Think Jung

Make Life a Mythic Journey

Parsifal: A Medieval Message for Modern Man

I recently attended the HD performance of Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal.  In preparation, I had read Robert Johnson’s HE: Understanding Masculine Psychology. Although Wagner based his opera on the German version and Johnson the older French myth, they both cover the same psychological ground and have great relevance for both modern men and women.

The basic story of the myth is relatively simple. There is a king, called the Fisher King in the earlier French myth, or Amfortas in the German story, who has a severe wound in his thigh or genital area and therefore cannot provide the masculine energy for his kingdom to flourish. Since this particular king is in charge of the castle that houses the Holy Grail, we realize that his wound is a spiritual one. The Grail, as you may recall, is the cup Christ drank from at the Last Supper and also supposedly was used to collect drops of his blood after the Crucifixion. So, the myth is about how to be healed spiritually. And that is Parsifal’s task. He is the “innocent or pure fool” who must become a knight of King Arthur’s Round Table, join the Grail quest, and on his own, find the castle, ask the appropriate question, and thereby heal the Fisher King.

Parsifal’s journey is similar to the hero’s journey described in Joseph Campbell’s classic book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Here, however, the “ultimate boon” or gift that the hero, Parsifal, will obtain is recovering his and our spirituality. From Johnson’s retelling of the myth it is clear that not only “[m]ost western men are Fisher Kings,” but also are Parsifals.  That is, the Fisher King and Parsifal are two parts of each of us. The wound we suffer is the inevitable product of coming of age in an overly rational, materialistic, aspiritual age with the psychological harm it produces.

Our journey, like Parsifal’s, is to heal our Fisher King psychological wounds, and fulfill the spiritual imperative I described in a recent blog (see “The Third Half of Life: The Spiritual Imperative”). This entails an encounter with our own psychological trinity—the father- and mother-complexes, that is, the negative influences of our parents, and then for men, embracing their inner feminine, which Jung called the anima (for women, the inner masculine is the animus) that “gives color and meaning to one’s life.”  How we do this is our Grail question. In my book, Think Jung! How I Found Meaning in My Life, I describe my own personal encounters with these complexes. While Parsifal easily defeats the Red Knight and assumes his masculine, father energy, it took me decades to have the big dream where I had a similar encounter (see “Facing the Father-Complex,” pp. 79-84). That was my major Fisher King wound, but there were others as well.

The mother-complex, as Johnson notes for Parsifal, is more subtle in its effects since it clothes us with a lack of proper interpersonal boundaries often resulting in a need for approval of others, suffering a regressive dependency to be taken care of, and its associated fear of being abandoned. Again, Parsifal easily overcomes this impairment by leaving his mother. For us, however, leaving is a psychological process that requires that what has been unconscious—the mother-complex—become conscious. Again, dreams, active imagination and therapy can allow this to happen. As James Hollis observes in his recent book, What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life, “the best treatment plan …is solitude. In solitude, one is not alone, one is present to oneself” where inner work can be done.

As difficult as it is dealing with these twin complexes that we all carry, the encounter with the anima is the most difficult challenge for both Parsifal and for modern man.  It is what Johnson calls “the long quest” that takes Parsifal 20 years. For us today, it occupies what Jung called “the second half of life”—the years from age 40 to 80. For Parsifal, the anima, according to Robert Johnson, is his “fair maiden,” Blanche Fleur, to whom he must be chaste. That is, as both his mother and his wise old man adviser, Gournamond, warn him, “he must never seduce or be seduced by a fair maiden.” In particular, in our outward- and youth-oriented materialistic, sex-obsessed culture it is all too easy to conflate and compromise the pristine anima by projecting it onto a beautiful seductive woman. In Wagner’s telling of the myth, Parsifal has to resist the seduction of Kundry; in my own life it was also a German woman (see “Karin,” pp. 149-157). This is the ultimate test.  If man’s anima can remain pure through the withdrawal of the exterior projection, then, as Johnson notes, it will fulfill its ultimate purpose “to connect him within the depths of his inner being and to make a bridge to his deepest self.”

And so Parsifal succeeds, as did I (see “The Return: My Transcendent Function,” pp. 193-195). And what does one achieve in finding and drinking from the Grail? Is it happiness? No, says Johnson, “The object of life is not happiness, but to serve God or the Grail.” That is, we serve not our outer-focused, material, achievement questing ego, but that inner, higher center of spirituality that Jung called the Self. Here we finally achieve the four-folded completeness of the mother, the father, and the inner masculine/feminine connection to life that brings us to our personal Grail of spirituality.

Paul Marshall Wortman

March 6, 2013

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