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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
Faust and its author, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, developed side by side. The work is not an autobiography, but it reflects Goethe's intellectual development. (Goethe did write an autobiography, called Poetry and Truth, about his early life.) He began Faust when he was in his twenties, continued it at intervals- sometimes neglecting it for years at a time- until his seventies- and then worked intensively on it until just before his death, at eighty-two.
When you hear the name "Faust," you probably think of the story of a man who sells his soul to the Devil in return for supernatural powers. It's a story that depends on the Christian tradition for its plot, for Faust is a learned man who wants to know more than God allows man to know, and to gain superior knowledge, Faust makes a bargain with the Devil. Faust enjoys magical powers for many years, is entertained by an emperor, and lives with the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Troy. In the end, however, he has to go down to Hell with the Devil, who comes to claim Faust's soul, in accordance with their bargain. This traditional Faust story is a Christian cautionary tale- it warns that you will lose your eternal soul if you try to outsmart God. It's also a German story. There was a real Dr. Faustus, who lived in Wittenberg in the fifteenth century, but the truth about his life is impossible to disentangle from the legend. The Faust legend has been used by many writers, including Christopher Marlowe, whose Doctor Faustus was published in the early seventeenth century.
Goethe's Faust is very different from other Faust stories. His Faust is sometimes seen as opening up a whole new era of Western thought. Modern people, say some writers, have been cut adrift and are wandering aimlessly in a technological world, searching for meaning in life and striving for fulfillment. In previous eras people could find meaning and achieve salvation through religion. In the West it was through Christianity. But Faust, these writers assert, achieved his own salvation through action.
Goethe was born into a well-to-do family in Frankfurt am Main, Germany in 1749, in the middle of a century known as the Age of Reason, or the Enlightenment. Classical values dominated thought and taste in Goethe's youth. This means that the influence of Greek and Roman thought was strongly felt in education and culture. Goethe's early education, therefore, stressed Greek and Roman literature and the predominance of reason over feeling. There was no emphasis in Goethe's family on Christian value- Goethe's father did not consider himself a Christian- although the culture was steeped in religious tradition, and Goethe knew the Bible very well. Goethe's father sent him to the University of Leipzig at sixteen, to study law and absorb the values of the time.
But the young Goethe returned home after two years, suffering from mental strain. It may be that he was beginning to rebel emotionally and intellectually against Classical restraints, for he spent the next year or two in his Frankfurt home investigating some very unclassical ideas. His mother had taken up Pietism, a kind of fundamentalist Christianity that stressed the individual believer's direct contact with God. In addition, Goethe discovered the works of medieval mystics, who were sometimes described as magicians because they believed in a secret knowledge accessible only to those who had been initiated. These studies led Goethe to alchemy, which, in medieval times, had represented a genuine attempt to understand the world scientifically. In Goethe's time, the study of alchemy was in part a means of re-creating the past.
When Goethe returned to university studies, he went to Strasbourg, where he met a young theologian and philosopher named Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), who was beginning to make a mark in German intellectual circles. Under Herder's influence, Goethe became part of the Sturm und Drang ("storm and stress") literary movement that emphasized naturalistic, individualistic, anti-Classical feeling. (Classicism stresses form, structure, logic, and rational thought.) The Sturm und Drang writers were obsessed with the idea of liberated genius, sure that feelings were more important than intellect, and impressed with the simplicity of folk poetry. They believed in the natural goodness of man, admired William Shakespeare, and saw literature as a means of searching for the Absolute, or that which underlay all of existence. Most intellectual historians see the Sturm und Drang movement as a forerunner of Romanticism (which stressed feeling and nature) in the nineteenth century, but in its search for originality and abstract truth, the Sturm und Drang movement still had much in common with the Enlightenment. Bear in mind, however, that much of Goethe's writing, especially Part I of Faust, is usually thought of as Romantic.
In the early 1770s, Goethe wrote a novel in the form of letters, The Sorrows of Young Werther, which indulges in emotions to a point you may find difficult to tolerate now. At the end of the story, Werther kills himself because he cannot live with the woman he loves, who's already engaged. Werther, together with a play about a German outlaw hero, Gotz von Berlichingen, brought Goethe fame and established him as one of the leaders of the Sturm and Drang movement.
Almost incidentally, Goethe qualified as a lawyer during these years and practiced in Frankfurt, where he witnessed the tragic case of a young maidservant condemned to death for the murder of her baby. Goethe felt deep compassion for the girl, who suffered from the injustice of a social order that allowed men of the upper class to ruin girls casually. He may have had a pang of guilt himself, because he was something of a ladies' man. Throughout his life, from his teens to his seventies, he either fell passionately in love with women who attracted him physically or worshipped women with whom he felt a platonic (spiritual) affinity. When he finally married, in 1806, he was fifty-seven.
The young maidservant whose life was ruined became Gretchen in Part I of Faust. You can understand why he began writing it in the early 1770s, about the same time as his Sturm und Drang works. Faust was a rebel against authority who strove constantly to know and experience everything. He had immense courage, which the Sturm and Drang followers admired, and he was a figure straight out of German history. Another noted German dramatist, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781), had called for a play on the Faust theme and had even composed a scene himself. The addition of the Gretchen story brought to the work an element of folk simplicity.
But Goethe's Faust is no simple updating of the legend. His hero does not sell his soul to the Devil- he makes a bet with him, and the Devil, Mephistopheles, loses. Faust does not disobey God's commands, as he does in the legend. Goethe's God has complete confidence in Faust's good sense and gives His permission for Mephistopheles to tempt Faust in order to keep him on his toes. Goethe wrote a Faust that is definitely not a Christian cautionary tale. What, then, is it? You'll want to keep the question in mind as you read the work.
In 1775, Goethe's life was swept in another direction and he didn't return to Faust for many years. He was invited to live at the court of the young duke of Weimar, who wanted Goethe as a central attraction for the intellectual and artistic life of Weimar. Goethe was to spend most of the rest of his life there, writing, becoming involved with the theater, pursuing private scientific studies, and, as a favor to his patron, serving as an administrator for the tiny duchy. Goethe's friend Herder (who may have been a model for Mephistopheles) settled in Weimar, along with other writers and thinkers, who, with Goethe, made Weimar an intellectual center for the next half-century or so.
In 1786, Goethe did something surprising. He left the Weimar court abruptly and journeyed to Italy. He spent much of the next two years in Rome, where he studied the art of the Classical period, completing more than one thousand drawings of Classical statues and buildings. During his journey, about which he later wrote, Goethe immersed himself in the Classical style, but he did not turn away completely from Romanticism. Some of his works display a tension, an uneasy balance between the two styles. A drama such as Iphigenie in Tauris (1787) is unmistakably Classical, in theme as well as in form and style, but what about Faust? In Faust, Part II, a work of his later years, Goethe attempts a union of the Classical and Romantic in the marriage of Faust and Helen of Troy.
Goethe's Classical side gave him a love of order- social, political, as well as personal- that prevented him from admiring the French Revolution, which broke out in 1789, the year after he returned from Italy. While Romantic writers were hailing the new spirit in France, Goethe shuddered at its excesses. Safe and secure at Weimar, he published the first portions of Faust, called Faust: Ein Fragment ("Faust: A Fragment"), in 1790. He continued to write plays and novels, as well as some of the poetry that has earned him the title of the greatest lyric poet in the German language.
In 1794, Goethe began a friendship, almost a collaboration, with the poet and dramatist Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805). Goethe invited Schiller to live at Weimar, where they worked together until Schiller's death. Under Schiller's prodding, Goethe took up Faust and by 1808 completed what we know as Part I. Goethe, however, realized that what he had to say would require a second part, but he didn't immediately begin Part II. Faust languished again, until 1825. Pressure to return to it came this time from Johann Peter Eckermann (1792-1854), who had become Goethe's literary secretary in 1823 and immortalized himself by recording and publishing their talks together on literary and other subjects (Conversations with Eckermann, 1836-1848). Goethe wrote Part II of Faust between 1825 and 1831. He was then in his late seventies and early eighties.
It's not always easy to see Faust as a whole. Part I was the only portion of the drama published in Goethe's lifetime, and it became the basis for a popular opera by the nineteenth-century French Romantic composer, Charles Gounod, so that the general public began to feel that Faust consisted essentially of the Faust and Gretchen story and the bet between Faust and the Devil. The complete Faust was printed in 1832, as the first volume of Goethe's collected works published after his death. It is recognized as his masterpiece.
You now have the opportunity to take the same journey that Goethe took in composing Faust. Don't be afraid to make up your own mind about Faust, even if your conclusions differ from what others have thought. It is the mark of a masterpiece like Faust that it continues to yield new and exciting meanings as each generation of readers encounters it.
[Faust: Parts I and II Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]