The Symbolism of Parsifal

From a Program Note by Deryck Cooke, 1962

Grail scene from Wieland Wagner's 'New Bayreuth' staging of Parsifal. Above: the Grail ceremony from Wieland Wagner's "New Bayreuth" staging of Parsifal.

Sex and Chastity

Yet even with an outstanding performance of Parsifal, what are we to make of Wagner's final masterpiece, a work whose "message" has attracted a great deal of adverse criticism, from Nietzsche and Debussy to certain lesser writers of the present day? Seen from the point of view of our own time, its symbolism, on the face of it, presents a black-and-white conflict between sex, as an evil thing, and chastity, as a good thing. And so it would seem to recommend the sick view of certain religious sects, which has caused untold suffering and mental illness through the ages, and which we are still trying to eradicate today. Both sex and chastity, most of us believe, can be good or evil, according to the context in which either occurs and to how far the people involved are aware of the consequences of both. So Parsifal would seem to be a difficult work to identify ourselves with — the more so since it is by Wagner, of all people: he himself lived a full sexual life, he symbolized in Tristan und Isolde the transcendental value of sexual love, and he revealed in Die Meistersinger an affectionate fellow-feeling with the normal human situation — two young people so much in love that they can hardly wait to get married.

Was it that in Parsifal, his last work, completed only a year before his death at the age of 70, Wagner had changed his whole way of thinking? Scarcely, since 37 years earlier he had presented, in Tannhäuser, a similar black-and-white symbolic conflict between sex and chastity. The answer to the problem is that the symbolism, like most symbolism, is not as simple as it looks; because Wagner, certainly in Parsifal, was treating the subject in a very special, confined way. After all, the sex in Parsifal actually is evil, being pure sexual gratification without love, and without even having an interest in the partner as a person; and the chastity in Parsifal actually is good, being essential for a brotherhood devoted to a great spiritual task. There are no ordinary men or women in Parsifal and so the whole vast middle ground of normal sexual love is simply omitted. That Wagner still recognised this middle ground as being there, and as a normal and natural thing, is evident when Gurnemanz turns Parsifal out of the Hall of the Grail at the end of Act I, with the words "A gander should look for a goose!" Since Parsifal, as it seems to him, is only a simple lad, and not the redeemer, "the innocent fool, enlightened by compassion" for whom the brotherhood have been waiting, he had better leave the Land of the Grail, rejoin the world of men and women, and get himself a wife.

In consequence, the evil sex in Parsifal is perhaps best seen as the most vivid possible symbol of indiscriminate sensual gratification of any and every kind, and the fundamental theme of the work as the necessity, for those intent on fulfilling some great spiritual task, of renouncing such gratification as a side-tracker and destroyer (Klingsor and Kundry) of great purpose (Amfortas and Parsifal). Wagner's heart-searching music certainly confirms this, since what it expresses, in the most noble way, is purity of spirit, loss of purity, suffering, compassion, love, renunciation and regeneration.

It may be argued, of course, that such noble ideas can only seem suspect, coming from a man who himself was hardly one to renounce sensual gratification, and that the work is a bad case of artistic insincerity. In fact, Wagner himself lends support to this point of view in a remarkable sentence he once wrote: Mine is a highly susceptible, intense, voracious sensuality, which must somehow or other be flattered if my mind is to accomplish the agonising labour of calling a non-existent world into being. 1

Parsifal and the Flower Maidens - H.G. Fell Left: Parsifal and the Flower Maidens. An illustration by H.G. Fell.

A Great Spiritual Task

Nevertheless, we have to take into account, together with this confession, a more famous remark of Wagner's, to the effect that, if he had not been an artist, the one thing he would have wanted to be was a saint, which was of course impossible for him as an artist2. Wagner realised his own spiritual limitations: he was driven by his musico-dramatic genius, and it was a sheer necessity for him that his "sensuality" should be "flattered", if he was to carry out the demands of that genius. To be a saint, he would have had to give up everything, even his art, and that he was simply unable to do. Perhaps we should be grateful that he was unable, since he gave so much in the world of art.

Even so, why, in Parsifal, should he put forward the message that sensual gratification has to be renounced by those dedicated to a great spiritual task? The answer is that the question is based on the false premise that an artist should be capable of practising what he preaches. Few men can do that: scarcely any priest would undertake to be capable of doing so, and as an artist, not having undertaken the mission of a priest, is even less capable. Inside Wagner the artist, as he himself said, was a saint trying to get out: in his life, the saint never got out at all but something like it did in his art, and above all in Parsifal. Wagner's artistic heart and ideals were in the right place, whatever he may have done in his everyday life.

In any case, we have to acknowledge that Wagner himself was engaged in a great spiritual task, the demands of which compelled him to go for long periods without sensual gratification. He did not regard his music-dramas as entertainment, even in the highest sense, nor are they: they are, in the broadest sense of the word, religious moralities — profound artistic expressions of the conflict between the good (creative) and evil (destructive) ways of life. He spent a quarter of a century working on The Ring, to put forward a truth which is still ignored by society today: that the pursuit of power is the root of all evil, and that love, or better, the renunciation of the material world, is the only good. Hence the resumption of the idea of renunciation, with more explicitly religious symbolism, in the work that followed: Parsifal.

Act I of Parsifal: Grail Scene, Bayreuth 1930 Above: the Grail scene from the first act of Parsifal. Bayreuth 1930.


Footnote 1: ... meine stark gereizte, feine, ungeheuer begehrliche, aber ungemein zarte und zärtliche Sinnlichkeit, muß irgend wie sich geschmeichelt fühlen, wenn meinem Geiste das blutig schwere Werk der Bildung einer unvorhandenen Welt gelingen soll. Richard Wagner writing to Franz Liszt, 15 January 1854. Liszt-Briefe II nr.308.

Footnote 2: ... wäre ich nicht Künstler, so könnte ich Heiliger werden; diese Erlösung ist mir aber nicht bestimmt. (... were I not an artist, I could become a saint, but I am not destined for that kind of redemption.)Richard Wagner writing to Hans von Bülow, 27 September 1858. Bülow-Briefe nr.43, p.106-8.