But what happens in Parsifal ?

The Inner Action of the Drama

Act 1 - In the first act, in the "holy ground" outside the Grail castle, Parsifal feels an intimation of pity after killing the swan. (The scene with the swan is peripheral to the outer action but crucial to the inner.)

On witnessing Amfortas' agony during the Grail ceremony in the castle, he feels a compulsive pain in his own heart, but he does not yet dare to ask the "redeeming question": his compassion is still dull and inarticulate. (The motivation seems to have become confused: would Amfortas be relieved of his agony if Parsifal asked the cause of it at this point? Or must he wait for the return of the spear which he lost to Klingsor when he succumbed to Kundry? Die Wunde schliesst der Speer nur, der sie schlug. (Only the spear that struck it heals the wound.) The answer lies in the interrelationship of pragmatic and symbolic elements, which is the principle underlying the dramatic structure of Parsifal: the spear that heals the wound is to be interpreted as a symbol of compassion, the reversal of will as Schopenhauer understood it. This compassion is not a negative emotion but insight into the suffering of the world, and the only consolation for it is recognition of the lack of any consolation, in other words, resignation.)

Act 2 - In the second act, Parsifal, the pure fool, is made cosmically clear-sighted by Kundry's kiss. He feels in himself the temptation, the longing and suffering of Amfortas, and perceives the world as the aggregation of common guilt and an unending circle of misery, which can be broken only by compassion and renunciation, by rejection of the will and its blind urging and compulsion.

Act 3 - The events of the third act, Kundry's baptism, Amfortas's healing and the redemption of the Grail from guilt-stained hands - the hands of Amfortas as the representative of a world of entanglement and compromises - are nothing more than the fulfilment of what is already foreseeable at the end of the second, once Parsifal has regained the spear. (Parsifal's wanderings in search of the Grail, which are portrayed in the prelude to the third act, are a check on the progress of the action but do not affect the outcome.1)

But although the last act is uneventful by the normal dramatic criteria it is not just a ritual, the mere enactment and symbolic representation of a long foregone conclusion. It presents a third stage in the inner action: the compassion that is a dull sensation in the first act, and widens into recognition, cosmic perception [Welthellsicht] in the second, is at last directed outwards in the third as a deed of redemption. Parsifal becomes the Grail King, not an anchorite, and does not turn his back on the world.

[From Richard Wagner's Music Dramas, Carl Dahlhaus.]


Postscript: Eternal Justice

Other commentators disagree to a lesser or greater extent with the views expressed above. Ulrike Kienzle, in a perceptive study of Parsifal entitled Das Weltüberwindungswerk, takes another view of the symbolism of the spear. She notes that when the spear is used as a weapon it only wounds the individual (first Amfortas and then Klingsor) who wields it, that is, the aggressor. Therefore it is possible to see the spear as a metaphor for what Schopenhauer called eternal justice2. This aspect of Schopenhauer's philosophy can be found presented in another of Wagner's dramas; it forms part of the Wahn monologue in Die Meistersinger:

open quotesDriven to flight he deludes himself that he is the hunter;
does not hear his own cry of pain;
when he digs into his own flesh
he is deluded that he gives himself pleasure!close quotes

According to Schopenhauer our individual existence is only apparent (in the world as representation), not real; there is no separation of existence in the eternal world (as will). When we injure others, we only harm ourselves; when we bite into the flesh of another being, we dig into our own flesh.

Footnote 1: Here Dahlhaus failed to see that the hero's wanderings are a necessary precondition of the outcome.

Footnote 2: Eternal justice is dealt out to us by the universe; in contrast to voluntary justice, which we may deal to each other.