“Faust” by Goethe

The Emperor Has No Clothes

The overall impression or feeling I had after reading Part I is perhaps the same as that of the little child in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale: bland disappointment after being seduced into high expectations, and a nauseating sense of disgust. Is this the best you could conjure up, Herr Goethe? The “representative man”, one who is supposed to be the equal of the Spirit, and in whom is the knowledge, power and life of all mankind, is a pimp and pervert?!

Many readers have compared the temptations of Faust to the trials of Job, because “Prologue in Heaven” is strongly reminiscent of the beginning of the Book of Job. But to me, Faust and Job are completely different in terms of the ideals of man that they represent. Goethe borrowed the form but substituted the content, both from the Bible and Greek mythology. Faust reminds me more of “The Bacchae” by Euripides, whose “Iphigenia in Tauris” Goethe also rewrote, where the young god Dionysus appeared to King Pentheus in human form and gained possession of him.

A quote from Plato’s “Phaedrus”, a discourse on beauty and love, best characterizes Faust and all his ilk (Frollo in “Notre Dame de Paris”, Aschenbach in “Death in Venice” and Humbert in “Lolita” came to mind, although having not read the last two firsthand, I can’t be certain):

“He who is not newly initiated or who has become corrupted, does not easily rise out of this world to the sight of true beauty in the other; he looks only at her earthly namesake, and instead of being awed at the sight of her, he is given over to pleasure, and like a brutish beast he rushes on to enjoy and beget; he consorts with wantonness, and is not afraid or ashamed of pursuing pleasure in violation of nature.”(250e-251a)

Disappointment and disgust aside, there are many things I did enjoy about this work:

The Poetry

In his preface, the translator, Bayard Taylor, makes a strong case for translating and reading Goethe’s poetry in the original metres: The poetical affinity of the two languages provides “the possibility of reciprocally transferring the finest qualities of English and German poetry”.

“Goethe’s poems exercise a great sway over me, not only by their meaning, but also by their rhythm. It is a language which stimulates me to composition.”
— Beethoven

It’s no wonder Faust has been adapted into many different musical forms, such as songs, musicals, operas, and symphonies. There is a distinct rhythmic voice to each character in the play, complete with the accompaniment of choruses, perhaps an influence from the Greek tragedies.

The Satire

Goethe shows great sense of humor and satirical touch in this play. His political and social satire are poignant and humorous at the same time, and he spoke through Mephistopheles instead of Faust, partly because it befitted the character — Faust didn’t seem to have a humorous strain, partly because he wanted to deflect any potential backlash, as the few “unwisely frank” who “laid bare each thought and feeling, have evermore been crucified and burned”.

Art and Philosophy

There are jewels of insights on art, philosophy and psychology scattered throughout the play. They are like the promise of high experience and inspiration Mephistopheles used to trap Faust or the piece of jewelry the latter used to seduce Margaret. They charmed me into following the script to the very end, along the way I saw passages from which Kant, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche might have derived their ideas, and I wonder whether they too reached a disappointing end.


On the Speculative Life

I say to thee, a speculative wight
Is like a beast on moorlands lean,
That round and round some fiend misleads to evil plight,
While all about lie pastures fresh and green.

On the Mind

Truly the fabric of mental fleece
Resembles a weaver’s masterpiece,
Where a thousand threads one treadle throws,
Where fly the shuttles hither and thither.
Unseen the threads are knit together.
And an infinite combination grows.
Then, the philosopher steps in
And shows, no otherwise it could have been:
The first was so, the second so,
Therefore the third and fourth are so;
Were not the first and second, then
The third and fourth had never been.
The scholars are everywhere believers,
But never succeed in being weavers.
He who would study organic existence,
First drives out the soul with rigid persistence;
Then the parts in his hand he may hold and class,
But the spiritual link is lost, alas!

For just where fails the comprehension,
A word steps promptly in as deputy.
With words ’tis excellent disputing;
Systems to words ’tis easy suiting;
On words ’tis excellent believing;
No word can ever lose a jot from thieving.

On Church and State

There was a king once reigning,
Who had a big black flea,
And loved him past explaining,
As his own son were he.
He called his man of stitches;
The tailor came straightway:
Here, measure the lad for breeches.
And measure his coat, I say!

In silk and velvet gleaming
He now was wholly drest–
Had a coat with ribbons streaming,
A cross upon his breast.
He had the first of stations,
A minister’s star and name;
And also all his relations
Great lords at court became.

And the lords and ladies of honor
Were plagued, awake and in bed;
The queen she got them upon her,
The maids were bitten and bled.
And they did not dare to brush them,
Or scratch them, day or night:
We crack them and we crush them,
At once, whene’er they bite.



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