Mythology · Psychology

Exploring Faust: Goethe and the Myth of Progress

Last time we looked at the history of the Faust legend and the first popular version by Christopher Marlowe. The tale grew out of the Reformation and it reflected the needs of the time. But as the Renaissance morphed into the so-called Age of Enlightenment in the 17th century, people needed a new myth and a different kind of catharsis for their guilt. Enter Goethe and his tragic play in two parts.

Goethe spent his whole life working on his version of Faust, reworking and tweaking the drama over time. Each stage in the process lines up pretty well with various Uranus Pluto alignments which represent times of revolutionary change and liberating ideas. He was working on it initially in 1772-75 during a Uranus Pluto trine and a Saturn Neptune conjunction in Virgo in 1773, just before the American Revolution.

An early fragment of the play was published in 1790 just before the Uranus Pluto opposition of 1792, during the French Revolution. Part One was published in 1808 during the Saturn Neptune conjunction in Sagittarius in 1809 and the Uranus Pluto trine of 1810, and Part Two was written in 1831 and published posthumously in 1832 during the Uranus Pluto sextile of 1830.

Faust was written at the start of the Industrial Revolution and Goethe had great hope for the liberating power of the changes that were sweeping through society at that time. The belief in individual freedom and equality was in the air and the machines were going to set humanity free. This created a certain amount of anxiety so people needed to be reassured, as Rollo May explains in The Cry for Myth:

“The people then needed to leave the theatre with the feeling that God was on their side in the form of Providence, that their culture was a great step in advance, that progress was a holy thing.”

Goethe believed in progress and even kept a model steam train on his desk. But his view was quite different to ours because he was steeped in a religious perspective that we’ve mostly lost. Rollo May says:

“Progress for [Goethe] did not mean simply mechanical achievements or achieving wealth. It meant human beings learning to be conscious of their richest unique capacities, and thus have ‘life and have it more abundantly.’ Hence, he begins his myth of Faust with a description of Easter, the time of the rising of Christ.”

This might be one of the reasons why Goethe’s version of the Faust myth is our favourite, despite our secular worldview. It allows us to believe that progress is always good and that a technological solution is always the right approach. However, I doubt that Goethe would approve as he consistently fought against the mechanisation of life.

In Man for Himself, Erich Fromm says that Goethe had faith in man and our ability to conquer any problem, as many progressive thinkers did at that time. Faust deals with the problems of how we should live and the dilemma caused by our yearning for progress and how it affects us. Fromm says:

“Faust is a symbol of man’s eternal search for the meaning of life. Neither science, pleasure, nor might, not even beauty, answer Faust’s question. Goethe proposes that the only answer to man’s quest is productive activity, which is identical with the good.”

According to Fromm, being productive means to “give birth to one’s own potentialities.” It means being true to yourself and taking responsibility for your freedom, taking a healthy approach to problems and channelling it into productive activity, meaningful relationships and work.

Nothing wrong with any of that. But it does beg for context. In Part One of Faust, Faust rewrites the opening line of the Bible, changing it from ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ to ‘In the beginning was the Act.’ Perpetual striving is the key to a productive life – but what is behind the act? Why act? And to what end?

Faust, Part One begins with God having a chat with Mephistopheles about Faust, a bit like Job in the Bible. God thinks Faust will stay true to him but allows Mephistopheles to have a go at turning him towards evil, saying:

“Though he’s still confused at how to serve me, I’ll soon lead him to a clearer dawning…”

Then we find Faust in his study bored out of his mind and frustrated. He has studied philosophy, law, medicine and theology, but declares he knows nothing. He has all these books and yet:

“I am no god: I feel it all too deeply. I am the worm that writhes in dust.”

He feels so bad that he considers killing himself by drinking poison, but hears the Easter bells and changes his mind. This is a massive clue to how the story will end, not with his damnation, but his salvation.

Faust meets Mephistopheles, who disguises himself as a poodle and follows Faust home, and they chat about the burden of existence. Mephistopheles proposes a wager: if he can give Faust one moment of pure happiness, then Faust will die and go to hell. Faust doesn’t believe this is possible and signs away his soul.

This pact means Faust will be “forever unsatisfied, forever moving, forever striving”, which sounds like the Buddhist idea of dukkha, or suffering. This is also the state of modern man, always running around chasing the next thing and calling it progress.

So what does Faust do with his new magical powers? He seduces Gretchen and gets her pregnant, and then kills her brother. Meanwhile, Gretchen kills her illegitimate child and goes to jail for murder. Faust tries to help her escape but she refuses to leave, determined to face the consequences of what she has done. Unlike Faust, who blames Mephistopheles and says he was deceived by him. But Mephistopheles, rightly, points out it was Faust who dragged Gretchen down, not him.

In Beyond the Outsider, Colin Wilson says:

“Faust has suddenly become aware that all the knowledge in the world will not free man from his limitations; that, in a fundamental sense, we can know nothing. And when Mephistopheles places his magic powers at Faust’s disposal, Faust only uses them to slip into Gretchen’s bed. The man who began by demanding: why am I not a god? ends by accepting the forgetfulness of a peasant girl’s body.”

Goethe may’ve had some issues with women, and in Part Two he attempts to work these out. Faust is now busy sucking up to an emperor and tries to impress him by conjuring Helen of Troy, the ultimate symbol of beauty and love. Mephistopheles tells him the only way to do this is through the Mothers. These figures appear to be something like the Fates from Greek myth, and they’re the only beings who have the power to scare Mephistopheles.

Helen represents the feminine form or ideal, as Rollo May says, “feminine beauty raised to an ethical level, a goal for one’s development of [moral] virtue.” And the Mothers are the archetypal source of love and caring, “the one in whose womb life is created” and the ultimate source of magic. Hence Mephistopheles’ fear – they’re more powerful than he is.

This part of the drama shows that Faust (and Goethe) is attempting to reconnect to the feminine side of life to balance the masculine aggression and competitiveness of the industrial age. As Rollo May explains:

“In the Reformation a large part of our Western world became Protestant, and the Mother of Jesus was emphatically given a back seat. … It does not require brilliance to see the witch trials in Europe and America…as overt attacks against the women of those countries. The most basic consideration is that the two principles of rationalism and individualism, the myths on which the modern age is founded, are chiefly male, left-brain activities.”

Goethe clearly wants to save Gretchen, and she is redeemed in the end, but he also can’t help but come down on the side of progress. Rollo May interprets this as a sign that “sole patriarchal power is bound to come to grief.”

After his affair with Helen, Faust becomes wealthy and gains great power. He becomes a philanthropist and has plans to reclaim new land, control the elements and subdue nature. So much for balancing and honouring the feminine!

Despite having loads of land and his own castle, Faust still wants more. He sees a chapel and house that belong to an old couple, and decides he wants that too – he fancies the view. The couple are Baucis and Philemon from Greek myth, who are content with what they have and where they are, unlike Faust. Faust demands that they be removed, but Mephistopheles burns down the house and kills the couple.

Faust is furious and decides he wants to do more to improve the lives of other people. Perhaps he’s feeling guilty. But then he’s so pleased with how things have turned out, he finds satisfaction at last, “Then, to the Moment I’d dare say: Stay a while! You are so lovely!” and so loses the wager.

Hell opens up ready to take Faust and he falls backwards. But a bunch of angels show up and start singing and throwing roses around. Mephistopheles becomes attracted to them – they’re so very lovely! – and while he’s distracted by lust, Faust’s soul is carried off to heaven. There he sees “womanly shapes”, the opposite of his dusty old study at the start of the tale. Gretchen is there too, having been saved, and the angels bless Faust and forgive him, and sing about the salvation of the eternal feminine.

Was it ceaseless striving that saved Faust? I’m not convinced. It may have been that he realised that despite the limits of knowledge, it can still do a lot of good, especially when put in service of working to help others. As Iain McGilchrist says in The Master and His Emissary:

“his ultimate moment of happiness, the purpose of his bargain with Mephistopheles, comes through his realisation of what he can do for humanity, not for himself. At the end of the work, God, not the devil, takes his soul; in doing so he acknowledges the truly great value of Faust’s endless striving.”

The point is to strive towards something worthwhile, not mere material gains. You can strive towards the truth, or the reality that lies behind it (God), but you can’t possess it because it’s not yours. You can only give it away. Faust realises where he’s gone wrong and that redeems him.

Colin Wilson explores this dilemma in Beyond the Outsider where he explains the importance of intellectual knowledge and how it helps us to transcend the animal level of our being, the instincts and emotions. Intellectual knowledge has given us a new level of understanding of life and ourselves, as if giving us wings. But over time we’ve realised that this knowledge has limits.

There are things we can’t know – not because they’re forbidden, but because they’re beyond the intellect, as we understand it. Too much time spent running around inside your own head chasing intellectual knowledge is ultimately unsatisfying. Colin Wilson suggests that perhaps we don’t understand how to use our minds yet:

“The noosphere is not yet man’s natural home, and the water behind him exerts a strong pull. The sense of purpose evaporates, and man finds it hard to believe that it was not an illusion. He comes back to the realisation that he is an uncomfortable misfit.”

We’re trapped between being an animal and an angel, and we can’t be either. We’re meant to be in the middle, crucified in matter, because that’s how the mind is liberated from itself. Wilson calls this the Outsider phase of life and you’re meant to grow beyond it. To do that, you have to become a mystic.

Unfortunately, that’s not the path the West has taken. Cue the next version of Faust by Thomas Mann – the darkest version yet. We’ll explore that next time

You can read Goethe’s Faust here

Read the whole Faust series here

Images: Rembrandt; Mephistopheles; Gretchen; Faust

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