Running With The Devil: Goethe’s Faust

faust grant wentzel

So I joined a book club.  Like most good things in life, what we want and what we find we need are different things. Had I the chance to chose a book club from a menu of gatherings, I never would have jumped into one that likes to bite into the classics.  I would have kept it pop, kept it current. Maybe something focused on the confused mutterings of 30-something American boys who write to purge their own lonely maladjustment.  The sort of navel-gazers who wallow indefatigably in their inability to live up to the expectations of the 20th/21st century. You know, guys like me.

I would have been wrong and I would have been shortsighted. There’s a reason you should read what your professors once proposed on those forgotten reading lists. Of course, that list of books you should have read is longer than the day is long, the shadow cast by great writers darker than the night.  But if you take them one at a time, it’s not so bad. And the secret is that most writers are pretty modern after all.  The trappings of technology march on, but human nature slithers slowly.

Goethe’s Faust is based on the age-old tale of a man who hears that rhetorical question of Christ (“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”) and decides to find out for himself. So he makes a deal with the Devil and then things go rolling inexorably down hill.

So consider me surprised to find that such a black-and-white plot should set the stage for a tale layered thick with moral ambiguity. Although wrapped in Christian trappings, Goethe claimed no fealty to the cross. (Or, in his youth, to much of anything.) While it’s tempting to read the scholarly Faust as the hero, or even as Goethe himself, our protagonist might be just as much Mephistopheles.  When you put your words in the mouth of the devil — a devil who’s job it is to deceive — it’s tricky to untangle what the reader ought to believe.

The only clear moral principle is this: Never rest! Never be satisfied! Always act, and always do! That’s not something you’d find in the Bible. It’s opposite of Paul’s “content in all things” and the Our Father’s humble “give us this day our daily bread.” But it is what Goethe has God decree, what Faust strives for, what the Devil tries to trick him to forget.

I expected a fairy tale, but instead I found a work of poetry about appetite, ambition, love/lust/loss, and the proud-pawn state of a thoroughly modern man. There’s nothing dusty about that. Just ask David Lee Roth:

I found the simple life ain’t so simple
When i jumped out, on that road
I got no love, no love you’d call real
Ain’t got nobody, waitin’ at home.

I live my life like there’s no tomorrow
And all I’ve got, I had to steal
Least I don’t need to beg or borrow
Yes i’m livin’ at a pace that kills

I’m running with the Devil…


7 Replies to “Running With The Devil: Goethe’s Faust”

  1. *Spoilers*
    Was it surprising to you that Faust isn’t denied heaven? For all his transgressions and just because of trying?

    That to me is where you see Goethe as the artist – he understands the beatified nature of effort.

  2. Grant, love this post! When I was flirting with an English major took many lit courses and studied critical theory (it also fit in my philosophy and religious studies interests). Alas, the canon however was something to be understood as a tool of repression and therefore looked at through various critical theories, but not spent much time actually reading. The program I was working with was focused on modern lit.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. At OSU I took an IQ test for somebody’s research project. One of the questions was ‘Who wrote Faust?’ I asked if I could spell it cause I had no idea how to pronounce Goethe.

    I also found out you’re immediately disqualified when the tester person gives you the ‘are you retarded’ eyebrows.

    I went looking for a copy to purchase, found one and put it back on the shelf when I saw it was verse not prose.

    Great story, I know.

  4. Kingtycoon –

    Honesty alert – I only read Part 1, but Rocki picked up a copy of Part 2 as well, so I’ll probably get around to it. However, the conclusion of Part 2 came up in discussion, and no, I wasn’t surprised. It it is a fitting conclusion to Faust’s life, seeing as he abides by the “Principles Of Action” if you will, until the end.

    Interestingly, Goethe goes so far as to re-write the Gospel as a prelude to that very goal, having Faust change “In the beginning was the Word” to “In the beginning was the Deed.”

    The irony of course is that he has Faust inherit a Christian heaven as a reward from a Christian god by following some rather un-Christian principles and doing un-Christian things. But it is internally consistent. (It also doesn’t bother me much as my theology has a romantic twist and is one in which surely Grace doth abound. But that’s just me, I doubt such feelings were typical of the 18th-centruy Lutherans.)

    I like your phrase, “beatified nature of effort,” it prioritizes the process over the product. Frankly, it’s something I have to learn. I’m so hung up on doing something “perfect” that I usually produce nothing at all.

    On to Part 2!

  5. Shel –

    (Left ya a joke about “flirting with English majors” on your blog!) Too bad that your program was so cynical about the merits of the canon. Mine probably revered it too much. I did have one professor who believed that no literature can speak to you better than that of you own time, however he’d certainly admit that the reader’s emotional response is only one criteria among many. (Though without it the rest is bound for the bin sooner or later.)

    I miss those misspent hours of my college days, but I do wish I’d had a bit more focus and left with a sharper skill set or some sort of portfolio. I didn’t even take the guitar that seriously until a few years later.

    Still believing that late blooming buds blossom the best.

  6. Tim,

    When the idea of reading Faust first came up, all I could think was, “One of those endless poems, no frickin way.” But it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. The translation I read – by David Luke – was great. He’s witty, likes to play with words. (Example that comes to mind: The witches were performing “hoke-and-poke.”)

    Lots of quotable nuggets too. On the relationship between a work of art and the audience: “They’ll hear your words and think them revelation, each will find something in it to excite him, for what he see’s already there inside him.”

    That’s the key to the success of every pop song ever.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *