There’s a lovely passage in John Moore’s Brensham Village (second volume of the Brensham Trilogy, one of the great accounts of British rural life), in which Mr Chorlton, the retired prep-school classics teacher, talks about his affection for the absurdities and rituals of the Church of England, agnostic though he is:
The funny thing is that thousands of people who don’t believe in it have the same feeling. I suppose in Greece and Rome, when the old gods fell out of favour and people ceased to believe in their thunderbolts and their power, the crumbling ivy-grown altars were still regarded with a sort of half-amused, half-apologetic affection, and people made an occasional shame-faced sacrifice at them for old time’s sake. That is how I feel about the C. of E. and I still wonder why!
The village church continues to function as one of the binding institutions of Brensham life – though Moore suggests that it’s rather less significant than the pubs and the cricket team. Taken together, and combined with an anarchic and pagan rural spirit, the village is capable of accommodating all manner of individual eccentricities, both home-grown and incomers – and even of taming the representatives of the new modernising, statist order of the late 1940s, in the form of the new Labour MP, Halliday, and his activist wife.
One suspects that this sort of nostalgic vision of communal solidarity is precisely what Theresa May wants to summon up with her talk of the values of her vicarage upbringing and the way that the Easter spirit is bringing all Britons together to seize the opportunities presented by Brexit – the spirit of traditional British pagan-Christian syncretism, rather than anything more fervently religious.
Moore’s vision is more nuanced, and defiantly anti-nationalist, but it’s not hard to imagine most of his characters lumping ‘Europe’ in with ‘London’ as a bunch of interfering bureaucrats imposing rules and regulations where they’re not wanted. The narrator, who spends most of his time in London writing novels and hanging out with the literary crowd, and certainly Mr and Mrs Halliday, and perhaps Mr Chorlton with his books, might have a more internationalist perspective, but each of them is too much in thrall to the ideal of an organic community to oppose the consensus; they would doubtless accommodate themselves quickly to the ‘very real concerns’ of the rest of the village.
And of course this is a thoroughly homogeneous community in ethnic terms, where the only foreigners are a Jewish businessman from Birmingham and the Welsh postman, both of whom are tolerated but marked out as alien and not quite assimilable. Historically plausible, for a Gloucestershire village between the 1920s and the late 1940s, but also all too familiar for any such vision of English communal solidarity – all the more so, if the Christian element is emphasised, as May does, rather than Moore’s insistence on the deeper pagan roots.
Historiography is all about perspective; the recognition that events can always be recounted and understood in different ways. Herodotus opens his account of the Persian Wars by considering the different stories that Greeks and Persians offer to explain their mutual hostility, before claiming that he will now present the real reasons, and regularly highlights the existence of different versions and explanations. Thucydides notes the fact that different eye-witnesses can make different reports of the same event, whether because of their memories or their loyalties, and at key points in his narrative stages the conflicting perspectives of actors on the world around them, showing how this leads to critical decisions being made one way or the other. This is not just a move to replace ‘believing the first story you hear’ with the would-be omniscient, objective view of the god-like historian; it’s the recognition that different interpretations will persist, and that things can suddenly look quite different with a slight shift of perspective.
These thoughts have been developing over the past week in the aftermath of the cultural experience of my year so far, the Berliner Staatsoper’s Parsifal (directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov, conducted by Daniel Barenboim). I’ve always steered clear of Parsifal, and certainly wouldn’t have gone to this if the tickets hadn’t been a Christmas present (leaving aside the question of affordability); partly because the music never wholly grabbed me (I would now say that of all Wagner’s operas this is the one that is most bound up with the theatrical performance) and partly because of all the associations. Heavy doses of Christian mysticism; a sacred warrior brotherhood dedicated to ideals of purity; woman presented as source of evil, deceit and corruption; whole thing presented quite deliberately as a ritual. How much more Nazi can opera get?
The answer to this problem is: to recognise it as a problem (and, having done a bit more research, I can stress that Tcherniakov isn’t the first to do this; there’s a whole post-WWII tradition of worrying about Parsifal). In Twitter terms, restaging =/= endorsement; or rather, if the Brotherhood of the Grail seems, with a slight shift of perspective, to be a gang of violent, misogynistic, sexually-repressed religious fanatics, then maybe that’s what the opera is about.
In Tcherniakov’s staging, the most disturbing aspects and associations imaginable are brought to the fore with the grail ritual at the end of Act 1: far from being a weak old man begging for relief, Titurel as charismatic cult leader forces his son Amfortas to participate, to be violently handled and stripped by the frenzied mob, literally providing the sacred blood that his followers believe will give them eternal life. It’s a community, united by tradition, belief and common purpose; as such, it reveals the horror of such a community, from the perspective of someone outside it.
One reason (says he, on the basis of reading two books) why Parsifal is often seen as more of a ritual than a real drama is the lack of, well, drama. Parsifal is identified from the beginning as the man destined to bring back the Holy Spear and restore the fellowship, once he’s grown up enough to feel true sympathy for Amfortas and finally finds his way back from wandering in the wilderness. He will, in the conventional version, be the bringer of wholeness and the restorer of solidarity and tradition.*
But Tcherniakov, through his shift of perspective, has raised the stakes: is this a fellowship that any sane person would want to restore? What would constitute the healing of such a community; a return to its original form, with a stronger and more enthusiastic leader – or its abolition? So, are we going to see Parsifal turn into the sort of person who looks at such a community and its rituals and still wants to participate – the making of a new kind of monster – or is a different sort of ending planned? The already complex psychological drama of Act 2, in which Kundry brings Parsifal to terms with his past and who he is, is thus heightened by the question of what he will then become – which, if we assume that the model of ‘simple heroic knight’ is already called into question, isn’t going to become clear until we see what he actually does in Act 3.
Which is…ambiguous, and I really need to see this again having had a chance to think about it. Certainly Amfortas is freed from his pain, through the weapon that had wounded him (in this case Kundry, rather than the spear), and the grail fellowship is given a new focus for its fanaticism; but when Parsifal departs the stage carrying Kundry’s body, is he turning his back on them, or setting out to found a new version of the same thing? Again, perhaps this ambiguity is precisely the point: we are left to ask ourselves whether a community of flawed, selfish people prone to violence and self-delusion – humans, in other words – can be restored, and at what price. Whatever happens, the clock cannot simply be turned back through a simple act of will.
As Mark Berry has brilliantly observed, this is not art to make us feel good about ourselves, but art to make us think – not least, about why we shouldn’t feel good about ourselves. It is, at its heart, all about “the human thing” that drives us again and again to violence, faction, stupidity and war. (And, yes, I think there’s a case to be made for reading Wagner via Thucydides, and vice versa, not least because we know from Cosima’s diaries that he read the book to her). It is art that is willing to fix its gaze on apparently simple, uncontroversial things like community, national identity and religion, and to ask difficult questions about them – and to refuse to supply easy answers. The simple homilies of an English country vicarage may seem innocuous enough, mere historical remnants – but that is the view of an insider; switch perspective, and their continuing power to compel, to constrain, to manipulate and to exclude becomes clear.
*I have a brief, horrific vision of a Brexit staging of Parsifal, in which Amfortas is Britain, bleeding cash from the unhealable wound of Europe, until Theresa May returns with the Spear of Sovereignty, having brought down the magic castle of Jean-Claude Klingsor and his seductive foreign exchange students, to restore harmony and unity…