Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Faust, Part Two

The critic Harold Bloom has called Part Two of Goethe's Faust "the most peculiar yet canonical work of Western literature." He claimed the piece is "more of an experiment than a poem." Of course, for Goethe, Faust was not merely a poem, but a dramatic work, albeit one he probably never envisioned staged in its entirety. (The entirety of both parts of Faust have been staged in all-day marathon productions, but that's another matter.)

Part Two of Faust opens with a Prologue in which (presumably Shakespeare's) Ariel leads a chorus of spirits in praising the pleasures of the Earth. Faust, however, is restless, and goes out to seek still greater glory. Since this is the same Faust who already accomplished much in Part One, his pursuit of glory naturally leads him right to the top--to the Emperor himself.

This, of course, is the Holy Roman Emperor, who (as the old joke has it) is actually none of the above. He's broke, and the empire is falling apart. Faust's solution is simple. The Emperor can raise all of the funds he needs by claiming the ancient treasure that's been buried under his land since classical times. There's a double satire going on here. On the one hand, Goethe is making fun of the printing of paper money backed by spurious claims to bullion. At the same time, however, he seems to be seriously advocating the reclamation of classical treasure, but of the literary rather than the golden kind.

Act Two returns to Faust's study from Part One, which Goethe describes as unchanged. Mephistopheles meets with the scholar he mocked in Part One, but the student is now a graduate, though still an object of Goethe's fun. Mephistopheles then helps Wagner, another holdover from the first part, create an artificial man (or Homunculus) in a scene that seems to have shades of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The act concludes with a classical Walpurgisnacht, re-staging the famous sequence from Part One, this time with motifs from Greek and Roman mythology.

Much has been made about how Part Two is more "classical" than Part One, including its five-act structure and more regular verse forms. Still, Goethe continued to include a variety of verse forms in Part Two, including in his third act, a virtual hymn to classicism in which Faust wins Helen of Troy. Their mystical child, however, is not classical figure, but a stand-in for Lord Byron named Euphorion. Byron greatly admired Goethe, as is apparent in such plays as Manfred, and the feeling was apparently mutual. However, just as Byron burnt out his life, dying trying to bring freedom to Greece, Euphorion falls Icarus-like from the sky and dies, sending Faust into a depression.

In the fourth act, Faust helps the Emperor defeat a rival army, but like a real-life Holy Roman Emperor, the unfortunate victor owes so many favors to different people he ends up with little power at all. This act sets up the conclusion in Act Five, in which Faust, now an old man, expels an old couple from their home out of petty envy. You didn't envision Faust as a foreclosure specialist? Well, sure enough, that's what he becomes. It's also interesting that Goethe, ever hostile to traditional Christianity, increasingly peppers the later acts of Part Two with direct Biblical references. Just when you think you know what he's up to, Goethe tries something else.

The final death and redemption of Faust are deservedly famous, but most interesting to me when I read over it recently was the major role played by the three penitent women: the woman who washed Christ's feet with her tears, the Samaritan woman, and Mary of Egypt. They set the stage for the Blessed One, who is of course Gretchen, and who welcomes Faust, the one she loved, into Paradise.

Why is Faust redeemed? In many ways, the text seems to imply that it is Gretchen's love that saves him, in a manner similar to how Solveig saves Peer Gynt. That shouldn't be surprising, as in many ways, Peer Gynt is Ibsen's reworking of Faust. Critics often site Faust's eternal striving as the cause of his redemption, but I wonder if we might be working too hard to avoid giving credit to Goethe's heroine.