Parsifal and Race


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  1. Wagner's last card
  2. Wagner, Gobineau and Parsifal
  3. Exclusion and inclusion
  4. Race and racial purity
  5. Semites and anti-Semites
  6. The Aryan Christ
  7. Conclusions

Wagner's last card

open quotesAs Cosima recorded in her diary on 28.3.1881, Richard Wagner called Parsifal his 'last card'. In the immediate context what he had in mind was a retort to Gobineau, who had characterized the Germans as the 'last card' of nature. close quotes
[Dieter David Scholz, program book for Parsifal at the Berlin Staatsoper, March 2002. As John Deathridge has pointed out, this metaphor actually originated with August F. Pott in his critique of Gobineau, which Wagner had read.]
Wagner 1882

Poster It has become impossible, when discussing his dramas and in particular the last of them, Parsifal, to avoid the topic of Richard Wagner's anti-Semitism and the claim, forcefully advanced by Robert Gutman in 1968, that Wagner was a racist. I do not mean, of course, that these subjects should be ignored. Indeed they deserve to be addressed. What is unfortunate is that discussion of them soon turned into a war of words in which truth was the first casualty.

Given the posthumous association of Wagner and the Bayreuth Festival with Hitler, who was an enthusiast for Wagner's music, and by extension with Nazism it was inevitable that commentators, especially in Germany, would regard Wagner's dramas as tainted by Nazism. In the vanguard of those who attacked Wagner and his heritage in the postwar period was Theodor Adorno. For Adorno, Wagner's dramas were inherently "völkisch". Adorno suggested that some of the characters, such as Mime and Klingsor, were anti-Semitic caricatures. Given Richard Wagner's frequent anti- Semitic remarks, many have found this claim plausible. Recent commentators have built upon Adorno's view of Wagner and his works, some of them (notably Hartmut Zelinsky and Barry Millington) developing ingenious theories about subtly-coded anti-Semitic and racist messages that they allege are cleverly hidden, deep in Wagner's libretti.

In 1968 Robert Gutman published a popular book about Wagner (Richard Wagner: the Man, his Mind and his Music) in which he portrayed his subject as a racist, psychopathic, proto-Nazi monster. Despite the reservations expressed by reviewers about the quality of Gutman's scholarship, this book has been a best-seller; especially in the USA, where an entire generation of students has been encouraged to accept Gutman's caricature of Richard Wagner. Even intelligent people, who have either never read Wagner's writings or tried to penetrate them and failed -- the situation is not made any more favourable to Wagner in the English-speaking world by the scarcity of good translations -- have read Gutman's book and accepted his opinions as facts. Since Gutman's book was a seminal contribution to the ill-tempered debate about Wagner's alleged racism, the relevant sections of the book will be considered at length in this article.

In chapter 15 of his Wagner book, Robert Gutman put forward a remarkable interpretation of Parsifal. So remarkable that one might be tempted to believe that both this chapter and some fantastic passages earlier in the book (such as his analysis of Tristan und Isolde) had been written under the influence of the "mind-expanding" drugs that were popular on US campuses at that time. Ignoring all considerations of chronology and taking no account of the available, relevant documentation (e.g. Wagner's letters to Mathilde Wesendonk) concerning the lengthy creative process which resulted in Parsifal, Gutman produced an interpretation of Wagner's last drama as a racist tract in which homosexuality and vegetarianism were prominent themes. According to Gutman, the libretto of Parsifal was rooted in ideas that preoccupied Wagner in the last years of his life, specifically 1878-82. This is Gutman's central thesis concerning Parsifal.

Gutman knew that Wagner, like many intellectuals of his time, had been interested in the writings of Charles Darwin, whose books Wagner read during the 1870's. Ignoring the fact that the first Prose Draft of Parsifal had been written long before this, Gutman supposed that the underlying ideas of Parsifal were those of social Darwinism. He suggested that the embattled community of the Grail had been alarmed to observe natural selection working against its distinctive Aryanism ... here was the decisive racial crisis that grew into an uncompromising struggle for power. So the distress of Monsalvat that emerges during act one -- and which has deepened by act three -- of Wagner's drama is, according to Gutman, a racial crisis.

There seem to be many people -- some of them both intelligent and educated -- who take for granted that this account, in terms of racial crisis, homosexuality and vegetarianism, is a valid (or even the only possible valid) interpretation of Parsifal. After all, what else could the work be about other than race, pederasty and diet? In recent years Gutman's ideas have been repeated and developed in a stream of books about (and mostly against) Wagner and his ideas (as their authors claim to understand them). The result is that, at least in the English-speaking world, there is a widespread perception and often a deep-rooted conviction that Wagner hated specific racial minorities, that this hatred was the source of his creativity, and that it found its fullest expression in the libretto of Parsifal. If anyone points out that none of this is even remotely true, they can only expect to be shouted down by those whose prejudices are stronger than their concern for facts.

Wagner, Gobineau and Parsifal

Gobineau as the Inspiration of Parsifal

As  a result of Gutman's claims about the influence of Count Gobineau on Wagner in general and on the libretto of Parsifal in particular, it now seems obligatory to refer to Gobineau at least once in the program book for any production of Parsifal. So why did Gutman think that Wagner had come under the influence of Gobineau -- and why did he suggest that this influence had affected the libretto of Parsifal?

Gutman knew that Wagner had met the self-styled "Count" Gobineau -- a diplomat, writer and racial theorist -- briefly in Rome in November 1876 and again in Venice in October 1880. Also that he had been a guest of the Wagner family in Bayreuth in the spring of 1881. Ignoring all considerations of logic, evidence and chronology, Gutman assumed that Gobineau had influenced the libretto of Parsifal which Wagner completed in the spring of 1877. From this assumption -- it was never anything more than an assumption -- ignoring the evidence that documents the development of the Parsifal scenario from 1857 to 1865, and failing to understand the uneasy relationship that developed between Gobineau and Wagner in 1881 and 1882, Gutman developed an elaborate theory of the genesis of Parsifal. The closer one examines respectively Wagner's prose writings, the Gobineau correspondence 3, the many brief references to Gobineau in the last volume of Cosima's Diaries (seen in relation to the Gobineau correspondence) and not least the libretto of Parsifal, the more absurd Gutman's theory appears.

Not only Gutman but also the school of "lunatic fringe" writers who have accepted and built upon his interpretations, assumed that the inspiration for Parsifal was found in a conversation that Wagner had with Gobineau on their first meeting in 1876; ignoring Wagner's own account of the genesis of Parsifal as given in his autobiography and disregarding the detailed Prose Draft that Wagner had sent to his patron King Ludwig in 1865. Gutman and his disciples further assumed that Gobineau's racial theories, as set out in his book On the Inequality of Human Races, influenced the libretto of Parsifal, completed in the spring of 1877. Marc Weiner for example, in Richard Wagner and the anti-Semitic Imagination, wrote that Wagner's final music-drama was infused with the purportedly scientific theories of racial difference of Count Gobineau. These writers ignore the inconvenient facts that Wagner had not read any of Gobineau's writings until 1880 1 and that he had scarcely exchanged a few words (written or spoken) with Gobineau before 1881. They also choose to ignore the fact that Wagner (according to Cosima's Diaries) did not begin his study of Gobineau's writings with the treatise on race -- a curious decision if, as Gutman et al. would have us believe, Wagner was obsessed with this subject -- but with Gobineau's travel writings and fiction. We can partially excuse Gutman -- although not Weiner -- because he did not have access to Cosima's Diaries, from which it is clear that Wagner was in vigorous disagreement with Gobineau's racist ideas. Only partially, however, because Gutman presumed to develop an elaborate theory without a foundation in evidence. Some of that evidence -- such as the Gobineau correspondence -- would have been available to him had he taken the trouble to find it.

In case any reader does not see the difficulty here, it is this: Robert Gutman claimed that a libretto that Wagner completed in 1877 -- which closely follows a draft made in 1865 -- was influenced by ideas that Wagner first encountered in the spring of 1881. Later writers, whose view of Wagner is largely derived from Gutman's book, have taken on board this logical impossibility because it suits them better than the facts.

Wagner and Gobineau 1876-1882

Gutman failed to mention, in his account of the short-lived relationship between Gobineau and Wagner, that during the visit of Gobineau to Bayreuth in 1881 there were heated arguments between the two men in which Wagner refused to accept Gobineau's opinions, which were consistently based on racist principles. When Gobineau condemned the Irish (as a Celtic race) for opposing their English masters (as a Germanic race), Wagner took the side of the oppressed. When Gobineau supported slavery (of those he regarded as inferior races), Wagner argued for its abolition. These facts are ignored, as inconvenient, by those who want to see Wagner as a disciple of Gobineau.

After reading Gobineau's Essay, Wagner returned to an article he had begun writing earlier that year, Herodom and Christendom. Although the article had not been inspired by Gobineau's writings, it was now, in June 1881, reworked to begin with an examination of Gobineau's ideas as presented in the Essay. The article is one of the so-called "regeneration writings" that were, according to Gutman, closely related to the ideas underlying Parsifal 2. (Those who are familiar with one or more of the many biographies of Richard Wagner will know that everything in his life is related, directly or indirectly, to everything else; so the real question to be answered is not whether his last music-drama is related to the "regeneration writings" but how it is related to them). In an attempt to repair his relationship with Gobineau, Wagner now began his article, in a conciliatory tone, with a summary of Gobineau's theories. It is unfortunate that an entire school of writers, inspired by Gutman and blinded by hatred, have chosen to take quotations from this first part of the article -- a summary of theories which Wagner rejected in the second part of the article -- and to misrepresent them as being Wagner's own ideas and as evidence of Wagner's alleged racism!

Even in the clumsy translation by Wm. Ashton Ellis, any intelligent reader of Herodom and Christendom should be able to distinguish Wagner's own views from his summary of Gobineau's views. It is remarkable that Gutman failed to grasp this distinction. It must be admitted that the obscure language (even in the original) and the associative nature of Wagner's thought does not help the reader in this article or in any of his later writings. None of this excuses Gutman's fundamental misreading of the article, nor can it be excused by his failure to investigate the circumstances under which it was written.

Wagner did agree with Gobineau on one point: that there had been a degeneration of the human race. It is an idea that dates back at least to Plato. Gobineau held that this degeneration was the result of miscegenation, that is, the mixing of the blood (i.e. genetic material) of nobler races with that of less noble races. There is nothing to indicate that Wagner accepted this idea, although it is clear from his notebooks that it intrigued him 4, in the context of Darwin's theories. Gutman made the mistake (one that his imitators have taken on board) of seeing Wagner's interest as acceptance; and he went entirely off the rails with the suggestion that Amfortas' sickness (an element of the scenario since 1859 or earlier) was the result of miscegenation, the mixing of his blood with that of the supposedly inferior Kundry in an ill-advised sexual encounter. (Why Kundry should be an inferior is not clear; after all, in her incarnation as Herodias she was a princess). Once again, there is nothing in Wagner's libretto to support such an idea: Amfortas' incurable wound is a representation of the suffering which, according to Schopenhauer, is an inevitable part of life; the cause of this suffering is desire.

In summary, Gutman was rash enough to launch an extended and vitriolic attack on Wagner on the basis of a superficial reading of Herodom and Christendom, which had been written in a context that Gutman did not understand. He failed to understand it because he had not done the necessary research. In short, the last chapter of Gutman's book is the result of the author's misguided fantasy combined with his stupidity and incompetence.

A Race of Saints

Gobineau, not Wagner, was the racist. Gobineau believed that there had been a superior race, which he labelled as "Germanic" but not as "German"; he thought the English were "Germanic" while the Germans were a bastard mixture of Celtic and other supposedly inferior racial elements. Although in agreement with Gobineau's negative assessment of the Germans, Wagner explained in Herodom and Christendom that he did not agree that there was, or had ever been, a superior race, a race of heroes; one that had fallen out of the sky, perhaps, or descended from gods. On the other hand he believed in a "race" of saints or sages, of which Christ was the noblest example. The saints or sages were beings motivated by compassion and by a sense of universal suffering which made them aware of the essential unity of the human race. It was by finding this unity that mankind could be regenerated. It is clear that the ideas expressed by Wagner -- his own ideas -- in this essay have nothing in common with Gobineau's Essay or with racism of any kind and that Wagner's own ideas are consistent with the libretto of Parsifal completed four years earlier.


It is also clear that Wagner was not using the word "race" (or any of the words that might be translated as "race") in the same sense in which "race" had been used by Gobineau. This has not prevented various followers of Gutman from taking Wagner's statements out of context and interpreting his references to "race" in the most literal sense. There is a general difficulty with Wagner's writings that is repeatedly exploited by the anti-Wagnerian lunatic fringe: it is that Wagner sometimes used words with a meaning that was not the most obvious one. As a result it is easy to take sentences or phrases out of context and present them as meaning something quite different from what Wagner intended. It is possible, however -- except perhaps for those who are blinded by their hatred for Wagner and his works -- to discern what Wagner intended, if one reads enough context around the passage whose meaning is sought. Wagner did not express himself concisely; in many cases it is necessary to read many paragraphs, or even an entire article, to understand what Wagner meant. His often unconventional usage does not help the reader, even if it does help those who wish to misrepresent him by quoting a few words out of context. To speak of a race of saints does not constitute racism.

This problem concerns not only Wagner's prose but also his poetry. As Gutman wrote (in this case with some justification) the text of Parsifal is obscure and elliptical. It is a work that almost entirely consists of symbols and metaphors, a fact which makes it puzzling: in Parsifal little is directly named by the mysterious text or elusive motifs, and the audience is left to divine meanings. Here Gutman was admitting that he had failed to understand the text (by which I mean, both words and music). He failed to do so because he did not examine and evaluate the relevant primary material. If he was not prepared to do the work, he should have limited his comments to an acknowledgement that he was unable to divine meanings in Parsifal. What Gutman did, however, was to fabricate a fantastic interpretation that has little connection with the words and music of the score. Many people, including an entire generation of opera producers, have mistaken Gutman's interpretative fantasy for an explanation of Wagner's text.

Gutman Calls His Witnesses

The arguments that Gutman advanced to support his interpretation were quite extraordinary. Firstly he held that the work was not only un-Christian, it is anti-Christian. In support he called upon Nietzsche, ignoring the inconvenient fact that Nietzsche had reacted against the work because he saw it as Christian, not as anti-Christian! Gutman also assumed (possibly on the basis of Hermann Rauschning's book) that Hitler had interpreted Parsifal as a work of exclusion, in which compassion was restricted to members of the community, and therefore that Parsifal was the gospel of National Socialism. The first problem with this argument is that we cannot and should not assume that Hitler's interpretation of Parsifal (or anything else) was valid. The second problem, perhaps less obvious to Gutman writing while Rauschning was still regarded with only limited suspicion by serious historians, was that we do not know for sure how Hitler interpreted Parsifal. We do know that the other major ideologue of the Nazi party, Alfred Rosenberg, regarded Parsifal with distaste. So there is no reason to suppose that Parsifal was, as Gutman asserted, the gospel of National Socialism or even that the ideas underlying the drama were remotely compatible with Nazi ideology. Certainly there is nothing in Wagner's libretto to support Gutman's idea that Wagner was advocating selective compassion. It is clear from Wagner's libretto, despite its sometimes "mysterious text", that compassion is to be offered to all and expected from all.

Was Wagner a Disciple of Gobineau?

Gutman's misrepresentation of the encounter between two grumpy old men, Gobineau and Wagner, can perhaps be excused by the facts that he did not have access either to Cosima's Diaries 1 or to the Wagner-Gobineau correspondence 3. This excuse cannot be extended to later writers who have chosen to adopt and repeat Gutman's view that Gobineau was an important influence on Wagner, despite the increasingly available and substantial evidence proving that Gutman was seriously in error: Wagner was not a disciple of Gobineau. Not at any time, not in any sense, and not in the least degree. Not only did Wagner reject Gobineau's racist ideas, he did so emphatically: see for example Cosima's diary entry for 18 May 1881. Gutman's allegation that Wagner's Parsifal libretto was influenced by Gobineau was not even supported by the evidence that was available to Gutman in 1968. In the light of Cosima's Diaries (published in 1976) and the Gobineau correspondence (published in 2000) Gutman's ideas -- and those who have accepted them without question -- look even more ridiculous than they did before.

In the program notes referred to at the start of this article, Dieter David Scholz states that Cosima's Diaries leave no doubt, that Gobineau's influence on the development of Parsifal was extremely small. He is too generous. The Diaries and the Gobineau correspondence leave no doubt that his influence on Wagner was negligible and that his influence on Parsifal was exactly zero.

Exclusion and Inclusion

The idea that Parsifal is a work about (and even advocating) exclusivity -- a community that limits its membership and its compassion to a chosen group -- has become commonplace since Gutman's book appeared. Those who accept this idea might pause to recall that the only authority Gutman cited for it was Adolf Hitler (in a source which has become regarded with suspicion by modern historians). They might also consider what happens in Parsifal, rather than in the distorted account of the drama given by Gutman. At the start of Parsifal we see and hear about a community in stagnation and decay. The king, Amfortas, who is both temporal and spiritual leader of the community, has commanded that his knights should stay within his domain, rather than venture out into the world, where Klingsor might defeat them. The community has turned inward -- and clearly for Wagner (surprisingly if we accept Gutman's characterization of Wagner as a racist, misogynist and ultra-nationalist) this is a bad thing.

Wagner 12.02.83
Left: Wagner sketched by Paul Joukowsky while playing the piano on 12 February 1883.

At  the end of Parsifal we see the arrival of a new king, a new temporal and spiritual leader, who commands that the Grail shall be uncovered -- and never covered again. The community will be re-established and it will turn outward. He brings with him a woman, Kundry, who enters the sanctuary as the first woman ever to do so. This is one of the ideas that Parsifal absorbed from the unfinished drama Die Sieger. Just as the Buddha, in the third act of Die Sieger, decided to admit a woman (the first of many) to his religious community, Parsifal does the same. The fact that Kundry dies in the sanctuary (which is an idea found in Indian traditions) does not reduced the importance of this act. It is also symbolized (at one of several levels of symbolism) by the reunion of the masculine symbol of the Spear and the feminine symbol of the Grail. This is no longer a sterile domain where masculine values are the only values. The eternal feminine has entered the domain of the Grail, where it will remain as long as the feminine symbol, the Grail, remains uncovered. The Grail community has become inclusive: a community that is one and undivided, as Wagner consistently argued that mankind had to be.

In his last years Wagner slowly resigned himself to the fact that he would not live to finish Die Sieger. His creative powers were beginning to fade as he struggled to finish the orchestration of Parsifal. He gave Cosima an excuse for not working on Die Sieger: in Parsifal, he said, he had expressed his idea of a community. It is not, as Gutman assumed, the community turned in on itself, the exclusive community, that was his ideal but the regenerated community that begins to appear in the closing minutes of the drama. A community in which there are both men and women, both masculine and feminine values. A community that has turned outward, never to close in on itself again. An open community in which there is compassion for all, both for those within the community and for those outside it.

Race and racial purity

A Tale of Two Wagners

open quotesI sometimes think there are two Wagners in our culture, almost unrecognizably different from one another: the Wagner possessed by those who know his work, and the Wagner imagined by those who know him only by name and reputation ... I have innumerable times heard well-meaning people say in minatory tones such things as, 'After all, one can't ignore the ideas behind these works', as if the ideas were quite different from what they are. Such people seem to think they know that the ideas are of a dictatorial and chauvinistic nature. This often goes together with another attitude that is widespread among people lacking acquaintance with the actuality of Wagner's work, and that is a sense of personal superiority towards it. close quotes

So Bryan Magee in his most recent book (Wagner and Philosophy, or The Tristan Chord) describes the gap between, on the one hand, Wagner as he is known to those who have studied his works, and on the other hand Wagner's misleading reputation as it is known by everybody else. Since everyone "knows" that Wagner was a racist, a chauvinistic nationalist and a womanizer, etc. then these things must be true. It comes as a surprise to many, myself included, to discover that this reputation is untrue and undeserved. Not least in the widely held view that Wagner was obsessed with ideas about race.

As  anyone who has studied Wagner's prose and poetic works -- whether in the original German (or in a few cases in the original French) or in the rather odd translations of Wm. Ashton Ellis (the Prose Works in eight volumes) -- will know, ideas about race and racial purity do not exactly leap out at the reader from every page. In five of the volumes of Ellis' Prose Works there are scarcely any references to race -- no more in any one of those volumes than can be counted on the fingers of one hand -- and in the remaining three volumes such references are limited to a few paragraphs in certain articles or essays, with the exception of a single late essay. So in the prose works alone, there is by no means enough evidence to support the hypothesis that Wagner was obsessed with ideas of race and racial purity. Further, such ideas are only to be found, if they are to be found, in the poetic works when they are subjected to aggressive and controversial analysis.

Something else that might strike the attentive reader is that the German word for "race", namely "Rasse", is conspicuous by its absence from Wagner's prose and poetic writings. If the books by Gutman and the lunatic fringe were to be believed, then one would expect that the word "Rasse" or its derivatives would be leaping out from every page of Wagner's writings. If anyone can give me one quotation from Wagner's writings in which he used the word "Rasse" then I should be most grateful because I have found none. Not a single example.

Dynasty of Kings and Lineage of Heroes

This does not mean that Wagner never mentions race, in a weaker sense of the word, even though the instances are few and far between. The word he prefers to use, most often, is "Geschlecht". There is no exact equivalent of this relatively elastic term in English, although there are cognates in most Germanic languages. One sense of "Geschlecht" is "sex", e.g. "das andere Geschlecht", the other sex. Another sense of "Geschlecht", the one that Wagner tended to use, means extended-family, dynasty or descent. Thus in the second act of Lohengrin, Ortrud publicly challenges Elsa as follows:

Kannst du uns es sagen, 
ob sein Geschlecht,
sein Adel wohl bewährt?
Can you tell us, 
whether his descent 
and nobility are well proved?

The word "Geschlecht" also appears in Parsifal:

Oh weh'! Wie trag' ich's im Gemüte, 
in seiner Mannheit stolzer Blüte
des siegreichsten Geschlechtes Herrn 
als seines Siechtums Knecht zu seh'n!
O woe! How it grieves me to see, 
in his prime, 
this lord of a victorious race 
fall a slave to this sickness!

Here Gurnemanz is referring to the lineage of Amfortas, i.e. the dynasty founded by Titurel. This might be seen as the same "Geschlecht" that was referred to earlier, the lineage of Lohengrin and Parsifal, since (according to Wolfram) both Parsifal and the king he will succeed are descended from the Titurel. That there is a common lineage is implicitly assumed in Wagner's libretto, perhaps because he wanted to emphasise that Parsifal gains the kingship through merit, not through right of inheritance. The point here is that in both passages "Geschlecht" (a generic term for race or kin) means a royal lineage. It does not mean, as Gutman wrongly assumed, a race of "distinctive Aryanism". Incidentally, Titurel was "siegreich", victorious, in the sense that he had won the Grail; his descendant Parsifal will become the "siegreich Vollendete", the victoriously perfect, by overcoming the world.

The word "Geschlecht" does not reappear in act one. One might think this curious, given Gutman's insistence that the drama is about race. It turns up again in act two:

Noch nie sah' ich 
solch' zieres Geschlecht
Never before have I seen 
such a handsome race

Here Parsifal is addressing the flower maidens. No doubt Gutman assumed that they were vegetables of "distinctive Aryanism". Otherwise the word "Geschlecht" does not reappear in Parsifal, nor does "Rasse" appear. The only other word that appears in the libretto that reasonably might be translated as "race" is "Stamm" (which Ellis consistently translated as "stem" but which might be better rendered as "lineage" or "dynasty"):

Sein Stamm verfiel mir, 
unerlöst soll der Heiligen Hüter 
mir schmachten
His dynasty ruined by my magic, 
the holy guardian will languish 

Here, in the first scene of act two, Klingsor is referring to Amfortas. Once again the reference is to the dynasty of Titurel, the royal race of Grail kings. In the third act there appear no words that might be translated as "race". As noted above, it has become commonplace to speak of Parsifal as a work filled with racism. Is it not remarkable that in the entire libretto there are only three words (two instances of "Geschlecht" and one of "Stamm") that might be translated as "race"? Perhaps Gutman's idea about the "racial crisis" was wrong?

The Pure Fool

Another of Gutman's claims is that Parsifal contains a subtext about racial purity. There are two small problems here. The first is that Wagner never stated, or even hinted, of the existence of such a subtext. The second is that the words "racial purity", or anything similar, never appear in the libretto. The word "purity" does appear, of course. It is through "purity" that Parsifal is able to overcome and destroy the power of Klingsor, the lord of illusion, and it is through "purity" that he achieves the enlightenment that qualifies him to become the Grail king. The meaning of purity in "Parsifal's purity" was explicitly stated by Wagner in a letter to Mathilde Wesendonk. There is nothing racial about it at all.

Semites and anti-Semites

Wagner's Anti-Semitism

Richard Wagner revealed his anti-Semitic views in his notorious Judaism in Music (1850), an article that seems to be aimed mainly at Meyerbeer, who is not mentioned by name, and to a lesser extent at Mendelssohn, who is. His hostility towards Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn and other Jewish musicians seems to have faded into the background after this outburst, and we find only occasional anti- Semitism in his writings until 1868, when Wagner's paranoia about the "Jews and Jesuits" in the Munich press and elsewhere led to his ill-judged decision to republish the essay. In his later years, as revealed by Cosima's Diaries, Wagner was constantly muttering about the "Jews and Jesuits", who were supposedly conspiring to frustrate his plans, except when he was directing his anger against the French.

As  mentioned above, Theodor Adorno put forward the opinion that some of Wagner's characters were anti-Semitic caricatures. There was already a tradition of perceiving "Jewish" characteristics in Mime. Although when Wagner wrote down for insertion in the score of Siegfried a description of Mime, emphasizing these supposedly "Jewish" characteristics, he realised that he had accurately described himself.

Kundry, Herodias and a Castrated Sorcerer

The allegation that there are anti-Semitic elements in the libretto of Parsifal mainly concerns Kundry and less often Klingsor. In the case of the former, we are told that the Herodias, whom Klingsor reveals was Kundry in an earlier life, was the princess of Judea who married first the Tetrarch Philip and then, after his death, his brother Herod. She appears in the New Testament, where we read that she intrigued to bring about the death of John the Baptist, who had condemned her life-style. Since Herodias was a notoriously bad person, it is unlikely that many girls were named after her, and therefore Klingsor's line Herodias warst du is a specific historical reference (as well as being a subtle reference to the Herodes of German folklore).

Klingsor and Kundry

The flaw in the argument that Kundry is an anti-Semitic element of the drama is that, as Wagner knew but those who argue for Herodias as an anti-Semitic reference obviously do not know, the biblical Herodias was not Jewish! Later Wagner would have read in Ernest Renan's Life of Jesus (if Cosima, who had read it some years before, had not told him already) that Herodias was notorious for her rejection of the Jewish religion, which she held in open contempt. A less obvious candidate for a "Jewish" character would be hard to imagine.

The idea that Kundry is a representative of Jewry, or of a supposedly Jewish element in the human mind, while being at the same time an embodiment of the eternal feminine, was put forward by Otto Weininger in his strange book Geschlecht und Charakter (known in English as Sex and Character, although it should be noted that the ambiguity of Geschlecht is lost in the translation), Vienna, 1903. Weininger's projection of his misogynistic ideas on to Wagner's Parsifal has been endorsed by Nike Wagner in her recent book Wagner Theatre (translated into English under the title, The Wagners: Dramas of a Musical Dynasty):

open quotesWeininger's model of woman, represented as a hopeless existential paradox, resembles Kundry in every respect. Parsifal almost seems to play out the arguments of Sex and Character in operatic form - or does Sex and Character state the theoretical assumptions from which Parsifal proceeds? One could argue that Weininger was more Wagnerian than Wagner: he even 'corrects' Wagner at certain points, as when he argues that Kundry should have died in Act Two, at the moment when Parsifal resisted her attempts to seduce him, rather than undergoing the prolonged religious conversion of the last act.close quotes
[The Wagners, Nike Wagner, tr. E. Osers and M. Downes, 2000, pp. 124-5.]

If Nike Wagner proves anything in the chapter from which I have quoted above, it is that one can twist her great- grandfather's dramas to say anything you want, provided that you are permitted to 'correct' Wagner! Those who, like Nike Wagner, choose to see Parsifal through the distorting lens of Sex and Character are entitled to do so, of course; but we should not take too seriously the claim that the interpretation of Wagner's work constructed by the deranged Weininger provides insight. Weininger's reading of Parsifal is just as much a subjective fantasy as the one put forward by Gutman, 65 years later.

Then there is Klingsor. Some (including Marc Weiner, who has a lot of strange ideas about Wagner) have argued that Klingsor is Jewish because he castrated himself and castration is very much like circumcision, which is a Jewish tradition. It might be news to Marc Weiner and others that castration is, in fact, not much like circumcision.

Friends and Lovers

As  noted above, Wagner was prejudiced not only against "Jewishness" (which he described as "a purely metaphysical concept") but also against the French and their "civilisation". As Bryan Magee states forcefully in his recent book about Wagner and philosophy, however we might view these prejudices, Wagner himself did not regard them as racial but as cultural. The fact that he was able to have close, even intimate, friends who were of French origin (like Cosima) or of Jewish origin (like Tausig, Porges or Rubinstein) confirms that his prejudices were not racial. In relation to Parsifal there is an extreme case of the apparent contradiction in which Wagner could reject a nation but accept its individual members. During the composition of the music, Judith Gautier played some kind of symbolic role, perhaps allowing Wagner to some extent to recreate (at least within his mind) the relationship with Mathilde Wesendonk that had enabled him to write Tristan. Not only was Judith of Jewish descent but she was French. Wagner's prejudices did not prevent him from having a love affair with Judith, almost entirely by correspondence (which was mostly destroyed by Wagner himself) between Wagner in Bayreuth and Judith in Paris. Something of Judith might be seen in the Kundry of act two, and it is only in this sense that there is anything Jewish -- or French -- about "mademoiselle Cundrie".

Parsifal and Christ

The Aryan Christ

The charge that Parsifal is the Aryan Christ, a redeemer who does not have to die, is one of the stranger ideas to have appeared and reappeared in recent decades. The first question that arises is whether Parsifal was intended as a Christ figure. Wagner vehemently denied that this was the case, on several occasions: I did not have the Saviour in mind at all, he said once. The suspicion remains, however, that he might have done.

The words "Erlösung" (redemption or release) and "Heil" (salvation) are to be found in most of Wagner's operas and dramas. Also in Parsifal, where there are no few references to "Heiland" (saviour) and "Erlöser" (redeemer). All of the references to "Heiland" and at least some of those to "Erlöser" appear to refer to Christ, although that title is never mentioned. Some of the references to "Erlöser" are ambiguous, however, such as Kundry's words to Parsifal in the second act:

Bist du Erlöser, 
was bannt dich, Böser, 
nicht mir auch zum Heil 
dich zu einen?
If you are a redeemer, 
what evil stops you, 
from uniting with me 
for my salvation?

And then:

Die Welt erlöse, 
ist dies dein Amt
Redeem the world, 
if that's your mission
Good Friday

These lines do not prove, however, that Parsifal is a redeemer or that it is his mission to redeem the world. Only that Kundry, the heathen, sees these possibilities. Earlier the pious Gurnemanz too had seen potential in the boy. If Parsifal is not a Christ figure then at least he is seen as one with the potential to redeem, if not the entire world, at least Kundry, Amfortas and the community of Monsalvat.

Behind the claim that Parsifal is the Aryan Christ lies the assumption that the agenda of Parsifal is about race, an assumption that we have already shown to be false. Wagner wrote that he was not concerned about the racial origins of Jesus of Nazareth: The blood of the Saviour which ran from his head and his wounds upon the cross; what sacrilege would it be to ask whether it belonged to the white race, or to any other race? (Herodom and Christendom).


Although many people still take them for granted, on close examination the respective claims that Wagner was a racist, that he was obsessed with ideas about race and that a racist agenda can be detected in his last drama, turn out not only to be unsupported but also refuted by hard evidence.

Wagner's posthumous reputation has been seriously damaged by three factors. One of them is the unfortunate fact that Adolf Hitler was a great fan of Wagner's music, which has left an association between Wagner and Nazism, one that was exaggerated by Adorno and developed by Gutman. The second factor, in the English-speaking world, is the lack of readable and accurate translations of Wagner's prose writings. Whilst in the original German Wagner's prose is almost impenetrable, in Wm. Ashton Ellis' mangled rendering the original meaning is obscured or even, in many instances, lost completely. Recent and current writers about Wagner take advantage of this situation by "explaining" Wagner's ideas for those who cannot penetrate either his prose or his poetry. Their "explanations" are, more often than not, distortions that build upon the mistaken ideas of Adorno and Gutman. Last but not least, Wagner's reputation has been damaged by the distorted account of Wagner as man and artist presented in Gutman's book; in which it was argued, with more conviction than logic or evidence, that Wagner was a racist. Some of Gutman's disciples have added the allegation that Wagner's anti-Semitism was racial in character. The best evidence that Gutman could find to support his allegation that Wagner was a racist, was the summary of Gobineau's theories presented by Wagner in Herodom and Christendom. Gutman misrepresented Wagner by claiming that these were his ideas, in other words, making Wagner appear as a racial theorist. This falsehood has been repeated by several other writers, despite the publication, since the appearance of Gutman's book, of Cosima's Diaries (1976) and the Gobineau correspondence (2000) respectively. In their treatment of the relationship between Wagner and Gobineau, Gutman and his disciples have viciously attacked Wagner for opinions that he not only did not hold but which he also rejected in his Herodom article. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that these writers were more concerned with finding sticks with which to beat Wagner than with the truth. Prominent among them is Paul L. Rose, whose anti-Wagner rant Race and Revolution was described by Michael Tanner as a prodigious work of hatred, and who asserts that Wagner the "racial theorist" invented racial anti-Semitism.

Gutman's fantastic interpretation of Parsifal rests on his idea that Wagner was a racist and a disciple of Gobineau and upon a fundamental misreading of the article Herodom and Christendom which he believed to reveal the ideas central to this drama. This interpretation has found widespread acceptance in particular in the USA. Therefore it is not unusual to encounter, especially in the US media, statements about Parsifal (for example in reviews of performances) which take it for granted that this work is a vegetarian concoction in which the main ingredients are race and anti-Semitism, seasoned with misogyny and homosexuality. Gutman's mistakes can be excused, to some extent, by his limited access to primary sources; they must be primarily attributed, however, to poor scholarship combined with a good measure of stupidity. On the other hand, the attacks on Wagner for his alleged racism (of which both Herodom and Christendom and Parsifal, by circular argument, are claimed to be evidence) by Zelinsky, Rose, Weiner and others can only be attributed to malice and hatred. These attacks show no sign of abating.

A more reasoned critique of Wagner and his views on race has been presented, in a number of books and essays, by the distinguished Wagner scholar, Professor John Deathridge. Although he has consistently argued that Wagner was a racist (and not only where the Jews were concerned), Deathridge takes exception to the hysterical writings of Zelinsky and his followers:

open quotes Taking his cue from, among other things, Wagner's description of Kundry's baptism and "annihilation" in Cosima Wagner's diaries ("annihilation" here referring to a quasi-Schopenhauerian negation of self and not to genocide), Zelinsky suggested that Kundry is "the representative of everything that Wagner associated with Judaism", including the wish for its destruction. There is no evidence for this whatsoever and indeed no one, not even Hitler, had ever made quite such an absurd claim... [Wagner] did compare Kundry with the "Wandering Jew", as we have seen, but only in the sense that she, too, is the victim of a "primeval curse" that condemns her to wander forever in constantly different guises, never able to die. That does not necessarily turn her into an allegory of Judaism. On the contrary, she seems about as far away from Wagner's idea of the consistent "purity" of the Jews as she can be -- the very opposite of the antirace she is supposed [by Zelinsky] to represent, which, quite unlike her ability to wander from one type of human being to another, is according to Wagner all the stronger, and hence all the more dangerous, precisely because of its immutable racial character. close quotes
[Wagner Beyond Good and Evil, John Deathridge, Univ. of California Press 2008, page 175]

Gutman's most fundamental error, with regard to Parsifal, was to ignore the 1865 Prose Draft, which already contains all of the central ideas of the drama. In fact, as Dr. Wolfgang Golther pointed out nearly a century ago, the ideas which underly Parsifal can be found already in letters that Wagner wrote while developing the scenario during the late 1850's. These ideas, the basis of a detailed Prose Draft which Wagner wrote in August 1865, are not concerned with race, anti-Semitism, misogyny or vegetarianism. The reader can verify for himself or herself that those subjects do not appear in the Prose Draft of 1865 or in the libretto of 1877, nor are they discussed in Wagner's letters to Mathilde Wesendonk. In 1877, before writing the poem/libretto, the prose draft was revised and expanded. Wagner fully developed the element of the spear as a connecting idea and motivation. From the revised draft Wagner wrote a libretto in the spring of that year. Therefore Gutman's claim that the libretto of Parsifal is based on ideas that occupied Wagner's mind in and around 1881 is evidently false and Gutman's fantastic interpretation of Parsifal (like his absurd interpretation of Tristan) is nonsense. His entire book belongs in the dustbin of history.

Footnote 1: Cosima's Diaries show that after meeting Gobineau for the second time, Wagner began reading some of his books, starting with La Renaissance in November 1880. In December he tried to read the poem Amadis, which he disliked, perhaps because of its racist undertones. Early in 1881 he moved on to the Nouvelles asiatiques, which he enjoyed, and then to the Essay on the Inequality of Human Races, which he began in March and finished in May. Before parting from the Wagners, Gobineau presented Richard with a copy of his Dogme et philosophie: Religions et philosophies dans l'Asie centrale, which Wagner read with great interest.

Footnote 2: The term regeneration writings should be, although it has not been, limited to the article Religion and Art (written at Naples in July 1880, published in October of the same year) and its three increasingly cranky supplements (What use is this knowledge?, December 1880; the anti-Semitic rant, Know thyself, February 1881; and Wagner's attempt at reconciliation with Count Gobineau, Heroism and Christianity, translated by William Ashton Ellis under the title Herodom and Christendom, September 1881). Ellis, who translated (with more enthusiasm than accuracy) Wagner's prose writings, thought that the unfinished fragment On the Womanly in the Human should be regarded as the completion of Wagner's circle of his thoughts about regeneration. The attempts by some of the authors mentioned to include all of Wagner's articles written for the Bayreuther Blätter in the regeneration writings are no more than a conspiracy to mislead. As in the main article Religion and Art there are passages in its supplement Herodom which touch upon the ideas underlying Parsifal. This does not mean that these regeneration writings reveal anything about the creative process from which that drama resulted. These passages are more cases of looking back on the ideas that led Wagner to Parsifal from the changed perspective -- with its components of pacifism, mysticism and vegetarianism -- of his last years. Gutman's claim that the libretto of Parsifal emerged from that perspective (which he also failed to understand) was not justified.

Footnote 3: The Gobineau correspondence consists of 79 letters. Of these 49 were written by Gobineau to members of the Wagner family, 28 by Cosima Wagner and 2 by Richard Wagner. The letters have been edited by Eric Eugène and the edition was published in 2000 as Richard et Cosima Wagner - Arthur Gobineau Correspondance, Librairie Nizet ed., Saint-Genouph.

Footnote 4: The following paragraph is taken from notes that Wagner made in his occasional diary, the Brown Book, in October 1881, when he was completing the full orchestral score of Act 2. The section is headed, Thoughts on the regeneration of mankind and of culture, and may have been intended as the outline for another essay in the series of "regeneration writings". In the mingling of races, the blood of the nobler males is ruined by the baser feminine element: the masculine element suffers, character founders, whilst the women gain as much as to take the men's place... The feminine thus remains owing deliverance: here art -- as there in religion; the immaculate Virgin gives birth to the Saviour. Here Wagner is taking an idea from Gobineau and turning it into a different idea.

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© Derrick Everett 1996-2011. This page last updated (added reference to Pott, a quotation from John Deathridge's recent book and an internal link) ---09/08/11 19:04:00---.