Good or Evil? Des Lebens labyrinthisch irren Lauf

“I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.”

—Mephistopheles (In Faust I by Joann Wolfgang von Goethe)

Anyone who’s read my blog for any length of time knows I love Goethe. What I love about Goethe is not so much the great masterpieces (Faust for one) but the way he seems to have thought about things.

All his life he was fascinated by the Faust story, the scientist who sold his soul to Satan so he could have powers and experiences beyond those his life had given him. Faust (in my imagination) is the driest of icky dry academics and, in my imagination, at a certain point in his life, he realizes he’s missed out. All his studies of magic, philosophy, alchemy have not brought him knowledge. He realizes he doesn’t know anything and he’s missed the life of experience. He wants another chance, but within 20 years of his 4 score and 10, no longer young, he doesn’t know how he can do this.

Enter Mephistopheles, blackness, emptiness, the spirit of negation — in more simple and conventional language (for the time), Evil. In the traditional Faust legend, Faust dies at the end tormented by devils. Marlowe’s Faust asks for God’s forgiveness. Goethe’s Faust discovers the truth of life (the universe and everything?) and dies in God’s embrace. God (Goethe’s God) knows it is Faust’s nature to pursue the path he has pursued; he could have done nothing else. Gretchen, the woman whose life Faust ruined in Faust Part 1 waits at Heaven’s gate to console and teach him in Faust Part 2

While Goethe didn’t deviate completely from the legend, he added two important elements: humor and ambiguity. Mephistopheles enters Goethe’s Faust as a black poodle…

For Goethe, Mephistopheles doesn’t represent evil so much as that which has yet to be seen, the mysterious realm from which that which is known emerges (and is judged). The unseen and the seen realms exist side-by-side, and the unseen realm is unseen mostly because we do not look in that direction. Why? Social convention? Religion? Fear? All those things. Goethe’s Faust does look and the inevitable result is that Faust acts, and in his actions, a world is set in motion with all its consequences, tragedy, regrets — and its beauty.

Faust’s pact with Mephistopheles is not the first pact made in Goethe’s Faust. God makes a bargain with Mephistopheles first; a bet. He bets that the Mephistopheles will not succeed in drawing a good man into evil. For Mephistopheles, temptation is a cat and mouse game, and God gives him permission to play this game with Faust:

“…I grant that you may try to clasp him,
Withdraw this spirit from his primal source,
And lead him down, if you can grasp him,
Upon your own abysmal course–
And stand abashed when you have to attest:
A good man in his darkling aspiration
Remembers the right road throughout his quest.” (Faust Part 1, Trans. Walter Kaufman)

God knows that Faust is searching for something and that, in the end, Mephistopheles will be only a tool in Faust’s journey.

So, can bad lead to good? For Goethe there is no “bad,” and all things which exist come from the place where nothing exists. The lost and empty person Faust knows himself to be at the beginning of the story is, at the end, a wise and transcendent being.

“What occurred is dead and ended
Pain and joy have passed away;
You are healed–oh, apprehend it,
Trust the newborn light of day!” (Faust Part 2, Trans. Walter Kaufman)

Sorry I could not find a video with English subtitles, but I think the sense of Mephistopheles and Faust comes through anyway. It’s a masterpiece of a film, Karl Maria Brandauer in Mephisto. The film is based on Mephisto: Novel of a Career by Klaus Mann, Thomas Mann’s son. A play-within-a-play, the story is set in Nazi Germany. Brandauer plays an actor whose great role is Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust.

This is my response to Bumblpepuppies prompt on Blacklight Candelabra https://blacklightcandelabra.wordpress.com/2015/03/09/mephistopheles-and-the-road-to-heaven/

And, Faust definitely studied abroad, so: https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/study-abroad/

6 thoughts on “Good or Evil? Des Lebens labyrinthisch irren Lauf

    • Goethe has been said to have created “the modern” which is the ethos most of us have always lived in. It’s difficult to imagine his ideas having been as revolutionary as they were. Faust is not very readable, honestly, though in places it’s very funny and other places sad. A fun read of Goethe by Italian Journey especially if you’ve been to Italy (or plan to go).

  1. I know Dr. Faustus very well having produced it as a radio drama in college (at the college radio station). But never read Goethe. Is there one translation that is better than others? I don’t generally like reading plays. I like watching them, or hearing them … but if that’s impossible, I might be tempted into actual reading. Went to the eye doctor today and he said my close vision is actually perfect without glasses. It’s every OTHER vision that’s weird.

    • I like Walter Kaufman’s translation. It’s a verse translation but, for the most part, very close to the German. Part 1 is a GREAT yarn. Part 2, well, even Goethe said it was rough going. I enjoyed it. One of my students (a theater major) produced the famous (and hilarious) “Witche’s Kitchen” segment as his final college project; he did it as a 70s disco. What a riot.

    • I think you’ll enjoy it! I have a dual language version and from what I’m able to read it doesn’t seem that Goethe’s language is complicated — he didn’t do Shakespeare things. In fact his favorite English poet was Robert Burns. He adored Shakespeare, but his personal perspective was that the real German language was a beautiful thing. He himself spoke a Rhenish dialect. I think you’ll like him. Your dark humor will match his. Oh I hope you enjoy it!

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