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Enlightenment and entitlement in Goethes Faust

 Enlightenment and entitlement in Goethes Faust

(Yes, this contains spoilers, but come on, its a classic. You can manage.)

Where even to begin with this one? Faust is one of those tales that you know without necessarily having read it: its echoes and influences are everywhere, no doubt because its central theme is something that we all carry around with us. Its perhaps even more relevant today, really, when you look at our constant push for betterment and knowledge and fulfilment, and Im fully aware of the irony of picking this one up out of a desire to fill in the many gaps of my reading history. It struck home in a good many ways, to be honest, and lets just say that Im going to be very wary of black poodles from here on in.

Faust, of course, is the tale of the eponymous fellow who, in his disregard for the limits of human knowledge and his scathing opinion of what we do know, strikes a bargain with Mephistopheles, who agrees to expand his experiential boundaries to the fullest extent of which Faust is capable. The upshot? If Faust experiences a moment of true happiness amongst all of this, Mephistopheles can claim his soul. Faust, however, believes that this surely cant happen: how is it possible, he wonders, that heor any humancan find true happiness?

What the reader takes from Faust will likely depend on the version that they read: the version I read was the Bayard Taylor translation of Part I, which ends tragically for Faust. (Things are apparently quite different in Part II, but I cant comment on that). Parts I and II were published separately, however, and are each able to stand on their own, so never fearyou can get by with reading half the book. Who needs all that extra knowledge, anyway? If youre desperate, you can always call on the Devil.

Anyway, Bayards translation, which he asserts is as close to the original as possible and which maintains the originals metre and rhyme, is surprisingly readable, and its remarkably easy to get caught up in Fausts unending shenanigans. In part I think that this is because Faust is so applicable to the lives we lead today. When we meet Faust, hes a despairing fellow whos devoted his life to science and learning, but to little avail. His awareness of the world is intellectual, not applied, and theres a striking disconnect between his knowledge and his actual understanding of how things work.

Theres a sense, almost, of Fausts innocent, untested nature: an immaturity that lurks beneath all of his book smarts, and I think its something that broadly applies to our world today. Were credentialed and were full of knowledge, but really to what degree are we ever asked to apply that? Fausts alienation and dissatisfaction resonated with me as I considered the increasingly isolated lives we lead and our escape into notching up knowledge and assets and so on without any real understanding of what to do with all of this when its in our hands. Even God gets on board, telling Mephistopheles to go and have his fun, because Faust will come around in the end. Well, not in Part I, he doesnt. Faust is willingly led astray: hes arrogant and full of pride, and hes never had consequences thrust in his face before, because hes never really ventured out into the real world.

The Devil, after all, is a fairly charming enabler, and Faust is drunk on the power afforded by having such a chap on his side, and also the fact that the horizons of his existence are pretty much endless. He becomes lawless and deceptive, and his overtures towards young Gretchen are pretty creepy: he effectively tries to buy her love, and then through his bacchanal hedonism ruins her life. Nice guy. Although this sort of thing doesnt necessarily occur in a literal sense around us, there are definitely parallels regarding our widespread sense of entitlement and our expectations about the sorts of lives we should lead.

Fausts obsession with agency is interesting as well: the whole deal with the devil thing comes about after he rewrites the biblical phrase In the beginning there was the Word to read In the beginning there was the Deed. There are a few things going on here that are interesting: Faust is, one, basically claiming superiority over God by rewriting scripture, and hes also emphasising action and experience over knowledge. Even though Fausts mephistophelean bargain is for eternal knowledge, it doesnt really play out that way. Really, he throws away all of the trappings of his study and knowledgethe stuff for which hes treated with reverenceto run around like a madman. Our veneer of civility, then, seems pretty thin: would we throw away what arguably makes us human in return for the change to go about wilfully and unfettered? Well, according to the dozens of retellings of this oneyes.

Whats perhaps most affecting about the book, however, is the fact that Faust sees true happiness as something thats unattainable. His adamant rebuttal of the Devils suggestion that he might well experience happiness as a result of his journey is quite telling: even with his greatest dream granted, Faust is certain that happiness cannot be achieved. Its a pretty damning indictment, but at the same time, does he have a point? If we did become truly happy, if we did reach some sort of enlightenment, would there be any purpose of our being here? To justify our continued existence, it almost seems that there has to be some sort of collective unhappiness or disquiet. Which I suppose is exactly what the Buddhists argueand seek to overcome.

Anyway, on another note entirely, circling back to the very beginning of the book, I couldnt help but take note of these lines, which speak volumes about the conflicted relationship between art and commerce, and which are painfully, painfully apt in todays world:

[But] the wider circle he acquires, the more
Securely works his inspiration


You do not feel how such a trade debases;
How ill it suits the Artist, proud and true!

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  1. such a wonderful book, Im glad you got to experience it

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks, Michael! Im planning on picking up Part II shortly, and I also have a copy of Marlowes Dr Faustus to read. Because I am a huge nerd.

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