Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Summarizing 3/5ths of Faust II - any proper ghost has to be classical

Two key themes in Faust II: the ongoing Renaissance project of the merger of Classical and medieval culture, and sperm.

Act I begins with Faust “couched on grass and flowers, fatigued, restless,” presumably recovering from Margaret’s tragic or comic fate at the end of Faust I.  Some spirits, including Shakespeare’s Ariel, enjoy the pastoral landscape, but Faust is more into the mountains and cataracts, and feels “a vigorous resolve / to strive henceforth towards being’s highest form” (I, “A Pleasant Landscape”).  That doesn’t last long, though, since soon, as part of a tedious magical masque to entertain the emperor, Faust falls in love with a vision of Helen.  You know, from the Trojan War, that Helen, long dead, if real in any way.

MEPHISTOPHELES (hoisting FAUST on his shoulder).

That’s life for you!  To be encumbered with a fool

can’t even help the devil in the end.

In Act II, Mephistopheles and Faust return to his university office for some still relevant academic satire, and more importantly the creation of the Homunculus.  An alchemist has been plugging away at Paracelsus’s little critter, but has failed until the arrival of the devil who adds something to the mix.  A clue was provided to me by the Argumentative Old Git, who points to Tristram Shandy (1759), where “Homunculi” are simply spermatozoa; see Tristram suggesting to the Catholic Church that “after the ceremony of marriage, and before that of consummation” they “baptiz[e] all the HOMUNCULI at once, slapdash, by injection” (I.xx.), for the sake of efficiency.

Anyway the Homunculus is born, a perfect Renaissance creature, a fusion of classical and medieval learning, and thus a representative figure for Faust II.


Born in a later, fog-bound age,

to a chaotic world of monkery and knighthood,

how can your northern eyes be anything but blinkered –

you only feel at home where gloom prevails…

So he whisks everyone off to the Classical Walpurgisnacht.  Where the crazy Walpurgisnacht in Faust I was northern and (anti-)Christian, full of witches and devils and gnomes, the crazier new scene brings on the monsters from Greek mythology, griffins and sphinxes and cranes of Ibycus:

Romantic spectres are the only ones you know,

but any proper ghost has to be classical.  (II, “Laboratory”)

Mephistopheles, eminently northern, is freaked out (“I had no trouble handling Northern witches, / but these strange phantoms leave me ill at ease,” II, “Classical Walpurgisnacht”) although he adapts well enough, helped especially by the monsters that look like naked ladies.

Meanwhile the Homunculus falls in love with a sea nymph and is – well, this is an obscure passage – it is likely that he dies during sex (“I almost can hear the loud groans of its travails. / He’ll shatter his vial on her glittering throne” – what smut!), possibly leading to the rebirth of Helen, who washes up on a beach at the beginning of Act III.

After working through an elaborate parody of Euripides, with Faust and Helen marrying and producing Lord Byron, the great embodied reconciliation of North and South, medieval and classical, Christian and pagan, into what we would call Romanticism but Goethe thinks of as modern, up to the minute.  Byron, as we know, dies young, the pseudo-Helen vanishes, and the last two acts get out of Greece and wrap up Faust’s story (Act IV dull, Act V sublimely nuts).  In a surprising twist, the Euripidean chorus of Trojan women, rather than return to Hades, stays in Greece to drink wine (“last year’s wineskins must be emptied”).

Strange stuff.  I suppose the great problem for some general “us,” readers today, even the few who will bother with Faust, is that the mapping and combining of the great Western traditions, Classical and medieval, northern and southern, is now a pretty abstract intellectual subject.  Renaissance history, art history.  We live in the fusion but are so far from the originals.  It was alive for Goethe, who is engaged in what now looks like a great summary.  He’s wrapping it up.  Faust II is the end of the line, not a new beginning.

Act III, for example, Helen to Byron, is a magnificent poem, but is completely intellectualized.  The end of the play, I should say, when Mephistopheles and his troupe of little devils battle the angels and cherubs, armed with rose petals and cute rear ends, for the soul of Faust, is an extraordinary thing.  Mephistopheles is often an entertaining ironist.  The grotesque invention of  the Homunculus and the Classical Walpurgisnacht is fun.  But Faust II is, for such a high-spirited work, a text to study.

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