The sheer power and magnitude of Richard Wagner’s “Parsifal,” the fruit of his recent conversion to a vague form of Christianity, shook the resolve and philosophy of his long-time disciple, Friedrich Nietzsche, to their foundations.
Having recently watched a superb and breathtaking performance of Wagner’s last and perhaps greatest work, I feel constrained to share some thoughts on the peace that Parsifal understands (pun intended!) and the seductive effect it had on Friedrich Nietzsche.
In spite of Parsifal’s theological quirkiness, which would disqualify it from receiving an imprimatur, it is profoundly Christian in the broad sense of the word. Parsifal passes from the innocent naiveté of Rousseau’s noble savage, via the temptation to fall and falter in the decadent quagmire of sin, to the fullness of the Christian embrace of self-sacrificial suffering and the redemptive healing and liberation that it brings.
Klingsor, unmistakably the satanic figure, wreaks havoc in his hard and heartless pride. Kundry, the truly tragic heroine, is the fruit of the furtive cross-fertilization of such fallen women as Herodias, Salomé, and Mary Magdalen. Transformed by her close encounter with Parsifal’s purity and chastity, Kundry emerges as a purgatorial saint, liberated from Klingsor’s luciferian clutches.
The sheer power and magnitude of Wagner’s achievement, the fruit of his recent conversion to a vague form of Christianity, shook the resolve and philosophy of Nietzsche to their foundations. The German philosopher had long been a disciple of Wagner and was shocked and horrified by the composer’s embrace of Christianity and by the Christian moral vision of Parsifal. And yet he couldn’t help but fall under its magical and graceful spell. He wrote of the work’s “loftiness in the most startling sense of the word, of a cognizance and a penetration of vision that cuts through the soul as with a knife, of sympathy with what is seen and shown forth. We get something comparable to it in Dante, but nowhere else.”
A month later, Nietzsche was again extolling the praises of Parsifal: “I cannot think of it without feeling violently shaken, so elevated was I by it, so deeply moved. It was as if someone were speaking to me again, after many years, about the problems that disturb me – naturally not supplying the answers I would give, but the Christian answer, which after all has been the answer of stronger souls than the last two centuries of our era have produced. When listening to this music one lays Protestantism aside as a misunderstanding – and also, I will not deny it, other really good music, which I have at other times heard and loved, seems, as against this, a misunderstanding!”
It seemed as though Wagner’s brilliance, inspired by his new-found Christianity, had “violently shaken” Nietzsche’s philosophical resolve, leading him perhaps to question whether his own philosophy was nothing but “a misunderstanding.” It was as though Nietzsche was being granted the grace to see the error of his ways and to repent. Instead, he allowed his pride to eclipse the brief vision of heaven that had been offered him by Wagner’s brilliance. In a long diatribe against Wagner, the philosopher of pride claimed proudly that he could resist the charm of the Christian Wagner: “In the art of seduction, Parsifal will always retain its rank – as the stroke of genius in seduction . . . One has to be a cynic in order not to be seduced here; one has to be able to bite in order not to worship here. Well, then, you old seducer, the cynic warns you – cave canem.” Thus, Nietzsche resorts to the sneer of the cynic and the bite of the beast as his means of keeping the genius of Wagner and the truth of the Church at bay. Within a year or so of writing these words, Nietzsche had a mental breakdown from which he never recovered. This is the tragedy of Nietzsche and the tragic consequence of Nietzscheanism, the latter of which would lead to the madness of Hitler, and the madness of today’s Pride movement.
As for Wagner, we learn from his wife’s diary that he “positively exploded in favour of Christianity as compared to racial theory” in an argument with the racist philosopher, Arthur de Gobineau. Wagner ended his life in harmony with the truth enunciated by the hero of his greatest opera. This is the happy ending of the divine comedy of his life. Although the peace that Parsifal understands is available to all who seek it, it eludes those who prefer the sneer of the cynic. It is a peace that is destroyed by the madness of proudly lupine philosophers who bark their lunatic insanities and inanities at the moon.
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The featured image is “Parsifal” and is in the Public Domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.