Sunday, March 22, 2015

Faust (Part I)

Faust (Part I), by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Goethe seems to have made his play about Faust the great work of his life.  He started writing pieces of it in the early 1770s, when he was in his early to mid-20s, published a preliminary version in 1808, and continued revising it until 1828 or so, when he published a final version.  That's Part I, which is what I read.  Part II took up most of Goethe's attention during his later years and was finished in 1831.

Goethe's version is very different from Marlowe's, which I read several months ago.  It starts with a framing device that echoes the book of Job; the devil makes a bet with God that he can lead the virtuous scholar Faust astray.  When Mephistopheles arrives on scene in the form of a large black dog, Faust is already complaining that earthly knowledge is not enough and that he wishes to delve into the deeper knowledge afforded by black magic.  Mephistopheles has no trouble convincing him to agree to a deal in which the demon will serve him for his lifetime, and then Faust will serve him in Hell for eternity.

Faust and his devil visit various scenes--a witch, some drunken students--but then he sees the lovely  girl Margareta and asks Mephistopheles to help him seduce her.  She is a very virtuous young woman, but eventually falls in love and succumbs.  This leads to the murders of her mother, brother, and the resulting infant.  (Ouch.)  Faust forgets about her for a while but then tries to save her from the prison where she awaits execution.  She refuses to escape her due punishment, and as she is taken away to the scaffold, Faust runs off but hears angels announce that she is saved in Heaven.

Rendered in English, it's still a pretty fascinating play and enjoyable to read.  It made me wish that I could read German fluently and enjoy it properly.  It's nearly 200 pages long in my copy and must take several hours to perform in its entirety.


Fanda always asks that we talk a bit about literary movements.  She's got questions:
  1. Whether he/she fits the literary movement you have categorized him/her? Tell us your reason. 
  2. If not, where he/she should be? Tell us your reason.
March is Enlightenment month, and I think we can certainly put Goethe there, but he also fits into the Romantic movement.  He pretty much started it with the Sorrows of Young Werther in 1775, which sparked the Sturm und Drang movement and got everybody into Romanticism.  Goethe was also not really convinced by the Enlightenment theory that people could live by pure reason.

But!  Goethe was also an Enlightenment kind of guy.  He did a lot of science; in fact he thought his treatise on color was the most important thing he wrote.  He was very interested in geology and mineralogy.  He was also a lawyer.  He wrote essays, treatises, criticism...all sorts of stuff, and despite sort of kick-starting Romanticism, he wasn't a huge fan of it.  He liked restraint and taste and all those more controlled Age of Reason kind of things...but he didn't really buy that Reason could, or should, be supreme.

All that to say that Goethe doesn't fit into a literary movement very well; he's too talented.  He made literary fashion more than he followed it.  I don't know nearly enough about him to be able to make judgments, but I'd quite like to learn more. 



1 comment:

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

You are right, Goethe is a bad fit for the standard periodization. German literature is generally a bad fit. They were doing their own thing.

Another way Goethe was doing his own thing in Faust was all of the goofing around with form - the preface in heaven, the hopping around in time and space. Idiosyncratic. Form is for lesser mortals. Part II is even crazier - much crazier.