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In Praise of Classics: Goethe’s Faust

Written by: Nyko Morgan, Special to CC2K

Image When people ask me: ‘What is your favorite book?’ (For some reason, they do that a lot, so it’s not just a random starter!) I say: ‘Well, Faust. Goethe’s Faust.’ And I normally earn the most bewildered looks in return. ‘Why?’ is often the following question (in case the inquirer did not give up on me after the first answer). My response is always the same:

“Because never has someone put all the wisdom of this world in a more compact and amusing form.” Period.  

However, before going into detail in order to explain this statement, I want to make some rather formal points, which I consider quite important.

First, Goethe’s Faust comprises two parts. These are usually sold as two volumes and named (and we see the logic behind that) Faust, Part I and Faust, Part II. When talking about Faust though, most people only have the first part in mind, and in this article, so do I. Surely, the second part is also a masterpiece, but it does not attain the same level of grandeur as its predecessor.

Second, it’s not a novel but a play. German classic literature loved plays. (And despised novels…) This doesn’t mean it’s any less readable. Quite the contrary! It is intended to be read, rather than only performed on stage, where big parts need to be left out due to its length. Also, the characters and their dialogue can only unfold their magic in the direct form of a play. Furthermore, (am I rambling?) Goethe rhymed the whole thing, and the reader can find a steady lyrical meter. His overall language use is legendary, and I dare say no writer ever used the German language in a way he did. (Maybe Schiller would have stood the chance, but he died too early to be sure about that.) Thus the formal aspects of Faust might seem challenging – but they also constitute its singularity and beauty.

This leads us directly to point three. Goethe wrote in German. I am well aware of the fact that most of you would find it rather difficult to read the original. The translation of such a classic masterpieces though is always more than tricky. Therefore, I looked at several translations (see, all the hassle I go through!) and found a very good one on by Bayard Taylor. (There are more, but these are not as good!) I surely have to attribute to Mr. Taylor a certain genius for his work as well, for he did not only arrive at maintaining rhythm and rhyme but he also kept the humorous style and attitude of the play alive. Without these, the whole piece would be ruined! (Do I want to join in the discussion about the differences in American and German humor? Hmmm…no. But please tell me if you find the Prologue in Heaven just as amusing as I do!)

With the formalities finally out of the way, I will now tell you why you have to read this book and what makes it so very special. In Germany, Faust, is probably the best known piece of literature in the country. Uncountable idioms and metaphors derived from it are to be found in our everyday language…even without people being actually aware of what they’re quoting! Sayings like: “So that’s the poodle’s core” or “That seems to be the “Gretchen” question of the whole discussion” do not seem to make a lot of sense (unless you read the book –  then you’ll find out), but they’re frequently used!

And of course, as almost every student in Germany, I came across Faust in my literature class. Parents, friends and older siblings had not failed to manifest in me a high respect, not to say fright, in regard to this piece of fiction. Faust. The monolithic synonym of tortured students, highly philosophical discourse and incomprehensibility. Let me say this: Bullshit! I can honestly say that this book is highly relatable to any human being. One of its very appraisable accounts is its complex nature, working on a variety of levels. Surely the scholar will probably get more out of it than a 14-year old student. But everyone who truly tries to pick up this book without letting prejudices pre-form an opinion will find it worth reading.

Still, what is it, then, that makes Faust such an extraordinary work of genius? I would argue it’s not so much the philosophical thoughts and musings on human nature all by themselves. It is surely also not the plot, for that had been known for centuries (even before Christopher Marlowe). No. I say (and note the “I” for this is a highly subjective opinion) the genius lies in the using this story (that already existed) and creating it anew. He makes it come to life with fine humor and characters like Mephisto.

Thousands and thousands of pages have probably been written in account of this special servant of the devil. Here is a personal point of view: he looks at the world and mankind in a sarcastic way, not disrespectful but questioning. He holds a mirror on front of us, shows Faust (and us) the very foundations of our existence…maybe even unintentionally (Mephisto, not Goethe!!!). Although the initiation of this whole action is the eternal quarrel between Mephisto and the Lord about the true nature of the human being, it is not a religious work! Calling it religious would be far, far too easy.

As stated above, this work relates to many different aspects of the human condition. This might be due to the fact that Goethe himself worked on this piece for 36 years of his life and that he himself changed a lot throughout the period from being 21 to 57 years old. Thus, parts of it confront us with the thoughts of a young man, others with those of a much older and experienced person.

I have read it about a dozen times. (And this is not so much of an accomplishment as it might seem since my paperback edition only comprises about 140 pages. This proves my point about a ‘compact’ way of putting it all!) And every time I read it, I find a new aspect to think about, something to add to my understanding of the world.

So it seems to be a book which grows with its reader. The more we learn and understand, the more things we find in Faust to broaden our horizon a bit further. And we never stop learning. We are human. We don’t want to stop learning. Faust’s point proven! “That I may detect the inmost force / Which binds the world and guides its course.”

As the overall punch line of this book, I think it’s this: The human being wants to be more than it is. That is our great fault and our great advantage. It is the motor of our development and Faust – although depicted as being an extraordinary person of intellect – does more or less live in every one of us. Humanity does develop (and no one says that every development points into the right direction!), but that does not mean that it changes its nature. And because the questions of “who are we?”, “why are we?” and “what could we be?” are still unanswered, we are able to connect to the characters in this book. Written more than 200 years ago, it can still enrich our life. It would be a shame not to look in this masterpiece of literature for some interesting thought or answer…or question. Every speech act, paragraph, even line of this work is worth reading and reveals a whole range of aspects to feed the critical and ponderous soul.

In case all my thoroughly considered arguments and random ramblings could not convince you… just go pick up the thing and read it! You’ll see what I mean!