Paulus Torchus

Month: December, 2012

On the Road to the Great Forest

dante

When I started reading the Harvard Classics, I had decided to not reread the titles in the series that I had read in my previous reading project. Much as I loved Oedipus and Odysseus, I felt as if I had just finished them (even though it is now upwards of two years ago) and that I would return to them in the portion of my life (if any) that will come after this reading project. One exception had to be Inferno because one does not simply skip into Purgatorio. Reading Dante is a monumental reading project and, like so many monumental reading projects, will be a high-watermark in your life of reading if you give it the attention it demands.

I have been through Inferno twice before, once through the Pinsky and once through the Mandelbaum. One of the points that David H. Higgins makes in his introduction is:

“Dante’s aim in writing The Divine Comedy ‘to lead men from a state of wretchedness into one of happiness.”

Which I find to be a noble aspiration in art. I jotted in the margin “How sad that so many only read Inferno today” with the startling realization that I am, up to this moment, numbered among those sad wretches. I do not wish to make more of this than it warrants, but I began to wonder if that might not explain a few things about myself.

I also felt a twinge traitorous, caught a whiff of 9th circle sulfur, when I decided to read the Oxford Classics imprint of The Divine Comedy. The C.H. Sisson translation comes highly recommended for its clarity, and my experience with the Oxford imprint’s notes has been nothing shy of excellent. I am sure Dr. Eliot is past the point of caring if I read as many of the Harvard Classics titles in the Oxford Classics imprint as I please. Or about anything else for that matter.

But back to the weightiness of the project, the introductory material alone compelled me to post on it. It begins, just after the front end-paper, with an illustration of Dante’s geocentric universe:

DanteGeocentUniv

Especially note how Jerusalem is on the polar opposite side of the globe (yes, globe in the 1300s. We like to overplay the ignorance of our past) from Mount Purgatory. But I feel that this chart especially alerts and prepares the modern eye that we are going to be dealing in heavy allegory.

A proper reading of The Divine Comedy requires good and extensive notes, the introductory material will bear me out here, because while one can still enjoy the piece without it, there is a great deal speaking to specific people and events. Some contemporary paraphrases (I cannot bring myself to, as the covers do, call such versions a translation) have attempted to bridge this gap by translating the figures mentioned specifically in the original to possibly more recognizable contemporary figures. I am not entirely sure why someone would come to a work like Dante and then at the last minute decide to go the intellectually laziest route. If you want to grow fruit, you’re going to have to get some loam under your fingernails. Again, this is where I find the Harvard Classics imprint sorely lacking. They provide a scholarly text (the Cary translation) but I found their footnotes to be a bit anemic. Mine boasts end-notes almost as long as the text itself and of excellent, illuminating quality.

For example, Dante’s bête noire was Boniface VIII, remembered as one of the bad popes (I should get a bête noire! But these days, how does one narrow it down to just one?) Boniface appears in Hell for simony, the same sort of simony that would occasion the Reformation a few centuries later. Indeed, I imagine some Protestants would like to place Dante as a sort of Proto-Reformer for objecting to the big business of salvation. You might find contemporary parallels, which is all well and good, but to really understand Dante one must understand what he was referring to specifically. We don’t have a Boniface VIII today. Such a figure couldn’t exist in the current global climate. But the lessons of history extend far beyond merely transposing lessons onto current geography.

One parallel in the introduction to several recent kitchen conversations with Laurie is that of public duty and arguments for finding personal identity and meaning in social roles. Dante felt that it was damnable to live “without occasion for infamy or praise.” Dante felt that the lukewarm, those who failed to contribute, were not worthy of Heaven or Hell, a condition arguably worse than outright wickedness (note: we are treading on ground outside the borders of generally accepted Christian theology here). To live, to really live, is to participate and contribute. Elsewhere Dante wrote:

“All men whom the higher nature has imbued with a love of truth should feel impelled to work for the benefit of future generations, whom they will thereby enrich just as they themselves have been enriched by the labours of their ancestors. Let there be no doubt in the mind of the man who has benefited from the common heritage but does not trouble to contribute to the common good that he is failing sadly in his duty.”

I was struck by the difference between the Medieval mind and the generally accepted/assumed contemporary worldview vis-à-vis the role of the individual. Lack of purpose, participation, and contribution is not just a source of existential angst, but an offense to the order of the universe to the degree of warranting eternal damnation for the transgressor. Not to be flip, but that does rather light a fire under one’s resolve to get their act together.

Kenelm Foster states that the sins of the damned, in Dante, are crimes that any rational society would condemn. I concur although would add that I feel, in light of that revelation, a creeping unease over my own society’s feelings towards gluttony, lust, skepticism, squandering, blasphemy, usury, and flattery. What are the wounds which such sin inflicts upon the psyche? Is this the forge of neuroses? And is the insidious nature of sin such that it reproduces itself like a virus? For example, if the wounds to the psyche (neuroses) are born of sin nature, often manifestations of said wounds are also sin (fear, anxiety, doubt, et al.). All of which I expect to tackle in the days to come dallying with Dante, and all of which, also in light of what I mentioned about Dante’s stated intention of apokatastasis, makes me wonder if I am not in for something resembling a cure! I had not anticipated a regimen of psychotherapy when I embarked on this project. Sometimes Universe deposits what you need at your doorstep without you even needing to place an order.

Before I conclude, I wanted to at least mention Sisson’s introductory piece on translating Dante. First of all, I found that I like Sisson as a person. He approaches the work with idealism and practicality (those complimentary forces that are crucial to a successful life and a successful world). He also, in a way that I found refreshing, pulls no punches against other translations. He does not pretend that he is contributing his own version even though there are other perfectly good translations out there. He has the nerve to attempt to provide the best translation. I found it encouraging that in the same breath he could not refrain from heavily mentioning T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound in his notes on beginning the process of translating Dante. He writes comparing his endeavor to previous translations:

“Both Binyon and Sayers might have said that the language of their own time did not have the resources for the weight and dignity of Dante’s speech. Maybe; but can one find in such fustian any trace of the acerb Florentine? Did he puff up his lines to impress the post-Victorian market, or to look dignified, like a lord mayor, while he utters nullities?… The first lesson of Dante is that one should write to convey, not to impress. It is admittedly difficult to see why anyone should be impressed, at this time of day, by the model of Binyon and Sayers have followed as an alternative to Dante, but it is the way of the world to attach the word ‘beautiful’ to the second-hand.”

Spoken like a rapper talking smack on his peers. I wish I could have Sisson over for dinner.

Rather, Sisson invokes the spirit of our old friend Dryden, who said of his own endeavors to translate Virgil:

“Taking all the Materials of this divine Author, I have endeavour’d to make Virgil speak such English, as he wou’d himself have spoken, if he had been born in England, and in this present Age.”

Which seems to me to be the ultimate aspiration of a translator.

I cannot express how high my expectations are set for this reading experience. More soon.

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Goethe’s Faust Part 2

faustpart2

This was not part of the curriculum. Why? I have no idea. Space, most likely. A five foot shelf of books, it would seem, is both large and small. Although there is also the departure from a reasonable stage script. It is difficult to imagine staging Part 2 before the advent of film.

The second part of Faust more closely resembled Marlowe’s Faustus in some of the action and some of the more absurd moments. Goethe’ however, maintains his gravity. As I’ve said before, Marlowe’s version evolved into a puppet show. Goethe’s never shared that destiny.

Part 2 contains a lot more tomfoolery akin to the scene early in Part 1 between the young and aspiring scholar and Mephistopheles (indeed, the scholar makes a reprise). There is a great deal of shenanigans (and, I daresay, social commentary) when the Emperor makes an appearance (who I assume is Goethe’s version of the Pope in Marlowe’s).  There is even a war.  There is a Homunculus à la Dr. Praetorius from The Bride of Frankenstein.

praetorius

James Whale used camera tricks, but this would not work onstage. So how would you stage the Homunculus scene? The obvious answer is, again, puppets. Although unintentional in this case, I find it noteworthy that a story about Satan using people’s desires to manipulate them so often finds itself in its production history featuring puppets.

There is also a section in which Faust calls for the resurrection of and subsequently marries Helen of Troy. This is a strange interlude in light of the end of the story, but we’ll return to that thought in a moment.

In the end, Faust has a fabulous estate, wealth beyond imagining, but is still vexed by the fact that two elderly poor neighbors live in a hovel with some linden trees. Is he vexed because they are poor? Not our Faust! He is vexed because he wants their land too. He sends Mephistopheles and some hired thugs to reason with the couple and (to further heighten the Biblical transgressions) a sojourner who happens to be there at the time. Rather than reason, the thugs slaughter and set the house (and linden trees) ablaze. Faust is upset by the means, however the scene illustrates that the means matter little to the condition of the heart of a sinner. We have a scene that, at least to me, recalls Marlowe’s Seven Deadly Sins scene. The anthropomorphic personification of Care creeps in through the keyhole where Need cannot enter. Care leads Faust to rewrite his will in an eleventh hour Ebenezer Scrooge sort of moment.

At long last it is time for Faust to go the way of all flesh. But there is a surprise upset, both to Mephistopheles and to the audience. Angels arrive to collect his soul. Mephistopheles objects, but doesn’t really have a whole lot of say in the matter (which seems a bit counter-intuitive. You would think his side would have all the good lawyers) and so his last moment is one of frustration. This goes some way to make up for the seeming injustice of the death-bed conversion of a dreadful man (I say somewhat facetiously as I am well aware that Faust is meant, to some extent, to represent the Everyman). They wing his immortal part up to Mary, who grants him access to the higher realms. There is, in the final moments, a hint of a reuniting with Gretchen as the power of love is glorified, indeed virtually deified. True Love is eternal (except for, you know, that Helen of Troy bit). As is Mary to some extent. The piece ends with these lines:

What is destructible

Is but a parable;

What fails ineluctably,

The undeclarable,

Here it was seen,

Here it was action

The Eternal-Feminine

Lures to perfection

Hermann and Dorothea by Goethe

hermann

Upon finishing Goethe’s long poem”Hermann and Dorothea,” I was, at first, uncertain how I felt about it.  Dr. Eliot waxed rhapsodic in his introduction to the piece:

“There are few modern poems of any country so perfect in their kind as the “Hermann and Dorothea” of Goethe.  In clearness of characterization, in unity of tone, in adjustment of background and foreground, in the conduct of the narrative, it conforms admirably to the strict canons of art; yet it preserves a freshness and spontaneity in its emotional appeal that are rare in works of so classical a perfection in form.”

There is nothing in what he said that I disagree with, not even his childlike enthusiasm.  It is a masterful narrative poem and an absolute joy to read.  As a poet, I stand in awe.  And so forth.

But the issue I wrestled with was the message the story presents to the reader.  The story is of a young man of prosperous parents living around the southwestern border in Germany during the French Revolution (indeed, there are clear political undertones.  Dorothea’s first betrothed was killed by Madam Guillotine).  The strife caused by the revolution has displaced a large group of people and there is a certain band of expellees traveling through the outskirts of town.  The young man, Hermann, falls in love with a young lady, Dorothea, in said group, on sight and without introduction.  He sends spies to the encampment to gather information about the girl in order to appease his understandably doubtful father.  Then, after surreptitiously gleaning positive character witnesses (some of which are paid for and all of which, I would remind you, are unbeknownst to the young lady), he goes to the encampment to offer the young lady a job as a housekeeper.  She accepts and says goodbye to the sick and suffering who she had been in the saintly act of caring for to seek a new life of living indoors and three squares a day.  Hermann takes her to meet his parents without bothering to clue anyone in to his scheme.  Naturally, his parents assume that she is the woman he plans to marry and treat her accordingly.  Dorothea takes this as a great insult, of rich people rubbing her nose in her state of poverty, which is understandable given the circumstances.  The father is made angry, befuddled, and sleepy by her outburst.  The minister steps in to “test” the young woman by further prodding her emotions.  All is revealed.  Dorothea instantly accepts the turn of fortune without reflecting upon the circuitous and deceptive machinations of Hermann.  The father shifts immediately from angry to happy (or, more likely, relieved that there is no longer a sobbing stranger-woman yelling at him).  All ends… well?

Clearly my retelling reveals some of what I found problematic about the piece.  Bear in mind that I adore Goethe and am predisposed to continue to want to adore Goethe.  Eliot also begins the piece by saying:

“Taken as a whole, with its beauty of form, its sentiment, tender yet restrained, and the compelling pathos of its story, “Hermann and Dorothea” appeals to a wider public than perhaps any other product of its author.”

At least at the time in which Dr. Eliot was writing.  I would suspect that Faust is likely his most read work today.

As I closed the book, I wondered what I was to take away from the piece, especially in light of Eliot’s suggestion.  The piece lead me to reflect on the subject of class more than any other piece in the series so far, even The Wealth of Nations!  Am I to be happy that the rich kid got everything he wanted?  Does this appeal to a wider public because the wealthy get to feel fairly good about themselves while the poor readers (if any) are extended the hope that if they are virtuous, a wealthy person might deign to lavish them with their riches?  That latter impulse is the driving force behind the lottery, casinos, and any other number of execrable industries.  False hope is extended to the destitute that they too are, as Steinbeck put it, temporarily embarrassed millionaires, so that they will continue to support (and not overthrow) the existing upper-classes.  This is false hope because money always sticks with money, because often money is all they have going for them.  There is no prince charming, no Valjean, no deus ex machina for the poor.  The virtuous poor woman dies a virtuous poor woman and is found in her apartment five days later only once the smell becomes unbearable to her neighbors.

However, my reflection then shifted to Dorothea, which I now believe is the key.  Much like Shaw, Goethe’s female characters seem to be the “secret heroes” of the piece (in that you are misdirected by convention to think that the male in the forefront of the POV as the “hero.”  This reveals your own latent prejudices formed by societal conventions).  Goethe’s women are beautiful without and within.  They seem to be frequently suffering from the ill effects of the bad behavior of the male “protagonist.”  But they bear their burdens with the utmost grace.  Viewed through this filter, I think we see Goethe’s keen eye toward the human condition.  We see humankind’s fallen nature and, in the self-sacrificing characters of Dorothea and Gretchen, we see echos of Christ in their behavior.  To extend the theological metaphor even further, it begins by misdirecting you with a false Christ who intends to give you all kinds of good stuff, which is so often the misinterpretation of the story of Christ.  Goethe seeks to report the human condition accurately, to be sure, but he also exhorts humankind to higher aspirations.

Egmont by Goethe

Count_Egmont_Before_His_Death

Yeah, Goethe wasn’t really big on yuks.

Goethe wrote these amazingly grand plays which, unfortunately, are often so grand that they are rarely produced.  We are the poorer for it.

Egmont is, as you might imagine, a play dealing with the events surrounding the execution of Count Egmont in 1568.  The date and the location (The Netherlands) might ring some bells over political and religious turmoil, and you would do well to trust those bells.  Part of the brilliance of the piece is that it traces the events from many different angles.  Egmont is clearly meant to be viewed as the protagonist (more on that in a moment) but nearly equal time and attention is given to the situations of the townsfolk, his mistress and her spurned lover, the soon to be ousted Regent, the Duke who orders the death of Egmont, and his tortured son.  In doing so, Goethe gives us a full and fair picture of the situation, why it is happening, what it means to all of the people involved.

There are moments in which this angle of fairness almost derails Goethe’s intentions.  It is clear that Goethe had political motivations.  The virtues of liberty and freedom and served liberally.  However, there is a scene in which Egmont and the Duke of Alva butt heads over the freedom of the people to practice the religion of their choosing.  The Duke responds thusly:

“Liberty!  A fair word when rightly understood.  What liberty would they have?  What is the freedom of the most free?  To do right!  And in that the monarch will not hinder them.  No!  No!  They imagine themselves enslaved, when they have not the power to injure themselves and others.”

Although the Duke is meant to be the antagonist in the piece, I can identify with this sentiment.  Personally, I feel that humans need governing for just these reasons.  Goethe lived through those years in Europe as they witnessed the excesses leading up to the French Revolution, the Bourbon Restoration, and Napoleon (which, at the very least, we know that Goethe’s friend Beethoven was enamored and subsequently disgusted with).  Goethe would have lived right through the center of the ideals of the Enlightenment, the Seven Years’ War, and the Revolutionary War of the United States would clearly have been known to him.  In other words, Goethe lived in a time and place where people were riding high on idealism.  Egmont seems a perfect hero/martyr with his uncompromising demand for liberty.  However, Goethe stays true to the democratic spirit by allowing counterpoints reasonable and equal airtime.

Another effect of the high idealism is that there isn’t a whole lot of spectacle to the play.  There are a great deal of scene changes and one imagines lavish sets, but the action is largely people talking about things.  Sometimes with great agitation and urgency, but there are no fist fights or explosions, no dragons, no one even dies onstage.  There is a brief dream sequence.  I may sound like I am being a dash facetious, but from a stagecraft point of view, this offers a specific challenge to any production.  A lavish set will dazzle an audience for precisely the amount of time it takes the brain to register an image and a lavish production budget is usually reserved for, in our time anyway, productions that will guarantee a return on the cost of spectacle.  Therefore, the play might have assumed a certain level of intensity on the part of the audience due to external circumstances and, indeed, played in the proper context, the intense emotions circle around constant human concerns and frustrations.  However, what I am driving at is that the real challenge of the play is for the actor.  The actor must be the Prometheus in this piece.  They must ratchet up the intensity to make it matter to the audience.  Far from daunting, to the intrepid actor this is what they live for.  This is their meat and potatoes.

Egmont also has the distinction of having an even more famous, and more often performed, piece associated with it.  Beethoven’s Egmont Overture is probably even better known than the Goethe’s piece, at least outside of Germany.  Here’s Von Karajan’s:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rEvdT5oTb0

Next up, I will finish the Goethe volume.

Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

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Doctor Faustus was not as I remembered it.  I had a college course in my early 20s in which we were to read Faustus and I remember having a heated exchange with the professor over Marlowe’s standing in literature.  I recall that my position was that, had he lived and Shakespeare died in that bar fight, Marlowe would be to us what Shakespeare is to us.  Friends, I come before the world today repentant that those words ever passed my lips.

Let me explain that I was in the midst of one of those phases in that age group where I exclusively read Hunter Thompson and Charles Bukowski in my personal reading.  Yes, I was that guy.  I know I absolutely reveled in Shakespeare’s bawdier parts (still do), and, likely, had at that time an axe to grind against high-mindedness in art.  I felt that art should not seek to extend the reach of observable reality, which, at the time, I saw as an amoral miasma of cold floating existence with no more meaning than that with which we infused it.  I no longer feel that way, but let me take a moment to clarify what I am saying and what I am not saying.   I am not saying that the Three Stooges, for example, should be relegated to the rubbish heap of history by virtue of the latitude of their brow and because we have as sublime a contemporary of theirs in the same medium in Charlie Chaplin.  Each have their place, although, as most of you would imagine, I feel that, in a culture of ubiquitous low brow, one must aspire towards the high.  Not necessarily to the exclusion of the low; I’m not sure anyone is even capable of that at this point in history.  But, rather, because otherwise one will never encounter it.  Much like my Modernism Bubble, the great thing about seeking the high cookies is that you can also, then, travel up and down the ladder at will.  If you choose to live your life wallowing in the low, however, it stands to reason that the low is all you will ever see.

All of which sounds like I am leading up to bash Christopher Marlowe, but I also assure you that is not my intention.  My intention is to register surprise at how indelicate the slapstick scenes of this play are.  I am not the first to suggest that these scenes seem like they were inserted into Marlowe’s play by another party.  There will be fairly well crafted scenes, and then a scene where invisible Faust is slapping the Pope around or a clown is making jokes about local neighborhoods.  In my post about Faust, I mentioned that by Goethe’s time this play had evolved into a puppet show.  I now realize that it did not have far to go.  I am not willing to say outright that I think that these scenes were not penned by Marlowe.  I do suspect that this sort of humor sold tickets.

Marlowe’s Faustus is a much less sympathetic character than Goethe’s Faust.  Marlowe’s is, rather, a bit of a satyr.  There is no love and redemption in this version.  It is a cautionary tale plain and simple, although in our time one would likely need to take it as entirely metaphorical.  There is the deal with the Devil for earthly gain.  The Seven Deadly Sins make a personal appearance.  A good angel and a bad angel frequently make appearances to give Faust his options.  The devils literally drag Faustus down to Hell at the end.  In spite of all of these medieval echoes, I feel like this could play today.  Why?  Because human nature does not change.  I believe that is at the core of the endurance of the Faust legend.  The moral conflict is the impulse to indulge without restraint in self-gratification verses the possibility of an afterlife of torment in a place that may or may not exist.  All first hand accounts of said place are scant and suspect.  Which, in essence, is a temptation that we all give in to in some measure or another.  The purpose of the story is to reflect that impulse within ourselves.  The weakness of the story is that it ends there, at least in this incarnation.  Goethe points to salvation, Marlowe points to damnation.  A modern audience is no less susceptible to the doubts and temptations of Faustus.  We (most of us anyway) may not as readily accept anthropomorphic manifestations of abstract ideas as credibly as a 16th century London groundling, but we still lust and rage and demand our portion of wantonness with our meager portion of life.  We all think of ourselves as the bad-asses, the heroes of our own little movies, as deserving of nothing but pleasure due to our superior quality to the other saps polluting our airspace.

I was reminded just now of a local news story from the past two weeks.  There was an elderly man who hit, with his truck, and killed a cyclist.  The driver drove away from the scene of the crime and tried to cover up what he had done.  He took his truck to the repair shop a few days later telling them that he had struck a branch while driving in an orchard.  The repairman became suspicious because tree branches don’t usually leave blood and hair.  The authorities were alerted and the man was arrested.  I am haunted by the man’s reaction, which seems (albeit solely through the eyes and filter of the local news media) to be shame and embarrassment.  What disturbs me so much about this is the question: Would he feel shame and embarrassment if he had gotten away with it?  There is a significant difference between feeling shame and feeling guilt.  There, I think, lies the theme behind Faust.  We are what we would do if we weren’t concerned with the consequences.  Everything else is simply laws coercing us into civilized behavior.  This knowledge ought to inspire humility and penitence, a gentle walk and a desperation to possess the attribute of compassion.

I believe that Hunter Thompson, Charles Bukowski, and, indeed, Christopher Marlowe all came to this conclusion about human nature and lived (and wrote) accordingly.  I do not see strong evidence to indicate that any of the three successfully came up with a positive solution.

I have, of late, also been rereading Richard Boleslavsky’s Acting: The First Six Lessons (which is a wonderful book.  If you have a young person in your life, you should get them a copy of this book, even if they have no aspirations towards that discipline).  It is a dialogue between a student (called The Creature) and the teacher (called I).  There is a section where The Creature asks how one can have an emotional memory if one is called, onstage, to play a murderer:

I: Oh, why do actors always ask me about murder?  The younger they are the more murders they want to act.  All right, you have never murdered anybody.  Have you ever camped?

The Creature: Yes.

I: Ever sat in the woods at the edge of a lake after sundown?

The Creature: Yes.

I: Were there mosquitoes around?

The Creature: It was in New Jersey.

I: Did they annoy you?  Did you follow one among them with your eyes and ears and hate until the beast landed on your forearm?  And did you slap your forearm cruelly without even thinking of the hurt to yourself- with only the wish to… end?

Which brings me back to my theater director friend who once turned down a role in a bleak and hopeless play about Vlad the Impaler.  The legend of Faust does not leave us without hope.  It, rather, urges one to amend one’s ways before it is too late.  The difference between these two plays is that the exit signs are a little more clearly marked in Goethe’s telling.

I feel that Dr. Eliot placed this piece advisedly in the middle of what would otherwise have been a volume entirely comprising the works of Goethe.  He placed it after Goethe’s Faust to show the origins of the story.  Eliot seems to have had a strong moralist streak, and so I feel he also placed it after so that the reader would identify Goethe’s as the superior work, taking those lessons more to heart than Marlowe’s protracted illustration of the depravity of humankind.

Paul Mathers’ Christmas Wish For You

Faust by Goethe

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Faust is the masterwork of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  There is a rather circuitous history to the material.  Faust was an historical figure who seems to have been a bit of a charlatan or snake-oil salesman, but with an occult bent.  There is a portion of Goethe’s Faust in which the title character talks about being lauded for treating people with the plague, in spite of the fact that the treatments had no quantifiable health benefits.  This seems to be a nod at the historical Faust.  Such an infamous figure gave rise to myths and legends surrounding him until, after his mysterious death, it was widely accepted that Satan had drug Faust down to Hell as met the terms of the contract they had made.

Over the decades, the stories grew more fabulous.  Christopher Marlowe wrote a play (which is next) which gained popularity in Germany and, again over decades, was reproduced, embellished, and made more fabulous until evolved into a puppet show in the times of Goethe.  Essentially, Faust would be sort of like someone deciding to write a great and serious tragedy based upon Punch and Judy.

The action begins in a scene in Heaven recalling Job (but over what turns out to be a FAR less sympathetic figure) in which Mephistopheles gets leave from God to seek the soul of Faust.  It also serves to set the tone.  Mephistopheles uses the occasion to comment on humankind’s predictability, which clues us in that we are about to experience a study in human nature with strong moral overtones.

Faust sits mooing about in his Gothic den like Manfred.  He decides to take some air with his manservant Wagner (no relation, but I certainly couldn’t shake Richard from playing the part in my brain) in the midst of an Easter/Spring/Rebirth festival.  Faust essentially says, “I would sell my soul to gain knowledge and worldly power… Say, what’s up with the big black dog running towards us?”

The poodle turns out to be the devil, revealed after Faust allows it into his house (indeed, in another theologically didactic element, we later see that, as the old myth would have it, the Devil does have to be invited into the house and is subject to a great deal of rules and protocol.  This illustrates Faust’s and, indeed, our culpability in our own damnation… present company excepted, of course).  But first there is a scene in which Faust remarks on the beastliness of ignorance, and then almost in the same breath offers a blasphemous rewrite of the opening passage of the Gospel of John.  He starts with a dig at Luther, although Luther offered a translation of the word while Faust simply doesn’t like what the word says (continuing to reveal the cautionary tales aspects of his character).  The translation he settles on is: “In the beginning was the act.”  A fitting sentiment for the theater I suppose, although Mephistopheles reveals the deeper meaning of Faust’s preferred translation a few pages later when he says:

“This question seems minute for one who thinks the word so beggarly, who holds what seems in disrepute, and craves only reality.”

As a side note, in order to give the stagehands time for a scene change, there is a scene in which Mephistopheles teaches one of Faust’s would-be students.  Before the student arrives, Mephistopheles sends Faust off to change clothes for the journey ahead of them, exhorting the power of the proper vestments.  I chuckled a little as I recognized the argument’s similarity to one that Jeeves gives Gussy Fink-nottle in one of P.G. Wodehouse’s stories.  Gussy is concerned over his self-confidence when speaking to a particular young lady.  Jeeves suggests that Gussy meet her at a certain costume party dressed in a costume that will bolster his confidence.  He suggests he go as Mephistopheles.  But I digress.

There are some revealing comments as Faust, ever the scholar, feels the need to expound upon his desires to Mephistopheles:

Faust …And thus existence is for me a weight, Death is desirable, and life I hate.

Mephisto And yet when death approaches, the welcome is not great.

In other religious irony, the thrust of Faust’s reason has to do with the vanity of all existence.  He even goes so far as to, albiet unawares, comment upon how knowledge is not salvific.  Mephistopheles’ response is similar to an oft quoted sentiment from Auntie Mame, “I say, the man that speculates is like a beast that in the sand, led by an evil spirit, round and round gyrates, and all about lies gorgeous pasture land.”

However, if you want to see vain, empty, and meaningless, take a look at what Mephistopheles has to offer.  Pubs full of raucous carousing: A section which contained one of my favorite lines.  In a bawdy tune:

“A cellar once contained a rat

That couldn’t have been uncouther,

Lived on grease and butter and grew fat-

Just like old Doctor Luther”

There is a scene of witchcraft.  And, finally, the destruction of a young lady by way of personal sexual gratification.  This keeps teetering on backfiring on Mephistopheles as Faust seems to genuinely fall in love with Gretchen.

All of which reminds me of an equation of my own devising that I told Laurie about the other day:

x is more important to me than anything you think, say, are trying to do, or anything about you.  I will always put x above everything else.

I told Laurie that I have observed people to whom x = their children.  I have observed people to whom x = their buzz, their intoxication, their psychedelic experiences.  Riding my bike on the way home the other night, well after dark, I passed through a dark section of the bike path and suddenly had the split second image in my mind’s eye of the villain in a specific horror film franchise stepping into the path in front of me with a chainsaw.  Which, after reaching more brightly lit areas, lead me to reflect on the rather overt manifestation of self-worship in psychopathy.  If I understood the religious undertones correctly, I think that Goethe would agree that the Gospel, properly applied and understood, is one of the only systems of philosophy in which x = nothing.  It is a system in which self-sacrifice is a divine attribute.  The converse suggests, what I would say is observable reality, that the diminution of the influence of the Gospel is in direct proportion to the strength of x.  This is a stark realization as I look around me at a society that seems to be inclining towards a Randian dystopia of Psychopathia Rex.

The edges of Faust’s resolve begin to crack as he begins to sense the repercussions of attempting to turn morality into a movable feast.  When Mephistopheles suggests a course of action which demands bearing false witness, Faust objects on the grounds of his devotion to truth.  This seems like an odd time in the narrative to grow a set of scruples.  Love also begins to crack Faust.  He is, after all, only human.  Gretchen, in contrast to Faust, is a model of self-sacrifice.  Her life of self-sacrifice next to Faust’s new life of pleasure seeking makes him look like absolute trash (as Goethe holds the mirror up to the audience).  This point is further driven home in two scenes placed back to back, the first of which shows Gretchen tormented by her fallen state as she is in a cathedral, the second in which Faust and Mephistopheles gad about with a parade of evil spirits on Walpurgis Night.  The next morning, Faust is overwhelmed by guilt (so much so that they slip into speaking in prose for the first time) and Mephistopheles utters yet another damning phrase:

“Who was it that plunged her into ruin?  I or you?”

And in that moment we are confronted with our responsibility, even in a world of devils.

Paul Mathers speaks out against chronocentrism

Manfred by Lord Byron

manfred

Contrasting our previous entry, we have a play written with excellence by one of the finest poets who ever lived.  On the other hand, I kept picturing how a grad school creative writing panel would rip the plot to shreds.

I used to have insomnia back when I was a young man still living at my parent’s house.  I remember after laying in bed, tossing and turning for hours, I would get up and go into the front room.  There was a weekly publication inserted into the Sunday section of the Orange County Register which was a booklet of everything scheduled to be broadcast on television for the next week.  In the back, in sort of an appendix, were listings of every film to be broadcast on every network and a brief, one sentence long description of the film.  And I found that if I would sit and read these one sentence descriptions, it would sometimes help me sleep.  I assume it would sort of prime my mind for dreaming and take my thoughts out of the spirals I had constructed over the course of the day.  Often the films would be familiar, but described so generically that you wouldn’t immediately think of the film you were familiar with

“A man escapes from prison with two friends to seek treasure. Stars George Clooney, John Tuturro…”

“Three friends down on their luck decide to start a paranormal pest control business. Stars Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd…”

“A jealous composer hounds his rival to an early grave. Stars F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce…”

An odd side-effect is that I now do this in my head when I read or see something.

“A man, mad for vengeance, bakes a pie for a couple made from, amongst other ingredients, the woman’s sons.”

Some of my favorites were the sentence writer’s attempts at describing abstract or surreal films.  How would you encapsulate Mulholland Drive in this manner?  And, indeed, how would you encapsulate Byron’s Manfred?

“Dissatisfied with the lack of comfort provided by the spirits and religious leaders that he has conjured up, a man decides to die instead.”

“Despairing over his lost love, a man climbs mountains, consults witches, moves in with a chamois hunter, and argues with a local clergyman.”

Some experiences are not meant to be distilled.

The Byronic Hero is a type: generally brooding, often intellectual but with raging emotions, consumed with a passion for liberty.  The word Romantic springs to mind as a form of shorthand, but there is an even better shorthand in the phrase itself.  Lord Byron is the archetype, Manfred is the Adam of Byronic Heroes.

This is a play I would love to produce and would also love to see.  It is a work that demands great spectacle, but is also a language driven piece.  There is so much meat in this piece for a theater company to play with (one of my more disturbing mixed metaphors!)  The actors have a full range of human emotions to plumb (grief, separation, fear, stopping suicides, rising from the dead), while those on the technical side of the production have spirits to manifest, huge scenery changes from towers to mountains to cottages to a gloomy Gothic study, a Sin-Monster from the Id to raise, and so forth.

In the end, my favorite pieces in this volume were by Shelley, Byron, and Sheridan.

And now on to the Devil’s bargain, after this musical interlude.  It may not surprise you to learn that Manfred was also a favorite of Robert Schumann’s: