Parsifal. Odilon Redon. 1912. Musee D'Orsay, Paris.
One wonders why it is necessary that a part of one be so badly wounded . . . But many legends inform us that we must pay a price for the departure from the Garden of Eden and the journey to higher realms of consciousness. Robert Johnson*
Parsifal. We first met in an exhibition room at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. His face, however, was not nearly so clear that day as the image above. In the museum it was clouded by fluorescent lighting, the colors and soft details shrouded by dim, blue light. But the poor lighting actually contributed to an atmosphere of mystery which was part of the wonder of encountering Redon's Parsifal for the very first time. Encounter would be the right word here. Or maybe collision is even better.
I circled through the d'Orsay numerous times, leaving Parsifal behind to visit other exhibitions -- only to find my way back, time and again, to Redon's visionary world. What was it that kept calling me back? The answer is at the heart of great art and great artists, the idea of pointing to something unseen, something transcendent, something beyond words and ideas. And that is what I experienced while colliding with Parsifal and Redon.
And so to Parsifal, the archetype of the innocent fool.
When Parsifal lost his father, he was still a little boy and so his mother took him to an isolated cottage in the woods to raise him. In this way his mother shielded him from all knowledge of the world and its dangers. One day, however, he encountered a Grail knight and decided that he, too, would become one. A mere fifteen years old and dressed only in the homespun garments his mother made for him, Parsifal left home.
His travels brought him to the magical Grail Castle. Not everyone can see the castle but since Parsifal was innocent and pure he was able to see it. Once inside, he met the wounded Fisher King and witnessed the spectacle of the Grail procession. He longed to ask what the procession meant and why the king suffered. But his mother had warned him that it was impolite to be inquisitive and so he refrained from asking any questions. This silence was tragic, as asking those questions would have ended the suffering of the king.
Shortly after leaving the castle, Parsifal learned of his mistake. He wanted to return and set things right but it was too late. The Grail Castle had disappeared.
For the next twenty years, Parsifal tried to find his way back to the castle and to the wounded Fisher King. Finally he did (after many adventures) and when he asked the questions -- Why does the king suffer? Whom does the Grail serve? -- the Fisher King was healed and Parsifal, no longer a young fool, became the keeper of the Grail.
Parsifal is the fool, the fool within all of us, who must create space between himself and the world as he knows it and embark on the journey.
Why is the journey necessary? Why does he fail the first test at the Grail Castle? Parsifal must cast off the garments his mother has made him before his true self can be known. He must abandon her advice and he must question what he sees. Robert Johnson (The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden: Understanding the Wounded Feeling Function in Masculine and Feminine Psychology) states that this requirement to cast off the "mother" is the primary goal of the adult male and lies at the very heart of the masculine journey toward higher consciousness.
Whether male or female, each journey and the challenges that come with it are unique to the individual. But whether you go deep into the woods to pursue the fabled white deer, as King Arthur did, whether you enter the Grail Castle, as Parsifal did, whether you push off from familiar shores as Odysseus did -- you must be willing to leave your home behind and enter the uncharted realm of your soul's wilderness.
* See: Robert Johnson: The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden: Understanding the Wounded Feeling Function in Masculine and Feminine Psychology This is probably my favorite book by Robert Johnson and I would like to recommend it. A very compact and yet quite thoughtful look at the Parsifal myth.