Dear members of, and visitors to, the www.wagnerheim.com discussion forum:
Sir Roger Scruton asked me to look over his first draft of his prospective book on Parsifal, so I responded to everything in it I thought worthy of further commentary or rebuttal, page by page, by typing my commentary into the body of his first draft in boldface print, and forwarded his first draft back to him with my commentary interpolated into his text. I not only offered material from my own interpretation of Parsifal, but also indicated in many cases the conceptual/allegorical links between Parsifal and Wagner's other canonical operas and music-dramas.
Since I haven't yet written my book-length definitive study of Parsifal (though I have enough original material in stray notes to compose such a book), I thought it would be worthwhile to re-work the commentary I sent to him just a bit to make it fit a different context in our discussion forum here, so you would have the benefit of being able to anticipate some of the key arguments I'll be proffering in the chapter on Parsifal in Volume Two of my The Wound That Will Never Heal (which will include also chapters on Dutchman, Tannhaeuser, Lohengrin, Tristan, and Mastersingers). Since the following paragraphs are each stand-alone responses to specific points or questions raised by Sir Roger about Parsifal, you can obtain a strong sense of my allegorical interpretation by reading them in succession, but they aren't arranged as a coherent whole as they would be if they composed the content of an essay on Parsifal. For this reason there's a certain amount of redundancy. In spite of this minor drawback, though, I'll mostly let my commentary stand as it was written, though occasionally I'll try to indicate, where necessary, what it is I was responding to. If interested in seeing a more coherent presentation of my conception of Parsifal you can also consult my six-part essay on Feuerbach's influence on the libretto of Parsifal in the archive of the discussion forum.
In my interpretation, the secular artist-hero, of whom Wagner is an exemplar, is the natural heir to dying religious faith (the gods of Valhalla, the Christian God, Christ, Buddha, etc.). In Parsifal Wagner plays with this notion in an often ambiguous way and complex way. In my interpretation of the Ring the gods (and the God of monotheists), i.e., those who involuntarily and unconsciously invented and believe in a realm of spirit which implicitly renounces the real world, Nature, in favor of a realm of the imagination (Feuerbach's view), have committed figurative matricide in renouncing Mother Nature's truth. Mother Nature's truth is Erda's knowledge of all that was, is, and will be, which Alberich accuses Wotan of sinning against if Wotan coopts Alberich's Ring power, the human mind, in order to preserve the power of the gods, a sin Alberich designs his Curse on the Ring to punish. Amfortas's unhealing, Tristan's unhealing wound, and Alberich's curse on his Ring are identical. This sin of world-denial Nietzsche described as pessimism.
In Wagner's scheme the inspired secular artist-hero, being heir to dying religious faith (i.e., satisfying man's longing for transcendent value, sans religious faith, in art), is perhaps unwittingly and involuntarily guilty of perpetuating religion's war against objective reality in favor of a longing to transcend, or gain redemption from, this reality. This is one possible explanation for Wagner's following metaphoric trope: both Siegfried's and Tristan's mothers died giving birth to their sons, and Parsifal virtually killed his mother (she died of a broken heart) by neglecting her. Walther von Stolzing is an exception to this because in Mastersingers Wagner depicts the golden age of inspired secular art prior to the modern scientific age, when the artist-hero wasn't yet becoming too conscious of who he really is, a perpetuator of Wotan's (religious man's) sin against all that was, is, and will be, i.e., a matricide. Siegfried meditates on the question whether mothers always die of their sons. Siegfried mistakes his future lover Bruennhilde for his mother who died giving him birth. Tristan's third act meditation on his own true, and tragic, identity, includes his identification of the alte Weise, which is associated with Tristan's unhealing wound, with the fact his mother died giving him birth, and also with his tragic love for Isolde. Parsifal's guilt at having virtually murdered his mother through neglect and forgotten her Kundry tries to allay by offering herself to him as his surrogate mother, but his guilt is only allayed at the end when Parsifal restores Nature's innocence by ceasing to perpetuate mankind's futile bid for transcendent value (the true cause of Amfortas's and Tristan's unhealing wounds). In Parsifal's finale the Grail's (symbol of mankind's futile bid for transcendent value) religious mystery is exploded, its formerly hidden truth revealed forever.
The key to this mysterious concordance in the lives of these three Wagnerian heroes is that the artist-hero's muse offers herself, i.e., the redemptive art she can inspire, as a substitute for Mother Nature, whom religious man renounced in favor of an illusory realm of the spirit, the longing for which lives on in the post-religious age of inspired secular art, Wagner's art in particular. And of course it's no accident that Wagner deliberately identifies not only Parsifal but also Walther and Siegfried with Christ the redeemer, because as artist-heroes they have fallen heir to religion's task of offering man redemption from the anguish of life and fear of death. In the case of Tristan this link with the redeemer is more covert. And of course Lohengrin comes to earth ostensibly as a redeemer sent by the Grail.
It's true that a boatload of crap has been written about Wagner's artworks as allegedly having been inspired by concrete events in Wagner's life (like the idiocy that we owe Tristan and Isolde specifically to Mathilde Wesendonck, a notion which irritated Wagner himself and which he debunked), but it's also true that Wagner viewed himself as a world-historical figure who, like his artist-heroes, had fallen heir to dying religious faith and its need to preserve man's dignity in the face of scientific reductionism. And of course Wagner quite explicitly made this connection in Tannhaeuser and Walther von Stolzing: in his other operas and music-dramas this is implicit, not explicit. So I don't think Wagner created his artworks from his own life's specific experiences, but I do believe his artworks are inspired by his overall life experience as an artist fighting the good fight against the skepticism and cynicism inherent in scientific reductionism, sublimated into creative form, as you say, in its universal meaning.
It's curious that in his writings and recorded remarks Wagner sometimes conflates his critique of the Jews and Judaism with his critique of scientific reductionism. This surely stems from his occasional assumption in his later years that the Jews are inherently egoistic and incapable of redeeming themselves by dying to the world to be reborn in the spirit, since the ultimate conclusion we must draw from a literal interpretation of modern science is that mankind is solely a product of nature and ultimately driven by egoistic animal impulse, even if through various cultural means man has shown he can at least seem, in special cases, to have transcended his animal egoism. Given Wagner's preposterous anti-Semitic assumptions mentioned above, it's noteworthy that Wotan wishes to purge himself of his own egoistic nature in seeking a hero who would be freed of all that Wotan loathes in himself, his Nibelung nature (Wotan is Light-Alberich, Wotan's Valhalla's motif is generated by Alberich's Ring Motif). Mime in my interpretation represents what Wotan loathes in his own nature. Curiously, Hitler in a speech once said something like: we Germans must purge the Judaism in our nature. But of course Feuerbach posited that even in man's most etherial religious longings for transcendent value he can't transcend his egoistic nature and falls back to the earth under gravity's pull. This helps to explain how/why Siegfried virtually replicates Alberich's rape of the Rhinegold in brutally abducting his true love and muse for art Bruennhilde and wrenching Alberich's Ring from her finger. As Alberich foresaw, Wotan's heroes would eventually serve Alberich (by making conscious what heretofore had been secret and unconscious). Alberich's hoard (of knowledge) would eventually rise from the silent depths to the light of day and overthrow the gods.
Let me add that Beckmesser has a stray line which nobody seems to notice, but which resonates in my interpretation: he says he doesn't think of dying, but only of wooing. But in RW's theology of unconsciously inspired artistic creation the artist-hero proves his capacity for authentic inspiration, his right to access the muse, by being willing to figuratively die in unconscious confrontation with the unbearable truth (Wotan's confession, Sachs's confession), in order to attain rebirth by creating a redemptive work of art in which that nightmare of fearful inspiration can be forgotten. The point is, Beckmesser's remark can be construed as his saying he isn't willing to die to the body to be reborn in the spirit, and therefore, since in Wagner's theology of art the artist-hero is heir to dying religious faith, the authentically inspired artist must be willing to die in order to be reborn.
As I noted in my online Ring book, the Ring isn't organized only as a tetralogy but is also divided into two parts somewhat in accordance with the Old and New Testaments, Rhinegold and Valkyrie, the first half, being Wotan's, God-the-Father's half, in which The Law (Wotan's Spear) rules, and Siegfried and Twilight of the Gods being Siegfried the Redeemer's half, in which love/art allegedly rules. And of course Mastersingers' conflict between the Pharisaic, unbending law of the Tabulatur and Walther's unconscious artistic inspiration (the law of love) echoes this division. Siegfried, Walther, and Parsifal all directly channel Christ the Redeemer, and even Tristan echoes Christ in a more covert manner.
But Christ the redeemer is, in Wagner's scheme, a perpetuator of mankind's original religious sin of world-denial (matricide), and Parsifal, understood as the last of the archetypal, inspired secular artists who have unwittingly (as pure fools) perpetuated religious man's sin against his mother, Nature, and thus the natural heir to Christ the redeemer, must redeem himself from this sin of world-renunciation and restore to the natural world (his Mother Nature), its original innocence, as it was before religious man demonized nature and the body as the devil's realm. Just as God in Christ relented in punishing mankind for the original sin of disobedience to God by acknowledging man's natural weakness and participating in it as the sacrificial lamb Christ, so man could re-earn his redemptive place in paradise, so Parsifal the artist-hero, having been made conscious through Kundry's (his former muse of unconscious artistic inspiration's) kiss, of the sin that Parsifal and his spiritual ancestors have committed for millennia against our Mother, Nature, atones for this sin by renouncing any further inspiration through Kundry's love, and restores his Mother, Nature's, innocence instead. Thus, formerly religious man will no longer crush the flowers of the field, all that withers and dies (mortality) under foot, but acknowledge mortality (RW: we must learn to die in the fullest sense of the word) and cease to strive for immortality and transcendence.
Parsifal becomes, in other words, conscious of four related things in a flash of intuition at the moment of her kiss: (1) that in his ignorance and foolishness (Siegfried says I still don't know who I am) he has in the past perpetuated and been responsible for this sin; (2) that the salves for mankind's (Amfortas's) unhealing wound of consciousness offered in the past by the muse Kundry through the redemptive art she once inspired have, in our (Parsifals') time, become ineffective and actually rip that wound wider, (3) that the artistic inspiration Kundry once offered was a surrogate or artificial substitute for Mother Nature, whom religious man has figuratively killed (thus Kundry presents herself to Parsifal as his surrogate for the mother he killed through neglect; this also explains the artificiality of the flowermaidens and Klingsor's Magic Garden in comparison to the natural blooms in the meadow in Act Three's Good Friday Spell); and (4), that the only way to heal the unhealing wound is to no longer seek redemption from the real world, since mankind's age-old quest for transcendent value is the cause of the unhealing wound of consciousness in the first place. That's the ultimate reason why Amfortas begs Titurel and the redeemer to release him from having to bear the burden of officiating at the Grail Communion. This is how Parsifal redeems himself, the redeemer, and all prior redeemers, world-renouncers, like Christ and Buddha, retroactively.
In my interpretation Amfortas's (mankind's, Wagner's audience's) anguish is caused by serving the Grail, in the sense that in modern times man's quest for transcendent meaning or value has come to be considered futile and self-delusional, in the face of man's historical maturation and the rise to consciousness of our true place in Nature. Man's unhealing wound is inflicted upon himself by himself, by his ineradicable metaphysical longing to posit his own transcendent value by renouncing the real world and his bodily nature in favor of the illusion of a promised redemption in paradise and alleged freedom of the will, in the face of the ever more evident fact that this longing is predicated on both self-deception and on the animal egoism it purports to renounce. The only recourse is to accept man's true status as a product of Nature and no longer to seek redemption in another world than the one we have. Parsifal on this view is a Feuerbachian or even Nietzschean critique of religion, dressed in the cloak of religion.
Parsifal's compassion for Amfortas stems from his sudden awareness that he, Parsifal, the latest incarnation of the archetypal hero of religion or morality, or artist-hero, is himself responsible in his past lives for having unwittingly perpetuated religious man's sin of world-renunciation, and therefore Amfortas's suffering for the sake of a universal human delusion Parsifal has perpetuated can be alleviated only if man no longer seeks redemption from his true physical nature and Mother Nature, but embraces his mortality (Erda's "All things that are, end," or reconciliation with all that withers and dies and blooms again) instead. Wagner of course conflates this specifically art-based interpretation of Parsifal's compassion for his audience Amfortas, with a more general Darwinian embrace of the notion that mankind is one among many animals which, combined with the Buddhist and early Christian and Schopenhauerian notion of compassion for all the living, all which suffers, marks Wagner's distinct contribution to the metaphysics of compassionate identification of the self with the world, the other. The ethical problem with this historically inevitable identification of man with his animal relatives and recognition that man is a product of Nature and not of a transcendent, supernatural spirit, is that this leaves no room for an authentic morality predicated on belief in man's non-contingent soul, no room for admiration for heroism or holiness, once the full consequences of this admission are taken into account. This is one of the key problems that troubled RW throughout his life, at least subliminally. It's what's behind Wotan's having given up hope that Siegmund could truly be free, truly a redeemer, in the face of our own (and Bruennhilde's) admiration for Siegmund's compassionate heroism and rectitude.
In my interpretation Klingsor and his Magic Garden are Wagner's metaphor for his own loss of faith that his formerly unconsciously inspired works of music-drama, the product of his muse, could offer mankind a secular redemption as a substitute for mankind's original religious longing for transcendent meaning. Both Siegfried and Tristan are depicted as having become, in modern times, so conscious of themselves, of their mainsprings of inspiration, that they can no longer have sexual union with their muses of unconscious artistic inspiration Bruennhilde and Isolde. They've lost their fertility as artists. Wagner dramatizes this allegorically in their keeping apart from, and giving away, their former muses (and therefore their secrets) to another man, Gunther and King Marke respectively, who are Wagner's metaphor for his own audience. The thesis at work here is that in the inspired artist's longing to satisfy what used to be religious man's futile longing for transcendent value, ultimately authentic artists in modern times became so abstract, so divorced from the original impulse of religion and art, in their desperate attempt to maintain the religious mystery of art and make it irreducible to scientific understanding, that they lost their fertility (think of the sterile abstraction and desperation involved in the move by art-music into atonality for the sake of preserving art's mystery, but which lost touch with music's audience, a point addressed by Thomas Mann). Klingsor's self-castration for the sake of mankind's age-old quest for transcendent meaning (represented by the Grail) was the inevitable consequence of such excessive self-consciousness, which led Siegfried and Tristan to give their muses of inspiration away. Klingsor's plight, his "Noth," is RW's vision of where Siegfried and Tristan were headed, but Parsifal will see himself in Klingsor and renounce this fate for himself.
Wagner once said, or wrote, cryptically, that the move from religion to art, bad, the move from art to religion, good. Klingsor's creation of a fertile, magic garden in what had been a wasteland is Wagner's metaphor for how modern inspired art attempted to salvage meaning from what religious man had turned into the spiritual wasteland in the futile attempt to renounce Nature and yet live eternally. Wagner on several occasions described this futile quest as a sterile wasteland. In A Communication to My Friends and other writings about Lohengrin, for instance, Wagner suggested that it was actually Lohengrin who sought redemption from this sterility of his Grail realm by seeking an earthly marriage with a real woman, in spite of Grail knights having sworn an oath of chastity or celibacy. Feuerbach described this natural desire of religious world-renouncers to smuggle what they loved about real life in the real world back into their notion of paradise, to make it worth inhabiting. Wagner stated that the religious emphasis on chastity was a terrible thing: it represented religious man's futile quest to renounce nature and yet live eternally. Thus we find Feuerbach behind an entire arc of meaning which runs from before Wagner conceived his Ring to his final mystical (or anti-mystical?) music-drama Parsifal.
Note that the Grail's messenger Kundry (who inspires Grail knights with the Grail's messages) in the course of Parsifal is identified both with animals and with plants, i.e. with the troubling fact that Mother Nature is behind what the Grail knights take to be divine inspiration (just as Tannhaeuser's muse of unconscious artistic inspiration Venus is the true but dangerous and secret source behind what the knights and ladies of the Wartburg had previously assumed was divine inspiration for his songs). The key to her schizoid nature, as both a seductress and as a servant of the Grail, who apparently unconsciously or unwittingly atones for the damage she caused as an Eve-like seductress, is the following. Erda imparted to Wotan unbearable knowledge that the gods (religious faith) are predestined to destruction, but she also provides Wotan with a daughter Bruennhilde who, as Siegfried's muse of unconscious artistic inspiration, knows this for the artist-hero Siegfried, so she can safely inspire him with this fateful knowledge in order that he can produce a work of redemptive art in which this unbearable knowledge and the fear it engendered can be sublimated and forgotten. Siegfried basically says to Bruennhilde that she's wounded him with fear (since she's the repository for Wotan's fearful confession), and that the only way he can overcome and forget his fear is to consummate a loving union with her, which she ultimately does. The spear that gave the wound can heal it. Similarly, Tristan blames Isolde for having wounded him, but seeks through union with her at least temporary healing of that otherwise unhealing wound. The essence of Hans Sachs's Act Two confession to Eva in his cobbling song is his private message to her (which the artist-hero she inspires, Walther, fails to grasp, just as Siegfried told Bruennhilde that he can't understand what she's telling him when she says that what Wotan thought, she felt, and what she felt was her love for Siegfried) that, as the author of that original sin, the acquisition of forbidden knowledge, which exiled mankind from paradise, it's her responsibility as Walther's muse of unconscious artistic inspiration to inspire him to create a redemptive mastersong, in which the paradise we lost with our loss of religious faith can be restored in a secular redemption.
This conceptual trope, which is central to all of Wagner's canonical operas and music-dramas from at least Tannhaeuser onward (and which can even be found in cryptic form in The Flying Dutchman), finds its basis in Feuerbach's celebration of Eve in Paradise as the muse whose brave defiance of God's law forbidding the acquisition of divine knowledge led, according to Feuerbach, ultimately to mankind's emancipation from the artificial bubble of religious faith. Since Wagner's inspired secular art could only be born of religious faith's decline, and the birth of the modern scientific age which influenced this decline, Feuerbach's conception of Eve is behind Wagner's conception of his muse of unconscious artistic inspiration. It is in this sense that both Bruennhilde and Kundry can be said to have mocked the redeemer: they both possess true but dangerous knowledge of the redeemer's true identity, which isn't the identity he presents to the world. Wagner obviously construed Elsa, in her insistence on asking Lohengrin the Forbidden Question about his origin, identity, and true nature, as a metaphor for Eve, and Wagner told Cosima that Kundry could be construed as Eve. When we add to that the obvious fact that Eva in Mastersingers is a metaphor for Eve, the pattern becomes clear. I'll go further and note that Venus in Tannhaeuser is linked with Eve.
Let me add that Kundry can be understood as the reincarnation of Bruennhilde and Isolde and Eva, just as Parsifal is the reincarnation of Siegfried and Tristan and Walther. As I'm sure you're aware you can hear powerful echoes of Bruennhilde's Valkyrie riding music in the music with which he introduces us to Kundry in Act One. Kundry in her curse has inherited Bruennhilde's laugh, heard by Gutrune when Bruennhilde was speaking to the Rhinedaughters. And of course Amfortas and the Grail Knights in their last desperate days, with Amfortas refusing any longer to serve the Grail mass, as dramatized in Act Three of Parsifal, are modeled on Wotan's despair in waiting for the end with the gods and heroes paralyzed by fear and awe, Wotan having renounced eating Freia's golden apples of sorrowless youth eternal (i.e, having given up his lifetime quest for transcendent value, his bid for Godhead). Note that with Wotan's virtual abdication the Valkyries are no longer sent on missions, just as the Grail knights no longer have direction after Amfortas has renounced his capacity to lead them. Just as Wagner identifies Bruennhilde with his musical motifs, and says they are the messengers of the artist's hidden intent (Wotan's confession to Bruennhilde, which is the hidden intent of Siegfried's inspiration; note also all the Valkyries are muse of inspiration to heroes destined for martyrdom), just so Kundry is the animal-and-plant-like messenger of the Grail's intent. Both Bruennhilde and Kundry are muses of inspiration. It's no accident that in The Wibelungs Wagner stated that the Grail is the sublimation of the Nibelung Hoard, which is tantamount to saying the Grail is the sublimation of Alberich's Ring, a fact Wagner memorialized in transforming the Ring Motif musically into the motif which represents the divine realm of the Gods Valhalla, and in having Wotan call himself Light-Alberich.
That Klingsor arranges that Kundry will seduce Amfortas and then delivers the wound that will never heal with the sacred spear (a restoration of Wotan's spear of divine authority and law) is a variation on the dramatic trope in which Siegfried and Tristan give their own true love and muse away to another man, thereby inflicting unbearable shame on that other man (Wagner's audience). Wagner has applied considerable compression to that dramatic conceit in having Klingsor deliver the unhealing wound (Alberich's Ring Curse) with the sacred spear (Wotan: I, lord of treaties, am now a slave to them), while Kundry seduces Amfortas, making him vulnerable to being wounded, only to atone for this sin by inspiring and serving the Grail Knights. The knights who've been seduced by the Flowermaids are Wagner's metaphors for Parsifal's own past which he's now become self-conscious enough to renounce. If a Grail Knight can remain chaste in the face of Kundry's attempt at seduction, symbolically this stands for the artist-hero having become sufficiently self-conscious that he can no longer seek redemption through unconscious artistic inspiration any longer. In Parsifal's case, having evolved even beyond Siegfried and Tristan, he comes to see this as his advantage, as a state of being to be preferred to endless longing for transcendent value, which is futile, and makes the unhealing wound of consciousness more and more unbearable. In Klingsor, Kundry, and Klingsor's Magic Garden, we find Wagner's dramatization of his own latter-day critiques of his art's capacity for redemption, and in Amfortas's suffering an unhealing wound which is exacerbated to the point of annihilation through his attempt to serve the Grail, Wagner graphically illustrates the anguish involved for modern man in trying to sustain faith in, or at least longing for, the religious mysteries in the face of an all-embracing scientific/secular cynicism, the inevitable rise to consciousness of the truth. As Alberich warned Wotan, the day would come when his hoard (of knowledge) would rise from the silence to the light of day, and overthrow the gods. And Alberich foresaw that Wotan's own heroes (like the Grail knights) would ultimately serve Alberich and fulfill the conditions of his Ring Curse (the wound that will never heal).
Kundry's curse against Parsifal's hope to return to Amfortas and heal him is modeled on, yet not identical to, Venus's curse against Tannhaeuser for leaving her artificial paradise in order to return, he says forever, to the mundane earth in which time, space, causation, pain, and death, the natural world, hold sway, but which in Tannhaeuser is for humankind psychologically under the sway of religious man's renunciation of Mother Nature and quest for redemption in heaven. Tannhaeuser's complaints to Venus that he can't bear his immortal life of endless love and joy she offers (Freia's golden apples of sorrowless youth eternal which Siegmund and at last Wotan himself despises), but would rather only praise her from afar, as an aesthetic aspiration rather than a reality, is Wagner's artist's variation on Feuerbach's critique of man's religious longing for redemption from the real world in a spiritual realm. Venus prophecies that if Tannhaeuser doesn't return to her for consolation he'll win only shame through his art as performed at the Wartburg Hall, and will ultimately return to Venus for consolation. Kundry warns Parsifal that all paths that lead him away from her to Amfortas will be blocked. What the artificial paradise of the Venusberg represents is the Feuerbachian critique of religious man's longing for immortal life in a paradise cut off from the natural world. Feuerbach argued that we only long for immortality in paradise in the first place because our imagination smuggles into it the very earthly and bodily things and impulses theology argued we must renounce in order to be worthy of it. In other words, we must renounce everything worth living for, in order to win for ourselves a sterile immortality purged of all objective value. The Venusberg embodies this dangerous contradiction that is hidden behind religious faith, that what we think are divinely inspired impulses are actually earthly, that what we call God is actually satanic, or at least earthly (which for religious folk is the same thing). That's why, when Tannhaeuser reveals to the lords and ladies of the Wartburg, who are sold on conventional Christian notions of divine inspiration and redemption, that his true source of inspiration is the Venusberg (the pagan gods being associated with nature gods rather than with the one, transcendent God of Christianity), they proclaim Tannhaeuser is essentially irredeemable. Tannhaeuser has revealed that the very concept of spiritual redemption is a fallacy, a self-deception.
General Discussion about Wagner and The Ring of the Nibelung
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