Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Christianity of Parsifal

Poor Parsifal.

Grossly misunderstood, this opera has inherited a fearsome reputation regarding the composer’s intentions. Nietzsche wrote, “For Parsifal is a work of perfidy, of vindictiveness, of a secret attempt to poison the presuppositions of life – a bad work. I despise everyone who does not experience Parsifal as an attempted assassination of basic ethics.”

Some have viewed this opera as a paean to Aryan blood-purity, a vulgarly racist work containing a Jewish harlot who seduces Christian heroes, consigned to servitude and absolved of her Jewishness by Christian baptism and then promptly killed off. Others have even tried to argue that the kingdom of the grail is a secret homosexual society, saying that King Amfortas suffers because he dared to sleep with a woman.

Those ideas are at the extreme end of the spectrum, but it is generally acknowledged – wrongly – that Parsifal is a work of Christian propaganda. It’s not a ridiculous conclusion to reach: though Jesus is never mentioned by name, there are countless allusions impossible to miss, and the first and last acts culminate in what certainly looks like a communion ceremony. But as Wagner was not a Christian (see my series from January of this year), it makes about as much sense for him to write an opera for the purpose of proselytizing as it does for the opera world’s most notorious heterosexual philanderer to dedicate his final masterpiece to an idealized all-male gay private club.

Christian imagery abounds in Parsifal, but there are also overt references to pre-Christian paganism and Buddhism; audiences just don’t recognize them. Above all, Parsifal is a philosophical work, fully saturated with a Schopenhauerian outlook on the meaning of life – specifically the denial of the will as path to spiritual transcendence – and Wagner believed that while religions were not literally true, they revealed essential truths about humanity and he viewed religious symbols as valuable tools for use by creative artists.

What most people identify as Parsifal’s “Christianity” is just that: familiar symbols lifted by the composer for the purpose of establishing a framework in which to tell his story. It is also not generally realized that Wagner was fully aware that the Grail itself, so central to the Parsifal plot, is not Christian at all, though it had been co-opted in religious folklore as Christianity spread northward from Rome. Christianity does not believe that the cup from the Last Supper was also used to catch Christ’s blood as it dripped from the cross, and that it survives in a secret location today with the ability to grant the bearer immortality. That is an ancient pagan belief: the Grail was originally a dish or rock with special powers.

Yet Parsifal is a work with a deeply Christian ethos. A running theme in all of Wagner’s operas is “redemption,” but Parsifal has a radically different take on what that means. “Redemption” for Wagner always meant love, often achieved through mortal sacrifice: Senta throws herself into the fjord for the Dutchman, Elisabeth expires on the frozen peak of the Wartburg praying for Tannhäuser’s safe return, and Brünnhilde rides her horse gleefully into Siegfried’s blazing funeral pyre. In Parsifal, redemption is achieved through simple acts of compassion. That is the heart of Parsifal’s meaning, and it is also the heart of Christianity.


Aethlos said...

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Andy said...

No...didn't see it. Way cool! Thanks!

kr pdx said...

"In Parsifal, redemption is achieved through simple acts of compassion. That is the heart of Parsifal’s meaning, and it is also the heart of Christianity."

Um, not quite ;). Redemption is not achieved, it is received, through Jesus. It is maybe "maintained" through "simple acts of compassion"--in that those acts build a proper relationship between ourselves and the world and ourselves and God, making us constantly more open to His graces.

Cool analysis, though. I think redemption through compassion is a great secular interpretation of The Golden Rule. Bully for Wagner for giving it an airing in the opera--talk about ahead of your time, though! Perhaps he should have waited to release Parsifal until George Harrison got all into Eastern thinking and opened the popular Western mind to non-Christian art ;).

Andy said...

KR, you're absolutely right. I just want to point out that Parsifal is not Christian in the way most people have been told it is: it is not a pro-Aryan, proto-Nazi, anti-Jewish "come to communion and get saved" opera. It has this reputation of being subversive in that respect, but in fact it's much nobler. Hopefully tomorrow's post illuminates this further.

kr pdx said...

:). Not that any of those things are Christian, of course ;)--even if lots of Christians were too caught up in their cultures to figure that out :(.