Richard Wagner’s Parsifal

In his recent review of Richard Wagner’s music drama ‘Parsifal’ at Covent Garden, David Mellor follows a typical pattern.

After lavishly praising the musical qualities of the performance, he is disappointed about the production. “The production fell well short of the high musical standards”, he writes, and complains of the tendency to ‘trivialisation’. (Mail on Sunday, December 23 2001)

One scene in particular is exemplary of this tendency to debase the sublime qualities of Wagner’s great work. “For example” he writes, “in Klingsor’s magic garden a stuffed shark dominates the scene for no good reason beyond a cheap laugh”, and in most of the performances I attended the audience did in fact laugh as the curtain opened on Act 2.

Why should a replica of a shark dominate the stage at this point? And why should this seem ‘trivial’ or amusing to people who see it?

Perhaps the producers just happened to like sharks, or had one lying around the studio. I prefer to believe that they noticed a central theme in Wagner’s work and decided that a shark was an appropriate object to symbolise it. You will hardly be surprised if I say that the theme is castration and castration anxiety, but it is there in Wagner, not just Freud.

For those who do not know the story, Klingsor is the bad guy. He’s bad but he once wanted to be good. So he castrates himself. Another character, Gurnemanz, tells the story in Act 1:

“Unable to kill the sinful, raging lust within him,
his hand upon himself he turned…”

That act of self mutilation gave him magical powers, and with it he produced a magic garden in the desert, full of beautiful women who would lure the good guys away. The leader of the good guys (the knights who guard the Holy Grail) Amfortas, tried to stop Klingsor. But it turned out he was not so good after all. He was seduced by Kundry, a complex female character who is both Klingsor’s chief temptress and, in another guise, seeking forgiveness, a helper of the Grail knights. Klingsor stabs Amfortas with his own spear, leaving a gaping wound in his side that will never heal.

There’s more of course, and it’s more complicated. But castration and the fear of castration looms ominously over the whole of Wagner’s great masterpiece in both explicit and symbolic guise.

So what was Klingsor’s sin that required self castration? It is shrouded in mystery. Gurnemanz, who knows most things, says “I knew not what sin he there committed”. Gurnemanz may not have known, but Wagner probably did, and he knew the unconscious works by the law of talion; the punishment usually fits the ‘crime’. Whereas Oedipus only symbolically castrates himself, Wagner seems to have not wanted to leave any doubt. The sin of course was maternal incest, and it is overcoming incestuous longings that is the task Wagner gives to Parsifal as the redeemer in the story. Before Parsifal can accomplish the task of saving Amfortas and restoring the Knights of the Grail to their former glory (potency), he has to confront the great castrator and overcome him.

If Klingsor’s sin is not made explicit in the drama, the temptation to which Parsifal is subject is crystal clear. Kundry tries to seduce him by drawing him into his forgotten past. Gamuret is Parsifal’s father, dead before he was born; Herzeleide his over-protective mother.

“Of love now learn the rapture
that Gamuret once learned,
when Herzeleide’s passion
within him fiercely burned!
For love that gave you
life and being,
must death and folly both remove,
love send
you now
a mother’s blessing, greets a son
with love’s first kiss!”

So Parsifal, who grew up in ignorance of this Oedipal dynamic (as did the other great ‘idiotic’ Wagner hero, Siegfried), is now forced to bring his incestuous desires in line with both a mother and father. He is not slow in learning the consequences. Kundry leans over him “and presses her lips to his mouth in a long kiss” as Wagner’s stage directions say. “Suddenly Parsifal starts up with a gesture of intense fear; his demeanour expresses some fearful change; he presses his hands tightly against his heart, as though to subdue a rending pain”.


The Wound! The Wound!”

At the moment of incestuous temptation it is the image of castration that bursts through into his consciousness. There is a connection between the mother and castration, or between the experience or knowledge of the mother and the fear of castration.

But paradoxically it is the repudiation of sexuality which allows sexuality to come into being. It is by experiencing the incestuous temptation and confronting the threat of castration – going through the experience as it were – that allows entry into the promise of a sexual life with non-incestuous sexual partners and identification with the father. Parsifal eventually becomes a father himself.

At the end of the opera the masculine spear is united once more with the feminine Grail, male and female symbols joined together in fruitful union. Echoes of a pagan fertility ritual (the Fisher King and all that) are evident behind the superficially Christian facade. Parsifal, the son, redeems the father by healing the wound with the magical spear, and takes his place. Amfortas finds peace in death.

The final opera Wagner wrote is the first time the son triumphs in this way, a triple whammy of Oedipal resolution – killing the father, saving him, and taking his place. All of his previous work leads to this moment, a testimony to the difficulty of the task and the dangers it involves.

So it is fitting that a shark should occupy centre stage in a production of Parsifal. Because in that fearful image we see the child’s terror of the castrating father, rising up as it does from the depths of the unconscious, holding him in its thrall.

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