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Parsifal as Proto-SF

by Andrew May

This paper was first presented at Interaction, the 63rd World Science Fiction Convention held in Glasgow in August 2005, as part of the academic track organized by the Science Fiction Foundation. The slides presented at the convention can be found in PDF format here.

Parsifal is an opera by Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883). It's a very unusual opera, which has baffled and intrigued audiences since it was first performed in 1882. Most operas are about larger-than-life human relationships and emotions, and Wagner's earlier works are no exception. But Parsifal is different. It's all about ideas -- very abstract ideas of philosophy, metaphysics and theology. I would argue that this places Parsifal firmly in the realm of speculative fiction. Moreover, the focus of speculation in Wagner's opera is remarkably similar to that found in the novels of Philip K Dick and in the Matrix trilogy.

Parsifal is discussed extensively in Philip K Dick's 1981 novel, Valis. Indeed, for some SF readers, Valis may be the only context they have ever encountered Parsifal. Chapter 8 of Valis contains a nice little précis of Wagner's opera, which we can use as a starting point:

The leader of the grail knights, Amfortas, has a wound which will not heal. Klingsor has wounded him with the spear which pierced Christ's side. Later, when Klingsor hurls the spear at Parsifal, the pure fool catches the spear - which has stopped in midair - and holds it up, making the sign of the Cross with it, at which Klingsor and his entire castle vanish. They were never there in the first place; they were a delusion, what the Greeks call dokos; what the Indians call the veil of maya. There is nothing that Parsifal cannot do. At the end of the opera, Parsifal touches the spear to Amfortas's wound and the wound heals.

Expanding on that, an act-by-act synopsis would go something like this:

Fans of science fiction may perceive a number of striking parallels between the plot of Parsifal and that of The Matrix. I'm not sure if these parallels are a deliberate homage to Parsifal or just an accident. It's well known that the Wachowski brothers are avid readers of all kinds of things, and that a lot of their reading found its way into The Matrix in one form or another. Equally, I've seen The Matrix described as a kind of intellectual Rorschach test where you can find anything you want if you look hard enough! Whether they are coincidences or deliberate allusions, the plot parallels between Parsifal and The Matrix can be summarised as follows:

Parsifal
The Matrix
The Grail's prophecy
(the guileless fool)
The Oracle's prophecy
(the One)
Kundry's kiss causes
Parsifal's "awakening"
Trinity's kiss causes
Neo's "awakening"
Parsifal sees through
Klingsor's illusions
Neo sees through
the illusion of the Matrix
Parsifal stops the spear
in mid-air
Neo stops a salvo of bullets
in mid-air
Parsifal ends up
as a Christ-like saviour
Neo ends up
as a Christ-like saviour
 

The connections between Parsifal and The Matrix go beyond similarities of plot. The music, if nothing else, contains deliberate references to Wagner, as the following quotation from Don Davies (composer on all three Matrix films) shows:

When we were spotting [Matrix] Revolutions the word "Wagnerian" came up very often. And the reason was because, you know Wagner was very much a fan of Schopenhauer. He was actually obsessed with the Schopenhauer ideas of will and representation... And it was significant enough to both Larry and Andy [Wachowski] and myself that we felt working on the third part of this trilogy, which is significantly about philosophy -- no less Schopenhauer than Hegel and Kant and Heidegger and Kierkegaard, but still definitely Schopenhauerian and also Nietzsche, who was a close friend of Wagner's up until Parsifal, when they had a falling out. One of the things I did in acknowledging this Wagnerian tradition of philosophy in multi-media drama was that I quoted the Tristan chord over the Deus Ex Machina. [Quoted at music.ign.com]

That's a great phrase -- "this Wagnerian tradition of philosophy in multi-media drama"! Wagner's operas are certainly multi-media dramas, and Parsifal does have a lot of philosophy in it. And in that respect, The Matrix films are its direct lineal descendants.

The previous quotation mentioned Schopenhauer, who was certainly the biggest influence on Wagner at the time he was writing Parsifal. However, Wagner was an avid reader (a bit like the Wachowskis!) and he drew on many other sources as well. Some of the books he's known to have read in connection with Parsifal are as follows:

The Grail legends, mediaeval mysticism, Schopenhauer, Buddhism, Hinduism... all the subjects you would expect to find in the New Age section of Waterstones or Barnes & Noble in the 21st century! Yet here was Wagner reading these books way back in the 1860s and 70s! Even the Life of Jesus was an early example of the now-popular "Jesus the man" genre, rather than a straightforward New Testament commentary.

On the face of it, Parsifal is a Christian opera. The Grail is the cup of Christ, the spear is the weapon that pierced Christ's side, and Parsifal defeats Klingsor using the sign of the cross. But in Wagner's hands, Christianity is transformed into something distinctly unorthodox. Heavily influenced by Schopenhauer, Wagner believed that Christians no longer understood the true meaning of their own religion:

This act of denying the will is the true action of the saint: That it is ultimately accomplished only in a total end to individual consciousness -- for there is no other consciousness except that which is personal and individual -- was lost sight of by the naïve saints of Christianity... This most profound of all instincts finds purer and more meaningful expression in the oldest and most sacred religion known to man, in Brahmin teaching, and especially in its final transfiguration in Buddhism. [Letter from Wagner to Franz Liszt, dated June 1855]

There is probably very little truth in that statement, viewed in the light of modern scholarship -- but the important thing is that it's what Wagner believed to be true at the time he wrote Parsifal.

Wagner was impressed by the symbols of religion, even though he knew they were nothing more than symbols. He realised that a symbol such as the Grail could be very powerful even if there was no literal truth to it:

An old legend existed in southern France telling how Joseph of Arimathea had once fled there with the sacred chalice that had been used at the Last Supper... I feel a very real admiration and sense of rapture at this splendid feature of Christian mythogenesis, which invented the most profound symbol that could ever have been invented as the content of the physical-spiritual kernel of any religion. [Letter from Wagner to Mathilde Wesendonck, dated May 1859]

As he was putting the finishing touches to Parsifal, Wagner made his views on religious symbolism even more explicit in an essay entitled Religion and Art (1880):

Whereas the priest is concerned only that the religious allegories should be regarded as factual truths, this is of no concern to the artist, since he presents his work frankly and openly as his invention.

It's amusing to consider this last quotation in the context of Dan Brown -- who may or may not be an artist, but who has certainly made a lot of money by presenting invention in the guise of literal truth! There's a brief mention of Parsifal in The Da Vinci Code, and like most statements in that book it's almost entirely erroneous:

... Wagner's opera Parsifal was a tribute to Mary Magdalene and the bloodline of Jesus Christ, told through the story of a young knight on a quest for truth. [Dan Brown: The Da Vinci Code, Chapter 95]

Well, I don't think Wagner's opera was meant as a tribute to Mary Magdalene and any bloodline of Christ, and I don't think Parsifal was "on a quest for truth". But there's one interesting parallel between Parsifal and The Da Vinci Code, in that both Wagner and Dan Brown use the same dubious etymology for the Grail:

The Saviour's blood ( Sang réale, whence San Gréal - The Holy Grail)

[Wagner: Prose draft of Parsifal]

Sangreal... Sang Real... San Greal... Royal Blood... Holy Grail

[Dan Brown: The Da Vinci Code, Chapter 60]

Returning to Philip K Dick and Valis, the key to the Parsifal connection here lies in Gnosticism. Hopefully most people will already have some idea what this is, but a very brief (and inadequate) definition might be something like: "Gnosticism is a form of Christianity that views the physical world as an illusion that conceals true reality". As such, Gnosticism has parallels in the Indian religions of Hinduism and Buddhism, and in the philosophy of Schopenhauer. Gnosticism is an important theme in Parsifal, The Matrix and above all in the novels of Philip K Dick.

I've already mentioned that Parsifal ends with the words "The redeemer redeemed". Dick picks up on this in Chapter 8 of Valis:

The savior saved idea is Gnostic in origin. How did it get into Parsifal?

The one-word answer to Dick's question is "Schopenhauer"! The same is true of another question that Dick raised back in Chapter 3 of Valis. Picking up on a line from Act 1 of Parsifal ("You see, my son, here time turns into space"), Dick says:

Wagner... died in 1883, long before Hermann Minkowski postulated four dimensional space-time. The source-basis for Parsifal consisted of Celtic legends, and Wagner's research into Buddhism for his never-written opera about the Buddha to be called The Victors. Where did Richard Wagner get the notion that time could turn into space?

Well, here's a letter that Wagner wrote way back in 1860 that refers to space and time:

All the terrible tragedy of life would be attributable to our dislocation in time and space; but since time and space are merely our way of perceiving things, but otherwise have no reality, even the greatest tragic pain must be explicable to those who are truly clear-sighted as no more than the error of the individual. [Letter from Wagner to Mathilde Wesendonck, dated August 1860]

"... time and space are merely our way of perceiving things, but otherwise have no reality." To me, that seems an amazing insight for a mid-19th century European. It was still an amazing idea eighty years later when A E Van Vogt put it in his Null-A novels!

Both Wagner in Parsifal, and Philip K Dick in Valis, refer to a supposed etymology of the name Parsifal as "pure fool". It's clear that Dick realised the etymology was spurious, but Wagner really believed it:

"Parsi fal" means: parsi - think of the fire-loving Parsees - "pure"; fal means "mad" in a higher sense, in other words a man without erudition, but one of genius ... [Letter from Wagner to Judith Gautier, dated Nov 1877]

A more generally accepted etymology for Parsifal is from the old French for "pierce the veil" -- which strikes me as being even more relevant in the Gnostic sense: Piercing the veil of illusion...

Percival (Perceval, Percheval, Parsifal...) from Old French "pierce the veil" (perce le voile). [www.babynamesdirectory.com]

"Pure fool" or "pierce the veil" -- both are relevant to Wagner's hero, and to any number of Philip K Dick's protagonists. Here's a quotation from Dick's widow, Tessa:

The theme which runs most consistently through Phil's work is that of Parsifal, the "wise fool"... He appears in Divine Invasion as Manny (Emmanuel), in Valis as Horselover Fat searching for the saviour. [Tessa Dick, quoted at www.philipkdickfans.com]

So Philip K Dick was influenced by Parsifal. As with so many subjects that interested him, he analysed it very carefully, and ended up concluding that it didn't make sense (maybe he missed Wagner's caveat that it was all meant to be symbolic!). Dick being Dick, he assumed that if he didn't understand Parsifal, then no-one else would either. Not even God. There's a wonderful image in Valis where Dick pictures Wagner trying to get into heaven:

I can see Richard Wagner standing at the gates of heaven: "You have to let me in," he says. "I wrote Parsifal. It has to do with the Grail, Christ, suffering, pity and healing. Right?"

And they answer, "Well, we read it and it makes no sense." SLAM.

[Philip K Dick: Valis, Chapter 8]

GENERAL REFERENCES

  1. http://home.c2i.net/monsalvat/concommon.htm (a huge website devoted to Parsifal)
  2. Bryan Magee: Wagner and Philosophy (Penguin, 2001)

Copyright © 2005 Andrew May

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