Today I’m sitting down with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s enduring drama Faust—not to be confused with Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Even though they’re about the same “person.” By which I mean “legendary figure who probably wasn’t a real person.” Though he might have been inspired by a real person, named—apparently—Georg or Johann Faust, possibly born in 1480, perhaps in Knittlingen.
You’re still with me, right? OK, moving on.
Faust was/is a popular figure in Europe, appearing variously in operas, symphonies, films, paintings, novels, poetry, puppet shows, and even psychotherapy. Goethe’s treatment of the legend landed in 1808 in the form of a play/poem hybrid, equipped with new themes and greater moral complexity.
For the record, I’ve maintained a devout grudge against Faust ever since an overeager college TA made an overnight assignment of it, followed by merciless, relentless testing. I refused to read it then on principle, and I left it until the end of The Challenge as a form of protest.
(The lesson here is DO NOT PISS ME OFF, or you will find yourself the subject of obscure but vicious blog attacks. Let Faust serve as a warning, and this post serve as an effigy.)
In honor of my final review for The 100 Greatest Books Challenge, I will be live-blogging my reactions to Faust as I read my way to its tragic conclusion. This means, on a slightly less appalling note, that you’ll be able to join me in real time (almost) as I close out The List with a bang and a flourish.
Shall we get started? Are you ready?
God knows I am.
Faust: Part One
A new translation by David Luke
Oxford World’s Classics
Hmm. Faust is one of the shortest works on The List, but it has the longest Introduction I’ve ever seen. I’d tell you how long it is, but my knowledge of Roman numerals doesn’t go up that high.
LOL. Oxford World’s Classics is convinced this Synopsis will be useful to me:
“4a 354-597 + 602-5 NIGHT (unfinished).” OH, RIGHT. GOT IT. THANKS.
Here are some of the more curious excerpts from page “lxii’s” Chronology:
- 1548-85 Various reports of Faust’s legendary exploits. (This is cruelly vague, no?)
- 1666 First attested Faust puppet-play (in Lüneburg). (And you thought I was kidding about the puppets.)
- 1772 Execution (14 January) of Susanna Brandt for the murder of her illegitimate child. (I would love to know how this is relevant. I hope this comes up again.)
OK, srsly? I’ve already flipped past a Preface, an Introduction, a Synopsis, and a Chronology, and I have yet to reach Page One? Shouldn’t this Bibliography come at the end? Don’t tell me what else to read before I’ve read the thing I’m reading.
Here we are. Page One. Except the play still hasn’t started yet. Faust: Part One opens with a “Dedication” evoking the ghosts of Goethe’s past, before moving in to a “Prelude on the Stage.” The stage directions indicate that the Prelude will involve, ominously, a Director, a Poet, and a Clown.
The Director, Poet, and Clown argue about creativity vs. entertainment, and commercial success vs. artistic legacy. The Clown is the most reasonable of the three. He proposes an ambitious compromise:
So do what’s needed, be a model poet!
Let Fancy’s choirs all sing, and interweave
Reason, sense, feeling, passion—but, by your leave,
Let a good vein of folly still run through it!
Now there’s a “Prologue in Heaven”—my God, will this book NEVER start?—in which God and the devil (Mephistopheles, or Mephisto) make a wager: Mephisto will try to corrupt Faust in a bid for his eternal soul, and God will… watch from the sidelines, silent and skeptical. The prize? Bragging rights, from the looks of things.
Finally, we’ve reached “The First Part of the Tragedy.” Faust is in his study, complaining about the walls “cramping his soul,” and the worms “gnawing his books,” and the “ancestral junk” […] “all stuffed and cluttered anyhow.” His solution to what is obviously clinical depression: Attempting to forge a psychic connection with the spirit of Nature. Because NORMAL.
Faust’s assistant, Wagner, interrupts him, assuming he was acting out a Greek tragedy. “Nope,” Faust says (and I’m paraphrasing here), “I’m living out a German tragedy. God, you’re useless.”
Faust and Wagner venture into the countryside, where the locals are celebrating the springtime sunshine with singing, dancing, drinking, and misogyny:
Trumpets, sing out and
Sound our advances,
Stir us to action,
To joy and destruction!
This is the life for us,
This is the strife for us!
Castles or girls, we’ll
Breach their defences!
Sounds like a pickup line attempt from the utterly unfuckable.
Faust and Wagner return to town. Faust notices a black poodle, possibly the least sinister of all dog breeds, and loudly accuses it of being “magic.” From what I can tell, all it’s doing is chasing its own tail:
He’s getting closer; round and round he goes
In a narrowing spiral; no, there’s no mistake!
Wagner’s like, Dude, “He’s just a foolish poodle-beast,” which also seems like strong language for a dog doing literally nothing remarkable.
Oh. I was wrong about the poodle. It is, in fact, remarkable, insofar as it is actually the devil in poodle form. Faust returns to his study with the poodle, fearing it is some sort of “hobgoblin” or “hippopotamus” (?), until it transforms into Mephistopheles dressed as a student.
After a lot of back-and-forth, Faust agrees to sign a pact with the devil (in, naturally, his own blood): In return for Mephistopheles answering his every whim, Faust will surrender his immortal soul—but only if, at any stage of life, he is so overcome with pleasure that he “lies down in sloth and base inaction.” (Evidently, Faustian philosophy dictates that liveliness is next to Godliness, and idleness a deadly sin.)
That settled, our duo flies to a tavern in Leipzig using the devil’s
airplane cloak, and then to a “witch’s kitchen,” where they argue with each other and some monkeys. (The monkeys are the witch’s servants, and even Mephisto thinks this is weird.)
Faust drinks a potion, brewed over “laborious years” by the witch, to restore his youth.
Later, in the street, Faust passes by a lovely, virtuous, decent, saucy, red-lipped, bright-cheeked, modest, charming, and graceful young woman (or so we’re told) named Margareta. They have the following SAVAGE exchange:
My sweet young lady, if I may
I will escort you on your way.
I’m not a lady and I’m not sweet,
I can get home on my own two feet.
Naturally, Faust interprets her cold shoulder as an invitation to try harder.
Faust pursues Margareta via Mephisto, who pursues Margareta via sparkly things. I’m beginning to think the representation of women in Faust will be regressive by modern standards, and typical by 19th-century standards.
The “sparkly things” strategy works, because FEMALE. Mephisto invites himself to the home of Margareta’s neighbor, Martha, bringing Faust along with him. Faust and Margareta flirt. If her references to all the dead members of her family are any indication, Margareta is not very good at it.
Faust and Margareta declare their love—though Faust is having a little trouble distinguishing mind and penis. The devil knows the deal, however, and mocks Faust’s “emotional turmoil.” The couple consummates their mutual devotion off-stage.
In a stunning plot twist never seen before in the history of storytelling, it turns out to be Faust’s penis, and his penis alone, that fell for Margareta. (Did I say “fell for?” *Insert crude joke here.*)
Faust abandons Margareta, now pregnant, to her fate.
Oy. Faust just can’t leave well enough alone. He shows up sometime later, with renewed sexpectations, outside Margareta’s door.
…Except she’s not called Margareta anymore, because this book is the most blatant exercise of the Madonna/whore trope I’ve ever encountered. She literally has a new name now that she’s succumbed to sin: Gretchen.
Anyway, Gretchen’s brother, Valentine, happens to be waiting there, with hopes of punishing whoever sexed his once-pure sis. Mephisto, who accompanied Faust to Gretchen’s door, begins to mock her in song, accompanied by a zither. Valentine steps out of the shadows and challenges the devilish duo, then falls to their swords in eight quick lines.
I might feel sorry for him if he hadn’t used his dying breath to slutshame his own sister:
There’ll come a time, and this I know,
All decent folk will abhor you so,
You slut! that like a plague-infected
Corpse you’ll be shunned, you’ll be rejected,
They’ll look at you and your heart will quail,
Their eyes will all tell the same tale!
Nighty night, bro.
Faust and Mephisto take a break from ruining Gretchen’s life to attend a satanic orgy known as Walpurgis Night. Midway through an erotic dance with an accommodating young witch, Faust sees a red mouse jump out of her mouth. He shares this anecdote with Mephisto, who says—I shit you not—”At least it wasn’t a grey one!”
Except, you know, his version rhymes.
Faust suddenly has a vision of Gretchen in chains and realizes she’s been imprisoned. Mephisto’s like, “Yeah, so?” and I have to say I agree.
Uh oh. Faust is pist—even more so than usual. So far, in Part One, Faust has called Mephisto a “misborn monster,” a “disgusting pimp,” the “spawn of fire and shit,” a “sophist and a liar,” a “snake,” a “sprite,” the “son of chaos,” a “student-tramp” (when he was disguised as a student), and a “hybrid half-brood of hell” (when he was disguised as a poodle). Also “Dr. Rectitude,” though it’s not clear how this is an insult. Now he’s calling him a “vile treacherous demon,” a “repulsive monster,” a “reptile,” and a “reprobate” for what he did to Gretchen.
I think we call this a crisis of conscience. Funny how those always come too late.
In the final scene of Part One, Faust attempts a jailbreak, with help from Mephisto. It does not go well. Gretchen has yielded to madness following the deaths of her mother, brother, and newborn child. She thinks all of these casualties are her fault, even though they’re all Faust’s fault. Confused and guilt-stricken, Gretchen refuses to leave, and Faust has the nerve to groan, “You are killing me.”
As dawn breaks, Mephisto gives her up for lost, but a voice from above claims her redemption. Faust is spirited away by the devil as Gretchen calls his name.
Whew. I need a break from the melodrama before I come back for Part Two.
At this point, by the way, I’m more or less rooting for Faust’s comeuppance. And while it may seem harsh to wish eternal damnation upon someone, a) this is fiction, and b) he’s the one who befriended Satan.
Faust: Part Two is like Part One‘s awkward step-sibling, so we’re just going to shake hands quickly and then go our separate ways. Loosely tied to the first, more famous half of Faust, Part Two is a continuation of Faust’s antics—aided and abetted by the devil—in pursuit of knowledge, power, and pleasure.
Faust and Mephistopheles are in an imperial palace. Mephisto is disguised as a court jester. In response to a local financial crisis, Mephisto suggests that the Emperor should mine “the gold in the earth, coined and uncoined,” and also maybe just print a bunch of paper money.
The Emperor announces a carnival to celebrate Ash Wednesday. Faust and Mephisto attend, along with dozens of allegorical figures drawn from Greek mythology.
The Emperor asks Faust to conjure Helen and Paris of Troy, which turns out to be tricky even with the devil’s assistance. Nevertheless, they manage it, and Faust has the terribly original impulse of falling in love with Helen of Troy.
Faust and Mephisto return to Faust’s study, where his old assistant, Wagner, has been working on a pet project. The “pet” is, in this case, a human. (Wagner has been growing a human-in-a-bottle referred to as “The Homunculus.”)
The Homunculus invites Faust and Mephisto to Classical Walpurgis Night, which is just like Walpurgis Night—that is, a satanic orgy—except with even sluttier witches. *HIGH FIVE*
At Classical Walpurgis Night, Faust seeks Helen of Troy, the devil seeks naughty sexcapades, and The Homunculus seeks the means to Become a Real Boy.
Suddenly we’re in Sparta, and Mephisto is dressed as an old hag named Phorcyas. Mephisto, as Phorcyas, tells Helen she is in danger—and Faust is her only hope for protection.
Now we’re back in medieval Germany, where Faust and Helen fall in love. They go on to have a son who leaves them so delighted they name him Euphorion.
Euphorion almost immediately jumps to his death from a high cliff. It’s sad, kind of. In any case, the chorus does some of their best lamenting here:
Born to high ancestral calling
Blessed with gifts, with noble name,
Soon, alas, self-lost, and falling
In the bloom of youth and fame!
Wide the world to your discerning,
To your heart the heart’s depths known,
Women’s love your love returning,
And a music all your own.
Helen, heartbroken, vanishes. In a series of ambitious stage directions, Faust rides a cloud up a mountain and then devotes 28 lines of poetry to it. (No, not the mountain—the cloud.) On the mountaintop, Faust decides his next project will be to reclaim the land from the sea.
Faust and Mephisto embark on this project, but only after helping the Emperor (remember him?) win a war. The project ends up being successful, except for this stubborn old couple who won’t budge from their little cottage. Faust tells the devil to please take care of it, thinking for some reason that the devil is a gentleman.
Mephisto kills the old couple (obvi). Faust is enraged (stupidly). For once, though, he seems to accept some blame for something that was totally his fault. This is what we call progress, folks.
The devil orders a gang of monkeys to dig Faust’s grave. Faust, recently blinded by a visiting spirit, hears the sound of the shovels and assumes they are his workmen, building his kingdom. He imagines the fruits of
his their labor, and anticipates lingering one day in a moment overcome with pleasure.
“Poor fool!” Mephisto cries, thinking he has won Faust’s soul—and his wager with God. Faust, sure enough, drops down dead. But because Faust only referred to a future state of bliss, God lets him in to Heaven on a technicality.
This noble spirit saved alive
Has foiled the Devil’s will!
He who strives on and lives to strive
Can earn redemption still.
I guess it wasn’t a tragedy after all. So much the better.
Here it comes! The end! The end of Faust, and The List, and The 100 Greatest Books Challenge!
DONE. 100 books down, and 0 to go. And it only took half a decade.
Look out for my final blog post on Friday, in which I emerge victorious from a battle of my own making. This is one wager I always knew I’d win, but it still feels pretty damn good.
And, as far as I can tell, my soul is still intact! I’m going to do my best to keep it that way in the great hereafter.
Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?
Hard to say without reading the original, but Luke’s translation was plenty Great.
May the devil take me, I would say,
If I weren’t the Devil myself, by God.
One soon grows tired of forests and of fields;
I never envied any bird its wings.
But the pursuit of intellectual things
From book to book, from page to page—what joy that yields!
A generous gift richly repays the giver.
For by love alone
Heaven is won.