Wagner on Parsifal

Fellow-suffering (Mitleid) and Resignation

Letter to Mathilde Wesendonck, 1 October 1858

But I am also clear in my own mind why I can even feel greater fellow-suffering for lower natures than for higher ones. A higher nature is what it is precisely because it has been raised by its own suffering to the heights of resignation, or else has within it - and cultivates -- the capacity for such a development. Such a nature is extremely close to mine, is indeed similar to it, and with it I attain to fellow-joy. That is why, basically, I feel less fellow-suffering for people than for animals. For I can see that the latter are totally denied the capacity to rise above suffering, and to achieve a state of resignation and deep, divine calm. And so, in the event of their suffering, as happens when they are tormented, all I see - with a sense of my own tormented despair - is their absolute, redemption-less suffering without any higher purpose, their only release being death, which confirms my belief that it would have been better for them never to have entered upon life1. And so, if this suffering can have a purpose, it is simply to awaken a sense of fellow-suffering in man, who thereby absorbs the animal's defective existence, and becomes the redeemer of the world by recognising the error of all existence. (This meaning will one day become clearer to you from the Good Friday morning scene in the third act of Parzival.)

open quotes The Irrthum des Daseins (error of existence), as Wagner sees it, consists in egotism, which just gives rise to more and more violence and suffering. In overcoming egotism, a human being can become a redeemer of the world. With this formulation, which combines the ethic of compassion with the events of Good Friday, the connection to Christianity is established. According to Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth is the sole redeemer of the world. He sacrificed His life by suffering in place of all sinful mankind; that is, as far as Wagner was concerned, for all those who are caught up in egotism and thus already miserable. This was the core of Wagner's drama Jesus von Nazareth. In his last music drama, Wagner took up this notion once again and the Christian implications seem clear even if Christ himself is not named. Wagner revised, however, the doctrine accepted by the conventional wisdom of Christianity, by allowing human beings to become redeemers of the world, insofar as an individual can imitate Christ by putting compassionate love into practice. Christ is the prototype of the redeemer, its mythical archetype. The Good Friday scene of Parsifal was intended to develop this idea. Because every individual represents the whole of existence, each individual can become, according to Schopenhauer, either Adam (fallen mankind) or Christ (the Redeemer). Wagner explicates this dichotomy a few months later with the opposition of Anfortas and Parzival. In a letter to Mathilde Wesendonk of May 29-30, 1859 ... close quotes

These words from Ulrike Kienzle provide a perfect link between the extracts that I had quoted above and below. I have borrowed them from her recent essay, Parsifal and Religion: A Christian Music Drama?, of which the German original appeared in her book, ...daß wissend würde die Welt! Religion und Philosophie in Richard Wagners Musikdramen (Wagner in der Diskussion, Band I, Verlag Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg, 2005, pages 189-229). A slightly revised version of the essay has been included in A Companion to Wagner's Parsifal, ed. William Kindermann and Katherine R. Syer (Camden House, Rochester and Woodbridge, 2005, pages 80-130) in an English translation by Mary A. Cicora.

Image: Richard Wagner, about 1860

Wolfram, Parzival and Anfortas

Letter to Mathilde Wesendonck, 30 May 1859

Looked at closely, it is Anfortas who is the centre of attention and principal subject. Of course, it is not at all a bad story. Consider, in heaven's name, all that goes on there! It suddenly became dreadfully clear to me: it is my third-act Tristan inconceivably intensified. With the spear-wound and perhaps another wound too, - in his heart -, the wretched man knows of no other longing in his terrible pain than the longing to die; in order to obtain this supreme solace, he demands repeatedly to be allowed a glimpse of the Grail in the hope that it might at least close his wounds, for everything else is useless, nothing - nothing can help him: - but the Grail can give him one thing only, which is precisely that he cannot die; its very sight increases his torments by conferring immortality upon them...

Let someone do it who will carry it through à la Wolfram; it will then cause little offence, and in the end may perhaps sound like something, maybe even something quite pretty. But I take such things far too seriously. Yet just look at the extent to which Master Wolfram has made light of it, by contrast! That he has understood absolutely nothing of the actual content is of no great matter. He tacks one event on to the next, one adventure to another, links together the Grail motif with all manner of strange and curious episodes and images, gropes around and leaves any serious reader wondering what his intention can have been? To which he is bound to reply that he himself in fact knows no more about what he is doing than the priest understands the Christianity that he serves up at the altar without knowing what is involved.-

That's how it is. Wolfram is a thoroughly immature phenomenon, although it must be said that his barbaric and utterly confused age is largely to blame for this, fluctuating as it did between early Christianity and a more modern political economy. Nothing could ever come to fruition at such a period; poetic profundity was immediately submerged in insubstantial caprice. I almost agree with Frederick the Great who, on being presented with a copy of Wolfram, told the publisher not to bother him with such stuff!

Image: Parsifal and the Flowermaidens, drawing by Henri Fantin-Latour, 1893

Left: Henri Fantin-Latour: "Parsifal et les filles-fleurs", from L'Illustration, 29 April 1893.


Consider only this one point that, of all the interpretations to which the Grail has been subjected in the various legends, this superficial deep thinker should have chosen the most meaningless of all. That this miraculous object should be a precious stone is a feature which, admittedly, can be traced back to the earliest source, namely, the Arabic texts of the Spanish Moors. One notices, unfortunately that all our Christian legends have a foreign, pagan origin. As they gazed on in amazement, the early Christians learned, namely, that the Moors in the Caaba at Mecca (deriving from the pre-Muhammadan religion) venerated a miraculous stone (a sunstone - or meteoric stone - but at all events one that had fallen from heaven). However, the legends of its miraculous power were soon interpreted by the Christians after their own fashion, by their associating the sacred object with Christian myth, a process which, in turn, was made easier by the fact that an old legend existed in southern France telling how Joseph of Arimathea had once fled there with the sacred chalice that had been used at the Last Supper, a version entirely consonant with the early Christian Church's enthusiasm for relics. Only now did sense and reason enter into it, and I feel a very real admiration and sense of rapture at this splendid feature of Christian mythogenesis, which invented the most profound symbol that could ever have been invented as the content of the physical-spiritual kernel of any religion. Who does not shudder with a sense of the most touching and sublime emotion to hear that this same goblet, from which the Saviour drank a last farewell to His disciples and in which the Redeemer's indestructible blood was caught and preserved, still exists, and that he who is pure in heart is destined to behold it and worship it himself. Incomparable!...

I  had to make a completely fresh start with Parzival! For Wolfram hadn't the faintest idea of what he was doing: his [i.e. Parzival's] despair in God is stupid and unmotivated, and his conversion is even more unsatisfactory. The thing about the Question is that it is so utterly preposterous and totally meaningless. I should simply have to invent everything here. And then there is a further difficulty with Parzival. He is indispensably necessary as the redeemer whom Anfortas longs for: but if Anfortas is to be placed in his true and appropriate light, he will become of such immense tragic interest that it will be almost impossible to introduce a second focus of attention, and yet this focus of attention must centre upon Parzival if the latter is not simply to enter at the end as a deus ex machina who leaves us completely cold. Thus Parzival's development and the profound sublimity of his purification, although entirely predestined by his thoughtful and deeply compassionate nature, must again be brought into the foreground. But I cannot choose to work on such a broad scale as Wolfram was able to do: I have to compress everything into three climactic situations of violent intensity, so that the work's profound and ramified content emerges clearly and distinctly; for my art consists in working and representing things in this way.

open quotes [Wagner] designates Anfortas as Tristan des dritten Aktes mit einer undenklichen Steigerung" (my third-act Tristan inconceivably intensified). This "potentiation" consists in being not only, like Tristan, subject to the desires of love as a furchtbare Qual (terrible torment) but beyond that, Anfortas must painfully feel how inadequate he himself is when compared with the Redeemer, who can in this context be identified with Christ. There exists some mystical association between Christ and Anfortas. As King of the Grail and its high priest who presides over the Grail ceremony, Anfortas is a representative of Christ; this identity is underscored by the fact that Anfortas was wounded in the same place as Christ (in his side), and, as Wagner will later make clear, with the same weapon that wounded Christ. But unlike Christ, who suffered to redeem the world (Wagner wrote that Christ " Weltensagend, Welterlösend, Weltleidend am Kreuze schmachtete" [died on the cross renouncing, redeeming and suffering for the world]), Anfortas has succumbed to his sensual desires and betrayed his divine mission. The will to existence expresses itself according to Schopenhauer most directly in Eros; in that way it propagates itself from one generation to the next, and thus egotism and suffering continue as well. Sensual lust is for Schopenhauer the quintessence of egotistical self-love. Therefore — Wagner continues — the Grail Knights live ascetically. For that reason, the "Liebesabenteuer" (lustful encounter) of Anfortas is no mere indiscretion that can easily be pardoned but rather an act of pure egotism and thus a betrayal of Christ2. He is a perverted Christ figure: he has failed in his task of becoming a redeemer of the world. None of the Grail works with which Wagner was acquainted contain such a connection between Christ and the Grail King3. In contrast, Parzival is predestined by his ... thoughtful and deeply compassionate nature to overcome egotism and become the true follower of Christ. To that end, though, he needs to undergo development ... most sublime purification, as Wagner recognized early on in the project. This task presented him with a problem: he feared [as he expressed at the start of the extract above] that the center of interest would be Anfortas, and not Parzival. In 1859 he evidently lacked a solution and a way of portraying the transformation from fool to redeemer. He found a model for this process in Indian works. But his intensive preoccupation with the world of India allowed another figure of the drama to emerge. In a letter to Mathilde Wesendonk from the beginning of August 1860 he talks about ... the profound idea of metempsychosis ... and applies this to the conflict between Elsa and Lohengrin ... Kundry exemplifies the Indian [Vedantic] doctrine of metempsychosis, which Wagner learned about from Schopenhauer's works and his studies of Indian religions. Although Wagner centered his drama around the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist and the meaning of Good Friday in this Christian context, early on in the project he synthesized these elements of the plan with concepts taken from Indian religion4. close quotes

Ulrike Kienzle, ibid. Translation by Mary A. Cicora, slightly modified to match Spencer's translation of the extract above.

From Cosima's Diary

Diary entry for 17 June 1881

A letter from a man in Duisburg, wanting to link a study of Parsifal to a study of Wolfram's Parzival, irritates R. He says, I could just as well have been influenced by my nurse's bedtime story.

Footnote 1: Wagner's belief stated here is, characteristically, one that he had received from Arthur Schopenhauer, whose pessimistic philosophy taught that it was better never to have been born at all. In his most famous book, The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer cited a number of precedents for this view, including the following:

open quotes For in the end time proclaims the judgement of nature on the worth of all beings that appear in it, since it destroys them:

And justly so: for all things, from the void
called forth, deserve to be destroyed:
'twere better, then, were naught created.close quotes
[Goethe, Faust]
open quotes In Oedipus at Colonus Sophocles has the following abbreviation of [some lines by Theognis]:

Μη ϕυναι τον 'άπαντα
νικα λόγον · το δ'επει ϕανη,
βηναι κειθεν, 'όθεν περ 'ήκει,
πολυ δεύτερον, 'ως τάχιστα.close quotes

(Never to be born is far best;
yet if a man lives,
the next best thing is for him to return
as quickly as possible
to the place from which he came).
open quotesCount o'er the joys thine hours have seen,
count o'er thy days from anguish free,
and know, whatever thou hast been,
'tis something better not to be.close quotes
[Byron, Euthanasia]
The philosopher: Arthur Schopenhauer

Above: The philosopher: Arthur Schopenhauer, in a portrait of ca. 1850.

The World as Will and Representation, tr. E.F.J. Payne, volume 2, chapter 46.
Footnote 2: Compare Tannhäuser, whose dalliance in the Venusberg is obviously more than a mere indiscretion. It is serious enough to require confession to, and if it can be obtained absolution from, the Pope. This makes sense if Tannhäuser has broken a vow of celibacy. If so, then there is a clear parallel with Amfortas/Anfortas.
Footnote 3: Although one possible interpretation of the "two kings" motive that runs through the Grail Romances is that the Fisher King represents Christ while the old, hidden king represents God the Father.
Footnote 4: Although Ulrike Kienzle's essay is brilliant, insightful and among the best treatments of the religious aspects of Parsifal to date, I have to disagree with her argument that the Anfortas problem led to the duality of Kundry, and from there to rebirth as an element of the drama, which appears in the Prose Draft of 1865; because it is my conviction that ideas Wagner had found in his reading about Indian religions already influenced his earliest thoughts about the drama, in the period 1857 to 1860. Even if he did not, at that time, consider Kundry to be living an unending cycle of rebirths, Wagner probably at an early stage considered Parzival to have grown in "purity" through a succession of earlier lives in which he had names that he has forgotten.

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