Friday, January 2, 2015

Rereading Goethe’s Faust 5: Word and Deed

I have now finished the whole of Part I, and will make some remarks about it in my next post. In this post I will confine my remarks to a key passage at a relatively early point in the drama. Faust has returned to his study after a walk with a rather pedestrian student, Wagner. He is accompanied into his study by a black poodle whose path crossed his near the end of the walk. That poodle will turn out to be Mephistophes, but we’ll leave that for the next post. Faust has decided to try his hand at translating the New Testament, the Gospel According to John, into German (ll. 1218-1237):
Our spirits yearn toward revelation
That nowhere glows more fair, more excellent,
Than here in the New Testament.
To open the fundamental text I'm moved,
With honest feeling, once for all,
To turn the sacred, blest original
Into my German well-beloved.
He opens a volume and applies himself to it.
‘Tis written: “In the beginning was the Word!”
Here now I'm balked! Who'll put me in accord?
It is impossible, the Word so high to prize,
I must translate it otherwise
If I am rightly by the Spirit taught.
‘Tis written: In the beginning was the Thought!
Consider well that line, the first you see,
That your pen may not write too hastily!
Is it then Thought that works, creative, hour by hour?
Thus should it stand: In the beginning was the Power!
Yet even while I write this word, I falter,
For something warns me, this too I shall alter.
The Spirit's helping me! I see now what I need
And write assured: In the beginning was the Deed!
From “word” to “thought” to “power” to “deed.” That progression, according to Prof. Jantz, is crucial to the book and, as such, I would assume that it has attracted a fair amount of learned commentary.

But I am not going to attempt to interpret it. I shall be content to take it at face value. I do note, however, that that progression would have had real force for Goethe himself. Though he is best known as a writer, he was a polymath who had quite a bit of practical experience in the affairs of state. He was only 25 when The Sorrows of Young Werther bought him international fame. A year later he was invited to the Weimar court of Carl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. As Priest explains in a biographical note to the 1941 edition of his translation:
In 1775, in the midst of his literary triumph, he accepted the invitation of Duke Karl August and moved to the court at Weimar, which was to remain his home for the rest of his life. He was reproached by his friends for abandoning his literary talents, and he soon became so involved with duties of state that for the next ten years he spent little time in writing. He was not long in Weimar before he was entrusted with almost all the offices of the tiny State. As councillor of legation, he attended the privy council and the trial of prisoners. He also had charge of the war and finance commissions as well as the administration of roads, mines, and forests. In 1782 he was raised to the nobility by the emperor and a short time later became president of the chamber.
He remained at Weimar for the rest of his life and devoted his last for decades largely to literature.

So, Goethe was fixed in Europe’s mind as a writer, but also had significant practical experience. Word and deed, he knew them both. And as an advisor to the Duke he was familiar with the ways of power. Perhaps we might at this time speculate that the purpose of Faust is to delineate the connections between words, thoughts, power, and deeds. Faust starts the drama as a man of thoughts and words and ends it as one of deeds.

We shall see.

Thought and Deed, Descartes and Vico

By way of deep background, I note that there is, in European philosophy, a tension between thoughts and words, on the one hand, and deeds on the other. Modern philosophy is said to begin with Descartes (1596-1650), who put epistemology front and philosophical center. How is it that we can know? And how can be we certain of our knowledge?

Rendered into Latin, the cornerstone of Descarte’s philosophy is the well-known Cogito, ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. That is thought.

Later on Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) would challenge Descartes with a very different formulation. Here’s a passage from the article about Vico in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy stating Vico’s alternative:
... the principle that verum et factum convertuntur, that “the true and the made are...convertible,” or that “the true is precisely what is made” (verum esse ipsum factum). Vico emphasizes that science should be conceived as the “genus or mode by which a thing is made” so that human science in general is a matter of dissecting the “anatomy of nature's works” ([De Antiquissima], 48), albeit through the “vice” of human beings that they are limited to “abstraction” as opposed to the power of “construction” which is found in God alone (DA, 50–52). Given that “the norm of the truth is to have made it” (DA, 52), Vico reasons, Descartes' famous first principle that clear and distinct ideas are the source of truth must be rejected: “For the mind does not make itself as it gets to know itself,” Vico observes, “and since it does not make itself, it does not know the genus or mode by which it makes itself” (DA, 52).
Descartes seeks truth in taking thought. Vico counters that, no, truth is something we construct (verum factum); it is through the construction that we know. Truth is not something we perceive; it is something we do.

I’m inclined to think that Vico had the best of it. But I’m not going to argue the point. I wish simply to point out that in having his man of knowledge, Heinrich Faust, go from word and thought to deed, Goethe was following a fault line deep in European thought.

Old Marginalia

Here’s a photo of the bottom of p. 37 in my copy of Faust. This is where the quoted passage begins.


The annotation reads: “The 4th gospel || according to John / the gospel for speculative persons.” That must have been something that Jantz mentioned in lecture. I assume that many of the annotations I find in the text are of that kind. The two underlinings (“sacred, blest original” and “the Word!”), and the star, however, are notations I put there during this, my present reading.

That passage continues to the top of the next page, which is, as you can see, extensively annotated:


The two underlinings (“Thought!” and “Power!”) are from my current reading while the annotations are from five decades ago. I won’t bother to transcribe all of them but I will take note of the one at the lower right: “Protest increase as Faust comes closer to the truth – Mesty [Mephistopheles] can’t allow this progress to insight.”

Remember, Mephistopheles is present in the form of a poodle. He’s been growing as Faust has been commenting on the passage. Now that Faust has arrived at the notion that the DEED is the origin of all things, Mephistopheles in his persona as the poodle, registers a complaint. After all, he wants Faust for himself. He will be making a bargain with the man. He helps Faust in whatever Faust seeks, but if and when Faust says that he’s satisfied, that he’s had enough, then Mephistopheles can claim his soul.

It’s going to be cat and mouse for the rest of this epic. But who’s the cat and who’s the mouse?

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