Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, November 24, 2014

GOETHE: Faust (Scene 3: Translating The Word)

After spending the afternoon with the busy holiday crowd in Scene 2, Scene 3 takes us back to Faust’s quiet study. This seems to be his more natural element. Faust is restless after all the partying and now he wants “to treasure the things of the spirit” as he puts it. He says things of the spirit “nowhere flames with more dignity, more beauty, than here in the Gospels.” The Great Books series uses the Gospel of Mark but Faust turned to the Gospel of John instead. Why the Gospels? Faust explains, “I feel that I must open the fundamental text: must try, with honest feeling, to set down in my own beloved German that sacred original.” Let’s step back for a second and consider what’s going on here. The text Faust is reading is probably a Latin translation from an original Greek text. What he wants to do now is translate Latin into German. And we’re reading an English translation of Goethe’s play written in German. That’s a lot of translations. How do we know we’re getting what Goethe and John the Apostle really said?
Faust gets hung up on the first sentence: “In the beginning was the Word! Already I have to stop! Who’ll help me on? It’s impossible to put such trust in the Word! I must translate some other way if I am truly enlightened by the spirit.” So Faust tries three different terms. Instead of using “the Word” as the Gospel of John says, Faust tries substituting the terms Thought, Power, or Deed. Would any of those terms work just as well, or better, than using “the Word”? We should put the terms within context of the rest of the passage and see what happens. Maybe Faust quit too soon. If we pick up the Gospel where Faust left off we find the KJV saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” How would Faust’s terms fit now? Instead of “the Word was God” what if we used “Thought was God” instead? Does it make any difference in the way we understand the nature of God? How about if we use “Power was God”? Or “the Deed was God”? Who (or what) is God?
Faust was a theologian. To say The Word is God is a very different thing from saying that Power is God. Words matter. Remember Faust himself is the one who asks “Who’ll help me?” When he’s confronted by real spirits where does he turn for help? To words. In his own words Faust says, “I’ll need first, to confront the beast, the Incantation of the Four.” When he’s confronted with real danger Faust turns to what he knows best: words; incantations. Go back to the three terms Faust wanted to use instead of The Word. How well would they work now? Are Words the same as Thoughts? Can Thoughts beat down spirits? Do words have Power? Can they move mountains as well as human hearts? Can they drive out spirits? And how do Words relate to Deeds? What’s the relationship between saying something and actually doing it?
Well. Why all these translations? Why all this quibbling over words and the meaning of words? We soon find ourselves lost in a virtual verbal labyrinth. Mephistopheles could not devise a more clever method for keeping Faust lost in confusion and darkness. How did Mephistopheles (disguised as a serpent) confuse Eve in the Garden of Eden? With words and sly implications: Did God really say that? Maybe Adam made it all up. Or maybe he misunderstood what God meant. How do we know if Adam translated The Word correctly? Before long Eve is lost in confusion and darkness, just like Faust. Verbal deception is a very old trick and Mephistopheles is very good at what he does. The Gospel of John says “In the beginning…the Word was God.” The very first chapter of the very first book of the Bible says “God said let there be light” and a whole universe came into being out of nothing. If words really do matter then “The Word” may still be the best term for Faust (and us) to understand God, the cosmos, and ourselves.


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