Sunday, December 9, 2012

Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

MEPHISTOPHELES: Be done with nursing your despair,
Which, like a vulture, feeds upon your mind;
The very meanest company bids fair
To let you feel a man among mankind.
It's not that we propose
To toss you in among the rabble.
I am no ranking devil;
But let us say you chose
To fall in step with me for life's adventure,
I'd gladly, forthwith, go into indenture,
Be yours, as well as I know how.
I'm your companion now,
And if this meets with your desire,
Will be your servitor, your squire!

FAUST: And for my part--what is it you require?


MEPHISTOPHELES: Never you mind, it's much too soon to worry.


How does one review Faust?  It took Goethe's entirely life to complete it, and seemingly contains every thought, every idea, every feeling that he felt was important to human existence.  It's so immense, so bizarre, so full of things to talk about that it defies description.

The story, at least at the beginning, is very familiar: The scholar Faust sells his soul to the demon Mephistopheles in exchange for endless knowledge and power.  In most versions of this story, this will predictably come back to bite Faust in the ass, but Faust isn't that kind of book.  By the end of the book, the deal that Faust makes with Mephistopheles seems quaint, and pretty much forgotten.

There are two parts: The first is a tragedy, in which Faust uses his powers to seduce a young woman named Margarete.  She has his child, but kills it, and dies for it, although it seems that at the very end she is redeemed.  This story is heart-rending, and Faust's tearful visit to the mad Margarete in her cell just before her execution is pretty hard to take:

MARGARETE: Day!  Yes, day is here, it dawns so gray;
This was to be my wedding-day!
Tell no one that Gretchen was yours already,
My poor wreath's shredding!
What's done is done!
We shall be one,
But not at a wedding.
The crowd is thronging, no word, no laugh;
The square is milling,
The streets o'erfilling.
There tolls the bell, they break the staff.
How they pounce on me, bind me!
Already I am on the scaffold laid,
All necks shrink back from the winking blade
That will glint and find me.
Mute lies the world like the grave!

Now, this part of Faust is strange.  The whole thing is written like a play, but the stage directions are so ornate and the number of parts so monstrous that it could never possibly be performed.  There are lines attributed to figures like "This World's Child" and "Prontophantasmiac" and a talking soap bubble.  There are some talking marmosets.  But at least the overall story of what Faust inflicts on Margarete is recognizable as a genre tragedy.

The second part, however, infinitely ramps up the weirdness.  Faust now finds himself in the court of an Emperor, to whom he and Mephistopheles offer their services by, among other things, introducing paper currency.  Then Faust, in his role as the Master of Revels for the Emperor, has Mephistopheles conjure up the image of Helen of Troy, falls in love with her, and spends a huge chunk of Part II searching for her to be his lover.  Then he returns to the Emperor's court and spends the rest of his life on an urban development project using the power of the sea to build a great city.  There are really great moments--like when Mephistopheles murders an innocent old couple at Faust's behest because their home is in the way of the development--but it's impossible to confine all of those moments into one major narrative.  (Or so it seems to me; I'm sure others have tried.)

I don't mean that it doesn't hang together, but rather that the work as a whole is so ambitious and so bizarre that the issue of "hanging together" seems irrelevant.  Goethe called it an "incommensurable" work--it can't be measured--and I think I agree.  If I've spent this entire review just telling you what happens in it, it's because I have no idea how to approach it or evaluate it, and if I wanted to, it would probably take me a lifetime.

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