The OF Blog: Leatherbound Classics: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Leatherbound Classics: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust

Wenn Phantasie sich sonst mit kühnem Flug
Und hoffnungsvill zum Ewigen erweitert,
So ist ein kleiner Raum ihr nun genug,
Wenn Glück auf Glück im Zeitenstrudel scheitert.
Die Sorge nistet gleich im tiefen Herzen,
Dort wirket sie geheime Schmerzen,
Unruhig wiegt sie sich und störet Lust und Ruh;
Sie deckt sich stets mit neuen Masken zu,
Sie mag als Haus und Hof, als Weib und Kind     erscheinen,
Als Feuer, Wasser, Dolch und Giftl
Du bebst vor allem, was nicht trifft,
Und was du nie verlierst, das mußt du stets beweinen.

If Phantasy on daring wings once in the past,
Swelled by hope, sailed into infinite space;
Yet now she is satisfied with a little place,
Since joy after joy in the whirlpool of time is cast.
Care nestles in the depths of every heart,
There causing many a secret sorrow,
Restlessly rocking, driving joy and peace apart,
Disguised with changing masks each morrow,
It seems to be house or land, or child or wife,
Or fire, water, poison, steel;
Though nothing happens, dread you always feel,
What you never lose, you mourn throughout your life. (p. 23)

The legend of Faust and Mephistopheles has been around for over half a millennium.  Its two most famous iterations (although both are based on still older legends) are Christopher Marlowe's late 16th century play Doctor Faustus and German philosopher/playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's early 19th century two-part play, Faust.  In each, there are some traditional elements (Faust as doctor/scholar, the temptations of ennui that lead to Mephistopheles' appearance, the "Faustian bargain" struck for greater knowledge, Faust's death), but there are some very key differences.  In Marlowe's play, the story takes on the tone of a morality play, with a suitably dark and damning conclusion.  Yet Goethe's play does not follow this path.  Why is that?

That is a question that several readers familiar with the traditional German 16th century folklore surrounding Faust ask.  Why does Goethe depart from the original morality play of the source legends to create something that is much more complicated than a fable regarding the perils of bargaining with the devil?  An answer might lay in the prevailing Romanticism of the first decades of the 19th century.    In the passage quoted above, which is part of a long soliloquy given by Faust, expresses Faust's discontent with his life's experiences and his longing for more.  He aims to pierce through phantasies, to discover what might be found through alchemical or magical meanings.  His is an understandable emotion, one that Faust shares with several characters found in plays and poems of the time.  He wants to feel more, to experience things better, to become something more perfect.  Yet he cannot; he is constrained by the limits of body and time.

It is from here that Goethe juxtaposes conversations in heaven, between the saints and the Host, between God and Mephistopheles, who make their own wager regarding Faust and his soul.  God claims there is a part of Faust's soul that is incorruptible, while Mephistopheles aims to prove otherwise.  What follows is a metaphysical tug-of-war, with Faust's life in the balance.  Goethe easily could have played this straight up as a simple tale of an inquisitive man who stumbles and falls under the devil's sway, but what happens is something that is sumptuous to behold.  Having read this in both English and German, what I learned while reading notes related to the translation is that several phrases found in this book have worked their way into the German lexicon similar to the way that Shakespeare's plays have entered our own vocabulary.  "Das also war des Pudels Kern!", spoken when Mephistopheles transforms from a dog into human semblance for his first meeting with Faust, is more than "the core of the Puddle."  It is a metaphor for change and what is concealed within; the heart of the matter, if it may.  Sadly, much of this semantic meaning is lost in translation.

Throughout the first part, published originally in 1808, Goethe focuses on the temptations that Mephistopheles presents to Faust, finally toppling him with visions and promises of things to be learned through magic.  Goethe explores the ramifications of this, through Walpurgis Night and Faust's seduction of the innocent Gretchen/Margarete, who ultimately dies due to his nefarious actions.  Yet although Gretchen and her destroyed innocence/death are a core element of the elements upon which Goethe drew his tale, it is her semi-Marian role in Part Two that changes the course of this retelling.

Part Two is much more allegorical than the first, as the focus shifts away from the personal struggle for Faust's soul and toward the knowledge and experiences that he gains under Mephistopheles' guidance.  Through the past and into the Hellenistic mythos the two go, where Faust comes to know the Queen of Beauty, Helen of Troy.  Faust experiences a plethora of new feelings, learning more than he had ever deigned to expect.  And it is in the midst of his ultimate, sublime experience that the bargain made earlier in Part One is shown to be void.  Grace has triumphed; experience and emotion trump reason.

For some, Part Two may be difficult to read, as it requires the reader to not only to be familiar with all sorts of European fairy tales, classical myths, religious doctrine, etc., but also to be willing to let themselves be caught up in the allegories that Goethe explores.  Yet if that effort can be made, a wealth of literary treasures opens up.  Reading Faust might have been simultaneously one of the most profound and most whimsical reading experiences that I have ever had.  There is a bit of almost everything literary contained within its play/quasi-poetic structure.  It was almost a surfeit of pleasures for me as I re-read these two parts.  Although the English translations (the Easton Press edition contains Alice Raphael's translation, while the Penguin Classics translation of Part Two was by Philip Wayne) depart in some ways from the German originals that I also read, on the whole neither one detracted from my enjoyment of the story.  Faust is one of the greatest Romantic writings produced in any language and two centuries after Part One appeared, it still is one of the most influential literary classics ever to be produced.  It is the nearest thing to a must-read for anyone who has any pretensions to being a well-read human being.


Tibor Moricz said...

Hmmm... where are my glasses...

Larry said...

Yeah, that formatting is a bit off, but I can't fix it without it screwing up the lines of the quotes, unfortunately.

Add to Technorati Favorites