Syberberg’s Parsifal: Wagner and Esotericism

Following on from my article on Barfield’s use of the Eternal Feminine, I want to examine Hans-Jürgen Syberbeg’s adaption of Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal. This film is a masterful achievement on several fronts. Syberberg manages to draw out many elements implicit in the story, as well as reading into it some esoteric themes of his own. Leaving the score untouched, he achieves all this visually. And these visual additions to the narrative do not jar, even as they offer a kind of extra layer of analysis of the story beyond what Wagner added to it, because the reading they provide matches with the original in a coherent and harmonious way.

Once again, we are presented with a work of art that is broadly Neoplatonic and Gnostic in its themes, and quite explicitly so. Typical of the Western esoteric tradition, it attempts to synthesise this Neoplatonic philosophy with elements of Christianity, history, and symbolism, and does so with impressive coherence.

On watching the film recently, I was struck by a couple of visual resemblances between certain scenes and the images on the Rider-Waite Tarot deck. The first is Parsifal’s costume when he journeys to Klingsor’s domain. He is dressed like the ‘Fool’ card, which I think was certainly an influence, judging by the star symbols on his lapels.

The connection here is pretty obvious, since Parsifal is the archetypal “holy fool”. The second connection appears more tenuous, but I think is thematically consistent. That is the appearance of Kundry in Klingsor’s domain, dressed and posed like the ‘Empress’ card from the tarot. According to Waite’s The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, “she is above all things universal fecundity and the outer sense of the Word, the repository of all things nurturing and sustaining, and of feeding others.”

Whether the tarot was an influence on Syberberg’s depiction of her in this scene is not particularly important. What matters is the way she is depicted within the film, which accords with many of the themes Waite listed above. This central scene of the opera is known as Kundry’s seduction – her attempt to corrupt Parsifal under the orders of the black magician, Klingsor.

She has her legs spread open in a posture with a dual meaning – of both giving birth to and receiving the male. It is this dualism of mother and lover that obviously echoes Freud, but more widely the Romantic concept of the Eternal Feminine. Even the way her garment is parted straight down the middle suggests two enveloping wings with a middle passage open to receive. This is mirrored in the narrow passage Parsifal has to traverse in order to enter Kundry’s chamber.

He has shed his outer garment – the coverings that form his out-ward facing identity – and is left clothed in white, as if exposing his soul in a moment of vulnerability. We then see from his perspective that Kundry is in the pose of the Empress tarot card, once again framed by the passage, which her own posture and costume further expresses.

Behind her we see the arms of Theseus – a shield with the head of a gorgon painted on it. The adventurer has laid down his weapons in her presence. The gorgon head hearkens back to the story of Medusa – another feminine archetype, of the negative type. This aspect of femininity corresponds to the second of Rudolf Otto’s dual conception of the divine as both fascinating (fascinans) and terrible (tremendum). Medusa is woman in her terrible, petrifying aspect.

Once Kundry’s seduction both succeeds and fails – as Parsifal succumbs to the kiss, and experiences remorse at once – the roles are reversed. Parsifal appears clothed in a breastplate, while Kundry has shed her outer garment – exposing herself. It is now Kundry who pleads with Parsifal for his love, as symbolically she has lost her powers of persuasion.

At the same moment that Parsifal repents, we see a dramatic visual shift. The actor playing Parsifal retreats into the back of frame while an actress takes over in the same role – clothed in a metal breastplate. The scene is not disrupted by this change, nor does Kundry react to it at all. It reflects a spiritual transformation that has taken place in Parsifal, not a carnal one. The one other element in the frame is the death-mask of Wagner, which looms in the background as if surveying or directing the action.

What triggers this repentance and transformation is what Parsifal experiences as the opening of a wound in himself – the same wound that plagues Amfortas. It seems partially a kind of concupiscence, but also the pain of sin and guilt – identified as the same pain that Christ endured during his crucifixion when he took on the sins of the world.

This connection between concupiscence and guilt has undertones of the Fall from Eden, which in Augustinian theology caused these feelings to arise in man. It is the seduction of woman that Wagner presents here as the stumbling block, or woman as temptress, rather. This is symbolic of the kind of deceit that appears to offer an escape from man’s mortal state, but plunges him further into death.

This is the typical German Romantic attitude towards desire, which is a result of evil; of the separation of the subject from the object. The Romantic solution is thus a reunification of subject and object into a primordial state of unity; a kind of monism. The result for Syberberg’s Parsifal is the creation of the paradisiacal man, the androgyne or “Adam Kadmon”. This is what it means for Parsifal to integrate the feminine, and why this appears in the climax of the film with male and female Parsifals embracing.

Thus Wagner’s answer to what he sees as the “problem” of desire is that it is not to be denied at all costs – that is Klingsor’s error – but rather it is to be affirmed to its utmost through the negation of self and the annihilation of the ego. The subject must disappear – be it masculine or feminine – that they may fuse into the primordial unity. If the feminine were to triumph alone it would result in the same tyranny of desire that Kundry represents – the evil aspect of the feminine.

Syberberg ends and begins his film with the music of Kundry, singing ‘schlafen… schlafen…’ (‘sleep… sleep…’) with a visual of her hanging her head over a kind of crystal ball or snow-globe that encapsulates the drama. We are dealing with a dream story, and in those terms we are faced with the gnostic idea that reality itself is a dream. The prologue enacted by a puppet theatre reinforces this idea of the world as maia or illusion. Given that the beginning and the end are identical, we also see the theme of eternal return – this is a story with no true beginning or end, but rather its history repeats itself in the Neoplatonic sense, as the primordial unity fragments and then reunites in an infinite cycle.

The fact that it is Kundry who is the dreamer is significant from this perspective, since the gnostics regarded matter and the physical world as a kind of cosmic abortion. Kundry thus takes on the role of the demiurge, responsible for dreaming up the world, in a fragmentation of the primordial unity.

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