As the titular character within the play, Faust represents a man who is at odds with what he has access to and what he can attain. He embodies the quintessential intellectual, a man who has dedicated his life to education and for this reason, arguably knows too much. His profession is as a professor of philosophy, yet his very being demands an inward application of this reflection. In the same vein as all human beings, Faust lives in a finite and material world, a fact of which he is constantly aware. Although his level of intelligence is uncharacteristic relative to most people, the personal pleasures he strives for are commonly desired among men—satisfaction, repose, etc. It by virtue of this limited and particular world that presents itself as being devoid of the resources needed to acquire these qualities that leads him to crave the pleasures of a transcendent reality. By striving for what is in the realm of the immaterial, Faust is immersed in the unattainable, which serves as the bane of his existence. At the point which we encounter Faust in the play, he has reached the limits of his being able to endure this situation and as the hyperbolic example of this predicament, he aptly frames this challenge of human existence.
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At the onset of the play, Faust dismisses the utility that knowledge can bestow upon man. Although he has dedicated himself to a number of disciplines such as philosophy, law, and theology, none have taught him how to possess the good of mankind. From his work, he is filled with a great deal of information, but is still devoid of any kind of substantial knowledge. In lieu of knowledge, this dedication to learning has only instilled in him how little true understanding he can possess. It is for this reason that he admits his failure as a professor due to his inability to teach anything considerable. A tortured soul, Faust spends most of his time in his private study, mulling over this problem. Just as the light of heaven has lost its luster through the window of his private study, so too has his guise of the infinite through the means of knowledge. The world of musty books and empty knowledge within his dungeon of sorts is not one of reward, but of repulsion. He lives during a time in which the vast majority of people could benefit greatly from an education, yet he alone has encountered education to the extent that it moves him away from his desires. Due to this, he has attempted to cast education aside and practice the occult. In the hopes of blazing a new path, magic unfortunately turns out to be just as unfruitful in his pursuit as knowledge. Although it cannot lead him towards a path of progress, Faust realizes that contemplation is the only activity that can provide him with any semblance of solace. He has accepted that his life is inextricably bound to this unfulfilling role of practicing philosophy—it is all he has ever known. Although his work may have at one point sparked hope and enlightenment within his soul, it instead only more devastatingly frames his unfortunate circumstance.
Within his conversation with Wagner, Faust makes the assertion that he (and consequently mankind) possesses a duality of nature: “Two souls, alas, are dwelling within my breast / And one is striving to forsake its brother” (147). Although life consists of one part that is necessarily bound to the physical and material realm that earth inhabits, there is a part of our being that exceeds the boundaries of this domain. This other component possesses a nature that is inclined towards the spiritual and strives for a heavenly, transcendental realm. As he has learned in a physical sense, these two beings are in conflict with one another. While one soul desires to live a fulfilling life on earth, the other aims to taste beyond “earthly meat and drink”. This conflict is derived from Faust’s inability to satisfy both of these souls simultaneously.
Faust is a man who strives for understanding of the universe in unmediated and direct fashion. His deepest longing is to become one with the essence with nature in order to perceive the secret force that governs the universe from within. According to Faust, nature possesses a veil before it which does not allow itself to be perceived in its entirety. This direct contact with the natural realm he believes can only exist once nature decides to reveal itself in a decisive manner. What he wants is incompatible with what is seemingly possible. He wants to transcend himself in favor of something greater than himself, yet to concurrently remain himself. He strives to achieve what exists beyond the limits of life and yet to still live. In order to solve this problem, it appears that he needs to separate himself from himself. These appear to be incompatible existences and therefore he remains in this state of confusion.
In Faust’s particular case, the presence of polarizing opposites makes for a very tumultuous existence. Faust encounters the pulls of both of these seemingly contradictory souls in intimate fashion. His conscious identity vacillates between the most extreme highs and lows. It is a perpetual movement from one extreme to the other that is difficult for Faust to endure. During the day, a feeling of smallness and insignificance haunts him. The most learned man alive, he has attempted to be lifted from the shackles of mere earthly existence to look into the underbelly of the universe. Yet this man of great academic stature has not been brought any closer to viewing the world of heavenly truth. In the case of dream or vision, he cannot touch or actively share in its workings. He longs to grasp it, to enter into physical contact with it, and to draw real sustenance from the eternal sources of life. No matter how compelling this imagery Faust possesses at any moment, he will always experience the sad realization of the return to reality. Due to the frustration that both of these experiences cause Faust, he strives for perspective that achieves a harmony between both aspects of his being.
Faust feels unequipped in his attempt to bridge the gulf between the particular and the universal with what presently is at his disposal. Although he is connected to what is far away, he perceives the problem in that what is close to him is distant in its ability to provide satisfaction. Faust understands the limited nature of our human condition in which the ineffectiveness of tools such as knowledge, magic, and our own experience speak to our own insignificance. Any man alive is bound to the earth, necessarily finite, and consequently incapable of transcendence. Striving in any direction does not allow us to depart from the boundaries of our own existence. Therefore, to attempt to possess the limited life of the earth and the unlimited life of heaven at once would be impractical. He understands the necessity of embracing and finding pleasure in the finite so that he will not be taunted by not making progress towards a desire that remains beyond his grasp within his life.
When Faust visits the bar later in the play, he is struck with a possible answer for this internal strife. Whereas Faust has perceived the world through reason and intellect, a bar is full of individuals who do not possess the same respect for this component of their being. They dumb themselves down by imbibing alcohol and in so doing, deter the development of their rational side. This animalistic nature is a part of his being that Faust has long suppressed. For a moment, Faust thinks this agreement with a lesser intellect is the path towards resolution for it appears to allow for happiness within the individual. To do so, however, is to dodge an attempt at finding consolidation.
Faust places little importance in the meaning of words. To him, words are empty due to their inability to provide perspective into what is real. The lack of utility that language possesses is what inhibits one’s ability to be educated from books, teachers, or otherwise. Mephistopheles addresses this aspect of Faust when Faust inquires as to his name. Coming from someone who has such a diminished view of language, Mephistopheles pokes fun at Faust for asking such a paltry question. Faust’s perception of words speaks to the black and white way in which he views reality and the ideal—if it does not assist him in his path towards the unmediated truth, then he abandons it. By disavowing the value of words, Faust arguably turns his back on the bonds of society and effectively his interpersonal connection with other individuals as well. In the case of Faust, words serve an essential purpose by effectively masking his lack of knowledge. He realizes that his words do not enable him to know anything outright, much less teach others what he knows.
For as little as words have bestowed him, this encounter with nature that he craves is not one that he believes that words can aptly transmit. He delights in the notion that he could cast “dusty knowledge overboard” which he derives solely upon language in lieu of a more transcendent experience. True immersion does not involve the middleman of words. Just as Faust learned through knowledge and the desire to learn magic, there is no shortcut to the truth. This is what brings us to his translation of the beginning of the Gospel of John. According to his point of view the word is obviously not the quintessential component of the universe. To place the Word before all else would be a subversion of the divine order of things. He has difficulty figuring out what underlies everything, replacing word for ‘force’ and consequently ‘act’. This serves to reinforce his lack of understanding of what exists at the core of nature.
In an almost manic-depressive state, Faust fears nothing. He is in a position to take his own life and in this respect does not fear the coming of the Devil. Arriving in the form of a dog, Faust encounters the Devil as he passes through the city gate and returns to his study. Mephistopheles addresses how he is unable to leave through the same passage that he came in Faust’s house. Noticing that even the Devil has some sense of justice, he arrives at the idea of making a pact. Upon hearing this, Mephistopheles leaves and puts Faust asleep through song. Upon Mephisto’s return, Faust then lays out his current predicament—although he was tired of the earthly realm and considered suicide, he was reeled back in by the sound of his childhood of which Mephisto’s song reminded him. This recollection of a past memory presents him with the fleeting ecstasy that a moment can be eternal and that the infinite can be possessed to some degree. The notion that the mind can touch but not penetrate what is so far distant gives Faust a sense of hope. It is his first glimpse of harmony and affirms his belief that Mephisto will be able to guide him down the path of the good and the beautiful. Faust does not like the notion that an illusion such as this can take hold of his emotions in such a way. Faust comes to the conclusion that the good things in life are merely bait to keep us involved in life, but do not unfold until we reach the spiritual realm. Mephisto pledges to join Faust and go through the world in his servitude. Faust is not convinced, however, that the Devil could perform a beneficent act. In death, Mephistopheles says that Faust will do the same in return. Faust has little concern for his welfare in the world that lies beyond the earthly realm; he only cares to experience the joys of the earth.
Although Faust desperately longs to see things from a new perspective, one which can bridge the gap between the infinite and the finite, Faust understands the importance of being wary during this agreement. In his desperation, he tries his best to negotiate with Mephisto such that he is able to actually achieve what he seeks. The aim is to no longer live life in terms of the next. Through Faust’s denunciation of knowledge, he has established that there is no way of knowing what lies beyond the material world. Therefore, he seeks a way of best living in finitude. When Mephisto promises him more than other men have seen, he becomes skeptical and warns the Devil not to tempt him. At the same time, however, he realizes this pact will only work if he has trust in Mephistopheles. In the end, he allows Mephisto to lead him astray. He has entrusted Mephistopheles the right to his emotions. Mephisto ventures out into the world in an attempt to show Faust the mistakes that he was making with his previous mindset. He hopes that with the help of Mephistopheles he will find a means of establishing a concert between this fact of finitude and the constant press to acquire what lies beyond. By showing Faust the enriching nature of the finite, Mephistopheles intends to show Faust how his human experience can be enriched. Although Mephisto’s goal is to restore Faust’s faith in the physical realm, he additionally hopes to show that his spiritual being can also be enhanced through the same process.
As compared to Christopher Marlowe’s Faust, there is no warning about the horrors of hell from Mephistopheles. Despite his connection to God as seen in the Prologue, he serves more as an agent of nature than as an entity of Christian religion. Although part of this has to do with Goethe’s nature as being anti-clerical, removing any religious ties makes the philosophical issues at hand clearer and therefore more potent. In Marlowe’s Faust, Faust sells his soul to the Devil for riches and eternal youth. The play ends with Faust’s soul being taken away and damned to hell. In the case of Goethe’s Faust, we encounter an undoubtedly more downtrodden and depressing character at the focal point of the narrative. Goethe’s Faust is an individual who is so sure in his conviction that ease and happiness are outside the scope of a human life that he is willing to stake his own existence in return. He does not seek to possess qualities that which he sees at the end of existence, for he does not believe that these possess any relevance to daily life. Faust proclaims that, “If to the moment I should say: Abide, you are so fair”, lay me to rest at that very moment. To reach this point is to arguably exceed Faust’s expectations. In Goethe’s version, the true tragedy does not exist in one’s soul being taken, but the depressing condition of man that Faust exemplifies. Even the Devil himself recognizes the despair which exists in his being—“Man moves me to compassion, so wretched is his plight / I have no wish to cause him further woe.” (87).
One of the first things that Mephisto leads Faust to is to see the infinite in an individual object. By giving him a love potion, he falls in love with Gretchen. Similar to Mephistopheles, Gretchen is presented in the play as a principle of finitude. If we consider her to embody Faust’s earthly side, she draws him back to life. The fact of the play is that Faust continues to strive. Just like anything finite, there is this process of immersion and then consequently a shedding and retraction from that object, whether animate or inanimate. It speaks to how voracious this desire is for the ideal. Even human relationships need one incarnation after the other. When human beings have the desire to shed, the resultant human emotion is guilt. Among those like Faust, there is a great sense of guilt in the knowledge that one can never stay bound and fully committed to something. From Gretchen’s perspective, this makes this process of waxing and waning all the more difficult due to the arrival of Faust’s child.
Goethe’s play seeks to find resolution in this age-old problem of human existence that Faust embodies. Faust is truly a work of art in its attempt to take on one of the most profound and harrowing questions that has arguably come to define the struggle of living in a finite world with infinite desires. Although the topic of reason is not mentioned explicitly much within the text, it is by this faculty that confers our stature as rational animals that also engenders this unfulfilled striving. The principle lesson that exists within Faust is that humanity is not in a position to acquire perfection, but the most one can ask for is to possess control of their life. To do so is to free oneself from a state of powerlessness by acknowledging the personal power that is harnessed through taking responsibility for one’s individual state of mind on a daily basis.
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