Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Goethe's Faust—A Critique of Modernity?

I shall admit first of all that I don't undertand this poem or its hero, Faust, very well; maybe that's because I don't know German though I doubt it: Goethe was trying to do too much and loaded his poem down with more philosophical and allegorical baggage than it could carry.

I may have a better idea of what Mephistopheles is all about however and shall therefore try to focus my remarks on his role in this poem or play.

Though the poem begins, like Job, with an argument between God and Mephistopheles about the faith or virtuousness of Faust, Goethe loses interest in that question almost immediately; there is nothing even remotely Job-like about Faust or this poem. And since the state of Faust's soul (damned or saved) is not in question either, as it is in earlier versions of the story, including Marlowe's, why does Mephistopheles attach himself to him? What does he have to gain?

Notice, first of all, how different Goethe's Mephistopheles is from Marlowe's. When Marlowe's Dr. Faustus tells Mephistopheles that he (Faustus) doesn't believe in hell or damnation, Mephistopheles proceeds to set him straight:

F: Tell me, what is that Lucifer thy lord?
M: Arch-regent and commander of all spirits.
F: Was not that Lucifer an angel once?
M: Yes, Faustus, and most dearly loved of God.
F: How comes it then that he is Prince of devils?
M: O, by aspiring pride and insolence;
For which God threw him from the face of Heaven.
F: And what are you that you live with Lucifer?
M: Unhappy spirits that fell with Lucifer?
Conspired against our God with Lucifer,
And are for ever damned with Lucifer.
F: Where are you damned?
M: In hell.
F: How comes it then that you are out of hell?
M: Why this is hell nor am I out of it.
Think'st thou that I who saw the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of Heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?
O Faustus! leave these frivolous demands,
Which strike a terror to my fainting soul.

None of this makes any impression on Faustus:

What, is great Mephistopheles so passionate
For being deprived of the joys of heaven?
Learn thou of Faustus manly fortitude . . . .
Had I as many souls as many souls as there be stars,
I'd give them all for Mephistopheles.
By him I'll be great Emperor of the world. . . .

Marlowe's Mephistopheles, surprisingly, has principles and feelings; he is appalled at Faustus' foolishness but willing of course to take advantage of it; that's his job.

Goethe's Mephistopheles,  by contrast, is a cynic who has neither feelings nor principles; he does not believe in the possibility of virtuous or disinterested action: those who do strike him as funny. He stalks Faustus because he has a use for him: together they will construct the modern world. Absent from their notion of modernity is any concept of the rule of law.

But first Faust has to be shorn of his humanity. The destruction of Gretchen (first she is seduced, and impregnated, then abandoned) serves this purpose: conscience stricken at first, Faust soon forgets her entirely. So later on, when an old couple refuse to move in order to make way for progress, Faust tells Mephistopheles to get rid of them. He never looks back. He has the kind of power that Marlowe's Faustus had wanted and had never gotten (how odd that Faustus should have been willing to settle for so little) and becomes, not the great benefactor of humanity that he thinks he would like to be, but something monstrous: something like a modern dictator.

The Faustian story is one that Goethe had had plenty of chances to observe during his lifetime, 1749-1832.

1 comment:

  1. The Book of Job is easy to understand: Satan leads God into temptation and God sins.
    Job was written before the idea of eternal damnation had entered the Bible. Nobody--with the possible exception of a Hitler--could deserve eternal torment. FAUST, and any story involving Hell, cannot be understood. In the case of Dante's INFERNO, I feel the story is an attack on the very idea of Hell, although I don't know whether Dante was doing so deliberately and hoping to be understood 700 years later, or whether he did so without knowing what his poem was saying.
    Be that as it may, Goethe's FAUST has inspired two--maybe more--wonderful operas.