So what is the message of Parsifal ?
Thoughts on the Meaning of the Drama
t was recently pointed out to me that nowhere among the thousands of words present on
this web site was there any clear statement about the message of Parsifal or what Wagner meant by his last major work. This page is an attempt to fill that
fter being puzzled by Parsifal for the twenty years after seeing my first performance
of the work, in 1996 I began to study Parsifal in depth. This investigation was prompted by the experience of attending a performance of Parsifal
at the Bayreuth Festival of that year. After four years of studying what had been written about the work, not least by Wagner himself, and what Wagner had been
reading in the years preceding his first sketch for Parsifal I arrived at some conclusions. It was clear to me that most of what had been written about this
opera during the last 100 years was totally wrong, and that with very few exceptions, commentators had only scratched (and in some cases defaced) the surface of
Wagner's text. I sought understanding of what Wagner was trying to convey to his audience through poetry, music and dramatic action. After visiting the Zürich garden
in which it had been written, I attempted a (rather speculative) reconstruction of the lost "Good Friday" sketch. The three most important messages that I have found
in the opera are summarised below. Each of them derives from the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, to whose works (and in particular his
essay, On the Basis of Morality) the reader is directed for further insight.
he primary purpose of the drama is to convey to the audience the importance of
compassion -- which is the only true basis for morality, according to Schopenhauer. This teaching was accepted by his
disciple Richard Wagner. It is through compassion for the suffering of other beings that the fool acquires wisdom and becomes a sage. It
is through the perfection of wisdom that he is able to bring salvation.
here is a Schopenhauerian metaphor in the work that is so explicit that anyone who has read
Schopenhauer will have no difficulty in detecting it. Her name is Kundry. She represents, on one level,
the human predicament in relation to what Buddhists call samsara: the cycle of birth, suffering, death and rebirth. In the first act she is wild and
restless, striving for (but unable to find) a balm that will cure suffering; as Kundry confesses, she can help nobody -- not even
herself. By the third act, however, Kundry is calm, peaceful, quiet; she has almost escaped from her cyclic existence by the denial of
the will. Here is the metaphysical message of Parsifal: stop striving, deny the will, accept that suffering is an inevitable part of life and that desires
can never be fully satisfied.
ertain passages in Wagner's text clearly were intended to communicate Schopenhauer's ethical doctrines. So the ethical message of the work is:
injure no one; on the contrary, help others as much as possible
(Neminem laede; immo omnes, quantum potes, juva). This formula becomes, in Parsifal, the teaching of the Grail.
(From the Buddha Shakyamuni's final teaching, the Parinirvana Sutra)
You should know that all things in the world are impermanent -- meeting
inevitably means parting. Do not be troubled, for this is the nature of life. Diligently practising right effort, you must seek deliverance immediately. In the
light of wisdom, destroy the darkness of ignorance. Nothing is secure. Everything in life is precarious. Always wholeheartedly seek the path of