As I continue my jaunt into the wondrous world of my favourite books, it warms my heart with delight to be able to share things that are overlooked by many and eschewed by more.
Faust Part I & II by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
This work is a true masterpiece and Goethe spent many decades on this epic poem of Faust. It is divided into two parts that were released decades apart. The final part was finished in 1831, just a year before Goethe’s death, and it is said that he had it sealed up and would only allow it to be published posthumously.
Part one was published in 1808 and begins with a prologue that echoes the story of Job in the Old Testament, and here a pact is created between the Hebrew God Yahweh and a demon or incarnation of an evil spirit called Mephistopheles. They have a bet to test the faith of Faust, and this sets up the framework of the epic poem.
The next scene sees Faust in his study, he is incredibly knowledgeable in all types of philosophical and scientific subjects but he is bored with life, and the very essence of life has lost its meaning for him.
Faust tries to conjure a faithful spirit to follow his commands, but the spirit rejects him and leaves. Faust contemplates suicide and is approached by Mephistopheles, and agrees to what is known as a Faustian pack. This is where he agrees to give his soul to Mephistopheles in exchange for anything that he wants. He signs this covenant with some of his blood.
The original poem is written in German, which is the native language of Goethe and it boasts his mastery of practically every type of verse form known at the time. An example of his style is included here:
If the swift moment I entreat:
Tarry a while! You are so fair!
Then forge the shackles to my feet,
Then I will gladly perish there!
Then let them toll the passing-bell,
Then of your servitude be free,
The clock may stop, its hands fall still,
And time be over then for me!
Part one continues with Faust and Mephistopheles engaging in a series of humorous and occasionally tragic adventures that are wonderfully captured in the pre-eminent style of Goethe.
Margareta or Grethen is introduced as a devoted lover of Faust, and is treated with contempt by him, but she never gives up on her love after the ill treatment that serves up for her.
Part Two is a far more complex affair and characters from Greek Myth such as Helen of Troy and Paris are introduced.
Goethe’s ideals of Romanticism are prevalent here, as he illuminates the backward looking prejudice of his society in the way that they revered the ancient classical Greek world above their own culture. Helen of Troy was meant to be the most beautiful women that had ever existed, and she was supposed to be the epitome of perfection, and Faust initially desired her above all others, although when he saw her in the flesh he also saw her imperfections.
In Christopher Marlowe’s version of the story entitled Doctor Faustus written in the early1590s, he propounds the veneration for Helen. He writes:
“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.—
Her lips suck forth my soul; see where it flies…”
The concept of artificial birth is addressed with the creation of Homunculus, and also explored is the notion of fixing the economic climate with promises of ‘confidence’ instead of backing currency with real tangible assets, and yet in just over 130 years that model would be adopted throughout the world.
At the end of the poem Faust becomes extremely powerful by achieving the accolade of having his wishes granted, and he sees a couple who are tilling the soil through their own sense of freedom, and although they do not possess the wealth of Faust, they possess something that ignites a desire in him to be free. Mephistopheles interprets this to be Faust agreeing to relinquish his soul, and begins the process, and fortunately for Faust, he is saved by a number of women and the final lines of the poem are:
All that must disappear
Is but a parable;
What lay beyond us, here
All is made visible;
Here deeds have understood
Words they were darkened by;
The Eternal Feminine
Draws us on high.
There is such a wealth of information in both parts of Faust and the intention of Goethe was to keep the critics busy for centuries, and so far he has been proven right.
Faust is one of those works that is incredibly rich and complex in its architecture and form. There are always more connections to be made within both parts of the poem. A key factor is the theme of Romanticism, and this is the thread that ties the epic together. Nature is the real hero of the story and the lofty and caring feminine spirit is the one that rescues the self-absorbed and rapacious Faust. Maybe there are a few who would like to take not of that prophetic observation.
There are a number of ways that this books has influenced me, and one in particular is to realise that although I have a deep reverence for the past and events of history, the real power lies within my ability right now to make the best out of any situation now. It may also be lamentable to look at the past, and miss the opportunity that lies under my feet.
Another thing is that immediately getting what you want may not always be the best thing for you, and everything has a price that must be paid for achievement. Sometimes an ancestor may have accomplished something that they leave to us, and even then it is down to us to make the best of whatever we have and make maximise it fully.