Culture Magazine

Rereading Goethe’s Faust 1: From Man to a Cosmic Epic

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
I had forgotten that the Faust legend, and hence Goethe’s epic drama, was ultimately based on the life of a real person, Georg Faust. Priest says so in his introduction, and while there were markings or annotations in the introduction indicating that I’d read it – but I’ve marked it in the course of rereading – I surely must have done so. And Prof. Jantz surely would have mentioned the “real” Faust in an early lecture. But that fact simply did not register.
I’ve put “real” in scare quotes because, at this point, Goethe’s creature is far more real than Georg Faust is.
What does it matter that this text from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries should have a place in a genealogy of memes and mentions going back to a life lived in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries? That real life lived in one era has little bearing on the meaning of a text written in another era, and nothing whatever to do with the devices through which that text is constructed. Georg Faust’s life is no more than background to reading and studying Goethe’s text. No doubt that was why I simply forgot about it.
If I am now remarking on that fact, it is because I have an interest in the mechanisms of culture that I didn’t have back then, my freshman year, when I was, for all practical purposes, a country bumpkin in the big city. It is surely of note that this text, this Faust, started in a life lived, lived during a major transition in Western culture. For the purposes of this post, we’ll say that transition began with the Italian revolution in art that was grounded in the invention of coherent perspective and was completed with the fruition of classical mechanics in the work of Isaac Newton, a period spanning roughly three centuries. The following table lists some representative figures and dates:

Filippo Brunelleschi Invented one-point linear perspective 1377-1446

Nicholas Copernicus Championed the heliocentric view of the solar system 1473-1543

Georg Faust Philosopher, astrologer, prophet, physician 1480-1539?

William Shakespeare Playwright often credited with inventing the modern sensibility 1564-1616

Galileo Galilei Astronomer and physicist forced by the Church to recant his advocacy of heliocentrism 1564-1642

Isaac Newton Synthesized the conceptual foundations of classical physics 1642-1746

Georg Faust was a contemporary of Nicholas Copernicus and died more than two decades before Galileo and Shakespeare were born. He lived in a time when the construction of knowledge was being subject to new methods.
And, judging by some of what Priest has to say about him, he took full advantage of his era’s epistemic laxity (Faust, Parts one and Two, George Madison Priest, tr. Alfred A. Knopf: 1963 p. ix):
He claimed that if the works of Plato and Aristotle were lost, he could restore them out of his own inner consciousness. Christ’s miracles were not astonishing, he said, because he could perform them as often as he liked. He boasted also that all the victories of the German Empire’s troops in Italy in 1525-7 had been won by him and his arts. it was widely told and believed that he had accomplished many extraordinary feats of magic.
This Georg Faust came to an uncertain end sometime between 1536 and 1539. His life, that is, a life attributed to him, was set down in an anonymous chap-book published in 1587, which inspired Christopher Marlow to write a play, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, roughly a year or so later.
Why is it that the life of this man, of the many lives lived in those years, is one that was subject to elaboration, distortion, and amplification, through a dozen or more versions before Goethe began working on it as a young man, a task that he returned to off and on for the rest of his life?

Isaac Newton 1642-1746

Denis Diderot 1713-1784

Immanuel Kant 1724-1804

Joseph Haydn 1732-1809

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 1749-1832

Ludwig van Beethoven 1770-1827

Jan Austen 1775-1817

Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1772-1834

I ask, not merely out of pro forma curiosity, but because we are living through an age of epistemological confusion as well. While much of science is secure, the bleeding edges deliquesce into fantasy – Just what is that particle it took thousands of physicists and billions of dollars to discover? Is not the super-intelligent computer of the future but a Faust in digital form?
My own researches are in the human sciences, and they have been undergoing rapid change over the past four or five decades. The methods of literary study that were in place at mid-century have been deconstructed and revamped and now the post-deconstruction discourses are themselves deliquescing. Neuroscience was a relatively unknown specialty when I was young. Now it’s all over the science pages of The New York Times and is the object of government policy in Europe and the United States. As the bard sang, the times they are a changin’.
And so, as I remarked in the first post in this series, so am I. To be sure, my personal (decision to) change has more to do with the psychology of the life cycle than with the state of my intellectual projects – though that figures into things as well. I thus find it interesting that Goethe worked on this text for much of his adult life. Here’s what the Wikipedia has to say:
Goethe completed a preliminary version of Part One in 1806. The 1808 publication was followed by the revised 1828–29 edition, which was the last to be edited by Goethe himself. Prior to these appeared a partial printing in 1790 of Faust, a Fragment.
The earliest forms of the work, known as the Urfaust, were developed between 1772 and 1775; however, the details of that development are no longer entirely clear. Urfaust has twenty-two scenes, one in prose, two largely prose and the remaining 1,441 lines in rhymed verse. The manuscript is lost, but a copy was discovered in 1886.
Goethe finished writing Faust Part Two in 1831. In contrast to Faust Part One, the focus here is no longer on the soul of Faust, which has been sold to the devil, but rather on social phenomena such as psychology, history and politics, in addition to mystical and philosophical topics. The second part formed the principal occupation of Goethe's last years. It appeared only posthumously in 1832.
Why write a second part at all? The first part ended in disaster, a tragedy. The second does not. It’s the first part that derives from the Faust legend, which in turn derives from the life of Georg Faust. Goethe invented the second part more or less out of whole cloth. In his introduction, Priest remarks that Lessing had started on his version of the story (p. xii):
Like Goethe and in the spirit of the Age of Rationalism Lessing could not believe that man was born with a thirst for knowledge only to be damned for attempting to slake his thirst, and Lessing also planned Faust should be saved.
Well, OK. But I’ve got something else in mind, late Shakespeare, those curious plays that start with a tragedy which is then “reversed” through a comedy: Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter’s Tale. I’m wondering if Goethe’s two-part Faust is anything like those two-part plays of late Shakespeare?
We’ll see.
* * * * *
Here’s the inside front cover and front page of my book:
I’ve written my name and room number in the upper right corner. I was in 209A McCoy Hall, a designation that would be meaningless outside of Johns Hopkins. I’ve also written a thematic outline of the play, probably something I took down from one of Jantz’s lectures. It’s certainly NOT something I would have thought up, not my freshman year.
But then, in a different ink there’s a (much) later annotation: “Goethe on AI”, followed by a page number, 199, and line numbers, 6869 and 6870. The study of artificial intelligence (AI) didn’t exist in Goethe’s time, though stories of artificial men, of course, go back to the Golem. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, was first published in 1818, putting it in the same time-frame as Faust.
As for lines 6869-70, here they are, in Priest’s translation of course:
And such a brain that is to think transcendentally
Will be the thinker’s own creation.

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