Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

GOETHE: Faust, Part One

Someone once said the three great themes in life are God, Great Books and Golf. Goethe hits two out of three in his masterpiece Faust. Golf doesn’t play a part in this drama but there’s plenty about God and Great Books. At the start of the play we’re introduced to a situation that’s amazingly similar to The Book of Job. The scene is set in Heaven and the angels are praising the Lord and his creation, all except for Satan. In this play Satan goes by the name Mephistopheles and he doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. What’s so great about life on the planet earth? When he surveys the world he says All I see is how men torment themselves. The little god of the world (man) is still the same, as odd as on the first day. He’d live a little better without his glimmering of heavenly light. He calls it Reason but he uses it to be beastlier than any beast. The Lord approaches Mephistopheles and asks if he knows Faust? The Lord is proud of his servant Faust: He serves me, these days, in bewilderment. But soon I shall lead him into the light… A good man, struggling in his darkness, still knows the one true way. This is too much for Mephistopheles. So they make a wager, just like in The Book of Job. Satan tempts Faust just as he had tempted Job. Only instead of causing Faust to suffer, as he did with Job, Satan will tempt Faust with pleasures. The stage is set for wild and boisterous adventures in places like public taverns and witch’s lairs. There’s plenty of entertainment but entertainment isn’t the primary goal of this play. Goethe has a message to deliver. And he does that well.

Faust is one of the great characters of Western literature. He’s like Shakespeare’s Hamlet in this way: Faust thinks about things and he thinks about them a lot. Faust is a scholar but he’s deeply unhappy. Why? In the opening scene in his study Faust complains: Law, medicine, philosophy and even (worse luck) theology! I’ve studied them all with passionate resolution, and I’ve learned them from top to bottom; now I stand here, poor fool that I am, no wiser than I was before. I am called Master, Doctor even; for ten years, up and down and back and forth, I’ve led my students by the nose. And I see there’s nothing we can know! That’s what eats my heart out. This reminds readers of The Preacher in Ecclesiasates. The Preacher had learned everything, tried everything, and still wasn’t happy. Faust has devoted his whole life to studying the Great Books. He’s learned all there is to learn from the masters. But he hasn’t found what he’s looking for. And what is that? Faust himself isn’t sure and that’s because he’s a complicated man. Lots of guys don’t have that problem. One student sums up his life goals like this: Good strong beer, tobacco with a bite, and a dolled-up housemaid. That’s my style. The simple pleasures in life are fulfillment enough for most people. And Faust wishes he could be satisfied with the simple pleasures but he laments that Two souls, alas, dwell within my breast; each struggling to get free of the other. One, gross and passionate desire, clutches at the world with greedy limbs; the other soars from the dust into the realms of our first lofty fathers. Can two souls dwell within one person? Not peacefully. The student is satisfied with his passionate desires. Faust’s friend Wagner prefers to leave passion behind and let his spirit soar with the help of great books: …One soon sees one’s fill of field and forest. I envy no bird its feathers. How different are the pleasures of the spirit! They bear us from book to book, from page to page! Then winter nights grow bright and beautiful, a blissful light warms every limb, and as you open some wonderful book the heavens themselves descend upon you. Faust is torn between these two approaches. Should he leave his passions behind and follow his intellect? Or should he abandon reason and follow his desires? This isn’t just Faust’s problem. It’s the common human dilemma: how should we live? Faust concludes that Here (in the village) is the people’s real Heaven. Young and old shout their contentment. Here I am, here I dare to be, human.


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