Fantasy on Faust by Fortuny, Marià (1838-1874). Picture Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Faustian modernity

200 years ago, Goethe invented modern man

Artillery Row

This article was originally given as a speech following a performance of Goethe’s Faust by The Base Creates, a production company that seeks to discover, explore and reinvigorate great texts in the Western canon

After experiencing a performance of Faust, many of you may be thinking “what on earth just happened?” Goethe himself, upon hearing that an English visitor was endeavouring to read Faust, warned him against the enterprise, “It is mad stuff, and goes beyond all ordinary feeling…Faust is so strange an individual, that only few can sympathise with his internal condition”.

Faust’s character is perhaps the most difficult aspect of the play — we can enjoy the wild flights of picaresque fancy, the poking fun at authorities, the mad bacchanals of Walpurgisnacht — yet it is the strange, moody, almost adolescent Faust who drives the action, often in apparently baffling fashion. 

“The imagination has its own laws, to which the understanding cannot and should not penetrate”

The conventional tragic hero is an essentially noble character, undone by a fatal flaw, but Faust hurls himself into ever deepening depths of wretchedness, all in the name of a sometimes, for us, obscure motive — a wager with the devil that his restless spirit will never find peace, never discover a moment where it purely wills only to be where, when and what it is. 

I’m going to address, in brief sketch, Goethe and the text itself, but what I think is worth thinking about, as well as Faust, is the Faustian. The idea of the iconoclastic, subversive anti-hero is a sufficiently well-grounded idea in our cultural consciousness that it now permeates pop culture. He’s there in Marvel movies, from Iron Man to Dr Strange. He’s on TV, in everything from the BBC’s Sherlock to Dr House. 

As difficult a figure as Faust is, he is also clearly identifiable and compelling — something about him speaks to us in the modern age, and despite all his evident flaws, wreaths him in an heroic halo, an aura of valour and sympathy. 

To understand this strange, existential quest, clad is baroque garments, we must consider Goethe himself, and the times in which he lived. Born in Frankfurt in 1749, to a prosperous family, he was one of those annoying youths of overwhelming and unimaginable prodigy. He was studying law by age 16, having already written a play and a novel, which he subsequently burned in disgust. 

By 25 he was famous throughout Europe due to the publication of the Sorrows of Young Werther, about a youth who kills himself over an unrequited love. Young men started to dress like Werther. A number of them shot themselves in imitation of their literary hero. Napoleon Bonaparte took a copy with him on his unsuccessful Egyptian campaign. 

Goethe’s life and career are too extraordinary to summarise. When he wasn’t pursuing scandalous and doomed love affairs, he was living in his garden shed next to a mystical stone. He refused to attend the funerals of his own wife and children, all of whom died, as did almost all of his friends and contemporaries, who Goethe stubbornly outlived.

Faust, published in 1808, was an even more culturally transformative text, setting fire to the European literary world, and taking Britain itself by storm — but Goethe was resistant to many of the highflown romantic interpretations imposed upon it, complaining of Lord Byron that he “takes Faust to pieces”. 

Of course we English need not feel too hard done by, because Goethe seems to have had even less time for his fellow countrymen’s philosophic elevation of the text. He wrote “The Germans are, certainly, strange people” (I mean he’d know) he goes on: “by their deep thoughts and ideas, which they seek in everything and fix upon everything, they make life much more burdensome than is necessary”.

“They come and ask what idea I meant to embody in my Faust; as if I knew myself, and could inform them.” No one idea, Goethe goes on to suggest, can be used to explain the sprawling work. Goethe argues that the more “incommensurable” and “incomprehensible” a poetic production is, the better. 

Really, if I was a respecter of authorial authority, I should stop my speech here. But it is hard to credit that such an extraordinary, dense and allegorically rich play is empty of philosophical significance. Rather Goethe’s remarks are a sign pointing us away from one hermeneutical approach and towards another.

At the time Goethe was writing, the ideas of the Enlightenment were not only dominant, but increasingly militant. Revolution looms over Goethe’s life. Two years before Faust was published, the Holy Roman Empire was abolished and much of Western Germany fell under the rule of Napoleon — Goethe’s own house was looted by Frenchs soldiers who threatened him with bayonets. 

Goethe was thoroughly at war with Germany’s traditional religious, cultural and political establishment, but no less opposed to his country’s increasing submission to ideas coming from France — rationalism, materialism, reductionism. In their place, he sought to discover a German mode of modernity, one that extended not only to a an aesthetic and poetic language in creative tension with the dominant approach of neoclassicism, but equally a different mode of reason and scientific enquiry. 

Goethe, along with Schelling and Herder, developed a way of thinking about the natural world that I will try to inadequately sum up as “vitalism”,  — essentially that contra the mechanistic universe envisioned by Newton and Descartes, the world can be understood in organic terms, as alive and possessing mental qualities. This perspective, though, radical to our ears, in fact had a powerful influence on the development of modern science, inspiring a young Charles Darwin. 

For Goethe this organic mode applied equally to writing, as the philosopher Isiah Berlin says:

If everything in nature is living, and if we ourselves are simply its most self-conscious representatives, the function of the artist is to delve within himself, and above all to delve within the dark and unconscious forces which move within him, and to bring these to consciousness by the most agonising and violent internal struggle.

A work like Faust is not designed — it is grown. It is not the product of calculation, but rather a sort of divine inspiration that Goethe compares to “madness”, drawing upon the classical notion of artists and prophets driven mad when their minds and bodies are ravished by the gods. 

It is not that works like Faust are meant to be seen as empty of meaning and sense, but that they are not supposed to be dissected and reduced to their elements. Goethe writes: “The imagination has its own laws, to which the understanding cannot and should not penetrate”. 

A new kind of heroic, Western character, who has a boundless thirst for knowledge and a soul defined by a longing for the infinite

This vision of human culture and imagination as organic, rather than mechanistic, has a decisive influence on later thinking, not only in literature and the natural sciences, but perhaps even more consequentially on politics and history. Faust, specifically, grows far beyond the bounds of the text: he gives rise to the idea of the Faustian man, and of Faustian culture.

Unlike earlier versions, such as Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, in which Mephistopheles is the driver of the plot, and Faust’s soul is a battleground for spiritual warfare between good and evil spirits, Goethe chooses to put Faust in command of events. Though the play begins with an apparently similar staging — Mephistopheles gambling with God, like Satan in the book of Job, as to whether he can win Faust’s soul, Faust swiftly wrests control of events to his own purpose: it is he, not Mephistopheles, who determines the terms of their bargain.

And those terms, are extremely interesting and unusual. Faust proposes that, and I quote:

If ever, as Time flows by us, I should say: 

This moment is so beautiful – let it stay!’, 

that is the moment when you will have won. 

For me, the passing bell can sound, 

and from my service you’ll be free: 

for me, the clock will cease its round, 

and Time exist no more for me. 

For those of you interested in philosophy, you may already have picked up on the resonance — this is very similar to the idea in Nietzsche of the Ewige Wiederkunft — a moment of eternal recurrence. In the Gay Science Nietzsche writes:

What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness, and say to you, “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence” … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.”

We are here lighting upon the tremendous ambiguity of the play, and its implied metaphysics. One the one hand, there is an obvious “Nietzschean” reading. Faust’s bargain is in this sense very clever — if Metistopholes loses, Faust is no worse off, but if he “wins” he does so by achieving a sort of perfected human experience, of living so fully and absolutely that he, perhaps, has no need of heaven or hell at all. This is certainly the significance picked up on by Lord Byron, who writes his poem Manfred in partial imitation of the Faust — which sees a German noble, tortured by guilt, heroically choosing death over the afterlife. 

The heroic interpretation of Faust is incredibly influential, and Faust is taken as the type of a new kind of heroic, Western character, who has a boundless thirst for knowledge and a soul defined by a longing for the infinite. This sacralisation restless desire and ambition was taken by Oswald Spengler, writing in 1918, to be the central feature of Western civilisation. Spengler, in his profoundly influential theory of history, classes Eurasian civilisation into three categories — the “Apollonian” culture of ancient Greece and Rome, which emphasised an unchanging, cyclical history, and defined virtue in terms of balance and moderation. The “Magian” cultures of the Near East, including Persia, Arabia, Islam and Judaism, defined by a concern with essence, purity and oneness. And finally Western culture he called “Faustian”, and defined by exploration, discovery and perpetual expansion.

The dark side of Faustian modernity is starkly clear

But the cautionary elements of Faust remain fully present, indeed in some ways even more vividly and violently — Faust’s seduction of Gretchen, his murder of her brother, and the death and disgrace of Gretchen and their child, are unremittingly bleak and seem to undercut any straightforwardly triumphalist reading. Notably Gretchen, who is presented as a simple and pious Catholic, represents the values of a traditional social order that Faust thinks he can flout without consequence, and it is her corruption and destruction by Faust that are the central tragedy of the play. 

The dark side of Faustian modernity is starkly clear — ideas about the state as an organism and of Western Man as a godless superman, are played out to their destructive and ultimate extreme by the Nazis. The great German novelist Thomas Mann, brings out this side of Faust in his own telling of the legend, the novel Doctor Faustus, published in 1947. In the book, the protagonist, a composer (and clear allegory of Friedrich Nietzsche), makes a bargain with the devil in order to produce a sublime work of music, but ends up dying, syphilitic and mad, his family destroyed by his reckless desires and obsessions. 

Mann powerfully reminds us that Faust’s redemptive features are not only in his restless desire for knowledge and the infinite, but equally in his capacity for ferocious self critique and self knowledge. His tragedy and his glory is that he walks open-eyed into the trap. As Goethe’s Faust says of Mephistopheles’ offer of earthly pleasures: 

Yours is the bread that cannot satisfy; 

your gold runs through the hand like mercury; 

yours is the game that no one wins who plays. 

The girl you’d give me would, while she was mine, 

eye up the man next door, and the divine

joy of ambition falls like a shooting star. 

The play we have just watched is of course, only the first part — in the second, Faust will be tried before a celestial court, rescued by the divine feminine and be ultimately reconciled to God, who informs us at the start of the play that Faust “serves me now uncomprehendingly/But I shall lead him soon toward the light.”

The figure of Faust provides an extraordinarily powerful tool for thinking about the modern condition of life, a compelling lens that generation after generation of writers and thinkers have used to gaze upon our changing world. Whether we valorise or despise Faust, he is an important part of who and what we are as modern subjects. 

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