Sunday, June 5, 2011

5 Things I Love About Goethe's Faust

"How lucky we were,
We hit the cathouses and we sampled their wares
We got as drunk as a couple of Tsars,
that night I swallowed my lucky stars.
Who's that dancin' on the jailhouse roof
Stampin' on the ramping with a cloven hoof?"

--Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "Up Jumped the Devil."

Goethe's Faust is one of the great triumphs of human literature. It is a damn shame that it's not omnipresent in American education-- it's every bit the equal of Shakespeare's best. Honestly, if Germany had won the war, we could take cold comfort in the fact that at least Americans could grow up knowing their Goethe.
"The Spacebots told me about a universe where that happened! And we all did the I Chi!"
Yes...yes Philip. We know.
I was considering trying to a guide to the work, but let's be honest-- I cannot. I spent a semester taking a course on this book and it was still fairly hurried. Goethe spent 60 years of life reading it, the most I can do to try and shepherd you through is to tell you to pick up the most recent Norton Critical Edition, which is a really great translation with hundreds of pages of notes, annotations, and help.

Instead, I'm going to revert to the method of communication that watching High Fidelity every Friday when I was 16 instilled in me: Top 5 lists. There's a huge amount to go into, but here's 5 things from the epic that are my favorite parts.

#5: Mephistopheles
Okay, Mephistopheles should be one of the best parts of any Faust story (with the exception of Mann's brilliant Doktor Faustus, in which Mephisto is, well... syphilis? It's pretty ambiguous). But Goethe's Mephistopheles is a pretty special case.

First, there's a real-world context: Gustaf Grundgens. For decades-- almost 40 years --Mephistopheles was famously played (Goethe's epic is written as a drama, although almost never performed except in incredibly abridged versions) by Gustaf Grundgens, a great actor of Weimar Germany. If you're a film buff, he played one of the villains (by which I mean, one of the characters) in Fritz Lang's masterpiece M. He was also Goebbel's second-in-command as one of the highest cultural ministers of Nazi Germany.
In M. That picture is of a girl Peter Lorre raped and strangled. God bless the Weimar Republik.
Although it's doubtful there will ever be much of an answer about how much of a Nazi Grundgens really was, you can't deny that Goethe's Mephistopheles is, in the modern era, personified by a man who hung out with some of the 20th century's greatest monsters. It's a connection so appropriate that Klaus Mann's novel Mephisto strips away the subtext, outright admitting that Goethe's demon is so well-written that it took a man who knew actual demons to do him justice. [You can view footage of Grundgens as Mephistopheles, just a few years before his death, here.]

But beyond the...horrifying historical context, there's the character himself. Like many good devils, he's sarcastic, clever, funny, and disrespectful. The opening of the play has him swagger into Heaven, proclaim that humanity is rubbish, and make a bet with God-- and God claims that Mephisto is his favorite devil, if only because he's such a good conversationalist.

Unlike a great many devils, though, he's also dumb. He introduces himself to Faust by misquoting Paradise Lost (whereas Satan promises to, out of God's good, bring ever evil, Mephisto says that he is of that kind which endeavors always to do evil but can only do good), and it becomes clear immediately that Goethe is one of the the very few writers of the era who actually understood the Miltonic view: that evil is, by its nature, petty, human, and prone to error. Mephistopheles, for all his cleverness and bravado, is only slightly smarter or more powerful than Faust himself. His great magic tricks are all just pranks (when they want money, Mephisto-- one of the most powerful demons in hell --has to go look for where someone buried some and dig it up), and he loses Faust's soul twice: once when, in his enthusiasm to carry out the next step of his brilliant plan, he fails to notice that Faust is committing the exact act (ceasing to strive) which would give Mephisto victory, and once when a bunch of angels lift up their skirts and wave their asses at him. Goethe is able to create a devil who, despite his charm and depth, is as vulnerable to temptation and self-indulgence as a being devoted solely to being rebellious and selfish would be.
There's a scene where Mephistopheles gives a bunch of drunks magical wine that turns into fire. Begging the question, but where did the lighter fluid come from?
And speaking of things that are funnier than me...

#4: The Comedy
Goethe's Faust is funny. And I don't just mean in that tittering, academic way that a lot of older comedy seems today (looking at you, Shakespeare's comedies). As long as you've got a good translation, with some energy to it, you'll probably be laughing out loud several times. Yes, it tours all of human culture (the beginning of Part 2 has Faust meet Helen of Troy, and uses the meter and rhyme of their dialogue to illustrate the evolution of poetry from the ancient Greeks to the Romantics), and yes, it's about man's struggle to preserve his soul... but Goethe loved sex and drinking and parties, and those come through every bit as much.

Despite the complex metaphysics and the journeys through time and space that Faust and Mephisto take, a lot of the strongest moments are when Goethe is just taking this very sly look at Romantic-era Germany. One of the most famous scenes is Mephisto's first attempt to get Faust to love life, which consists of taking the stodgy old professor to a college kids' tavern and wondering why he's not enjoying himself. Faust has one line in the whole scene-- asking to leave --and it's mostly just devoted to singing, drinking, and Mephistopheles playing pranks on a bunch of drunken theology students. It also gave us the wonderfully quotable line:
"One cannot to one's country be a henchman,
much good is often to be found abroad.
Your average German can't abide a Frenchman
but likes French vintages an awful lot."
That's Goethe himself, on a 6-pack. Not a coincidence.
 The work is able to be fairly consistently grounded in reality and in the comic, and not just as "here's some giggles before we go back to the hard stuff." In the end, it's this crude, goofy humanity that saves Faust, this empathetic recognition of the ordinary humanity and the weird foibles of man that comes to represent the human spirit that triumphs over anything. Mephisto cracks the most jokes, but it's the constant inclusion of the comic and the charming that reminds us how impossible it is to snuff out the simplest parts of human needs.

Also, I'd be remiss not to mention the scene early one when Mephistopheles, disguised as Faust, encourages a student to become a gynecologist:
"The gist of Medicine is grasped with ease.
You study up and macro-, microcosm, just so
that in the end you let things go
as God may please...
Then for a start you grope for portions vital
that cost another many a year's campaign;
you squeeze her pulse a little harder,
then lay about with cunning looks of ardor
your arm about the slender waist
to see how tightly she is laced."
"Man, the Devil totally lied about how fun this would be."
 And hey, speaking of the indefatigable human spirit...

#3: The Optimism
I know that, given the paean I gave to Webster's eternal bleakness earlier in the week, I'm not much of one to praise Goethe for his optimism. But it's there, and it's pretty damn great.

See-- and I know this might be kind of surprising --most Faust stories are pretty bleak. Marlowe's has his hero dragged into Hell. Mann's turns his hero into an allegory for Germany's descent into madness and has him spend ten years in an asylum not recognizing any of the people he loves as his brain rots from the inside. Berlioz's opera-- which is based on the first half of Goethe's epic-- has him pretty much fall into Hell as it opens under him. Essentially, 99% of the stories can be described by Michael Gambon's summary of the Berlioz opera in Layer Cake: "Man sells his soul to the devil. Doesn't end well. Bye-bye."
Spoiler alert: it's a metaphor for organized crime. Also if you haven't seen Layer Cake, do so immediately. It's like The Godfather if you replaced Sicily with Blur.
Goethe's...doesn't. This isn't even a spoiler: in the prologue, before we even meet Faust, God points out that he'd never make a wager that he could lose and thus that Faust will, by necessity, be saved. Mad Scottish genius Alasdair Gray (or, rather, Nastler-- the author-within-the-book of Lanark, who speaks to its protagonist about the book... let's not even get into that now, okay?) summarizes Faust as:
"He abandons everything he tires of, grabs everything he wants and dies believing himself a public benefactor. He is received into Heaven...The writer of this book was depraved by too much luck. He shows the sort of man who captains the modern world, but doesn't show how vilely incompetent these people are."
 (Mind you, the unnamed editor of the epilogue in which this dialogue occurs-- right before the climax of the book --points out that Lanark owes more to Goethe's Faust than to anything else. Because it's Lanark. It's that kind of book, and I love it dearly). But anyway, what Gray drives at sideways, to sarcastically not-justify why he is averting it, is that Goethe's Faust is infinitely more merciful than most others. Faust is rarely a heroic figure. By the end he has inadvertently started a war, created an empire upon a base of piracy and conquest, and led to the deaths of two former lovers and two illegitimate sons (one of whom was a stand-in for Byron who, prophetically, self-destructs), and he dies while being tripped into an open grave in the middle of a speech. But in the end, Goethe imagines a divine order that rewards, not just the act of bringing good into the world, but the act of bettering your own soul. Faust is saved by two things in the end: the love of a good woman, and the fact that, despite his sins and mistakes, he never once stopped reaching for greatness. There aren't any words for how beautiful that is to me-- like Milton, Goethe recognizes a God that respects human frailty, a universe in which the greatest thing one can do is to strive.

Although maybe someone should have taken Germany aside and explained that, while striving and building an empire was great in their national masterpiece, maybe they should have just focused on their magnificent cultural legacy instead.

Thank God Eli Roth was around, or it would have gotten really ugly.
#2: The Sense of Form
Anyone who's talked to me about poetry (or, I dunno, glanced at the title of this blog) will know I'm a pretty big fan of the High Modernists. I have fond memories of drunkenly, over my fifth cup of diner coffee, trying to explain to my science major friends the defining characteristics of Modernism. And then reciting the entirety of Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium." Anyway, one of these characteristics is an incredibly keen sense of form and structure-- to the point where "Formalism," in literary criticism, was coined to focus on a lot of the early Modernist critics.

You don't know from form until you've read Faust. Goethe is pretty much second only to Eliot in terms of being able to keep around twenty different linguistic rhythms in the air at once and there being a meaning to all of them. And unlike Eliot, he's a guy I could actually share a beer with without feeling incredibly condescended to and politically angry.
Allegedly, Sylvia Plath once excused herself from dinner at Eliot's to hide a used tampon under his pillow. Marking the one time in my life I'll say "Way to go, Sylvia Plath."
Like Eliot, Goethe is able to use the form of his poetry to tell a story. There's the part I mentioned above, with Helen, for instance. Helen of Troy, when first introduced, speaks in the unrhymed dactyllic hexameter used by many of the ancient Greek playwrights, accompanied by a Chorus, while Faust speaks in the ABAB-rhymed iambic meter used for most of the work. Helen, then, first notices that Faust is not from her time by the fact that he rhymes-- they are each defined by the poetic standards of the era that created them, and recognizable as such. As part of his courtship of her, Faust teaches Helen how to rhyme, first with the courtly songs and ballads that distinguished medieval poetry and then in a more contemporary Enlightenment-era format. Eventually they have a child who is the culmination of the intersection between classical Greco-Roman literature and Renaissance European tradition...and he speaks in the voice of George Gordon, Lord Byron, the only contemporary poet who Goethe felt accomplished that unity. (Then he jumps off a cliff and explodes. Like Byron. Or Toonces the Cat Who Could Drive A Car).

Essentially, Goethe here uses a love affair to create a metaphor for the history of Western poetry-- and does so, not through the dialogue of the lovers themselves, but the rhythm, meter, and dramatic structure of their interactions. Even though it's by far the least fun part of the text (and the only part that is straight-up painful to get through), you can't help but admire the sheer cleverness of it all.
The above statement may vary, depending on your personal level of tweed. My tweed blazer has elbow patches. I am at least an 8.
There's also a ton of other little nods to various legacies-- the various witches and crones all speak in the same rhythm and rhyme as the three witches from Macbeth, for instance, and Mephistopheles usually uses very clever and surprising rhymes compared to the rest of the cast, while the angels and forces of heaven use short, simple lines with smooth rhymes, to emphasize the simplicity of good and the showy nature of evil. The goblins who dig Faust's grave sing a parody of the gravedigger's song from Hamlet, and one of Faust's firsts scenes has him attempting to translate the Gospel of John into German and going through progressively more aggressive translations of the Greek word Logos. Faust is a work that is keenly aware of language, its associations, and its power, and a huge amount of its beauty comes from piecing together what it does with those and how it comments on the poetic tradition that led to its own creation. It was intended, in large part, to look at the German language and the huge possibilities therein and it succeeded triumphantly-- to the point where Goethe helped to redefine what German was and what its poets did.

This would be a good time to point out-- the Weimar Republik? The interwar German state that produced a vast amount of culture and brilliant art? They put its capitol in Weimar pretty much solely because that's where Goethe lived and wrote Faust.

#1: The Breadth and the Human Thread
Faust, if you haven't gathered, is huge. Like most great epics, it attempts to encompass the whole of human existence and the manner in which we live, as Mephistopheles and Faust travel from "first the small world, then the large": going from a bar in Liepzig to the Imperial Court to ancient Greece to Faust trying to build his own perfect kingdom, as everyone else's has been a disappointment.

In the beginning of the work, Faust is turned into a young man and seduces a young girl. She's a basic devout countryside girl named Gretchen, and he accidentally gets her knocked up. And then forgets about her, because his pet devil is taking him off to a witch-orgy and hey, he has magical powers.
He came from Wittenburg. He had a thirst for knowledge.
He taught theology at Martin Luther's college.

Gretchen dies-- choosing to be executed rather than spend time with Faust, as she now recognizes the devil he travels with --and Act I is concluded, a little mini-Romantic Tragedy before things go insane. They hang out with the emperor to try and take Faust's mind off of his failed relationship, and start a small economic satire when Mephistopheles suggests the invention of fiat currency. They head off to ancient Greece with the help of a homunculus grown in a laboratory, since Mephistopheles-- being German and superstitious-- cannot understand classical antiquity, whereas a being formed by science and reason is in tune with Greek ideals. Faust has the aforementioned affair with Helen, Goethe suggests that life evolved from baser, more simple life originating in the sea, they get involved in a war caused by the economic crisis they started, and Faust builds St. Petersburg. Along the way there's also debates about the nature of color and light (Goethe had a lifelong rivalry with Newton on the subject), a couple miniature plays-within-plays, and several musical numbers.

It goes everywhere. It deals with everything. It's at times a praise of Classical ideals, at times a satire on the rapidly-collapsing Holy Roman Empire, an examination of the science of the day, and a few different love stories. Mixed, of course, with magic and devils and God.
Diane, I have been awakened by a choir of angels. You can probably hear it in the background.
 But in the end, when Faust is dead and  Mephistopheles is gloating, Gretchen returns. Faust's striving forms the reason for his salvation, but he would never have been saved without Gretchen's intercession. She's the one who sends down the angels who flash Mephisto and take Faust up to heaven. Helen of Troy? Notably absent. His kingdom? Unimportant. It's the love of a woman-- of the small, unimportant girl --that saves him.

Despite the hugeness of the work, the length and breadth that it travels, it's ordinary humanity which has the greatest power in it. Gretchen by the end is far more powerful and smart than Mephistopheles, and it was Faust's kindness and his love, however briefly he entertained it, that redeem his soul where everything else fails. Goethe is able to recognize that, no mater how huge and mystifying the universe is, how transcendent its brilliance, it's those moments of basic humanity that save us. To be human, says Goethe, is all we need, and it's the one thing no god or devil can give or take away-- we rule our own lives, and as long as we refuse to surrender them we're better than anything else.
Somebody get that guy a beer!


  1. Very nice. Thanks.

  2. You have a hell of a talent for taking something that seems insurmountable or unapproachable and making it sound like something that simply must be read, and let no one tell you anything to the contrary.

  3. Loved the analysis! Insightful and funny. Thanks!