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God who is no God: Goethe’s Faust

What results from taking the oft-trod Faust story and power it not with the loving yet unyielding God of traditional Christianity but with the numinous god of the Romantic age? That result, I would argue, is Goethe’s Faust. Widely considered the pinnacle of German literature, Faust strikes this reader as a rather anemic piece of work compared with Marlowe’s play from two centuries earlier. In fact, the Marlowe telling of the Faust tale seems considerably more current than the Goethe version, which, like a great deal of Romantic writing, has not aged well.

Caught between an age of faith and an age that has effectively jettisoned faith, the Romantic finds himself stuck calling upon the trappings of religious belief while not truly believing in them in any meaningful way. The god to whom Goethe calls is more a zeitgeist or an internal spirit. Early in Faust, Goethe puts these words into the mouth of a spirit:

You wish to hear my voice, and see my face:
The mighty prayer of your soul weighs
With me, I am here! – What wretched terror
Grips you, the Superhuman! Where is your soul’s calling?
Where is the heart that made a world inside, enthralling:
Carried it, nourished it, swollen with joy, so tremulous,
That you too might be a Spirit, one of us?
Where are you, Faust, whose ringing voice
Drew towards me with all your force?

Several of the terms here, “the mighty prayer of your soul,” “the Superhuman,” or “soul’s calling,” might have  proceeded from the pen of Emerson at his most effusive. Despite the supernatural presence of the spirit and, later, Mephistopheles, the spiritual aspect of these characters seems almost incidental to the overall poetic project  that Goethe undertakes. As Mephistopheles answers Faust’s questions concerning his identity, the terms are far more those of German Idealism and far less those of the Christian tradition.

I’m speaking the truth to you, and modestly.
Even if Man’s accustomed to take
His small world for the Whole, that’s his mistake:
I’m part of the part, that once was – everything,
Part of the darkness, from which Light, issuing,
Proud Light, emergent, disputed the highest place
With its mother Night, the bounds of Space,
And yet won nothing, however hard it tried,
Still stuck to Bodily Things, and so denied.

The irony that derives from Marlowe’s exchanges between Faustus and Mephistopheles comes from the audience’s understanding of the accepted truth of the religious grounds on which their discussion takes place and the manner in which the demon perverts that truth and deceives Faustus without absolutely lying. If there is any irony to be found in Goethe’s rendition, it comes from the intellectual puffery inherent in Romanticism, the sort of thing that has Wordsworth discovering messages hidden under the stones in the meadow where he had hidden them earlier in the day.

In the end, the main emphasis in Part One of Faust is the rationalization that Faust undergoes in seducing the young Margaret/Gretchen character. Such a process of self-justification hardly needs a demon looking over the main character’s shoulder. And the religious question–will Faust be saved or damned?–never seems to be in play. Unlike in Marlowe’s telling, Goethe’s account never appears to seriously consider that Faust might be damned. In fact, his contract with Mephistopheles is portrayed as no more weighty than a choice of wines at dinner.

Robbed of a meaningful deity yet unable to simply ignore the deity, Goethe creates verse that, for this reader, lacks any real substance, despite its technical merit and the beauty of various passages.

Posted in German Literature, Romanticism.

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