Why Faust?

By Joseph T. McGarry, MD

The Faust blooper reel contains an interview with a German exchange student. He joined us for a shoot on Upper Beaver Creek in the Beaver Creek Wilderness Area. I asked him if he had studied Faust in school, and he said: “Fortunately not.” He had watched half of a black and white film before falling asleep.

I don’t think his indifference is uncommon. “Faust” is a play written 200 years ago. It is long. The language is at times difficult. The Greco-Roman mythological figures are obscure to most of us.

 As I encourage you to read the transcript on the website, I’d like to acknowledge criticisms of the play and then point out some of the things that endear it to me. The most common criticism I have heard is that Goethe and “Faust” are irrelevant and hard to understand. I have tried to make the play more understandable in my retelling of the story. I think its content is very relevant.

As I write this we are suffering the COVID-19 pandemic. Before it, other diseases threatened us: HIV, HepC, Herpes, polio, the 1918 influenza, and, at the time of “Faust,” the plague. In the scene: “An Easter Walk,” Faust is honored by all for what he and his father did to help them in the time of illness. He is a brilliant academic, who is disillusioned and discouraged by his achievements. He wishes to know nothing less than what holds the world together in its most inner part. The plague serves as objective evidence of this lack of knowledge and impotence. His father, he and others gathered herbs and plants from the fields in the hope that they would be useful in combating the plague, but they had no idea of their efficacy. People continued to die despite their efforts or because of them.

We have learned much in public health since then about the benefits of sanitation, isolation, quarantine, social distancing, and personal protective equipment. Yet we too will try many things, e.g. chloroquine, azithromycin, antibodies, and vaccines before we find our most efficacious treatment.

The scene “Easter Walk” begins with Faust watching the townspeople emerge from their cold, dark homes into the warmth and sunshine of a glorious Easter morning after being incarcerated for the winter. They are gaily and colorfully attired as they go for walks into meadows, and they look like human spring flowers on the hills. In 2020 we too look forward to a similar liberation from our isolation.

The death toll of Covid19 has been staggering. Goethe lived a long life, 1749-1832. What he said in a letter regarding the losses he had experienced seems apropos to now: “The circle of people closest to me seems to be like a cluster of leaves that are consumed one after the other by the flames of life. Thus moment to moment makes more precious those who remain.” So illness, death, suffering, and hope are a starting point in defending the relevancy of “Faust.”

Let’s move away from Covid19 to other more common themes of human nature. In the “Dedication,” Goethe says that what he has lost seems closer to him than what he possesses. He writes this at a time when his personal fortunes are at a high watermark. It is the glass half full versus glass half empty conundrum.

In “Prolog in the Theater” the production manager, the poet-author and comic character discuss opening night for the play from their respective perspectives. Goethe wrote that those who think deeply are on poor terms with the public. The manager echoes Goethe’s low estimation and says that the secret to success is to give more and more action. The audience isn’t really paying attention anyway.

The comic character outlines a template for a storyline, which is valid then and now: Show us how a love affair develops. Two meet by chance, are smitten, decide not to go on. Bit by bit they get involved. Happiness grows. Trials come to test it. Joy is unlimited and then misery. And before you know it, you have a novel.

The comic character concludes the discussion with a pleasing observation: “ You old gentlemen play with sure and pleasing touch whatever instrument you have mastered and meander gracefully toward whatever goals you have set for yourself. The old saying ‘Age makes childish’ is not true. It merely finds us really children still!”

One of my high school teachers, a priest, told us to question everything. “ What you accept in the end will truly be your own.” At this point in my life, I have “mastered my instrument.” Those beliefs were forged by my upbringing, my family, 43 years as a rural family doctor, my friendships, and three life-altering medical issues.  As Luther said: “ Here I stand. I can do no other.”

Along this road, I was deeply interested to investigate Goethe’s thoughts. Three places in “Faust” are most Germaine: first, the Prolog in Heaven, second, the interchange between God and Mephistopheles in Prolog in Heaven, and third, the Gretchen questions.

The Archangels view the circle of natural forces and ask how it started. Kant wrote that human reason is burdened by questions, which it cannot answer, but which it cannot ignore. The Archangels similarly conclude: “Angels gain comfort from the sight, though none can fully grasp your being.”

In the Gretchen questions, Faust is asked directly whether he believes in God. He answers: “Who can profess I believe in him. Who can name Him. Who can feel deeply and not believe in Him. Look at the heavens, earth and stars. When we look deeply into one another’s eyes, don’t you have this feeling of the greatest blessedness? Call it what you will- Nirvana, bliss, God, love, hope, soul. That feeling is everything.”

In the second part of “Prolog in Heaven” God and Mephistopheles verbally joust. Mephisto sarcastically laments that mankind is corrupt and that he is loathed to tempt them. It’s redundant and superfluous. God has two observations and a final bit of advice. First, He says man has a moral compass. Even in his darkest moments, mankind knows what is right. Second, despite this knowledge, mankind will make mistakes. His salvation lies in his striving. Finally, He urges mankind to do three things: one, “delight in Beauty’s living richness.” Two, continue to grow. Three, “give the permanence of thought to that which hover in elusive forms about you.” To me, that includes the power of love, prayer, a God, Jesus, and the forces of life, which we can barely perceive.

Faust may be eponymous with the play, but Mephisto steals the show. He blends cynicism with sarcasm, wit, worldly wisdom, intelligence, and unrelenting negativity. I imagine the late Robin Williams playing his role. I imagine Williams’ singular energy channeled into Mephisto. For example, when the young and rejuvenated Faust wants the young Gretchen immediately, Mephisto replies: “ Well, Sir Lust, aren’t we acting like a Frenchman.” When Faust loses his nerve about seducing Gretchen, Mephisto says: “We brought enough gifts for two girls. Stop looking like a student who is entering a lecture hall and is in awe of physics and metaphysics.” When Gretchen’s mother turns over the gifts to the priest even Mephistopheles has a hard time cursing enough: “ By all unrequited love. By all the elements of hell. I wish I could curse better. I would turn myself over to the devil if I weren’t him myself.” Mephisto continues his rant by inveighing against the secular Church: “ They took the jewels to the priest. He said they had done the right thing. The Church has a wonderful stomach. They have consumed entire countries and yet never overate. The priest said to the ladies: ‘only the Church can consume ill-gotten goods.”

Whenever Faust begins to consider his situation with Gretchen, Mephisto’s wit is rapier. He says to the indecisive Faust: “ This is very nice: cowering in a cave-like an owl, sucking water from moss-like a frog. You’re going to your girlfriend’s chamber, not an execution. When a pinhead sees no exit, he imagines the end is at hand. Until now I thought you were rather devilish. Personally I find nothing in the world more insipid than a devil who despairs.”

When going to see Gretchen before a hedonistic sabbatical, Mephisto makes up a song for Faust to sing to her:

So Kate, why so late
Before your lover’s door
He’ll let you in
Like a maid
But you won’t come out like one
If you don’t run, you’ll be done
You poor, poor thing
Love’s time is brief, so love no thief
Unless you’ve a ring on your finger.

Kingman Brewster said at a Yale commencement address that the world was divided between the unloving critics and the uncritical lovers. The humanistic goal was to be a critical lover. Mephisto fits the bill peerlessly as the unloving critic. He vents his contempt on academia, the Church, and corrupt ruling forces.

After concluding the wager Mephisto poses as professor and answers a new student’s questions about how to become a learned man. He says: “First, logic. It will lace your spirits in the iron Spanish boots of the Inquisition. Logic and philosophy will allow you to take days to do things which you previously did one, two, three. Metaphysics will help you see things beyond the minds recognition. Second, jurisprudence. The laws are transmitted from one generation to the other like an inherited disease. Third, theology. Tie yourself to a single master and follow his every word, because there is great comfort in words. It is the only way you can enter the temple of certainty. If the words harbor no idea, another word will come along. Finally medicine. We study the great and the small. We study nature and man, and then, in the end, we let things take the course that God wills.”

He rails against organized religion in the person of the Archbishop in Part 2. The Archbishop says: “Nature and intellect are not words said to Christians. Because such language is so dangerous, heretics have been executed at the stake. Nature is sin. Intellect is the devil and Doubt their child.” To which Mephisto replies: “Oh, I see now what constitutes a man of great learning. What you can’t touch is miles away. What you can’t grasp does not exist, and what you can’t count, you don’t believe is true.

Mephisto’s comic persona changes in Part 2, when he becomes more of a comic caricature compared to his menacing posture in Part 1. He chases breathlessly and unsuccessfully after a group of witches, who are famous for their lewd and wanton behavior. He turns to the audience and says: “Men’s lot is cursed! From Adam’s time on, we’ve been lead on. We get older, but who gets any wiser. As if I hadn’t done this enough times. You can tell by their tightly laced waists and painted faces, they’re completely worthless. There is nothing healthy about them, but when they sing, we dance,” and away he goes again.

The farcical Mephisto concludes with his own exit scene. The angels have distracted him and retrieved Faust’s body. This distraction would have been a tour de force in the hands of Robin Williams,(remember him describing his colonoscopy and scampering across the stage propelled by his personal Evinrude) but was comparatively mild in the movie. Mephisto concludes: “This is the worst of times. A seasoned devil overcome by vulgar lust and erotic silliness! That one possessing wisdom and experience could get involved in childish madness, it is indeed the height of folly that in the end defeated him.” And I say “Amen.”

From a governmental standpoint, the Holy Roman Empire has been shown to be unholy, non-Roman, and not much of an empire. Early in Part 2 Faust and Mephisto through magic and chicanery have saved the Emperor from ruin. In Act IV they again rescue him through magic. He wins the war but gains nothing. Faust has been attempting to bring his experiences with Gretchen to the greater world. When he hears the battle drums, he says: “War. Bad news to  all, who are sensible.” Mephisto, however, says: “With war or peace what is sensible is to derive advantage from it. You wait and observe closely. When you notice your opportunity, you take advantage of it.

After incinerating Faust’s elderly neighbors whose meager home and chapel vex Faust, in Act V, Mephisto comments on the conflict between weak and strong. “The strong do as they will; the weak do as they must.” He says: ‘Obey with grace when force commands. And if you’re bold and must resist, prepare to lose your house, your home, and your life.”

   Finally, Mephisto’s eulogy for Faust capsulizes nihilism. He says: “It is over. ‘Over’, what a stupid word. Over and mere nothing are same. What’s the point of making all the effort. Things might just as well have never been. I’d much prefer Eternal Emptiness.”

   I chose “Measure of a Man’ by “Sons and Brothers” to open the film, because at root that is Faust’s fundamental quest. (And they are a great group.) His journey began with a desire for perfect knowledge. He abandoned it in order to have a complete human experience. He recognizes spiritual-corporeal duality inherent in this attempt. Are we spiritual beings having a human experience or human beings having a spiritual experience. He says to Wagner immediately before meeting Mephisto: “Two spirits live in my breast. Each will separate itself from the other. The one, in deepest passion, clings to the world with all its strength. The other with the greatest power arises from the dust to high ancestral regions. Each will rule without the other.”

In his study, Faust begins translating the Bible into German. He concludes that the proper primal action was not “the Word,” but rather “the Deed.” In the beginning was the deed, the action. From the position of an overview, the rest of the play is Faust acting out this epiphany. A regular pattern emerges: Faust is despondent, he acts, he succeeds, he falls back into despondency. Eventually, he loses all his idealism. He fights nature. He covets money, power, and control.

In the end at age 100, Faust is deeply depressed. Goethe paints an unequaled picture of depression. The shadowy woman, Care, describes Faust’s depressive condition: “Eternal darkness falls. Suns no longer rise nor set. All is darkness in his heart. No matter how great his treasures, they bring no pleasure. Good fortune, bad fortune both depress him. He is starving amid plenty. Whether to come or go he can’t decide. While crossing the street, he forgets where he is going. He bogs down. Everything is distorted. Everything is a burden. Not alive. Not dead. Torn between despair and hope. All life is one unceasing round of things not done, of odious duties. Sleep leaves him without the will to move and prepares him for damnation.” There are not enough SSRI’S in the world for this.

Faust’s epiphany and salvation is his continued striving. Mentally he finally rejoins mankind as he envisions that his reclaiming land from the sea can provide a place to live, work and sustain themselves for millions of people. If this could happen, he would be able to say to the world the fateful words of the wager: “Stay, you are so beautiful.”

The last words of the play are said or sung by the Chorus Mysticus. In 2020 the homage to womanhood is not nearly as revolutionary a notion, but it is certainly precocious.

All that is transitory But as symbols are sent What seems impossible Here grows to event The Indescribable Here it is done For eternally the essence of womanhood Serves as our guide and shows us the way.

I began by asking: “Why Faust?” It is a story of the conflicts between knowledge versus wisdom; lust versus love; selfishness versus altruism; social isolation versus integration, and optimism versus pessimism. These issues are relevant today. Goethe staged the setting of the play about 200 years before his own time. It’s a better way to stay alive if the Emperor doesn’t fancy your story. So even in his own time, the play was not timely to contemporary events. It was intended to transcend time.

There was a happy ending for Faust based on his relentless striving. I hope together we can endure COVID-19 and somehow use it as a catalyst for positive change.