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Bert Tells What He Reads

Crtd 07-09-07 Lastedit 16-02-14

Goethe's Faust
Fucking a minor as the loftiest of ambitions

We are introduced to Mr. Faust ("Fist" in German). He is not young anymore. A man of knowledge. A scholar and scientist. He is clearly not happy, somehow frustrated, not engaged in any kind of coherent operation, seems to do little but walk around in his room. Yet, strangely enough, he is burning with ambition to act.  What does he want? It seems to be a careerist thing: he thinks he is or could be a superman, and seeks to establish this status. But since he thinks little of other people's valuations, we wonder in which circles he wants to be counted and valued.
He reports to have studied all sciences and humanities, "unfortunately even including theology", but they it did not make him any "smarter" (klug, in German). In his eyes, his - indeed awe inspiring - project of comprehensive study, including the mastering of the instruments and empirical techniques of the sciences, failed completely.
Failed in what?
Faust's speech, only heard by us, the audience, goes down and up between his disappointing state and the other world he is ambitious to enter. His state is that of a scholar who came to realize one cannot know anything, however much one studies. It is no use sitting between "heaps of books", "paper", "glasses", "pots", "instruments", "animal carcasses", "bones of dead". Some pages later he adds "cams", "cylinders", "bows", probably for electric experiments to the list of useless equipment. He sees his assistant and pupil Wagner as a representative of those engaged in "critically" (the term is used contemptuous!) studying all this and erroneously believing - as Faust himself now had ceased to - it will yield some "profit" . Faust calls it "avariciously digging for treasures, only finding worms". But the horizon does not seem to be totally dark: Faust has a clear idea what is the hopeful, yes even surely the way to go: magic and alchemy, contact with the "spirits" (Geisten).
Spirits can tell you "secrets" (that word will return three times in the Tragedy Part I), "without using words". You may learn what "inside keeps the world together". Spirits "glide around mountain caves" and may free you from the "cheat of knowing". They put you in "living nature" (as opposed to dead nature studied by scholars). Faust refers to a book by "Nostradamus". Goethe however seems to have studied a popular book about spirits of his own time by Swedenborg's Arcana coelestia (1772). When Faust lures the first spirit into appearing he does so by using techniques recommended by specifically Swedenborg ("attraction" and "suction"). "Soul power" is what spirits exchange when they speak. Faust feels "young" when he thinks of it: the "forces" of nature, wirkend, which may mean working "in order to bring something about". "Forces of heaven go up and down, handing over to each other the golden buckets". Faust sees it, but he is dissatisfied by seeing only. He longs to be "part of it".


Not only does Faust himself employ the despised method of book reading ("Nostradamus", Goethe: Swedenborg), but when he mentions what "inside keeps the world together", Faust says: "Ich erkenne.." which is hard to imagine as different from knowing. Lastly, despite his display of contempt of words, Faust will not keep his mouth shut until the end of the 12.111 verse poem! How the Bible and the word of God fit in is questionable: later, Faust somewhere rephrases the German translation of some Genesis lines because he disagrees with the words. That is not rejecting words altogether.

When, to Faust's horror and dismay, a spirit finally appears, this spirit explains his profession as follows:

In floods of life, in a storm of actions,
I am waving up and down,
I blow hence and forth,
birth and grave,
an eternal sea,
an  interchanged weaving,
a glowing life,
so I am creating at the soughing loom of time,
and prepare God's living cloth.

Spirits seem to be very busy people, they work with tools we are used to see simple people working at (weavers). These simple people produce things Faust does not in the least care about. Spirits, however, seem to "weave" according to a creative and powerful design of their own. Faust believes that "being with the spirits" will allow him to "live like a God". As a next step, it seems he will drink a brown liquid held in a little bottle on one of his shelves, in fact a deadly poison, "on the way to new spheres of pure activity"...


Goethe's time is known for the the spreading of many new ideas of scientists like Newton, Linnaeus, Franklin,  Lavoisier, Coulomb, Dalton, and analysts of society like Montesquieu and Adam Smith, founders of our modern society, using sophisticated technique and social organization (if not even "handing over to each other the golden buckets" as Faust believes his spirits do).  If I would be asked to evaluate Faust's position, I would say that his disappointment shows that his scholarly education failed profoundly, but not for the reasons he gives himself. Instead, the problem is that he does not really know science. He is endowed with an outsider's image of scientific rationality: the image of yielding "dead", trivial truths: "Wrmer", "Totenbein", and wants to enquire the "living" truth of the spiritual "active, working" world (where subjects (Gods, spirits, devils have "aims" and work, are active to reach those aims).  Faust's outsider's view is that not the scientists but the spirits are "working", and working according to designs. The insider's image of science, the real world of science that Faust is unaware of, is not dead at all: scientists would hold that they have intentions all the time, and are working to reach their goals, for instance to find the properties of some purely mathematical system like that of numbers, to prove a mathematical theorem, to understand the relations between certain things you see, in nature and society understand the similarities between certain things and events often happening in nature and society, and to explain why these similarities occur and to find the relationship between different theories others have proposed to explain different but related things in nature.
In short, science is a true handing over of "golden buckets" with dramatic effects for everyone to see in Goethe's times. Unbelievably powerful, moreover: active, youthful, creative, intentional, in short: the sciences and humanities of Goethe's time had everything that Faust longs for. May be Faust's profound ignorance about the "inner working" of scientific research stems from his wasting his time to become "Magister, even Doctor", being trained at universities. Universities, above all in Germany, have always been safe guarders of academic tradition, hence are conservative by nature. They used not to consider it their job to work at the forefront of scientific change, and still now are not particularly doing so, though today academics somehow feel forced to pose for mass media as frontier-scientist. But that is mere hypocrisy: like Watts steam engine in Goethe's times, even contemporary MS DOS was not made at a university but in a private shed. 
University life with its hierarchical system of titles and positions also tends to infect you with the careerist view of life so characteristic for Faust: Faust wants "up" (this is, by the way, also very German). In real frontier science there is little interest in career: to some in those circles scientific research is just a passion to which they even are ready to sacrifice their career, to others indeed (James Watt, Bill Gates) the hope is to profitably market some result. There are no desires to climb whatever ladder to whatever "high" place per se, but, needless to say: later in their lives such people may loose a lot of their time receiving honorary doctorates from... universities.
Goethe's Germany of around 1800 was, to say the least, not at the forefront of technical industrial progress.
Faust considers age as a danger to your sensitivity for the spiritual world. He longs back to the attitude of the youth (Jugend), the "heart", the "soul". And indeed, his readiness to believe in spirits has the spontaneity, the thoughtlessness and the ignorance of the child.

But first Goethe's spotlight is directed to heaven, where God exchanges thoughts with Mephistopheles (the devil). Mephisto wishes to bet with God that he is able to bring Faust "in his street". God tells Mephisto it is not forbidden for him to try, "as long as he lives on earth", where people err as long as they are striving.
Mephisto enters Faust's life as a poodle, then assists him in many different human shapes, first to help him socialize, then to rejuvenate his body, then to fuck an "over fourteen" year old girl called Gretchen. To do so Mephistopheles gives Faust a liquid that Gretchen should use to put her mother sound asleep. Gretchen unfortunately administers a deadly overdose. Her brother, a soldier, comes to revenge his family for her lost honour but Mephisto helps Faust to kill him in the fight. Faust somehow leaves Gretchen. The story does not tell how, nor why, but Faust seems to stay in love with her.
Gretchen is left with her baby, drowns it and gets imprisoned and sentenced to death. Mephisto informs Faust about it, very late though ..., and Faust summons Mephisto to help him save Gretchen. Mephisto helps him to get through the prison doors, where Faust finds Gretchen in doubt whether she wants to be saved, and decidedly refuses after Mephisto comes in to say it is time to go because dawn is near. Faust flees with Mephisto, leaving Gretchen, ready for the hangman, and a voice from above says she is saved.

It is clear from the story that Faust really wants Mephisto to help him. But fucking a minor is not what I thought about when Faust told the audience that he wanted to know the "secrets" of the spirits, to learn what "inside keeps the world together", and when we heard him wishing to be "in living nature" to whom did it occur to that he meant a minor's cunt? Nevertheless we should beware to underestimate Faust and Mephistopheles: unlike "cunt", both of their names reached the vocabulary Microsoft Office spellchecker. What is it that Mephisto likes to do with Faust, and what would Faust like Mephisto to help him with? Where to classify Faust in the following division of mankind?


1. Common sinners (immoral): in thinking, talking and acting, they are not led by standards of good and evil, but - to whose surprise? - by the natural instincts of survival of their species (Mephisto calls this "bestial"). Aims justify the means, and with some inner talking, they even do not look as bad to themselves as they are, which prompts them to moral indignation about other common sinner's behaviour with fresh force.
2. Passionate sinners (contra-moral): they believe that there are standards of good and evil but they like to do evil (unlike the common sinners, they would even be willing to spend time, pay or sacrifice for it!). An example group of those are the sadists.
3. Moral nihilists (amoral): they do not believe there are any standards of good and evil. The nihilists are incomprehensible, unpredictable and scary to their fellow humans. Quite some people pose as nihilists but, fortunately for the common sinners, only very few succeed in really being one.

Many variants of the semitic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) believe "we are all sinners". Many unbelievers do the same, with the exception of the moral nihilists, which would be few enough to be neglected, would they not comprise the most powerful religious heads, kings, emperors and other major leaders in history.
For Mephisto the question as to where he belongs is the same as for Faust, but the problem is that of course he is not part of mankind. He is a spirit. Still I would want to consider the classification above for Mephisto too, though things become hard to distinguish, because it is largely left to the reader to guess whether results of Mephisto's actions are either

For instance: Mephisto does inform Faust about Gretchen's imprisonment. Faust orders Mephisto to help him save Gretchen. After understanding that it is Faust who sneaked in her dungeon, Gretchen tends to prefer die by the hangman, resists to go with him. Resistance turns into refusal after Mephisto enters to say there is no more time. Did Mephisto foresee this and is it part of his game with Faust OR is this an accidental event not foreseen by Mephisto OR did Mephisto intend to continue the game for a while and "save" Gretchen and was he blocked in that intention by God? The poet is happy to leave the question to the audience.

The poem's world.

In the Prologue In Heaven God, Mephistopheles (the devil) and three other angels appear. Mephisto, speaking to God, says God would laugh about mankind had he not lost the habit of laughing. Mephisto criticizes mankind to cherish and overestimate reason, and to use reason to be even more bestial than beasts. Though God is not impressed ("Anything else Mephisto?"), I am: I am flabbergasted to hear the devil passing "bestiality" as a negative moral judgment over mankind. What does that mean? Isn't bestiality what the devil wants? We cannot assume Mephisto is passing this moral judgment without believing it himself, merely in an attempt to tease God, so we must exclude the possibility of Mephisto being a moral nihilist. He is either a common sinner or a passionate sinner.
A few verses later, Mephisto wants to bet with God, that he can get Faust in his "street". God does not bet, but tells Mephisto it is not forbidden for him to try as long as Faust lives. Mephisto thanks God, because he does not like the dead. No! He loves full, fresh cheeks, and playing cat and mouse. Mephisto repeats that he would like to bet and have his triumph. Now these emotions are all very human: "playing cat and mouse" with "full fresh cheeks" and having your "triumph", it comes close to what Faust wants to do with Gretchen and what he will succeed in with Mephisto's help. God calls Mephisto a Schalk, which, I read in my copy of Faust from its annotator Dr. Lon Polak, Goethe once defined as: ""someone who plays a trick on another, enjoying his mishaps". There is no doubt left: Mephisto is not immoral but contra-moral, he is a passionate sinner, a sinner who even would be willing to pay for his sin because sin is Mephisto's fun game. As actors who stand in the theater for the money are called professionals, and others who just like to do it, are called dilettantes, we might also call Mephisto a dilettante sinner, not a professional (it is the common sinner, who sins for money or another yield, who is a professional). Now in the real world people tend to believe professionals meet higher standards than dilettantes, but, first of all, Mephisto is a spirit, an angel even, second, even on earth dilettantes sometimes outdo professionals. Mephisto will prove to be a top professional magician and such technical capacities are generally conducive to moral achievements, whether negative or positive.
Goethe starts off with a heavenly and spiritual world that is close to what the simplest people of his time believed or were led to believe by pastors eager to make too complicated neither their herd's life nor their own. Then, as a goodly meta-devil, Goethe slightly drags the salient features of this primitive representation to where they make more sophisticated thinkers and believers smile: a peaceful caricature, too subtle to offend the model.

The poem's God, its angels, its devils and spirits are talking as people. And they have human emotions. Witches and magicians - Faust is one of them - really have magical power. Everybody in the poem clearly knows what is good and what is evil. This strict and clear good-evil divide is forced to being generally convincing by stylizing the actions of everybody involved as obviously good, or obviously bad.: Goethe avoids actions which one reader could think of as bad, another as good. He does not endeavor to analyze certain deeds according to different moral viewpoints but to analyze the relation man to morality in general. Hence no "grey areas".

However, as an exception,  in At the Source (3544 etc) Goethe clearly shows the audience how rude and loveless the simple popular religious conception of good and evil is to sinners like Gretchen.

In the period before he meets Mephisto, Faust's deep frustration leads to a failed suicide attempt (with the brown liquid mentioned above). Faust wishes to leave the earth and enter a new world by freeing him of his body. He wants to strive to "the narrow passage around which the entire hell is burning". He brings a poison to his lips but a choir of angels start to sing: "Christ has risen...etc. ". Though he thoroughly lost the "Christ rising"-beliefs, the Eastern-celebration memories of his youth make him burst in tears and he realizes the angels "snatched the glass from his mouth". "The earth has me again."  So Faust, believing in witchcraft, magic, the devil and an afterlife of the disembodied soul, to be reached through death and a narrow passage around which the entire hell is burning, does not believe in the rise of Christ. I wonder what the poem's Mephisto and its witches believe on this issue, and above all its God! The poem does not deal with it. I do think we have to assume that all others, the "ordinary people" Gretchen, her mother, her neighbour Martha, her brother soldier Valentin, her pastor (getting away with the first piece of jewelry Faust gave to Gretchen) her judge and her hangman, all do believe in the rise of Christ. As for these ordinary people, we are not sure whether they believe, like Faust, in the existence of spirits, hosts of smaller and large devils, witches and magic. So we stay in a kind of limbo concerning the exact distribution of the different kinds of superstitions the poem's protagonists are endowed with.

What makes Goethe's devil tick?

Goethe shapes his Mephisto according to common beliefs concerning the devil: he is something like a "very bad man", only more powerful and immortal (anthropomorphic). He even lets Mephisto scorn a lesser devil thus: "He got it in his mind to copy people" (3863). Goethe does not intend to resolve the inconsistencies inherent in that anthropomorphic image. He ironically details the image but does not let it slip into outright caricature. Reading the poem, it becomes clear that Mephisto likes to play sadistic games ("cat and mouse"), he has pleasure (Freude) in Gretchen's defloration by Faust. He is not amoral but contra-moral (as explained above). The way a lesser devil, one of his subjects, is teasing Gretchen in prison about her condition also shows pleasure in her suffering. Mephisto, scorned by Faust for being late in informing him of Gretchen's imprisonment and death sentence, answers: "Who made her fall in perdition?". He does not refer to the "technical" accident of her being captured but to her moral fall. The devil enjoys seducing humans into immorality, which again shows that he believes in the good/evil distinction, at least as a toy for sadistic games. But one may wonder whether it is in the devil's interest to play this game with people who are still alive and might get so scared by such teasing as to change their style and narrowly escape hell (after all that is what priests and educators use the devil for). Mephisto's sadistic passions overtake his interests here: of course, if he wants to fill hell he should take his victims unaware instead of talking to them triumphantly in the vain of: "look now you are a sinner". Indeed, Mephisto, by  unnecessarily waking sleeping dogs shows himself again to be a contra-moralist. He sacrifices his interest of maximum hell influx to passion: he allows his sadistic pleasure to cost something!
God tells Mephisto it is not forbidden to him to try to seduce Faust "in his street" as long as Faust lives. Mephisto is grateful: for his "games" he is more interested in life than in death: "Most I love fresh cheeks, for a corpse I am not at home". But then Goethe is confusing things by coming up with a non common aspect of the devil: in walking in a night in spring, Faust enjoying, Mephisto says it makes him feel "winterly in his body", (3849), in (1365) etc. he complains about his inability to destroy the "ungainly world". He tried waves, storms, earthquakes, fire, but the damned animal and human brood will always keep on multiplying. Without hell he would have nothing for himself. Mephisto's last words in the poem are "I love the eternally empty". Here we find a devil not "enjoying" a sadistic "game", but a desperate "Habe nun, ach", tried-everything, Faust-like frustrated action-addicted psychopath. The devil is even a neurotic now, wishing, not succeeding, to destroy life, his own favorite toy for sadistic games and his otherwise appreciated supply source for fallen souls to burn in his hell fire. I find this shift from the playfully enjoying sadistic teaser of the living to the life-hating devil an unsatisfactory, yes illegal shortcut from the shallow of common superstition to some kind of ill-found quasi-depth, unworthy of a literary masterpiece.
In another amusing aspect Goethe fortunately follows the common image of the devil: he harasses foe and friend: absolutely moral Gretchen is, naturally, a foe and gets her share of the devil's sadistic game, nearly enough for her to reach hell, only just escaping. But the drinkers in Aurbach's Basement for instance, called "bestial" by Mephisto, clearly well in the devil's camp, are harassed and sadistically played with with equal pleasure (and they sure do not like it). That is true devil behaviour: the recruits for hell will not be received there in the amicable way the recruits for heaven are! A respectable devil is of course never interested in making true friends. Loyalties among devils are, like in African society, based on power, intimidation and fear.
Goethe's devil's power has its  limits. To get Gretchen's mother asleep and thus create Faust's opportunity for a good fuck is, the devil says, "not easy". Other magical tricks, like brewing the rejuvenating drink, are too labour intensive. The devil leaves it to witches. There is a geometric sign that, if drawn by a human, blocks passage for the devil. And, curiously enough, though lies are allowed, the devil has to keep promises.
Goethe fails to resist the temptation to let the devil word many a cynical issue, some questionable but at least shared by Faust, some which even God could not deny: the uselessness of rationality (1908), people use rationality only to behave more bestial than beasts, jokes about uselessness of metaphysics (1949), about how common law is outdated (1973), the art of medicine is pretending to cure while nature does the work (2011), when you trust yourself, also others will trust you (2021), pastors are greedy (2813), people fool themselves (3298), who is the one who brings lovers together with lust? God! (3339).

The Bet

The devil likes to bet. He wants to bet with God (312) that he can get Faust "in his street". Now what is behind this kind of betting? Mephisto is eager to show he can do something which the other party does not expect he is capable to (otherwise the other party will not agree to a bet). Mephisto wants to raise his reputation! He wants to rise in the esteem of his surrounding society. It seems more likely to be lack of self confidence and ambition than just playfulness. God ignores the proposal: "Anything else to say, Mephisto?". Mephisto, alone on stage afterwards, tells the audience he likes to see God every now and then, God is charming: he talks to him so humanly. Well well, God talking humanly to the devil. And the devil is flattered!
To Faust, Mephisto offers his services unconditionally. Nevertheless, it comes to a bet. It is Faust who wants it! In fact, it fails to become a real bet: Mephisto is ready to do his part anyway. Faust solemnly and voluntarily proclaims that he regards himself as finished if Mephisto will succeed to make him rest on a couch, lure him into complacency and cheat him with pleasure. If this would happen, he allows Mephisto to "stop serving him", "chain him", he accepts to perish, die, his time to be over.  Mephisto had asked nothing of the sort, just had offered his services to help Faust "experience life" (1543), "make his first steps in life" (1643).

Though now, assisted by Mephisto on his way to fuck a minor, earlier, Faust expressed the desire to be with spirits, to glide with them round caves, "learning secrets" , but apparently he does not think of this as "being cheated with pleasure".

Mephisto is contra-moral, a passionate sinner. Faust is simply immoral: a common sinner: his sins are no aims in themselves, but serve another purpose: fucking Gretchen, saving his life (in killing Valentin), etc. God is the only truly amoral protagonist in the poem.

The architecture of the poem is not fit to convey a powerful message concerning the human condition. At least not with the power of Homer and Dante. But if it were, his poem might have been in danger of not having become famous at all. Now, stuffed with juicy items outdated in his own time, like magic, witches, devils, then a suicide attempt, an old man deflowering of an innocent fifteen year old girl, actually ejaculating in her, making her pregnant, the girl killing the baby and for that publicly decapitated, Goethe was sure of reaching a wide public, the desire of the theatre director in the poem's Vorspiel auf den Theater. In this sense Goethe's literary masterpiece is a common sinner's production, to be compared to the hundreds and thousands which are shown nowadays on TV every night: one of the best in its kind.