Tag Archives: Goethe

Reading Faust – II: On the Faustian Pact

In a beautiful essay called The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality, the great philosopher Bernard Williams examines our very human desire to live forever. He concludes (inter alia) that our mortality is precisely what gives our life the meaning that it has. You will notice, at once, that this is the very anti-thesis of Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. Williams neither affirms nihilism in the face of the imminence and inevitability of death, nor advocates peace in a kind of Stoic acceptance. In fact, for Williams, the Sisyphean allegory would be a gross distortion of the human condition. Because our lives are short, because time is fleeting, because nothing lasts for ever, and not even a very long time, life has the beauty and the meaning that it does.

The title of the piece comes from a famous opera by the great Czech modernist composer, Janecek, written between 1923 – 25. Elina Makropulos, born in 1585, has been using an age-defying potion that has allowed her to live for three hundred years, in perpetual youth. And having lived so very long, Elina has come to a point where she is defined by one thing, and one thing alone: apathy. This apathy – or ennui – is reflected in her attitude towards love, in particular, her treatment of her multiple suitors: her falling asleep while one of them pleads his case, her Lysistratan coldness towards a second that she spends a night with (albeit blackmailed to do so), and her callous indifference on hearing that a third has committed suicide after having been spurned. And as the potion wears off, Elina realises that such a life is not worth living. Even though she has the formula that will allow her to live for another three hundred years, she rejects it, offering it to those around her. Nobody takes it, apart from one of the characters, who does so only to cast it into the fire.

This is a gross oversimplification, and omits many crucial plot points and dramatic turns, but it will do. The idea, as Williams points out, is that a mere extension of our physical lifespan will not change the other ways in which we are composed, the other things that make us human – and all of that is entirely at odds with immortality, or even with an inordinately long life-span. Not only our bodies, but our tastes, our passions, our desires – all these, to use a beautiful expression from Swinburne, “endure for a breath”. It is a long lifetime, not a short one, that would trivialise them to the point of irrelevance.

To take a very different example, recall the spacers in Asimov’s Robot novels. Having migrated from earth, living elsewhere in the galaxy, they have also managed to increase their lifespans to Makropulos levels. And for all their posturing, for all their sense of superiority, for all their contempt of “short-lived humans“, do you not sense a deep, profound bone-weariness in them? Asimov treats this brilliantly by showing us that in the Spacer society, because of their inordinately long life-spans, love as a concept has vanished from the lexicon, and from lived experience. “Sex is boring!” complains one of the characters, and proceeds to copulate with a robot (leading to the central conflict in the story), because she looking for something new, something that hasn’t yet been rendered prosaic, everyday and quotidian by repeated identical experiences.

That brings us to the Faustian pact. Recall that Faust offers up his soul in return for experiencing that one moment that he could wish would last for eternity.

When thus I hail the Moment flying:
“Ah, still delay—thou art so fair!”
Then bind me in thy bonds undying,
My final ruin then declare!

What are we to make of this?  Well, first of all, Goethe himself writes, elsewhere, these famous lines:

Alles in der Welt lässt sich ertragren,                                                                                            Nur nicht eine Reihe von schöen                                                                                             Tagen.”

I believe that the accurate translation is “Nothing is harder to bear than a succession of fair days.” At the very least, that captures the essence. Think about it. Keats’ one kiss wouldn’t really yield him the eternal bliss he craves if it simply goes on forever, would it? In other words, we long for a moment that we would long to last forever, but if that desire comes true, then the very raison d’etre of valuing that moment so much would disappear.

This is the interesting paradox. While Faust is asking for a moment that, with its beauty, would so entrance him that he would find himself wishing that it lasted an eternity, he isn’t asking for it to really last an eternity. He can’t be. To bring it back to Williams, it is the very momentariness of these moments that makes them as beautiful, as precious, as rare as they are. And while they do last, they last not as moments, but as memories. That is what gives them their unique, exquisite, bittersweet flavour: they aren’t dead, they aren’t gone, but nor do they exist entirely. They live in a twilight zone, somewhere between substance and shadow, between reality and dreams, between world and word. The moment is beautiful not only for what it gives us, but also for how we are destined to remember it through the trackless years, with longing, with desire, and a whole smorgasbord of complex emotions that would also include, at times, pain, regret and loss. If that was to go, swallowed up by the moment itself, as it stretched on interminably through time, there would be so much that we would lose! Wouldn’t we?

And so, when in the throes of some deep and beautiful emotion, we spontaneously say something such as “How I wish this could last forever!“, what we have actually picked out and identified is, contrariwise, the very fleetingness, transience, impermanence of the moment in which we are living. That is what makes such instants what they are. And that, I think, is what makes the Faustian pact so… perfect. Goethe realises this, and so he has Faust exchange for his soul that most profoundly beautiful of all conceivable human experiences, a moment so wondrous in its momentariness, that notwithstanding the complete irrationality of the wish, it nevertheless compels you to wish that it would last an eternity.

I would joyously give up my soul for such a moment. Wouldn’t you?

(To be contd.)

A synopsis of that brilliant opera, The Makropulos Affair: http://www.leosjanacek.co.uk/makropulos.htm

Bernard Williams’ essay (only an abstract, unfortunately; it’s available in hard copy in his book, Problems of the Selfhttp://ebooks.cambridge.org/chapter.jsf?bid=CBO9780511621253&cid=CBO9780511621253A012

A one-page synopsis by Camus on The Myth of Sisyphushttp://www.sccs.swarthmore.edu/users/00/pwillen1/lit/msysip.htm

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Filed under Bernard Williams, Goethe, Philosophy, Romanticism

Reading Faust – I

Recently, I read Bayard Taylor’s translation of Goethe’s Faust. I’d like to discuss a couple of rather fascinating issues that I think the poem/drama raises. I understand, of course, that I’m not a Goethe scholar or even a literary critic, but nonetheless…

Within the pages of Faust, I was held spellbound by what found to be the central conflict at stake: not one about the saving of souls or the damnation thereof, but the conflict between two world-philosophies, two radically opposed ways of looking at the world and our place in it: enlightenment and romanticism. To put it very, very crudely, the philosophy of reason against the philosophy of sentiment. Kant against Rousseau. The philosophers of the Enlightenment, which had its apotheosis in the 18th century, believed that reason, rationality and science, these were enough to reveal everything there was to know about the world; and that sentiments were a burden, a drain, a curse that, like the flesh dragging down the soul, lowered reason to their own brute level. Romanticism reacted against this view of the world (think of Rousseau’s Emile), instead choosing to place the sentiments, the emotions, the passions on a pedestal (recall, again, Keats’ elision of “truth” and “beauty” – the beauty of a nightingale’s song – in Ode to a Nightingale). In Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, for instance, he speaks of the “imagination” with the reverence that you would normally accord to a deity. The conflict is revealed, most starkly I think, by these beautiful lines from Keats’ Lamia:

Do not all charms fly

At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made

The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.

The image of science “unweaving the rainbow” is beautiful, bitter, heartbreaking – and justly famous.

With this background, let us examine the text of Faust.

Mephistopheles sets the scene in the Prologue, in his confrontation with God. Referring to man, God’s own creation, with utter scorn, he echoes a very Rousseau-esque view, that our reason is the cause of our suffering:

How men torment themselves, is all I’ve noted.
The little god o’ the world sticks to the same old way,
And is as whimsical as on Creation’s day.
Life somewhat better might content him,
But for the gleam of heavenly light which Thou hast lent
him:
He calls it Reason—thence his power’s increased,
To be far beastlier than any beast.

Of course, this is the devil speaking, and we can dismiss his words without much concern. But then the scene shifts to earth, and in his first monologue, Faust recounts all his years of scholarship, his expertise over a vast swathe of realms of knowledge, only to find:

that nothing can be known!
That knowledge cuts me to the bone.

He longs to stand upon a high mountain, bathed in moonlight; floating over meadows in twilight; to be liberated from the “fumes of lore”; he curses the dungeon he’s in, the “worm-eaten” dusty books, and cries out: “Such is my world. And what a world!” The imagery and the metaphor combine to give us an overwhelming sense that knowledge is a burden, an oppressive weight upon the heart, and that freedom lies far, far away from books.

Later in the same scene, Wagner comes in, the quintessential young enlightenment scholar earnestly seeking truth in texts, and this is how Faust admonishes him:

Is parchment, then, the holy fount before thee,
A draught wherefrom thy thirst forever slakes?
No true refreshment can restore thee,
Save what from thine own soul spontaneous breaks.

The last line is extremely interesting, for spontaneity was the one thing that Romanticism valued above all else (recall Keats famously telling us, if poetry does not comes not as naturally as Leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all). Spontaneity, free imagination, as opposed to calculated reason.

And lastly, at the end of the scene, when he recalls his own religious experience, Faust breaks out, in lines of astounding beauty:

A sweet, uncomprehended yearning
Drove forth my feet through woods and meadows free,
And while a thousand tears were burning,
I felt a world arise for me.

A “sweet, uncomprehended yearning“. Burning tears at something whose beauty we cannot plumb, cannot understand with human faculties of reason, but a beauty that we simply sense by virtue of being human, and in fact, it is the sheer inexplicability of that beauty, our inability to fathom it, that draws us to tears. That is the new “world aris[ing” for us, a world that in its very mystery and wonder, like the weaved rainbow, is at its most beautiful.

This then, is Faust. The greatest scholar in all the world, who now finds his scholarship a canard, his knowledge useless, all his expertise a waste, and longs for something else entirely, something he cannot even give a name to.

And Faust recognises the duality, the dichotomy, the irreconcilability of his situation, of the human condition. Walking in the countryside, with Wagner being, well, Wagner, Faust puts the issue starkly:

Two souls, alas! reside within my breast,
And each withdraws from, and repels, its brother.
One with tenacious organs holds in love
And clinging lust the world in its embraces;
The other strongly sweeps, this dust above,
Into the high ancestral spaces.

And this is where Mephistopheles comes in. Back in his study, Faust is in agony. He feels the pull of the opposing impulses, he feels himself torn asunder, tossed this way and that upon the spindrift of doubt, he cries out:

One yearns, the rivers of existence,
The very founts of Life, to reach…

And, immediately afterwards:

Why must the stream so soon run dry and fail us,
And burning thirst again assail us?

Faust is in this state of mind when Mephistopheles reveals himself. And notice what it is that Mephistopheles promises:

My friend, thou’lt win, past all pretences,
More in this hour to soothe thy senses,
Than in the year’s monotony.
That which the dainty spirits sing thee,
The lovely pictures they shall bring thee,
Are more than magic’s empty show.
Thy scent will be to bliss invited;
Thy palate then with taste delighted,
Thy nerves of touch ecstatic glow!
All unprepared, the charm I spin:
We’re here together, so begin!

Notice the use of words: ‘senses’; ‘pictures’; ‘scent’; ‘palate’; ‘nerves’; ‘ecstatic glow’; it is a direct appeal to the passions, to the “non-reasoning” part of ourselves – in other words, to the appetites.

And when Mephistopheles comes back for the second time, Faust is in even greater agony. Such agony, in fact, that he longs for death, that he renounces everything in the world, and in a passage that could be right out of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, endorses a world in which it is impossible to feel anything, just a… neutral void:

Though some familiar tone, retrieving
My thoughts from torment, led me on,
And sweet, clear echoes came, deceiving
A faith bequeathed from Childhood’s dawn,
Yet now I curse whate’er entices
And snares the soul with visions vain;
With dazzling cheats and dear devices
Confines it in this cave of pain!

Cursed be, at once, the high ambition
Wherewith the mind itself deludes!
Cursed be the glare of apparition

That on the finer sense intrudes!
Cursed be the lying dream’s impression
Of name, and fame, and laurelled brow!
Cursed, all that flatters as possession,
As wife and child, as knave and plow!

Cursed Mammon be, when he with treasures
To restless action spurs our fate!
Cursed when, for soft, indulgent leisures,
He lays for us the pillows straight!
Cursed be the vine’s transcendent nectar,—
The highest favor Love lets fall!
Cursed, also, Hope!—cursed Faith, the spectre!
And cursed be Patience most of all!

It’s a wild, passionate outcry, but Mephistopheles, of course, is having none of it, and he offers Faust a way out of the pain. His service in this world for Faust’s soul in the next. And what will the Faustian pact be? What will Faust ask for? As the tension builds to an unendurable pitch and as the stakes are raised beyond all reckoning, this is what Faust asks for, in this quatrain of quite astounding poetic power:

When thus I hail the Moment flying:
“Ah, still delay—thou art so fair!”
Then bind me in thy bonds undying,
My final ruin then declare!

In other words, if Mephistopheles can give to the world-weary, anguished Faust one moment that he wishes will last for eternity, the bargain is complete, and Faust will relinquish his soul.

I will have more to say about the nature of the Faustian pact in a subsequent post, but for now, let’s only notice that again, this idea of “living in every moment“, and of longing that a single moment of delight lasts forever, is a classically Romanticist idea. Again, I call upon Keats, from Endymion (admittedly, not entirely apposite, but it will serve, and there are more than enough similar lines scattered around the corpus of the Romantics):

Now a soft kiss – 
Aye, by that kiss, I vow an endless bliss.

So Faust, the paragon of Enlightenment scholarship and learning, is giving it all away for a single moment that will bring him to the pitch of sensual delight. And if there was any doubt about it, here it is, confirmed, after the bargain is struck:

The thread of Thought at last is broken,
And knowledge brings disgust unspoken.
Let us the sensual deeps explore,
To quench the fervors of glowing passion!
Let every marvel take form and fashion

Through the impervious veil it wore!

And this sublime use of the chiasmus:

I take the wildering whirl, enjoyment’s keenest pain ,
Enamored hate, exhilarant disdain.
My bosom, of its thirst for knowledge sated,

Shall not, henceforth, from any pang be wrested,
And all of life for all mankind created
Shall be within mine inmost being tested:
The highest, lowest forms my soul shall borrow,
Shall heap upon itself their bliss and sorrow…

Because, at the end of the day:

I feel, indeed, that I have made the treasure
Of human thought and knowledge mine, in vain;
And if I now sit down in restful leisure,
No fount of newer strength is in my brain:

I am no hair’s-breadth more in height,
Nor nearer, to the Infinite.

Knowledge is a lie, Faust says, an illusion, a deceptionif the ultimate aim is to understand the Infinite, that famous “oceanic feeling” that Freud refers to, then the Enlightenment is not going to lead us there. 

Faust, thus, has triumphantly affirmed romanticism and rejected the Enlightenment. And he is a powerful spokesman. But what are we to make of it all? Because the moment he goes out of the room, Mephistopheles reverses everything in his soliloquy:

Reason and Knowledge only thou despise,
The highest strength in man that lies!
Let but the Lying Spirit bind thee
With magic works and shows that blind thee,
And I shall have thee fast and sure...

And suddenly, it’s the devil who is affirming reason, the “highest strength” in man, and gloating that he’s going to use “magic works” to “blind” Faust (surely, a symbol for passions blinding reason), and triumph over his soul in this way. And also, notice this: when he was talking to Faust, Mephistopheles made the argument that sensual delight is more than “an empty magic show”; now he uses the same language, and repudiates himself: “with magic works and shows that blind thee…” At this point, as a reader, I found myself rather disoriented and confused, and completely unsure about where my own sympathies lay in this tug-of-war. Perhaps that was the idea.

(To be contd.)

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