Johann Wolfgang von Goethe spoke seven languages, was a masterful poet, a devout student of optics, botany and acoustics, and an accomplished musician; and he completed his law degree, but he became famous at 24 for writing a novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther; then, his Wilhelm Meister and several other novels and abundant poetry, made him a dominant and daunting figure of his time, and, at his death, he finished Faust, which, posthumously, made him an immortal literary legend. Sixty years elapsed between his commencement of the First Part and his completion of the Second Part of his play, Faust, finishing on his 82nd birthday, with death imminent; it was published posthumously.
The Faust pact-with-the-devil theme long antedates Goethe – wherein the Devil (“Mephistopheles”, also “Mehphisto”, as Faust named him for posterity) agrees to do Faust’s bidding until such time as Faust seeks peace, at which time Faust must agree to die. Before Goethe, it was presented in myriad truncated forms – as a drama, a puppet-show, in chapbooks (pamphlets), etc., variously captioned “Faustus”, “Dr. Faustus” etc. The historical figure, Dr. Georg Faust, was a contemporary of Martin Luther (early 1500’s), and he dubbed himself “Faustus, Jr.” Dr. Faust was a rebel of the highest order; his classical and alchemistic learning inspired his defiance of the then current modes of salvation (consider Calvin, not to mention the Catholic Church). Dr. Faust’s hypnotic personality made him a legend by the time of his death in 1540. In 1587, an anonymous writer published an account of his life. The Englishman, “Kit” Marlowe, then molded it into his immortal Tragic History of Dr. Faustus, and it became a popular play and was performed endlessly, finally evolving into puppet shows and chapbooks. Faust became known as the symbol of an all-consuming greed for power and ruthlessness, who sold his soul to the Devil. By the time that Goethe tackled it in 1780 or so, it had been mocked in so many puppet shows that it had lost most of its “heat” for Christians. It seems strange that such a then hackneyed tale so fascinated Goethe that he would make his “Faust” a lifetime project, and even more surprising that he should have done it so well as to burn a permanent memorial to his memory in the world’s literature.
Goethe saw Faust as more than an immense intellect who sought to penetrate the deepest paradoxes of knowledge. Goethe (who lived in The Enlightenment among such intellectual, free-thinking luminaries as Voltaire, Diderot and the Encyclopedists) converted the tale into a textbook of human experience, a perfectly metered and rhymed epic that consistently shifts in form, pace, mood and content, spanning all human emotions from the deepest melancholy to the Horeb heights of exultation – like life itself, reflecting man’s struggle for emancipation of the human mind, and generations of critics see it as a literary event of cataclysmic proportions. Faust stands as a symbol of man’s quest for answers to life’s insoluble conundrums, which most men abandon in lieu of some form of fanatical orthodoxy, usually a religion. Faust/Goethe, of course, never relinquishes his quest and, in the end, concludes that desire is the end, rather than the means – an earlier twist on the latter day axiom, “The joy is in the journey rather than in the prize.” Thus, the gospel of Faust is “striving”, not achievement, desire rather than denouement, the romantic glorification of the journey, rather than the destination. “The Deed is everything, the Glory naught.” (Consider the parable of “The Station”.) The intellect never masters the phenomena, which move in characteristic confusion through eternity but not meeting at any point. Despite such weighty imponderables, Goethe’s childlike wonderment and untrammeled vision reveal a relentless hope and an indefatigable spirit for solving the riddles that so overwhelm us, and, in the process, he displays an abiding love of life and its myriad creatures: “What a glorious, precious thing is every living organism.”
As to the plot, Mephisto (whom Goethe positions as one of the Lord’s servants, whose function it is, like that of Satan in Job, to question), joins the angelic host in praising the Lord and his Creation. While Mephisto questions the nature of good and evil, the Lord steadfastly maintains that it is mankind’s nature to know the difference. Mephisto dares to test this by attempting to destroy the sense of good and evil in once specimen, Faust. Faust is a man of incomparable learning but remains one who has solved none of life’s riddles. Faust reaches conclusions nonetheless: The best theory of life is the one that best suits the individual; life’s goal is not so much a question of “rightness” as of “suitability”, our aim being to develop our unique possibilities and to conquer the negatives in our nature. Faust laments the discontent of so many loved ones lost, the tempest of memories treasured and emotions tossed into endless compassionate reflections of those now missed but dreading the need to add more names to that endless list, and he rings a concordant note, when he observes: “What I possess far, far away appears, and only what has vanished now seems real…What glitters lives an instant and is gone; the real for all posterity lives on” – a theme upon which Poe later played: “Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?” Similar concepts appear in religious-philosopher-Mary Baker Eddy’s view that the real world is not material at all, but immaterial; the threads of this thought can be found in the author-scientist’s, Stephan Hawkings’ books and theories in which time, space and matter bend and blur into a homogeneous whole.
In the end, Faust dies – but, surprisingly, is saved, as his body is taken by the angels, escaping Mephistopheles’ grasp. Shouldn’t Faust’s error-filled and hubristic life have let him fall to Mephisto? Most critics say not, as they see Faust’s persistent striving for knowledge as a worthy life, but, if the critics are right, why, then, did the enigmatic poet-Goethe (and Kit Marlowe before him) title his work “Faust, A Tragedy”? The “tragedy” may simply be that there are no answers? While there may be joy in the quest, in the end, it leads nowhere, leaving Faust, an unfulfilled being spinning in the eternity of a chaotic, existential universe. Perhaps Faust (and Goethe) made it too hard; perhaps the end is simply the peace of unconscious silence, devoid of conflict, and, as Seneca has been paraphrased, “What’s so bad about returning to the place from which we came?” Perhaps Faust’s “tragedy” wasn’t a tragedy after all. All of this is salted with Goethe’s delightful and/or thought provoking one liners: “Age does not make us childish…but finds us childish still…A preacher does well to take an actor for a teacher…To see that nothing can be known, Cuts me to the quick, I’ll own…Out of sight, out of mind.”
So, do we, or don’t we, enjoy Faust? The Gothic proportions of its metered rhymes, the variety of types of verse, the subtleties, innuendoes, involuted sentences, the full use of poetic-license, and the poet’s obsession with veiling his meaning, keep the reader off stride and compel re-reading so many passages, and, in the aggregate, make reading Faust extremely difficult, confusing and frustrating. Language has changed. Also, as with Shakespeare, Faust may be easier to understand if heard performed as a play. Clearly, it is not user-friendly-read for most in the 21st Century. Yet, if we would consider ourselves Students of the Classics, we must read it – and do so at the slow, measured pace, lest we miss most of it.
To the translators must go inestimable praise. I compared two: One by Baynard Taylor and another by Alice Raphael (whose translation was published in 1933, after twelve years of struggling). Both versions offer beautifully metered and rhymed verse, in couplets, quatrains, sonnets and myriad other forms, all with a cadence that is said to rival Goethe’s original in German. Their Herculean translations are almost as impressive as Goethe’s poem and are reminiscent of Edward Fitzgerald’s masterful translation of The Rubiayat of Omar Khayyam or the popular translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Goethe and his Faust are immortal beyond this writer’s ability to quantify and Must Read’s for all adventurous readers.