Goethe’s Faust, Part I Notes by Dr. Honora M. Finkelstein   Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is considered the greatest genius of literature Germany has ever produced, equivalent in German literary annals to the status of Shakespeare for English-speaking countries. His literary output was prodigious, running to 143 volumes and containing plays, poetry, novels, other prose works, histories, scientific papers, an autobiography, and a collection of literary criticism. In addition, he was a scientist, a politician, and a true universal man. His greatest work was Faust, still considered the most important masterpiece of German literature. The Faust Legend Goethe’s story is based on the legendary medieval alchemist and magician Johann Faust, whose story may itself have been based on the New Testament story of the magician Simon Magus (Acts 8:9-24). During the superstitious Middle Ages, Faust was supposed to have sold his soul to the devil in order to procure various magical powers. Many magical texts were attributed to him. Then in 1480, a German scholar, whom many of his contemporaries believed to be a black magician, began capitalizing on the fame of the original Faust by calling himself "Faust the Younger." In 1525 he died during a flying demonstration he was putting on for the royal court, and it was generally rumored he had been carried off by the devil. One of the scenes in Faust is set in Auerbach’s Celler in Leipzig because that tavern had pictures of the Faust legend on its walls, and it was in the city where the ill-fated flying demonstration was carried out. A biography of Faust, entitled Historia von D. Johann Fausten, was published in Germany in 1587, and that same year it was translated into English and published as The Historie of the damnable life and deserved death of Doctor John Faustus. One Renaissance work to utilize the Faust legend was The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, first presented in 1588. In Marlowe’s version, Faustus exchanges his soul for 24 years of unlimited power and youthful pleasure. He has the option of repentance, and his fear of eternal damnation is such that he desperately desires to save himself. But he simply cannot believe God’s mercy is great enough to include him, so he is dragged off to Hell at the end of the play; a tortured soul who cannot accept God, condemned to damnation. From Marlowe’s time to Goethe’s the Faust legend was kept alive chiefly through puppet shows and pantomimes. But Goethe’s version struck a note that echoed the alienation, dissatisfaction, and frustration of his times. Among other things, his period saw flaws in standard Christianity on one hand and on the other in the clockwork universe of the Age of Reason, in which a creator God set the universe in motion and then walked away, leaving man to his own devices. Furthermore, philosophy, medicine, law, and politics showed no signs of explaining the universe any more fully that did the religious right or left. Scholarship might be highly prized by many, but it didn’t hold the answers to the meaning of life or the purpose of the universe. And finally, the Romantic movement in Europe prized all things exotic, including the myths and legends of the medieval period. Goethe’s great play, although its first part is staged frequently in Germany, may not have been meant to be staged in its entirety since it would run more than 20 hours and require at least 38 set changes. It has been the inspiration for numerous other artists and writers. Ferdinand Delacroix (1798-1863) painted scenes from it; Hector Berlioz used it as the source of a cantata, The Damnation of Faust (1846); Charles Gounod turned it into an opera, Faust (1859); Arrigo Boito used it for his opera Mefistofele (1868); Franz Liszt wrote the Faust Symphony (1857); Thomas Mann wrote a novel, Doctor Faustus (1948); and Lawrence Durrell wrote a poetic play, An Irish Faustus. And there have been a number of films based on the legend, as well as an episode of Dharma and Greg. The Themes of Goethe’s Faust As noted above, Goethe’s play is about dealing with alienation, frustration, dissatisfaction, and despair. It is about the common human desire for answers to the meaning and purpose of life. In this sense it may be one of the most profound examinations of what modern psychologists might call a "mid-life crisis," for Faust is a 50-year-old scholar who has spent his entire life studying the disciplines of philosophy, law, medicine, and theology, and has come to the conclusion that his studies have been in vain. His pact with the devil is a little different from that of other uses of the legend: he doesn’t so much want money, sex, and power, or even renewed youth or an opportunity to pursue happiness. What he wants is just to experience one moment of satisfaction to which he might say, "Linger awhile, you are so lovely." And because he makes this experience, and the statement about it, a part of his pact with the devil, he has an elaborate loophole that saves him in the end. Goethe’s answer to a lack of answers from the universe is that man’s salvation lies in his striving and action. In his concept, to err is human, but forgiveable. So no matter what one does, as long as s/he is doing something and continuing to seek, salvation is ultimately assured. (And in this context, to be able to ask any moment to linger awhile would be tantamount to accepting or valuing stasis.) Goethe’s Faust is therefore an alienated seeker who doesn’t believe there can ever be even one moment when he’ll be satisfied with what he has found. In the process of looking, he explores optimism vs. nihilism, spirituality vs. sensuality, Romanticism vs. Neoclassicism, hope vs. despair, magic (in its white and black forms) vs. science, conventional Christianity vs. agnosticism, and studying life vs. actually living it. He loves both a sweet, innocent young woman (Margaret/Gretchen) in Part I and the classical beauty Helen of Troy in Part II. And he both reaches for the stars and falls to the depths of degradation. Faust is an archetypal Warrior-Rebel, seeking for new truths and willing to risk everything in pursuit of his search. He also epitomizes the Romantic idealization of emotion over reason, although Goethe himself considered late in his life that too intense a pursuit of this Romantic ideal might be "unhealthy." Though critics generally agree that that entire play remains "enigmatic," the answer to life (and hence Goethe’s intended thematic answer) for this alienated scholar may lie in service to others, for in the final pages of Part II of the play, Faust looks forward to a time when his grand project for supporting a large community of people will be complete, a time when he anticipates he might be able to say to a single moment, "Linger awhile, you are so lovely." Having pronounced that possibility, he drops dead, and Mephisto, the devil in this piece, comes to claim his soul. However, Heaven intercedes, thanks in part to his continual striving, thanks in part to Gretchen, who has purified herself and reaches a hand of love to him, and thanks also to the loophole in his contract. So Faust receives salvation. It has been suggested that Faust’s rebellious search for meaning may in some ways parallel the desire of Western culture for control over nature. The play has also been seen as a foreshadowing of the German Third Reich, during which Adolf Hitler literally pursued Satanism as well as other "devilish" ideologies. Another work by Goethe which plays on medieval occult legends is his poem "Der Zauberlehrling," or "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice," popularized for modern culture by Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse. Made with Xara Website by Susan Smily