Posted on:Thursday 23rd April, 2020
In his essay entitled ‘The Enigma of Parsifal’ the French philosopher Alain Badiou argues that the real subject of Wagner’s opera is the question of whether a modern ceremony is possible. At best, he suggests, modern ceremony results in the parodies of the stadium Rock concert, at worst in the performative histrionics of the Nuremberg rally. However, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2019, I experienced a new work by a Belgian company (a work with the palindromic title above) which creates a sacralised ceremonial art in a way that I believe is breathtakingly new and contemporary…
Badiou is definitely on to something about Parsifal, which seems to have very little to do with any conventional Christian message. He notes that the whole opera is framed around two great ceremonial moments, both involving the uncovering of the Grail, which occur as the culmination of both Act 1 and Act 3. This symmetry, and the central part played by ritual in the music drama, does suggest that Wagner’s real interest lies in ceremony, or in how a human collective or community engages in its own self-representation. Despite its soaring music, the opera’s meaning remains stubbornly located in this ritual rather than in any broader form of transcendence. For an opera ostensibly about redemption the final Act feels strangely downbeat.
Badiou enlists the help of the French Decadent poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), whose interest in Christian metaphors and symbols echoed that of Wagner. He also saw a eucharistic event (in his case the Catholic Mass) as the epitome of ceremony. He asked whether modernity requires its ceremony to be secular in nature, or more precisely to be a sort of re-purposed religious ceremonial. ‘A magnificence will unfold’ Mallarmé says, but it will really be just a piece of theatre, a mere performance of ceremony.
The formal ceremony of uncovering the Grail at the end of the opera Parsifal is the same as that at the beginning. Only the identity of the celebrant has changed as Parsifal takes over from the disgraced King Amfortas. It is not clear, Badiou says, whether anything much has really changed, whether anything new has been created. Nor is it clear where the Kingdom of the Grail goes from here. Wagner certainly did envisage his opera house at Bayreuth as being a ceremonial site, and he thought that Parsifal should only be performed there. So Badiou seems to be correct when he suggests that he saw it as a form of artistic ceremony. However, a ceremony in an opera is a part of the performance, it is a ceremony of a ceremony, mimetic and devoid of any fresh collective meanings. Hoping for transcendence, we have to settle for edifying spectacle.
Can we pursue the possibility of a new ceremony which is not a nostalgic reproduction (or a parody) of an old ceremonial language? Badiou ends his essay with this question unresolved. He seems to incline towards scepticism about this, noting how the 20th century aestheticized the masses in the great outdoor ceremonies of Nuremberg and Moscow. In such events the crowd is summoned to a self-representation but there is no potential for growth or change, just for restatement of the presiding ideology, as it were in a closed loop. Badiou is reluctant to include Wagner in this self-reflexive closure of ceremony. At least Wagner dramatized the question of ceremony, he suggests. But will an intrusive event occur in the 21st century that will make a genuine new ceremony possible?
Arguably such an event is now happening in the form of man-made climate change, and the Belgian performance artists from Ontroerend Goed (‘feel estate’) have created a work which confronts head-on the need for a new human ceremonial language sufficient to the enormity of the challenges we face. Launched at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August 2019, Are we not drawn onward to new erA, presents at first as a piece of experimental physical theatre. A cast of recognisably modern characters emitting a series of incoherent sounds slowly rip apart a small apple tree, before systematically covering the stage with plastic rubbish. They then turn their attention to slowly dragging on stage and assembling a large golden statue of a human figure, a sort of golden calf or Easter Island style figure, which stands sentinel over a disturbing scene of wilful man-made destruction and waste. Throughout this ritualised performance the actors continue to make strange utterances and move in odd and discombobulated ways around the stage, walking oddly, moving oddly, even as they advance, contorting their movements in crab-like and inhuman ways.
The ‘performance’ remains inexplicable up to the mid-way point, when everything suddenly changes (*spoiler alert!). A screen drops from the proscenium arch and all the actions so far are now re-played on film, and in reverse. Suddenly the incoherent sounds become intelligible words, the jerky movements become purposive and normal, and the child-like destruction of nature and insistence on human dominance is turned around. Played in reverse the action becomes a desperate and determined effort by responsible adults to reverse all the harm that has been done. First the golden statue of the human is dismantled and dragged away, a necessary first step. Then the rubbish is slowly, and then miraculously, collected. Finally, the tree is lovingly restored, branch by branch, leaf by leaf, until it is whole and resplendent. Most radically of all, the characters agree amongst themselves that humans themselves are the problem. So, one by one, they reluctantly absent themselves from the rapidly recovering world. The end of the world, it seems to say, is not ultimately the problem. The real question is whether there is any future place for sacrilegious humans in this world. It represents to us a fresh phenomenology of the world, whose biodiversity, oceans, glaciers and forests we hold in a kind of sacred trust. Word of mouth about this event on the Fringe was overwhelming. It was fortunate that I attended the first performance because after that it was virtually impossible to get a ticket…
Whatever this is, it is not a theatrical show. Nor it is merely a piece of performance art (although much artistic creativity and technical talent has undoubtedly gone into its presentation). Following Badiou, I would argue that this is a religious ceremony, a collective ritual embodying our deepest phenomenological insights, keenest fears, and most fervent hopes, and yet remaining open-ended in its meanings. It is an intrusion into shallow modernity. The sacred and ceremonial nature of this event was perhaps best reflected in the visceral power and emotional depth of the audience response. I was not the only person in the audience to be moved to tears. I think that everyone in the packed theatre felt that they had witnessed something of huge significance, disturbing and de-centering. It was something ‘real’ and (as such) fit for regular and meaningful re-enactment. As the characters say at the mid-point of the ceremony, it is probably already too late for humans faced with irreversible climate change, but that fact should make no difference. Human meanings are changed by climate change, as they are by a global pandemic. We have a duty to change our behaviours, whether it makes any difference or not, a duty that can be described as ‘religious’. Are we not drawn onward to new erA.
14 April 2020
From: Nicholas Goulder
Sent: 24 April 2020 11:04
Thanks for the blog which I much enjoyed. More like that please!
I’d offer a few thoughts in reply. When you write about Badiou’s thoughts on the ceremony and Parsifal, you say
“The formal ceremony of uncovering the Grail at the end of the opera Parsifal is the same as that at the beginning. Only the identity of the celebrant has changed as Parsifal takes over from the disgraced King Amfortas. It is not clear, Badiou says, whether anything much has really changed, whether anything new has been created. Nor is it clear where the Kingdom of the Grail goes from here.”
I was surprised by this. The whole point of the opera is to represent the transformation among the Grail brotherhood which arises when finally the Spear can be recovered from Klingsor, to release Amfortas from the open-ended pain of his transgressions and thus to cleanse and restore the integrity of the Grail and its celebrant. The brotherhood as led by Amfortas was deteriorating in every way, forced to scrabble in the forest for roots to eat – no leadership that is disgraced as Amfortas’ was could take the community forwards. But once Parsifal could be found, with the purity to resist Kundry’s seductive advances, enabling him to wrest the Spear from Klingsor, the wounded Amfortas could be released into death and a new pure era could emerge. So it seems to me that Badiou has not understood the basic plot of Parsifal.
But the wider question of what kinds of ceremony are possible in the 21st century remains intriguing and open.
We have a lot of ceremony that is tied to our sporting activities. One thinks of the playing of national anthems before Rugby matches, of the medal ceremonies for winners in athletics, and especially of the huge opening and closing events for the Olympics. If for Marx, Religion was the Opium of the People, then for our times it is surely Sport which has become that opium. We have extricated ourselves from the contentious field of whose God might be superior to anyone else’s God into a non-controversial arena where we can simply celebrate mankind’s achievements in Sport.
We also have ceremonies, albeit slightly less formal, that accompany our artistic events. The painting exhibition has its Private View, with associated speeches. The concert and opera world go through a kind of ceremonial ritual of the process of installing the audience at their seats before the curtain rises and the conductor acts as a kind of lead celebrant. The theatre opening night brings out the lighting director, the stage and dress designers and finally the director, again as lead celebrant. Glastonbury has its iconic stage and ultimately Michael and Emily Eavis as guardians of that Grail.
Then there are the ceremonies that go with our financial constructs. Think of the archaic formalities of the Shareholders’ Annual General Meeting, with the weary Chairman who recites the old formulae over and over again.
And perhaps we are creating new Covid ceremonies. We enact little dances to ensure safe social distances in the supermarket, we queue at stately intervals, we mime embraces.
The Edinburgh “Are we not drawn onward to new erA” sounds superb. I wonder if you saw the work of William Kentridge, who made some delightful films of the re-creation of good order from chaotic scraps by running in reverse time a video of himself tearing photographs to shreds. This sounds a similar idea, but tied to the environmental challenge that we all face, it becomes impressively powerful.
The startling fact of the Covid-19 disruption is the way it has swept away so many of the worst of our polluters. No government edict could have been so transformational. Of course, we are suspending many facets of “life as normal” to keep everyone fed and as healthy as may be possible, and the backlash of resuming the other parts of “life as normal” may well be a shocking reversion to the worst of our former ways. But nobody will forget the moments of Covid-19 when the Mumbai air cleared. What ceremony could we enact to bring people together to create the resolve we need to take our behaviours into a new era of environmental sustainability?
From: Graham Henderson
Sent: 28 April 2020 14.37
Thank you for your response, and for your very interesting comments, which I have read with pleasure.
I feel no obligation to defend Badiou’s arguments, as such. However, I may have misrepresented these slightly…
I don’t think he is suggesting that ‘nothing’ has happened in Parsifal. Clearly there has been a recovery of the spear, a healing of Amfortas, redemption for Kundry, and a renewal of the Grail Kingdom under its new leader.
I think that his point is that this is merely a return to the status quo before the fall from grace of Amfortas. It is a restoration of the old order, not a transformation of it into something new. Badiou is asking a sort of structural question about what the Kingdom of the Grail is actually for…
This is, of course, Badiou’s desire for innovation, not Wagner’s. The composer presumably saw no need to include a militant new statement of purpose for the Grail Kingdom at the end of the opera. The point I was making is really about the mood and atmosphere of the final act, the music of which is (to me) still suffused with sadness. Nor is it easy for me to forget the fact that the knights of the Grail have arguably revealed themselves to be a rather selfish bunch, more concerned with their own perpetuation than with any larger sense of purpose. I do think that the question of whither now the Kingdom of the Grail does still hang in the air…
Your points about modern ceremonial are very well made. As it happens I am today reading a first draft translation from the Czech of an essay by Jan Patocka entitled Art and Time. In this essay he argues that, for the ancient Greeks, the arts were a direct and unmediated effort to express spiritual truth, and their performance had the qualities of a ritual action. In contrast, he suggests, the arts in the modern era are abstracted from reality, aestheticized and subjectivized. As such, he says, there is a danger that they become ‘a splendid museum of our past efforts’, rather than something living and imperative.
I think that this very closely approximates to the question I pose in my blog piece about whether an imperative and unmediated form of ceremonial art is possible. The Badiou critique of Wagner is that his work already inhabits a scientific and modernising world, that it is already what Mallarme called a ‘ceremony of a ceremony’, overly aestheticized and self-conscious, or (as Nietzsche might have suggested) executed in bad faith as a mere piece of spectacle.
At the end of the day, I think that Parsifal (and Wagner) still manage to rise above these criticisms. The fact that we continue to find so much to say about them is the best evidence of that!
From: Nicholas Goulder
Sent: 29 April 2020 15:46
Many thanks for a splendid reply. I like your touch when you say you don't feel an obligation to defend Badiou! But you obviously know Parsifal really well and feel its nuances closely.
I take on board the thought that there is an implicit "restoration" involved: instead of the opera's sequence going from Status B (community failure under Amfortas) to Status C (renewed vibrant community under Parsifal), Badiou is pointing out that there must have been a Status A (original creation of successful community under Titurel or earlier leader) that pre-dated B and C, and arguing that "all" Parsifal did was to restore the community to a status which Badiou presumes is comparable to Status A. And yes, he is asking (as you are) what the Kingdom of the Grail is "for".
I did a lengthy trek in 1999 into remote Nepali valleys and passed through a number of wonderful nunneries. The most memorable of these was Bigu Gompa, a settlement of around forty mostly elderly ladies (alas located at the epicentre of the 2015 earthquake - I don't know what happened to them). They were exquisitely gracious people, quietly going about their duties both religious and practical with a collaborative spirit which was a joy to witness. They welcomed us, a group of fifteen tourists, with memorable charm (and a fiendishly undrinkable pot of tea made with salted rancid butter). More than twenty years later I still remember their community with a sense of awe. They did not feel a need to progress to a "new level". They loved their way of life. While they might have answered, if asked what it was "for", that it was all for the glory of their gods, actually they had found an impressive contentment on earth, to which few attain.
At the other extreme, one observes the modern, "post-avant-garde" musical world, where innovation is at such a vital premium that composers have almost completely lost the basic sense of the need to write music which is a pleasure to listen to; or the post-avant-garde art world, where with quite a number of exponents one needs quite an essay to have any idea what the point of it all might be.
Is it necessary to articulate the detail of the "new" components of Parsifal's leadership? Every new leader finds new realities that need addressing: the world never stands still. But one of the lessons of the ancient Greek dramatists is that the human condition has qualities that endure regardless. Not every aspect of a way of life needs constant renewal. Perhaps it is those non-renewing aspects which are central.
I enjoyed the Mallarmé concern, that as you say "it is already what Mallarme called a ‘ceremony of a ceremony’, overly aestheticized and self-conscious, or (as Nietzsche might have suggested) executed in bad faith as a mere piece of spectacle." Parsifal himself has played our part, as observer of the ceremony in Act 1, so it feels that Wagner has visited this issue. I am not sure I feel overly worried by this: every drama that contains any scene of intimacy enjoins its viewers to participate in what they should never ordinarily witness. But you are right, Wagner had a penchant for the louche and self-indulgent, and there's a quality here that prompts the concerns you raise.
Finally for me as a musician you set me wondering with your comments that you found the final act "suffused with sadness". I find Wagner evoking sadness most effectively when he writes King Marke's lament in Act 3 of Tristan und Isolde. I don't hear the last act in Parsifal with those ears: I hear humility in Kundry's "Dienen", resolution and remorse in Parsifal's "Zu ihm, des tiefe Klagen", trepidation and yearning in the knights' urging that Amfortas unveil the Grail, and finally purity (symbolised in the final bars by the moment when the trumpet plays alone through the pause while the full orchestra gathers to repeat the final chord) in Nur eine Waffe taugt. The "Karfreitagsmotif" (e.g. bars 628-632) seems to me far from sad - it fills me with wonder at its beauty.
I am regretting that I missed the R&V events around Jan Patocka. I'd be interested to read Art and Time, where the thesis you describe sounds a valuable perception. Perhaps Hesse's Glass Bead Game aims to get closer to the kind of spiritual truth that Patocka finds in the ancient Greeks' literature and other arts; there must be other examples, the Brothers Karamazov for example, and certainly Beethoven's late string quartets and last piano sonatas. And it sounds like you also feel, as I do, that at least some Wagner also operates at this level - if anywhere, surely Parsifal Act 3.