Monday, May 21, 2012

When Spear Meets Grail

I guess I'm not the first person to say Richard Wagner's Parsifal is entirely about sex. Sex and guilt, or a devastating confrontation with one's own inadequacy, and I'm not just talking about impotence. The thematic conflict of the opera is between a sexual existence that respects truth and a sexual existence that fears and avoids truth. It was Wagner's last completed opera, which is no surprise to me as the understanding of self loathing on display could only have come from a smart person with enough years behind him to have inevitably faced his own unworthiness.

I don't for a moment think the sexual subtext was unintentional. Wagner takes the Arthurian story of Percival and makes Parsifal's quest one to recover the Spear of Longinus rather than the Holy Grail. In fact, the Grail remains in possession of the Grail Knights throughout the opera, and significance is made of the separation of the Spear and the Grail and how it is at the root of general chaos and confusion. The two artefacts comprise a set, both of them drip with the life sustaining blood of Christ.

Dripping of its own accord with blood underlines the Spear's phallic quality and one sees it as a potent symbol of Christ getting fucked. Which brings a sexual element to his story--Christ didn't just die for everyone's sins, he was raped for them. This comes with the complex of damaged masculinity which is personified in the opera by King Amfortas, custodian of the Spear and Grail. The wizard Klingsor not only steals the Spear but wounds Amfortas with it, a wound that won't heal and eventually renders Amfortas totally unable to face the Holy Vagina or Grail.

Klingsor castrated himself in an attempt to join Amfortas' knights since he had difficulty adhering to the required chastity. Obviously this didn't fly with the knights, and Klingsor is understandably bitter about being denied his goal after going to these lengths. That his revenge takes the form of stealing his enemy's masculinity and turning it against him is rather appropriate.

So much of this opera is about what to do with a penis, but by far the most interesting character is a woman, Kundry, whose seduction of Amfortas allowed Klingsor to take the Spear. She's introduced at the beginning as a "wild woman" who serves the knights with sincerity, travelling to Arabia for a balsam to ease the pain of Amfortas' wound. Gurnemanz, an elder knight who serves as the opera's deliverer of exposition, says that Kundry is cursed. In the first act, we see the curse take the form of a mysterious self hatred. When she's praised for her goodness in bringing the balsam, she fiercely denies ever having done anything good. In the second act, she reveals that she once mocked God, and has since been bound by the curse. She's trying to seduce the virgin Parsifal, to violate his chastity and render him vulnerable to Klingsor, as she tells to him the facts of her curse. At the same time, it's obvious she has a real affection for Parsifal.

Wikipedia quotes Nietzsche as saying, "Parsifal is a work of perfidy, of vindictiveness, of a secret attempt to poison the presuppositions of life - a bad work. The preaching of chastity remains an incitement to anti-nature: I despise everyone who does not experience Parsifal as an attempted assassination of basic ethics." This seems like a fair reading, unless one takes the Spear and Grail as symbols of a healthy sex life where the self-respect of neither participant is diminished, though this might be a creative reading, and the sexual quality of the artefacts may have simply been a statement of a divine sexuality being superior to any mortal, physical sexuality.

In any case, I can't agree with the position that Parsifal is a wholly bad work. Nietzsche also apparently praised the music, which is indeed amazing, but I would also say the complexity of Kundry's character has psychological layers quite apart from any promotion of chastity. I think it's certainly valid to read the opera as a quest for self-acceptance and harmony in conflict with unavoidable self-hatred.

I chose carefully in my first exposure to a production of Parsifal, googling to find the best one on DVD, and I was sold on this production from the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1992 when I read it had very traditional sets and costume designs. So it's actually set in the middle ages instead of on a space ship or in a pizzeria. And it's absolutely gorgeous, particularly the scene where the flower maidens attempt to seduce Parsifal.

I support the idea of ballet and nudity in opera, though I'm not sure any of them were actually naked. Closeups on a couple reveal bodystockings. Personally I'd be more embarrassed to wear fake nipples than to be naked on stage. But otherwise, again, an absolutely gorgeous production.

Twitter Sonnet #387

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