A Pagan Spoiled: Sex and Character in Wagner's Parsifal

A Pagan Spoiled: Sex and Character in Wagner's Parsifal

A Pagan Spoiled: Sex and Character in Wagner's Parsifal

A Pagan Spoiled: Sex and Character in Wagner's Parsifal

Synopsis

This book is an original philosopical contextualisation of Wagner's final music-drama in which an analysis of both the sexual dynamics, and the religious and psychological symbolism of the action, provides the foundation for a fresh understanding of the most striking example of the conposer's life-long preoccupation with the feminization of redemption. In addition to discussions of the opera's historical and legendary sources, the author presents an examination of Otto Weiminger's fin de siecle polemic against Judaism and female sexuality, insofar as it has been regarded as itself Wagnerian. It is argued throughout the text that 'Parsifal' has much in it that is Pagan as well as Christian, and indeed that it is the unresolved pre-Christian and non-Christian tensions within the drama that contribute uniquely to its unsettling and still challenging nature.

Excerpt

The cast list for Parsifal—what a bizarre collection, at bottom! What
an assemblage of extreme and repellent oddities! A sorcerer emas
culated by his own hand; a desperate woman of split personality,
half corrupter, half penitent Mary Magdalene, with cataleptic tran
sitions between these two states of being; a love-sick high priest,
who awaits redemption at the hands of a chaste boy; this boy him
self who brings redemption, this guileless fool, so very different
from the awakened youth who wakes up Brünnhilde, and in his own
way another case of remote peculiarity.

With these famous lines Thomas Mann established a framework for Parsifal criticism that remains with us, not least because Mann’s genius was of a generation that interrogated this great drama in the shadow of Freud, whose presence is prefigured in Wagner’s last work, where the psychoanalytic resonances are perhaps stronger than anywhere else. Parsifal’s subject matter and treatment compel an assessment that throws us forward to the preoccupations of the nineteenth century fin de siècle as no other Wagnerian music drama does. It may be that this fin de siècle was, as Mann so bitingly expressed it, “a paltry play of a minor age”, but our interest is sustained through that “true and awesome finale” to which Wagner—one of Mann’s two “Nordic sorcerers” (the other being Ibsen)—contributed in such an extraordinary fashion.

If Parsifal is, as Nietzsche seems to have thought, unashamedly Catholic, it could still be enjoyed as the supreme musico-dramatic work of artistry that it is, and its embracing of the “truth” of this or that church would no more diminish it for us than is the case with Fauré’s Requiem or Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass. There seems little doubt in fact that the early reception of Parsifal was as just such a proscribed drama, its superficially Christian message taken for the whole of it, rather than just one among a number of religious shadings into which its various characters reveal—and disguise—themselves. We can see in early photographs Gurnemanz as John the Baptist, Kundry as Mary Magdalene . . .

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