Made Wise by More Than Pity

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 intoHerheimParsifal11a545px 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.

Richard-Wagner-painting-Franz-von-Lenbach-Germany-1882Wagner 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 toParsifal 3 in 1882 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.

*                       *                       *                       *

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.swam with vet's life

Notes and references:

The libretto to Parsifal can be viewed with parallel translation here: . 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 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 , 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:,3605,345459,00.html  Finally, the connection with Parsifal is very fully discussed here:

Coleridge’s poem is discussed in this blog here: . The world-view of Schopenhauer, and the place of animals in it, are discussed here:

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.

Schopenhauer and the Chained Dog

There’s a good web-site at which presents the whole case against keeping dogs tied up, with many wretched photographs, plus statistics and instances of the neurotic aggression which the practice trains into the unhappy dog. Seeing it reminds me of one such instance noted by the great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in 1851, in his essay ‘On the Suffering of the World’:     dog03

Never do I see such a dog without feelings of the deepest sympathy for him and of profound indignation against his master. I think with satisfaction of a case, reported some years ago in the Times, where a lord kept a large dog on a chain. One day as he was walking through the yard, he took it into his head to go and pat the dog, whereupon the animal tore his arm open from top to bottom, and quite right too! What he meant was this: ‘You are not my master, but my devil, who makes a hell of my brief existence!’ May this happen to all who chain up dogs.

The strength of feeling in this passage of writing is perhaps not adequately explained by saying that Schopenhauer was fond of dogs, but certainly he was fond of them. He especially liked poodles, and he seems to have kept a sequence of them as companions during his later years – walking them every day, of course (he was a man of strict routines). But in fact he had this same sympathy for all suffering animals. Caged birds, work-horses, farm-animals, the victims of vivisection: for all these, the chained dog was really a type or representative, and accordingly Schopenhauer uses, in another of his essays, that same image for their relation to humanity as a whole, which he uses for the dog’s to its one master: “It can truly be said: Men are the devils of the earth, and the animals are the tormented souls.”

The editor of the otherwise excellent Penguin Classics selection from Schopenhauer’s essays speaks of vivisection as one of his author’s “hobby horses” which, as editor, he has “not hesitated to curb”, i.e. to cut. He at least acknowledges that the theme was a preoccupation of Schopenhauer’s, but he implies that it was an eccentricity or whim separate from Schopenhauer’s main philosophical concerns, which is quite wrong. True, it did have some special biographical, and to that extent non-philosophical, import for him. His first choice of subject at university (in 1809) had been medicine, and in later years he was shocked to see how vivisection, which had been spoken of in his student days as something “cruel and terrible”, resorted to only with reluctance, had become so routine at the time of writing (1850s) that “every little medicine-man thinks he has the right to torment animals in the cruellest fashion in his torture chamber”. In this vehemence Schopenhauer may have been unusual, at least in Germany at that time, but it was no stray caprice. He saw vivisection as part of a systematic abuse of animals in general, and he plainly recognised this abuse as founded on the ethical nonsense that we now (thanks to Richard Ryder’s 1970s coinage) term ‘speciesism’: “This is a morality which knows and values only the precious species that gave it birth; whose special characteristic – reason – it makes the condition under which a being may be an object of moral regard.”

The blame for this species-chauvinism Schopenhauer puts, with a candid atheism most unusual (again) for his time, upon Christianity. In particular he deplores what he calls “that installation scene in the Garden of Eden”, when God “takes all the animals just as if they were things, and without so much as the recommendation to kind treatment which even a dog-seller usually adds when he parts with his dogs, hands them over to man for man to rule, that is to do with them what he likes.” So when Schopenhauer angrily dismisses the “odious and revolting” ethic put forward by the philosopher Emmanuel Kant, namely that we ought to treat non-human animals well, not for their own good, but because we thereby cultivate the like habit towards our fellow-humans, it isn’t Kant himself that he rebukes. The notion is after all in no way essential to Kant’s own philosophy, as Schopenhauer’s thinking about animals is to his. Rather, he puts the blame on “European priestcraft, which, in its profanity, knows no limit to its disavowal of, and blasphemy against, the Eternal Reality that lives in every animal.” Kant, he felt, had lazily allowed the Bible and the Church’s traditions to impose on him in this matter.

So how is Schopenhauer’s valuation of animals essential to his larger philosophy? And what, in particular, is that “Eternal Reality” against which – an astonishing charge – Christianity blasphemes? I shall now have to insult Schopenhauer’s philosophy by attempting a summary of it in three paragraphs. Skip them if you can’t face the mayhem; the remainder should still make reasonably good sense.

In his own main philosophy, Kant had made a crucial distinction, which Schopenhauer willingly inherits, between reality as it appears to us through our limited capacities of perception (i.e. the phenomenal world), and reality as it is in itself (which he called the noumenal), independent of our mind-conditioned categories of time and space, and therefore invisible to us. This second and fundamental reality, of which ours must be some sort of local manifestation, Kant did not attempt to explore. Among other reasons, it would have been impossible to do so without straying into theology or subverting it. Schopenhauer, however, was quite willing to do that, the second part of it anyway, and he expressly set out to complete Kant’s picture.

Although he agreed with Kant that the noumenal world couldn’t be directly known, he believed that we could trace, with a certainty amounting to fact, its essential nature through its manifestations in our world, and mainly through our experience of its animating presence in our own bodies. And what he found that essential nature to be, or at least to be best understood as, was ‘will’: not divine or purposeful or even rational will, but a mere blind striving. Hence the title of his great work of philosophy, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1818), usually translated as ‘The World as Will and Representation’. All “representations” – that is, all the phenomena of the world which we can perceive around and within ourselves, including plants, natural objects and forces, and of course all the other animals – share this noumenal inner nature, the will. It urges itself through them – dresses itself in them, one might say – but also recklessly breeds from and then discards them. Sometimes Schopenhauer speaks of it as the “will-to-live”, and in that character it readily accommodates, in its restless and purposeless push, the Darwinian machinery of evolution, which indeed Schopenhauer partly anticipates, as he does also, for obvious reasons, the Freudian notion of the unconscious. He was a most prescient thinker.

However, he viewed this reality, which he had thus glimpsed, with horror. He calls it “the worst of all possible worlds.” For, as active in our phenomenal world, the will is patently and destructively at odds with itself. All its various avatars (all the contents  DSC04795.JPGof the world which represent the will here) both directly and indirectly struggle against each other for the space and the means to live. And in the case of its most recent ones (recent, that is, in our time-bound understanding), the conscious beings like ourselves, there is a special doom of unhappiness, so he believed. For the urgings of the will within us can only be satisfied momentarily, if at all, and such brief escapes from its pressure prove, for humans at least, to be escapes only into vacancy and ennui. Non-human animals, Schopenhauer believed, have the better chance of happiness, living as they do in the moment, without the stored pains of past and future to distress them: in fact he says that their “obvious composure often puts to shame our own frequently restless and discontented condition.”

Or rather they would have the better chance of happiness, if humans only allowed it: but it’s just at this point that he comes to the story of the chained dog, and I hope it’s now easier to see why that story has such emblematic power for Schopenhauer. He knew something of Eastern spirituality (again, most unusually for a philosopher of his time and place), and was fond of quoting, from the Upanishads, what he called “the mystical formula tat twam asi (This art Thou), by which is meant every living thing, whether man or animal”. That “deepest sympathy” which he feels for chained dogs is therefore intended literally: “This art Thou”, and therefore this suffering also is yours. (Schopenhauer’s own word, Mitleid, is much more direct and expressive than the rather abstract terms ‘sympathy’ or ‘compassion’, which seem to be the best that English can do by way of translation.) Schopenhauer suffers with such dogs, then, not because he is a dog-lover (though he was) or an unusually sympathetic character, still less because animal suffering is a ‘hobby horse’ of his, but because he and the dogs are of the same life, driven through the world by the same indifferent will, ephemeral vessels for the Eternal Reality which animates them all. And this Mitleid, he argues, is indeed the only authentic basis for morality, because Mitleid itself is founded, not on ethical speculation or arguable principles like Kant’s, but on fact – the fact of our existential oneness with all sentient life.

In one of his essays, Schopenhauer characteristically suggests that instead of addressing each other as ‘Sir’, ‘mein Herr’, and so on, we should say “Leidensgefährte … my fellow sufferer.” I dare say that he sometimes addressed his poodles in that way, though no doubt he did his best to protect them from suffering. At any rate, his feeling about the world and its denizens, and his cast of mind in general, are very well summarised in something he says in his essay On the Basis of Morality:

The old Indian dramas close with these words: ‘May all living things be delivered from pain.’ Tastes may differ, but in my opinion there is no more beautiful prayer than this.


[Quotations are taken from The Essential Schopenhauer, ed. Wolfgang Schirmacher, HarperCollins 2010 (pp.7-8, 35, 14); Essays and Aphorisms, ed. R.J.Hollingdale, Penguin Classics 2014 (pp.218, 219, 149); and The Basis of Morality (1840), transl. A.B.Bullock, Swan Sonnenschein and Co. 1903, available online (pp.95, 220, 214).]