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  • Rethinking Community and Difference in Parsifal
  • Naomi Waltham-Smith (bio)

Is a Modern Ceremony Possible?

As the Deutsche Oper am Rhein cancels its recent staging of Tannhäuser amid furor over director Burkhard Kosminski’s refusal to revise controversial scenes of gas chambers and SS-style executions, the possibility of extricating Wagner’s music from the clutches of National Socialism seems as remote as ever. Alain Badiou’s undoubtedly bold attempt to rescue Wagner from this repugnant ideology and political reactionism more widely—not only in the face of protests of a conservative popular press and listening public, but also against a long-standing, progressive Continental philosophical tradition—is all the more risky for confronting an impasse at the heart of his own philosophical enterprise.1

Badiou is quick to acknowledge the “whiffs of racialism” and the centrality of “the question of the purity of the blood” amid Parsifal’s “ideological hotchpotch.”2 While remaining ambivalent in his final verdict, he is determined to entertain the possibility that Parsifal might redeem itself precisely where it appears to succumb. The result is a bid to convert Parsifal from an endorsement of totalitarianism into a critical reflection on the problem of community.

Crucial to this maneuver is to demonstrate, contra Adorno’s famous critique of Wagner, that Parsifal in fact rejects totality and closure. Despite the work’s reception history, Badiou suggests that Parsifal—regarded not as a character but as a signifier of open purity—be mobilized as a rejection of closure. The crux in this interpretation would be “the moment when the castle of purity encounters its dis-enclosure, or its infinite dis-enclosure, the moment when purity, as it were validating nothing, also becomes dis-enclosure . . . becomes an open castle.” What Parsifal seeks to interrogate is the possibility of overturning everything that Monsalvat represents: “The problem with this castle is precisely that it is turned in on itself, on its own closure, and has lost all capacity for the infinite; it is closed up . . . under the signifier of the Father.”3

What is so tantalizing about Badiou’s rebuttal of the philosophical diagnosis of Wagner advanced by Adorno and Lacoue-Labarthe is the way in which he frames this possibility of rejecting closure. Rejecting the familiar interpretations of the music drama as a struggle between various pairs of dialectical oppositions, Badiou formulates the issue with a focus so singular that it is initially as puzzling as it promises to be illuminating: “the subject of Parsifal is the question as to whether a [End Page 355] modern ceremony is possible.”4 This question of the possibility of a modern—if you will, post-Christian—ceremony, as Badiou argues with one of his heroes Mallarmé, assumed a distinct urgency toward the end of nineteenth century. The philosophical and political stakes of this focus on the ceremony begin to reveal themselves as Badiou continues: “a ceremony can be said to be a collectivity’s or even a community’s mode of self-representation.” So, insofar as Parsifal is said to put to the test “whether a ceremony without transcendence” is possible and whether there can be a “representation of the community in and of itself,” the music drama proposes to subject to scrutiny the problem of community that continues to haunt post-Marxist philosophical orientations to this day. It asks whether it is possible for a community to represent itself to itself without reference to some absolute externality—a reference that would leave it bound to its own alienation, its wholeness obtained only by a measure of exclusion. Like other contemporary Continental philosophers (Jean-Luc Nancy and Giorgio Agamben, among others), Badiou espouses a subtractive ontology that denies community any condition or ground that would guarantee its unity.

Badiou finds Parsifal’s conclusions on this point decidedly ambivalent and even concedes that the way in which Wagner poses this issue risks reimposing the very closure it puts into question. He argues that Wagner stages this possibility of a modern ceremony without transcendence by representing in the dramatic narrative a purported transition between the two ceremonies in which the Grail is revealed. The music drama remains ambivalent, though, as to the nature and...


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pp. 355-360
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