Notes on Wagner's Parsifal Act 3

Notes on Act 3 of Richard Wagner's last music-drama Parsifal, relating to interesting points in the Prose Draft of 1865.

Right: Wagner sketched by Paul Joukowsky while reading on 12 February 1883. He was reading Fouqué's Undine. Below: "Nur eine Waffe taugt", Arnaldo Dell'Ira (1903-1943).
Nur eine Waffe taugt - Arnaldo Dell'Ira.
A sketch of Wagner reading, dated 12.02.1883. Paul Joukowsky.

Pure Blood and Holy Blood

In Wagner's Gobineau-influenced essay, Herodom and Christendom, he considers how the degeneration of the human species might be attributed to two causes: the eating of animals (as suggested by Gleizès) and the mixing of races (as suggested by Gobineau). Wagner's remedy for this degeneration was the blood of Christ, which had for him a mystical significance:

open quotes Thus, if we found the faculty of conscious suffering peculiarly developed in the so-called white race, in the Saviour's blood we must now recognise the quintessence of free-willed suffering itself, that godlike compassion which streams through all the human species, its fount and origin. close quotes

[Heldenthum und Christenthum, September 1881]

Wagner's mention of the so-called white race is a reference to the ideas of Count Gobineau, ideas which he considered in the 1881 article. Gobineau suggested that the human species could be divided into three "races": respectively white, black and yellow. This was by no means new; it can be traced back to the biblical account of the sons of Noah. Gobineau further suggested that the so-called white race was superior to the black and yellow races. This idea was consistent with the colonialist mentality of the period. It should be noted that these ideas were put forward by Gobineau and only reported by Wagner.

Insofar as "pure blood" is a subtext in Parsifal, it must be understood in the context of this essay, i.e. in relation to Mitleid. In the same work, we can also follow two elements from Herodom and Christendom: firstly, the Buddhist-like reverence of the Grail community for birds and animals (hence their abstention from meat even when the divine food provided by the Grail is denied to them) and secondly, the ritual cleansing of Kundry in baptism (allowing her release from the eternal cycle of rebirth) which Barry Millington (in his biography of Richard Wagner) sees as an expression of a Schopenhauerian pacification of the will (obliteration of the whole being, of all earthly desire, he told Cosima).

There is more to Parsifal than meets the eye; in his letters and in confidences to Cosima, Wagner hinted that there were hidden secrets in the work. Those secrets are not necessarily, however, as dark as some would have us believe. Some commentators (including Millington) take the view that the drama is infused with the ideas of Wagner's last decade: a heady mix of Schopenhauerian pessimism, antivivisection and vegetarianism, and strange theories about race and blood. Also, not least, Wagner's theories of art and religion, and his hopes for the future of mankind, as expressed in the somewhat incoherent essays of his last years.