Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Faust Part One: The Official Haiku Review

While considering what European classic to choose next for my Remedial Lit Project, I knew I should find something by the German polymath* Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), a philosopher, scientist, poet, dramatist, and novelist. He is one of the foremost figures in German literature, and with his drama Faust he influenced many writers, artists, even composers. The Faust legend, of a man selling his soul to the devil for magical knowledge, is older than Goethe; I read the version by Shakespeare's contemporary Christopher Marlowe in college. But Goethe's reworking reflects a more modern concern with earthly knowledge, making it quite appealing for a modern age where science was becoming more and more prominent.

Goethe's Faust was published in two parts; the first in 1808 (although a fragment appeared in 1790), and the second after his death in 1832, as part of his collected works. Because that's how it was published, and that's how I got it from the library, that's how I will review it. So here's my reaction to part 1:

Faust seeks highest truths
But Satan tempts him with love
This doesn't end well

As I mentioned before, this version of Faust is a character obsessed with knowledge and learning the ultimate truths of the universe, not with wealth or power or the usual earthly temptations. He is despairing of ever learning enough to satisfy him and considers suicide before Easter bells recall him to himself. Enter Mephistopheles (aka Satan aka the Devil), who offers a deal: he will assist Faust in any way to achieve ultimate knowledge, and in turn Faust will give him his soul when he finds himself perfectly satisfied in his life. Faust takes that bet, believing that he will never be so pleased that he doesn't want to learn more.

Notice another difference from the original legend that makes Faust more sympathetic: not only is Faust searching for knowledge (not pleasure), he doesn't make a deal, he enters into a wager. But here's where it gets weird. Does the devil tempt him with the promise of discovery and knowledge? No; after a weird interlude teasing some hapless drunks, he takes Faust to a witch, gets him all rejuvenated, and has him fall in love with a maiden named both Margaret and Gretchen. (Thank goodness for footnotes, or I would have been lost.) Faust immediately forgets all else besides closing the deal with Gretchen, eventually leaving her pregnant and accidentally poisoning her mother and stabbing her brother to death. He runs away, seemingly forgetting the girl who used to be the point of all his thoughts, until after a strange Walpurgis night party with all sorts of political satire, Faust finally remembers the poor girl, who is now languishing in a prison after drowning Faust's bastard infant. Faust tries to escape with her, but she's too crazy and the play ends with a voice from heaven proclaiming she is saved.

Whew. That's one wacky, weird ending, and it definitely seems like a work that was written over the course of many years, there are so many differing threads in it. I will admit, however, that the language this scientist uses to describe everything around him is very poetic. This particular translation, by Peter Salm, eschews copying the rhyme scheme in favor of reproducing the "sense and spirit" of the text. It still felt poetical, though, with rich language and good rhythms that I enjoyed as I tried to make sense of the story. All in all, strange but interesting. We'll see how Part Two stacks up; Goethe spent even more time writing that part, so I'm anticipating all sorts of weird bits in that one.

*polymath="somebody with knowledge of many subjects." I love this word, but now I have to think of a different one for my "P" Word Nerd feature.