In the last, and some say greatest, of Richard Wagner’s operas, Parsifal, the story is set going by the shooting of a swan. It’s a portentous transgression in much the same way that the shooting of the albatross is in Coleridge’s poem The Ancient Mariner, and it’s done in the same spirit of casual ignorance. When Parsifal is asked, by the indignant keepers of the Holy Grail at Monsalvat (onto whose ground he has strayed with his bow and arrows), whether he is the person responsible, his answer is bumptiously unequal to the situation: “Gewiss! Im fluge treff’ ich, was fliegt!” Roughly translated, ‘Absolutely! If it flies, I shoot it!’ So speaks the jolly hunter.
The leader among the knights of the Grail, Gurnemanz, sets about making Parsifal feel the wrong that he’s done. That swan, he says (or rather, sings), “was dear to us; what is he now to you? Go on, look at him! This is where you struck him . . . etc.” The earnestness of this address, and of course the power of the music which carries it, move Parsifal to acknowledge the “great guilt” that Gurnemanz imputes to him: “Ich wusste sie nicht.” [I didn’t realise]. He breaks his bow and flings the arrows aside. The dead swan is then carried away on a funeral nest of branches – “reverently”, as both the stage directions and the music itself dictate.
And yet it’s this apparent simpleton Parsifal that will rescue Monsalvat and its Grail brotherhood from the disaster into which it has fallen. Its king, Amfortas, has yielded the sacred spear, the one that wounded Christ, to his enemy and tempter Klingsor, and has himself been wounded with it. That unhealing wound memorializes his fall from the rule of chastity governing his own community, for that is the form that Klingsor’s temptation takes, seduction by beautiful women. Even this, which is dramatized in Act II when Parsifal finds himself in Klingsor’s “Zaubergarten” [magic garden] surrounded by lightly dressed “schöne Mädchen”, is really a synecdoche (a part representing the whole); it stands for any or all yielding to the motives and passions of secular material life. However, Amfortas has been promised in a holy vision that deliverance will come to Monsalvat through just such a simpleton as Parsifal, “durch Mitleid wissend” [that is, ‘once he has been made wise by compassion’]. In fact that promise is being remembered by the company just as the wounded swan makes its startling appearance, followed by Parsifal himself with his bow and arrow.
Can that wounded swan – which, say the stage directions, appears in “laboured flight”, then “falls to the ground exhausted” – ever be staged successfully? If it looks too plainly like a long-serving stage prop, the distress of the Grail knights, crying “Alas! Alas!” over it, can seem dangerously comical. But if it looks too real, that will raise the alienating concern that it may indeed have once or even recently been alive. And Wagner didn’t go in for abstractions on stage: the settings for his operas at Bayreuth were vividly naturalistic under his own direction (and long afterwards). That he was prepared to take this risk with the swan is an indication of how seriously he felt about the particular form in which Parsifal is to be inducted into the ordeal of “Mitleid”: that is, through sympathy with the suffering of an animal.
Wagner did indeed take the sufferings of animals seriously. While he was completing the score for Parsifal, in 1879, he put some of his ideas on the subject into a long essay with the title (as translated a few years later) ‘Against Vivisection’. There too, Mitleid is the key word and experience, as providing the crucial insight into the nature of things. It is “the only true foundation for morality”, for it enacts a fundamental truth about the world, namely that “the same thing breathes in animals that lends us life ourselves”. This, he says, was part of “the teachings of primeval wisdom” (he’s thinking of Hindu and Buddhist teachings, which he knew). But now it had also been evidenced “past all doubt”, and in a form adapted to “our unbelieving century”, by the work of Charles Darwin. Wagner suggests, in fact, that Darwin’s science “may prove our surest guide to a correct estimate of our relation to the animals; and perhaps it is on this road alone, that we may again arrive at a real religion” – at something like Monsalvat, perhaps.
So Mitleid is as important for humans as for other animals. For it’s not just the only “true” but also “the only ennobling reason for kindness toward dumb animals” [my italics here and throughout]. It’s what, accordingly, starts Parsifal on his journey towards his own ‘ennoblement’, fitting him to be the saviour promised to Monsalvat, the man ‘through pity made wise’.
A short digression about words here, because ‘pity’ certainly isn’t the right one, and in fact we have to recognise that there’s no English word adequate to Mitleid (a fact that must have helped to obstruct the coming of a right relation with animals in English-speaking countries). The translator of ‘Against Vivisection’, William Ashton Ellis, sometimes puts ‘pity’, sometimes ‘compassion’, even on one occasion ‘pure humanity’, which fits Wagner’s argument but strays some way from the dictionary (and Ellis has to admit as much in a footnote). ‘Pity’ is a status word; you feel pity, however kindly, for inferiors – hence its corruption in ‘pitiful’ and ‘pitiable’, both of which words can imply contempt (or try the withering put-down ‘I pity you!’). ‘Compassion’ has less of that condescension in it, but is too abstract; ‘sympathy’ feels less abstract (though both of them feel, and are, classics words by etymology), but is too slight. ‘Empathy’, a twentieth-century word taken from psychology and since become fashionable, has always been more about the personality that boasts it, than about the suffering that needs it: accordingly, the Oxford Dictionary’s most recent illustrative example quotes it in the phrase “showing empathy”.
What Wagner had in mind when he made Mitleid the key word in Parsifal, and the source of wisdom in its hero, was not kindness or protective emotion, good things as these are: he meant a sense of one’s identity with all other life, as equally products of one creating source. That’s the “real religion” which he speaks of in ‘Against Vivisection’. So again in his essay ‘Religion and Art’ (written in 1880), he speaks of “the unity of all that lives” as against “the illusion of our physical senses which dress this unity in guise of infinitely complex multitude and absolute diversity”. Of animals he says, “the beasts are only distinguished from man by the grade of their mental faculties . . . what precedes all intellectual equipment, what desires and suffers, is the same Will-to-live in them as in the most reason-gifted man.” Therefore when we ate meat, which Wagner called “a nutriment against nature” (he did his best to practise vegetarianism), we “mangled and devoured ourselves”.
Although Wagner traces these ideas to Eastern thought (“how superb are Buddha’s teachings”, he says in a letter), his immediate source was Arthur Schopenhauer. Biographers of Wagner all record the supreme importance of that philosopher to his thought and art, as indeed Wagner himself does in his autobiography (“a radical influence on my whole life”). Since Schopenhauer is discussed elsewhere in this blog, I shall only say here that the “Will-to-live” (understood as the unseen and impersonal force driving the world as we experience it) had for him a wholly tragic character, urging life purposelessly onward at frightful expense in worldly suffering (Wagner called it “the Will’s tumultuous storm”). Escape, as Schopenhauer sees it, is only possible to us for moments in the purely contemplative (and therefore will-free) experience of art, or more lastingly in the rare selfless lives of saints. It was the special pathos of animal life that it permitted no such escapes, nor any consolatory insight into the mystery.
Wagner felt this same pathos acutely: “the beast can only look upon pain, so absolute and useless to it, with dread and agonised rebellion”; for that reason, as he confessed in a letter, he felt “less fellow-suffering for people than for animals.” (‘fellow-suffering’: perhaps that’s the one! No, too cumbersome.) But the opera Parsifal is not a tragedy. When the hero returns to Monsalvat in Act III, we’re reminded by Gurnemanz that this is the man “der einst den Schwan erlegt” [who once killed the swan], but now, taught by his own sufferings, he has become “Mitleidvoll Duldender, heiltatvol Wissender!” [a fellow-sufferer and enlightened healer]. The suffering that has thus ‘ennobled’ Parsifal has, in so far as we’ve witnessed it, consisted in the ordeal of resisting Klingsor’s seductive women (notably the strange half-vamp, half-handmaid, Kundry). But as I’ve said, for all the sensuous passion of that second act, it has been only one part of all the “dangers, battles and conflicts” that Parsifal is now said to have endured since his dismissal from Monsalvat as “nur ein Tor” [just a fool]. And having defeated Klingsor, he has taken back the sacred spear, symbol now of the “redemption” of the Grail community, a point made very plain by the news that this day of Parsifal’s return is also Good Friday.
So the last moments of Parsifal speak of “salvation”, and with the healing of King Amfortas they have the visionary quality of Christian redemption achieved. But Wagner was not conventionally (if at all) a Christian. He was looking for what he called “the inmost essence of the Christian religion”, by which he seems to mean awareness that the world as we know it is permanently in the condition of needing to be saved. The opera expresses mythically, as if satisfied, then, what Wagner calls, in the essay ‘Religion and Art’, “the Need of Redemption”. Our real and persisting condition is that “even in the insect, in the worm we tread upon unheeding, we shall ever feel the awful tragedy of this World-being, and daily have to lift our eyes to the Redeemer on the cross.”
As we’ve seen, he did indeed feel this tragedy on behalf especially of the animals. Writing about vivisection, then, he wistfully viewed that too in the visionary terms of Parsifal’s progress: “might our very indignation at the shocking sufferings inflicted wilfully on animals point out to us the pathway to the kingdom of pity toward all that lives, the Paradise once lost and now to be regained with consciousness?” And Parsifal, being a kind of everyman in his passage from untaught simplicity of mind to enlightenment, shows that humans have a duty beyond just noticing that need of redemption: humanity should become “conscious of its own high office of Redemption for the whole of like-suffering Nature”, and purposefully take that “pathway . . . to the Paradise once lost”. Monsalvat, as redeemed, pictures that Paradise for us. It is, among other things, a place where the animals, so we’re told and shown, are regarded as sacred. We should be making our way there, even if we can never arrive.
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This brief account of Parsifal, highlighting the zoophile content which most commentaries seem to understate or ignore, has itself left out, among other things, the following two very important aspects. The libretto which I’ve quoted from, which was Wagner’s own composition, is dwarfed in performance by the music, both in quantity and in power of expression: the composer Claude Debussy called Parsifal “one of the finest monuments in sound ever to have been raised to the everlasting glory of music.” Then there’s something which, though it’s not even cryptically present anywhere in the opera (so most Wagner scholars agree), is yet bound to shadow everything Wagner wrote and composed: his anti-Semitism. This is shocking and mystifying enough in his own writings (notably in ‘Judaism in Music’), but horribly aggravated for us since then by the cult of Wagner as promoted by Hitler in the 1930s. It seems especially perverse because music in and after Wagner’s time has so much depended on Jewish brilliance. In fact the first performance of Parsifal itself was conducted by a Jew, Hermann Levi. I’ve referenced a few discussions of the subject below. Here I can only say that the world-view proposed by Schopenhauer, and beautifully dramatized through Wagner’s genius, is wholly at odds with racist (or for that matter speciesist) thinking. I hope therefore that the idea in particular of humanity as having the “office of Redemption” for all the world’s life will be understood and unconditionally prized whenever Parsifal is performed.
Notes and references:
The libretto to Parsifal can be viewed with parallel translation here: http://www.operafolio.com/libretto.asp?n=Parsifal&translation=UK . I’ve slightly adjusted some of the translations.
Both of the essays ‘Against Vivisection’ (October 1879) and ‘Religion and Art’ (October 1880) appeared first in the monthly Bayreuther Blätter, a journal primarily for those who came to Bayreuth in order to attend Wagner’s operas in the Festspielhaus which he designed for them there. They can be found now in Vol.VI of Richard Wagner’s Prose Works, transl. William Ashton Ellis, Kegan Paul, 1897. Wagner’s exclamation about “Buddha’s teachings” is quoted in Ellis’s preface to this volume, at p.xxx. Other quotations, if not from the libretto, come from the two essays, except that the letter about fellow-suffering with animals is quoted from the online source https://www.monsalvat.no/wagner-schopenhauer-parsifal.htm#Mitleid , and the phrase from Wagner’s autobiography is taken from The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, Bryan Magee, 1987, p.336.
About Wagner’s anti-Semitism, there’s an illuminating chapter in Bryan Magee’s fine study of the composer, Aspects of Wagner, OUP, revised edition 1988. Then there’s an interesting article from the Guardian, ‘Can We forgive Him?’, online here: https://www.theguardian.com/friday_review/story/0,3605,345459,00.html Finally, the connection with Parsifal is very fully discussed here: https://www.monsalvat.no/banned.htm#Nazism
Coleridge’s poem is discussed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/07/12/shedding-the-albatross/ . The world-view of Schopenhauer, and the place of animals in it, are discussed here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/01/31/schopenhauer-and-the-chained-dog/
The illustrations show a scene from Act I in a 2010 production at Bayreuth, with the wounded Amfortas at the front; a portrait of Wagner in 1882, painted by Franz von Lenbach; a scene from Act III in the first production of Parsifal, Bayreuth 1882, with Kundry, Gurnemanz, and Parsifal; and a rescued swan in the arms of a vet.