Part 7: Parsifal & Wagner's other operas

General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung

Moderators: alberich00, Justin Jeffrey

Post Reply
Site Admin
Posts: 436
Joined: Tue Apr 19, 2011 11:03 am

Part 7: Parsifal & Wagner's other operas

Post by alberich00 » Mon Jun 18, 2018 11:58 am

I've been troubled by something since my earliest youth which also clearly obsessed Wagner. Like everyone I noted that people admired acts of kindness and self-sacrifice and abhorred selfish acts which hurt others, and I could clearly understand that I would wish to be the object of acts of kindness and not of hostile acts, and obviously wished to replicate this in my behavior towards others. I recall being stirred and inspired to the depths of my being when I was very young by one of films' most iconic examples of human rectitude and courage in the face of impossible odds, a self-sacrifice for the sake of the greater good, when the hero (played by Marlon Brando) of On The Waterfront reached his apotheosis in the final scene when, having been maimed and facing almost certain death, he spits back in the face of the mob which controls the waterfront and makes his way, in extreme pain, up to the warehouse manager to insist on his right to work, and all his co-workers on the waterfront, previously frightened into submission, follow him into the warehouse, too ashamed before his courage in their behalf not to follow his lead. I felt the same way when Gregory Peck, as Atticus Finch, defended an illiterate black man in Alabama from what Finch knew was a race-based false charge of rape, in the face of great danger and almost certain social shunning.

In my personal life I had few such epic opportunities to stand up for what I thought was right, but only modest opportunities on a much smaller scale. When I was in my early teens, in I think 8th grade at West Tutorial School in Annapolis, a very awkward and unattractive, soft-spoken girl started attending and was immediately shunned by virtually all of the other students. I didn't set out to shun her but simply assumed by her lack of effort to make conversation that she was boring, but all of the friends with whom I spent time did shun her, and some of them occasionally mocked her, especially at lunch when she would eat alone in the back of the room and catcalls were heard using the nickname the abusers had given her, MR, standing for "mental retard." I should have intervened at that point and tried to make conversation with her, but didn't intervene until one day a couple of my male friends grabbed ahold of her and were trying to place some kind of hair-drying helmet on her head, and I told them to cut it out, which they did. I'm glad I did that but it was woefully insufficient. But after that I always did tend to take the side of underdogs, and sometimes the price I paid for this was that the underdogs looked to me for their sole salvation, which led to some amusing and embarrassing incidents.

But I also studied, like so many others, scientific treatises whose ultimate implication is that all human feelings, thoughts, actions, and words stem from either nature (evolutionary adaptation, genetics, the laws of nature) and/or nurture (social and environmental and historical context, learning), neither of which express freedom, but only natural law in various iterations. Like Wagner, I considered that no human act which is inevitable, which of necessity must occur, can be considered admirable or heroic or free, because it couldn't be otherwise, but I couldn't see how any human action could ever be free. What possesses us to make any choices we make but our nature, whatever its source is? Even if humans possess an immortal soul and this soul is the ground of so-called freedom of the will and therefore of moral or immoral action, it would be senseless to think of a soul as free because, for a person to have an identity in any meaningful sense of the word, this identity would have to be fixed and unchanging, and this would be true even if this person made different kinds of choices in different situations. In other words, Paul Heise will always act in any conceivable situation as we would expect Paul Heise to act in that situation. So, in the final analysis the very concept of freedom of the will is nonsense under any conceivable interpretation of human thought and action. But if this is the case the concept of divine judgment is absolute nonsense: we all act as we must act, and if we act in a manner which doesn't reflect our true identity, this can't be credited to us but is purely arbitrary, the result of outside forces which thwarted our natural inclination. By the same token it didn't make sense to admire one person for their rectitude and kindness and courage and to fault another person for their lack of these virtues, if these virtues weren't freely expressed but followed inevitably from the very nature of the individuals being judged.

In other words, every act we choose, for better or worse, is either the product of our physical makeup, our life influences (the world's physical makeup in action), or our fixed and immortal soul, and none of these are free. Feuerbach, Schopenhauer, and Wagner all equally denigrated the concept of freedom of the will. If all is as it must be, then it's one thing to apply judgment in particular situations for practical purposes (since as you say we have to relate to each other as if we were free moral agents, as in the application of the law), and quite another to come to metaphysical conclusions in favor of freedom of the will, for which there seems to be no evidence. Under this interpretation the only thing to be admired is how a person acts in accordance with his/her own true nature (whatever it is) in spite of outside influences which cut against their grain, but this of course would grant the inherently evil equality with the inherently good. If a person does evil by nature, but another person does good only because of outside influences which they can't resist, which of these two cases is the better? It was partly due to such ruminations at an early age that I found myself at home when first confronting Wagner at age 18 since, as you know, these questions are central to his life's work.

For Kundry, as one of Wagner's allegorical muses of unconscious artistic inspiration, her seductive self in Klingsor's Magic Garden is RW's portrayal of the last days of unconscious artistic inspiration, when it could no longer offer temporary healing of mankind's unhealing wound of consciousness because the artist-hero and his audience were becoming too conscious of what used to be unconscious, hidden processes. Kundry's ever less effective service to the Grail and its fellowship as a penitent and messenger for the Grail illustrates this on the conscious side, since RW believed that his own art could offer a substitute for dying religious faith. RW was losing faith in his own art as such a substitute. For Kundry's two personas to come together as one (it's no wonder that some director/producers sometimes have one and the same soprano sing Venus and Elizabeth) is tantamount to saying that Kundry as a muse of unconscious artistic inspiration ceases to exist. This is also why Bruennhilde and Isolde cease to exist not very long after Siegfried and Tristan give them, and their secrets, away to another man (Wagner's audience).

RW once said that as an artist he was more liable than other human beings to experience the full tragic significance of what for others would be understood in a commonplace way as something which either does or doesn't provoke the will to live. But he added that, being so much more sensitive to the tragic dimension of life, he as an artist also had more than others the means to console himself, through artistic creation. In other words, RW's own heightened consciousness delivered the unhealing wound of man's irresolvable existential dilemma to him in a way almost no other human could grasp or bear, but RW was also able to offer himself and his audience at least the temporary feeling that this wound had been healed, more so than others, through his inspired art. Later in life RW began to complain of this endlessly repeated cycle of existential crisis followed by inspiration and production of a work of art as being something he couldn't bear. He felt he was on the cross, in a sense, having taken on the burden of mankind's hoard of experience (mankind's historical guilt), an insight into the terrible nature of the world and of human nature, which no others could grasp or bear, and which Wagner could only escape by again and again diving deeply into his unconscious mind for healing through the production of a new work of art. In other words, RW was returning to his muse Venus again and again for healing through inspiration. Wagner described his unconscious artistic inspiration in his essay Beethoven as a sort of nightmare which, upon waking, he would forget, but interpret and sublimate in an allegorical light. This tells us alot about Tannhaeuser and Kundry. He also described his artistic production, after inspiration, after waking from the nightmare, as a sort of primal scream, and this of course is one of Kundry's characteristics. This is also a description of Alberich's forging of his Ring in Nibelheim, in a sense Wotan's (Light-Alberich's) nightmare, which then gives literal and motival birth to Valhalla in Wotan's dream. Note that it's Isolde, the muse with whom Tristan joins in the womb of night, who holds for him the secret contradiction at the root of their longing for ultimate unity in loss of self and transcendence of the waking world of day, that the real meaning of their love depends on "und," the relationship between two distinct people, which their ultimate union will dissolve. Such a union would deliver the loss of consciousness and therefore the inability to enjoy the bliss of such a union. This was essentially RW's critique of the Christian notion of paradise, drawn directly from Feuerbach's critique. It's always Wagner's heroines (except perhaps for Elizabeth) who possess this fatal knowledge.

Wagner described the law, as ordained by God, as in a sense forcing us to love one another, which of course is an oxymoron. RW captured this contradiction in Wotan's use of his Spear of Authority and Divine Law to enforce the good. Elsa begs Lohengrin not to enforce his law that he must separate from her since she's asked the forbidden question, but to show compassion to her instead. Wagner captured the contradiction in his notion that for the sake of social quiet and security we renounce satisfying much of our own egoistic desires in order to preserve them in general, for the common good, which of course satisfies our personal egoism in part. He called this the prudence of egoism.

But this is another question that bothered me since my early youth, and also bothered Wagner in some respects. Are human beings, or at least only some human beings, capable of standing firm for compassion in the face of the greatest conceivable pain or duress (in the novel 1984 it's presumed, evidently correctly, that all human beings being physical and not spiritual, once the State has discovered each individual's black hole of weakness - claustrophobia, rats, etc., all without exception will betray their highest values and personal loyalties). Were any individuals capable of transcending this limitation, this fact would seem to be concrete evidence of the existence of an immortal soul which isn't contingent, can't be influenced for good or bad by outside influences. But if that were the case we'd have to explain why some people have this capability and others don't. Do some humans have souls and some not? How comes it that on rare occasions individuals are born who seem to be conscience-less? How comes it that under certain social circumstances entire swathes of citizens, who would otherwise have acted in life prudently and with reasonable sympathy towards others, can be prompted to behave towards specific individuals or groups like unreasoning monsters of rage? These are the kinds of questions that I saw echoed in a strange way in RW's art and occasionally in other artists like Dostoevsky. RW once observed that Othello killed Desdemona not because she'd committed the crime of infidelity, but because he knew that being a natural being she one day would succumb (implicitly, if the circumstances be right), and RW added that what he called enthusiasm (idealism) is constrained by our natural limitations. He also posed the question to Cosima whether or not we're just here to eat grass, and everything else is therefore self-deception. These are precisely the questions that bother Wotan and drive him to self-destruction.

Curiously, RW once stated that all other loves besides sexual love are derivative, that sexual love is the foundation of all other loves. Of course there is rationality in this statement, since the family, which is the product of sexual relations, is the foundation of all the more comprehensive associations among human beings and the feelings that sustain those associations. RW captured this evolution of selfish sexual impulse to tenderness towards others in his moving portrayal of the Giant Fasolt's longing for Freia, but then retracted this evolution towards tenderness by having Fasolt succumb to Fafner's persuasion, that by giving up Freia for the sake of the Rhinegold Fasolt can enjoy other, greater advantages. Of course RW's notion about the primacy of sexual love over other loves ties in with his critique of Schopenhauer: RW stated that Schopenhauer was incorrect to state that redemption could be found in a stilling of the Will. RW's alternative was that through sexual love carried to its ultimate conclusion, in the ultimate excitation of the Will, the individual will ultimately identifies itself with the will of the world. Thus Tristan and Isolde say of themselves, at the height of their ecstatic Act Two union, that they have become the world. And this for Wagner was his understanding of how compassion for all the living ultimately transcends the exclusiveness of sexual love. But Wagner also went on to say that the ultimate example of this kind of transcendent excitation of a particular will was the ecstasy the genius experiences in his moment of inspiration (he was thinking of himself, of course).

But the crucial problem left unresolved by a Darwinian acceptance of our true place in nature as products of nature and as one among other living things is that such an acknowledgment foregoes any possible appeal to man's transcendent nature, the ideal of an immortal soul, which many regard as the ground of our capacity for selfless action. There is a contradiction in this very notion that our identifying ourselves as one living thing among many can on the one hand make us more compassionate towards all that lives, to see ourselves in them, but at the same time force us to acknowledge that the kill-or-be-killed instinct of all individual animals in competition with each other (in a single species), and competition to the death between species for resources, is the foundation of our human nature.

It's also interesting that Feuerbach called for a celebration in the absence of God, the loving embrace of humanity for other animals, plants, even the unsentient stone. This is also what is celebrated in the Good Friday Spell. And of course Feuerbach believed that egoism is the foundation of all human behavior, including what purports to be altruism. But I for one would rather live in a world in which humans intrinsically have the capacity for altruism which can't be subverted, an altruism which isn't merely the mechanical product of evolutionary adaptations which can therefore be undermined by psychological or physical means. The problem with assuming there's a spiritual origin to man's capacity for selflessness is that this makes it very difficult to explain the prevalence of egoism, the cause of evil. Why, for instance, is one human being an exemplar of self-sacrifice and another a hedonist who would sacrifice the entire world for their own wellbeing? How could such distinctions be the product of a transcendent, immortal soul, an allegedly free will? Wouldn't they instead arise from differences in both genetic inheritance and nurture, and if that were the case how could they be the basis of a moral judgment? Why would a free will which arises from our immortal soul ever choose selfishness rather than selflessness? RW on several occasions argued against freedom of the will (as did Schopenhauer and Feuerbach). RW stated that all human action is either the product of coercion or outside influence or, if it's the product of a person's own nature, this by definition can't be free either, and doesn't deserve credit. In other words, it's impossible for a person to transcend who they are: anything they feel, think, do, or say will one way or another be the product of either forces outside themselves for which they can't take credit, or their own nature which, to be of any value, must be fixed, by which I mean that anything a person does either reflects this person's unique identity or it doesn't. For instance, anything I do, say, think, or feel, will reflect what according to my nature I would do, say, think, or feel, in that particular situation, in that particular time and place and circumstance. As Feuerbach said, we can't transcend ourselves. There's no free will, and thus in this sense no ultimate metaphysical judgment. What according to Wagner is bad or evil is therefore anything we do which subverts our true nature.

I can't think of anything in all the arts, particularly the lyric theater, quite like Gurnemanz's graphic appeal to Parsifal to feel what the poor swan he shot must have felt in being a victim of violence and indifference to others' pain. This is inconceivable (at least to my knowledge) in any other opera composer. But of course RW outstrips all expectations over and over again in his last will and testament.

It's amusing, but RW actually mocked those who assumed that his Parsifal was inspired by things such as his championing of vivisection, if memory serves (I find more and more I can't trust my memory in certain respects).

Apropos of our human capacity to feel compassion for animals, when I was working on some project, such as school work, in my teenage and college years, I would sometimes make some colossal mistake which would cost me considerable effort to repair, and launch into a tirade, shouting at the walls, which would cause my beloved black Labrador Cindy-Loo to retreat, shaking, under some table, and once I became aware of the terrible effect I'd had on her, and fearing she might think my anger was directed at her, I'd fish her out and embrace her, apologizing for having scared her to death. To this very day I sometimes impulsively reach my hand out from where I'm sitting to tickle behind her ears, even though she's been dead since 1983 or so.

Feuerbach argued that Christian faith, which depends on the promise of immortal life and reunion with God for those willing to die to the body and world to be reborn in the spirit, is actually founded on fear, and is covert egoism. I've known evangelical Christians who would tear down anyone who put emphasis on good works, suggesting that what they should really care about is the salvation of their own souls. This seemed to me the soul of egoism then, and it does still.

Maybe, on a still larger view, the Grail sanctuary calling out to be rescued from polluted hands, is Christ the redeemer calling out for redemption, for release from the sin of having perpetuated mankind's age-old futile bid for transcendence and godhead, which is what the Grail represents. Needless to say nothing truly transcendent and holy needs mortal man to relieve it of any taint of sin or anything else. Of course, both Amfortas's guilt at not being capable of living up to the moral demands of supervising the Grail service, and Klingsor's sadistic satisfaction in compelling all others to suffer the humiliation which he's suffered in his futile quest to attain the holiness worthy of the Grail (as Alberich was enraged that Wotan should be able to co-opt the Ring power for which only Alberich had paid the price or had the courage, without paying Alberich's price) are, like Titurel's living long past his natural time in incessant expectation of the Grail's grace (i.e., because of man's futile bid for transcendence he has never been able to reconcile himself to the fact of death, hasn't learned to die), examples of the terrible pass to which this faith in mankind's transcendent destiny has destined religious man, in the face of mankind's inevitable advance in knowledge and self-consciousness (the Ring Curse).

Sustaining the bonds of society is religious faith's earthly purpose, isn't it, even if those within the faith construe it as having a transcendent source? The value of positing a religious mystery or ultimately unknowable God as the source of humankind's ethical bonds is that everyone through their own experience of their own motives and actions and those of others know (at least subliminally) just how much those motives and actions stem from personal egoism, so what better way to sanctify and preserve the bonds of ephemeral and contingent society than to posit their source in a transcendent being who is unchanging and is inherently selfless!

If I recall correctly, RW's' final chorus in Parsifal was to be composed of men and women, so as to convey, he said, the androgynous, sexless character of its final resolution and reconciliation. Am I right?

I think of Hans Sachs's oblique reference to that line in the Bible that prophets aren't welcome in their home country, in reference to the originality of Walther's artistic inspiration and the feeling of threat this inflicts on the Pharisee-like Masters with their Old-Testament-Law-like Tabulatur. Walther is an outsider, Lohengrin is an outsider, Siegmund is an outsider, Siegfried is an outsider. I think also of the orphan Siegfried's being able instinctively (i.e., through the Woodbird's revelations) to see the hypocrisy behind Mime's protestations of love. And of course, like Walther, whose natural inspiration breaches the rules of the Tabulatur, Siegfried breaks the Spear of the Law, reminding us of Christ, the hero of the New Testament of Love (mercy) which transcends the Old Testament of Law (justice).

In RW's allegorical scheme which I've discovered to one degree or another at work in all of his canonical operas and music-dramas, the hero and heroine bear the burden of possessing dangerous knowledge which, if made conscious, for the artist-hero as for others, might undermine the redemption they offer. Loge offers the archetype for this because he's the gods' (religious faith's) first redeemer, in that it's through his agency that Wotan and the gods can win Valhalla without paying its price, by virtue of Alberich's sacrifice of love for power which permits the gods to enjoy the fruits of his renunciation without paying his price. But Loge, as the archetype for Wagner's artist-heroes, who at the very beginning aided man (Wotan) to deceive himself, also sees through the redemption he's offered them, knowing it's self-deception. This makes Loge necessary but dangerous. As Wagner's vision of the archetype for all of his artist-heroes, this explains much about why Wotan must depend on his Waelsung heroes to redeem the gods from a doom which in the long run is inevitable, but also must regard them as his enemies. Thus Wotan tells Bruennhilde of his need for a friendly foe. This explains why Amfortas, who's been granted an unbearable vision of that knowledge which artist-heroes have concealed in the unconscious where it can safely inspire their art (Bruennhilde's magic protects Siegfried at the front from suffering Wotan's fearful foresight of the end), by virtue of Klingsor making his former or potential muse Kundry available to Amfortas (as Siegfried made Bruennhilde accessible to Gunther, and Tristan made Isolde, his womb of night, accessible to Marke, and Tannhaeuser made Venus and her secrets accessible to his Wartburg audience), suffers more than others in having responsibility to perform the Grail communion rite. He not only knows he's a sinner (this is assumed anyway by Christians who recognize original sin as the inheritance of all humans), but he's a sinner specifically because he suffers from rising consciousness that there is no redemption, that growing awareness of the futility of mankind's quest for redemption from the real world through the supernatural Grail in modern times is becoming more painful than simply giving up his quest for redemption would be.

In light of the Flowermaidens offering to be Parsifal's playmate, and in light of the Rhinedaughters' playful song, dance, and verse in celebration of the Rhinegold, and lastly, in light of RW's various remarks to the effect that his inspired art is actually a form of earnest play, a game, we can better understand how Parsifal accuses himself of having been distracted by childish adventures on the path that would ultimately lead him to self-knowledge, to acknowledgment of the unwitting role he the fool, in his former lives, played throughout history in perpetuating religious man's futile longing for transcendent value. Parsifal's primary or original sin was indeed the act of abandoning his Mother, Nature, for the sake of serving the Grail. He can atone for this by re-establishing the primacy of his mother, Nature, and renouncing mankind's age-old quest for redemption from the real world in a world of the imagination held to be more real than the objective world. Feuerbach described this as matricide, and RW on more than one occasion said that man's denial of nature is his greatest sin and error.

Were it not for the false hope of immortality, of renouncing nature yet wishing to live forever, the hope of Freia's golden apples of sorrowless youth eternal, which in the end Wotan rejects, none of the characters in Parsifal who are suffering would be suffering to the terrible extent they do. Klingsor's self-castration was due to an excess of devotion to the Christian value set on world-and-body-renunciation. Amfortas suffers because as a mortal, natural man he can never be worthy of the futile religious quest for transcendent value; his guilt for being unequal to this is everlasting. Kundry suffers endlessly, from world to world, the need to atone for having granted mankind unbearable knowledge (in her role as a metaphor for Eve) by inspiring works of art in which that knowledge can be temporarily forgotten and the pain it causes assuaged, but in the end her salves no longer bear fruit, no longer heal.

And of course, in Wagner's operas and music-dramas, he performs a transference, or makes an equation. The Biblical move from God the Father and his law, to the son of God, the savior, with his love, Wagner conflates with the move from religious faith per se (the Bible parts one and two), to the modern age of inspired secular art, which falls heir to religious man's longing for transcendent value when this can no longer be sustained as a faith, a system of beliefs, in the face of our ongoing acquisition of objective knowledge. Wagner sees this move as part of our final reconciliation with our mortality and our re-embrace of our place in Nature, or the recognition that what we had called spirit was in the end just Nature: Wagner said that Feuerbach taught him that what we had called spirit was just our aesthetic response to the tangible world.

I believe, on the basis of an array of things RW said, that he regarded the Christian Last Judgment as a brutal and immoral thing, which is why I suspect he was enamored of Schopenhauer's interpretation of Buddhist theology, and the notion that through rebirths all, finally, can attain enlightenment and salvation, and none are in the long run condemned. By the way, I have a suspicion that Nietzsche may have derived his ultimate value, willingness to will the eternal return, as his antidote to Christian and Buddhist pessimism and world-renunciation. In other words, Nietzsche turned the Buddhist and Hindu desire to escape from rebirth into its opposite, a celebration of our ties to the real world. In the same manner Wagner regarded Nature and God as ultimately one, which I suppose is the implication of Spinoza's speculations, as suggested by Feuerbach himself.

As Wagner said of his art to King Ludwig II, it's not the means to escape the world but instead, from within it, to rise above it, to gain a serenity not available to us through any other means. And of course RW linked the morality of art-for-art's-sake, not for the sake of profit, to the morality of selfless sacrifice, which is what links Siegfried with his father Siegmund. RW said the only truly immortal things are heroic acts of compassion and inspired works of art. His Ring is a dramatization of this.
Post Reply