Eternal Lessons from Wagner’s Last Opera

A performance of Parsifal at the Salzburg Easter Festival in 2002. (Franz Neumayr/Reuters)
Roger Scruton finds in this 19th-century work an antidote to many of our modern society’s ills.

In Vienna earlier this year, I saw a star-studded performance of Lohengrin, Richard Wagner’s great romantic opera completed in 1847, when he was just 34. The Vienna State Opera is known for cutting costs on sets and costumes to fund crowd-drawing celebrity tenors. On this occasion the Swan that plays a central role in the Lohengrin legend — whose transcendental arrival constitutes the main drama of the first act — was represented by a kind of oversized rubber duck, hovering above the stage from a string.

Picture the scene. A backdrop of vaguely medieval aspect. A princess, falsely accused by an evil nobleman, sings of her dream of being rescued by a “Swan-Knight.” The rubber swan appears, and the chorus bursts into songs of jubilation. The swan deposits a knight, who defeats her accuser in battle, and they declare their devotion to each other and agree to marry — prompting further rejoicing. The picture, in short, is a farrago of nonsense. Yet the effect — accompanied by some of the most sublime music ever written — was so profoundly moving that one reaches for the language of religious experience to describe it.

One of the many striking things about Richard Wagner is quite how consciously he intended the kinds of emotional responses produced by his music. Both as a composer and as the author of voluminous theoretical writings, Wagner anticipated the psychoanalysts by almost half a century in his insistence upon the existence of a human “subconscious” as a repository of “pure human emotion” repressed by modern, bourgeois civilization, and he believed that art must communicate with this subconscious directly, and in such a way that feeling was never “baffled” or driven into thought. Even his mythical settings had a philosophical as much as a German-revivalist rationale. Myths, Wagner believed, reflected a whole system of thinking that could restore to modernity the lost sense of the “ideal,” without which human life was worthless.

This will sound like metaphysical fluff to many. Others will view with skepticism any suggestion of Wagner’s musical-philosophical humanism, in light of what we know of his megalomaniacal character and repugnant anti-Semitism. But the extraordinary impact of his operas is impossible to deny; they have changed the course of world history — and in ways that may provide some of the most lasting of ripostes to the more unpleasant sides of his thought. A performance of Tannhauser in Paris in 1897 so exhilarated Theodor Herzl — who was not yet then the great ideological founder of Zionism — that he returned home to his apartment “in a fever of enthusiasm akin to possession” (as Carl Schorske wrote) and first sketched out his dream of Jewish secession from Europe, prefiguring the birth of the modern state of Israel.

The publication of Roger Scruton’s Wagner’s Parsifal: The Music of Redemption is itself a thing of some historical significance. This is the last book by one of our most eminent recent philosophers, who died of cancer in January this year, about the last opera by the only composer who can also be considered a philosopher in his own right. Parsifal — which premiered in 1882 — was intended by Wagner to be his “farewell to the world.” Yet it remains one of his least accessible works — and to critics one of his most characteristically tedious.

The story is of mythical knights of the Holy Grail and features malign wizards and enchantresses. The music is magnificent, but slow and lugubrious. Performances run to five hours, and there’s hardly any action. For Scruton, however, Parsifal is “steeped in philosophy” and can even offer a guide to steer us through some of the most pressing social and political dilemmas of the 21st century. The result — offering in summary a range of Scruton’s core philosophical ideas and biting social commentary — is worth reading even if you’ve never listened to Parsifal, or indeed much opera at all.

Parsifal is the story of an order of Arthurian knights who are guardians of sacred relics of Christ’s crucifixion: the spear that pierced Jesus on the cross, and the chalice used to collect his blood. But the knights’ sanctuary, Monsalvat, is under assault by Klingsor, a rogue knight who has acquired magical powers and is determined to destroy the order by drawing its knights into sin, with the bevy of flower-maidens he keeps at his enchanted castle.

After the order’s leader, Amfortas, on a mission to destroy Klingsor’s castle, is himself seduced by one of these enchantresses, loses the sacred spear to Klingsor, and suffers a crippling injury, the knights’ community sinks into disarray. When the opera opens, life in Monsalvat continues to follow its daily regimen of masses and holy ritual — but its inhabitants have lost any sense of the Christian message; their behavior is sadistic, and increasing numbers of the knights drift away to Klingsor’s sanctuary of sin.

Parsifal is an innocent and ignorant youth, who stumbles across Monsalvat while “wandering the world,” hunting swans with a homemade bow and arrow. He is taken in by one of the knights, who has heard a prophecy that their community would be saved by a “pure fool.” But Parsifal — struck dumb by the sight of the wounded King Amfortas — quickly proves unequal to the role and is thrown out of Monsalvat to resume his wandering.

Parsifal is next drawn to Klingsor’s castle, where he is subjected to the same sexual temptations as Amfortas had been by the cursed enchantress Kundry. But this experience causes him finally to understand the knights’ suffering and, as he does so, to learn the supreme value of compassion. He recovers the spear from Klingsor and waves the enchanted castle to oblivion. Finally arriving back to Monsalvat, after a further bout of wandering, he heals Amfortas with the spear, releases Kundry from her curse, and redeems the derelict knightly order. The opera ends with a fully staged Eucharist Mass, over which Parsifal presides as the order’s new king, while a dove hovers over his head and the chorus sings “Redemption to the Redeemer.”

So why should we go in for such pseudo-religious mummery? The answer begins with Richard Wagner’s understanding of religion, one which Scruton largely shared. Wagner was never a Christian in any conventional sense and was influenced early on by the atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach’s famous claim that “man made God in his image” rather than vice-versa. Today this cliché is deployed to demean religious faith — but to Wagner it demonstrated the opposite: how fundamental godliness was to human nature, and how damaging it would be to lose it. But Wagner deprecated Christianity’s central project of salvation, believing that the promise of eternal life sapped human faith in a better life on earth. The challenge was therefore to offer a substitute. And (never a modest man) Wagner believed that he could deliver this through his epic music-dramas.

How this works — and how the book’s characteristic style of accessible, philosophical exegesis proceeds — can be seen in Scruton’s discussion of the Christian symbolism and ritual that permeates Parsifal. For Wagner, ritual not doctrine was at the heart of religious belief, and by transferring ritual into drama, you could re-create the inner emotional experience of religion in the aesthetic sphere — whether you believe the theology or not. On the face of it, the celebration of Mass without believing in what it symbolizes may seem absurd. Yet Scruton proceeds to explain it as follows.

Mankind’s greatest metaphysical predicament, he says, is the knowledge of the fleetingness of ourselves and of everything that we cherish. A perennial theme of religion has therefore been the distinction between the sequential, linear experience of time in which we live our lives, and the awareness of another reality in which time is circular or “timeless,” a distinction the Greeks made between Chronos and Kairos. Because rituals are repeated exactly — the prayers, the chants, costumes, and gestures, which “have always been and will be done for ever” — they are something “outside time,” offering a momentary escape from the Chronos in which we must live, into that other reality, to which our thoughts continually turn. They are “the use of time as a denial of change;” a dramatic retort to the enduring mystery of our mortality. Like myths, rituals are one of the great repositories of deep-seated truths about human nature.

The example is a reminder of the novelty of Scruton’s thought, and his rationalizations of the seemingly irrational that so infuriate his critics. True, this is philosophy as the ancients, rather than modern-day academic departments, would have understood it: reflections on how to live. But a commercially minded publisher could probably produce a successful self-help book based on Scruton’s extraordinarily wide-ranging thought: How Roger Scruton Can Change Your Life. In addition to this secular celebration of religious services, earlier books have offered guides on how to be a better teacher, music-, art- or animal lover; a better conservative and conservationist; and even a better wine drinker. In each case, the Scrutonian prescription is bound up with his core ideas of the enduring importance of the “human ideal,” and of the need to rescue the sense of the sacred from modern “marketplace conceptions” of human society and the commodification of human relations that these have entailed.

Here, Wagner’s Parsifal also contributes an elegant case for why we shouldn’t be libertarians. Indeed, Scruton suggests that the whole opera can be viewed as an attack on modern “contractual” understandings of society at the heart of political philosophy since the Enlightenment.

The ideas that drive all the action in Parsifal — passion and temptation, guilt, shame, and self-disgust, and sin and redemption — are marginal if not wholly unaccountable in the liberal-individualist picture of a network of agreements and contracts between autonomous individuals, protected by their rights, who freely commit to one another and as freely dissolve their commitments. Such concepts as we find in Parsifal are viewed like superstitions that we must progress beyond. And yet it is the “existential relationships” bound up with these feelings — such as those that bind us to our parents, country, or religious and cultural inheritance — that “complete our being.” These are ties that we never contracted, whose terms can never be stated or finally fulfilled, but which call upon us at every moment of our lives to honor them — and before which self-interest and rational calculation fall silent. From Locke to Rawls, Scruton says, liberal individualism has produced beautiful theories, “but it does not describe real human beings.” Wagnerian music-drama, unlikely as this may seem, does.

Scruton also finds in the philosophy conveyed by Parsifal an antidote to many of our own society’s ills in the 21st century. Indeed, in his telling, the order of knights at Monsalvat — that “derelict religious community” — sounds like a loosely veiled metonym for the current predicament of the modern Western world.

By the opera’s end, Monsalvat has buckled under the assault of what Scruton describes as the “irresistible desire for desecration among those who have lost their faith” — represented in this case by the sadistic voyeur and magician Klingsor. The order has lost and profaned the things it once held sacred. Its knights have forgotten the very purpose of their calling — they are harsh and domineering toward their servants, their leader, and one another. And despite manifest evidence of social and spiritual decay, everyone is so completely mired in their own woes and machinations that they are no longer even aware of the greater struggle — indeed, they have convinced themselves that the battle with evil no longer needs to be fought. In a particularly striking metaphor, Scruton likens such a society to a wandering traveler: someone “lost and exhausted, who can proceed only by setting himself targets: the next field, the next hill, the next wood, that hill top.”

What does redemption look like for such a society? In Parsifal, healing comes when Monsalvat regains its sense of the sacred — as Scruton continually insisted could be the case for Western society. This results not from any religious revival — an expression of faith is conspicuously absent from the opera’s concluding Eucharist Mass — but from the embrace of something within ourselves: the simple quality of compassion.

For Scruton, compassion means not just suffering with, but understanding and taking on the suffering of others. Like the Christian command to love, compassion can reverse the “spirit of negation” which turns human relations from care to dominion, from love to sexual hunger, and which “eclipses the other with the self.” But it also implies recognition that something is wrong and must be rectified. Redemption must often come from the outside — brought by one who can see past all the fudges and self-flattery whereby we govern our lives, to understand the deeper struggles beneath. “This is the path taken by Parsifal,” Scruton concludes, which Wagner described as “godliness,” but “it is a path that is open to us all.”

The lines are some of the last Scruton wrote — and the point is surely worth taking. There can be little doubt that more genuine compassion in our society — in place of our modern craze for “virtue-signaling” — would constitute a gain. Nonetheless, one can’t help reflecting that Scruton also shared Wagner’s over-optimistic if not exaggerated sense of the role of drama in social and political change. Even in his own day, Wagner’s belief that the theater was not simply the most potent shaping factor in civilization but offered a vehicle for the wholesale regeneration of all mankind, was regarded by most of mankind as hopelessly out of date. After all, Wagner’s Parsifal is likely to find fewer readers than Scruton’s classic philosopher’s guide to wine, I Drink Therefore I Am. Yet even they may still be left wondering how exactly the path of compassion can be followed in the world (any more than the Christian one of neighborly love), and whether it really would lead to redemption, rather than simply to their own submersion beneath the materialist tide and the “spirit of negation.”

In one prediction, however, the philosophical guide contained in Parsifal is surely right: that if some kind of “redemption” is possible for the West, it will come into our society from the outside. Anyone who spends much time outside the United States or Europe, in the so-called developing world, will confirm how many there look on in disbelief at the spectacle of the world’s most prosperous and tolerant societies tearing themselves apart in frenzied condemnation of their intolerance — and as their citizens clamor for the deconstruction of national and constitutional inheritances that are the envy of the world. In societies where political order is fragile and where poverty is not “relative,” you are likelier to hear about the value of constituted authority and the sustaining power of faith, the importance of embracing one’s national past and cultural inheritance, and the supreme mischief done by youthful crowds demanding auto-da-fés, than you are the alternative.

Ultimately, the example of the non-Western world can offer the one thing that our society has most emphatically lost, perhaps even more grievously than compassion — perspective.