Parsing Parsifal: Wagner's Erotic Kunstreligion

Rafael Echevarria

Abstract


Richard Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal, is an enigmatic work that resists simple understanding both as an independent work and as a work within Wagner’s oeuvre. In particular, the themes of religion and sexuality are often addressed independently, resulting in vastly different interpretations. Religious readings focus on the redemption of the Knights and its theological significance, while sexual perspectives have focused on the overcoming of sexual desire. However, these partial perspectives lack sufficient explanatory power for the opera’s overall message. Evidently, a full understanding of Wagner’s ideas requires an integrated account of both religion and sexuality, one which Roger Scruton’s philosophy provides. His post-Kantian philosophy extracts key ideas surrounding the role of erotic love, redemption, and the sacred for human existence and interaction. This article analyses Parsifal by utilising Scruton’s framework to explore the opera’s plot, characters, and music. Simultaneously addressing Wagner’s treatment of erotic love and religion elucidates previously unexamined aspects of Parsifal and re-evaluates key elements of the work. Specifically, the interplay of érōs and agape prove to be the central dynamic of the work, which paves the way for its unique form of redemption. This sacred, yet fully human, redemption is evinced through Wagner’s music and overall structure. Notably, this holistic interpretation also provides important links to Wagner’s previous works, establishing a continuity that coherently positions Parsifal within Wagner’s oeuvre. This new exegesis reveals a renewed Parsifal that concluded Wagner’s development and completed the multiple threads he spent his whole life weaving.

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