Part 4: Parsifal & Wagner's other operas

General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung

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Part 4: Parsifal & Wagner's other operas

Post by alberich00 » Mon Jun 18, 2018 12:07 pm

In Wagner's allegorical scheme, Klingsor's desperate bid for holiness at all costs, which culminates in his self-castration, is actually the ultimate implication or consequence which follows from religious man's futile attempt at world-renunciation. Wagner once said that the emphasis on chastity or celibacy in Christianity expresses mankind's futile bid to renounce nature yet live forever. Wagner was echoing Feuerbach's thesis: Feuerbach added that all efforts by religious man to transcend his own nature and identity fall like gravity back to the ground, because even mankind's longing for transcendence or immortality is inspired ultimately by physical, earthly desire and fear, masquerading as divinely inspired. This is the meaning of the Venusberg: the immortality Venus offers Tannhaeuser is man's quest to satisfy earthly desires infinitely, not desires of spiritual origin: this is why his revelation of the true source of his inspiration is so horrifying to the Christian denizens of the Wartburg. When both Siegfried and Tristan sever themselves from their true love, their muse, betraying her love in order to give her away to another man, this is Wagner's metaphor for the inevitable rise to consciousness of what was formerly unconscious. Klingsor's self-castration is just the most extreme form of this: he is too self-conscious to be capable of finding redemption or granting it to anyone else; he's permanently fallen without hope of religious or artistic redemption. In his quest for absolute purity he proved that this quest is futile and impotent: we can't escape ourselves. In vengeance he insists on forcing all others who are happy in their ignorance to share his unbearable self-knowledge, and this is also the basis for Alberich's vengeance against all those, like Wotan, who would co-opt his Ring power without paying its price, the renunciation of love. Thus Alberich tells his son Hagen to hate the happy and to venge himself on them.

Note how Siegfried and Tristan severing themselves from their true love and giving her away to another man (Gunther, or King Marke, Wagner's metaphor for his audience) is echoed in Klingsor's inflicting Kundry, with whom Klingsor can't have a loving relationship, on Amfortas. The unbearable shame which Gunther and King Marke suffer by virtue of having been granted access to the artist-hero's muse of unconscious artistic inspiration and her dread secrets, which only the artist-hero could bear to confront, is that same unhealing wound which Amfortas suffers after Klingsor prompts Kundry to seduce him. The unhealing wound is identical with Alberich's Ring Curse, the curse of consciousness. Now, the more Amfortas seeks redemption through the Grail, the more his wound manifests itself, because mankind's bid for transcendent value was predicated on self-delusion and now, in modern times, this consoling bubble has been popped.

Perhaps this may explain why Wagner begins the process of castrating tonal music in Parsifal and Tristan, his two music-dramas in which the wound that will never heal becomes explicit. The thesis behind this is that modern art, in its practitioners' desperate attempt to preserve religious mystery and transcendent value when religious faith is dead or dying, ultimately outgrew all connection with the human heart, in their futile quest to make their art irreducible to reason or feeling, i.e., to save it from being explained away. It seems to me I read in one of your other books your thesis that the most extreme examples of modern art, through which it speaks an ever more arcane language known only to a few initiates, is such an attempt to preserve the religious mysteries, but I can't recall this with accuracy.

This brief orchestral interlude, this jewel-like miniature of tone-painting (i.e., when Amfortas's retainers carry him from the lake to the spot where Gurnemanz awaits him, and he speaks longingly of the loveliness of the forest accompanied by quietly ecstatic music which seems to bloom like a flower, only to wince with pain as his consciousness of his unhealing wound returns), which captures Amfortas's forlorn longing for healing by the forest and the waters of the lake, is one of the most moving moments in Parsifal for me, an astonishing example of orchestral compression of meaning.

It's a remarkable feature of Wagner's synthesis of Buddhist metaphysics with his own idiosyncratic concept of unconscious artistic inspiration, that in Kundry he conflates his notion that the artist-hero figuratively dies while in union with his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration, to be reborn each time he produces a newly inspired work of art, with the Buddhist notion of an endless cycle of rebirths tending towards ultimate redemption in escaping the cycle of rebirths. Wagner drew a portion of his concept of the muse of unconscious artistic inspiration from Feuerbach's celebration of Eve who, in Feuerbach's understanding, is metaphorically the creator of modern science and destroyer of religious faith, in that her acting on her doubt of God's prohibition on knowledge, in order to gain knowledge, cast mankind out of the paradise of absolute faith into the real world in which we struggle to learn how to satisfy our real, not merely psychological, needs, through objective knowledge of Mother Nature. Since, for Wagner, his own inspired secular art was born of dying religious faith, Wagner's heroine-muses are modeled on Feuerbach's celebration of Eve as the heroine who liberated us from religious faith, from dependence on the concept of Godhead, paving the way for a substitute redemption in inspired secular art.

But the more Wagner advanced in his art the more doubt he expressed about it and its capacity to offer a secular redemption as a substitute for lost religious faith. Walther von Stolzing's muse of unconscious artistic inspiration Eva, modeled on Eva in Paradise (but actually on Feuerbach's Eve), delivers the wound of knowledge (Sachs's confession, which Walther doesn't understand) to the artist-hero unconsciously, in a dream, so that, upon waking, the artist-hero Walther can produce that work of art in which we feel redeemed from this unbearable, unconscious knowledge. Kundry delivers the unhealing wound of knowledge to her lovers in her role as seductress in one of her endlessly repeated reincarnations, but compensates and atones for delivering this wound by inspiring the Grail knights (as the Grail's messenger) in her alternate reincarnation. Tristan ultimately chooses suicide over any further embrace of temporary redemption from his unhealing wound through loving union with his muse of inspiration Isolde, in order to escape from Wagner's endlessly repeated cycle of figurative death in confrontation with unbearable self-knowledge during unconscious artistic inspiration by his muse, and rebirth in the production of a new work of art in which that horror can be forgotten and sublimated.

I've mentioned several times in my commentary on your book that in some strange way that many of the events and protagonists of Wagner's prior canonical operas and music-dramas reappear in Parsifal in a ghostly way. It's almost as if Wagner's prior artworks were waking events and Parsifal Wagner's dream about them, in which these echoes of the prior operas and music dramas are experienced as in a dream which, according a friend of mine quoting some author, is "eerily familiar."

Parsifal's taking up Kundry's account of how he almost instinctively followed the knights particularly has the quality of a dream which sublimates something from the distant, hidden past. I find Gurnemanz's questioning of Parsifal to determine his identity and origin and Parsifal's blank responses strangely moving. Of course we're reminded in a way of Wotan's queries of Siegfried in S.3.2. Siegfried no more knows who he is than does Parsifal.

It's noteworthy that Parsifal, Wagner's last will and testament, ends on Good Friday and not Easter. Wagner omits the supernatural resurrection in favor of Christ's compassion for man's earthly sufferings, and his self-sacrifice for man, as you say.

Feuerbach pointed out that man could be relieved of the anguish and guilt of sin if he recognizes sin in God. This of course stems back to Spinoza's claim that, in effect, God and Nature (extension) are one. Feuerbach noted with approval that several heretics grasped god as both good and evil, light and dark, etc. Feuerbach noted that the notion of original sin can be eliminated if we accept our place in nature and our status as animals, if we accept that God, or the creation, contains both good and bad. Wagner confirmed to Cosima that a right understanding of God is that he's both good and bad, or rather, is amoral, and in a sense captured this in the contrast between Light-Alberich (Wotan) and Dark-Alberich. Amfortas suffers from the unbearable burden of the religiously faithful aspiring to their imaginary God's and Savior's moral purity, which according to Feuerbach is a product of the imagination. Amfortas's anguish, his unhealing wound, is caused by his service to the Grail (the wish, as Wagner put it, to renounce nature and yet live), i.e., to the illusion of transcendent value. Amfortas suffers under the burden of striving to resolve mankind's irresolvable existential dilemma.

Since one of the bases of Wagner's conception of his heroine-muses is Feuerbach's reinterpretation of Eve as the muse he, the atheist, honors because she breached faith, Wagner embeds this trope of the muse/lover inflicting the wound for which she then compensates with inspiration into virtually all of his canonical operas and music-dramas. The muse possesses knowledge of the hero which can't safely be made conscious for him, or revealed publicly, without great harm, or "Noth." In order to safely inspire him with this wound of knowledge, in order to temporarily heal it through her inspiration, she does this from within his unconscious. In this way unconscious "Noth" can be sublimated into consciously enjoyed Wahn.

Tannhaeuser forgets the forbidden secret of his inspiration each time he wakes from the nightmare of his sojourn with Venus, which has occurred more than once, but in the fullness of time, as Venus predicted, if Tannhaeuser doesn't return to her (for consolation and inspiration) he will reveal this secret shame and find his doom. Elsa collaborates with those, Ortrud and Frederick, whose impulse is to force Lohengrin to reveal the dangerous, forbidden knowledge of his true identity, origin and nature, but her promise to Lohengrin to help him protect his secret if he agrees to share it with her, in order to protect him from "Noth," or anguish, is kept through his heir, her brother Godfrey (Adam to her Eve), who is an incipient artist-hero Siegfried. Lohengrin (religious faith) stands to Godfrey as Wotan (religious faith) stands to Siegfried (inspired secular art as heir to dying religious faith). I might add that Ortrud, and Elsa's collaboration with her, is the model for Erda as Bruennhilde's mother. Erda imparts to Wotan the fatal knowledge that he and the other gods are predestined to destruction, but her daughter Bruennhilde compensates Wotan for her mother's delivery of this wound by inspiring Siegfried's art. Bruennhilde in in her figurative sexual union with Siegfried, a metaphor for his unconscious artistic inspiration, delivers the wound of fear solely in order that through her artistic inspiration he can forget the fear she taught. Tristan ultimately blames Isolde for both wounding him and healing his wound, a cycle from which in the end he seeks escape. Eve imparts to the artist-hero Walther, subliminally in his dream of inspiration the night before the song-contest on the meadow, the fatal knowledge that Eve in Paradise gave to Adam (and which is implicit in Sachs's secret confession to her in his cobbling song, of whose meaning Walther remains unconscious), inspiring Walther to create that mastersong in which the Volk can find a substitute for the redemption which religious faith can't provide: hence the constant comparison between Walther-the-artist-hero and Christ, and Sachs and John-the-baptist. Note Sachs's metaphor of the well-made shoe as a work of inspired art: the better made, the less we can feel the stones of our mortality, now that Eva's original sin has cast us out from paradise into the world. The shoe Sachs produces while marking Beckmesser's wooing song is of course uninspired and can't offer redemption from the gravel below. We knew this anyway when Beckmesser said he thinks not of dying, but of wooing, when the hallmark of the authentically unconsciously inspired artist-hero like Walther is that he must be prepared to die in order to be reborn. And of course Kundry-Eve delivers the wound, for which she then atones in her alternative life in which her other role as seductress is forgotten, by inspiring the Grail knights and acting as the Grail's messenger, and potential healer of Amfortas with balms (which, however, are no longer effective).

I've said that Klingsor is Wagner's final iteration or variation on his concept of the unconsciously inspired artist-hero. Klingsor is such a hero who, in modern times, has become so conscious of his formerly unconscious process of inspiration that he is virtually castrated and can no longer obtain unconscious artistic inspiration, fertility of creation, from a muse. Alberich predicted that Wotan's heroes (Valhalla's martyred heroes, equivalent to Grail Knights, inspired to martyrdom by Valkyries) would one day serve Alberich in bringing about the twilight of the gods and thus fulfilling his Ring Curse (of consciousness). Siegfried and Tristan both accomplished this by giving their muse of unconscious artistic inspiration away to another man, Wagner's metaphor for his own audience. This was also predicted in Alberich's prophecy that his Nibelung Hoard (identified in the Ring with the hoard of runes, or knowledge, Wotan obtained throughout history in his - mankind's - wanderings throughout the earth - Erda, Mother Nature, and imparted to Bruennhilde in his confession) would one day rise from the silence of night and destroy the gods, and this is precisely what Siegfried and Tristan do, though involuntarily and unwittingly. In Klingsor this curse becomes self-conscious: the artist-hero become nihilist. Witnessing Klingsor's actions, the flower-maidens' seduction of other Grail Knights (or Parsifal in past lives), and Kundry's attempt at seduction of Parsifal, Parsifal sees through this and finally makes a break for freedom from repeating this cycle and perpetuating the age-old religious sin of world-renunciation through what used to be his unconsciously inspired art, renouncing Kundry's offer of temporary godhead, and re-embraces the mother he killed through neglect, Mother Nature, who now gains her day of innocence, in which religious man will no longer renounce her in favor of an illusory spiritual redemption. If you wish, Klingsor's manipulation of Kundry to inflict the unhealing wound of consciousness on his audience, Amfortas, is almost a satirical version of Siegfried and Tristan giving their muses of unconscious artistic inspiration, Bruennhilde and Isolde, to Gunther and Marke, or Tannhaueser sharing the secrets of the Venusberg, his unconscious artistic inspiration, with his audience at the Wartburg.

In the Flowermaidens' flirtatious singing we're reminded of the Rhinedaughters' song, dance, and verse in honor of the Rhinegold, their laughing and play and flirtation which Alberich denigrated, saying that if the Rhinegold only serves for their play it's of no use to him, and their subsequent attempt to flirt with and flatter Siegfried. Of course in one sense the Rhinedaughters represent muses of art, as do the Flower-maidens. Alberich of course views the delights they offer as exchangeable, on the basis of statistical probability, a numbers game: "How good there's not just one of you: with many, one might like me, with one, none would choose me!"

Siegfried confuses Bruennhilde with his mother after she tells him she's had only his care in mind since before he was born, and Parsifal tells Kundry that he feels great fear, reminding us that Siegfried feared to wake Bruennhilde. The motifs associated with Siegfried's fear to wake Bruennhilde and Bruennhilde's subsequent fear of consummating sexual union with Siegfried all can be traced back to Wotan and his irresolvable dilemma. Amfortas fills approximately the roll that Wotan did in Parsifal.

Wotan's (god's) relationship with Erda (Mother Nature) is the basis for Siegfried's relationship with his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration Bruennhilde, Erda's daughter. Wotan seeks knowledge from Erda of all that she's made him fear, but also seeks the means to forget the fear Erda's knowledge taught Wotan. Similarly, Siegfried feels fear confronting Bruennhilde (because she's the repository for that hoard of unbearable knowledge Erda imparted to him which Wotan repressed into Bruennhilde, his unconscious mind, in his confession), but through figurative sexual union with her, a metaphor for unconscious artistic inspiration, Siegfried can forget his fear, since he will produce an inspired work of art which sublimates that unconscious fear into conscious bliss. It's no accident that Wotan repeats the two requirements he made of Erda in R.4, that she grant him full knowledge of what she's made him fear, and also show him how to end his fear, when he confronts her for the third and last time in S.3.1. It's also significant that we hear the Woodbird's song in the finale of S.3.3, at the height of Siegfried's ecstatic union with his muse Bruennhilde, as he tells her that the fear she scarcely taught him he's now forgotten. Similarly, Siegfried forgot what the Woodbird had told him of the use he could make of the Tarnhelm (work wonders) and Ring (rule the world), as soon as he emerged from Fafner's cave with them. However, as evidence that Hagen's second potion (antidote to the potion of love-and-forgetting Gutrune gave Siegfried) of remembrance represents something happening within Siegfried naturally, Siegfried recalls what the Woodbird taught him about the powers he would win through the Tarnhelm and Ring before Hagen gives him the remembrance potion.

Parsifal begins to grasp the anguish his prior incarnations as artist-heroes Siegfried and Tristan and Tannhaeuser have perpetuated in giving their muses, with their dangerous secrets, away to Gunther and King Marke and Tannhaeuser's audience, i.e., to Wagner's audience. Both Gunther and Marke suffer unbearable anguish because of this, the artist-hero having granted them entre into the un-sublimated hoard of unbearable knowledge, the unhealing wound, which they previously had been able temporarily to assuage through each new inspired work of redemptive secular art. It was Parsifal's unconsciousness, his foolishness, his unwitting implication as an artist-hero in, and perpetuation of, religious man's renunciation of our Mother Nature (for whom Herzeleide stands as metaphor), made possible only by virtue of his muse of inspiration, his unconscious mind, having known for him what he didn't know, that he, the artist-hero, has perpetuated religious faith's original sin of world-renunciation in secular art, and music in particular, long after mankind had grown too self-conscious to be capable of enjoying healing (even temporary) from this balm or salve, that has made Amfortas's (mankind's, Wagner's audience's) suffering of the unhealing wound unbearable. Religious man (Amfortas) has been serving the Grail, mankind's futile bid for transcendent value, but now, in modern scientific, secular times, what once had offered consolation instead causes the greatest suffering, suffering greater even than simply accepting nature's bitter truths as they are without false consolation.

Parsifal must now recognize that Kundry, the muse of inspired art, was merely an artificial substitute for the Mother he killed, Nature, whose innocence will be restored on the meadow on Good Friday, when Easter's supernatural resurrection will no longer be celebrated. The grievous sufferings of Wagner's artist-heroes, their unique relationship with mankind's unhealing wound, stem from their unique sensitivity to, as Wagner put it, the universal tragic essence of what for average men are merely commonplaces, sufferings for which, unlike common men, the artist-heroes could provide their own healing, through art. Wagner identifies these unique sufferings with those of Christ on the Cross. These key points Parsifal understands thanks to Kundry's kiss in a flash of intuition or clairvoyance: His foolishness = his lover/muse Kundry knowing for him what he doesn't know = his artificial substitute for the mother, Nature, who died giving him birth = his recognition that his many millennia of foolishness, his ongoing inspiration through his muse which perpetuated religious man's sin of futilely questing for redemption from the real world, has culminated in Amfortas's, his audience's, suffering the full weight of the unhealing wound (Alberich's Ring Curse of consciousness) which heretofore only the artist-hero had the courage to face because he could create his own forgetting of it, his consolation for it, in inspired works of redemptive art.

Wagner here launches a critique of RW's original critique of Schopenhauer's concept of redemption. Where Schopenhauer, according to Wagner, had called for a stilling of the Will, Wagner said instead that true redemption can only be found in an excitation of the Will, in sexual love, to the point that the Will becomes conscious of itself as the Will in general, the entire Will in Nature (i.e., Bruennhilde is identified with her mother Erda and her knowledge). What Wagner was referring to in his critique wasn't sexual love per se, but sexual love as a metaphor for Wagner's highest value, his most distinctive and profound experience, something experienced uniquely by him and by few other people in world history, the experience of unconscious artistic inspiration, which he described to Mathilde Wesendonck as a 'marriage of myself to myself.' Bruennhilde had already expressed the critique which Wagner came to launch at Schopenhauer when, at the height of her ecstatic union with Siegfried, she said that "Godlike composure rages in billows; the chastest of light flares up with passion; heavenly knowledge [i.e., Wotan's fearful confession of the fatal knowledge Erda had imparted to him] floods away, love's rejoicing drives it hence." Now that Wagner in his later years has grown ever more doubtful that his inspired art can truly offer a consoling substitute for the supernatural redemption religious faith had offered, Wagner condemns it. The path from religion to art is bad, he says. This he dramatizes in Tristan's coming to curse the love/death potion which he claims he himself brewed, and choosing suicide over renewing his former relations with his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration Isolde in Act III.

But of course Parsifal, as the archetypal modern artist-hero the heir to all former heroes of religious faith (Christ, Buddha, etc.), moral courage, and art, redeems himself and retroactively redeems them from religion's original sin against the Mother, Nature, by removing the Grail's mystery, opening it up forever (just as Bruennhilde wakes forever in Siegfried's death, and speaks openly the wisdom of her mother, Erda, which formerly slept), and ceasing to seek temporary redemption in loving union with his former muse of inspiration Kundry. Parsifal offers redemption to the redeemer, both the original redeemers and himself as the last in their line. Amfortas had begged for deliverance from having to serve the Grail and now he attains this deliverance. Parsifal regards himself as having been responsible for this horror from the beginning, as it were. It's not just that he failed to question Amfortas as to the cause of his misery in Act I, but Parsifal and his spiritual ancestors delivered mankind's unhealing wound (inspiring man to seek redemption from the real world in a world of fantasy held to be truer than the objective world, a quest predestined to futility) in the first place, by luring man, through their art, into questing for the impossible, transcendent value. It was in this way that Loge, the god of self-deceit, enabled Wotan's illicit deal with the Giants, luring him on by promising to redeem him from their claim to Freia and its truth. Recognizing this, Parsifal can free himself and mankind from this futile bid for transcendence.

Bruennhilde, a model for Wagner's mature period metaphor of the muse of unconscious artistic inspiration (based herself on a synthesis of Senta, Venus/Elizabeth, and particularly Elsa, whom Wagner described as Lohengrin's unconscious mind and redeemer), possesses forbidden knowledge of the fatal truth that Wotan and the gods are imposters. Ortrud knew that Lohengrin was an imposter and Elsa collaborated with Ortrud in exposing Lohengrin's secret (but with the intent of preserving him from peril, just as Bruennhilde tries to preserve Wotan's best part from peril by disobeying him). This is the underlying basis in Wagner's personal mythology for Kundry's mockery of Christ on the Cross, which of course has its original basis in legends about the Wandering Jew, Ahasuerus, condemned eternally to wander the world without finding salvation (the Dutchman, Wotan, Kundry) for having mocked Christ's suffering.

The trope of Alberich's acquisition of a hoard of treasure in the earth (Erda), and for Wotan's acquisition of a hoard of knowledge through his wanderings over the earth (Erda), a metaphor for mankind's world-historical acquisition of that objective knowledge over time which eventually led to the dissolution of religious belief and its replacement with an objective understanding of Mother Nature, finds its basis in the Flying Dutchman's Curse (by the Devil, or in the Ring, by Loge and Alberich). The Dutchman's striving to round the Cape against the winds, against the very laws of Nature, and swearing an oath that he'd never cease striving to transcend Nature itself, was Wagner's first metaphor for mankind's religious sin in renouncing Nature in favor of an illusory realm of spirit (Wotan's sin against all that was, is, and will be, against Erda's Ur-Law that all must end, in positing the gods' transcendence, Freia's golden apples of sorrowless youth eternal). The Dutchman's endlessly repeated punishment is to wander the oceans seeking redemption but never finding it, but instead acquiring an ever increasing hoard of treasure which, in the libretto for Dutchman, is described as sitting in the hold of his ship as if protected by a dragon. This of course becomes Wagner's metaphor for mankind's advancement in knowledge of himself and Nature through historical experience (the accumulation of the Nibelung Hoard of treasure or Wotan's hoard of runes) which pushes him further and further away from the redemption from the real world he seeks.

I don't believe that physical passion, sexuality, as such, has anything to do with the case. I believe that Kundry is referencing her longing to offer Parsifal that artistic inspiration which heretofore offered mankind a substitute for religious faith's original promise of immortality and reunion with Godhead. Wagner's art is surely passionate, his unconscious artistic inspiration perhaps the most exalted state he ever experienced, and Wagner obviously employed the metaphor of ecstatic sexual union to describe his own experience of unconscious artistic inspiration, a relationship of his conscious, deliberating mind to his involuntary, dreamlike, unconscious mind. Kundry compares Parsifal with Christ the redeemer because he's Christ's heir in the modern secular world, just as Siegfried the artist-hero is Wotan's heir. Having finally come to despair of his art as a vehicle for religion to live on in the modern world safe from threat through feeling, Wagner now comes to see perpetuating this inspiration as perdition. Wagner's version of Schopenhauer's stilling of the Will now transforms into ceasing to wish for redemption from the real world, but embracing it with all its compromises and impurities instead. I think Parsifal has been massively misunderstood. And if I'm not mistaken, the music of the Good Friday Spell, in some strange and miraculous way, seems to become a hybrid of the sinful and sacred music of Parsifal, just as Wagner had formerly told Cosima that God and Nature are one. Needless to say this is only my subjective impression and I haven't the ability to read music or the musicological knowledge necessary to demonstrate it. In any case, the Good Friday music is both sensual and pure. I detect a note of the Rhinedaughters' second and final lament for their lost Rhinegold, in T.3.1, in its music. By the way, in my most recent review of Wagner's employment of musical motifs in the Ring, as close a listening as I could manage without being able to check my impressions against the score, I discovered what for me are two new instances of what seem to be anticipations of motifs in Parsifal. I'll forward these two examples to you later to see if you concur.
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