Wagner’s Parsifal and the Discourse of Regeneration
Parsifal (1882) promotes an ethical ideal the specific content of which is what Wagner saw as the Schopenhauerian kernel of truth in Christianity. But while there is no place for any hope of social regeneration in Schopenhauer, there is one in late Wagner. The composer articulated this hope not only in the opera, but also in a series of the so-called regeneration essays (1880-81) he put forward in his house-organ, the Bayreuther Blätter, as he was working on the score. The racism of the final essay has given rise to the suspicion that the opera contains a hidden, anti-Semitic and racist, agenda. What is at stake here is more than just the interpretation of the last stage in Wagner’s development as a moral and social thinker. What is at stake is also the sense we can make of Parsifal, of the opera’s significance for Wagner, perhaps even of the composer’s whole oeuvre, given that Parsifal may be seen as something of a testament.
Karol Berger is Osgood Hooker Professor in Fine Arts, Stanford University, and Visiting Fellow, IWM.