Monday, January 19, 2015

Rereading Goethe’s Faust 6: Allegory Alert

At the moment I’m reading an article about the US Military by James Fallows. It has no particular connection with Faust beyond the fact the Goethe himself spent a formative period of his life as a man of practical affairs in the Weimar government. One can’t help but think that Faust was begun, in part, as an effort by Goethe to bridge the gulf between his early fame as a writer and his early experience as an administrator, from “in the beginning was the Word” to “in the beginning was the Deed.”

I say “in part” because no literary work, not even an autobiographical novel, is motivated primarily by the author’s experience. It is motivated by the need write, whatever that is. And the need to write about the whole world, which seems to be the scope of Faust, what is that, where does it come from?

* * * * *

I’ve gotten no farther than I was in my previous post, two weeks ago, when I’d just finished the first part. As it was coming to a climax, such as it was, I was mostly thinking how poorly Gretchen was treated, not by Faust or the townspeople, but by Goethe. He creates this beautiful young woman for what purpose? To be the apple of the eye of a narcissistic megalomaniacal middle-aged intellectual. Faust sees, is smitten, and he barges in, getting her pregnant, leading her to poison her mother, and what does she get out of it? A celestial pardon. She gives herself to His judgment and he pardons her (ll. 4605-4612):
Margaret. Judgment of God! My all to thee I give!
Mephistopheles [to FAUST].
             Come! Come! Along with her I will abandon you.
Margaret. Thine am I, Father! Rescue me!
              Ye angels! Ye heavenly hosts! Appear,
              Encamp about and guard me here!
              Henry! I shrink from you!
Mephistopheles. She is judged!
A Voice [from above]. She is saved!
Mephistopheles [to FAUST]. Here to met
                                           He disappears with FAUST.
A Voice [from within, dying away]. Henry! Henry!
“She is saved!” – that’s it, says the booming voice (I assume it’s booming as the effect would be rather pathetic if it were high-pitched and whining), and Gretchen is redeemed. I wonder how she felt, once she’d heard that she’d been saved. That it had been worthwhile? Fat chance!

But of course Gretchen isn’t supposed to be a realistic person. None of them are. Sure, I know, Mephistopheles is a shape-shifter so he can’t possibility be realistically drawn. But the shape-shifting is beside the point. And for that matter is the fact that he has that opening conversation with the Lord, and they made a bargain, in which everyone will of course see an echo of Job, whose life was wrecked by a cosmic bargain.

These characters aren’t people and there really isn’t a casually coherent plot, at least not one driven by the motives of they individual characters. Those motives don’t really connect up. These characters are being deployed to play out a cosmic drama. The whole thing is an allegory, or something like it.

This is opera material. Come to think of it, it was made into an opera, wasn’t it?

So I googled “Faust allegory” and a split second later that digital oracle coughed up Goethe's Faust: The German Tragedy, (Cornell University Press, 1986) by Jane K. Brown. After noting that Goethe had “asserted there were no ideas behind his texts” (p. 149), she begins arguing that Faust is allegorical in the sense of Angus Fletcher’s Allegory: A Theory of a Symbolic Mode, where allegory is “any text that consistently calls attention fo the fact that it does not mean just what it says.” As such, allegorical texts feature “the quest structure, a tendency to be operatic, episodic construction, and a fundamental underlying dualism” (p. 149).

That’s Faust.

Brown goes on to remark that Part II is more strongly allegorical than Part I, which I’m not yet able to judge, but I have little doubt that it will prove so. She also notes, concerning Part I, that “the supernatural can be easily psychologized and thus explained away” (p. 150). That may be easy enough for the critic who, sitting in the study or library, taking notes, drafting paragraphs and pages and so forth, is not all that close to the text, though who may well be up to what’s known in the trade as “close reading,” but it’s rather more difficult for someone watching the play in the theatre where she has little choice but to follow along in real time and may even, while catching her breath, note in passing that those whole thing just does not make causal sense.

So, Faust is a sophisticated allegory in which characters are deployed in service, if not of ideas in any direct sense, but are subservient to a logic that extends beyond ordinary human motivation and satisfaction to encompass the world. But why would Goethe write such a thing? Why would anyone?

THAT’s what I’m curious about. As I mentioned in Rereading Goethe’s Faust 3: Echoes of Fantasia and Mysteries of the Cosmos, Edward Mendelson identified this as an encyclopedic narrative, a relatively rare type that seeks to encompass the whole of the known world. Franco Moretti concurred. Where does this rage for coherence come from?

No comments:

Post a Comment