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Joseph Campbell on Parsifal

Joseph Campbell circa 1984

In the Creative Mythology volume of his The Masks of God (1968), the mythologist Joseph Campbell traced how artists since the Middle Ages have used myth, which Wagner described as an inexhaustible source for the poet. Campbell followed trails that lead from the works of the medieval poets Gottfried von Strasburg and Wolfram von Eschenbach to the handling of the same myths by Richard Wagner and James Joyce. The extract below is a digression in the middle of a longer discussion of the Gawain and Orgelûse section of Wolfram's Parzival. Campbell explains how the second act of Wagner's Parsifal is related to the events of book XII in Wolfram's poem and how it differs. He begins by referring to the brief mention of Parzival in the story of Orgelûse; who had offered herself to the hero if he would be her champion, an offer that he politely declined.

open quotes ...We are to hear no more from Wolfram of this encounter of Parzival and Orgelûse. Wagner, however, devotes to it his entire second act. Act I is at the Temple of the Grail; Act III is to be there again. In Act II, however, the curtain rises upon Klingsor, sitting high in the magic tower of his Castle of Marvels, watching in his necromantic mirror (Wagner's adaption of the radiant radar-pillar) the unwitting approach of Parsifal, who here is still the Great Fool. Klingsor's castle and Titurel's Temple of the Grail are in Wagner's legend opposed, as evil and good, dark and light, in a truly Manichean dichotomy. They are not, as in the earlier work, equally enspelled by a power alien to both. close quotes

open quotes Moreover, Kundry, in whom Wagner has fused the chief female roles and characters of the legend (Orgelûse, Cundrie, and Sigûne), together with something of the Valkyrie, a touch of Goethe's Ewig-Weibliches, and a great deal of the Gnostic Sophia ¹, is herself enspelled by Klingsor and, against her will, his creature, yearning to be free. It was she, as his creature and agent — not, as in Wolfram's work, in her own interest, against his, who seduced the Grail King, Amfortas. And it had been when he was lying heedless in her toils, like Samson seduced by Delilah, that Klingsor, stealing his unguarded lance — the same that had pierced Christ's side — delivered a wound that would never heal until a saviour — the prophesied "guileless fool" — should appear and touch it with the selfsame point. close quotes

The healing of the Fisher King

open quotes Such a wound suggests, obviously, the wound of the arrow of love, which can be healed only by a touch of the one from whom the arrow came. In Wagner's work, however, the allegory is of lust and violence transformed by innocence to compassion (eros and thanatos to agape)... In Wolfram's epic, Trevrizent states that when the planets are in certain courses, or the moon at a certain phase, the king's wound pains terribly and the poison on the point of the spear becomes hot. Then, he declares, they lay that point on the wound and it draws the chill from the king's body, which hardens to glass all around the spear, like ice. close quotes

open quotes There is the Greek legend, furthermore, of the hero Telephos [Latin form: Telephus], wounded by Achilles in the upper thigh with a wound that will not heal. An oracle declares, He that wounded shall also heal!, and after a long and painful quest Telephos finds Achilles and is healed. Or, according to another reading, the cure is effected by the weapon: the remedy being scraped off the point and sprinkled on the wound. close quotes

open quotes It is an old old mythic theme related to that of Medusa, whose blood from the left side brought death, but from the right, healing. Or we may think of the elder Isolt and poison of Morold's sword. In Wolfram's Parzival it plays but a minor part: [it] is only once mentioned by Trevrizent. And the lance, moreover, is there in the Castle of the Grail, not Clinschor's palace. Wagner, in contrast, has elevated the lance theme to the leading role in his opus, in his own mind equating the poison with Tristan's wound. And in fact, he had been still at work on his Tristan when the idea of a Parsifal first occurred to him; still at the height, moreover, of his own Tristan affair with Mathilde Wesendonck, and even, even living, together with his tortured wife, Minna, in a house named the "Asyl" that had been provided by Mathilde and her patient spouse, Otto, adjacent to their home. The year, as we read in Wagner's own story of his life, was 1857; the month, April; and the day [Wagner claimed] — Good Friday. Richard and Minna had arrived the previous September in Zurich, and it was there, in the "Asyl", as the tells, that he finished, that winter, Act I of Siegfried and commenced work seriously on Tristan. close quotes

open quotes Now came [he states] beautiful spring weather, and on Good Friday I awoke to find the sun shining brightly into this house for the first time; the little garden was blooming and the birds singing, and at last I could sit out on the parapeted terrace of the little dwelling and enjoy the longed-for tranquillity that seemed so fraught with promise. Filled with this sentiment, I suddenly said to myself that this was Good Friday and recalled how meaningful this had seemed to me in Wolfram's Parzival. Ever since that stay in Marienbad, where I had conceived Die Meistersinger and Lohengrin, I had not taken another look at that poem; now its ideality came to me in overwhelming form, and from the idea of Good Friday I quickly sketched out an entire drama in three acts. close quotes

The cottage that Wagner called 'das Asyl'

Above: The "Asyl", on a green hill in the Enge district of Zurich.

open quotes Already in Tannhäuser, 1842-1844, the main lines of Wagner's interpretation of the Grail themes had been anticipated. The "Venusberg Bacchanal" is there a prelude to Klingsor's Garden of Enchantment, and the song of the poet Tannhäuser in celebration of the love grotto, altogether in the spirit of a Tristan:

    So that my yearning may forever burn,
    I quicken myself forever at that spring.

However, the song there assigned to Wolfram as the rival singer in the song contest is (ironically) a paean to love as a heavenly gift — not at all "right through the middle"2, between black and white, sky and earth:

Thou comest as come from God, And I follow at respectful distance.

close quotes

open quotes Two years after his Good Friday morning inspiration in the roof tower of the "Asyl", Wagner was at work in Lucerne, in May 1859, on the last act of his Tristan, when the analogy of Tristan's wound with the wound of Amfortas in the opera yet to be written filled him with an appalled realization of the task he had assigned himself. What a devilish business!, he wrote at that time in a letter to Mathilde. Imagine, in Heaven's name, what has happened! Suddenly it has become hideously clear to me: Amfortas is my Tristan of Act III in a state of inconceivable intensification... close quotes

Below: The daughters of Mára, lord of love and death, attempt to seduce the Lord Buddha as he seeks total enlightenment.

The daughters of Mára dance seductively around the Bodhisat

open quotes In short: in Wagner's recognition of the wound of the Grail king as the same as that of Tristan — with his Parsifal then standing for an idealized, released and releasing state of sunlike, boyish innocence — there is a reflex of his own entangled life, with loyalty to anyone or anything but himself the last thought in his mind or strain of truth in his heart. His Parsifal of Act II is still the nature boy of Act I, has gone through no ordeal of theological disillusionment or entry into knighthood, is unmarried, in fact knows nothing yet of either love or life, and is simply — to put it in so many words — a two hundred pound bambino with a tenor voice. The baritone Klingsor, gazing into his mirror, sees the innocent approaching, jung und dumm, and like the Indian god of love and death3, tempter of the Buddha, conjures up, to undo the saving hero, a spectacle of damsels in a garden of enchantment, rushing about, all in disarray, as though suddenly startled from sleep. But, like the Buddha on the immovable spot, sitting beneath the Bo-tree, indifferent to both the allure of sex and the violence of weapons (unlike the Lord Buddha, however, in that he is not full, but empty, of knowledge), Parsifal, the guileless fool, simply has no idea of what these simpering women might be. How sweet your scent!, he sings to them. Are you flowers?. close quotes

open quotes Kundry tells him of his father's fame and mother's death; of how she knew his father and mother, and has known himself since childhood (another Brünnhilde to a Siegfried); tells him it was she who named him Parsi-fal, the "Pure Fool", and, inviting him to her mothering arms, plants a kiss full on the boy's mouth with a fervor that fills him first with intense terror, but then ... with an appalled realization of the sense of Amfortas' wound: not, that is to say, with passion for the female, but with compassion for the male!

  Amfortas! [he cries] The wound! The wound!
    It is burning, now, in my heart.
    The wound I beheld bleeding:
    It is bleeding now, within me.

Well, that is hardly Wolfram von Eschenbach! close quotes

open quotes Klingsor, like the tempter of the Buddha, now changing from his character as lord of desire to his other as lord of death, appears with the precious lance in hand, which with a curse he flings. But again as in the legend of the Buddha, where the weapons of the lord of death, though flung at the saviour, never strike him, when the great spear reaches Parsifal it hangs floating overhead; he simply makes the sign of the Cross, reaches up, takes hold of it, and will bear it now to Amfortas (Act III) to heal the sorrowful wound; and as from an earthquake the Castle and Garden of Enchantment disappear, the damsels collapse to the ground like faded flowers (see the Buddha's "graveyard vision"), and the curtain falls. close quotes

Footnote 1: Divine Wisdom, fallen (or enspelled) through ignorance; entrapped in the toils of this world illusion, of which — ironically — her own captured energy is the creative force. [Author's note]
Footnote 2: "Right through the middle" was Wolfram's explanation of the name Parzival. [Editor's note]
Footnote 3: He means the deva Mára, who, with his army and his daughters, tried to prevent the Buddha from achieving total enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. There are many similar accounts of this struggle in Buddhist texts. For example, the anonymous Apadanatthakatha contains these lines: The wrathful Mára, unable to contain his surge of anger, hurled his discus towards the future Buddha. This weapon remained standing like a canopy of flowers above the one who was absorbed in meditation on the different perfections. [Editor's note]