Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, November 29, 2014

GOETHE: Faust (Scenes 7 & 8: Faust in Love)

Faust is finally in love. That means he’s finally beginning to see the light. Love makes the world go ‘round and maybe it’s not such a bad place after all. But he still has a deal with the power of darkness and Gretchen is a child of the light. That’s a place where Mephistopheles’ power is weakest. At first he tries to persuade Faust to go after another girl, an easier girl: “She’s coming from her priest… she’s innocent as any child. She went (to confession) but she had nothing to confess. I have no power over her.” But Faust will not be put off. He curtly tells Mephistopheles “Unless tonight that sweet young thing’s in my arms you and I are through.”
Ok, reality check. Is Faust in love? Or is he really just lusting after Gretchen? We could ask the same thing about Romeo’s attraction to Juliet or (for that matter) Adam’s attraction to Eve. Is it true love or just plain old biological lust that attracts a man like Faust to a woman like Gretchen? Faust is a complicated man so his attraction to her would be equally complicated. Maybe that’s a clue right there. Gretchen is an ordinary simple German girl. When Mephistopheles takes Faust to see Gretchen’s room Faust is awed by her simplicity of life: “There breathes about me here the feeling of calm, of order, of contentment.” These are exactly the qualities lacking in Faust’s own life. He goes on to note “in this poverty, what riches! In this cell, what bliss! ...You make this hut into a Heaven!” All this; yet Faust has never heard one word from Gretchen’s lips.
How can Faust be in love with Gretchen if he doesn’t even know her? What Faust seems to be in love with is his own projection of Gretchen’s imaginary personality. She temporarily fills the emptiness that Faust is desperately trying to fill. She’s the answer to his dreams. Here’s a question Faust should be asking himself: how is this feeling any different from the boys back in Auerbach’s bar filling their emptiness with booze? And Faust, to his credit, seems to realize this. He ponders within himself “What is it that brought you here? I am shaken to the depths of my soul. What do you want here? Why is your heart heavy? Poor Faust! I don’t know you any more.” This is the one thing Faust has going in his favor. He knows he’s confused. That’s very different from a man like King Lear. Lear thought he knew his daughters very well because he thought he knew who “Lear” was. But Lear’s daughter Regan knew him better than he knew himself. Her judgment of Lear was “he hath ever but slenderly known himself.”
Faust knows himself much better than King Lear knew himself. Faust spent hours brooding in his study before going out into the world and finding Gretchen. But Gretchen isn’t some figment of his imagination. She’s a real live woman with hopes and dreams of her own. In Faust’s mind Gretchen is a daughter of the light; full of calm, order and contentment. And she may well be. If her room is any indication of her heart then Gretchen is in fact content living a simple life in a simple home. But she’s also a flesh and blood woman just as Faust is a flesh and blood man. Mephistopheles has been around a long time and he’s a master of human psychology. As the prince of darkness he knows he can’t force Gretchen to give up her peace and contentment. But he can (through Faust) tempt her. How? Through her own vanity. With what? With jewels; one of the oldest tricks in the book. He tells Faust: “I put some little things inside (this jewel box) that would win you a very different kind of woman.” Jewels work very well with immoral women. Even Mephistopheles isn’t sure it will work with Gretchen. But he’s pretty sure it will: “girls are girls, a game’s a game.” And so it is. When Gretchen finds the jewels she puts them on immediately. How do they look? In Gretchen’s own words: “as soon as I put them on, I’m someone else.” Who is she? Who is Lear? Who is Faust? We all face that same question.


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