Faust: The First Part of the Tragedy by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Faust is a tragic play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in two parts: the first part, Faust. Der Tragödie erster Teil, was published in 1808, and the second, Faust. Der Tragödie zweiter Teil, was published twenty-four years later in 1832. It tells the story of Heinrich Faust, a scholar based on Dr. Johann Georg Faust, a German alchemist, magician, and astrologer who also inspired Christopher Marlowe's The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus (1588-93).

Following the Dedication and Prelude (a conversation between the director, poet, and comedian) comes the Prologue, which is set in heaven. The three archangels, Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael praise God and beauty, then enters Mephistopheles, the Devil. As in The Book of Job, he makes a wager with God that he can tempt Faust from the righteous path. God, believing that Faust will not err, agrees to the challenge. From here to Faust's study on the eve of Easter (like Dante's Inferno), where Faust sits, frustrated:
Philosophy have I digested,
The whole of Law and Medicine,
From each its secrets I have wrested,
Poor fool, with all this sweated lore,
I stand no wiser than I was before.
Master and Doctor are my titles;
For ten years now, without repose,
I've held my erudite recitals
And led my pupils by the nose.
And round we go, on crooked ways or straight,
And well I know that ignorance is out fate,
And this I hate.
Illustration by Eugène Delacroix.
He continues to wrestle with these dark thoughts until the following morning, Easter Sunday, when he goes for a walk with his assistant Wagner. Whilst out a poodle begins to follow them; when they return home with the poodle it turns into Mephistopheles. Mephistopheles then conjurers up spirits to lull Faust into a deep sleep:
Lift the dull mantle
Vaulted and darkling!
Let the sweet blue,
Brilliant, gentle,
Swim to the view.
Living and sparkling
Azure will banish
Shades of the vaulting;
Cloud-wrack will vanish,
Tenderly halting
Stars will shine through...

When Faust awakens Mephistopheles promises to show more, and he makes a bet with Faust: if Mephistopheles serves him during Faust's lifetime and gives him a moment of pure happiness, Faust must descend to hell and then serve Mephistopheles for eternity. Faust consents, believing the devil incapable of being able to do such a thing, and signs a contract in blood. The two then journey together, from Auerbach's Cellar (a drinking tavern) to the witch's kitchen until Faust meets Margareta (also known as Gretchen), with whom he falls in love. 

From here Mephistopheles continues to tempt Faust, using Margareta as a pawn to lead Faust away from the righteous path, and he subsequently falls into a hell on earth. This cautionary tale is a masterpiece, full of demons, witches, spirits, and magic. The poetry of it is almost seductive, it's beautiful, mystical, melodramatic, nightmarish; a perfect autumnal read I think, and a revolt against the Enlightenment. I have read this before, and also the second part which I plan on re-reading soon, though I seem to recall I didn't enjoy it as much. The first part however is fantastic, in all senses of the word!

Comments

  1. I've just finished reading The Invention of Nation by Andrea Wulf. It's all about Alexander Humboldt, German scientist & explorer and very close friend of Goethe.

    Wulf says that Goethe based a lot of the personality of Faust on Humboldt. It could be an interesting comparison?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It could be indeed - I'll have to check that out! Thanks for mentioning that :)

      Delete

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