In the first chapter of his book Wagner: The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art, Fr. M. Owen Lee relates the story of the Greek hero Philoctetes. As told by Sophocles, Philoctetes is the model of the tragic hero: a warrior blessed with a bow that would always shoot straight and true to the mark (a gift to him by the god Heracles). Considering how much warfare there was in the time of ancient Greece, one can see how indispensible a man with such a weapon would be.
So far, so good. But now tragedy sets in. On the way to the siege of Troy, Philoctetes suffers a grievous wound to the heel, a wound that will not heal. (No pun intended.) The wound festers and emits a stench so horrible that, combined with Philoctetes' cries of agony, the Greeks can no longer put up with him. Led by the ship's captain, Odysseus, the Greeks strand Philoctetes on the isle of Lemnos and sail on, abandoning him to a future of utter isolation and loneliness. Philoctetes, understandably, is a bit put off by all this, and for the next ten years he remains alone on Lemnos, his hatred of the Greeks who betrayed him welling up inside him and festering every bit as much as his wound. Philoctetes, once the great hero of Greece, is now an embittered and wounded man, consumed by his hatred.
Finally, after ten years, the Greeks return to Lemnos. It's not from any new-found sense of shame, though; rather, they've discovered through a prophesy that they will not win the Trojan War without Philoctetes and his bow. No problem, says Odysseus; we'll just go back and get him. Granted, after ten years it might be hard to convince him to come and fight for the people who abandoned him, but Odysseus has a plan for this as well. He proposes to use a young, idealistic soldier, Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles. Neoptolemus is to approach Philoctetes and gain his confidence, telling him that the ship has come to take him home. Once Philoctetes is safely on board, the ship will sail instead for Troy, where Philoctetes can apply his trade.
When Philoctetes discovers the deceit he is outraged and aims his bow straight at Odysseus. Given the track record of the bow, we pretty much know this is more than just a threat. But just when all seems to be lost, the god Heracles intervenes. He tells Philoctetes that "his hatred is self-defeating, that his suffering has had a purpose, that if he goes with his fellow Greeks to Troy, he will be cured of his wound and win imperishable glory."
For Wagner, a student of the Greek classics, the effect of this story is clear; we can see it most obviously in Parsifal, with the ruler Amfortas who bears a spear wound that will not heal. Other artists were influenced by it as well; André Gide, in his 1899 novel Philoctète, provides an autobiographical Philoctetes, a writer who suffers in in an island exile. In Gide's story it is the writer Philoctète himself who speaks the words of Heracles, telling the solider who comes to take him home that "his suffering there has taught him more of the secrets of life than he could possibly have learned had he been a normal man functioning in and accepted by society.
And now you can see the direction in which this is heading, what Sophocles and Gide might call "self-improvement through suffering." Christians would think of it as the redemptive power of suffering, but the message remains the same. It's a message that Sophocles gets, and there is an implicit Christian subtext in the words he gives Heracles: suffering has a purpose. The man who accepts his suffering and allows it to shape his character without resentment or bitterness will emerge from it a different - and better - man. There is in this a prefigurement of the opening words of James: "Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. [James 1:2-4]"
To understand and apprciate Wagner, one must appreciate the extent to which he he saw himself as Philoctetes, the artist suffering for the sake of his art and the truth it conveyed. However, as Christians, let's take this one step further - to our understanding of the purpose of suffering. In Parsifal, for example. The aforementioned Amfortas is not made strong and steadfast by his unhealing wound; rather, he is rendered weak, ineffective, willing to let the Knights of the Grail fade to obsecurity through his lack of leadership, until Parsifal himself returns (having received the grace of Good Friday) to heal Amfortas and assume leadership of the Knights.
In Rienzi, Wagner tells the story of the rise and fall of Rienzi, a populist leader who is at first hailed by the masses as a savior, but who eventually becomes a victim of the fickle nature of popular opinion. He is betrayed by those who helped him come to power, turned upon by the very masses for whom he fought in ending the oppression of the nobles. In the end the people violently rise up against him and the mobs burn the capitol; Rienzi, defiant to the last, dies in the fire, refusing to compromise his principles, seeing himself as a martyr for the truth. There is, one might suggest, more than a suggestion of self-pity in Rienzi's defiance, that of one who wears the cloak of the "prophet without honor," suffering for the truth that the masses refuse to appreciate. The analogy is that not of the humble man who suffers for the sake of Christ; it is, rather, the suffering of Christ Himself. It should come as no surprise, then, that Wagner saw himself as Rienzi - the misunderstood genius, the suffering artist, the intellect not fully appreciated.
As one might suggest, there is a dramatic difference in the two types of suffering, the difference coming in the perception of the ego, the contrast between the selfless, humbling sacrifice that comes from a clensing suffering, and the essentially ego-driven suffering of the great man who simply isn't appreciated by the public - a suffering that, frankly, carries more than a hint of the "you'll all be sorry!" attitude about it. (We speak, of course, excluding the entirely selfless suffering of Christ.) If one can draw conclusions from this at all, it might be that in Wagner's self-portrayal of Philoctetes we see as an end result of the suffering not self-improvement, but the improvement of society through the wisdom of the artist.
And so where does that leave us, on the eve of Lent? Perhaps in a mood to consider the mystery, and the purpose, of suffering. Perhaps to understand the role it has played in our own lives, and to look for the beneficial ways in which it has shaped our character. In learning to accept suffering in this manner (as in, for example, the manner of a man who suffers through constant temptations of one sort or another and, through it, learns compassion and patience for others who face the same suffering) we come to understand more fully the mystery of God Himself, Who constantly reassures us that with Him, nothing is impossible.
It is something for us to contemplate, and the right time of the year for us to do so. There is much more in Wagner's life and music that will allow us to examine the relationships between art and truth, between the artist and his creation; it's a discussion we've had often in this space, and will continue to have in the future.