Faust, Part I by J.W. von Goethe
Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
I was still in my first month of reading the Classics when I came to Milton's Paradise Regained,
in which the Devil tempts Jesus in the desert with the prospect of
worldly knowledge, particularly the knowledge of the Gentiles (i.e.,
He who receives Light from above, Jesus replies,
No other doctrine needs.
This rebuff comes in the poem's last book, and it represents an
undoing, in part, of Adam and Eve's decision to eat from the tree of
knowledge. But it also represents a Protestant reaction to Renaissance
humanism, with its worship of secular, especially pre-Christian,
knowledge. Milton is expressing the long-standing notion that a quest
for too much worldy knowledge is not only sinful, but blasphemous, that
such a quest ultimately demands allegiance to the devil.
Naturally, the idea struck me as I embarked on my own quest for
humanist knowledge. Since then, this trope has reoccured a few times in
the Classics -- most recently in Byron's closet drama, Manfred,
from last week's volume. But it finds its purest modern expression in
the Faust legend, which in turn finds its greatest form in Goethe's
There appears to be a historical model for Faust, as there were for many of Goethe's poems. In this case, the model was a German philosopher and alchemist, Dr. Faust, who died mysteriously in 1540. Faust seems like a fairly emblematic Northern Renaissance figure, and so it's unsurprising that his reputation darkened during the Reformation. It's said that Martin Luther himself was among the first to suggest that Faust had entered a pact with Mephistophiles. At any rate, by 1587 a life of Faust had been published, which used him as a cautionary tale.
Goethe came to the Faust legend by way of Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, which is included here. Goethe deepened the story considerably along the way, in part by adding the character of Gretchen. (Incidentally, it's terribly unfair to Marlowe that the one play he wrote that isn't used as a lens to study the greatest English poet of all time is used instead as a lens to study the greatest German poet of all time. Sorry, Chris; at least people are still reading the plays.)
Here is Goethe's Faust as the poem begins:
I have, alas! Philosophy,
Medicine, Jurisprudence too,
And to my cost Theology,
With ardent labour, studied through.
And here I stand, with all my lore,
Poor fool, no wiser than before.
Philosophy, medicine, jurisprudence, theology: a fair start at listing the topics of the Harvard Classics. Now, here is Faust a short time later:
Hearken! The end I aim at is not joy;
I crave excitement, agonizing bliss,
Enamour'd hatred, quickening vexation.
Purg'd from the love of knowledge, my vocation,
The scope of all my powers henceforth be this,
To bare my breast to every pang,--to know
In my heart's core all human weal and woe,
To grasp in thought the lofty and the deep,
Men's various fortunes on my breast to heap,
And thus to theirs dilate my individual mind,
And share at length with them the shipwreck of mankind.
Goethe is suggesting a distinction that dates back at least as far
as Socrates, between knowledge and wisdom. The former involves a set of
facts compiled through study, while the latter is acquired with greater
difficulty -- even years of study can leave one
no wiser than before.
Wisdom consists of insights into the human condition, and it comes only
through experience. (It is the experience of wisdom, rather than the
acquisition of knowledge, that Socrates attempts to convey through the
dialectic method.) This distinction is nowhere present in Marlowe's
version; it's a wrinkle original to Goethe, who greatly complicates the
meaning of what Faust does. The kind of wisdom Faust is talking about
is not unlike Milton's
Light from above, and it is in exchange for this wisdom that Faust trades his soul to Mephistophiles.
In Goethe's telling, Mephistophiles answers Faust's desire for experience by taking him first to a tavern, then to a witches' lair, and finally to meet Margaret (Gretchen). As I said, Gretchen is another aspect of the Faust story that originates with Goethe. Her downfall comprises the true tragedy of Faust, Part I. Another lesson then: knowledge, wisdom -- what most of us want in the end is just to get the girl.
Egmont and Hermann and Dorothea are two of Goethe's other long narrative works. Egmont is a historical tragedy in five acts reminscent of much of the English drama I've read in the Classics so far. The character of Count Egmont -- a brilliant man who nonetheless fails to see the limits of his power over others; an idealist who fall in part for his refusal to play the pragmatists' game -- is a figure worthy of Shakespeare or, for that matter, the Greeks. And the royal intrigue on which the play centers is entertaining enough. In the end, the work lacks the deep power of Faust, though so does just about everything else in the history of literature.
Of all Goethe's work that I have read -- that is, the contents of this volume plus The Sorrows of Young Werther -- Hermann and Dorothea is the only one where things turn out well for all involved. If Faust is an obvious influence on darker Romantic works like Byron's Manfred, Hermann and Dorothea
has clearly influenced the more idyllic side of the tradition. Dorothea
is a peasant girl who has been displaced along with her family and many
others by the French Revolution. Hermann is the son of the wealthy
innkeeper in the town to which they arrive. While passing out clothes
to the refugees, Hermann meets and falls in love with Dorothea. The
usual hurdles intrude -- Hermann's father doesn't want him marrying
below his station; Hermann himself is too shy to approach Dorothea; the
refugees will soon be leaving town again, so time is running short. Of
course, we know that this time boy gets girl, even without diabolic
intervention. In the meantime, the plot is mostly an excuse for a
series of set pieces, first in the Inn and then in the refugee camp,
during which colorful characters are paraded on and off stage. The
whole thing is a good amount of fun. There is even a case of mistaken
mistaken intentions might be more accurate) that briefly raises the proceedings to the level of a farce like She Stoops to Conquer.
--CRB, June 7, 2007