The late philosopher Roger Scruton wrote two valuable studies of Wagner’s mature works: Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (2004) and The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung (2016). At the time of his death on January 12, 2020, Scruton had completed but not published his third and final Wagner study, Wagner’s Parsifal: The Music of Redemption. Now available, the volume is both a rewarding insight into a perplexing work, and at the same time a reminder of just how brilliant a writer, thinker and listener Roger Scruton was.
A slender volume, Wagner’s Parsifal might have been even briefer. His re-telling of the narrative of the drama is neither urgently needed nor, with singular exceptions, creative. And his listing of the principal leitmotifs at the end of the study might be found in other companions to the work.
The brilliance comes in Scruton’s articulating the core of Wagner’s work, his discipline in addressing the mysteries and contradictions of the piece, and his deep eloquence. He was a great thinker and an inspiring writer. The very first sentences of the very first chapter is a sufficient illustration:
Parsifal tells the story of a simpleton, who wanders the world in a condition of ignorance, but who eventually rescues a derelict religious community from the woes that have afflicted it. He achieves this feat through sympathy and compassion, but with only a retrospective understanding of what he is doing.
Scruton’s central proposition is that “human beings fall into wrong relations with each other, leading to guilt and shame,” and that communities thus astray and self-wounded are periodically in need of healing. The central agency of healing is perceptive compassion and the sort of complete self-sacrifice that is the product of renunciation of personal will. Scruton distinguishes primitive sacrifice — of grain, lambs and people before an altar to please the gods — with the Christian myth involving sacrifice of one’s self for the sake of the community. It is one thing for the community to make a sacrificial offering; it is quite another for the sacrificial object (in the case of Jesus) to know what is going on, and to not only accept the sacrifice but to forgive and express compassion for those who engage in the act. Scruton argues that Jesus made a gift of his own sacrifice, and the ritual in which the Knights of Monsalvat engage is a gesture of union — intimate ingestion, even — with one who offered to heal our communally-experienced pains.
This has nothing to do with being good so the gods are pleased and one is rewarded in the afterlife. The work does not even remotely address the concept of an afterlife; it offers ways for us to find the right relationship with each other — in our communities now — and the key is self-abnegating compassion.
Scruton’s insights come hard upon and are challenging to report with any sense of completeness. For example, in discussing “mitleid” as a redemptive agency, he distinguishes between the concept of “pity,” which may implicate condescension, and “compassion,” which suggests peer-to-peer engagement in the experience of suffering. It is the latter that Parsifal feels at the end of Act I and that transforms him in Act II. He also emphasizes that the love that informs the community of Monsalvat is not eros but agape, and the ritual in which they engage is less religious than expressive of the dictates of “other-directed action” that such love entails: “[A]gape leads of its own accord to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. In a community shaped by these vows can pursue ‘works of love,”… free from earthly passions.” This community of Monsalvat has fallen away from that object. Indeed, Titurel’s insistence upon experiencing the redemptive force of the ritual, despite the exquisite pain it causes Amfortas, greets Scruton as an unforgivable act of selfishness, completely devoid of anything like compassion for his own son or right relations within the community as a whole.
The musical analysis is similarly eye-opening, though the author gives much credit to Derrick Everett and others. He helps not only to identify Tristan-esque passages in the score, but also to unify an understanding of the core motif — what Everett calls the grundthema — as the progenitor of all of the themes that eventually become critical to the redemptive action of the drama.
The book is thin, as I say, but not an easy read, as one is tempted to chew and ponder after almost every paragraph. Scruton leaves us with words that serve as his own peroration:
The story of this redeemer haunts our days, even if we have no knowledge of who he is, why he came, or whence he has departed. The solution to the mystery comes only when we understand that his story is our story, and that we ourselves are the redeemer. We have been called not to explore the world, but to rescue it. In doing so we emerge from our trials and conflicts in full possession of our social nature. Like the Redeemer, we make a gift of our suffering, through an act of consecration that brings peace to us all. Whether or not there is a God, there is this hallowed path towards a kind of salvation, the path that Wagner described as ‘godliness.’ That is the path taken by Parsifal, and it is a path that is open to us all.