Friday, April 9, 2010

Parsifal: Like Zazenkai, Only Louder

Not Parsifal
Not Parsifal, Dresden, 2010

My parents are major Wagner freaks. They somehow manage to wangle themselves tickets to Bayreuth just about every year, and my father even has one of those little gold rings on his lapel that mean that he's a member of some kind of secret Wagner brotherhood. I figure it's sort of like a Wagner black belt. At least some people at the opera got this awed expression when noticing it. When they offered to invite me and my wife to attend a performance of Wagner's Parsifal in Dresden, we jumped at the chance.

I'm not a Wagner fanatic by any means, although I have seen a few of his main works in live performances and a couple more on TV. When the Ring was playing at the Helsinki opera, I only missed Rheingold; I've also seen Lohengrin there, as well as half of Tannhäuser when Deutsche Oper was visiting. One of the first operas I saw was Der Fliegende Holländer, at the Savonlinna opera festival. I greatly enjoyed most of them, especially after something about Tannhäuser "clicked" and I found myself able to make more sense of it all afterwards.

Parsifal was nothing like I expected. Wagner's operas are big, epic, and packed with action, with huge build-ups to immense musical, emotional, and dramatic climaxes. Parsifal has a slow, almost meditative pace, with only two or three scenes per act, and they flow into each other without pauses. Each of the three acts builds to a single peak near the end. The music is rich, complex, and subtle, and would take much more than a single performance to be able to truly appreciate, even for a musician, let alone a layman. According to Mark Twain's classic account of his visit to Bayreuth, in which he says that he quite enjoyed Parsifal "in spite of the singing," most people only learn to appreciate it after seeing it several times.

In other words, in writing about this topic, I am even more out of my depth than usual. If you're looking for an expert's view on Parsifal and Buddhism, stop reading now and read this instead.

I had done a little bit of reading in preparation for the performance. In particular, I read Paul Schofield's book The Redeemer Reborn: Parsifal as the fifth opera of the Ring. Paul Schofield is a former Zen monk as well as a major Wagner nut. Parsifal is regarded as the most Buddhist of Wagner's operas, so I was quite keen to read what he had to say about it. I was disappointed. He tried to shoehorn Parsifal into a simplistic Buddhist format, with clear one-to-one correspondences with Buddhist ideas. In particular, I was left unconvinced by his central thesis – that the four main characters in Parsifal are the four main characters of the Ring reborn, and that Parsifal is an account of the final lifetime of three of them.

Parsifal is a complex work from a complex time. As such, it lends itself to any number of possible interpretations. Some of them no doubt reflect Wagner's explicit creative intent. Far more will reflect his unspoken, intuitive and artistic insights. Yet more will reflect human nature. And, as any great art, the whole will also serve as a mirror in which each of us can see ourselves.

The second half of the 19th century was an exciting time. The edifice of modern Western philosophy was being busily erected. One line of that philosophy can be traced back to Immanuel Kant's ideas regarding the nature of reality and the foundations of ethics. That line ran through Arthur Schopenhauer, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Edmund Husserl, and eventually gave us Sartre and Baudrillard and their intellectual heirs. The common thread uniting these philosophers is an interest in the relationship between the universe and the way we perceive it; in Schopenhauer's terms, the noumenon and phenomena.

Arthur Schopenhauer was the first serious European thinker to make an attempt at understanding Buddhism. Unfortunately, he had no access to actual practitioners of Buddhism, and had to work from second, third, or fourth-hand translations of Buddhist texts. As such, it is no big surprise that he misinterpreted some fairly central bits in it. In fact, I believe we owe to Schopenhauer the still common perception of Buddhism as a pessimistic, even nihilistic religion: he confused the concepts of "emptiness" and "nothingness," and interpreted nirvana as simply a state of non-being.
For a way-cool fictional treatment of Schopenhauer Buddhists, try playing the classic (but recently re-released) computer role-playing game Planescape: Torment. It includes a community of spiritual practitioners called Dustmen, whose purpose in life is to escape the endless cycle of rebirth and find True Death – final oblivion.
Richard Wagner was a big admirer of Schopenhauer. Many of Schopenhauer's ideas made it into Wagner's work. Of these, Tristan und Isolde (which I haven't seen) and Parsifal are the most notable. In fact, his one-time friend and bitter intellectual opponent of Schopenhauer's, Friedrich Nietzsche, eventually broke off their friendship over Parsifal. 

In Schopenhauer's philosophy, the natural condition of humanity is suffering. The suffering is brought about by Will, which he understood as fundamental to the universe: the will to live. Therefore, he believed that the only way to be redeemed from suffering was by renouncing the Will. He saw the renunciation of sex as its highest stage, since sex is the Universe concretely manifesting its Will to live and perpetuate life. The way to renunciation of the Will was through compassion: only by setting another's needs before yours, even to the point of sacrificing your life for them, do you have a hope of genuinely renouncing the Will (rather than merely suppressing it).

Nietzsche wouldn't have any of it.
"Life is only suffering": so say others, and lie not. Then see to it that YE cease! See to it that the life ceaseth which is only suffering!

And let this be the teaching of your virtue: "Thou shalt slay thyself! Thou shalt steal away from thyself!"—

"Lust is sin,"—so say some who preach death—"let us go apart and beget no children!"

"Giving birth is troublesome,"—say others—"why still give birth? One beareth only the unfortunate!" And they also are preachers of death.

"Pity is necessary,"—so saith a third party. "Take what I have! Take what I am! So much less doth life bind me!"

Were they consistently pitiful, then would they make their neighbours sick of life. To be wicked—that would be their true goodness.

But they want to be rid of life; what care they if they bind others still faster with their chains and gifts!

When Richard Wagner in Parsifal so obviously sided with the "Preachers of Death," it's no big surprise that Nietzsche broke with him, too. Nevertheless, I think his interpretation of Parsifal as merely an illustration of Schopenhauer's philosophy of renunciation and redemption through compassion is as superficial as Paul Schofield's take of it as an expression of the Buddhadharma intuitively and deeply understood by Richard Wagner, despite only having encountered it through third- and fourth-hand accounts, in particular by way of Schopenhauer's (mis)interpretation.

The fulcrum of Parsifal is the encounter between Parsifal and Kundry, which forms most of the second act. This is also where Wagner took the greatest liberties with his source material, Wolfram von Eschenbach's medieval epic Parzival. The second act is, on the surface, simple. Parsifal easily fights his way through the antagonist Klingsor's knights, then is tempted by a bunch of luscious flower maidens, to meet Kundry, who is in my view the single most psychologically complex and important character in the opera by far.

Kundry, whom we encountered in the first act as the Grail Messenger, having returned with balm from Araby to treat Amfortas, the wounded Grail King, is also bound to serve Klingsor, who has tasked her with seducing Parsifal and thereby defeating his quest for the Spear and the Grail. Most of the act is between her and Parsifal, and it kicks serious ass – it's more complex and psychologically believable by far than the simplistic pure-knight-fails-to-be-tempted-by-foul-temptress thing that you would expect. It is here that Wagner turns von Eschenbach's fundamentally simple and entirely Christian Grail tale into something rather different. He does it by turning the poem's cardboard-cutout knight in shining armor into a flesh-and-blood human being, with complex motivations, internal conflicts, weaknesses and strengths, whose heroism lies in a deep undercurrent of sincerity and compassion. Parsifal does not simply experience compassion for Amfortas and consequently reject Kundry; his compassion and anguish also encompasses Kundry and, through her, perhaps, "all sentient beings."

This is, indeed, the most clearly Buddhist moment in the opera. I concur with Paul Schofield that Wagner does grasp the meaning of karuna and metta in a fundamental way that Schopenhauer's intellectual approach misses, even if the scene has all of Schopenhauer's ingredients in it – compassion leading to the renunciation of the Will as manifested by letting go of sexual and, later in the scene, romantic temptation. Parsifal's enlightenment is anything but a renunciation of life and embrace of oblivion. (This must have been a pretty big shift for Wagner, too, since he had written that he saw sexual love as a potential way out of Schopenhauer's suffering, and explored this theme in depth in Tristan und Isolde.)

Nevertheless, this is also about as far as Wagner's Buddhism goes. The conclusion of the opera returns to more familiar Christian ground. Parsifal – by now the fully realized bodhisattva that he became in the scene with Kundry – returns to Montsalvat, the Grail Castle, after years of wandering in the wilds, and proceeds to redeem Kundry through baptism and heal Amfortas through the intermediary of the spear he recaptured from Klingsor, and take on Amfortas's role of Grail King for himself.

Just like in the second act, the presentation of this apparently simple story turns it into something different, and greater. Parsifal the bodhisattva is entirely human, and more connected than ever to the people he is redeeming; he has lost none of his own frailty, and carries the suffering of Amfortas and Kundry. This is a remarkable insight: it is far removed from the popular conception of the enlightened being as someone floating above worldly concerns in serene detachment, as he radiates a benign, mushy loving-kindness to all and sundry. Parsifal's compassion is personal and universal at the same time, and as such the best artistic representation of what the bodhisattva ideal really means that I have come across.

However, the story no longer fits into the pat Buddhist morality tale that Schofield tries to construct for it.

While the bodhisattva vows indeed include the vow to liberate all sentient beings, there is no room in Buddhist thought for magical, instantaneous redemption by grace of an external party, however enlightened. Every one of us creates our own redemption or damnation, and while our actions can and do affect others, there is nothing and no-one who can do the work for us. A genuinely Buddhist third act would have seen Parsifal indicate the path to redemption for Kundry and Amfortas, but both would have had to walk that path by themselves. Conversely, a genuinely Christian second act would not have seen Parsifal enlightened through his compassion for Amfortas, then Kundry, then all sentient beings, but through faith and the grace of God. The dove would not have descended over his head toward the end of the third act, but in the middle of the second, after Kundry's kiss.

Parsifal is an immensely complex, many-layered, many-faceted work of art. As any great art, it refuses simple interpretations. It cannot be pigeonholed; categorized as exclusively this or that. An illustration of Schopenhauer's ideas? Certainly. An intuitive insight that goes beyond Schopenhauer? Definitely: Parsifal has none of Schopenhauer's pessimism; the outcome of enlightenment is not death or oblivion (and those stagings that have Kundry die after Parsifal baptises her frankly get it wrong, in my opinion); on the contrary, it gives a more compelling answer to Nietzsche's slam of the "Preachers of Death" than Schopenhauer ever could. A reinterpretation of Christian ideas through the prism of Schopenhauer and Buddhism as seen by Wagner? No doubt, that too. But it does not inhabit the traditional Buddhist cosmos any more than the traditional Christian one; perhaps it lives in the same world as Lucifer of Vertigo Comics – the final story in that cycle is certainly one about Schopenhauer Buddhists encountering angels and demons of a whole variety of mythoi.

However, the presence I felt most strongly was that of the man himself. Perhaps, in addition to all of the above, Parsifal is also Richard Wagner's self-portrait. Perhaps it is an expression of his longing for a Parsifal that could be what he never managed; who could defeat his Klingsor, allow his flower maidens to wither, to go beyond Kundry's physical love; to reunite the spear and the Grail and heal the wound that could not be healed. The second act seemed, to me, to be something that is almost purely internal; an enactment of the thoughts and desires, fears and angers, frustrations and aspirations that go on in each of us, and surely more so than most in the mind of a conflicted, extreme, creative genius as Wagner.

The Buddhadharma may not have room for a redeemer that can magically heal our wounds and free us. Wagner could not be a Parsifal; in his life, he, like almost all of us, chose samsara over nirvana; the world of forms over the world of meditation. Yet he must have longed for one that could give him the peace from madness for which he built his Villa Wahnfried. I believe that Parsifal was the most personal of Wagner's operas; the artistic testament of a tormented genius when he no longer had to prove anything to anyone. It has the best and the worst of humanity in it. If he was right about what he called metempsychosis, surely the composition of such a work will have gone some way to condition a better rebirth for him.


  1. Hi Petteri
    What a great post. I too have found it interesting how some Buddhist ideas had permeated European thought and particularly art. Recently I've been reading some of the old Russian Avante Garde writers and noticed some items similar to what you have pointed out here. Your knowledge of philosophy is much greater than mine and I'm glad to have learned more from you here.
    I do wish I had access to more opera and more knowledge of it. It is such a big art form in so many senses-more than theater, more than music, more than dance-I think there is nothing bigger in terms of live art.
    Thanks for your detailed and informative account.

  2. Uh, thanks... but I don't really know all that much about philosophy; as usual for me, I got interested enough to try to get the big picture, but I never did more than wade a bit in the kiddie pool. I mean those warnings about not assuming that I know what I'm talking about, however confident I may sound. I've noticed a disturbing pattern of being able to hold forth convincingly on just about anything, until someone who really does know their stuff shows up, and points out exactly how far in the woods I am.

    I read your piece on Daniil Kharms with interest. I have a thing for Russian writing; I find it fresher and more interesting than most of Western literature. They avoided many of the formalistic pitfalls that bit the rest of us, perhaps because they were a bit LTTP and had the benefit of a bigger ground to work from as they were finding their own voice. One of their (IMO always) greatest contemporary poets, the singer/songwriter Boris Grebenshchikov, is also very much influenced by Buddhism; some of his songs are in fact explicitly Buddhist-themed -- Ivan Bodhidharma, for one. Unfortunately, I haven't come across any translations that come close to doing him justice, so if you don't know Russian you're kinda SOL. The ones on the official site are mostly pretty crappy, but you can check them out here.

    I think it's also worth noting that Russians got their Buddhism at least in part directly from Buddhists -- St. Petersburg has a pretty magnificent monastery built there on Nicholas II's orders, complete with imported Buryat monks. (He also built a superb Samarkand-style mosque there, around the same time. All a part of showcasing the diversity of the Empire...)

    Opera. Yeah, it is big. It's also always balancing between all those elements that make it up, and IMO falling off more often than not. I can't simply appreciate them for the music, for example, which means that most Italian opera just drives me nuts. It seems that for them, the texts are just an excuse for the music and stagecraft. Shakespeare must be rolling in his grave every time Otello is played. That's perhaps one reason I so enjoy Wagner -- he doesn't neglect any of it, which is probably why the damn things last five hours.