Friday, August 21, 2009

Faust, Part Two: The Official Haiku Review

Because Goethe wrote his masterpiece Faust in two parts, that's how I decided to read and review it. The first part was a little confusing—at least, it wasn't what I expected at all. Goethe took over twenty years to write the second part, about ten years fewer than the first. Was it any clearer? Here's my official review:

Gretchen fails? Helen
May tempt the cranky old fart.
Never mind. God wins.

As you may recall from my review of part one, I was a bit perplexed that the Devil would tempt Faust—a scientist seeking ultimate truth—with nothing more than a tasty young morsel of German maidenhood. It didn't work, although we did see the poor girl rescued by angels after Faust abandoned her, accidentally killed her family, and left her pregnant. Faust went on, and Mephistopheles had to come up with a new approach to claim the scientist's soul. I eagerly anticipated a new strategy ... and instead saw the devil playing around with an emperor (presumably that of Germany) by advising him to sell shares in the treasures that lie buried on his lands. While these passages were amusing, reminding me of recent shady Wall Street shenanigans, Faust doesn't even appear until scene four, after a bunch of strange, mythological appearances. Then, challenged by the emperor to do something amazing, he conjures Helen of Troy, and of course falls promptly in love with her.

At this point, Satan is not striking me as a very creative character. In Act Two he uses Faust's dusty old study to create a homunculus, or artificial person, who eventually leads Faust to another crazy Walpurgis Night, this one inhabited by all sorts of figures from Greek mythology. Act Three, Faust finally wins Helen, by defending her castle from intruders. They reside happily in Arcadia until their son Euphorion appears, fully grown, only to fall to his death after trying to reach the sun, like Icarus. (It really helps to have read your Greek mythology before reading Faust.) Faust returns to the emperor and helps him achieve military victory in Act Four. Good for the emperor, but Faust doesn't seem to think it a big deal.

That leaves Act Five for Satan to try to claim Faust's soul. Does he offer understanding of the universe? No, we just see Faust as a cranky old man, ignoring the hospitality of Philemon and Baucis (another Greek story about hospitality) and pooh-poohing the military/political power he has gained from the emperor:

I merely raced across the earth,
Seized by the hair each passing joy,
Discarding all that did not satisfy;
What slipped my grasp, I let it go again
I have merely desire, achieved, and then
Desired some other thing. Thus I have stormed
Through life; at first with pride and violence,
But now less rashly, with more sober sense.
I've seen enough of this terrestrial sphere.
There is no view to the Beyond from here.

After that Faust glimpses a moment of bliss and dies, thwarting Satan's bet because he technically did not achieve perfect satisfaction. Since choruses of angels come down to argue the point and collect Faust's soul, Heaven triumphs, winning a wager that framed Satan's interactions with Faust. So never mind that Faust committed adultery and murder, God wins the bet so he goes to heaven!

If you're confused, join the club. It was evident that Faust is a work that was written over a lifetime, because it can't seem to make up its mind on anything. What's the plot? There doesn't seem to be much to the story beyond re-creating classic myths. Who's the hero? Faust the character is missing from half the story; Mephistopheles has the best part (if you were actually going to perform it as a play), but he loses in the end. I'm not sure why Faust is considered a classic; it may not successfully explored modern issues, but at least it made a very grand attempt. And it's hard to argue with Faust's conclusion, that modern man is never satisfied but is always striving for something.

As far as judging Faust as a work of poetry, there I'm in the dark. The library couldn't be bothered to purchase translations by the same person, so this time I had an Oxford University
Press translation by David Luke. While the Peter Salm translation of part one eschewed poetic scheme for keeping meaning, this translation goes all out in trying to reproduce the poetic effects. Rhyming couplets, varying rhythms, it's all there—and often to distracting effect. With great poetry (like the Dante translation I read last month), the rhyme sneaks in, enhancing the words and playing with sound. With mediocre poetry, you get distracted by the rhyme and the sing-songy rhythm as you overlook the rest of the words to get to the couplet. So I found it a lot harder to get into this translation than the other one, which had music and meaning to it even though it didn't rhyme.

There, I've spent almost as much brain power writing this entry and trying to figure out Faust as I did actually reading the stupid thing. But next time I'm going Russian: Anna Karenina is up, and hopefully it won't take me the rest of the summer to read it. All 50,000 pages of it.

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