Faust Pt. 1
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, trans. by Randall Jarrell
As I’ve said before, there are books you’re supposed to read if you fancy yourself a product of the Enlightenment. That doesn’t mean mindless adherence to the canon but it does suggest you have to be more than merely dismissive of it.
Still, I am a busy, perhaps more accurately a lazy, man , and I don’t necessarily turn joyfully toward what might be intellectual hard labor. In the best cases I discover how wrong I was to be scared. Other times, well…
I suppose that brings us to Goethe’s Faust.
Dr. Faust is legendary, I suppose, although I’m not truly familiar with whatever the ur-legend might be. What I do know is there is the present volume and that there is a Christopher Marlowe play, Doctor Faustus, that I read while in college. I suspect from my faint recollection and this reading that the story has Germanic origins.
The author himself could be the archetypal overachieving German. A writer, a statesman, a lawyer, a scientist. And in each category a success. He wasn’t like Newton, besotted by alchemy, or Twain, made broke by misunderstanding technology. The man just did not fail.
How could such a man not respond to the notion of Faust? The good doctor, after all, is the smartest man in the world. “Law, medicine, philosophy, and even–worse luck–theology” he tells us he’s learned “from top to bottom” in his first appearance on stage (Act I, Night). The good doctor is having a crisis. For a decade he’s “led his students by the nose/And I see there’s nothing we can know.”
Talk about an existential crisis. By the time we learn this, though, we’re in on a game that our hero isn’t. The play–I failed to mention that like the Marlowe this is a play in verse–has a couple of false starts. I can hear the theatre and literature crowd sharpening their pikes to skewer me for that one. I understand it’s a technique. I’ve just always been a reader first and so I’ve always found theatrical and filmic elements to be gimmicks. It’s my own limitation and believe me, I understand it’s a limitation.
We open, instead, with a theatre owner, a poet and a comedian. The owner is looking for something “fresh and new/Significant, but entertaining, too.” (Prelude) He wants the help of the other two in doing this.
Whether this set-up serves a grander purpose I’m not sure. It’s also entirely possible it had never been done before the play was first staged. He, and the scene, ends with an exhortation to travel “with deliberate speed/From Heaven through the world to Hell!”
And so to Heaven where God is talking with his archangels. The usual three suspects are there and so is a fourth, Mephistopheles. You may know the name and we know his boss since, like Screwtape, he’s a devil. It seems God enjoys a bit of back and forth with this Devil’s henchman and so He allows Mephistopheles to torment and tempt Faust away from virtue.
God has a history of this sort of thing. It’s more or less the same challenge that lies at the outset of the Book of Job.
I don’t think I’m venturing very far out on a limb with that observation and for all I know it’s the most trite one ever made of the tale. Which we should get back to. Faust gets approached by Mephistopheles who first appears as a poodle. I understand Ray Stantz and the Staypuft marshmallow man better now.
Or maybe that’s a dig at the French. There’s more than one of them. At a later point, in Auerbach’s cellar in Leipzig, when Faust & Mephistopheles are toying with some young men in a way that turns supernaturally violent, Brander, one of the revelers, says ” A real German can’t endure the French/And yet he’s glad to get to drink their wine.”
What of our hero’s crisis, though? The man lacks but one thing, love. And so his tempter arranges to have him potioned up in a way that makes him instantly alluring to Gretchen, a comely young lass, despite his years. At times I thought she might still be in late adolescence but Faust becomes besotted and with a little help from his companion/tempter takes the steps necessary to arrange assignations with his beloved.
This all goes bad, it can’t not. We meet Gretchen’s brother Valentine when he stumbles upon Faust and Mephistopheles on their way to a rendezvous. There’s a scuffle. Valentine is mortally wounded as Faust and the devil escape. With his dying breath Valentine informs his sister that she’s a whore and everybody knows it. Ouch.
The climax, you can almost see this coming, occurs on Walpurgis Night. Until now, when I was forced to look into the matter, my only conception of Walpurgis Night was as a tune by the jangle pop band Guadalcanal Diary. Evidently it’s more like the springtime version of Mischief Night and a high time for demons and their ilk.
It’s there that Faust encounters Gretchen, descended into the depths of a living hell, a shadow of the women he know and loved. It’s quite a scene.
Whither Faust himself? I don’t know. I’d have to suffer through Part 2 and I don’t have that in me. I also don’t know if Randall Jarrell, the translator of this version, ever touched Volume 2. That’s unclear in an otherwise fascinating and informative end essay by his widow.
There are moments of great humour. I especially enjoyed Faust asking Mephistopheles if he didn’t have anything better to do than bother him on one of his good days.
The real meat is in the exchanges between Faust and Mephistopheles. I’ve come to think of them as representing opposite poles of the human dilemma. So let me end with Mephistopheles making the case against a sequestered life of the mind:
Wake up! Forget this theorizing–Come with me out in the world!I tell you, the man who sits here broodingIs like some poor brute on a barren heathWhom an evil spirit leads in circlesWhile good green grass lies all around.
(Act. IV Faust’s Study)
A compelling case and, given what Mephistopheles does to Faust throughout the play, an openly honest one, too.