In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Parsifal hystérique
  • Brian Hyer (bio)

Wagner est une névrose.

—Nietzsche, Der Fall Wagner (1888)

Like the three acts of Wagner's Parsifal (1881), the three discurses of Nietzsche's Zur Genealogie der Moral (1887) describe a movement from autonomous self-sufficience and overpowering strength to weakness and asceticism, from a natural dominion over others to a violence directed inward on the self. We can observe this movement in various phases of development throughout Parsifal , where it is enshrined in the opera's central prophecy: "durch Mitleid wissend der reine Tor . . ." (through pity knowing, the pure fool . . . ). Nietzsche's genealogy of morals can thus be read as an allegory of Parsifal, one that draws on the same image reservoir and whose dramatis personae—slaves, nobles, priests—doubles as a cast list for the music-drama.1 But it also stands as an abreaction to the music-drama and is in that sense "beyond" Parsifal: what the music-drama presents as an advance, a movement toward fulfillment and transcendence, Nietzsche sees as a regression into ressentiment and hatred, a descent into morality. Parsifal "revalues all values," ascribing goodness and virtue to weakness, a valuation Nietzsche revalues in turn. In both the music-drama and his polemic—a "Streitschrift"—against it, the nodal moment in the transition from a "powerful physicality, a flourishing, abundant, even overflowing health" to the "deep depression, leaden exhaustion, and black melancholy of the physiologically inhibited" is figured in terms of ill health. This "flight into illness" (to borrow from Freud) is more than merely organic: in both cases, sickness assumes the form of a self-violence in which instincts and aggressions are driven inward, carving out an interior space, a "conscience."2 It is within this inside that the mnemotechnics of pain and suffering "burn" ideas into the mind, and that the conscience—the soul—acquires memory. And in Parsifal, it is through a particular form of suffering that one remembers.

Parsifal's amnesia in act 1 reflects a presubjective narcissism in which the world around him functions as an extension of the self: other persons are little more than objects to Parsifal, like trees in the forest or stones in the meadow, [End Page 269] drawing and holding his interest and attention only to the extent that they either facilitate or impede the immediate satisfaction of his instinctual needs. He is unself-conscious, all but mindless, feeling no real sense of self as distinct from others. As Nietzsche's "blond beast," Parsifal preys on others. He exercises his natural aggression on the swan—"Im Fluge treff ich, was fliegt!" (Whatever flees I shoot!)—but also, without self-restraint or hesitation, on all those who dare to cross him: "mein Bogen musste mir frommen gegen Wild und grosse Ma¨nner" (my bow protected me from wild beasts and powerful men). As Gurnemanz questions him, it becomes clear that Parsifal is someone without a past: he is unable to remember from whence he came, who his father was, or even his own name—to all Gurnemanz's questions he answers "das weiss ich nicht" (that I know not). When Gurnemanz loses his patience and insists that Parsifal must surely remember something, Parsifal recalls his mother, Herzeleide. Though it is clear from the music that the thought of his mother arouses intense emotions, his memories of Herzeleide are almost entirely blank: he can remember making their home "im Walde und auf wilder Aue" (in the woods and open meadows), and he vaguely remembers her name, but that's all. It is Kundry who then intervenes and fills Gurnemanz in, urging Parsifal toward self-recognition. She tells them that after the death of Gamuret, his father, Herzeleide raised Parsifal in seclusion. In wilderness exile, Herzeleide attempted to maintain her son in a state of pure innocence, sheltering him from the contamination of social contact. Isolated from the "instruments of culture" (still citing from the Genealogy of Morals), Parsifal grew to become a "noble barbarian," endowed with fear-inspiring strength. In response to this narrative, Parsifal compliantly remembers having once been dazzled by the sight of proud men on beautiful horses near the forest's edge. Sensing his own insufficience...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 269-320
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.