Friday, April 14, 2006

Rescuing Kundry

When we first meet Parsifal, midway through the first act, he is a bumbling ball of ignorance, all id and no superego. When Kundry tells him that his mother has died, he attacks her and tries to choke her. Gurnemanz and the knights pull him off her, and then she brings him a drink of water. “Well done, according to the Grail’s mercy,” declares Gurnemanz. “For evil is ended when it is repaid with goodness.”

Kundry is a wildly misunderstood character. At the top of the second act, the evil sorcerer Klingsor wakes her with an invocation: “Herodias you were, and what else? Gundryggia there, Kundry here!” This is a reference to her many incarnations, one of the strongest Buddhist aspects of the work: karma has condemned her to successive lives in which she must atone for some great sin.

Misinterpretations of Parsifal often begin with this line. Kundry’s original identity was Herodias, wife of King Herod of Judaea, mother of Salome. Alone with Parsifal in Klingsor’s garden, she will confess: “I saw Him…Him! And…I laughed.” That is to say, she observed Christ carrying his cross on the road to Calvary on the day we now call "Good Friday"; she beheld ultimate suffering, and she mocked it. This has unfortunately given rise to the idea that Parsifal is an anti-Semitic work.

The truth is that the historical Herodias was neither religiously nor ethnically Jewish. That is not a recent discovery, and Wagner was almost certainly aware of it. Furthermore, Kundry’s other named incarnation, Gundryggia, is a figure from Nordic legend: an Aryan. Kundry’s sin is not Jewishness, as so many people have assumed Wagner intended. It was her fundamental lack of compassion.

Moreover, Kundry is portrayed by Wagner as a victim of discrimination. The stage directions describe her as a woman with dark eyes, black hair, and a deep red-brown complexion. In act one, the young squires of the Grail deride her behavior, saying she acts like a “wild beast,” and they accuse her of being a heathen sorceress who hates them.

“What harm has she done you?” asks the wise old Gurnemanz. “She has nothing in common with you, yet when help is wanted in danger, her zeal speeds her through the air, and she never looks to you for thanks.”

The Grail Temple is hidden in a magical forest, "where time and space are one," protected by a spell that keeps all who are unworthy from ever finding it. That is how Gurnemanz initially recognizes Parsifal’s potential: only those whom the Grail summons may approach. Significantly, Kundry can come and go from the forest as she pleases. I have never seen anyone else comment on this: it seems the Grail welcomes Kundry, but it is the knights who never extend to her the invitation to visit the temple itself. She is strange, mysterious, unfamiliar, and therefore they are suspicious.

Kundry needs to be loved, to have her humanity valued, and, above all, to be forgiven. It is Parsifal who is eventually able to offer her pardon. Compassion and forgiveness seem like such simple things, but Wagner realized that in fact they are immensely difficult for people. What couldn’t be achieved in this world if we were only willing to forgive each other all transgressions as Christ commands? In this way, when Parsifal calls her “Friend” in the third act, his compassion is more heroic, brave and triumphant than any mortal sacrifice in any other Wagner opera.

On a beautiful Good Friday, when the world is filled with signs of renewal, it is Parsifal who then leads Kundry to the temple for the first time, where she is released from her curse of immortality and sinks lifeless, but transcended and redeemed, to the ground. Parsifal is not an opera about racial or gender exclusion; on the contrary, it is a hymn to inclusion, a command to look beyond people’s superficial traits and embrace their inner human worth.

A vindictive opera? An assassination of basic ethics? Hardly.


Julia said...

Also Kundry is clearly a Magdalene figure, a fallen woman who washes Parsifal's feet . . .

Happy Easter, Andy!

Andy said...

Very true! But I must also point out that it's important to note that Parsifal is not a parallel Christ figure: Jesus did not come into the world to attain wisdom by learning compassion, and the knights and Kundry are not redeemed by "believing" in Parsifal. Parsifal is, instead, the perfect Schopenhauerite. Plus Wagner once wrote, "Jesus as a tenor...what an appalling thought!"

Anonymous said...

Fascinating. I stumbled across this site while reading W.H. Auden's Collected Poems. He mentions Kundry in his poem Ascension Day, 1964. The internet is grand. Great insights into Wagner and Parsifal.