Parsifal as Proto-SF: Wagner, Parsifal, Schopenhauer, Philip K Dick and The Matrix Trilogy

Written By The Wagnerian on Friday, 20 May 2011 | 12:19:00 pm

Time for more Wagner miscellanea? Already?


In the following highly entertaining eassy,  Andrew May, explains how Parsifal directly influenced the work of the legendary Science Fiction  author  Philip K Dick (If you are unfamiliar,  you may know Dick from such film adoptions of his work as: Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly - among others. Although none, apart from  Scanner perhaps, do justice to his literary style or the complexity of his work). May argues this influence is  found especially in Dick's novel "Valis". He also argues that Parsifal may have  influenced those thieves of anything "esoteric" the Wachowski brothers and their "Matrix Trilogy". An argument partly confirmed, as we shall see, by Don Davies (composer on all three Matrix films) who we discover "quotes" the Tristan Chord throughout the soundtrack of the final Matrix Movie
Parsifal as Proto-SF
by Andrew May
This paper was first presented at Interaction, the 63rd World Science Fiction Convention held in Glasgow in August 2005, as part of the academic track organized by the Science Fiction Foundation. The slides presented at the convention can be found in PDF format here.

Philip K. Dick: VALIS and Later Novels: A Maze of Death / VALIS / The Divine Invasion / The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (Library of America No. 193)

Parsifal is an opera by Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883). It's a very unusual opera, which has baffled and intrigued audiences since it was first performed in 1882. Most operas are about larger-than-life human relationships and emotions, and Wagner's earlier works are no exception. But Parsifal is different. It's all about ideas -- very abstract ideas of philosophy, metaphysics and theology. I would argue that this places Parsifal firmly in the realm of speculative fiction. Moreover, the focus of speculation in Wagner's opera is remarkably similar to that found in the novels of Philip K Dick and in the Matrix trilogy.

Parsifal is discussed extensively in Philip K Dick's 1981 novel, Valis. Indeed, for some readers, Valis may be the only context they have ever encountered Parsifal. Chapter 8 of Valis contains a nice little précis of Wagner's opera, which we can use as a starting point:
The leader of the grail knights, Amfortas, has a wound which will not heal. Klingsor has wounded him with the spear which pierced Christ's side. Later, when Klingsor hurls the spear at Parsifal, the pure fool catches the spear - which has stopped in midair - and holds it up, making the sign of the Cross with it, at which Klingsor and his entire castle vanish. They were never there in the first place; they were a delusion, what the Greeks call dokos; what the Indians call the veil of maya. There is nothing that Parsifal cannot do. At the end of the opera, Parsifal touches the spear to Amfortas's wound and the wound heals
Expanding on that, an act-by-act synopsis would go something like this:
  • Act 1: The knights of the Grail are miserable because of Amfortas's suffering. However, there is a ray of hope -- some mysterious writing has appeared on the surface of the Grail prophesying the coming of a redeemer, who is described as "the guileless fool". Right on cue, Parsifal turns up and starts behaving like a guileless fool. So much so, that the knights get fed up with him and kick him out.
  • Act 2: Parsifal's wanderings take him to the castle of Klingsor, the evil sorcerer who has stolen the holy spear. Klingsor tries to destroy Parsifal by various means, eventually sending the witch Kundry to seduce him. However, as soon as Kundry kisses Parsifal, he becomes enlightened and understands everything. He sees through Klingsor's illusions and recovers the stolen spear.
  • Act 3: Parsifal returns to the land of the Grail, where he uses the spear to cure Amfortas and absolve Kundry of her sins. The opera ends with the very strange words "the redeemer redeemed".
Fans of science fiction may perceive a number of striking parallels between the plot of Parsifal and that of The Matrix. I'm not sure if these parallels are a deliberate homage to Parsifal or just an accident. It's well known that the Wachowski brothers are avid readers of all kinds of things, and that a lot of their reading found its way into The Matrix in one form or another. Equally, I've seen The Matrix described as a kind of intellectual Rorschach test where you can find anything you want if you look hard enough! Whether they are coincidences or deliberate allusions, the plot parallels between Parsifal and The Matrix can be summarised as follows:
The connections between Parsifal and The Matrix go beyond similarities of plot. The music, if nothing else, contains deliberate references to Wagner, as the following quotation from Don Davies (composer on all three Matrix films) shows:

"When we were spotting [Matrix] Revolutions the word "Wagnerian" came up very often. And the reason was because, you know Wagner was very much a fan of Schopenhauer. He was actually obsessed with the Schopenhauer ideas of will and representation... And it was significant enough to both Larry and Andy [Wachowski] and myself that we felt working on the third part of this trilogy, which is significantly about philosophy -- no less Schopenhauer than Hegel and Kant and Heidegger and Kierkegaard, but still definitely Schopenhauerian and also Nietzsche, who was a close friend of Wagner's up until Parsifal, when they had a falling out. One of the things I did in acknowledging this Wagnerian tradition of philosophy in multi-media drama was that I quoted the Tristan chord over the Deus Ex Machina. [Quoted at music.ign.com]





That's a great phrase -- "this Wagnerian tradition of philosophy in multi-media drama"! Wagner's operas are certainly multi-media dramas, and Parsifal does have a lot of philosophy in it. And in that respect, The Matrix films are its direct lineal descendants.
The previous quotation mentioned Schopenhauer, who was certainly the biggest influence on Wagner at the time he was writing Parsifal. However, Wagner was an avid reader (a bit like the Wachowskis!) and he drew on many other sources as well. Some of the books he's known to have read in connection with Parsifal are as follows:
  • Chrétien de Troyes: Perceval (12th century)
  • Wolfram von Eschenbach: Parzival (13th century)
  • Meister Eckhart: sermons (13th century)
  • Hafez: poems (14th century)
  • The Upanishads (translated by Duperron, 1804)
  • Schopenhauer: The World as Will and Representation (1844)
  • Burnouf: History of Indian Buddhism (1844)
  • Ramayana (translated by Holtzmann, 1847)
  • Spence Hardy: Manual of Buddhism (1853)
  • Renan: Life of Jesus (1863)
  • Sutta Nipata (translated by Coomaraswamy, 1874)
The Grail legends, mediaeval mysticism, Schopenhauer, Buddhism, Hinduism... all the subjects you would expect to find in the New Age section of Waterstones or Barnes & Noble in the 21st century! Yet here was Wagner reading these books way back in the 1860s and 70s! Even the Life of Jesus was an early example of the now-popular "Jesus the man" genre, rather than a straightforward New Testament commentary.
On the face of it, Parsifal is a Christian opera. The Grail is the cup of Christ, the spear is the weapon that pierced Christ's side, and Parsifal defeats Klingsor using the sign of the cross. But in Wagner's hands, Christianity is transformed into something distinctly unorthodox. Heavily influenced by Schopenhauer, Wagner believed that Christians no longer understood the true meaning of their own religion:
"This act of denying the will is the true action of the saint: That it is ultimately accomplished only in a total end to individual consciousness -- for there is no other consciousness except that which is personal and individual -- was lost sight of by the naïve saints of Christianity... This most profound of all instincts finds purer and more meaningful expression in the oldest and most sacred religion known to man, in Brahmin teaching, and especially in its final transfiguration in Buddhism. [Letter from Wagner to Franz Liszt, dated June 1855]"

There is probably very little truth in that statement, viewed in the light of modern scholarship -- but the important thing is that it's what Wagner believed to be true at the time he wrote Parsifal.
Wagner was impressed by the symbols of religion, even though he knew they were nothing more than symbols. He realised that a symbol such as the Grail could be very powerful even if there was no literal truth to it:
"An old legend existed in southern France telling how Joseph of Arimathea had once fled there with the sacred chalice that had been used at the Last Supper... I feel a very real admiration and sense of rapture at this splendid feature of Christian mythogenesis, which invented the most profound symbol that could ever have been invented as the content of the physical-spiritual kernel of any religion. [Letter from Wagner to Mathilde Wesendonck, dated May 1859]"

As he was putting the finishing touches to Parsifal, Wagner made his views on religious symbolism even more explicit in an essay entitled Religion and Art (1880):
"Whereas the priest is concerned only that the religious allegories should be regarded as factual truths, this is of no concern to the artist, since he presents his work frankly and openly as his invention."