The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Faust (Goethe)

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1532968The Encyclopedia Americana — Faust (Goethe)

FAUST. Goethe's ‘Faust,’ a poetic tragedy in two parts, is unquestionably the greatest, though not the only, treatment of its fruitful theme. Goethe began work on it as early as 1774. In November 1775, he carried with him to Weimar a manuscript, commonly called the ‘Urfaust’ (‘Primitive Faust’), of which a fair copy was made by Fräulein von Göchhausen, a lady of the court. This copy, fortunately preserved, was discovered and published in 1887 by Erich Schmidt. Goethe's own first publication on this subject was ‘Faust, ein Fragment’ (1790), differing somewhat from the Göchhausen copy. Thereupon followed in 1808 the First Part of the tragedy. The Second Part was not taken resolutely in hand until 1827, and was not published until 1833, the year after Goethe's death.

It has been said that every age has its ‘Faust’ and that every poet writes his ‘Faust.’ If we disregard sundry mediæval analogues to the story, we may say that the original Faust was a semi-historical figure of the 16th century, perhaps one of the less worthy of the humanists—at any rate early reputed a magician, necromancer, something of a clown, and the victim of condign punishment for a dissolute life in league with the devil. So he appears in a chap-book of 1587, in popular dramas, and in puppet plays.

Some acquaintance with the traditional Faust Goethe acquired as a youth in Frankfort, Leipzig, and Strassburg, and the dramatic treatment of this problematic character was one of his first literary plans. What attracted him was of course not the vulgar marvels, or the lewd adventures, or even the supernatural powers attributed to the legendary Faust. Goethe saw in Faust, as in Götz von Berlichingen, one of the heroes of a spacious and expansive time, a man of like passions with himself, and a character which he could in infinite measure fructify with his own experiences and his own longings.

Goethe's Faust is a professor and scholar who aspires to penetrate to the essence of things. Unremitting application has made him master of all the knowledge that generations have accumulated. He knows his powers, but also his limitations. He has not found the key to unlock the mysteries of the universe and for this reason he has betaken himself to magic. By its aid he conjures up the spirit of that earth which he has been unable to comprehend. Nevertheless, he cannot bear direct contact with this spirit, which is too wonderful for him. The more readily, therefore, though disdainfully, he falls in with the proposal of another spirit, the mischief-maker Mephistopheles, that he seek enlightenment through experience in a field to which he has hitherto been a stranger, the field of life. Mephistopheles undertakes to introduce him first to the little, then to the great world. The reward for these services shall be the possession of Faust's soul, to be claimed when a moment arrives, so beautiful that Faust shall wish to prolong it.

This is the ground plan of Goethe's entire drama. The First Part comprises Faust's experiences in the little world, the Second Part, in general, those in the great world. The First part, moreover, best known and most admired, reaches its climax in Faust's seduction of Gretchen, one of the most pathetic tragedies ever written and one written with incomparable directness, simplicity and power.

The Second Part takes Faust to the imperial court, where he ingratiates himself with a frivolous emperor by arranging a pageant and by the invention of paper money. Here, however, Faust's eyes become opened to another great world which like a new planet swims into his ken. It is a part of the traditional story that Faust shall summon up the shades of great figures of the past for the amusement of his patrons and one of these is Helen of Troy—according to the chap-book, Mephistopheles procures him Helen for a concubine. But Goethe transforms the Spartan queen into the embodiment of the Greek ideal and when Faust has succeeded in his conjuration, he cannot refrain from seeking to make her his own.

The first instinctive effort fails. An explosion occurs which leaves Faust unconscious on the floor. In order to be united with Helen he must join her in her own sphere, and thither he must be furthered by a spiritual coadjutor as ideal as she is. His guide to the realm of antiquity is Homunculus, a spirit without a body, the product of German learning represented by Faust's former famulus, the pedantic but indefatigable Wagner.

In Sparta Faust ultimately finds himself the lord of a mediæval manor. Helen returns after the fall of Troy and for a brief but rapturous time she lives as the wife of Faust; until their son, Euphorion—a personification of the spirit of poetry whom Goethe was pleased to identify with Byron—perishes Icarus-like in consequence of his irresistible impulse to soar to the heights, and his mother departs with him.

The episode of Faust and Helen, published separately in 1827 as a “classic-romantic phantasmagoria, an interlude to ‘Faust’ ”, is, in the economy of the drama, a play within a play, and is surrounded with an operatic, even dream-like atmosphere. At its conclusion we find Faust once more in the German Empire. For aiding the emperor to put down a rebellion he is rewarded with the sovereignty over a tract of coastland. He reclaims an extensive domain from the sea, establishes a prosperous community, and confesses that in the prospect of benefit to untold future generations his supreme moment has come. He dies, but not to fall into the hands of Mephistopheles. Good spirits defend him; doctors and saints intercede for him; the spirit of Gretchen pleads for him; and as one who erred so long as he strove, but who strove, though blindly, so long as he lived, he goes to his reward.

The action above outlined constitutes a complete and consistent whole, and there is no reason for questioning Goethe's assertion that from the first he conceived the subject as a whole in essentially this form. Not only, however, did he give his work to the public in portions, but until the very last decade of his life he expected that it would remain a series of fragments. Even now it is fragmentary in execution, though not in conception. Some highly important links in the chain—such as, for example, a scene in Hades in which Faust secures from Persephone the release of the spirit of Helen—are left to be forged by the imagination. Indeed, ‘Faust,’ by contrast to the ‘Divine Comedy’ or to ‘Paradise Lost,’ goes forward by leaps and bounds, and conveys by implication as much as it sets forth explicitly—or more. Goethe's invariable habit was so to treat a situation or an incident as to give it a connotation of infinite relations. And as to ‘Faust’, he never wrote any passage or scene until he was ready to make what he wished to make of it for itself; and when he assembled passages and scenes written at widely different times, he gave them little or no editorial revision. From his point of view they needed none. Hence some inconsistencies, some undeniable difficulties, and even some irrelevancies.

But who would subject to rationalistic examination a plot that takes us from heaven through the world to hell, from Leipzig to Sparta, and from Troy to Missolonghi? Goethe's ‘Faust’ is a symbolical representation not merely of a type of character, not merely of the poet's own career, nor yet merely of the history of German culture in its richest period: ‘Faust’ is Goethe's encyclopedic comment on human life as such. The first words and the last bid us so regard it. It is a play: hence—after the dedication—a prologue in the theatre. It is a play, the chief character of which is a son and servant of God, no less representative of faithful humanity than Job: hence a prologue in heaven, in which the Lord gives Mephistophries the privilege of tempting the hero. It is a play, the acts and facts of which are neither more nor less real than the acts and facts of our whole mundane existence amid the vain shadows of things. Of this the final chorus mysticus assures us:

All things transitory
But as symbols are sent.

‘Faust’ is a poem; or rather, a volume of poetry which for form ranges—not even disdaining prose—from the homely Knittelverse (“doggerel rhymes”) of Hans Sachs to stately hexameter; for method, varies from the minutest realism to the boldest figuration of visions unseen and undreamed of before; and for substance crystallizes the saturated fullness of a life of fourscore years.

In fine, ‘Faust’ is Goethe's philosophical testament. Even his idiosyncrasies find expression here: his preference for neptunism over vulcanism, his abhorrence of pedantry, his impatience with contemporary mediocrity and Philistinism, his indifference to the empty framework of dilapidated institutions. But here he also gave utterance to his profoundest convictions concerning being, conduct, life, and destiny. Goethe can write cynically when he speaks for himself as well as from the lips of Mephistopheles. The “old heathen” could in his own person as little as in the person of his hero meet the test of Christian catechization; Faust does not reveal much capacity for repentance, and he reveals none for repining; he appears to be for the most part a ruthless self-seeker. Nevertheless, we may not unfairly call ‘Faust’ a Christian poem. Altruistic activity is the culmination of the course of Faust's development; altruistic intercession is not inoperative in his redemption; and the restlessly striving spirit in him works out its salvation because, consciously or unconsciously, it is ever drawn onward and upward by another spirit endowed with the divine attributes of goodness, love, and mercy. Translated by Bayard Taylor (Boston 1870-71) and by Anna Swanwick (London 1878). Edited by Calvin Thomas (Boston 1899). Consult Otto Pniower, ‘Goethe's Faust; Zeugnisse und Excurse zu seiner Entstehungsgeschichte’ (Berlin 1899); Veit Valentin, ‘Goethes Faustdichtung in ihrer künstlerischen Einheit dargestellt’ (in ‘Æsthetische Schriften,’ Vol. II, Berlin 1894); Jakob Minor, ‘Goethe's Faust; Entstehungsgeschichte und Erklärung’ (Stuttgart 1901); Friedrich Lienhard, ‘Einführung in Goethe's Faust’ (Leipzig 1913).

William G. Howard,
Assistant Professor of German, Harvard University.