Parsifal And The Possibility of Transcendence

Wagner Bicentennial Symposium
Parsifal & the Possibility of Transcendence

4,392 words

In 1878 Nietzsche sent a copy of his book Human, All Too Human to Richard Wagner. At the same time Wagner sent Nietzsche a copy of the verse for his opera Parsifal. Nietzsche was later to write that when received this text, “I felt as if I heard an ominous sound – as if two swords had crossed.”[1] Nietzsche had immediately realized that the two men had drifted irreparably apart. In Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche had made a decisive move against the Western metaphysical tradition and he saw the text of Parsifal as being deeply embedded within that tradition.

By the time of Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal Wagner had become immersed in the philosophy of Schopenhauer and he was able to infuse those works with a thoroughly Schopenhauerian atmosphere. In particular, Parsifal was the culmination of Wagner’s life’s work, and with its theme of redemption through compassion it fully articulated his mature Schopenhauerian beliefs. Largely because of Wagner’s lucid expression of this theme, the opera was to become a persistent bête noir of Nietzsche. Although he had previously enjoyed a deep and rewarding friendship with Wagner, Nietzsche came to view Parsifal as the epitome of everything that was wrong with culture, and he continued to gnaw away irritably at it, like a dog with an old bone, for the rest of his sane life.

At the heart of Nietzsche’s criticism of Parsifal is his rejection of the possibility of redemption from this world, and of transcendence to a higher realm. With Schopenhauer, the idea of transcendence had reached its most highly developed articulation within the Western philosophical tradition; after Nietzsche’s attack on Parsifal it became impossible to uncritically accept the possibility of transcendence at all.

With the influence of Schopenhauer, the lucid artistry of Wagner, and the devastating critique by Nietzsche, Parsifal can be seen as a nexus for some of the most important tributaries of 19th century philosophical thought.

Schopenhauer’s philosophy begins with the observation that everything that exists can only be known to us through our senses, through perception. Therefore we have no direct access to an objective, independently existing world. For us the world exists only as representation. This applies not only to objects but also to all of the natural laws that connect objects with each other, such as magnetism and gravitation. Space and time are also not independently existing qualities but are dependent on the perceptual faculties of an observing subject, and so are expressions of the world as representation. The ways in which things interact in space and time are determinable by laws, but these laws themselves all belong to that same plane of phenomenal existence. In other words, even causality belongs to the world of representation. Schopenhauer was a great admirer of many of the mystical works of ancient India such as the Vedas and the Upanishads, and he saw an affinity between them and his own philosophical work. The ancient teaching that this world is Maya, or illusion, is often cited by Schopenhauer as being parallel with his own observation that the world is representation.

So, in the world of representation, objects and forces interact with each other in causally determined ways. The individual observer is himself a part of this interplay, so he is also part of the world of representation; he is one object of representation amongst many, many others. If there was nothing else to this explanation then the individual would find himself to be a mere observer of a world of interacting objects and his actions would simply occur according to deterministic laws. But this is not at all how reality appears to us. We feel that we are agents in the world, that we have a self-determined power of volition. So, whilst we recognize ourselves as existing in the world of representation as an object, we also feel that there is something more to it than this. It seems that the world of representation is insufficient to explain the totality of the world that we experience, that there must be some additional, hidden quality to the world anterior to the world of representation. Otherwise the world would consist merely of “empty phantoms.”[2] For Schopenhauer, this additional something is will.

An individual experiences his own sense of will as the volitional manifestation of particular actions of his body. These do not simply appear to him as occurring due to some causal situation, instead they feel deliberately willed. When he stands up and walks to the window he feels that he is acting in the world, not merely observing it. This sense of volition is precisely the action of the will. As soon as the action is performed it is perceived through the senses and becomes a part of the world of representation. But the initial volition does not arise from the world of representation but from the world of will. So, the individual exists both as will and representation.

From this, Schopenhauer extrapolates that everything that exists in the world as representation also has another, and unconditional, aspect as will. In fact, Schopenhauer’s assertion that everything that exists as representation also consists of will is not merely drawn analogically from the experience of a particular individual but is shown to be a necessary state of existence. This is so because representation alone cannot explain the existence of anything. It is possible to describe the actions of all sorts of phenomena and to explain how they interact with each other but we are left with a puzzle regarding the inner nature of these phenomena. However we choose to measure or describe objects or forces, we are measuring and describing only that part of them that manifests itself as phenomena, that is, the aspect of the object manifested as representation. This form can express extension in space or duration in time but its inner quality, its essence, is hidden from us. This hidden essence is “an insoluble residuum”[3] and cannot be discerned by investigating the form of phenomena but only by recognizing the presence of will as the hidden essence within all forms.

Once we are able to understand that it is will that manifests itself in representation, that it is the hidden essence behind all perceptible forms, then we can see that it is, “the force that shoots and vegetates in the plant, indeed the force by which the crystal is formed, the force that turns the magnet to the North Pole, the force whose shock he encounters from the contact of metals of different kinds, the force that appears in the elective affinities of matter as repulsion and attraction, separation and union, and finally even gravitation, which acts so powerfully in all matter, pulling the stone to the earth and the earth to the sun; all these he will recognize as different only in the phenomenon, but the same according to their inner nature.”[4]

Thus, behind all the apparent plurality of phenomena there is a higher unity which is the will. The world of representation is secondary to this because it is dependent for its existence on a knowing subject and so is conditional. The world of will is unconditional; it exists prior to every manifestation. Thus, the world of will, which expresses a unity between all things which appear distinct, is fundamentally real in a way that the world of representation is not. The world of representation, of all perceptible phenomena, is shrouded in the illusory veil of Maya. When we lift the veil we are left with will.

So human beings, like all other things in the universe, have a “twofold existence,”[5] consisting of both will and representation. In impersonal forces such as gravitation and magnetism the will is not especially developed; it acts blindly and in completely uniform ways. In living things such as plants it has a higher degree of organizational development and expresses itself through life-cycles, growing to seed before dying off. In animals it is more highly developed still, so that each individual creature fights for its own food, territory and mates, and so on. In humans the will has developed to its highest form and has the greatest degree of self-awareness, to the extent that, uniquely, it is able to deny itself. In humans, then, we see the greatest degree of self-awareness. But the will manifested in a world of representation finds itself refracted into untold billions of distinct, causal phenomena. In the midst of this illusory fragmentation the will seeks satiety and fulfilment. But this relentless desire, according to Schopenhauer, can never reach an end.

Because humans live in the world of representation we are only aware of the illusory existence of diverse, discrete individuals. Each of us thinks that he exists as a single and separate entity forever cut off from the inner processes of other individuals. For Schopenhauer, this is pure delusion. The reality is that we are all expressions in causal reality of a deeper and more fundamental unity. The will itself is singular and indivisible and it establishes itself in a bewildering multiplicity of varied forms. So, the perception of a world of distinct and separated objects and forces is illusory and, to this extent, is an error. The hidden truth is that of a single, unified will outside of space and time.

But this reality is hidden from us because it does not exist in the perceptual world. So the illusion of a world of many distinct individual objects and forces compels us to constantly strive to achieve union with those things that are separate from us, and which we experience as a lack. The desire for sexual intercourse, hunger for food, and the striving for wealth are all driven by our feeling that we lack those things and we believe that we will achieve happiness and satiety if we obtain them. But as soon as we do achieve one of our desires it begins to lose the appeal that drew us to it in the first place, and we begin to desire other things. This is an endless and inescapable process. It means that the world consists of endless suffering because we are always aware of a lack of something or other, and any fulfilment of desire is always short-lived and leads to the arising of new desires. Longing is eternal, satisfaction brief and illusory.

So, we find ourselves living in a world of illusion and suffering and with an unquenchable thirst for an unknown and hidden world of true unity. One of the primary intimations of this world of unity, according to Schopenhauer, comes from our facility for compassion. Egotism and selfishness derive from the desire to benefit oneself at the expense of others. But the self that benefits from this is, as we have seen, an illusory construct that veils the deeper truth. Compassion and pity begin to erase the boundaries between the illusory phenomena of individuals, and to reveal the hidden unity that actually lies behind appearance. So selfishness reinforces the illusion of discrete phenomena, whereas compassion unveils the truth that everything is the manifestation of an undifferentiated will.

Another way in which we may apprehend this noumenal reality is through art. Art is a means whereby the will is able to objectify itself and this is achieved with reference to Platonic Ideas. Schopenhauer sees these Ideas, which are eternal and unchanging forms outside the incessant becoming and passing away of nature, as “definite grades of the objectification of that will, which forms the in-itself of the world.”[6] In other words, art is able to step outside the individuated world of representation and partake of the undifferentiated world of eternal Ideas. Because art takes us to this noumenal place, we are able to feel a sense of completeness, or rather the absence of willing, whilst we contemplate the art object. With this quieting of the will, suffering recedes, and we are able to apprehend the unity of things.

Schopenhauer singles out music as a special art form quite unlike all the others. Whereas other art forms are concerned with representing the essential and universal elements of things, music is not representational in the same way. Instead, Schopenhauer sees music as being a direct manifestation of will: “Therefore music is by no means like the other arts, namely a copy of the Ideas, but a copy of the will itself, the objectivity of which are the Ideas. For this reason the effect of music is so very much more powerful and penetrating than is that of the other arts, for these others speak only of the shadow, but music of the essence.”[7]

When Wagner discovered Schopenhauer, the effect was utterly revelatory. He had spent years carefully devising a theoretical scheme for opera wherein the text was paramount and the music needed to be subordinated to it. Now he found in Schopenhauer a philosophical explanation of music’s superiority to other art forms, and of its deeper resonance, its natural tendency to articulate the essence of things. Wagner’s conversion first manifested itself in the scores for Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämerung, although the libretti for those works had already been written. Of the three operas fully composed after his conversion to Schopenhauer’s philosophy Parsifal was the one he considered to be “the crowning achievement.”[8]

Wagner’s Parsifal tells the story of the Grail Knights and their King, Amfortas. They are responsible for guarding the Holy Grail and the spear which was used to pierce the side of Christ during His crucifixion. But Amfortas is wounded; he was stabbed with the same spear by the evil magician Klingsor, who then stole it. Amfortas’ wound will now not heal. Klingsor has also disempowered the Knights by seducing them with his flower maidens. Until the Knights can win back the spear, the holy rites seem empty and the land has become wasted. A prophecy has been given by the Grail that the spear will only be won back by one, “made wise through pity, the pure fool.”

Parsifal himself is introduced to the drama when he kills a swan. He does not know why he killed the swan, and it transpires that he is ignorant of his parentage and he does not even know his own name. Evidently, he is the prophesied fool. But Parsifal cannot understand the Grail Knights’ rites, and so he is dismissed as a mere fool, not the prophesied redeemer. He soon finds his way to Klingsor’s castle where Kundry, who is simultaneously a servant of the Knights and one of Klingsor’s maidens, attempts to seduce him. This is the cause of an epiphany for Parsifal. With the arrival of sexual arousal, Parsifal is no longer the innocent fool he was, but he is immediately able to overcome this desire and exercise a will-less compassion. He then becomes the pure fool who will fulfil the prophecy. He wins the spear from Klingsor, which he will use to heal Amfortas’ wound. Klingsor and his castle disappear: they were mere phenomena, and Parsifal has revealed their illusory character.

It transpires that Kundry was present at Christ’s crucifixion and that she mocked Him. She has been trapped in an eternal life of repentance ever since. Now Parsifal, through his compassion, has redeemed her. At the close of the opera, on Good Friday, the sacred rites are once more performed but this time with appropriate numinosity. Parsifal is acknowledged as the Redeemer.

The influence of Schopenhauer throughout Parsifal is absolutely clear. The world of Parsifal is one of ubiquitous and lingering suffering. The Grail Knights are condemned to meaningless ritual because of their failure to remain chaste. By succumbing to sexual desire they are chained to the illusory pleasures of the world, and these pleasures, as Schopenhauer has it, are transient, illusory and outweighed by the greater reality of suffering.

Kundry, through her mockery of Christ, is locked in an eternity of suffering. The significant point to Kundry’s suffering is not that she is being punished for mocking God, but that she suffers due to a lack of compassion. By laughing at the suffering of Christ she failed to recognize that the suffering of one is, in essence, the suffering of all.

The eponymous hero is able to redeem the Grail Knights through compassion, by realizing the hidden reality behind the illusory phenomena conjured by Klingsor. When Parsifal causes Klingsor’s realm to disappear he is banishing the world of mere appearance, with all its beguiling desires and pleasures. The final redemption comes from the realization that compassion reveals the hidden unity behind all phenomena. This redemption is not effected through the divinity of Christ; the Good Friday scene is the fulfilment of this redemption, and the Redeemer is Parsifal. Redemption comes from the acceptance of the singular essence of the will and the unity of all things, not from a supernatural intervention.

There is also an interesting structural resonance with Schopenhauer’s thought. Amfortas’ wound is an analogue of the suffering of Christ: his wound was caused by the same spear that pierced the side of Christ. But when Parsifal enters the drama he shoots a swan with an arrow. The swan is a symbol of the sacred so this image again recapitulates the piercing of Christ. In this way, a threefold analogue of suffering becomes a depiction of the Schoperhauerian idea that the will is a unified whole which merely appears to become separate and distinct in various manifestations. The trinity of pain enfolded into the drama exemplifies the notion that the suffering of Christ is important because it is the suffering of all, even of animals. The importance of Christ for Wagner, as for Schopenhauer, comes from the fact that his story of suffering and redemption through surrendering the will is a universal truth and is a metaphysical reality inherent in all living things.

So, Parsifal is not a Christian work of art, despite what many seem to think. It is a work of art which elaborates a sophisticated piece of secular philosophy. The importance of Parsifal, and perhaps the source of misunderstanding, comes from the fact that it is a secular, atheist work which nonetheless presents the reality of transcendence as a proximate and intimate possession of all living things. The Grail hall is a place where, “Time is one with Space.” When Parsifal approaches this hall with one of the Grail Knights, Gurnemanz, the stage directions indicate that the scene begins to change: “the woods disappear and in the rocky walls a gateway opens, which closes behind them. . . . Gurnemanz turns to Parsifal, who stands as if bewitched.”[9] Clearly, the Grail Knights are guarding a numinous place, or at least a place infused with numinous emanations from the Grail itself, but deeper than this they are guarding the concept of transcendence itself. And, with his portrayal of Schopenhauer’s ideas concerning the possibility of redemption within a secular framework, Wagner himself is guarding the possibility of transcendence against the ongoing decline of Christianity.

When Nietzsche first read Parsifal, and heard the sound of swords clashing, he had come to view the notion of transcendence, whether through religion or through art, as an impossibility. Whilst he had already decisively rejected religion he had gone still further and questioned the notion that there is a metaphysical side to existence at all. Despite his friendship with Wagner and his earlier allegiance to Schopenhauer he had come to the conclusion that such a metaphysical realm, the hidden unity of the will, simply did not exist; or if it did exist, that it was completely unknowable to man and so not worth considering.

Nietzsche had come to realize that Schopenhauer, in working out his philosophical worldview, had taken a number of impermissible steps. When Schopenhauer had described the phenomenal world of appearance as illusory he was entirely correct, but he then went on to assume that there must be a world of ultimate reality, a “real” world distinct from representation, lying anterior to the apparent world. Nietzsche questions why, if we are constantly deceived about the nature of the apparent world, we should give any credence to speculations about a hidden world. In fact, he goes on to question why, if such a world anterior to appearance did in fact exist, it should be assumed to have any greater validity than the world of “mere” appearance: “It is no more than a moral prejudice that truth is worth more than mere appearance; it is even the worst proved assumption there is in the world. Let at least this much be admitted: there would be no life at all if not on the basis of perspective estimates and appearances.”[10]

In addition, when Schopenhauer perceived the will as an intimately known presence within himself he falsely assumed that it was a singular force. From this perception he inferred an undifferentiated reality behind the entire world of appearance. But Nietzsche realizes that the will cannot be described in such a way. For Nietzsche, the will is something that emerges as the result of a conflict of impulses and desires that exist simultaneously within an individual. The act of willing emerges as the effect of the most domineering of these impulses. Crucially, it is the result of a prior battle that gives rise to the act of willing and it is an error to ascribe this will to “the synthetic concept ‘I’.”[11] The individual contains many souls, and the one that wins the battle of the wills becomes identified as the individual’s will. In this respect, Nietzsche has stood Schopenhauer’s thinking on its head. Instead of a unified whole manifesting itself as plurality, Nietzsche perceives a battleground of competing interests, one of which achieves victory and is then assumed to be the volition of an integrated agent. From here it is a short step to the realization that “life simply is will to power.”[12]

This realization reveals another false step in Schopenhauer’s argumentation, or rather a severe error of evaluation. If it is assumed there is a holistic and in some sense “higher” reality behind appearances, then this reality assumes a position of superiority to the world of appearances. In Nietzsche’s terms this means that a fictional world has the whip hand over the real world: “Once the concept ‘nature’ had been devised as the concept antithetical to ‘God’, ‘natural’ had to be the word for ‘reprehensible’ – this entire fictional world has its roots in hatred of the natural (actuality!), it is the expression of a profound disgust with the actual. . . . But that explains everything. Who alone has reason to lie himself out of actuality? He who suffers from it. But to suffer from actuality means to be an abortive actuality. . . . The preponderance of feelings of displeasure over feelings of pleasure is the cause of a fictitious morality and religion: such a preponderance, however, provides the formula for decadence . . .”[13] Although this polemic is aimed at the Christian concept of God, the point is equally applicable to Schopenhauer’s world of will. And, once more, Nietzsche has turned Schopenhauer’s thought on its head. Rather than suffering and want being caused by the splintering of a prior unity into discrete phenomena, Nietzsche sees the presence of suffering in the individual as the cause of the creation of this fictional world of unity. It is simply a palliative created to alleviate dissatisfaction with the real.

Of course, this is no neutral matter of academic philosophy; it is fundamental to knowing whether it is possible or desirable to believe in the existence of a noumenal world, whatever its character might be. The existence or non-existence of such a transcendent world has ultimate implications for questions concerning God, life after death, and so on. And this is why Nietzsche’s attack on Wagner’s perceived decadence was so vociferous: “He flatters every nihilistic (Buddhistic) instinct and disguises it in music; he flatters everything Christian, every religious expression of decadence. Open your ears: everything that ever grew on the soil of impoverished life, all of the counterfeiting of transcendence and beyond, has found its most sublime advocate in Wagner’s art.”[14]

And this is the heart of the matter: the counterfeiting of transcendence. When one becomes a fellow traveler with Nietzsche one realizes the intellectual impossibility of accepting notions of transcendence. The very idea of transcendence itself becomes anathema because it implies a belittling of the here and now, of actuality. Consequently art that posits transcendence as an ultimate aim becomes risible, and the beauty of Wagner’s opera dissipates like Klingsor’s castle.

But whilst one listens to the music of Parsifal and becomes immersed in the extraordinarily high level of dramatic development, the possibility of transcendence comes back in to focus and inspires an intuitive yearning to grasp it: the ultimate grail quest. And, in fact, when Nietzsche actually heard Parsifal for the first time he was to write, “Did Wagner ever compose anything better? The finest psychological intelligence and definition of what must be said here, expressed, communicated, the briefest and most direct form for it, every nuance of feeling pared down to an epigram; a clarity in the music as descriptive art, bringing to mind a shield with a design in relief on it; and, finally, a sublime and extraordinary feeling, experience, happening of the soul, at the basis of the music, which does Wagner the highest credit.”[15] Wagner’s desire to present Schopenhauer’s metaphysics in artistic form might appear now to be an item of merely historical interest. But what we know intellectually will not always remain sovereign, and Parsifal is unlikely to be the last time we seriously consider the possibility of transcendence.



1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: The Modern Library, 1967), 744.

2. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, trans. E. F. J. Payne (New York: Dover Publications, 1969), vol. 1, 119.

3. Ibid., 124.

4. Ibid., 110.

5. Ibid., 371.

6. Ibid., 170.

7. Ibid., 257.

8. Bryan Magee, Wagner and Philosophy (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 196.

9. Richard Wagner, Parsifal, in Parsifal (Wagner): Opera Guide 34 (London: John Calder, 1986), 96.

10. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: The Modern Library, 1967), 236.

11. Ibid., 216.

12. Ibid., 393.

13. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, in Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin Books, 1968), 135–36.

14. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner, in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: The Modern Library, 1967), 639.

15. Magee, Wagner and Philosophy, 325


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