Logo The Fabulist


  • By Tamsin Shaw
  • Issue 8
  • On Beauty

The first time I listened to Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal, it made me feel physically sick. The only other opera that reliably had this effect on me at the time was Debussy’s Pélleas et Mélisande (a work deeply influenced by Parsifal), but my first viewing of that had been on video when I was in bed with the flu, so I put it down to the power of association combined with prolonged exposure to the peculiarities of singing in French. But I was in perfectly good health when, as a twenty-two-year-old, I borrowed the CDs of Parsifal from the local library.

It’s true that I was writing about Friedrich Nietzsche. He described all of Wagner’s music as a sickness, a means of “stimulating weary nerves” and Parsifal in particular, with its “dim hieratic aromas” as a “poisoning of the presuppositions of life.” Reluctantly, I fell for the fevered chromaticism of Wagner’s later music. I had an exceptionally high tolerance for religious kitsch; I grew up a child of British humanists, but nevertheless the kind of child who would sit teary-eyed through mawkish renditions of Victorian standards like Stainer’s Crucifixion in the nearby parish church.

Even I was not prepared, though, for a sensibility that seemed to meld the sadistic prurience of a zealot contemplating the agonies of Christ with the grimly ridiculous fantasy world of Dungeons & Dragons (well, the medieval legend of the Arthurian knights adapted for the most pompous and questionable Teutonic tastes). The prelude as it steals over you is bewitching and portentous, but what it portends is the decaying Kingdom of the Grail Knights under Amfortas, who suffers incessantly from a wound that will never heal, inflicted by the spear that pierced Christ’s side. The expressive power of the music is extraordinary, viscerally conveying pathos, decay, melancholy, and doom, but then rising to heights of shimmering celestial bliss, a kind of crystalline perfection for which we have come to long during endless passages of terrible ambiguity. And every phrase is interwoven with the drama, subtly different motifs alluding to characters and images, disallowing any detachment of this hypnotic, magically beautiful music from the unpleasant pseudo-religion on stage.

It’s easy to accept in principle that beauty in the modern world must always be “in spite of” something. For believers in the old religion, as they delicately applied gilt to paintings of serene angels, it had been a simple matter: beauty was a sign of grace. Beauty and truth and goodness were one. But faith in this harmony couldn’t survive the death of God. Beauty is only beauty now, not a sign of anything else. It’s not hard to embrace the insights of Nietzsche, Baudelaire, and others who grandly and daringly declared that beauty might be entwined with immorality, death, and pain. We easily fall for an aesthetic that conjures the glamor of evil, even as we congratulate ourselves on an awareness of evildoing’s dangers. It’s harder to accept that sometimes we fall for beauty that is intimately bound up with the garish, the preposterous, and the crass. It seems to be Wagner’s unique talent to make us do that.

For twenty years now I have felt this ambivalence about Parsifal. When New York’s Metropolitan Opera staged it last year, I went to every performance. Each night Parsifal (sung by the lovely, tousle-haired Heldentenor Jonas Kaufmann) stumbled into a giant cleft in a rock that looked like an enormous vagina filled with, I suppose, menstrual blood, which sloshed around the stage, staining the hems of the flower maidens’ white silk nightgowns as they tried to seduce him with lilting song and angular contemporary dance moves. And the redeemer-fool, Parsifal, recalling the bleeding Amfortas, sang, “The wound! The wound!” and protectively grasped his magic spear. It was grotesque. It was ludicrous. It was beautiful.

Tamsin Shaw is a professor of European and Mediterranean Studies and Philosophy at New York University and the author of Nietzsche's Political Skepticism.

Backdrop for The Magic Garden, Act II of Parsifal, by Max Bruckner, 1882 © De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images