Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust

Faust: A TragedyFaust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Goethe’s Faust, including Part One and Part Two, was written over the entire course of the author’s adult life, begun when he was in his twenties and finished when he was in his eighties, at the threshold of death. Many dates can be given for the composition and publication of various parts and versions, but its true dates are something like 1772-1832. This biographical and historical span, encompassing the entirety of the Romantic period, must at least partially account for the extraordinary stylistic, tonal, and thematic variety of the work, especially of the operatic, phantasmagoric extravaganza that is Part Two.

It is not even clear to which genre Faust belongs: it is formally a play but is essentially unperformable, both due to length and to the special effects that would be required to bring to life its mythopoeia. Is it a dramatic poem, or, given its hero’s wanderings, a dramatic epic poem; or perhaps, considering its universal comment upon all traditions and ideologies, a Menippean satire or anatomy of the world? Goethe himself called it a tragedy, but it is hardly that: its hero rises rather than falls. As one of its translators, Walter Kaufmann, notes in his introduction to his edition, Faust is “closer to Ulysses than to The Odyssey.”

Kaufmann further quotes from Goethe’s Conversations with Eckermann, as the poet in 1827 mocks those who ask him what Faust means: “As if I myself knew that and could express it! […] The more incommensurable and incomprehensible for the understanding a poetic creation may be, the better” (emphasis in original). Likewise, in one of the two prologues to the poem, a dialogue among an otherworldly poet, a money-minded theater manager, and an easygoing clown, the manager asks:

Now tell me, what good is your artistic unity?
The public will only make hash of it anyway.

Kaufmann translated all of Part One and selections of Part Two in an edition published in 1961. Martin Greenberg translated the entire poem in the 1990s, and a revised edition was published by Yale in 2014. Kaufman and Greenberg both share a commitment to faithfully translating Goethe’s poetry, preserving elements of meter, rhyme, and general verse form, but in a modern idiom shorn of the archaisms used by prior translators. I recommend these versions, then, and have read them both, while also consulting Barker Fairley’s excellent prose version of the entire poem as collected in Everyman Library’s 2000 volume of Goethe’s Selected Works. In my own exploration of this “incommensurable and incomprehensible” text, I will quote from Greenberg’s version.

While Goethe was preceded in creating a serious literary adaptation of the Faust legend by Christopher Marlowe in the 16th century, Goethe had not read Marlowe nor even Marlowe’s source, the German chapbook recounting Faust lore published in the 1580s, when he began his own work: instead, he primarily adapted the puppet-show dramatizations of the legend that he saw as a child, themselves loosely based on Marlowe—and Goethe’s Faust has much of the puppet-show about it.

Goethe provides two modernizing innovations to the legend. First, he recasts Faust as a disaffected post-Christian Romantic-era intellectual, riven by the rival claims of materialism and idealism, acquisitiveness and aspiration: “Two souls live in me, alas,” he famously laments, one “lusting after the world” and another that “rises from the dirt.” He does not seek reconciliation through religious faith, though; he claims that salvation comes only from within:

[T]he only true refreshment that exists
You get from where? Yourself—where all things start.

(If you hear an echo of Yeats’s “Circus Animals’ Desertion” there, it is no accident: part of Greenberg’s method of translating Goethe for Anglophone readers is periodically to recall Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Eliot, the King James Bible, and more, as if to recreate Goethe as part of the continuum of English-language literature.)

Faust revises the Gospel of John so that “In the beginning was the Deed!” and vows to make his own way in the world; for this reason, and not necessarily for secular riches or knowledge, he contracts with the devil:

It’s from our fathers, what we inherit,
To possess it really, we’ve got to earn it.
What you don’t use is a dead weight,
What’s worthwhile is what you spontaneously create.

Goethe’s devil is his second great innovation. His Mephistopheles is, in a sense, still more the modern intellectual than Faust is, a jeering cynic, queer and acerbic, skeptical of all grandeur and transcendence: “Take note the Devil’s a jester, my dears!” he announces.

In the Prologue in Heaven, however, Goethe’s God addresses Mephistopheles among the other “spirits of denial” and blandly proclaims, “I’ve never hated your likes much.” Mephistopheles refers to himself as a spirit that produces only good though he wills only evil, and we are reminded that Goethe was writing in a time and place where philosophers defined negation and contradiction as the motive force of all development, personal and historical. Mephistopheles may be more the hero of the play than Faust is, since Faust’s growth would be impossible without the devil’s dialectic.

Faust, Part One counterposes to Mephistopheles’s irony the sentimental tragedy of Gretchen, a poor young woman that Faust seduces. Their romance ends in tears, with Gretchen’s mother and brother dead and herself sentenced to death for killing the child she bore Faust after he abandoned her. Gretchen represents what the 19th century would go on to honor as domestic woman, the angel in the house, a spirit of gentle inwardness that redeems the corruptions of the world. Faust addresses her as an angel, praises her maternal influence, and says:

I feel, dear girl, where you are is all comfort,
Where you are, order, goodness all abound.

As Kaufmann points out, the poem qualifies this incipient domestic ideology, since Gretchen is hardly a creature of pure, pious virtue: like her lover, she too is a striver-idealist, and she commits herself with spirit to their illicit romance. Nevertheless, Gretchen is the first of the poem’s salvific female souls, Mephistopheles’s equal and opposite, as shown by her instinctive revulsion from the devil’s air of negation:

His lips curl so sarcastically,
Half angrily,
When he pokes his head inside the door.
You can see there’s nothing he cares for…

The devil himself, after distracting Faust from Gretchen’s plight by taking him to the supernatural Walpugis Night celebration, is blithe about her tragedy: of the fallen woman, he says simply, “She’s not the first.” While this remark outrages Faust for its insensibility to the value of each individual soul, Goethe himself cast the crucial vote in 1783 on a three-person privy council to condemn a woman very like Gretchen to death for infanticide following her abandonment by her lover. Relaying this information in his introduction to Greenberg’s translation, W. Daniel Wilson notes “the gulf between the writer and the politician,” a gulf widened by the conclusion of Part One when a voice from above proclaims that the soul of the executed Gretchen is saved.

With its focus on this romantic tragedy, Part One is a deeply affecting play, a Shakespearean balancing act of psychic forces in conflict, rife with humor and passion. Part Two, however, is twice the length and has no focus at all. Only its fifth act returns to the concerns of Part One as it dramatizes the conclusion of Faust’s deal. The four acts that precede it are an explosion of poetry and landscapes, wild ideas and reflections on culture and mythology. Part Two comments on everything. For instance, when Faust and Mephistopheles offer their services to the Emperor, they help him by introducing paper money, a “magic” act that shows our own economic assumptions to be based on the mystical acceptance of signs as real value.

Its overbearing theme, though, is Goethe’s later-life preoccupation, after his own early Storm und Drang phase typified by Gretchen’s tragedy, with Classicism. He sends Faust back to Greece for a paradoxical “Classical Walpurgis Night,” an odd synthesis of Greco and Germanic, and dwells on the dark side of the antique with an emphasis on grotesque wars among ants, pygmies, and cranes and on hideous chthonic deities. As Harold Bloom comments in The Western Canon, “The Goethean gods themselves are monsters: the Phorkyads, formless lurkers in primeval Night.” The Phorkyads, before merging with Mephistopheles, deliver some of the the most moving and strange lines in Part Two:

Born in the night, with nighttime things allied,
Unknown to the world, by our selves mystified.

Not only does this “Gothic Classicism” frustrate any neat distinctions between Greek and German, it also adds nuance to the poem’s otherwise sincere commitment to idealizations of the feminine. Faust encounters not only the formless female Phorkyads but also the mysterious Mothers, the disquieting sources of all life to whom Faust must descend with an engorged key to unlock incestuously the treasures of antiquity. Such images suggest that the feminine encompasses both ideal beauty and material mess, and as such is a complete archetype:

Goddesses there are, apart, sublime,
Their throne outside of place, outside of time.
To talk about them makes me feel uneasy.
They’re called the Mothers!

As in Marlowe and other sources, Faust falls in love with Helen of Troy. She, like Gretchen, is instantly averse to Mephistopheles and for the same reason: “Finding fault again!” The product of their union is a boy who is the spirit of poetry, a figure meant to recall Byron and who, like Byron, answers the siren song of emancipatory war: “Only what’s seized by force / Ever suits me,” says this Euphorion, showing that poetry, for Goethe, made no guarantees of peace or stability or morality. Like his father, Euphorion strives intransitively, for the pure sake of self-transcendence.

The theme of striving brings us to the fifth act, which finds Faust an old man who has made himself rich but who has also committed himself to the development and modernization of his lands. This is the final portrayal of the split in his soul between greed and aspiration. On the one hand,

how it haunts me
Knowing that what I possess is
Less than all.

On the other, his desire is not only to enrich himself but the populace:

Where teeming nations now may have
The space they need to work and thrive.

But Goethe’s own restless spirit endlessly negates, as if the poet were his own Mephistopheles. Faust’s very selflessness proves destructive. An old couple living on his land, Baucis and Philemon, worry that they will eventually get in the way of his development plans. Though they marvel that people are now “[r]ulers where the sea had reigned,” they cannot shake the feeling that this “progress” is amiss:

Well, it was a wonder, no doubt,
But I’m troubled by it still.
For the whole thing didn’t seem right,
Had about it something ill.

Their forebodings prove correct when they are accidentally slaughtered after Faust orders them to be removed for the sake of further land reclamation. While Faust regrets their loss, he shortly after has a vision of peace and a future of progress (“To stand with free men on ground that’s free!”), and then he dies. Mephistopheles is cheated of Faust’s soul by angels who distract him with pederastic visions. Faust ascends. The angels praise him and aver the principle of his salvation:

The spirit world’s most noble soul
Is saved from deathly Satan.
“Who strives and keeps on striving still,
For him there is salvation.”

This is morally unacceptable, and meant to be. Not only has our hero as good as killed Gretchen and her whole family, his schemes of progress and modernization displace and murder as well. The translator Greenberg hears an anticipatory echo of Nazi atrocities—

The destruction of the old couple is a horror and I think, belatedly I think, of the immeasurable German horrors waiting to be enacted in the not so distant future.

—and W. Daniel Wilson’s introduction notes that German fascists and communists alike saw their doctrines of iron political will validated by Faust. But what if Goethe is not telling us the way things should be, merely the way things are? Let us not be so busy congratulating ourselves that we are not Nazis or Stalinists that we forget the Faustian bargains we have made for our technology and leisure, what costs we have asked others to bear for our own beautiful (and they are) artistic and spiritual aspirations.

Faust rises to heaven, led by the similarly saved Gretchen, as the chorus concludes that the eternal feminine draws us onward. Harold Bloom, himself no friend to feminism, remarks:

I shudder to contemplate feminist readings of Goethe […] When the Chorus Mysticus concludes Part Two by chanting, “Woman, eternally, / Shows us the way,” a woman now is likely to ask, “To what?”

This is like asking what Faust strives for: the point is just to strive, to add to the ever-onwardness of the world. As we have seen, Goethe does not simply idealize and mystify women, just as he does not, despite whatever thematically-illiterate Nazi admirers he may have had, enable any simplistic identification of a German national spirit. The spirit of Faust is syncretic, blending Classical and Romantic, and with added biblical allusions as the play goes on; Goethe synthesizes Northern Europe with the Mediterranean, Germany with Greece with Judea, and above all the ancient with the modern.

Likewise, the poem’s vision of femininity is a complete one, more complete than any male archetype Goethe here presents. Faust itself is structured according to, or modeled upon, its female presences: it is as ethereally beautiful and aristocratic as Helen, as sentimentally soulful and bourgeois as Gretchen, as transcendental and mystical as the Mary to whom Gretchen prays; and it is ultimately as chthonic and formless as the Phorkyads, as incommensurable and incomprehensible as the Mothers in the very night of time.

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