for years, Parsifal returns to the realm of the grail knights with the spear. Parsifal has undergone many trials and fought many battle but has refused to use the spear as a weapon. Kundy helps to wash him, suggesting the story of the sinful woman forgiven from the Luke 7:36-48. At the castle Amfortas begs to join his dead father, Titurel, in death. He refuses to uncover the grail, only wishing to end his suffering and shame. Parsifal steps forward and touches the wound with the spear, healing it. Once a symbol of the law, that made the wound in the king who could not keep the law, it is now a symbol of love and compassion for suffering. What the law wounds through power and force, love heals through compassion. Parsifal unveils the grail, symbol of selfless sacrifice and redemption. Kundry is released from her curse and can now die peacefully. A white dove hovers over Parsifal’s head. What had become a dead ritual of dogmatic obedience has been restored to it’s true meaning as a symbol of love and compassion. “Highest holy Wonder! The Redeemer redeemed!”

Parsifal 02


~ by severalfourmany on March 7, 2013.

2 Responses to “Parsing Parsifal”

  1. […] […]

  2. […] get there. Finally I feel I have a firmly grounded understanding of Wagner’s intended meaning for Parsifal and The Ring—which are entirely consistent (and not how Bernard Shaw describes them in his otherwise excellent […]

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