Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Review: Goethe's Faust

by JccKeith

Faust is based on a well known German legend.  In this German legend, a well educated man becomes bored with all life has to offer him so far and makes a deal with the devil.  In exchange for his immortal soul, Faust will experience all worldly knowledge and pleasures.  In most legends, Faust dies in the end and is eternally damned.  There is no happy ending, it is one giant tragedy.

Goethe’s Faust, written in two parts, was first published in 1808 and the second part published posthumously in 1832.  The writing consumed some 60 years of Goethe’s life off and on.  Part One is primarily focused on the deal with the devil for Faust’s soul.  Part Two ventures into more social issues of philosophy, psychology, politics and also mysticism.

Part One:

Mephisto and Faust
Prior to events with Faust, the story begins in Heaven with a conversation between God and Mephistopheles (the Devil).  Mephistopheles bets God that he can lure Faust away from noble, righteous pursuits of knowledge.  The opening of The First Part of the Tragedy finds Faust stating his unhappiness:

“I have, alas, studied philosophy,
Jurisprudence and medicine, too,
And, worst of all, theology
With keen endeavor, through and through-
And here I am, for all my lore,
The wretched fool I was before.”

Deeply disturbed and briefly seeking answers to infinite knowledge in magic, Faust ultimately contemplates committing suicide.  Distracted by the noises of an Easter celebration nearby:

“What deeply humming strokes, what brilliant tone
Draws from my lips the crystal bowl with power?
Has the time come, deep bells, when you make known
The Easer holiday’s first holy hour?
…Why would you, heaven’s tones, compel
Me gently to rise from my dust?
Resound where tenderhearted people dwell:
Although I hear the message, I lack all faith or trust.”

Faust decides to go for a walk with his assistant, Wagner.  A stray poodle follows Faust home and transforms, in his study, into Mephistopheles.  Faust makes a deal with Mephistopheles:  Mephistopheles will serve Faust on Earth for a certain period of time (usually around 24-25 years) in which he will provide Faust with unlimited worldly knowledge and pleasure.  If Faust should find anything the Devil provides him as so wonderful he wants to stay in the moment forever, Faust will die instantly.  Either way, in that instant or after the allotted time, Faust will serve the Devil in Hell. 

After an event with a student, an adventure at a bar, Auerbach’s Keller in Leipzig, and a spin in a witch’s kitchen, Faust is not impressed as we see in his conversation with the witch:

Witch: “The lofty prize
Of science lies
Concealed today as ever.
Who has no thought,
To him it’s brought
To own without endeavor.”

Faust replies:
“What nonsense does she put before us?
My head aches from her stupidness.
It seems if I heard a chorus
Of many thousand fools, no less.”

Faust and Margaret
Back out in the street, Faust encounters Margaret (Or Gretchen in some versions) who is an innocent woman.  Margaret turns him down and Faust desires her so he entreats Mephistopheles to intervene:
“Get me that girl, and don’t ask why?”

Mephisto replies:
“That one!  She saw her priest just now,
And he pronounced her free of sin.
I stood right there and listened in.
She’s so completely blemishless
That there was nothing to confess.
Over her I don’t have any power.”

Mephistopheles uses a neighbor, Martha to help lure Margaret into Faust’s arms.  With some prodding from the Devil, Faust seduces Margaret.  Margaret kills her mother so that she and Faust can be together and then becomes pregnant with Faust’s child.  Her brother, Valentin condemns Faust, fights him and dies.  Margaret then drowns her child, is convicted and sent to prison.  Faust attempts to free her but Margaret refuses his help so he and Mephistopheles leave.  As they leave they hear a chorus of angels.  In the original legend, the angels pronounce Margaret to be condemned.  In Goethe’s Faust, the angels announce Margaret will be saved, because she was an innocent.

Part Two:

Spirits in Field
In Act One, Faust awakens in a field of flowers and is surrounded by a circle of little spirits.  Ariel, a spirit, commands the others to do their duty and “relieve the bitter conflict in his heart, remove the burning arrows of remorse, and cleanse his mind of memories that smart.”  Faust is healed and beholds the beautiful splendor surrounding him but compares it to the pleasures of life.  For every pleasure sought, there comes after it pain.  One cannot seek the light without being burned by the fire.  Faust says, “We do not know if love or hatred scorch us, And alternate with monstrous pain and pleasure…”

Act Two, Faust is at a palace with Mephistopheles and it is revealed he now has had many adventures and acquired many riches.  Faust owns almost everything and yet he finds it still unsatisfying, “For this is the most cruel rack, To feel in riches what we lack.”

Act Three, Faust encounters four gray women named Want, Guilt, Care and Need.  Faust insists he has never been tormented by Care, he has lived his life fast and free, doing as he pleased with no cares.  He speaks to the women,

“Oh, wretched specters, thus you persecute
The human race with thousand miseries;
Days that might be indifferent, you transmute
Into a monstrous mesh of tangled agonies.
Demons, I know, are hard to drive away,
One cannot break the spirits’ iron ties;
And yet your power, Care, creeping and great,
I shall refuse to recognize.”

The final two acts discuss Faust resisting death as it closes in and Mephistopheles has to catch him.  Mephistopheles describes the moment:

“No pleasure sated him, no great bestowment,
He reeled from form to form, it did not last;
The final, wretched, empty moment,
The poor man wishes to hold fast.
He sturdily resisted all my toil;
Time conquers, old he lies here on the soil.
The clock has stopped – “

In the original legend, Faust is condemned but in Goethe’s Faust, he is redeemed.  He is saved, as the angels reveal, due to his constant striving and living to strive, such people can still be saved.  As his soul is taken to heaven the figure of the innocent, Margaret, is also revealed to have forgiven Faust.  She represents the Divine Feminine, or in some stories, the Virgin Mother, and has pleaded on his behalf that he be saved.  Mephistopheles comments on this unfair turn of events and ends the story:

“A peerless treasure, stolen shamefully:
The noble soul that pledged itself to me
They snatched from me, and now they moralize.”

The story is a commentary on the quest for knowledge and pleasure and its ultimate failure to satisfy.  The undertone then being that happiness lies in transcendent knowledge. 

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