The world lost a tremendously important voice on January 12, 2020, when Sir Roger Scruton passed away. Like all great artists and critics, his spirit lives on, and it is fitting that the great aesthetician and music scholar has bequeathed to the world a final—and fitting—contribution of cultural analysis, music criticism, and Wagnerian scholarship. In Wagner’s Parsifal: The Music of Redemption, Scruton’s brief but breathtaking pilgrimage through the great composer’s final opera, the masterful bard of conservatism convincingly shows why it is the opera for our age.
We live in a time when we constantly hear of the importance of love and compassion, yet oftentimes it is from people who appear full of rage and resentment. Ironies abound in our turbulent world where love is supposed to trump hate, and yet the self-proclaimed lovers speak of deplorables and irredeemable bigots and engage in violence against those they deem deplorable and bigoted. What gives?
Richard Wagner was no stranger to irony. Neither was Sir Roger Scruton. During his lifetime, Scruton rose to prominence as an articulate expositor of conservatism and the arts before publishing his Thinkers of the New Left (republished as Fools, Frauds and Firebrands), which effectively made him persona non grata in the left-wing academic world. Scruton had taken a wrecking ball to the idolatrous pantheon of the modern university and was scorned because of it. How could such an educated and erudite humanist be such a backward-looking conservative? Despite his de facto excommunication, Scruton continued to write extensively about art, culture, and philosophy, which won him worldwide recognition and renown.
It is ironic that Scruton is remembered as a philosopher of conservatism when he should be remembered as a world-class writer of arts and culture. And no area has been more rejuvenated by Scruton’s engagement with art and culture than music—especially the field of Wagner operas and interpretation. Scruton’s Death Devoted Heart and The Ring of Truth are exceptional reads into the musical genius and aesthetic philosophy of Wagner; in Wagner’s Parsifal we find Scruton at his peak form synthesizing the turbulent heart of Wagner with his own philosophy of human kindness which provides a unique window into the aesthetic, religious, and philosophical inclinations of opera’s most notorious composer.
Wagner’s road to Parsifal was a long and arduous one. Perhaps it is fitting that Wagner’s final opera is an operatic pilgrimage not that dissimilar to his own life. And perhaps it is equally fitting that Scruton’s final book deals with this long and arduous pilgrimage that is not far removed from his own pilgrimage in life.
Early in his life, Wagner was an enthusiastic supporter of the nationalist and socialist revolutions that erupted across Europe in 1848. He was, prior to his late shift toward a more Christianized outlook on life, a friend of the quixotic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. A reader of German and Greek philosophy, Wagner’s early operas—as Scruton has so convincingly shown in his treatment of Tristan and Isolde and The Ring of the Nibelung—are saturated with the sublime ecstasy of the erotic which necessarily ends in death. Parsifal, however, breaks with that original path Wagner was walking. While traces of this break may be hinted at in The Ring, Scruton does an incredible job setting the context and historical background of Wagner before proceeding into his treatment of Parsifal; though fairly minimal, the reader must know some of this context before unlocking the majesty of Wagner’s final gift to the world.
Parsifal is an enigma to many, as Scruton points out, with critics divided as to how to interpret the operatic story. Is it essentially Christian? Is it anti-Semitic? Or does it anticipate Jung and Freud? Scruton does not hide the more obtuse and grotesque side of Wagner, but he does point out the problems with our zeitgeist and politicized readings of Wagner and how it misses the true artistic genius and raison d’être of Wagner’s musical projects. Wagner’s “quest” is best summarized in the essay “Art and Religion,” wherein Wagner wrote, “It is reserved to art to salvage the kernel of religion, inasmuch as the mythical images which religion would wish to be believed as true are apprehended in art for their symbolic value, and through ideal representation of those symbols art reveals the concealed deep truth within them.”
Wagner’s Parsifal, as Scruton makes exceedingly clear, draws principally from Christianity but also Schoperhauerian Buddhism to construct a stirring tale of a foolish knight confronting sin and temptation and redeeming the dying and decadent world falling apart around him. Scruton writes that “Parsifal invites us to believe in the Redeemer.” This necessarily requires us to ask two interrelated questions: why do we need redemption and who is this redeemer we need to believe in?
The heart of the religious desire in Parsifal is living in right relations with others. The fall into sin, if you will, is the instrumentalization and objectification of the world and humans into cogs for self-pleasure and power. Sin, then, is manifested in Klingsor and his realm of temptation, which tempts the Knights of the Grail into a fantasy that rivals what Circe offered to Odysseus. Love and redemption, by contrast, are mysteriously prefigured by the Grail prophecy: Durch Mitleid Wissend, Der Reine Tor—which promises of the “pure fool, knowing through compassion.” This, as the opera makes clear, is Parsifal.
The conflict, then, that Parsifal wrestles with is to live life in this world rather than hope for a life in the next. As Scruton says, “[T]he religion in Monsalvat is not based in a promise of another world. It is an invitation to live differently in this world, and so to find redemption through our own efforts, and without the help of a God.” While this is true concerning Wagner’s specific message, Scruton also highlights through Wagner’s Parsifal that the composer-philosopher nevertheless relied extensively on those truths contained in the Christian religion concerning redemption through new relational living. Scruton reminds us of the importance of the ambiguous allure Christianity had for Wagner (especially later in his life), “Wagner does not stand at a distance from the worldview of his characters. He does not look on the Christian faith with irony, or dismiss it as a posture that we can longer share. On the contrary, he looks in it for signs of what is deep in all of us, and for what might be revealed and hallowed through its artistic expression.”
This returns us to the problem of eros and sin permeating this opera. Eros, in Parsifal, must ultimately be rejected. Thus, Parsifal doesn’t fall into the seductive slavery offered by the flower maidens; he redeems Kundry through his chastity despite her kiss over him. Yet, being foolish of the potential power of the Grail and Spear of Destiny, Parsifal comes to wield the Spear as the sacramental instrument of redemption. Brilliantly, Wagner portrays in the Spear the dilemmas of religion and the sacramental impulse. In Klingsor, the Spear is desired for its instrumentalization and de-humanizing capabilities for power and destruction. In the hands of Parsifal, however, it becomes the healing instrument of our redemption through compassion, which mends all wounds and restores all relationships.
In this short book, Roger Scruton provides the best introductory pilgrimage through the final operatic gift left to the world by the creative genius of Richard Wagner. Providing basic historical and cultural context, an explanation of the principal symbols, characters, and story arc without the pollution of ideologically-driven criticism, and a lucid and compelling analysis of the opera’s music and leitmotifs, readers of all stripes will find something compelling and insightful contained in its pages. Those who wish to understand the story or the themes and symbols that move Parsifal will find no better alternative than Scruton’s work. Likewise, those who wish to understand better the aesthetic and musical environment that accompanies the opera will find the masterful philosopher of music in his forte. And those who wish to free themselves from the polluted well of contemporary criticism will find a breath of new life in approaching the wisdom of Wagner through Scruton.
Roger Scruton convincingly shows us why Parsifal is the music of redemption. But it is the redemption of a fractured human world needing restoration to the proper face to face, subject-subject relations freed from the suffocating burden of instrumentalization, objectification, and resentment that pollute our world just as it does Wagner’s operatic world. Redemption, here, comes through the healing ethic of Christianity but has very worldly purposes.
Parsifal is fundamentally about redeeming relations with others through face to face encounters and overcoming the lust to dominate that besets us by exuding the foolish wisdom of compassion. In compassion we restore the lost sacred reality of human relationships. The path of agape, Scruton writes, “is the path taken by Parsifal, and it is a path that is open to us all.” In our world, we should listen to that wisdom instead of remaining shackled to resentment and the lust to destroy.
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