Thursday, January 9, 2014

Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Source of book: I own both parts of Faust.

This review is a bit odd because a solid half decade (at least) lies between my reading of Faust Part I and Faust Part II. The first part is easy to find, in a variety of editions. The second part, in contrast, is pretty much not available in hardback - in English translation, at least - and proved difficult to find at a reasonable price.

My copy of part one is a marvelous Heritage Press edition hardback. Illustrated by Delacroix - which is the best way to experience Faust, I must say. My wife finally found a used paperback version of part two, and so I was now able to read the rest of the drama.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (pronounced GER-tuh - with a hard G) is considered one of the all time greatest German writers, and perhaps one of the greatest ever in any language. He wrote a wide range of works, from poetry to novels to plays, as well as serious non-fiction on an astonishingly wide range of topics. To top it off, he spent a good bit of time in scientific research and experimentation, writing an influential book on color theory. He had a substantial influence on European literature and thought - an influence which persists to this day. He was also a bit of a controversial figure in his time for what were then unorthodox religious and mystical views. 

Portrait 1828 by Joseph Karl Stieler

Trained in law (like many an author, I might add), he eventually decided he hated it and devoted himself to writing. This was a significant factor in a serious break with his father. His first big hit was The Sorrows of Young Werther, a book which plays a significant role in Frankenstein.

The list of significant works written by Goethe would take far too much space here. It is his drama, Faust, that remains his best known work. The first part was published in 1808, while the second essentially consumed his last years, and was published posthumously in 1832.

The Faust legend dates back hundreds of years, its origin lost in obscurity. The tale is, of course, of a man who sells his soul to the devil (known in the legend as Mephistopheles, which is so much fun to say). As a result of the bargain, he is able to gain what he desires, but at the end, he is dragged to hell.  

Throughout the centuries, there have been a multitude of tellings of the story, some serious, many bawdy and broadly comedic, and a couple which have survived the test of time.

The first is Christopher Marlowe’s play, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. Among other interesting things about this version is that there was a fierce argument at the time over whether Marlowe meant the play as an assertion of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination or whether he had meant it to be a refutation of that doctrine. (Since Marlowe died soon after its first performance, he wasn’t able to weigh in himself.)

The second came 200 years later, with Goethe’s version.

One of the things I found most interesting was the change that occurred over the centuries in Faust’s motivation. In the early versions, heavily influenced by medieval theology and thought, Faust seeks human knowledge rather than divine knowledge. (Tellingly, he wishes to be a “Doctor of Medicine” rather than a “Doctor of Theology.”)

Later, in Marlowe’s version, Faust continues to seek knowledge, but what he is really after is power. The knowledge is desired because of the power it will give him.

By the time we get to Goethe, things have changed even more. For Goethe, Faust isn’t really an anti-hero anymore, but rather a flawed hero, someone whose good outweighs his bad. This is particularly clear because Faust in Goethe’s conception is nearly the opposite of the medieval version. Faust desires knowledge. But not mere earthly knowledge. Faust is aiming at transcendance, the knowledge of the Divine, something beyond what he can discover with mere logic and facts. (In this sense, Faust represents Goethe himself.) Unlike the traditional Faust, who seeks to circumvent church orthodoxy; or Marlowe’s Faust, who resonates today in his willingness to sell his soul for power; Goethe’s Faust isn’t trying to transgress, but transcend. He isn’t seeking his own benefit, but the benefit of all humanity.

Okay, that is at least the Faust of the second part.

The first part of Faust follows the plot pretty closely. Faust becomes frustrated with is inability to gain the knowledge he desires, is met by Mephistopheles who promises him what he desires - for the right price, and encumbers his soul. In Goethe’s version, the deal is that Mephistopheles must provide Faust with an experience so transcendent that he will wish to stay in the moment forever.

Following the legend, the first thing that Faust does is to seduce a young lady, Gretchen. She becomes pregnant, but goes mad and drowns the baby. She is convicted and sentenced to death. Faust tries to rescue her, but she refuses to go with him, choosing instead to throw herself on the mercy of God.  As she dies, Mephistopheles says that she is doomed, but a voice from heaven announces that she is saved.

Thus ends the first part, which is a fairly compact drama. This is the part most often performed, and it really is an interesting telling of the legend. As I noted, Delacroix’s illustrations are perfect, full of dark moods and psychological depth. (I am a huge fan of Delacroix in general, so I might be a bit biased. But Goethe himself said "Delacroix has surpassed my own vision.") 

So far, this is a pretty conventional telling of the legend.

It is the second part that goes completely off of the beaten path, and explores ideas and incidents completely unknown to the original.

Faust awakes in a field of flowers, and goes through a series of scenes which are only loosely related to each other and to the original story.

Goethe takes the opportunity to discuss politics, economics, science, and all kinds of crazy stuff throughout the course of the narrative. There is the homunculus, a tiny human created by science, who plays a role in the drama. At the time Goethe wrote Faust, science had not yet really figured out how reproduction worked, so it was believed that sperm contained a fully formed, yet miniature human being. Essentially, the human was made by the male, while the female was the fertile ground that the baby grew in. The combination of the man’s “seed” and the nurture of the womb determined the characteristics of the child. In Goethe’s conception, however, the homunculus is grown entirely without the assistance of a woman, exclusively in scientific apparati - the first “test tube baby” if you will. In the act where he appears, he serves to further Goethe’s discussion of the role of science and the possibilities if one could completely control the formation of a human being. The implications run from eugenics to the ongoing debate over nature versus nurture, and resonate with the modern trend of “helicopter parenting,” wherein parents try to control every aspect of childhood.

Also discussed is the concept of inflation and the gold standard (easily a century before the issue dominated American politics). Goethe makes a wealth of allusions to history and classical literature (keep the Bulfinch handy…) and hits on so many ideas that I felt a bit overwhelmed at times reading it. The “Helen of Troy” theme, in which he argues for a synthesis of European Romanticism with the ideas of Classical Greece is fun, but really resides on a plain that I cannot really pretend to fully understand. There were pages on end where I finally had to admit that what he was saying was beautifully written, but that he was aiming for something, some idea, that he may not have even understood himself.

Thus, I found Faust Part II to be both rewarding, and really slow going. I sense one could spend a lifetime learning the background in Germanic thought and the issues of Goethe’s times and still not find all the ideas Goethe wished to elucidate.

Here are a few things that I noted while I was reading:

Early in the second part, Faust expresses the yearning that characterizes his quest.

And thus it is, when hope with earnest striving
Has toiled in aims as high as man may dare,
Fulfilment’s  open gates give promise fair,
But from those everlasting depths comes driving,
A fiery blast that takes us unaware:
We thought to light life’s torch, but now, depriving
Our highest hope, a sea of fire surrounds us.
Such fire! Of love? or the fierce glow of hate?

And then he turns to see what is before him.

And so I turn, the sun upon my shoulders,
To watch the water-fall, with heart elate,
The cataract pouring, crashing from the boulders,
Split and rejoined a thousand times in spate;
The thundrous water seeths in fleecy spume,
Lifted on high in many a flying plume,
Above the spray-drenched air. And then how splendid
To see the rainbow rising from this rage,
Now clear, now dimmed, in cool sweet vapour blended.

One of my favorite hikes - one we return to nearly every year, is the hike to Vernal Falls in Yosemite National Park. Goethe’s language recalls for me what it is like to stand beside that cataract and hear the thunder and see the rainbow.

Another exchange was interesting to me. The Lord Chancellor of an unnamed kingdom seeks to find a source of wealth to clear the kingdom’s financial difficulties. Mephistopheles promises him that he can show how to extract gold from the recesses of the earth.

And should you ask who’ll bring that store to light:
‘Tis he endowed with Mind and Nature’s might.

Goethe walks an interesting line here. Obviously, this is the Devil speaking, but Goethe sympathises with his ideas here. The Chancellor’s response is hardly flattering to the medieval ideal of “divine’ knowledge before science.

Nature and Mind! - Terms Christian ears resist!
For talk like this we burn the atheist.
Such words are full of danger and despite:
Nature means Sin, and Mind the Devil!
The two breed doubt, misshapen evil,
Their ill-begot hermaphrodite.

The Chancellor goes on to claim that the two things that he trusts are knights and priests, and that all other potential sources of wisdom are all from hell. Mephistopheles responds:

A speech that shows the learned lord you are!
What you don’t touch, is leagues afar;
What you can’t grasp, is total loss for you:
What you can’t reckon, seems to you untrue.
What you can’t weight, possesses then no weight,’
What you can’t coin, must be invalidate.

This is interesting to me because Goethe supported Mephistopheles’ position. Goethe was deeply suspicious of the priesthood, and felt the Catholic Church (dominant in Germany at the time) was both superstitious and violent. He supported the efforts of the Mind and the study of Nature. And yet, he gives these lines to Mephistopheles.

Mephistopheles later gets into a peculiar argument with “Baccalaureaus,” who seems to me to be a representation of the arrogance of educated youth, and also of Faust as a young man. (I am guessing here a bit. Anyone have an alternate theory?) Baccalaureus has no time for people who have “lingered on...when your time has gone,” claiming blood is only astir in the veins of youth.

A man with thirty summers on his head
Has seen his best, and is as good as dead.

Apparently, “Never trust anyone over thirty” didn’t originate with Jack Weinberger. (It was later attributed the Bob Dylan or the Beatles, depending on who you ask.)

One of my favorite lines in the play is spoken by Erichtho, a witch in Greek legend also mentioned by Dante in Inferno.

        For every man who has not wit
To rule his inner self will be most apt to rule
His neighbor’s will, according to his own proud whim…

Darn straight! This is abundantly apparent in the recent events surrounding Doug Phillips, who built his empire based on the rigid control of women and children, and yet couldn’t keep his own fly zipped. I would posit that this is the common state of things. Those who most seek to control others have the least ability to control themselves.

I’ll also mention an extended monologue by Helen of Troy (too long to quote) when she is being transported back to her husband after the defeat of Troy. She wonders what fate awaits her. Will Menelaus her husband receive her as his wife? Or as his slave? Or will he simply kill her? (In the Greek legends, there are different accounts of her fate, one of which was that she was borne to Olympus by the gods.) Goethe clearly indicates she will be slaughtered, until Faust is able to rescue her.

Helen also has an interesting thought on her fate. She was given a gift by the gods - she would be the most beautiful woman of all time - the face that launched a thousand ships. But this gift was a curse to her.

Ah me, what woe, what unrelenting fate
Pursues me, working havoc in men’s hearts,
That so infatuate they lose all care
Or of themselves, or of what honour bids.

I may use this when I eventually write about “modesty culture,” which perpetuates this idea of the beauty of women driving men mad.

Goethe cuts right to the issue in these examples, and there is one more, in the surreal battle scene where Mephistopheles aids the victor. The somewhat cynical emperor notes the ability victors have to write the narrative of history.

The vanquished fell, condemned to earn renewed despising;
The victorn sings God’s special grace in paean uprising;
And needing no command, the masses blend their notes,
‘We praise thee, Lord our God!’ comes from a million throats.

Because the victors always believe God was on their side. As Don Henley put it:

And we pray to our Lord
Who we know is American
He reigns from on high
He speaks to us through middlemen
And he shepherds his flock
We sing out and we praise His name
He supports us in war
He presides over football games
And the right will prevail
All our troubles shall be resolved
We have faith in the Lord
Unless there's money or sex involved

(Although darn Henley for keeping this razor-edged song off of youtube! “Frail Grasp On The Big Picture”)

Goethe follows this up with a scene in which the priest informs the emperor that he needs to buy off God’s favor by granting a good portion of the spoils of war to the church. Yes indeed.

The final scene is also quite fascinating. Faust dies, at the pinnacle of his most transcendent moment. Mephistopheles has won his bet. Or so it seems. The angels come and wrestle Faust’s soul away, and there is a vision of Gretchen, who has become a representation (perhaps along with Helen) of the eternal female, interceding for Faust. Like Gretchen, Faust is given grace, and he is not damned, but saved in the end.

As I noted earlier, the first part is easy to read, and a well done version of the legend. The second part is not to be trifled with. I spent extensive time with my Bulfinch and the internet, trying to grasp all of the allusions, yet I know I missed many. Still, it was a worthwhile experience. It may be interesting to re-read this in a decade or two and see what stands out to me then.

A fun Goethe story:

I can’t resist telling this story, even though it has little if anything to do with Faust, because I find it amusing.

Goethe, like many other German intellectuals, was a bit of a womanizer. (Although not as slimy as Wagner…) He broke a number of hearts in his youth, and had a bit of a thing for younger women. Not that that was unusual in his time.

Later in life, he met Christiane Vulpius, a woman in her twenties, who became his steady mistress. They lived together in a quasi-married state for 18 years, and had several children.

In 1806, Napoleon’s army invaded the town in which they were living. Apparently, the soldiers broke into the house in the middle of the night with drawn bayonets. Goethe was petrified and couldn’t do anything. Christiane, on the other hand, raised such a ruckus that the neighbors came to her aid. She even attempted to fight the soldiers herself until the outcry eventually led them to withdraw. She then organized a formal defense of the house, raising barricades in the kitchen and cellar. The pillaging soldiers were kept at bay. Goethe would later attribute the preservation of the house to “steadfastness and luck.” As his biographer, RĂ¼diger Safranski would point out, the luck was his, but the steadfastness was hers.

In what has to qualify as one of the best decisions ever, he married her the next day.

They remained married until her death in 1816. However, while the marriage may have benefited Goethe, it didn’t rescue poor Christiane’s reputation. The ladies of Weimar still considered her to be a slut, and treated her accordingly. The wife of Friedrich Schiller (who wrote the “Ode to Joy” used by Beethoven in his 9th Symphony), wrote after her death that, "The poor man wept bitterly. It grieves me that he should shed tears for such objects."

It’s pretty hard to find a better example of the sexual double standard. Goethe committed the same acts she did. He was a “great man,” and she was an “object.” The slut that he shouldn’t have wasted tears on, despite a 28 year relationship.

Note on the music:
Goethe’s version of Faust inspired some wonderful music.

In no particular order, here are just a few:

First, Berlioz wrote a piece based on the play. Is it an oratorio? An opera? It defies categorization. Berlioz just wrote crazy stuff and called it what he liked. The very first concert of the Bakersfield Symphony included the Marche Hongroise from that work. We re-created that concert in 2012. 

Mahler also referenced the work, setting the final scene in part two to music in the second movement of his 8th Symphony.

I am omitting a symphony by Liszt, operas by Gounod and Boito, and a musical by of all people, Randy Newman.

Perhaps my favorite, though, is Robert Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, which contains some of Schumann’s best choral writing. Enjoy!


  1. Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus has also stood the test of time.

    1. Another one I would love to read. I haven't really read much of Mann. I suspect that my 20th Century knowledge is much less than it should be. I hope to remedy that as time goes on.

  2. We all have gaps in our reading. I haven't read nearly as many 19th century works as you. In fact, I haven't read anything by Dickens (I'll probably read something by him even though he treated his wife despicably). Trollope is a neglected author as well.

    I seem to be stuck in the 20th century. Mann's "The Magic Mountain" is one of my top 10 books. You're a lucky man if you still can look forward to reading Saul Bellow and Wallace Stegner. I should mention Virginia Woolf and some works by Doris Lessing are also worth reading. I can't forget the female authors!
    By the way, I purchased “No Name” based on your review, but I still haven’t read it.