by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
translated by George Madison


Ye wavering forms draw near again as ever
When ye long since moved past my clouded eyes.
To hold you fast, shall I this time endeavour?
Still does my heart that strange illusion prize?
Ye crowd on me! 'Tis well! Your might assever
While ye from mist and murk around me rise.
As in my youth my heart again is bounding,
Thrilled by the magic breath your train surrounding.
Ye bring with you glad days and happy faces.
Ah, many dear, dear shades arise with you;

Like some old tale that Time but half erases,
First Love draws near to me and Friendship too.
The pain returns, the sad lament retraces
Life's labyrinthine, erring course anew
And names the good souls who, by Fortune cheated
Of lovely hours, forth from my world have fleeted.

They do not hear the melodies I'm singing,
The souls to whom my earliest lays I sang;
Dispersed that throng who once to me were clinging,
The echo's died away that one time rang.
Now midst an unknown crowd my grief is ringing,
Their very praise but gives my heart a pang,
While those who once my song enjoyed and flattered,
If still they live, roam through the wide world scattered.

And I am seized with long-unwonted yearning
Toward yonder realm of spirits grave and still.
My plaintive song's uncertain tones are turning
To harps aeolian murmuring at will.
Awe binds me fast; tear upon tear falls burning,
My stern heart feels a gentle, tender thrill;
What I possess, as if far off I'm seeing,
And what has vanished, now comes into being.

Despite being the German word for fist, Faust is together with the Nibelungenlied (not Der Ring des Niebelungen by Wagner, but the Saga, which is the Germanic epic dealing with betrayal and disloyalty) the most important work of (German) Literature available. The story behind Faust was not made up by Goethe, but is a story of a man living nearly 300 years before him (if he really lived): Doctor Faustus. The story of this man was mixed together with older stories about sorcerers to the first Faust story "Historia von D. Johann Fausten" (1587) by J. Spies. Because this story is lost The tragical history Doctor Faustus is the oldest readable Faust story. Several other versions were released ,but the most important ones were Goethes three versions. During 1772-1775 Goethe wrote the Urfaust, a mainly forgotten work (because the two part version was better). The most frequently read version is the first part of Goethes two part version: "Faust, der Tragödie erster Teil". The second part "Der Tragödie zweiter Teil" continues were the first ends and is nearly never played in theatres as it is considered unplayable. Recently during the Expo in Hannover a production of both parts together was made, lasting round about 20 hours.

The reasons why the story of Faust is more important today than ever in history, are, that the basic problems dealt with in this story are still unsolved (and maybe stay unsolved till the The Second Coming, or something similar) : What is a scientist allowed to do? (Faust, a godfearing man, sells his soul to the devil.) When is a person unique and important? (Faust does not feel like he reached anything important, so he thinks he is unimportant and longs for self-realization). A work basing on these two fundamental questions, what are humans are allowed to do and what the humans are here for, can never be outdated, especially when written by such a genius like Goethe, making reading this book real fun (exceptionally Mephistopheles).

A Beautiful Struggle: Suffering and Salvation in Goethe's Faust

"A good man in his darkling aspiration / Remembers the right road throughout his quest" (89).

These lines suggest that though “Man errs as long as he will strive,” that the imperfections of humankind are conditional, that the human mind has the capacity to make moral judgements even when one acts against one’s conscience (87). In Faust, Goethe infuses this sentiment with the notion that salvation is dependent on one’s own efforts and an individual relationship with God. Furthermore, Faust possesses an insatiable hunger to transcend human limits and comprehend something greater than himself, and this is the driving force that leads him down opposing paths, seeking fulfillment through both the pursuit of sacred Knowledge and the enjoyment of profane earthly delights, the result of which is mental anguish. And it is this untiring aspect of Faust’s personality that is at once the root of all his suffering and the source of his salvation.

If nothing else, this is a play about a quest–-or more accurately, a beautiful struggle, “to strive and strive” for self-fulfillment (141). However, there is a tragic ambiguity inherent in the nature of this quest. What Faust desires, what he aches for is not possible. He cannot “tear open the eternal portals,” and humankind cannot transcend human limits (117). When Faust contemplates his suicide by poison, that he should “offer this last drink with all [his] soul / Unto the morning as a festive high salute,” he is flirting with eternal damnation (119). The abandonment of the struggle is in essence a rejection of God. Yet, Faust does not abandon the quest. He is saved by the “deeply humming strokes” of a choral song, “the sweet consoling hymn” of the Easter message, “confirming the new covenant” (119). In the resurrection of Christ, “One who victorious / Over laborious / Trials has risen,” Faust sees the possibility of his own resurrection from the brink of death, he sees hope in continuing the struggle (121). But the fact remains, he must keep on going.

The pact that Faust makes with Mephisto parallels this suicidal motif. Should he ever find such complete fulfillment in selfish earthly pursuits that he would “recline, calmed, on a bed of sloth,” Mephisto may “destroy [him] then and there” (183). Nevertheless, in his final moments, Faust declares “As I presage a happiness so high, / I now enjoy the highest moment” (469). Mephisto strikes him down. This belies the context of the exclamation though; Faust does not die anguished and tormented, nor does he turn his back on God. Rather, he recognizes that “Freedom and life are earned by those alone / Who conquer them each day anew” (469). Faust finds joy in the struggle, in understanding his relationship as an individual in society, and as one man in the face of God. There is an overwhelming sense of satisfaction in Faust’s resurrection, so much so, that the tragic sense of ambiguity pervading The First Part of the Tragedy is overshadowed by the “supernal love” and redemption at the conclusion of The Second Part of the Tragedy (493).

Thus, Goethe responds, one may not find tragedy in salvation. The tragic elements of Faust’s story, his apparent desolation, his utter despondency, and the seductive temptation of Mephisto’s promises serve as a motivating force. Although his toils cause suffering, this suffering guides Faust in the right direction. His mistakes create a map for all of humanity. This is not a map that illustrates the Way, for every individual must strive to comprehend their own relation to God. Instead, this map of Faust’s tireless efforts acts to manifest the indefinite number of missteps that result in a course that deviates from God’s path.

All page numbers are in reference to the 1961 English Language Translation by Walter Kaufmann.

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