Wednesday, 31 August 2016

On the tension between the ancient world and the modern in Goethe's Faust (1770-1832)

In the two parts of Goethe’s Faust, written between 1770 and 1832, the archetypes of classical and modern are paired and contrasted in explicit lines of dialogue, in structural terms, in the forms of the story’s figures, and within the varied nature of the play’s poetry itself. To examine how Goethe treats the pre-modern and the modern in Faust is, by necessity, also to look to the age in which he worked on this lifelong project, to the classical history that went before it, and to the work’s future resonances and the extent to which it pre-empts modernity, particularly in the literary sphere. Addressing both context and text will aid an understanding of how Goethe engineers, develops and bridges the tensions between the world of antiquity and the world of modernity in Faust.
It would be appropriate to begin with the scale and degree to which these tensions exist; it would be nothing new to state that they are so large they threaten to engulf the whole work, denying it any sense of a coherent whole -- right down to the most basic, fundamental level of dividing it into two distinct parts. Faust I (1808) takes place initially and even predominantly in a ‘kleiner Raum’ (4,055), by which is meant a microcosmos rather than merely Doctor Faust’s study, his ‘gotischem Zimmer’ (stage direction, Nacht); the world is identifiably late medieval, Faust is at least partially both counterpart and Wittenberg contemporary of Luther’s, and a Germano-Nordic aesthetic permeates the whole, even down to given geographical details such as Leipzig or the Brocken. There are classical references (both Icarus and Helios in Vor dem Tor), though they are few and mostly centre on antiquity’s unattainability in an otherwise medieval milieu. For all that he is a rationalist, Enlightenment scholar, this Faust is descended from the more clearly medieval figure of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1604) and originally from the Faustbuch (1587). Almost the entire play is from his point of view; it is subjective and tightly focussed. In contrast, Faust II (1832) ranges far and wide in an expansive macrocosmos, from Northern Germany to the Aegean Sea and the Upper Peneus, to a Holy Roman Empire palace in the Pfalz back to a medieval ‘laboratorium’, from battlefields to Arcadia to Menelaus’ palace at Sparta; it offers a classical Walpurgis Nacht to counteract the medieval one of Faust I; it is populated by swathes of figures from classical mythology. Faust is absent, sleeping, comatose or, eventually, dead for large parts of this half; he is almost an irrelevance, and the story is certainly not related from his perspective. Where Faust I unfolds in dark Germanic villages, shadowed rooms and witches’ kitchens, Faust II sees its principal characters soar from gleaming palace rooms to glimmering green pastures to vast mountain ranges. In a number of respects, the two halves of this work could not be more different, and, inevitably, that produces a tension of its own: what is Faust? What do we understand it as doing? What kind of single unified work contains such irreconcilable opposites?
Casting the two halves as ‘opposites’ in this manner - with differing aesthetic concerns - is tempting, if only because it might paradoxically lend Faust greater thematic unity. Gretchen in Part I - the medieval, balladic archetype of seduced young innocent - is obviously paralleled with Helena as the pinnacle of classical beauty in Part II; each offers an alternative “idea” of the female as object of desire. Gretchen is a Christian character in a Christian story, being led astray from which path is her tragedy; Helena is an icon of Platonic beauty, the ultimate attainment to die for. The world Faust is born into is a ‘Kerker’ or prison; locales in Part I tend to be limited or claustrophobic; and Germany’s university life is portrayed as festering and cramped: ‘beschränkt von diesem Bücherhauf/Den Würme nagen, Staub bedeckt’ (402-3). Faust’s heart-rending realisation ‘weh! Steck’ich in dem Kerker noch?’ (398) illustrates that there can be no escaping it. But in the following play he does just that. Faust II opens with its protagonist awakening from a Heilschlaf in which he has forgotten all about Gretchen’s tragedy, so that he can move forward into a larger world; he wakes ‘auf blumigen Rasen’ and when Ariel sings to him, his voice is ‘von Äolsharfen begleitet’ (stage directions, Anmutige Gegend), whilst Part I ended with an intimate yet desperate cry of Faust’s little-heard, and rustically Germanic, first name (‘Heinrich! Heinrich!’, 4,612). It takes no great leap of imagination to see these two worlds as straightforwardly distinct and opposite - medieval bad, classical good - and that broadly fits the historical arc of human thought: did not Aufklärung, the Enlightenment, mean coming out of the dark and into the light, out of ignorance and into knowledge, out of the frustratingly small world into the awe-inspiringly vast?
But of course Faust I and Faust II are not simply “opposites”, each offered up as an alternative, as two takes on the same material. Written over a course of sixty years, it is small wonder that they are no great fit for one another; yet throughout the former, one can see Goethe approaching the latter, whilst the latter proceeds from and builds upon its predecessor. The structure of Faust I already reflects what is to come in Faust II, and how these ‘höheren Regionen durch würdigere Verhältnisse’[1] will build on the smaller world of Faust I: moving ever outwards from his ‘gotisches Zimmer’, Faust finds himself in the street, in pubs, in gardens, and eventually in a forest. The surrounding environments slowly open up ever wider until, in Faust’s post-coital moments in Wald und Höhle, as in that rare moment of satisfaction he states ‘du gabst mir, gabst mir alles/Warum ich bat’ (3,217-18), he reaches the same doubts after consummation as Aeneas does after sleeping with Dido, in another time and place but also in a cave in a forest (Aeneid Book IV). The classical framework is already starting to intrude as the medieval world unravels; in Part II the medieval and the classical merge, and as one ‘enfolds’ the other, so too is it ‘enfolded’[2] by it. There are other connections: Helen of Troy is prefigured in Part I (‘du siehst, mit diesem Trank im Leibe/Bald Helenen in jedem Weibe’, 2,603-4) and appears properly in Part II; Mephisto returns to Faust’s old study, sees the same quill with which the wager was signed, wears Faust’s old clothing, and discovers that the student in the drama’s early scenes has now graduated and Faust’s famulus Wagner is now eminent; Gretchen intercedes for Faust as Part II closes, mirroring the first part’s ending; and so on.
So far, however, only disparate instances of individual styles have been cited; a classical element here, a medieval aspect there. In Part II, the two worlds interact, that is to say, they enfold one another; an interaction which ‘surfac[es] into beautiful clarity in Act III, at the heart of the play’[3]. This sequence sees Goethe most explicitly dealing with ‘the relationship of Modernity with Antiquity, of Romanticism and the modern world with the classical past’[4], and doing so in every possible way: from the setting to the mythological figures right down to classical forms of verse. Rather than the Knittelvers which predominates in Part I, poetry as the historical Faust’s contemporaries, such as Hans Sachs (1494-1576), would have written it, Goethe turns instead to unrhyming iambic trimeters, trochaic tetrameters and choral verse, all of which appear in Act III (indeed, Helen is taught how to rhyme); Erichtho speaks once more in the six-feet unrhyming iambic lines of classical trimeter in the Klassische Walpurgisnacht, which is more jovial, self-mocking, and ironic than its moody northern counterpart, more cheerful and less frightening. Thus the zenith of Germany’s 18th- to 19th-century love affair with Ancient Greece: in the magnum opus of the man who becomes, in effect, the national poet, an eighth of the play and around 1,500 lines are devoted to a maelstrom of mythological creatures, and the most famously beautiful woman of the ancient world is revived in the Rittersaal of the German Emperor at the hands of a scholar from Wittenberg. To see this as a major attempt to bring antiquity into the everyday, to resolve the tensions between pre-modern and modern, is not mere conjecture; in 1827, as he neared the end of his work on Faust II, Goethe wrote that he hoped ‘daß der leidenschaftliche Zwiespalt zwischen Klassikern und Romantikern sich endlich versöhne[5].
If Faust the man represents a critique of an egotistical, claustrophobic modernity, perhaps the invigoration and enlightenment which the Romano-Grecian mythos offers the world is the prescribed solution (which is, of course, more or less what happened to the Germany of the Enlightenment, in that by rediscovering the language of antiquity a humanist revival was born). It goes without saying that this is a learned play, a ‘Gelehrtentragödie’; it is logical, then, that the restless scholar finds his answers in high art, in learned culture: Virgil, Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Herodotus, Apollonius of Rhodes, Lucan, Ovid, all of which and more appear in Faust II. Helena’s beauty makes Faust’s life ‘wünschenswert, gegründet, dauerhaft’ (6,492) as though antiquity illuminates his present; it is Ancient Greece which wakes him from his coma (‘kehret ihm das Leben wieder/Denn er sucht’s im Fabelreich’, 7,054-55; ‘frisch ein Geist durchglühte’, 7,077); modern life is somehow irrigated and lit by that which lies further back. By the end of Faust I, in the wake of the Gretchen tragedy, it seemed as though the German scholar was doomed to die; in Faust II, after his encounters with the classical world, it seems that he is no longer damned. Does culture, then (by which is meant predominantly classical European culture), become not so much a source of tension with the modern world as the life-giving nourishment it so desperately needs, a spring of freshwater for us thirsting moderns?
Perhaps this is the case. But it still leaves us at sea with regard to the question of what kind of work Faust is: the last gasp of antiquity, or the onset of modernity? Whether or not the prescription helps Faust the character, does Faust the work truly, actively resolve the tensions discussed above, and if so, does it come down on one side of the fence or the other? Harold Bloom wrote that ‘from a Western perspective [Faust is] an end rather than a beginning’[6], suggesting that for a work so ‘grotesque’, ‘unassimilable’ and ‘strange’ there must be some quality which redeems it, which renders it so ‘universal’, and eventually identifying this elusive element as the degree to which Faust is mythopoeic along the same lines as William Blake and J.R.R. Tolkien. Whilst we shall let slide the fact that Tolkien’s mythopoeic work does not appear until more than a century after Goethe’s death, Bloom’s focus on mythopoeia seems to obscure the degree to which Faust is a beginning as well as an end. Caught up with wondering why we find it alluring, Bloom neglects why it is also so grotesque and unassimilable: the degree to which it is neither a product of antiquity, nor a product of modernity, but an ungainly thing that straddles the two. Faust is, to misquote Saint Paul, groaning in the birth pangs of modernity. It is things falling apart; it is a mélange of frequently unconnected scenes that give birth to Büchner’s Woyzeck and Dantons Tod, to Brecht’s episches Theater. It is a phantasmagoria, placing Olympian myth alongside Scheherazade’s Arabian Nights, Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Barca and the Biblical book of Job. It is the giddy madness of interludes within interludes, of time travel, of intermezzos comprising forty-four satirical quatrains, of allegorical masques, of cantatas, of revels, of dramatic monologues, of operas and operettas, of oratorios, of dance, of solos, of choral songs… Suffice to say, we could not be further from Marlowe, let alone Aristotle’s Three Unities of time, action and place.
What we are closer to is, as mentioned above, the work of playwrights such as Büchner and Brecht: scenes which appear to be unrelated to one another, or do not flow logically, or are presented in a chronological sequence which is not strictly possible. Faust II is a ‘play of episodes, not organic development…a montage of scenes, which is to say of images, that illuminate, qualify and even contradict one another’[7]. Faust ultimately dies in a farcical scene with comedy gravediggers borrowed from Hamlet: at least Shakespeare had the old-fashioned Aristotelian common sense to keep tragedy and buffoonery on different pages! High seriousness meets scurrility, irony meets operatic digressions… thanks to these bizarre shifts of tone, these frequently ridiculous juxtapositions, Faust’s scenes function almost in paratactic isolation, as ‘discrete stanzas, each asking to be read in itself’[8]: indeed the non-chronological nature of the work’s composition sometimes means that scenes not even intended for Faust (such as the Walpurgisnachtstraum) became inexorably absorbed into its bulging, heterogeneous whole. The degree to which Goethe shifts from verse-form to verse-form, Shakespearean iambic pentameter one moment, terza rima à la Dante the next, with alexandrines in-between, is dizzying. Opening with a discussion of how a play ought to be conceived and performed, the work is vividly self-aware: at a later stage Mephistopheles knowingly digresses on the pop culture perceptions of devils (‘auch die Kultur, die alle Welt beleckt/Hat auf den Teufel sich erstreckt;/Das nordische Phantom ist nun nicht mehr zu schauen,/Wo siehst du Hörner, Schweif und Klauen?’, 2,495-8), and more than once it is suggested he knows of the audience’s existence. Several narrators appear, implausibly, distinct from the notion of a Greek chorus, and narrate the action in lyric rather than letting it be shown to us as drama, or narrate whilst acting, just as they will do in Brecht’s plays. Where Marlowe’s play was content to mock the Pope, Goethe’s goes so far as to mock God; Mephistopheles calls him ‘tierisch’ (286) and compares him to a cicada (‘Zikaden’, 288), clearly unthinkable propositions in the historical Faust’s day. What antiquity, even what medievalism, we may find in Faust has been fractured by modernity’s onset almost beyond belief.
One critic wrote that this great work was ‘set by the gods as a boundary-stone to mark where the past ends and modernity begins’[9]; even laying to one side the unconvincing certainty of this image, it is not exactly an unpopular one. Citing Goethe as ‘the great modern… for his liberation of the subject, for his analysis of technology, for his scientific views, for his psychology, for his formal innovations, even for his political stance’[10] is no especially revolutionary act. Matthew Arnold saw him as a manifestation of modernity’s essence[11]; David Wellbery calls Goethe’s poetry ‘the first and clearest embodiment of the new psychic constellation of its age’[12]; and Marshall Berman finds him modern for exploring existence as change, a constant act of becoming[13]. To return to Bloom and his assertion that Faust is ‘an end rather than a beginning’, it would pay to remember that endings are beginnings, and beginnings endings; in my end, if we invert another poet, is my beginning -- and at the still point there the dance is. Goethe’s Faust is a kind of still point, a crystallisation into amber of a unique century, a full 60 years of whose wars and revolutions flowed into it: that great one hundred years of doubt from 1750 to 1850, taking us from secularism’s first mutterings to The Origin of Species, during which intellectuals from Voltaire onwards were relatively certain that religion did not explain existence but were forced to live without scientific proof why this was the case. And yet within that same still point Faust is quite the most remarkable dance.
The aforementioned dream-like quality, scenes as loosely connected images, and the sensation that the work dances giddily before you as you read, is part of why Faust makes as much sense, if not more, as a poem as it does as a play (and by giving us three very distinct prefaces - lyric, dramatic, and epic, in that order - it is as though we are being invited to wonder which Faust is). As both poet and playwright, Goethe is at home with the lyric and the dramatic; on the former, Constantine writes that its ‘very nature is to go out into other identities, to entertain them as possibilities, never to foreclose’[14]. Lyric’s ‘glimpsed alternative’[15] is key to accepting the work’s ever-shifting styles and moods as it moves between antiquity and modernity, shifts we could not accept on the literal level; the preponderance of irony means nothing is quite dismissed but nothing given primacy either.
It is this same uncertain state of being play, poem and epic which renders Faust so ‘grotesque’ and ‘unassimilable’: how can one possibly approach a definition of its genre or its moral? How can one possibly identify whether its tensions are resolved or continue to hang in the balance? It may be that it is a striving as futile as Faust’s even to try, but it compels a response. If we continue to think of Faust as distillation and progression, still point and dance, we may accept its incommensurables. It carries the arc of history within it, history with which Goethe was endlessly fascinated: Gothic architecture, Shakespeare, ballads, Homer, Aristotle, his historical dramas, his love of classical poetry and Ovid in particular, geology as ‘history of the earth’, the history of thinking about colours, and so on. Antiquity haunts Faust the work and Faust the man. As the Renaissance created a new age from Antiquity, through palingenesis bringing about rebirth, as the Reformation overhauled the church to rediscover a more elemental, unadulterated quality that had been lost, and as we persist in deploying ‘neo’-isms in our cultural history (neoclassicism, neomodernism), so too does the ancient world recur in Faust, recreated and reinvigorated in Goethe’s poetry as the wheel turns: ‘history is always more of the same, but in elaborated new form’[16]. Not content merely to be haunted by antiquity, Faust is also haunted by modernity: our own. As already explored, the spectre of Western literature that is to come casts a long shadow back over its pages. This produces tension, yes, and it writhes dramatically, painfully, throughout Faust; it stretches the protagonist, the man who is ‘dem modernen Wesen so analog’[17], almost to breaking point (‘Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach! In meiner Brust/Die eine will sich von der andern trennen’, 1,112-13). And yet the whole does not break. It retains hold of its contraries and opposites, and actively embraces them. That it does so makes it neither ancient nor modern; it somehow transcends both, is satisfied and dissatisfied with both. While still remaining irreconcilable, they are reconciled.

Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig / Auerbachs Keller Leipzig

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, Faust (ed. Albrecht Schöne), Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 2005.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, Faust. Der Tragödie erster und zweiter Teil. Urfaust, commentary by Erich Trunz, C. H. Beck, 1986.

Secondary literature:
  1. Barry, David T., “Accommodating ‘Helena’: Reading Goethe’s Faust II at the Intersection of Weltliteratur and his Late Morphological Writings”, in The Modern Language Review, Vol 108 No 4, 2013.
  2. Bennett, Benjamin, “The Classical, the Romantic, and the Tragic in Part Two of Goethe’s “Faust””, in Studies in Romanticism, Vol 19 No 4, 1980.
  3. Bishop, Paul (ed.), A Companion to Goethe’s Faust: Parts I and II, Columbia, 2001.
  4. Boyle, Nicholas, Goethe: The Poet and the Age, Volume II, Clarendon Press, 2000.
  5. Boyle, Nicholas, “Goethe’s Theory of Tragedy”, in The Modern Language Review Vol 105 No 4, 2010.
  6. Brown, Jane K., “When is Conservative Modern?: or, Why Bother with Goethe?”, in Modern Language Studies, Vol 31 No 1, 2001.
  7. Byatt, A.S., Preface to English translation of Faust, Penguin, 2005.
  8. Constantine, David, Introduction to English translation of Faust, Penguin, 2005.
  9. Hoffmeister, Gerhart (ed.), The French Revolution and the Age of Goethe, Georg Olms, 1989.
  10. Jaeger, Michael, Wanderers Verstummen, Goethes Schweigen, Fausts Tragödie, Oder: Die große Transformation der Welt, Königshausen & Neumann, 2014.
  11. Kaiser, Georg, Ist der Mensch zu retten? Vision und Kritik der Moderne in Goethes »Faust«, Rombach, 1994.
  12. Krippendorff, Ekkehart, Goethe: Politik gegen den Zeitgeist, Insel, 1999.
  13. Molnár, Géza von, “Hidden in Plain View: Another Look at Goethe’s “Faust””, in Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol 35 No 3, 2002.
  14. Orle Tantillo, Astrida, “Damned to Heaven: The Tragedy of “Faust” Revisited,” in Monatshefte, Vol 99 No 4, 2007.
  15. Rehder, Helmut, “The Classical Walpurgis Nacht in Goethe’s “Faust””, in The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol 54 No 4, 1955.
  16. Sharpe, Leslie (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Goethe, Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  17. Scherer, Wilhelm, “Betrachtungen über Goethes Faust”, in Goethe-Jahrbuch Band 6, 1885.
  18. Schulte, Hans; Noyes, John; & Kleber, Pia (eds.), Goethe’s Faust: Theatre of Modernity, Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  19. Vazsonyi, Nicholas, “Searching for "The Order of Things": Does Goethe's "Faust II" Suffer from the "Fatal Conceit"?, in Monatshefte, Vol. 88, No. 1, 1996.
  20. Watson, Peter, The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution and the Twentieth Century, Simon & Schuster, 2011.
  21. Wellbery, David, A New History of German Literature, Harvard University Press, 2005.

[1]Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, cited in Boyle, Nicholas, “Goethe’s Theory of Tragedy”, in The Modern Language Review Vol 105 No 4, 2010.
[2]Phelan, Anthony, ‘The Classical and the Medieval in Faust II’, in A Companion to Goethe’s Faust: Parts I and II (ed. Paul Bishop), Columbia, 2001.
[3]Constantine, David, Introduction to English translation of Faust II, Penguin, 2005.
[5]Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, Faust. Der Tragödie erster und zweiter Teil. Urfaust, (quotation cited in commentary by Erich Trunz), C. H. Beck, 1986.
[6]Bloom, Harold, cited in Byatt, A.S, Preface to English translation of Faust, Penguin, 2005.
[7]Constantine, David, Introduction to English translation of Faust, Penguin, 2005.
[9]Gutzkow, cited in Brown, Jane K., “When is Conservative Modern?: or, Why Bother with Goethe?”, in Modern Language Studies, Vol 31 No 1, 2001.
[10]Brown, Jane K., “When is Conservative Modern?: or, Why Bother with Goethe?”, in Modern Language Studies, Vol 31 No 1, 2001.
[12]Wellbery, David, “Faust and the Dialectic of Modernity”, in A New History of German Literature (ed. Wellbery), Harvard University Press, 2005.
[13]Berman, Marshall, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity, Verso, 1983.
[14]Constantine, David, Introduction to English translation of Faust, Penguin, 2005.
[15]Heaney, Seamus, The Redress of Poetry, Faber & Faber, 2002.
[16]Brown, Jane K., “When is Conservative Modern?: or, Why Bother with Goethe?”, in Modern Language Studies, Vol 31 No 1, 2001.
[17]Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, cited in Boyle, Nicholas, “Goethe’s Theory of Tragedy”, in The Modern Language Review Vol 105 No 4, 2010.

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