chapter  9
Wagner without Music
The Textual Rendering of Parsifal’s Pity in Oscar Wilde’s “The Young King”
WithYvonne Ivory
Pages 21

The names of Oscar Wilde and Richard Wagner have been yoked together under the sign of Decadence since Max Nordau included both men in his 1890s pantheon of European degenerates; a key image undergirding the all-too-familiar story of Wilde’s Decadent Wagnerism is that of Dorian Gray “listening in rapt pleasure to ‘Tannhäuser’ and seeing in the prelude to that great work of art a presentation of the tragedy of his own life.” But Wilde’s own meaningful encounters with Wagner are primarily textual rather than sonic or visual—with the textuality of Wilde’s Wagner sometimes even doubly layered, as he engages with Wagner’s works through the lenses of francophone Wagnerians like Charles Baudelaire and Joris-Karl Huysmans. In this chapter, Ivory maps out the parameters of Wilde’s engagement with the German composer by sketching his acquaintance with Wagner’s music, his exposure to Wagner’s ideas, and his incorporation of certain Wagnerian motifs into his writings. Here Ivory traces lines through Wilde’s Wagner reception that cohere around the node of pity, an underexplored aspect of Wilde’s thought. In an analysis of “The Young King” (1888), Ivory suggests why, in this fairy tale, Wilde recasts the familiar Tannhäuser motif of divine absolution by subordinating it to a notion of pity borrowed from Wagner’s final and most Catholic work, Parsifal. “The Young King,” Ivory suggests, lays the groundwork for a philosophy of pity as an avenue toward self-redemption—a philosophy on which Wilde will base key aspects of his last major works, his letter from prison, and “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.”