Trouble with Faust

May 25, 2011

For the past few weeks I have been reading Goethe’s Faust. By reputation, it is one of the greatest epic poems of the Western tradition, one of the mightiest examples of German art, and one of the archtypal expressions of Romanticism.

I am finding it bewildering, impenetrable, and exhausting. Part I was fine; it is Part II that is giving me the trouble. I have now read most of it, and I have no idea what is happening, nor why. No doubt part of my difficulty is that my knowledge of Greek and Latin mythology is not what it might be, and the poem leans heavily on those sources. But there seems to be a great deal of abstraction and symbolism integrated into the text — I might even say that the main substance of the poem is symbolic, if I had any confidence about what the main substance is. Each scene seems to introduce an entirely new raft of characters, unrelated to those that came before or will come after. Reading the poem has been a long and increasingly aggravating exercise.

I think it would help if I had an idea of what the overall point of the poem is supposed to be. Is it a symbolic rehearsal of Western history? Is it a summation and celebration of the Romantic sensibility? Is it a coded message to Freemasons? At this point, I am ready to believe pretty much anything.

I am curious to know if anyone reading this post has read the poem, and, if so, what you thought of it. I doubt that I am alone in finding it opaque, but it is possible; I have learned to never underestimate my capacity to be obtuse.

6 Responses to “Trouble with Faust

  1. Janet Says:

    A few years ago when I read Phantom of the Opera I tried to read Faust because I’m convinced that Phantom (the original story) has a lot to do with Faust. I didn’t get very far though because it soon became apparent that I couldn’t just breeze through it looking for similarities. Sorry, that’s my only experience with the book. I would like to get back to that some day but the way things are going, it’s highly unlikely.


  2. cburrell Says:

    Well, that’s something. I don’t know the story of Phantom; I thought it was about a haunted opera house, and a romance between the ghost and a singer. I suppose the Phantom might bear some resemblance to Faust. Was it through a devil’s bargain that he came to haunt the place?

  3. Mac Says:

    Interesting; this is really stupid, but now that I think about it, I realize that I’ve always considered it one of those things I didn’t necessarily have to read because I already knew the basic story. But I’m thinking only of the basic legend. I didn’t know Goethe’s was so different.

    I once had an English lit teacher who pronounced “Goethe” as “Gertie.”

  4. cburrell Says:

    Yes, Goethe’s Faust has taken me by surprise; I thought I knew what it was about too. Part II is, as far as I can tell, unrelated to the legend. The frame for Part I draws on the legend (the pact with Mephistopheles) but much of the content (the centrality of Faust’s relationship with Margaret) was Goethe’s own invention. So, all told, there is relatively little connection to the legend, and relatively little overlap with other Fausts (Marlowe’s, for instance).

  5. Janet Says:

    I wish I could remember all the things that led me to think of this connection. It may be, and probably is, complete coincidence. The thing that started me down this road is that the first role that we see Christine singing is that of Marguerite, Faust’s lover. When I picked up a copy Faust, I found a line very close to the beginning of the book which, given the fact that we’re dealing with a translation, is pretty much identical with a line from one of the songs, which I think is in the novel. I’m sorry, I just can’t remember it all. It’s been about five years since I read Phantom. I don’t see it so much a direct parallel, but as an influence.


  6. cburrell Says:

    Well, that’s something, and more than I knew.

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