Sunday, 17 February 2008

Karmic Washing Machine?

I have been intrigued by the subject of a recently read very interesting and well written book - Parsifal as the Fifth Act of the Ring by Paul Schofield (a Wagnerian Scholar and a former Zen Buddhist) ever since my teens when I read in an introduction to an English translation of The Ring that Wagner considered Parsifal to be the fifth concluding act of The Ring cycle. Schofield takes this as a starting point and quotes several key references from Wagner's letters and prose writings and also masterfully combines into the hyopthesis Wagner's interest and desire to incorporate his study of Buddhism and Eastern thinking into his works even drafting in 1856 Die Sieger (The Victors) an opera about the Buddha. There is some also really good background on the sources of the Ring, Parsifal and he Holy Grail (which Wagner said in his 1849 essay The Wibelungs - The World History as Told Through Myth - ultimately came from the hoard of the Nieblung). Schofield focuses on three characters from the Ring - Wotan, Brunnhilde and Siegfried and demonstrates how the "wheel of karma" starts by Wotan profaning nature by breaking a branch from the world ash tree (the true beginning of the Ring) and starting a cycle of deceit, envy and greed that can only be "redeemed" by a cycle of karmic washing (Erlosung) that involves rebirth from The Ring to Parsifal where ultimate redemption is acheived through learning compassion "mitlied." A very interesting theory - at times I felt the author creates this structure and then attempts to fit into his scheme the different characters (and there are some contradictions - first Schofield says that Wotan perceieves his first act of contrition by renouncing any further attempt after Die Walkure to get The Ring back - but then we see Wotan as the Wanderer skulking around in Siegfried dropping hints to get Siegfried to get the Ring. The Brunnhilde/Kundry theory works philologically with one of Kundry's names being Gundryggia (Gunn meaning "strife" or "battle" is one of Wotan's key Valkyrie and Schofield has an interesting link with one of the other name's Klingsor called Kundry - Herodias - linking it to a poem by the Henrich Heine called "Atta Troll" (1847) where Herodias who demanded the head of John the Baptist is doomed to ride in the wild hunt of Odin continuing to kiss the dead head of John the Baptist till doomsday (and lets not forget that naff movie from the 80's where Demi Moore was forced to wander the world and be constantly reincarnated because she laughed at Christ on the cross - when I saw that movie, in my youth, I yelled out in the movie house - she's Kundry!!!) but i digress....

I was not conviced by Schofield's comment that Brunnhilde left the Ring world with bad karma because she plotted the death of Siegfried and needed to go through "the karmic washing machine (my term)" to eventually wind up as Kundry who still serves evil (Klingsor the karmic embodiement of Alberich) and Amfortas (the karmic embodiement of Wotan) and needs ultimate redemption through Parsifal (the karmic embodiement of Siegfried).

Interesting, and got me thinking - Schofield is a former Zen buddhist and the lae chapters have a somewhat preachy attitude to how we should apply this "karmic cleansing" in our lives (and a couple of references to less than academic works like Baigent and Lincoln's Holy Blood/Holy Grail and Gardener's The Line of the Grail Kings) - but worth the read for Wagner lovers!!!


Jason Fisher said...

After reading your post, I was going to recommend Murphy’s Gemstone of Paradise: The Holy Grail in Wolfram’s Parzival (Oxford University Press, 2006) to you; however, I see from an earlier post that you have, in fact, recently read it. If you didn’t know, Murphy’s book was the winner of the 2007 Mythopoeic Society’s Award for Scholarship in General Myth and Fantasy Studies. (I read for the award committee.)

Andrew Higgins said...


Yes, an excellent book that I am dipping back into after reading this book...but next stop is an all together different topic - Lucan's The Civil War - after hearing a great lecture series on I Tunes University on Virgil's Aeneid I got curious about revisting this epic. Also heading to the Bath Literature Festival this weekend to hear Terry Pratchett talk so I'm sure will get brought back into the excellent Discworld novels which I am working my way through.

Cheers, Andy

millennium opera said...

I am trying to contact Andrew Higgins whose blog this is...My name is Carol Berger, email is I am a Wagnerian musicologist who wrote and published The Zen of Parsifal: Parsifal and the Time Space Continuum OR Siegfried Redeemed back in 1995 which was delivered to several music conservatories in New York...Many articles and lectures later and evolutions in my thinking and works later, in 2003 and 2004 I delivered a lecture to several Wagner Societies and other including "Parsifal and Wagners Final Enduring Message to the World", one of which Paul Schofield attended in 2003. I read your review ...Can you kindly email me? Thanks, Carol Berger, Director Millennium Wagner Project

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