Wagner’s Parsifal: Christianity, Celibacy, and Medieval Brotherhood as Ideal in Modernity
Carole M. Cusack
Richard Wagner’s final opera Parsifal, which he termed a Bühnenweihfestspiel (“festival work for the initiation of a stage”), was first performed at Bayreuth in 1882.1 It is a strange, serious, and beautiful work, which is alternately hailed as a profound Christian statement and a hyperbolic pseudo-religious spectacle, with occult or Buddhist pretensions. The plot is taken from me- dieval sources, chiefly Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic poem Parzival, and exhibits Wagner’s ongoing fascination with the Grail legends that informed, at least partly, Tannhäuser (1845) and Lohengrin (1848). Those works es- poused human love as redemptive and integrated both negative and positive exemplars of womanhood (Venus and Elisabeth, Ortrud and Elsa), though the virtuous women died in the final acts of both operas. The wretched and outcast seductress, Kundry, the sole woman in Parsifal, is an extraordinary artistic creation, yet Wagner’s near-total rejection of her proposes the ideal male brotherhood, embodied in the Grail Knights’ loyalty to their wound- ed king Amfortas, as a template for society. In direct opposition to modern expectations, as Sandra Corse has observed, “Parsifal questions the moral autonomy of the subject.”2 The idealisation of the Grail fraternity directly challenges the modern idea of the individual through its emphasis on duty and devotion to a monarch. Its exclusively male membership challenges the modern understanding of men and women as equal and complementary, and its celibacy rejects the modern idea of sexuality as a positive and life- affirming force. Wagner’s plot in Parsifal utilises two further motifs from Wolfram’s poem: that the Grail can bring wholeness to the wounded and diseased; and that true innocence – such as is embodied in Parsifal, the Holy Fool – is godly
1 The Earl of Harewood and Antony Peattie (eds), The New Kobbe’s Opera Book, eleventh edition (London: Ebury Press 1997), 949. 2 Sandra Corse, “Parsifal: Wagner, Nietzsche, and the Modern Subject,” Theatre Journal 46:1 (1994), 95.
© koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2017 | doi 10.1163/9789004357020_003 Wagner’s Parsifal 11 and good, and escapes the corruption of the world.3 These themes make Parsifal a difficult work in Wagner’s oeuvre, because the sexually profligate Wagner embraces celibacy: the composer who celebrates beauty forensi- cally details a diseased community (that is still deemed both authentic and desirable) and its painfully wounded leader, and the one-time revolu- tionary embraces the abrogation of individual freedom that accompanies duty and devotion to a God-ordained hereditary leader.4 If these conserva- tive, and in a certain sense Christian, ideas made Parsifal controversial in the nineteenth century, it is even more so in the twenty-first. Parsifal is a unique combination of the medieval and the modern, in which it appears that the operatic modernist Wagner understood the medieval as the cure for the malaise of modernity. This chapter endorses the centrality of Richard Wagner (1813–1883) to operatic modernism, and considers an instance of his influence on literary modernism, a movement that flowered from approximately 1910 to 1960. It is concerned with five interrelated questions or issues. These are: first, the relationship between Wagner’s opera plot and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s text; second, the ways that Amfortas and the evil magician Klingsor repre- sent Christianity and Islam; third, the absence of women from Parsifal’s ideal society; fourth, the impact of Parsifal on the modernist writer T. S. Eliot; and finally, the relative weight accorded to medievalism and modernism in Wag- ner’s final opera. Cultural critic Theodor Adorno acknowledged Wagner’s pre-eminence as an operatic modernist in his 1938 critique (published as In Search of Wagner ). He argued that, though “Wagner represented the most advanced stage in the development of music and opera,” there were “both progressive and reactionary elements” in his music.5 Adorno aimed to
3 The stinging critique in Nietzsche Contra Wagner (1888–1889, published 1895) is relevant here. Parsifal’s innocence, resistance to the sexual allure of Kundry and the Flower Maid- ens, healing of Amfortas, and assumption of the role of Grail king at the opera’s conclusion deeply offended Nietzsche, who rejected Parsifal as Christian, anti-sex, and life-denying. Bernard Wills, analysing this critique, agrees that “the opera does endorse a Christian (or Buddhist) conception of human life and nature as requiring redemption,” which “is contrary to Nietzsche’s demand that all of life be affirmed in its negativity and destructiveness as much as in its creativity and beneficence … Nietzsche could not have accepted the ethic of compassion at the heart of that vision…” Bernard Wills, “The Case of Nietzsche: A Wagnerian Riposte,” Animus 14 (2010), 41. 4 Stephen C. Meyer, “Parsifal’s Aura,” 19th-Century Music 33:2 (2009), 160. 5 Andreas Huyssen, “Adorno in Reverse: From Hollywood to Richard Wagner,” New German Critique 29 (1983), 30.