Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Let us make a vital effort! - a start on Goethe's Faust - one of the most delightfully urbane moments in all of German literature

For years I considered doing some kind of big reread of the major works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a giant of a writer, but a distant one.  Never happened, but The Argumentative Old Git and I recently chewed on Goethe’s final masterpiece, the result of sixty (!) years of off-and-on writing, the second part of Faust (1832).  I revisited Faust I (1808) as well, all in the Stuart Atkins translation.

I meant to write this up a couple of weeks ago, but I was distracted by a little vacation to see the migrating Sandhill cranes.


Murderous shouts and dying moans,

flap of wings that beat in terror!...

Let us make a vital effort!

Swear to hate this scum forever!

Trumpeting, the CRANES disperse in the air.  (Faust II, Act II, ll. 7660-1, 7674-5)

Exactly what I saw on the Platte River.

Faust I functions more or less like a real play, however odd it is.  Herr Professor Doktor Faust trades his soul to the devil, or a devil, the ironist Mephistopheles, in exchange for power and knowledge, but once in possession of power spends his time chasing cute girls.  Marlowe’s Faust spends all of Act IV playing pranks on random people, but what Goethe’s Faust really wants, it turns out is a girlfriend, specifically the innocent Margaret, who he impregnates and accidentally, tricked by Mephistopheles, abandons.  As Randy Newman summarizes the story in the liner notes to Randy Newman’s Faust (1995):

In South Bend, Margaret has Henry [Faust]’s child, and crazed with grief and shame, drowns it in a creek.  This is the comic high point of Goethe’s original play, and one of the most delightfully urbane moments in all of German literature.  (liner notes, p. 3)

A digression: Linda Ronstadt’s recording of Margaret’s prison song, “Sandman’s Coming,” is extraordinarily beautiful.  Her voice if of course perfect, but it’s really the dynamics, the phrasing.

The operas and musicals are all based on Goethe’s great innovation, the Margaret story.  Faust II is mostly ignored, largely because it is insane, an unperformable nightmare, that has of course now been performed many times by various brilliant theater people.

Late in his long career, Goethe, nominally some kind of Classicist, became loose with form.  The novel Wilhelm Meister’s Year of Wandering (1821) and the final part of his autobiography Poetry and Truth (1833) at times feel like – I think in fact are – rummagings through Goethe’s papers, unpublished scraps that will never find another home, so why not put them here.  The essential Goetheness supplies the form, perhaps.  Faust II is more coherent on a high level, but within acts and scenes has a similar ragbag quality.  It is a bit of an omnibook, with Goethe tossing in everything he knows, and he knew everything.  The cranes of Ibycus, that is, as classical references goes, an obscure one, although there was a Schiller poem on the cranes several decades earlier.

Grotesque, overstuffed, outrageous, obscure.  Often static, painterly.  Atkins diligently notes the paintings that serve as references for scene after scene.  Almost no characters as most of us understand the term, sarcastic, frustrated Mephistopheles, yes, but Faust, in the second part, no.  Lots of openly symbolic and allegorical speaking parts – Fear and Care and An Olive Branch Bearing Fruit, that sort of thing.

In German, both parts of Faust, and Goethe more generally, have contributed numerous phrases and lines to the language, much like Shakespeare in English, but all of that is totally lost on me.  The best translator cannot translate a culture.

Sounds awful, doesn’t it?  Barely readable.  Tomorrow, a couple of scenes, some text.


  1. I could not make my way through either Faust II or the Paradiso; I apologize to the shades of Goethe and Dante, but life is short and I probably won't try again. The curious reader can find an explication of the cranes here.

  2. Yes, Faust II and Paradiso are in the same category. The very last scene of Faust II is a direct parody of Paradiso, with Margaret / Gretchen replacing Beatrice.

    You, I will say, have read plenty of other "life must not be that short" books. There are plenty of them.

    It is curious how the cranes are so common in Russian poetry. Via Schiller, I guess. The way things move around.

  3. Oh, sure, I've read all sorts of things that other people would consider superfluous to requirements. But they have to engage me, make me want to keep reading. Sometimes pygmies can do that better than giants.

  4. The Pygmies are here, too, of course:

    Here we are, installed already,
    though we don't know by what logic. (ll. 7606-7)

    That would have made a good title for the post.

    It occurs to me, although you would not guess from the hash up above, that this is the third time I've read Faust II.

  5. I've read Faust I, but never Faust II. Your second post (from this morning, though I comment on this post instead) almost makes it look interesting enough to try. But only almost. The early 19th century was a really weird time for literature, especially in the German-speaking world. All kinds of crazy going on.

  6. A lot of that craziness is directly Goethe-driven. That is why I advocate reading him in some quantity. He really changed my map of the period. In German, he is the map.

    It would not be crazy - it would be wise - to just read Act V of Faust II. After an agonizing wait, Mephistopheles is finally going to get that soul he was promised. Let's see how that goes. Goethe's ending is not the same as Marlowe's. Randy Newman uses Goethe's, since it is perfect.

  7. I may give Act V a try, just to see.

    I remember Marlowe's Faust being spooky, but that's all I remember about it.