Faust by Goethe
by Paul Mathers
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.