Badiou's Lesson #5 on Wagner: THE ENIGMA OF 'PARSIFAL'
Dear wagnerheim.com discussion forum denizens and visitors:
Here begins my effort to complete my review of Badiou's "Five Lessons on Wagner" with a response to his final chapter on "Parsifal."
Badiou P. 136-139: He begins with: "The question I want to pose is the following: what is the real subject of 'Parsifal,' when all is said and done?"
Badiou notes the old critique of opera (which also applies to cinema), that it is an impure artform, thrown together from a hodgepodge of elements from other, presumably pure artforms.
PH: I think the question re "purity" of artforms is a straw man and wholly meaningless. Who are we to say how art is to be constituted, so long as the art-product expresses itself as art! Suffice it to say that the discovery was made long ago, in many cultures, that the virtue of music, words, actions, drama, costumes, scenic compositions, dance, etc., could be enhanced in combination. What is so provocative about this? To suggest it is questionable is a mere whim. In any case, Badiou notes that the bizarre "Parsifal" especially lends itself to this critique, since Wagner, in effect, seems to have thrown everything into it, including the kitchen sink. It goes without saying that Wagner was especially adept at demonstrating the astonishing potential for expressing meaning through a conjuncture of drama and music.
PH: This critique reminds me of an absurd conversation I once had with a coloratura soprano, a specialist in bel canto. She complained that, in her view, Kathleen Battle was a fraud because she didn't produce her musical tones with proper technique. I suggested that the mere fact that Kathleen Battle has gifted the world with some of the finest renditions of classic songs and arias, with an unbelievably pure and beautiful tone, made mush of all such criticism. The singer in question flew into a fury over this retort, telling me that as someone who had never sung I didn't know what I was talking about. Wagner said the same about some of the idiotic critiques which his revolutionary music-dramas had inspired: one had to look at the result, not the means, which, because they were revolutionary, could not have been anticipated and could not be rated according to older rules, a la the regulations of the Mastersingers.
Badiou: Badiou calls opera, in this sense, a "heterogenous multiplicity." Badiou itemizes some of the elements which Wagner threw into the hotchpotch of "Parsifal" which have engendered mockery, such as the array of "Christian trappings", the "... whiffs of racialism ... ", the "... dubious sexual symbology ... " with a confusion of chastity with sensuality, and the problem of Amfortas's unhealing wound. "So all this stuff is jumbled together in 'Parsifal,' and the opera can in fact be regarded as one big grab bag, an extremely dubious mishmash." Badiou ranks these elements under the category of "chance" for some reason which remains unclear to me.
Badiou: Then he proceeds to the category of "nothingness." Badiou tells us that critics have taken issue with the expansion of time in "Parsifal" due to the fact that musical motifs in "Parsifal" don't transform so much as expand, and are heard in sequence rather than through transformation. He adds that Wagner has been accused of trying to cover up this "inaptitude for transformation" with decorative effects slapped on like a coat of paint. A further objection is that the sublimity of "Parsifal" is kitschy and sentimental. How these three items relate to "nothingness" isn't clear to me.
Badiou: In any case, Badiou says that if these critiques are true, Wagner's "Parsifal" fails both as a struggle against chance and as a struggle against nothingness, "... the two effects of heterogeneous multiplicity." (...) "In reality, the problem has to do with changing chance into the infinite and nothingness into purity [purity in constituting the idea of the artwork]."
PH: The question arises, of course, whether "Parsifal" is indeed kitschy (is this just a matter of individual taste?), and if so, whether Wagner intended this and if it serves some purpose in expressing the overall meaning of the artwork. I'll leave this for later.
Badiou P. 139: Badiou summarizes Parsifal's role in his music-drama: "The character of Parsifal really stands for this question of open purity, of purity of dis-enclosure, rather than closure. ... Parsifal is not really a character at all. (...) The fact is that this story of a virgin seduced by the image of his mother in Act II, who then gets lost for an indefinite period of time (no one is really sure why, incidentally), does not add up to much. Ultimately, Parsifal does not do much of anything; in fact, he basically does nothing at all. He says 'no' at a certain moment, and that's about it. As a character, he is flat [PH: the same has been said of Siegfried, and for the same reason]."
Badiou P. 140: "So I think the idea of Parsifal as a character should be entirely abandoned and he should actually be regarded as a signifier." Since Parsifal, starting from his purity, moves by the end of "Parsifal" into a fool who has become knowing [through compassion], Badiou says that "Parsifal's arc thus goes from the powerlessness of purity's ignorance to purity as power or force, purity as a force of knowledge. (...) The opera is essentially the story of the changes in the attributes of invariant purity."
Badiou P. 141: Badiou says that Titurel, the founder of the Grail community, is responsible for its decline: "... even though Amfortas is partly to blame for it, Titurel bears the major share of responsibility. Titurel thinks that it is the Grail that allows him to go on living although he is dead,. He is lying in his tomb, still alive, and, provided that he is given his Grail periodically, he can go on." Badiou suggests that thanks to Amfortas and especially Titurel the Grail community is closed up, and that Parsifal's purity must open it and in this sense offer redemption to the redeemer.
PH: Wagner did indeed say that the Christian emphasis on fear of death and its apparent antidote, the promise of immortality, was essentially egoistic and self-involved. To this extent Badiou has got it right (though obscurely) about Titurel's guilt.
Badiou P. 142: Badiou notes that Titurel and Klingsor stand for the same thing, and Badiou then proceeds to suggest that each of the separate characters in "Parsifal" are aligned with each other symbolically, with Parsifal himself being the universal signifier which applies to all.
PH: This would be a good point to offer some clarity from the perspective of my interpretation of "Parsifal," which was effectively complete in the 80's, but has been enhanced since then through elucidation in terms of Wagner's other operas and music-dramas, his writings and recorded remarks, and by Feuerbach's writings. In my interpretation Parsifal sees in Klingsor what Parsifal, as the archetype for, and reincarnate heir to, all prior heroes of religion, ethics, and art, would become if he pursued the now defunct healing of the unhealing wound formerly offered by Kundry. Klingsor and his magic garden actually represent, in my reading, Wagner's own critique of what his own art had become. Inspired secular art, and particularly Wagner's art, which he construed as more or less the last possible art, had fallen heir to dying religious faith's purpose, which was to grant man the sense of having transcendent value. When religious faith could no longer give man the impression (through its false promises, once believed in but now subject to scientific skepticism) that his inherently unhealing wound (i.e., Kant's assertion that man has an inherent metaphysical tendency, a tendency to assert his transcendent value either directly or through belief in god(s)) was healed, distinct artist heroes, the heirs to religious faith as feeling when it could no longer be proclaimed as an assertion of fact, offered man temporary healing of his wounds through redemptive artworks. However, as art itself became more and more subject to reductive scientific explanation, modern artists sought escape from all possible contingency or reduction by jettisoning more and more of what had given art its redemptive power in the first place. Artists looked to chance, to nothingness, to atonality (self-castration of tonality, the basis of meaning, by composers who wished to be non-contingent, which is to say, non-human, at all costs), to formless forms which couldn't be reduced to practical scientific explanations as evolutionary adaptations. It was a desperate quest for freedom, originality, at all costs, to stay one step ahead of the reductive shadow of death. Inspired artists, who formerly had obtained unconscious artistic inspiration through figurative sexual union with their own unconscious minds (Wagner's "marriage of myself to myself"), ended by castrating themselves [i.e. futilely seeking total autonomy from nature and from their true identity] in their effort to avoid all contingency. Thus Klingsor, in his ever more desperate quest to affirm his autonomy from nature and science and contingency, castrates himself. Thus the balm, the temporary healing of the unhealing wound which artist-muses like Kundry has once been able to offer, no longer performed their original function but instead simply reopened the wound and made it worse. This is why Tristan refuses to wait for Isolde's healing through love-inspiration, and why Parsifal finally sees through it all and makes a radical break with man's religio-artistic past by refusing to seek artificial inspiration through the muse Kundry.
This is only a very brief summary of a small portion of my interpretation of "Parsifal," but it does give an entirely different perspective to the strange plot and our understanding of Amfortas and his wound, Kundry's dual role as penitent servant and seductress (like Isolde, she both causes the wound and temporarily heals it), Klingsor's self-castration and manipulation of Kundry to keep man (Amfortas) in service to man's futile quest to affirm his transcendent value in religion and art, and even Parsifal's purity. Wagner showed us in Siegfried how the pure fool comes into being: Wotan confessed his inability to consciously acknowledge his true identity to Bruennhilde, the womb of Wotan's wishes, and this seed figuratively gave birth to Siegfried, the hero who is fearless and heroic because (unlike Wotan) he doesn't know who he is.
Note that what Siegfried does not know (his true identity), Bruennhilde knows for him. Note that what Parsifal does not know, his true identity, Kundry knows for him. Note that Isolde has kept the secret of Tristan's true identity, and when Tristan consciously comes face to face with it in Act III, he can no more bear it than Wotan or Amfortas could. Note that Eva, Walther's muse of unconscious (dreaming) artistic inspiration, knows for Walther what he doesn't know, the true source of his artistic inspiration, which is contained in Sachs's confession to Eva (a model for Wotan's confession to Bruennhilde) during his cobbling song in Act II, which simultaneously disqualifies the uninspired wannabe artist Beckmesser. Note that the foundation of the fact that the heroine-lover-muses of all of Wagner's music-dramas knowing for the artist hero what he doesn't know, is Elsa's offer to share with Lohengrin the forbidden knowledge of the secret of his true identity. As I've explained in the various versions of my 1995 article "How Elsa Showed Wagner the Way to Siegfried," Elsa's offer to share Lohengrin's self-knowledge, which she fears, if known to the world, could subject him to unbearable "Noth," Wagner takes to its extreme in the mature music-dramas: the artist's muse (unconscious mind) holds for the hero the knowledge of his true identity and the secret source of his artistic inspiration, so that he need not know it and is protected, temporarily, from the unhealing wound which consciousness of this knowledge would wake and thus re-open.
One can see, according to this scheme, why it is that Parsifal, who as an religio-artist hero had remained unconscious of the true source of his inspiration and true identity (as a killer of his mother, Nature), through the ages and in all his incarnations, suddenly has an intuition that he, as the archetype for modern artist-heroes, had been unwittingly perpetuating Amfortas's (mankind's) unhealing wound by perpetuating religious pessimism, or world-denial, in his art, the product of Grail knights' (the dead heroes of Valhalla) furtive union over the millennia with flower-maiden-muses. Thus Parsifal understands at once that to seek artificial redemption any longer through union with his age-old muse Kundry would be to make Amfortas's wound even more unbearable, and would perpetuate Klingsor's magic garden of art, which is no longer redemptive but actually harmful, since Klingsor has sought purity, transcendent value, at all costs.
Badiou P. 144-146: Badiou is skeptical that any of the former categories or dialectical contrasts which have been brought to bear to grasp the subject and meaning of "Parsifal" can help us: "Nor will it [the question: what is the subject of "Parsifal"?] be resolved ... in terms of the contrasting features that have traditionally been brought to bear: the world of the sacred vs the world of the profane, the world of reality vs the world of appearance, the world of purity vs the world of sensuality, or the masculine vs the feminine world. All these major oppositions have been trotted out for "Parsifal," and the list could go on: the intelligible vs the sensible, the castle vs the forest ... , pure vs impure blood, Jews vs non-Jews, you name it - absolutely any classical opposition that at one moment or another is involved in the analysis of "Parsifal" as a way of explaining it. (...)
Thus it is neither in these dialectical oppositions nor in the question of Christianity as it was elaborated by Nietzsche that PARSIFAL's subject can be found."
PH: Badiou's assessment is accurate: these oppositions are insufficient to expose the true subject of "Parsifal," which is, by far, Wagner's most complex and difficult music-drama from a conceptual perspective, the only rival in this respect being "The Rhinegold" and "Siegfried" Act Three.
Badiou P. 146: "... it is absolutely obvious that in "Parsifal" the crucified Christ is a problem rather than a solution."
PH: Of course it is no accident that "Parsifal" ends on Good Friday with the Crucified Christ rather than with the resurrected Christ of Easter. This fact has drawn some very astute commentary from scholars over the years. The main point is that "Parsifal" is, among other things, a renunciation of transcendence and an embrace of mortality and finitude.
Badiou P. 146-147: Badiou finds the answer in what he regards as the deliberate symmetry Wagner constructed between the Grail ceremonies conducted in Act I and Act III. "I will suggest that the subject of 'Parsifal' is the question of whether a modern ceremony is possible. (...) It is distinct from the question of religion. Why? Because a ceremony can be said to be a collectivity's or even a community's mode of self-representation, but transcendence is not an essential condition of it. In fact, we could say that the question posed by 'Parsifal' is whether a ceremony without transcendence is possible."
PH: Badiou is absolutely correct: Wagner is saying goodbye to transcendence in "Parsifal." I don't have any technical musical argument for this, but it has long seemed to me that the "Good Friday Music," in some very strange way, seems to unite the Grail Realm music with the seductive music of Act II, and the Nature music found in Acts I and III, in a remarkable way. This is purely my subjective impression and I have no musicological grounds for saying it, but it happens microscopically in very brief passages elsewhere, such as the astonishing music evocative of nature/forest, anguish, and seduction which we hear just after Amfortas is brought by the knights up from the lake and rests in Act I, when Amfortas invokes both his pain and the refreshment offered by nature. This is somewhat akin to the famous effect of the "Pieta," which at once gives the impression of sexual ecstasy and religious ecstasy.
Badiou P. 147: Badiou poses the question again: "... what is a ceremony without transcendence, a ceremony that is therefore not a means to something but the thing itself, the representation of the community in and of itself?"
Badiou P. 148: Badiou quotes Mallarme: " 'Music declares itself to be the last and the most complete human religion.' "
PH: This corresponds precisely with Wagner's formulation that music is our last religion, an idea he borrowed from, among other thinkers, Feuerbach, who suggested that in the skeptical and even cynical age of science, God could no longer be affirmed as an idea, but only as feeling. Wagner paraphrased Feuerbach when he said that when God had to leave us [remember Lohengrin and Wotan here], he left us, in remembrance of him, music. Feuerbach also suggested that art in general had the advantage over religion that, unlike religious man, the artist doesn't declare his art to be truth, or a truth, but acknowledges it is a fiction. It goes without saying that religious feeling is even safer from scientific reduction when it contracts into pure feeling, or music. This Feuerbachian notion of religious faith jettisoning all those things which made it vulnerable to scientific reduction until it was distilled as pure feeling, gave Wagner the overall framework for his "Ring" drama, with the exception that in "Twilight of the Gods" this feeling, or music [the Woodbird's song as Wagner's metaphor for music], rises from feeling back to thought to disclose its hidden programme, thanks to Hagen's antidote to his love-and-forgetfulness potion, and to the fact that Siegfried is in any case inevitably waking up to recall who he really is, during the narrative he sings about his heroic life for the Gibichungs.
Badiou: Badiou cites rock concerts as an example in which youth seek ceremony through music.
PH: However, the means in the case of rock concerts is radically distinct from the means employed by Wagner, though there are, I imagine, some admirers of bands such as the Grateful Dead and Phish who I suspect would take issue with this. Nonetheless I insist on it: a blow by blow comparison of the two experiences would disclose how radically distinct are the means in each case, not just in degree, but in kind.
Badiou P. 150: Badiou concludes: "So that leaves only one solution, and it is the one Wagner ... was forced to choose: to go beyond religion."
PH: And this is true: contrary to much public and scholarly opinion, I strongly concur with Badiou that in "Parsifal" Wagner says goodbye to religion in its sense as being a testimony to man's belief in his transcendent value (or at least in that of the gods, which is really the same thing since man invented them unwittingly and unconsciously). But Wagner is also saying goodbye to art as a secular substitute for dying religious faith, since music itself had been exposed as covert mythology and religion. Think here of Levi-Strauss's ruminations on this subject.
Badiou P. 157: Badiou takes issue with the commonplace that Wagner's art, taken as establishing a new ceremony and/or myth, was a precursor to the fascist rallies, public ceremonies, which haunted the 20th century. "... I don't think this is the case at all, because I don't think that Wagner's solution involved imposing a myth on the masses. Wagner explored the problem. He attempted to make it the subject of an opera, which is a very difficult thing to do."
PH: I concur whole-heartedly.
Badiou P. 159: Badiou further concludes: "And so, as I firmly believe, ceremony is necessary. It is probably both necessary and impossible today, but that is not a serious problem; that is the way things often are. Genuine problems are like that, both necessary and impossible."
This closes my assessment of Badiou's "Five Lessons on Wagner." I'll move on now to Slavoj Zizek's Epilogue to Badiou's book as a separate topic.
Your friend from Wagnerheim,
Paul alias Alberich00
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