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Lévi-Strauss on Wagner's Parsifal

Claude Lévi-Strauss

In his essay on Parsifal, the anthropologist Claude Lévi- Strauss considered the relationship between Wagner's text and some of his medieval sources. He considered the question which is a central element of these texts to be necessary because of a break in communication between two worlds: respectively, the supernatural, represented by the Grail castle and the terrestrial, represented by King Arthur's court.

open quotes A spell has disrupted communication between these two worlds, which are distinct - although for the Celtic mind, it is possible to pass from one to the other. Since that break in communication, King Arthur's court ... has been on the move constantly, waiting for news. In fact, King Arthur never holds court until someone has announced an event to him. Thus, this terrestrial court is in quest of answers to questions that are perpetually posed by its anxious agitation. In symmetrical fashion, the court of the Grail, whose immobility is symbolized by the paralysis of the king's lower limbs, offers, likewise perpetually, an answer to questions that no one asks it.close quotes

open quotes In this sense, we can say that there exists a model, which may be universal, of Percevalian myths. It is the reverse of another, equally universal model - that of the Oedipal myths¹, whose problematical structure is symmetrical though inverted. For the Oedipal myths pose the problem of a communication that is at first exceptionally effective (the solving of the riddle), but then leads to excess in the form of incest - the sexual union of people who ought to be distant from one another - and of plague, which ravages Thebes by accelerating and disrupting the great natural cycles. On the other hand, the Percevalian myths deal with communication interrupted in three ways: the answer offered to an unanswered question (which is the opposite of a riddle); the chastity required of one or more heroes (contrary to incestuous behaviour); and the wasteland - that is, the halting of the natural cycles that ensure the fertility of plants, animals and human beings. close quotes

The Holy Grail appears to Arthur and his knights

open quotes As we know, Wagner rejected the motif of the unasked question and replaced it with a motif that somewhat reverses it while performing the same function. Communication is assured or re-established not by an intellectual operation but by an emotional identification. Parsifal does not understand the riddle of the Grail and remains unable to solve it until he relives the catastrophe at its source... close quotes

open quotes In Wagner, indeed, there is no King Arthur's court; and hence the issue is not the resurrection of communication between the earthly world - represented by this court - and the beyond. The Wagnerian drama unfolds entirely between the kingdoms of the Grail and of Klingsor: two worlds, of which one was, and will again be, endowed with all virtues; while the other is vile and must be destroyed. There is, hence, no question of restoring or even establishing any mediation between them. By the annihilation of the one and the restoration of the other, the latter alone must endure and establish itself as a world of mediation... close quotes

It was obvious to Lévi-Strauss that the domain of the Grail and the domain of Klingsor were opposites (and opposites are, according to Lévi-Strauss, important structural elements of myths). In the former, there is accelerated communication, excess, tropical vegetation, mocking laughter, an Oedipal relationship (Kundry is both Jocasta and Sphinx) and a woman who poses a riddle for Parsifal. In the latter, there is silence, sterility, decay and an answer is offered to an unasked question.

open quotes Thus, the problem, in mythological terms, would be to establish an equilibrium between the two opposite worlds. To do so, one should probably, like Parsifal, go into and come out of the one world and be excluded from and re-enter the other world. Above all, however (and this is Wagner's contribution to universal mythology), one must know and not know. In other words, one must know what one does not know, Durch Mitleid wissend ("knowing through compassion") - not through an act of communication but through a surge of pity, which provides mythical thinking with a way out of the dilemma in which its long unrecognised intellectualism has risked imprisoning it. close quotes

Footnote 1: Although Lévi-Strauss does not mention it, the story of young Telephus presumably belongs to the class of Oedipal myths. In one version of the myth (that which is portrayed on the Pergamon Altar), Telephus consults the Delphic Oracle, which sends him to the region of Mysia in search of his own origins. After heroic deeds, Telephus almost marries his mother.