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  • The Talking Wound and the Foolish Question:Symbolization in Parsifal
  • Lawrence Kramer (bio)

Wagner could not have made it clearer: Durch Mitleid wissend—through compassion, knowing. Parsifal, the opera that takes this phrase as its verbal and musical mantra, takes its Mitleid literally. Unlike the English pity, the word connotes proximity, not distance; unlike the Latinate compassion, Mitleid says what it means with the particles of common speech. Its meaning is suffering with.

The classic peripeteia at the opera's midpoint is infamous for the way it dramatizes this. When Kundry kisses him, Parsifal's first reaction is to feel neither pleasure nor desire, nor their counterpart, disgust. Those things come afterwards. What he feels at once is Amfortas's pain. And not just any pain: this opera takes its pain literally. The suffering that must be shared is in the first instance neither mental nor spiritual but physical. What Parsifal feels first is Amfortas's wound. At this point, for the first time, Mitleid becomes wissend. We know it does because knowing, at the same point, becomes articulate. Mitleid becomes wissend by becoming utterance.

Parsifal does not just feel the wound; he feels it in hearing it—and in hearing it makes it heard:

Amfortas!Die Wunde! Die Wunde!Sie brennt in meinem Herzen!O Klage! Klage!Furchtbare Klage!Aus tiefstem Herzen schreit sie mir auf!

[Amfortas!The wound! The wound!It burns in my heart!O lament! Lament!Fearsome lament!It cries to me from the heart's deepest depth!] [End Page 208]

Compassion becomes knowing in the spontaneous leap from feeling the wound to voicing it: literally giving it voice. Could Wagner have made it clearer? He sets the cries of "Die Wunde" in parallel falls of a tritone spaced several measures apart (act 2, mm. 998-99 and 1001-2); the cries on "Klage" contract both the intervals and the spacing, as if to distill the wound to its essence (mm. 1005-6). "Klage! Klage!" tolls out in four descending semitones, an excruciating lamento bass made melody. When Parsifal cries out with the pain of Amfortas's wound, his cry sounds in the wound's own voice.

For Amfortas's wound does have a voice of its own. At first that voice is Titurel's; after Titurel's death, it is a voice without a speaker, everyone's and no one's. I do not mean these statements figuratively, but literally. The difference sums up much of what the opera, as I hear it, has to say.

This is an essay about taking Parsifal literally.

Of course, in a sense, this is a false move, even a perverse one. Parsifal is replete with symbols: the swan, the spear, the grail, the blood, the flower maidens, Klingsor's missing parts, and, yes, Amfortas's wound itself, healed at last, need it be said, on Good Friday. But symbols, as the opera's plot makes a point of showing, are no guarantee of symbolization. They subtract meaning where they do not add it and can be hard to handle even if one is not a pure fool. Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's film version of Parsifal (1982) famously makes the point by taking Amfortas's wound so literally as to render it absurd. Instead of a metaphor, the wound as a burden to be borne, the wound becomes an object, literally something to be carried—and carried it is, on a cushion, as Amfortas is carried on a litter. The one bleeds; the other agonizes. Amfortas finds the wound unbearable so his attendants bear it for him. (The visual pun works as well with tragen and ertragen as it does with the two senses of to bear.) Detached from the subject said to suffer from it, the wound as object is a grotesque prosthesis for the substance of what is suffered. Extracting the wound from the body both reveals and neutralizes the symbolic value it assumes—can only assume—within the body.

For Syberberg, as also for Anselm Kiefer in his series of Wagner-inspired paintings, including four on Parsifal (1972-73), several of which literally mix oil with blood, this desymbolization represents the exhaustion of a historical...


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