In preparing readings from Goethe's Faust for November's concerts, I have been thinking a great deal about the Faust myth. Who was Faust and why does this age old tale of a man's pact with the devil in exchange for power and knowledge, hold such sway?
It seems that Faust, or, in fact, a man called Johann Georg Faust, actually existed. He lived from approximately 1480 -1540 in and around Württemburg in Germany and, having obtained a degree in divinity, turned to the study of magic, claiming that he trusted the devil more than God. Tales of the magical feats he performed were recorded, along with accusations that he was a conman and a drifter who had to flee a teaching position for molesting boys. In the event, he came to a sticky end. Legend has it that the devil tore him to pieces and left him on a dung heap with his eyes glued to a wall.
But similar tales have occurred through the ages. As early as the 6thcentury, a cleric in what is now Turkey was accused of making a deal with the devil to gain an ecclesiastical position. The idea of hubris, man's wish to defy and become equal to the Gods, is an element of Greek tragedy which always results in nemesis or retribition. And of course Adam and Eve met their nemesis when they disobeyed God. They allowed the disingenuous serpent, who cast aspersions on God's integrity and promised them that they would be as Gods themselves, to persuade them to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And we all know what happened to Adam and Eve.
The story of Johan Georg Faust's life, both lurid and cautionary, made good copy; within several decades of his death, a chapbook entitled “Historia von D. Johan Fausten” began to be circulated and was even translated into English in 1592. Christopher Marlowe, having read the translation, wrote his play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, in the next year, the year in which Marlowe himself was murdered in very suspicious circumstances. The plot thickens...
And then there is Mephistopheles who was somehow created along with the notion of Faust and first appears in the 16th c chapbook. He is an agent of Lucifer, the angel who fell because of his jealousy of God. Mephistopheles is not entirely bad. He doesn't come to earth to corrupt but rather to aid those who are already damned.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), a German polymaths, statesman, novelist, playwright, poet, naturalist... his talents, interests and accomplishments are legion... was so fascinated by the story of Faust that it seemed to occupy him throughout his life. His Urfaust, or the original Faust, lost to us until a copy was found in 1886, was developed when Goethe was in his early 20's and contains 22 scenes of poetry and prose. Faust, Part I, the play which is most often produced, was completed in 1806 when Goethe was well past middle age. But it wasn't until the year before his death that he complete Part 2. Here he brought to bear the wisdom, deliberations and questionings of a long and fruitful life. For Goethe, the myth clearly had very personal reverberations. Here was a man who had accrued a vast inner compendium of knowledge but who constantly sought new horizons, new tests to his talents and resources. Perhaps he was led to search inwardly for what was, in fact, driving him, what might be the price he was paying or would have to pay in return for achieving his goal and for the likely value and outcome of his quest.
His Faust says:
Oh, yet now I can feel no contentment
Flow through me, despite my best intent.
Why must the stream fail so quickly,
And once again leave us thirsty?
I've long experience of it, yet I think
I could supply what's missing, easily:
We learn to value what's beyond the earthly.
We yearn to reach revelation's brink.
Initially, what Faust - and Goethe – cannot abide is not knowing. They rebel against uncertainty; Goethe, after all was a child of the Enlightenment. Yet his Faust, with Mephistopheles' guidance, turns away from Reason which now seems arid, and flings himself upon the pursuit of Feeling, an all too human solution:
I'll take the frenzy, pain-filled elation,
Loving hatred, enlivening frustration.
Cured of its urge to know, my mind
In future, will not hide from any pain,
And what is shared by all mankind,
In my innermost self, I'll contain.
Goethe's evocation of Faust is of a man with far more humility and insight than the traditional myth would allow. His Faust is looking for a moment of pure bliss, a moment, one might say, of seeing the divine.
Faust, with Mephistopheles help, experiments with sensuality, bestiality, the quest for eternal youth, in the way that we all frantically cast this way and that for solutions to suffering. Mephistopheles becomes his constant companion, the voice of dissatisfaction and its relief. And when Faust has regained his youthfulness, Mephistopheles leads him to Margaret, a beautiful and innocent young woman. Faust wishes to seduce her and succeeds, but having ruined her life, he is riven by his love and filled with remorse.We watch Faust discover the ephemeral nature of what he thought would afford him satisfaction.
But in Faust Part 2, Goethe allows his eponymous hero a partial redemption. He finally attains his moment of pure bliss in helping others, and it is because of this that he is allowed to enter heaven. What Faust gains is not knowledge but wisdom:
I sped through the World that's there:
Gripped by the hair every appetite,
And let go those that failed to delight,
Let those fly that quite escaped me.
I've desired, achieved my course,
Desired again, and so, with force,
Stormed through life: first powerfully
But wisely now: and thoughtfully.
Earth's sphere's familiar enough to me,
The view beyond is barred eternally:
The fool who sets his sights up there,
Creates his own likeness in the air!
Let him stand, and look around him well:
This world means something to the capable.
Why does he need to roam eternity!
Let him grasp what is firm reality.
So let him wander down his earthly day:
And if ghosts haunt him, go on his way,
Find joy and suffering in striding on,
Dissatisfied with every hour that's gone.
Goethe's reinterpretation of the myth, his resonant use of language (I have tried several translations but like that of A.S. Kline the best) and his insight into the human condition lead us to reflect on why this myth has endured and what it might mean for us now. As we read, we are led to question notions of obedience versus self will, of humility and acceptance versus ambition and striving (a confusing contradiction which necessitates some wisdom in separating out what we can change and what we can't) and of the strait gate versus the easy ride. Can we grasp beauty? Or must we, as William Blake tells us, 'kiss it as it flies'. If we don't want ultimate knowledge or power, we do, at least, want agency and would like to have it go 'our way' rather than submit to the way it is. We have all probably 'sold our soul' many times over throughout our lives and have had difficulty in finding some congruence between our beliefs and our actions. Goethe certainly helps us to see and accept our own flawed nature. Whether we hide from our failings or face them without wincing, trying again, and then again to do better, is perhaps all that we can hope for in terms of redemption!