The second act of Parsifal takes place in the magic castle (maya) of the black magician Klingsor. Here Satan, personified as the magician, tests Parsifal’s will power. Wagner regards Klingsor “as the counterweight to the god-seeking impulse, which beclouds the power of discernment [the thinking principle, manas], with two sources of illusion: the power of sense impressions and passionate desire [maya and kama].”
How does maya becloud our knowledge? If we were to rely on sensory perception alone, we would conclude that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west and that the sun therefore orbits the earth. If we use manas, however, which provides us with knowledge of the earth’s rotation and the motion of the planets and stars, we come to a different conclusion and one which is far nearer to the truth. There are more subtle deceptions, such as external beauty which conjures up what appears to be a higher, more ideal world; it courts us with diverse attractions and casts a pleasant veil over the world of appearances. If we mistake the attractive veil for reality, we succumb once again to deception. The driving force behind this deception is passion.
Klingsor evokes those forces of passion which compel us into a seemingly endless cycle of reimbodiment, rest, and fulfillment, ever seeking redemption. Through self-castration Klingsor has forcibly rendered himself unreceptive to desire. He has obtained magic power over Kundry (desire, kama connected with lower manas) and possession of the holy spear (mind, higher manas). Now he intends with her aid to gain possession of the Grail: Kundry, here representing kama or desire-mind, is to seduce Parsifal, as she did Amfortas before him. Kundry suffers because of herself: she longs for satisfaction and the stilling of her eternal urges. But a knight must be able to withstand, control, and refine the dark forces of desire — ultimately it is desire which impels us to aspire to higher things.
Kundry resists the entreaties of the magician, but when Parsifal enters the realm of Klingsor, she succumbs to the magician’s power lower mind naturally feels drawn to its divine origin. The violent love which she feels, however, is the result of desire. Thus tragedy is preordained.
When Parsifal enters the magic castle, Klingsor conceals himself and turns the area into a beautiful tropical garden where young maidens clad in soft-colored veils dance. When Parsifal approaches, they embrace him, and the game with the flower maidens begins. The higher self can only play with beauty; as soon as one is entrapped by it, his powers become bound to the physical realm. The maidens want more than just to play, and they crowd around him. Firmly driving them off, Parsifal cries: “Have done! You shall not catch me!”
The first attempt at seduction through the power of deceptive beauty has been repulsed. But when Kundry enters and calls his name — Parsifal — he is shocked, because his mother had once addressed him in just the same way in a dream. The flower maidens fade away and Parsifal recognizes the deceptive nature of the material world. Now the power of the desire world is revealed to him: Kundry becomes visible. She tells Parsifal of his origin: Parsifal (the monad) left the world of illusion and went his way, following the laws of spirit. In the world of appearances it is impossible to understand such decisions. So great is the sorrow of his mother (his biological origin) at his decision that she finally dies. When Kundry tells of his mother’s grief when he ran away to seek higher things, she awakens the pity of the higher self with regard to the personal self. Parsifal sinks down at Kundry’s feet and torments himself with severe self-reproaches.
Parsifal experiences here the possibly strongest temptation the aspiring human being can encounter. Overpowering pity in the face of suffering has proved the undoing of many who betrayed their divine ideals for the sake of alleviating suffering. In his state of weakness, Kundry tells Parsifal of the great love between his parents; nevertheless, he does not give in to Kundry’s fantasies but sees Amfortas before him. This time he does not merely see the sorrow in the realm of the Grail, as in the first act, but suffers it directly. Parsifal suddenly starts up with a gesture of the utmost terror, his demeanor expresses some fearful change; he presses his hands hard against his heart as if to master an agonizing pain. He cries: “Amfortas! The wound! The wound! It burns within my heart!”
Parsifal remembers what he saw in the temple of the Grail and “falls into a complete trance.” The vision of his link with divinity awakens once again within him. He is filled with deep compassion which no longer relates to the personal self, nor to the suffering of the spiritual self (Amfortas), but to the inmost divine heart of creation calling us to liberation. It is compassion for his own essential divinity (atma-buddhi, the higher duad) which is enchained by the fetters of desire. This compassion for the divine activates love of the divine and sets in motion the will to complete the process of attaining divinity.
Kundry tries to hinder Parsifal’s compassion, but he recognizes the demonic nature of her attempt. Kundry tries to kiss Parsifal, but he forcefully repulses her. This is the turning point of the whole drama. The deceptive maneuver of the black magician which brought about the downfall of Amfortas and the knights of the Grail, is penetrated by Parsifal, enabling him to achieve clearness of vision. He sees through the bewildering attacks of his adversary and hears the call of the divine will to redemption “in proving himself through the active pity he feels for the sorrow of humanity”attack.
Only now does Klingsor begin his most powerful attack on the initiant. Through Kundry he attempts to conjoin universal love with the personal. Kundry reveals to Parsifal the tragedy of her existence and her own suffering, saying:
One for whom I yearned in deathly longing, whom I recognized though despised and rejected, let me weep upon his breast, for one hour only be united to you and, though God and the world disown me, in you be cleansed of sin and redeemed!
Parsifal here recognizes Klingsor’s seductive attack on his will to redemption. He discerns the way in which the human desire nature repeatedly feigns reformation and binds us to things of matter. He again repulses Kundry, saying: “For evermore would you be damned with me if for one hour, unmindful of my mission, I yielded to your embrace.”
The seducing skills become increasingly spiritual (geistig). Kundry begs for pity and promises Parsifal the attainment of divinity. But the initiant understands that in no event must he allow himself to be ruled by the desire nature; only if desire is used to liberate the aspiring human ego will it be redeemed. He says to Kundry: “Love and redemption shall be yours if you will show me the way to Amfortas.”
Kundry tries once again to win Parsifal’s act of redemption for herself: she tries to embrace him and implores him to take pity. But it is too late: Parsifal is already in a higher state of consciousness. He vigorously pushes her aside. The initiant has withstood the test. Kundry flies into a fury and curses “the fool” in her selfish longing for redemption. She tries to prevent him from reaching the Grail. Klingsor appears in person and hurls the spear at Parsifal, but Parsifal catches the spear and holds it above his head: sensuous lower mind is transformed into aspiring higher mind. Parsifal says: “With this sign I rout your enchantment. As the spear closes the wound which you dealt him with it, may it crush your lying splendor into mourning and ruin!” In the light of the higher mind the demonic illusion fades away; Klingsor’s magic realm sinks as if by an earthquake.
The third act, concerning redemption, takes place in the realm of the Grail on the morning of Good Friday: flowers are in bloom all around and desire moves through the whole of nature, awakening it to new life.
Gurnemanz enters from a humble hermit’s hut, when he hears Kundry moaning. He notices a change in her: the wildness has vanished. She allows Gurnemanz to reawaken her from her paralysis. Her only concern seems to be to serve the knights of the Grail, but Gurnemanz informs her of a change in the knightly order: the spring of divine wisdom has failed. Everyone now looks after himself.
Meanwhile Parsifal enters clad in black armor, which Wagner regarded as a symbol of will power, the fighting strength of the personal self. He saw the conquest of the powers of illusion as an act requiring personal effort and struggle — the assertion of the higher will in the midst of personal, earthly life:
a strong awareness of [suffering] can raise the intellect of the higher nature to knowledge of the meaning of the world. Those in whom this sublime process takes place, it being announced to us by a suitable deed, are called heroes. — Collected Writings of R. Wagner, vol. 10
Gurnemanz calls upon the “stranger” to lay down his weapons at this holy spot. Parsifal then “thrusts the spear into the ground before him, lays shield and sword beneath it, opens his helmet, takes it from his head and lays it with the other arms, then kneels before the spear in silent prayer. . . . Parsifal raises his eyes devoutly to the spearhead.”
In the realm of the Grail or buddhi, the weapons of the personal consciousness are sacrificed to the power of intuition: the helmet of intelligence, the shield of courage, and the sword of the active will, while the point of the spear (mind) represents the moment of maximum concentration which leads to an intuitive understanding of the world. Gurnemanz now recognizes the spear and also the man who had once slain the swan. The spear is back in the realm of the Grail: the power of intuition shines again. When asked where he comes from, Parsifal answers: “Through error and the path of suffering I came; . . . An evil curse drove me about in trackless wandering, never to find the way to healing; numberless dangers, battles, and conflicts forced me from my path even when I thought I knew it.”
Gurnemanz reports that since Titurel’s death the state of the Order has worsened: intuition has been completely lost, and the Grail itself remains enclosed within the shrine. The knights now feed only on dogmas. Parsifal springs up in intense grief — he feels responsible for the knights’ suffering since he, the chosen “Redeemer,” had succumbed to maya (illusion). Amfortas is due to open the shrine in which the Grail is concealed on that very day, when his father is carried to his grave. Gurnemanz wants to take Parsifal to him. But first, one of the most significant scenes of the opera takes place: as Kundry bathes Parsifal’s feet, the full consciousness of his task awakens in him. Once the purification and cleansing of the personal self (the feet) have been carried out, Gurnemanz proceeds to anoint his head — his spiritual judgment must likewise light up pure and spotless within the personal self — enabling the personal self to be united with the divine self of its own free will.
Parsifal is thereby made King of the Grail. His first office is to baptize Kundry: the desire nature is incorporated into the community as an element necessary to progress, and becomes the driving force of pure divine love. That desire no longer serves the lower, but the higher self, brings about a transformation in the whole of nature. In Gurnemanz’s words: “Thus all creation gives thanks, all that here blooms and soon fades, now the nature, absolved from sin, today gains its day of innocence.” Parsifal then kisses Kundry gently on the forehead.
In the distance the sound of bells is heard. As they approach the temple of the Grail, time once more becomes space and the interior of the temple becomes visible. It is the same scene as at the end of the first act, but more gloomy. Two processions of knights enter the stage, one carrying Titurel’s coffin, the other with Amfortas on his deathbed. The knights are aware that without the creative power of intuition of the Grail, they are doomed to die. They are not strong enough to open the shrine themselves and therefore insistently press Amfortas to do so, but in his immeasurable pain he is no longer able to open the shrine. He calls upon the knights to kill him, since no one is able to close the wound.
At this moment the divine love of the higher self breaks through: Parsifal enters the hall, accompanied by Gurnemanz and Kundry and, touching the wound with the end of the spear, says: “But one weapon serves: only the spear that smote you can heal your wound.” The personal mind, gravitating to things of earth, opened up the gulf in human nature; the intuitive mind closes the fissure between the spiritual and earth-bound poles. Parsifal continues: “Be whole, absolved and atoned! For I now will perform your task. O blessed be your suffering, that gave pity’s mighty power and purest wisdom’s might to the timorous fool!”
Parsifal steps towards center stage, holding the spear aloft before him, saying: “I bring back to you the holy spear!” All gaze in reverence at the uplifted spear, to whose point Parsifal raises his eyes and intones:
O supreme joy of this miracle! This that could heal your wound I see pouring with holy blood yearning for that kindred fount which flows and wells within the Grail. No more shall it be hidden: uncover the Grail, open the shrine!
[Parsifal mounts the altar steps, takes the Grail from the shrine now opened by the squires, and kneels before it in silent prayer and contemplation. The Grail begins to glow with a soft light, increasing darkness below and growing illumination far above.
A beam of light: the Grail glows at its brightest. From the dome a white dove descends and hovers over Parsifal’s head. Kundry slowly sinks lifeless to the ground in front of Parsifal, her eyes uplifted to him. Amfortas and Gurnemanz kneel in homage to Parsifal, who waves the Grail in blessing over the worshipping brotherhood of knights.]
Wagner by these stage directions for the final scene epitomizes the ultimate triumph of the hero-soul. Through Parsifal’s act the earthbound human mind is directed upwards again towards divinity; the power of creative intuition flows again through all the realms. As a result, the fossilized spiritual tradition of Titurel is reinvigorated, and he rises from his coffin. The divine spirit, symbolized by the dove, hovers over Parsifal’s head, i.e., the consciousness of the higher ego experiences its innate divinity. This represents a transformation into something completely new: the attainment of Mastery.