“You really should persevere with Wagner,” says Morse to a sceptical Sergeant Lewis in the very last episode of the Inspector Morse TV series. “It’s about important things. Life and death. Regret.” It’s a conversation that is likely to be familiar to those of us who delight in Wagner and his sprawling epics, with their vast musical ambition and strange mythic plots, but find family and friends less enthusiastic.
If Morse is the best known fictional Wagnerian, Sir Roger Scruton certainly had a claim to be the most prominent real-life commentator on that complex, brilliant, and in many respects unlikeable man, and would doubtless have agreed with Morse about the significance and seriousness of the themes that Wagner tackled. Wagner’s Parsifal: The Music of Redemption, completed shortly before his death earlier this year, is his third book-length meditation on the German composer’s corpus, following 2004’s Death-Devoted Heart, focusing on Tristan And Isolde, and 2016’s The Ring Of Truth, which looks at the Ring Cycle.
Scruton had a reputation – not entirely undeserved, and indeed not entirely unsought – as a fearsome reactionary, but taken as a whole his work is extremely sympathetic to the attempt by modernists to construct a sustainable ethical and artistic vision for those who no longer believe in the old religious doctrines. In another book he calls this vision “the ethical way of life”, an approach by artists of various kinds to put forward an approach to existence which takes seriously the whole breadth of human experience and our obligations to each other, especially the need for forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption, without being dependent on the Christian religion. It is Scruton’s evident sympathy to this endeavour, and a studied ambiguity about the nature of his own personal beliefs, that has led some to question whether he himself was a Christian believer in the normal sense.
Scruton regarded Wagner as a modernist, and in Wagner’s Parsifal he explains why. Wagner was not a Christian believer, but remained fascinated by the rituals of the faith and the way in which it appeared to satisfy our deepest yearnings, and sought to explore this in his work. Scruton quotes the composer as saying “I do not believe in God; but I believe in godliness”. This he takes to mean that Wagner saw the faith as a system of thought and action that understood and made intelligible the deep truths behind everyday human experience. These truths are not always expressible in words, because they point to something beyond mere words, but they can be communicated through music and through poetry. Poetry is especially important to Scruton’s idea of how artists can approach the sublime, because its tools of rhythm, cadence, structure, metaphor, allusion and paradox allow poets to look into the very heart of things.
Parsifal is a striking example of this because, as Sir Roger makes clear, the story takes place in a recognisable world, in which Christian symbols and rituals such as the Eucharist are powerfully significant, where they bear great weight, and yet also a world in which those symbols and rituals seem to have been somewhat abstracted from their wider context in the faith of the Church. This is at least partly a consequence of the story’s roots in medieval Germanic legend, but also – in Scruton’s interpretation – reflects Wagner’s desire to explore the psychological and spiritual meaning of the great Christian doctrines of redemption and sacrifice without being bound by the aspects of belief that he could not accept.
Redemption is perhaps the great theme in Parsifal. The story is too impossibly complex to summarise here, and would perhaps appear almost ridiculous if described on the page – the great glory and power of the opera is in the music, which transcends the high melodrama of the action to reveal its underlying importance. Suffice it to say that central to the action are the Grail Knights, led by the wounded King Amfortas, and their struggles to overcome their passions and frailties in a world of temptation, alienation and suffering. This is eventually achieved not simply by individual effort but by a restoration of true ritual and of right relations between the knights. Scruton’s view is that this emphasis on the healing power of rightly observed ritual reflects Wagner’s understanding of religious observance “not as a bargain…but as a continuous act of self-sacrifice…religious ritual is not something performed for a benefit, but a command to which we submit, in order to exhibit an existential tie.”
The sense of ritual as something which transcends time, which brings the everyday world into contact with something greater, so enabling people to align themselves with the highest reality, is important in Scruton’s interpretation of Parsifal. It is only by stepping outside ordinary time, and so allowing one’s life to be understood under the aspect of eternity, that one can achieve the forgiveness, peace and reconciliation with others which we seek. Scruton links this with Eliot’s Four Quartets. Eliot too was interested in the notion of how we can make sense of our transient, constantly changing lives, and our desire for connection with eternal values, while seemingly bound by time and constantly aware of our faults and inadequacies. To both Eliot and Wagner, in Scruton’s argument, unchanging ritual was an important way to resolve this problem, and so to achieve what Eliot called “the point of intersection of the timeless with time”.
Eliot, of course, ultimately found his resolution to this existential difficulty in orthodox Christian belief and practice. Wagner did not, or could not, take this step in response to the eternal dilemma; but his great operas constitute some of the most heroic attempts to grapple with it, and there were few people better equipped than Roger Scruton to examine his attempt.