Parsifal II

Jean-Jacques Nattiez, in his Proust as Musician, write about how Wagner and Parsifal, in particular, influenced Search. He quotes from the “Parsifal panel,” a passage that Proust edited out of Time Regained, perhaps because he wanted a stronger focus on literary art. The scene is the Guermantes library, where Marcel is awaiting the end of the concert, a movement from Parsifal, before joining the guests.

Some of these truths themselves are perfectly supernatural beings whom we have never seen, but whom we recognise with infinite pleasure when a great artist succeeds in bringing them from that divine world to which he has access so that they may come to shine for a moment above our own. Was not this motif of the “Good Friday Spell’, which (doubtless through a door of the great salon left half-open because of the heat) reached me just a moment ago, providing support for my idea if indeed it had not just suggested it–was it not one of these beings, not belonging to any of the species of reality, or to any of the realms of nature, that we might conceive? With his violin bow Wagner seems to content himself with discovering this being, rendering it visible like a faded picture newly restored, revealing all its contours with the prudent and tender assurance of instruments that follow their track, now changing subtly to indicate a shadow, now marking more boldly the greater brilliance where, just for a moment before disappearing, the vision reaches–that scrupulously respected vision to which they would not have been able to add one single feature without our having felt that Wagner was embellishing, lying, ceasing to see and concealing its fading with fragments of his own invention. What exactly was its clear relationship to the first awakening of spring? Who could have said?It was still there, like an iridescent bubble that had not yet burst, like a rainbow that had faded for a moment only to begin shining again with a livelier brilliance, adding now all the tones of the prism to the mere two colors that had iridesced at the beginning and making them sing. And one remained in a silent ecstasy, as if a single gesture would have imperilled the delicious, frail presence which one wished to go on admiring for as long as it lasted and which would in a moment disappear. (Matinee chez la Princesse de Guermantes (the rough drafts for Time Regained), ed. Henri Bonnet (Paris: Gallimard, 1982) (quoted in Nanttiez, 28)

Nattiez shows more Parsifal inspirations:

This Wagner emerges as a principal source of Proust’s thinking. He provides him with a mirror image of his own poietics and–in a slightly narcissistic way–of a creative alter ego; moreover, he supplies him, at an earlier stage in the genesis of the novel, with a work which tells of a quest analogous to that of A la recherche and which could, by association, be the work that inspires the Narrator’s revelation of the absolute. In his notes of 1913-1916 Proust writes: ‘I shall present the discover of Time regained in the sensations induced by the spoon, the tea, etc., as an illumination à la Parsifal’ (MPG:318).

The psychological progression embodied in A la recherche parallels that of Parsifal. It is no accident that, as we have seen, the idea of the ‘blossoming girls’ was already present at the time of Contre Sainte-Beuve. The Narrator is delayed in his quest by the girls just as Parsifal is by Flower Maidens. Thus there is no doubt whatever, in my view, that the passages of Within a Budding Grove in which Proust describes girls in terms of flowers were inspired by Wagner. Swann, like Amfortas, has let himself be trapped in the snares of love. Does not Proust associate Odette–and, with her, all the other temptresses, her daughter Gilberte, Mme de Guermantes, Albertine–with Kundry, the prisoner of the magician Klingsor, when he writes, shortly before the ‘transmission’ scene: ‘I should have been less ill at ease in a magician’s cave than in this little waiting room where the fire appeared to me the be performing alchemical transmutations as in Klingsor’s laboratory’ (WBG, I 567-8)?  It is only when the Narrator succeeds in passing beyond the illusions of romantic love, particularly after the distressing experience of Albertine’s kiss (G,II: 379), that he can gain access to the revelation, just as Parsifal, after being kissed by Kundry, is able to comprehend the mystery of the Grail and succeed where Amfortas has failed. Parsifal attains to perfect understanding at the time of the Good Friday spell; the Narrator, when listening to the Septet. Parsifal is able to enter Monsalvat, led by Gurnemanz; the Narrator, the library of the Princesse de Guermantes. Wagner laid great stress upon the ascent to the Grail, symbolised by the visible unrolling of the scenery in the first, 1882 production; and in Proust the episode of the uneven paving-stones in the courtyard, leading to the illumination in the library, comes precisely at the end of a long walk in Paris.

The name Swann, which ‘had for me become almost mythological’ (S, I:157), was surely not chosen by accident, so close is it to the German Schwann. As Rouisset has emphasised (1962:149), the Narrator, having had to choose between the Swann/Charlus pair and the Elstir/Vinteuil pair, sides decisively with the creative artists. He ‘eliminates once and for all Swann and Charlus, who lived on in him and threatened to make him sterile’; just as  Parsifal kills the swan the hunt for which has led him to Monsalvat, where he will experience a revelation, so the Narrator stops following in the footsteps of Swann only to be confronted, in Swann’s house, by the Sonata that will lead him to artistic truth.

One is also struck by the close analogy between the reaction of the Narrator, exposed for the first time to the Sonata whose religious character has been carefully evoked in the course of the Saint-Euverte soirée,  and the reaction of Parsifal, who witnesses a ceremony which he does not understand. Proust was well acquainted with this scene. In that letter to Jacques Rivière (17 February 1914) about the unity of his work, he wrote: ‘It would be just as if a spectator who saw Parsifal, at the end of the first act, understanding nothing of the ceremony and being chased off by Gurnemanz, were to suppose that what Wagner had meant was that simplicity of heart leads to nothing.” Like Parsifal, A la recherche is a work whose hero is on a quest for redemption. But just as Amfortas fails the first time around, it is not Swann but the Narrator who will succeed. (Nattiez, 31-31)


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One Response to “Parsifal II”

  1. Wolkowski Says:

    New title available from
    “Marcel Proust: the Spirit and the Letter”
    best regards
    Sorbonne Universites UPMC

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