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The gnostic imprint on Parsifal, an illumination of ruins.

Kunstwerke sind asketisch und schamlos. (1)

--Theodor W. Adorno

I begin by addressing the presence of Gnosticism in Parsifal in order to confront a more general theoretical problem about how the past is staged, both its impossibility and necessity. Richard Wagner's extraordinary originality in the creation of the character of his final drama and the combination of the typical with an extraordinary originality, make this work an appropriate ground from which to analyze an essentially theoretical position through the phantasmagoric evocation of Gnosticism in the Middle Ages: the representation of, obsession with, and recurrence of history in works of art. In Parsifal, a great work that belongs to the "century of history," Wagner's evocation of the Middle Ages establishes a very particular relationship with the past, one worth exploring from the theoretical stance that I have chosen. Furthermore, the work exemplifies another phenomenon of great interest: Gnosticism's recurrence in European culture as a marginal trend that is suppressed time and time again, but that always resurfaces, in many cases, as the important leaven in crucial works of the Western Tradition.

The underlying hints of Gnosticism within Parsifal provide yet another example of the nineteenth century's obsession with medieval society, although our interest in its presence is not simply attributed to a widespread fad. Rather, it is motivated by a deeper commentary. Parsifal is one of the key works of a century that casts a hallucinated glance back to the past at the very moment when Europe begins its hallucinating voyage into the future. Parsifal precisely exemplifies some fundamental tendencies evolving within European culture at the time: it touches on the sacralization of art and the celebration of an imaginary past, conceived of as a model for the future. At the same time, it exemplifies the key to identity in the present, the transfiguration of eroticism, the fascination with the Orient, and the desire to regress from capitalism's all-measuring linear time to the circular time of myth. Within the Buhnenweihfestspiel there are also tendencies that reveal trends of the future: a rejection of theater as mere bourgeois entertainment alongside an attempt to revive its sacred character, an artistic asceticism that renounces brilliance in its search for authenticity, and a new language that will dominate the twentieth century's most remarkable music.

My exploration is not limited to an analysis of the correspondences that can be found between Parsifal and the diffuse image of medieval heresy present in the drama. Instead, I turn my focus to a second constellation that tends to be forgotten. Wagner's work does not constitute a stable and fixed moment in July 1882. On the contrary, over time, the Buhnenweihfestspiel has been distorted because of its multiple interpretations and analysis. Both those who have been fascinated by Parsifal as well as those who have felt the horror within its music have irrevocably attached themselves in distinct ways to the work. Thus we can trace a second constellation to our present: Parsifal has become a ruin. It is an object that can be analyzed as Walter Benjamin analyzed decadent landscapes in his decisive work on ruins, a work itself in ruins, The Arcades Project.

A Fascination with Gnosticism

Gnosticism (2) has been associated with Christianity from the beginning, like an intermittent shadow deforming its image, but also, as if involved in a game of mirrors, like a sign revealing that perhaps the deformity occurs within the Christian Church itself. Gnosticism has been defeated time and time again and persecuted nearly to extinction, yet it has unyieldingly reappeared, in various incarnations. (3) First, during the Middle Ages, it appeared as heresy; later, when the church had lost much of its power to transform any departure from orthodoxy into heresy, it emerged in its inspiration of other movements such as Rosicrucianism, freemasonry, theosophy, and ritual magic.

Gnosticism reappeared in literature, beginning with Romanticism's aesthetic revolution, transforming art into a substitute for religion. William Blake, Novalis, Gerard de Nerval, Edgar Allan Poe, Gerhart H. Hauptmann, and, naturally, Wagner himself were among the many authors influenced by Gnosticism. (4) Earlier medieval heresies related to Gnosticism may have left their imprint on medieval classics, such as Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, the inspiration for Wagner's drama (Jung and Franz 35).

Gnosticism in Wagner

Far from being rare in Wagner's oeuvre, Parsifal's Gnostic dualism is a constant element in his dramas. This dualism affects more than the plot, as in the two obvious examples of Tannhauser and The Ring. The dramatic and musical composition of every Wagnerian drama is also organized around dual structures. What is peculiar about Parsifal, however, is not its dualism or its Gnosticism but, more accurately, the exaggeration of these elements. Although I could write many pages about this intriguing topic, I limit myself to pointing out some examples of dualistic elements. The entire dramatic structure rests on the opposition between the worlds of the Grail Knights and of Klingsor, on opposite sides of one mountain range. As Wieland Wagner demonstrated, the arrangement of characters can be represented as a perfectly symmetrical cross (28-29). The music is marked by a duality, one that primarily regards the powerful opposition between diatonic and chromatic, as well as the dichotomy between the themes of love and faith. It introduces an enigmatic variable into the work's polarities, and in general, the themes are structured in binaries: Parsifal repeatedly refers back to fundamental contrasts between wisdom and compassion, eros and agape, lance and grail, history and myth.

The Monsalvat brotherhood represents the world of a Gnostic sect rather ambiguously, given how the rules marked by an extreme spirituality and by their liturgical rites are presented. The sectlike characteristics may stem from the fact that Wagner's model itself, Wolfram's Parzival, probably was composed with a strong Gnostic flavor in mind. (5)

Parsifal is truly about redemption, but this is not new ground for Wagner. Redemption, sacrifice, salvation, temptation, sin, condemnation, hope, and forgiveness all constitute obsessive themes in Wagnerian dramas, beginning with Der fliegende Hollander. The novelty here resides in the fact that for the first time, these themes are explored within an explicitly religious framework, embodied in some of the most characteristic Christian ceremonies: consecration, communion, baptism, and unction.

However, Parsifal takes the romantic conception of art as religion to the extreme. Wagner deals with this issue in Religion and Art, the text that sets the standards for what would be his last drama: "One might say that when Religion becomes artificial it is the opportunity for Art to save the spirit of Religion" (Religion and Art 213). Wagner's work sought to give what neither science nor philosophy nor, to a lesser degree, the church was able to offer: an experience of the sublime born within the orchestra's Dionysiac darkness. However, the culmination of this romantic conception destroyed the latent ambiguity in the idea of religion. No longer was it simply about art as religion but about creating religious art, about staging religion. The drama is presented not as a straightforward artistic work but as a sacred ceremony, Buhnenweihfestspiel. However, this notion of the sublime complicates things more, since, despite appearances, Parsifal's background is neither Christian nor Gnostic but fundamentally Buddhist. Gnostic symbology, just as in medieval settings, is used by Wagner to practice something that goes beyond a simple compulsion to the art of disguise and its tendency toward ghostliness.

The Historicist Fantasy of the Nineteenth Century and the Case of Wagner

The nineteenth century was the century of history. It promoted a craze in theater, sets, and wardrobes that all wished to represent historical themes, but at the same time vacillated between the desires to portray realism while experimenting with staging the fantastic. Nonetheless, this particular craze was characterized by a certain historicist itch. At least from an outsider's perspective, the wavering allowed for the stage to be transformed into a camouflaged mirror in which the public could recognize itself while remaining unconscious of the identity of those on the other side of the fourth wall.

Wagner's works follow a unique trajectory in their use of history. There are dramas that accentuate historicism (Meistersinger), works dominated by a rejection of history and the emphatic affirmation of myth (The Ring), dramas situated at the margin of the history/myth dichotomy (Der fliegende Hollander), and some where the contrast itself disappears (Parsifal and, to a certain extent, Tristan) (Gavilan, Mito e historia 205-24). From this perspective one can distinguish four stages, although always with the caveat that the composer did not count coherence as one of his virtues. Those who wish to find distinct trends in Wagner's evolution that might clearly separate these stages, or who want to discover a perfect connection between doctrinal pronouncements and artistic creation, are condemned to frustration.

Until his aesthetic crisis at midcentury, marked theoretically by the three great Zurich texts, (6) Wagner shares the opera theaters' dominant attitude toward history. With the exception of Der fliegende Hollander, his works follow the prevailing line of historicism. This is true not only of those works he actually wrote, like Rienzi, Tannhauser, or Lohengrin, but also of those that he planned but was not able to compose. (7) In this period's works he combines a considerable interest in historical rigor and magical elements (Tannhauser's Venusberg, Lohengrin's world of the Grail). Later, when he breaks programmatically with the class of romantic opera represented by these works, Wagner tries to defend the coherence of his trajectory, arguing that in those first works, he was revealing the mythical dimension of history. (8)

In exile Wagner breaks definitely with the sort of opera that he himself had composed, in the name of a future conceived in anticapitalistic terms. In the new society brought about by the revolution, art would succeed in reviving the nobility of a Greek art lost in a degraded world whose greatest expressions were the novel and the opera in the grand style of Giacomo Meyerbeer. Both these perverted artistic forms were responses to society's atomization and reduction of art to that of mere entertainment. History, the preferred topic of these despised forms, could no longer be the essence from which the art of the future could be born; only from myth could a drama arise that perhaps would overcome this situation, a new artistic form, or, the work of total art. The displacement of history by myth would be crystallized in Der Ring des Nibelungen.

In Meistersinger Wagner appears to retreat from this contrast of myth and history that belongs to his revolutionary phase. Not only does he abandon myth, he adopts the most pointed historicism imaginable, even greater than that of his earliest operas. For the first and last time in Wagner's mature works, supernatural elements do not appear in Hans Sachs's drama. The only magic on stage is the Wahn, "illusion," a disquieting force capable of producing art or madness, by virtue of unforeseeable factors. Wahn leads to the fight of St. John's night but also feeds the great art that flowers in Walther von Stolzing's songs. This singularity in Meistersinger is emphasized by the brusqueness of the change not only in relation to previous works bur also in contrast with those that follow. (9) In Parsifal Wagner once again abandons rigorous historical accuracy to flood the drama with supernatural elements. However, history does not disappear completely as it gives way to myth; the drama dresses itself in the medieval garb of Lohengrin and of the Grail knights.

Indeed, the forest staged in the Middle Ages, a favorite set of nineteenth-century fantasies, returns with Parsifal, as does the struggle between good and evil, represented with an incisiveness that would be absolute were it not that Kundry belongs to both realms and that the world of the Grail itself involves yet another, more insidious, duality, expressed by the music as the themes of love and faith. Here Amfortas's suffering is contrasted with Titurel's unyielding faith, indifferent even to his own son's pain. Wagner returns to the familiar world of Lohengrin, the work situated immediately before his midcentury artistic crisis, something that the score underlined with sad irony.

Wagner's tendency to disguise the action of his dramas is not limited to historical settings. The composer himself was the first to point out that his works are grounded in Greek myth. Eros and Psyche in Lohengrin, and Odysseus in Der fliegende Hollander, are two examples. In these cases, however, classical figures are disguised by their placement in Germanic, Celtic, medieval, or other settings. It is in this sense that Wolfgang Schadewaldt referred to Wagnerian dramas as mythological palimpsests (167). Perhaps it is in Parsifal that this tendency reaches its apogee. At first glance we find the world of the Grail presented in an especially modified manner as compared with Wolfram's depiction. It is a testament to the nineteenth century's historicist obsessions that despite Parsifal's spatiotemporal indeterminacy, Wagner places the action precisely in the mountainous northern region of Gothic Spain. It is interesting, then, that for his own staging (considered sacred and remaining unchanged in Bayreuth during almost thirty years, with certain touch-ups only twenty years later) Wagner tried to imitate real models, albeit absolutely alien to the actual place where the action occurred: Siena's cathedral for the Grail scenes and Villa Rufolo in Ravello for Klingsor's garden. By this means, the author's typical combination of the desire for historical exactitude with the indeterminacy proper to the marvelous-mythological register is produced again in Parsifal. Here the confusion of eras and settings ends up obscuring historical precision without making it disappear altogether, placing it on an imaginary plane that is nonetheless authentic for spectators insofar as it is able to evoke real images and allows for the ghostliness of the real and unreal to float together for a while in the Festspielhaus (Gavilan, "De la Supervivencia de Eva" 264).

But underneath the world of Monsalvat, represented with the colors of "medieval Spain" transmuted into the images of Siena and Ravello, there are, in fact, other worlds. It is not difficult to discover a Filo-Gnostic sect in the Grail's brotherhood, whose heretical resonances were perhaps already present in Wolfram. In any case, Wagner further emphasizes those characteristics, converting the devaluation of the sensible world and the existence of secret knowledge, whose acquisition is the quest of the drama, into central elements of his work. Even deeper, as always in Wagner, lies the less obvious but still relatively easy-to-detect Greek myth. The suffering Amfortas, probably the work's most central figure, is the reflection of a chained Prometheus, just as Parsifal assumes the role of Heracles, and so on. But the disguises continue. If one explores at greater depth, under Christian symbology, even beneath its Gnostic heterodoxy, one finds a Buddhist drama. However, we must not forget that Parsifal occupies the space reserved for Die Sieger, the Buddhist opera that Wagner was unable or unwilling to compose. Wagner uses an oriental palette in Parsifal in a completely different way when compared with the nineteenth century's usual "orientalist" tones. Most probably it was precisely because of his repugnance for the oriental coloring of many of the operas with Indian themes, such as The African Maid by Meyerbeer, that Wagner never wrote Die Sieger (Gavilan, Prometeo 211-55).

Wagner's fondness for disguise would become an important factor in Friedrich Nietzsche's rejection of him. For Nietzsche, all that is ghostly turns into an unbearable farce. Nietzsche not only dismisses the medieval disguise as intolerable but also deems worse the fraudulent attempt to present a festival as exclusive as Bayreuth as "popular." The pilgrimage to the sacred hill would have been from its origins, as it is now, quite the opposite of a popular trip. (10) This misunderstanding, present as it is in the very idea of the festival, has contributed without a doubt to the national-socialist use of Wagner's work. However, this tendency toward concealment and farce that had so irritated the anti-Wagnerian Nietzsche possesses in Parsifal an imperative element of truth, one that the philosopher was unable to recognize. Theodor Adorno points out Nietzsche's inability to understand Wagner's historical peculiarity by calling him an impostor: "Great works of art cannot lie. Even when their content is appearance, they necessarily contain a truth attested to by the art works; the only uncertain ones are those that fail" (Asthetische Theorie 196). Parsifal's inauthenticity reflects and expresses society's inauthenticity: "Parsifal's truth resides in its lack of truth" (Adorno, On the Score 386).

Although the Buhnenweihfestspiel is a work full of fabrication where masks are superimposed in a succession of layers that defy classification, it simultaneously contains elements that refute what is false in them. Parsifal achieves a double gesture: its own improbability speaks the truth about the falsities that run through it and, in doing so, says things that ring closer to the truth about his society and about our own than did Nietzsche's texts, denouncing those falsehoods. What is revealing about the Buhnenweihfestspiel is how the proliferation of disguises is joined with the renunciation of effects. In his last work Wagner adopts a musical and dramatic asceticism (not even calling it a drama) so intense that it tends to be misunderstood. The combination is so disconcerting that it often escapes notice. Nietzsche, for example, perceived it, although he was unable to understand it (Borchmeyer and Salaquarda 851). Adorno points out how Wagner renounces some of the musical devices be had learned to use with maximum effectiveness in his dramas, such as the capacity for transitions and dynamic impulse (On the Score 384). Parsifal's ghostliness ends up refuting itself: "One believes as little in the final deliverance as in a fairy tale. Especially in the third act a peremptory tone is predominant. In comparison, Parsifal's deed of redemption seems to be mere illusion and impotent; in the end, Wagner is more faithful to his Schopenhauer" (386).

Wagner's double gesture of presenting a medieval ghostliness while denying it the means that would make it more convincing applies to all the realms of Parsifal in its relation to history, to Gnosticism, and to dissidence. The evocation of the medieval world does not include nationalist allusions; the Grail knights do not belong to any Germanic peoples or any other ancestral Volksgeist. Wagner deliberately avoids an orientalist approach in his fundamentally Buddhist opera, a tactic that would have added mystery and attractiveness in its own time. Generally unnoticed in Wagner's plot is his peculiar use of esoteric elements such as the Grail, the brotherhood hidden in a secret part of the forest, mysterious rituals, and the quest, material that resonates symbolism. This representation was immensely appealing in its time, and it can be said that this attractiveness has not been completely lost if one considers phenomena such as The Da Vinci Code. Wagner, however, does not try to exploit sensational narration. From the earliest scenes everything that Wagner could have kept enveloped in mystery is explained as an elemental way to create suspense, allowing for the work to be accepted by a particular public. In fact, the only important enigma that is presented--and resolved, in this sense--is in the prelude's music. On the other hand, as Adorno pointed out, the voluntary absence of dramatic tension is precisely reflected in the music.

Parsifal as Process of Knowledge

The truth that Adorno discovers in Parsifal, that it is a work where lies do not lie, illuminates the meaning of the drama. Wagner's last work is constructed around the paradoxes of knowledge and ignorance, and their reciprocal indeterminacy. This clue is already present in the title "Parsifal," meaning "completely idiotic." (11) The drama's action hinges on the way that a "pure fool" becomes wise and, as in fairy tales, becomes the community's king and redeemer. The Buhnenweihfestspiel represents a singular process of knowledge, perhaps one that is the most rare, because its peculiar form of gnosis had to have affected those sitting in the Festspielhaus's amphitheater. Parsifal represents an apprenticeship from which participants in its mystery must learn. As I show, its meaning is also the paradox of the ladder at the end of the Tractatus (Wittgenstein 85).

Something other than artistic ambition lurks in this arrangement; Wagner had formulated his program in Religion und Art. Church institutions had lost their capacity to instruct. They were unable to teach the truth of a religion that had been reduced to a series of dogmas whose dryness provoked only tedium and unreality. It was time for art to rescue the essence of religion. Only a new form of art could offer its redemptive truth in living symbols. Drama in particular, or to be exact in a Wagnerian sense, the insertion of music in the drama, would rescue these symbols by bestowing on them a new power to shock. Once again Wagner's Hegelianism reappears: art as religion's Aufhebung. Ina way, the artist became the heir of dissidents who throughout Christian history had tried to revive a truth from which churches tended to distance themselves. The main difference for the nineteenth-century artist was that the risks were less than those taken by the thirteenth-century heretics, at worst, the marginalization of art as a representation of bohemianism.

Two forms of knowledge are presented and contrasted in Parsifal. The first is authentic knowledge, the result of a process that leads to the discovery of a suffering that forms the nucleus of identity itself and, through this, that of the other's suffering as well. This is truth as an awakening from principium individuationis and is accessible only to the innocent who ignores his own name. Next to this compassionate gnosis, the only form of knowledge that can go beyond the ignorance of mere individual identity, Parsifal offers another form of knowledge, chiefly narrative knowledge, the kind displayed by Gurnemanz, Klingsor, or Kundry. It is not going too far to identify this knowledge with nineteenth-century historicism, that is, with a sort of fantasy that is also the drama itself. (12)

In principle the work would seem to disqualify this sort of knowledge, since all who are led by it err, arriving at dead-ends. This includes Gurnemanz, who is incapable of recognizing Parsifal as the elect. Parsifal shows up what is contradictory, insipid, and, finally, useless or counterproductive in those forms of knowledge that do not derive from a compassionate perception of others' suffering. However, the action of the Buhnenweihfestpiel does not deny the efficacy and necessity of historical knowledge. Parsifal interweaves all sorts of stories about the past, making it difficult to support the thesis that the drama seeks to disqualify them. What is disqualified is the ultimate meaning they tend to claim for themselves. In most cases, the function of these stories is not so much informative as performative; the stories form part of a liturgy, or they are arguments that seek to produce certain effects, or they are used to seduce. One could conclude that this sort of historical knowledge, unconscious of its own limits, might belong as much to churches (Gurnemanz) as to the sects that oppose them (Klingsor), white and black magic being the two faces of the same sort of ignorance. Only someone who could traverse both worlds innocently, without attachment, would be able to reach authentic knowledge.

The disqualification of trust in discursive knowledge in favor of a gnosis born from compassion does not signify that using emotion as a guide is indiscriminately affirmed. Parsifal re-creates the traditional opposition between eros and agape. The hero can fulfill his destiny because he is able to resist the strength of eros without ignoring its inspiration, Kundry's kiss. There is another less conspicuous, though not less eloquent, equation. Amfortas needs to be redeemed, but so does Kundry. She knows that only be who is able to resist her irresistible charm will be able to save her. (13) At the end of the second act, when Parsifal awakes through Kundry's kiss to resist her usually irresistible seduction, the wise woman adopts an irrational attitude. She wants to be saved, which is possible only if Parsifal does not succumb to her attraction, but at the same time she wants Parsifal's love, which if she attained it, would make her salvation impossible. In this way her wisdom seems superfluous. It does not allow her awareness of the obvious contradiction: if she seduces the hero, she condemns herself. Kundry's behavior becomes a metaphor for love's aporia. Professor Levy of Crimes and Misdemeanors, a convincing Primo Levi invented by Woody Allen, sums up in lapidary fashion the irrationality of the love quest, and Kundry, in the third act, becomes its universal symbol. For it is in the loved one that we seek an influential person from our infancy, yet we want him or her to act differently from how that person really acted, which is contradictory, since, were we to obtain what we wanted and were our loved one to behave in the way we wished for, he or she would cease to be the image we so desired.

Wagner is less analytic than this; his power of conviction comes from the music. From among the whirlwind of associations created by the orchestra during Kundry's intervention (suffering, hope, redemption) I emphasize just one. Once her arsenal of seduction is used up, Kundry's yearning for the hero does not diminish but, rather, becomes more intense, until that yearning overwhelms her when Parsifal asks her to lead him to Amfortas. Corroded by a jealousy so great caused by an individual whom she despises, Kundry, wise enough to understand Parsifal, appeals precisely to his compassion ("Mitleid! Mitleid mit mir! / nur eine Stunde mein"). In the orchestra, however, we hear the Blumenmadchen motif, even though it is distorted. Logically, compassion in the mouth of Kundry is, above all, a device to seduce the hero. Parsifal's mercy must be awakened not by desire but by the suffering she undergoes, and it is mercy that must lead him to reject her embrace.

The drama's extraordinary symmetry offers an equivalent to Kundry's madness in Amfortas, who is dominated by the impulse of death and forced to celebrate a Grail ceremony that returns his vital force to him only to set off his continued suffering from the wound caused by eros's power. The spear will finally close the circle of paradoxes. Kundry and Amfortas are led to the same dead-end because they are in thrall to the same emotion: the desire for their own salvation.

A major part of the extraordinary complexity of the said work is that it is constructed in such a way that makes it impossible to be reduced to a set of propositions. To do this would imply not only absurd reductionism but also any attempt to force Parsifal's meaning into a series of theses: Propositions such as agape > eros, discursive knowledge < compassionate knowledge would be false or inexact, because the paradoxical construction of the drama questions these propositions and the subversive power of music deconstructs them. In the example quoted above, even though agape is superior to eros, the former is possible only because of the latter's intervention (the kiss). In "Prometeo" I explained how the last chorus of Erlosung dem Erloser not only positions us before an open ending or, even worse, a circular one (the shape of the labyrinth), but also forces us to question the action onstage. This final chorus is equivalent to the metaphor of the ladder at the end of Wittgenstein's Tractatus. (14)

The strange drama conceived by Wagner not only speaks to us about something that is external--knowledge and its paradoxes--but also about something that is constructed so that we as audience experience the process of revelation within ourselves. We recognize the staged drama for the illusion (Vorstellung) that it is while the truth born from the music acts directly on us. In this same sense, in "Prometeo ..." it is explained that the transformation that surges from the Buhnenweihfestspiel is not cathartic but, rather, related to the capacity to recognize the occurrences on stage as illusion, to see in them a "mere Vorstellung ... sheer appearance ... In the final instance, the redemption called for by the chorus also resides in awakening from deceit, thereby gaining the ability to attain ultimate reality. The voice of the Will can hear itself only in the music." The spectator must also free himself from the world's illusion, that is, the stage's illusion, through the stage itself! Just as eros's power functions in Parsifal, theater is a form of illusion that helps us free ourselves from illusion itself.

There appears to be astounding foreshadowing in the stage directions for the beginning of the first act: Wald, schattig und ernst, doch nicht duster. Eine Lichtung in der Mitte ("A forest, shady and forbidding, yet not gloomy. A clearing in the center"). More than an interesting coincidence, "Lichtung" in the middle of "Wald" are the same terms that Martin Heidegger uses in The Origin of the Work of Art to speak of revelation and truth. In Heidegger the work of art is the clearing (Lichtung) where a simultaneous game of demonstration and obscuring takes place, where truth arises as a revelation (the Greek term aletheia, translated by Heidegger as Unverborgenheit, "disclosure") (40). The philosopher's text, which at first glance seems so distant from Wagner's world of the Grail, helps us better perceive the play of light and darkness, how Parsifal presents the acquisition of knowledge that can only appear enveloped in darkness and that envelops darkness in itself.

It seems improbable that Parsifal inspired Heidegger, but the gnosis structuring the drama appears in a new light. The drama, representing an apprenticeship full of paradoxes--the reciprocal game between demonstration and obscuring--literally develops on a stage defined as "a clearing in the centre of a shady forest." The truth is seen as disclosure, but not as light that might definitively dissolve the fog. The disclosure occurs; it erases shadows but also creates them ("makes darkness itself conscious"). Parsifal's long wandering after attaining knowledge at Kundry's side, although he is ignorant of the path to Amfortas, is expressed in the prelude to the third act in music that translates and elevates the drama of light and darkness. The orchestra evokes this interminable wandering in the middle of the wasteland, which has extended from the ruins of the enchanted garden throughout the world. Wagner said of this prelude: "no light [Licht] must cross it." The clearing will open again only as the result of Titurel's sacrifice on Holy Friday, in the same way that the first entry into the clearing was the consequence of the swan's sacrifice. Both deaths are provoked by the hero as a consequence of his ignorance--of the significance of death, in the case of the swan; of the path to Amfortas, in Titurel's.

The play of light and dark is presented in another form later, when Parsifal, now completely covered by black armor and a helmet with a closed visor (Er ist ganz in schwarzer Waffenrustung: mit geschlossenem Helme ...), reappears finally in the clearing. The spear he carries represents his victory over Klingsor and echoes an even more decisive victory over himself; this spear is an instrument of aggression but useless in combat, symbol of his new knowledge and, at the same time, expression of his impotence. The uncertain G repeated in the kettledrum--marked schwer in the score--perceived through the luminous strings that had announced the charmed theme of Holy Friday marks the hero's appearance. The kettledrum's heavy sound seems to invoke the darkness again so it might reappear with Parsifal, completely hidden in black armor, but the music intensifies the ambiguity of the dramatic situation while denying it. The composer told Cosima that it was the most beautiful music he had ever written.

The Gaze from the Present: Ruins

As genuine heirs of a narcissist culture, we struggle to give up the belief that we occupy the unmovable point of the turning wheel, we tend to study the past as if our gaze were on the outside of time, the zenith of a static and eternal science, and thus we have absorbed the scientist's timeless arrogance. Forgetting quantum paradoxes, we tend not to pay attention to the investigating subject, who is possibly even more decisive, in the study of the past. When dealing with Wagner's tendency that leans toward historical fantasy, we are apt to forget another dimension of that game of mirrors and, to wit, its relationship to our present. This is to say, the way in which the past in medieval disguise appears in a present through which other sorts of ghosts circulate. The study of the nineteenth century's historical obsession with the invocation of an imaginary Middle Age should not make us lose sight of the play of planes. Equally as important as the analysis of Wagner's medieval fantasy is how we hear, interpret, or destroy a work from the past.

Neither Parsifal, Gnosticism, the Middle Ages, nor the myths that permeate the musical dramas can be seen as static objects. A long time has passed since Parsifal was simply considered the Buhnenweihfestspiel conceived by Wagner. It is not only that its ceremonial side has been degraded but also that it has been reduced to ruin. This ruined state results from its natural ageing but also from everything that the twentieth century has projected onto it. Similar to this, what happens to the drama occurs within its musical material, as explained by Adorno. The whole historical process weighs on it. In any composition, each interval, each chord, and each color is saturated by all its previous appearances. It is inevitable that every time the composer introduces an element, its previous uses are present as phantoms (Adorno, Philosophie der neuen Musik 38). This easily occurs in the case of a work with artistic aspirations toward the sublime, such as Parsifal, conceived of as a sacred drama. Today one cannot hear it without also hearing the resounding voices of those who wished to transform the Grail's reign into a millennial empire's symbol. Even if these and other associations offer productive approaches for staging, they have also contributed to the exhaustion of the drama's artistic energy and its transformation into ruin. The associations accumulated through time can contribute to the degradation of Parsifal's sacred side, provoking laughter or a very different sort of pity from that inspired by Amfortas's pain. Today, a representation of Parsifal cannot avoid the sort of triviality that transforms what sought to be sublime into an absurd ceremony.

It is not easy for a staged contemplation of the Grail's mystery to escape the curse of time. My experience tends to confirm this, even in Spain, the place where Wagner stages the action of his Buhnenweihfestspiel. For example, a production by the Berlin Opera, excellent both from a musical and from a theatrical point of view, directed by Bernd Eichinger and Daniel Barenboim in the Teatro de la Maestranza (whose bullfighting connotations would have given Nietzsche ammunition for malignant play pertaining to the image of Carmen-Parsifal) might have been grotesquely comical before an audience accustomed to characters belonging to the work of the Quintero brothers, from whose phenomenology I will save the reader. That audience was able to completely destroy the marvelous ending of the third act with its untimely applause (one knows, of course, the love for clapping in those latitudes) until Barenboim tried to stop them with his authoritative baton. Unfortunately the damage had been done. It took me a long time to recover from the trauma. Every time I hear the finale, I cannot avoid thinking "this is where the applause began in Seville," and I am promptly nauseated. Even worse was another production in the Teatro Real, since, besides being on a generally inferior artistic level, it showcased Placido Domingo, given over to his corny inclinations, parading onstage in some sort of surgeon's pajamas, with those hateful gestures that no stage director has ever been able to tame out of him, evincing an excessive pathos that reminds one of television cartoons. His absurd and convulsive movements invade the stage with ridiculousness, awakening the invincible impression of ruins given off by the erstwhile Buhnenweihfestspiel.

On the other hand, despite this triviality, despite the extraordinary difficulties posed for interpreters as well as for spectators, Parsifal has been staged in opera theaters all over the world with increasing frequency. This recurrence raises the question, what is there in Parsifal that still piques interest, despite the inevitable ageing of the Grail's world? This question is even more striking because the most interesting performances among those I have seen (Harry Kupfer, Klaus Michael Gruber, Nikolaus Lehnhof, Bernd Eichinger) tend not to gloss over the state of ruin but, rather, to emphasize it. It could be said that they mortify the drama, in Benjamin's sense, (15) that is, that they do not emphasize the possibility of its affirmative side such as the hero's exaltation and redemption. Rather, the drama's precariousness, exhaustion, sordidness, and unlikeliness are precisely what make the Buhnenweihfestspiel a ruin.

As Benjamin learned from the surrealists, a game is produced in ruins between darkness and illumination (once again the truth of the past is perceived as aletheia) that permits the eluding of history's straitjacket. The tattered invocation of Gnosticism's old ghosts today becomes the occasion for a fat singer to unleash with impunity the ridiculous gestures consecrated by a dream's ruin. However, what Benjamin sought in old arcades can exist today in the worn shadow of a ceremony where time transforms into space. Within the ruins one still hears, although muffled, unfulfilled, or perhaps unfulfillable, dreams, whose remains allow for the occasion to glance over the past, in hopes that they might be rescued, as forgotten embers. The key to this redeeming glance lies in the "direct" access to the past permitted by the ruin, but it requires a gaze that will isolate it from historicist construction, from the attempt to "recount that what really happened." Benjamin unmasked this sort of narration as another way that conquerors parade before us, perpetuating their triumph by extinguishing the memory of the vanquished. However, ruins can allow the rescuing of their dreams. The historian devoted to this work moves among the residue of the past like a ragpicker rummaging through refuse in the streets.

In any case, there is a decisive difference between the Buhnenweihfestspiel and the ruins of arcades. Parsifal is originally conceived as a ruin, as a final work. It is imbued with a sense of exhaustion, of the invincible decadence at the end of the century, present in the tone that penetrates to the score's marrow. Adorno wrote the most revealing pages ever written about Parsifal underscoring that tone:

As a consequence of their allegorical content, these motifs ate as though consumed from within, ascetic, emaciated, desensualized; like the Parsifal idiom in general, they are all somewhat fractured and inessential; the music wears a black visor.... A comparison of the gloomy, so to speak, muted fanfare motif of Parsifal with the Siegfried motif reveals the character of the former: the Parsifal motif seems as though it were already a quotation from memory. (On the Score 384-85)

Ruin is present in this tensionless drama, reduced to the stasis of oratorio. Wagner, the "maestro of transition," renounces musical progression until he arrives at suspended music where time slowed down finally stops. He risks scenic effects (including the dove and the swan) more appropriate to liturgical drama than to the work of a theater's genius, writing at a time when theatrical realism was in the ascendant. But this renunciation is expressed above all in the final irony of Erlosung dem Erloser, a chorus that questions everything heard and seen during the previous four hours. In Benjaminian terms it could be said that a secret date with future generations is already encoded in the drama.

To approach Parsifal as a ruin means to resist contextualizing it, that is, transforming it into a document, giving it meaning through its insertion into historical discourse. Perhaps the most extraordinary exploration of its ruinous side is Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's film, whose style has decisively influenced the "mortifying" line of later productions. A key to its extraordinary accomplishment resides precisely in the fact that it dispenses with the audience. Not only does a conversion into film of a drama conceived as a ceremony whose fulfillment required audience presence underline the drama's decadence, but it also alludes to what constitutes the weak spot of any mortifying strategy: the position of the good aficionado--a Wagnerian or, even more harmful, an opera enthusiast--who, in a virtually inevitable way, tends to maintain a reverential attitude before the work, trying to behold it as an Artistic Monument, or worse, as a Historic Monument.

Among Syberberg's unending display of images, the decisive one is the stage itself, a gigantic funeral mask of Wagner on which the action takes place: a receptacle for the Grail, an absolute metaphor for ruin. However, by the same token, it is the Lichtung that over time permits the disclosure of its truth. It is, in its essence, the true unveiling.


The time has come to return to the initial question, how is the past present in Parsifal? It is clear that the drama does not celebrate a monumentalized pastor try to invert the same through an identification with the vanquished, heretics in this case, through the game of mirrors permitted by Gnostic associations. Let us not forget that despite any Gnostic essence exuded by the Grail's community, Klingsor is the true heretic.

The relationship with the past is not reduced to a negation of linear time or to the romantic affirmation of circular time where the past, or its essence, returns. Instead, the repetition of Amfortas's adventure is so that his fault can be corrected by Parsifal's resistance to seduction; the sacred spear that heals the very wound it opened. These instances close a circle while another is exposed (Erlosung dem Erloser). The relationship with the past is not reduced to reaffirming myth and its temporality, nor is it limited to negating time as a mere illusion. Without a doubt these ideas are at the base of the Buhnenweihfestspiel, (16) but they do not offer enough to explain the recurrence of historicist fantasy.

Kundry's behavior in the third act, her final silence, for example, constitutes an enigma within a fundamentally hermetic work. Her silence contrasts with her seductive loquacity in the second act as well as with her ability in the first act to answer questions about Parsifal's unknown identity. In general, women in Wagner are like Homeric sirens, receptacles of past knowledge, narrative wisdom, and supernatural power displayed time and time again by characters such as Erda, the Norns, the Rhinemaidens, Brunnhilde, Waltraute, Ortrud, Venus, and Senta. In the first two acts Kundry's voice retains the sirens' power, the irresistible force of their song and their capacity to recount the past, whose echo resounds with force in the seduction scene of the second act. The woman's silent eloquence is emphasized in the third act because, as in the previous acts, all sorts of stories, theological reflections about the memory of the Passion (present even in nature, Das merkt nun Halm und Blume auf den Auen), and funeral songs remembering the old dead hero pass through it. Although Kundry is quiet in the final act, she remains active onstage and her shadow floats in the orchestra. (17)

Kundry's final silence becomes especially important when Parsifal is compared with previous dramas. Parsifal inverts the usual situation, beginning with Der fliegende Hollander, where the hero seeks a salvation that only a woman can deliver. In the Buhnenweihfestspiel it is the woman who seeks and finds redemption through the hero. Furthermore, with Parsifal Wagner returns to the Grail knights' world, to Lohengrin, the opera that preceded his midcentury crisis. There is kinship not only in the fable bur also in the music. From its initial tonality (Parsifal's turbid A-flat major as against Lohengrin's brilliant A major) Parsifal's score alludes, sometimes ironically, yet sometimes quietly, to the romantic opera. Parsifal inverts the relationships between identity, knowledge, and secrecy that are present in Lohengrin. The romantic opera remains hinged on the necessity of maintaining the hero's secret identity, since its revelation would signify the loss of his supernatural power. Only the heroine could know it, bur the question had been forbidden to her. Elsa does not resist the temptation and provokes her own as well as her people's disgrace: the loss of the beloved and protector. Parsifal does not know who he is beyond the vague memories of his mother. During Gurnemanz's ritual interrogation of Parsifal it is Kundry, inhabiting the structural role of Elsa, who reveals the protagonist's identity. She also reveals his secret name, the one his father, Gamuret, gave him at the moment of his death in the East. This knowledge is essential during her attempt to seduce the innocent hero, since it allows her to return him to the past and occupy his mother's irresistible position.

The return to Lohengrin's thematics could be interpreted as history's return, or at least as a return to an undefined place in respect to the historical/mythical borders that Wagner had tried to so clearly fix in the middle of the century. The world of Monsalvat is precisely situated in geography and history, but its rhythms are very far from the linear time of historicism--they are crossed with circular conceptions of time. the possibility of returning to the past to make amends, the king's periodical substitution, metempsychosis and the curse that is not of history but of samsara. Kundry's silence in the third act does not signify the end of the story. Parsifal is as dominated by narration as its classical model, Prometheus Unbound. Stories that display knowledge about the past determine the action. The power of these stories is, however, fundamentally performative; the stories are not destined so much to reveal the past as to produce determinate effects" ritual, didactic, magical, or erotic. They are essentially ceremonial and lead to the chosen's invocation or seduction. At any rate, through its irony and paradox, pillars of the Buhnenweihfestspiel, the dramatic development questions again and again the story's ultimate pretensions about the past as gnosis. The final silence of she who knows the answer to all of the questions represents another paradox: the impotence of historic and discursive knowledge for salvation and, at the same time, the need for this knowledge as one precondition for eternal redemption. The historical knowledge that the woman incarnates is reduced to muteness. From its birth Parsifal is a ruin.

Heidegger's observations about truth in the clearing of the forest (Lichtung), play between light and darkness, unveiling and hiding, help us understand how Parsifal makes the past present. The clearing acts as a threshold in time where one finds the Middle Ages, heresy, and the other ways in which Wagner invoked the past, in a drama that is central to the "century of history," where one discovers how our present--a postmodernism that has recognized the impossibility of escaping from history and tirelessly seeks other ways to conjure it up--is related to the past that is enveloped in Parsifal. In effect, this aspect of the drama also functions as Lichtung in Heidegger's sense: clarity as an inseparable effect of darkness; the clearing appears in the forest, and inversely, the clearing reveals the darkness that surrounds it.

Parsifal does not simply create an illumination of the past in the sense that it allows for a better understanding of the Middle Ages or the nineteenth century, nor does it help penetrate Gnosticism, revealing new angles of observation, hidden until now, or opening the past to a new understanding, in a Rortian sense. (18) Parsifal illuminates a darkness in the past, the need to invoke it and the impossibility of doing so; it is a dream that demonstrates the limits of dreams. In this sense the drama constitutes a clearing that makes us feel darkness. Parsifal allows for the discovery of the past's opacity and for the irreducibility of the Middle Ages that so obsessed the nineteenth century. It reveals the fascination of those who created the drama or those who felt enthusiastic, disconcerted, or bored by it. The Buhnenweihfestspiel illuminates those dreams and reveals for us the need for historical fantasy but, at the same time, it reveals the impossibility of fulfilling it. It is a ruin, not an epic. It exposes the impulse of masking oneself with the clothes of the past, and shows, at the same time, the mask's precariousness, and so the ruin unveils the impossibility of conjuring up history. Most importantly, this discovery helps us understand our own opacity; the nineteenth century's impossible dream helps us become conscious of the impenetrability of our own ghosts. The Wagnerian drama constitutes in this way a Lichtung of our own truth.

University of Valladolid

Works Cited

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--. "On the Score of Parsifal." Trans. Anthony Barone. Music and Letters 76.3 (1995): 384-86.

--. Philosophie der neuen Musik. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991.

Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002.

Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Trans. John Osborne. London: Verso, 2003.

Borchmeyer, Dieter, and Jorg Salaquarda, eds. Nietzsche und Wagner: Stationen einer epochalen Begegnung. Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1994.2: 850-51.

Chailley, Jacques. Parsifal de Richard Wagner: Opera initiatique. Paris: Buchet/ Chastel, 1986.

Dodds, Eric Robertson. Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety: Some Aspects of Religious Experience from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1965.

Doresse, Jean. "La glose." Histoire des religions. Paris: Gallimard, 1972.2: 422.

Eckert, Nora. Parsifal 1914: Uber Heilsbringer, Volkes Wille und die Instrumentalisierung des Krieges. Hamburg: Europaische Verlagsanstalt, 2003.

Gavilan, Enrique. "De la supervivencia de Eva y la imposibilidad de la revolucion: 'Los maestros cantores de Nurnberg.'" El caliu de l'oikos. Ed. Francesco de Martino and Carmen Morenilla. Bari: Levante, 2004. 247-74.

--. "Mito e historia en Wagner: El papel del teatro griego en la revuelta contra el historicismo." El perfil de les ombres. Bari: Levante, 2002. 205-24.

--. "Prometeo, entre liturgia de la palabra y tragedia de la escucha: Esquilo, Wagner, Nono." El teatro Greco-latino y su recepcion en la tradicion occidental. Ed. J. V. Banuls F. de Martino and C. Morenilla. Bari: Levante, 2006. 211-55.

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Homer. Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Double-day, 1963.

Jung, Emma, and Marie-Louise von Franz. Die Gralslegende in psychologischer Sicht. Dusseldorf: Walter, 1991.

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.

Schadewaldt, Wolfgang. "Richard Wagner und die Griechen." Richard Wagner und das neue Bayreuth. Ed. Wieland Wagner. Munich: Paul List, 1962.

Wagner, Cosima. Tagebucher. 4 vols. Munich: Piper, 1982.

Wagner, Richard. "Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft." Gesammelte Schriften und Dichtungen. Leipzig, 1850. 42-177.

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(1.) "Works of art are ascetic and shameless" (Adorno and Horkheimer 111).

(2.) Although I do not deal with this issue here, it might be convenient to clarify the sense in which I speak of Gnosticism. I use the term very loosely, referring not only to "historical" Gnostics, who belong to a sect from Christianity's first period, but also to all trends and sects that have succeeded them in the following centuries, independently of whether or not they claim to be heirs of those "historical" Gnostics. These subsequent trends share with the latter a series of ideas that challenge the church and that will, in most cases, lead to their condemnation and persecution. Among these ideas are, above all, a recognition of a knowledge (gnosis) distinct from and superior to the church's; a dualist vision of the world; and especially all of those elements that, according to Plotinus, essentially defined them: "those that affirm the demiurge of the cosmos and the cosmos itself to be evil" (Doresse 422).

(3.) One need not go far to find explanations for this recurrence: Gnosticism lives in the marrow of our culture, even if only to bolster the New Testament's canon. But there is also a more interesting and deeper psychological explanation: "The splitting of God into two persons, on the one hand a remote but merciful Father, on the other a stupid and cruel Creator, seems to reflect a splitting of the individual father-image into its corresponding emotional components: the conflict of love and hate in the unconscious mind is thus symbolically resolved, and the gnawing sense of guilt is appeased" (Dodds 20).

(4.) Next to a "noble" trace there is another less-refined echo, the one that feeds into certain "historical" books, whose popular success testifies to the deep fascination exerted by Gnosticism. This can be seen in works such as The Da Vinci Code.

(5.) Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz, for example, point out the kinship of the Grail's processions in Wolfram's works, with the mystical rituals described in Apuleius (Jung and Franz 75).

(6.) Die Kunst und die Revolution (1849), Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (1850), and Oper und Drama (1851).

(7.) Among others exists an opera about Jesus Christ and another about Frederick Barbarossa. In the case of the latter, Wagner even prepared a mostly speculative "historical" study (Die Wibelungen 115-55).

(8.) Wagner suffered from a chronic desire to constantly revise his biography to give his life an illusory coherence. In a text from 1851, "Eine Mittheilung an meine Freunde," contemporary to his three great theoretical works, be attempts to redefine, in mythic terms, the works belonging to the precrisis period.

(9.) This issue is important to understanding late Wagner. In "De la supervivencia de Eva y la imposibilidad de la revolucion" I have dealt extensively with this problem. Wieland Wagner, who has written some of the most genial interpretations of his grandfather's work, insisted that Meistersinger was his central work (133).

(10.) The ambiguity of what was considered "popular" is expressed here in one of its many perversions. "Popular" used to have more of the sense of something authentic for the people, an essence that began to be lost in modern society; companies such as Bayreuth tried to conserve and revitalize this element in culture: "Popularization was understood individually, more like a remedy against mass culture and commercialization" (Eckert 76).

(11.) In Wagner a name's meaning tends to determine the character's identity, in this sense a decisive and vulnerable element that can be attributed to his or her personality. Lohengrin hinges on the prohibition against asking the hero's name. Parsifal represents the process traced from the forgetting of one's own name to the ultimate understanding of its meaning, as not simply "foolishness" but also "chosen," since only "der reine Tor" can achieve being "wissend." Wagner here is playing on the ambiguity of "Tor" as "foolish" and also as "door."

(12.) This could be another way of presenting Adorno's thesis: Parsifal as true lie.

(13.) Klingsor can dominate her with his magic because he has castrated himself; he lives in a liminal space where desire persists but can no longer be realized.

(14.) Enhanced by the fact that the composer once confessed to Cosima that Erlosung dem Erloser was the "content" of Parsifal (Wagner, Tagebucher 866).

(15.) Referring to criticism's interpretative transformation of the baroque Trauerspiel, Benjamin says, "The attraction of earlier charms diminishes decade by decade, into the basis for a rebirth, in which all ephemeral beauty is completely stripped off, and the work stands as a ruin" (182).

(16.) See Gavilan, "Prometeo."

(17.) Something similar happens in the Gotterdammerung with Wotan, who invisibly dominates both music and action.

(18.) According to Richard Rorty, literature (in our case we would broaden literature to encompass art in general) opens a greater understanding of reality through descriptions that open our sensibility toward others, contributing in this way to solidarity.
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Author:Gavilan, Enrique
Publication:The Romanic Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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