Saturday, October 11, 2008

Faust - 50 Greatest Books

James M. Skidmore
Globe and Mail
October 11, 2008

Goethe's Faust is a monster. Colossal in artistic and intellectual scope, the play is very long, more than 12,000 lines. A complete performance can take about 21 hours. That's nearly a day sitting in an uncomfortable theatre seat.

Worse, the hero himself is a monster. Heinrich Faust abandons his pregnant lover Gretchen. She, in turn, kills her baby in despair. He also kills her brother and has a hand in her mother's death, and that's just in Part I, the better-known portion of the two-part play. Charming stuff. But still, the play fascinates. Why?

Faust was not received with universal acclaim. A contemporary of Goethe's wrote that if a callous cad like Faust could receive redemption after what he did to Gretchen, then a pig that tramples a flower garden deserves to be the gardener.

But when Germany declared nationhood in 1871, Faust became an emotional benchmark for an ascendant German empire, and the play was hailed as the "second German Bible."

It has since gone beyond Germany's borders and been performed throughout the world. Faust's pact with the devil has attracted writers and readers for centuries. But Goethe's Faust doesn't sell his soul to Mephistopheles, he makes a bet with him: If Faust should reach a point of self-satisfaction, the devil may take his soul.

Faust thinks he has nothing to worry about. A non-believer, he isn't scared by the devil. And having grown weary of the learning to which he has dedicated his life, Faust doesn't believe the devil can give him what he craves: a transcendent moment of fulfilment that makes his existence worthwhile.

But that moment does come. At the end of Part II, Faust utters the fateful words of the bet — "Stay a while! You are so lovely" — when he realizes that his public works are laying the foundation for future prosperity. Mephistopheles wins the bet on a technicality.

However, since Faust's happiness is not self-interested but rather selfless, and the poor devil can't even keep his hands on Faust's soul — angels distract Mephistopheles with their naked behinds — Faust rises into heaven to be reunited with Gretchen. A similar moment occurs in Part I, when Faust discovers sincere and genuine love after a conversation and kiss with the innocent, enchanting Gretchen. The moment is all too fleeting, however.

Faust is sidetracked by Mephistopheles, love turns to lust and, only at the end, as Gretchen sits in a dungeon awaiting her execution, does Faust try to save her. But Gretchen's dignity demands that she accept her guilt, and Faust ends up saving only himself (spoiler alert: God intervenes to redeem Gretchen).

Faust is very much part of the post-Enlightenment discourses of Europe. What was to come after abandoning the church and beheading the French king? In England, applied science and technology ruled the day, and the Industrial Revolution was born. Not so in Germany, where post-Kantian Idealists tried to overcome the divide between subject and object, between self and the world. But Faust is not just an exercise in philosophy. At heart, it is a very human story, drama in the best sense of the word.

Here is a man who is like us: Torn by opposite impulses but wanting it all, he blunders and harms those around him. His idealistic, romantic struggle is what endears him to us despite his horrible deeds. He yearns for a moment of exhilarated unity with creation, but in the end learns, as we must, that human existence is not fulfilled by such peaks of experience, but rather by the very striving for them.

James M. Skidmore is chairman of the Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies at the University of Waterloo.

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