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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Few nineteenth-century interpreters of Goethe's
work shared Kierkegaard's view that Faust's (to him:
also Goethe's) unqualified glorification of activity was
compensation for a sickness of the soul. In the twen-
tieth century, however, both the positive values long


attached to the “Faust myth” (Jakob Burkhardt, 1855)
and the propriety of regarding Goethe's Faust as its
supreme artistic expression have been seriously ques-
tioned. Adulation of Faust's ruthlessness as an empire
builder was condemned even when not recognized as
contrary to the tenor of Goethe's text. The benefits
of science and technology that Faust long symbol-
ized—G. W. Hertz even interpreted the work as
natural-scientific myth (Goethes Naturphilosophie im
1912)—began to seem ever more uncertain. And
a theological resurgence made doubtful even the heroic
stature of so self-concerned, or at least so strong-willed,
a figure. (Only esoteric and theosophic interpretations,
notably those offered by the anthroposophist Rudolf
Steiner from 1902 on, now minimized the theme of
ethical choice in Goethe's drama.) “Faustian” could
thus variously mean “Promethean,” “superhuman”
(Hermann Hesse lectured on “Faust and Zarathustra”
in 1909), “dualistically torn between (or simultaneously
impelled by) pleasure principle and cognitive desire,”
“mystically monistic,” “socialistically progressive” (cf.
A. V. Lunacharsky's play Faust i gorod [Faust and the
], 1918), as well as “German in its best—or, at the
height of World War I, worst—sense.”

With the publication of Oswald Spengler's The De-
cline of the West
(1918 and 1922) “Faustian” acquired
a new meaning. In his morphology of civilizations
(Kulturen) Spengler opposed the Faustian culture-soul
of the West to the Apollonian (or Euclidian) and
Magical souls of Greco-Roman and Arabian culture.
His Faustian soul knows the lure of infinitude and
transcendence, has an ethic of instinct or voluntarism
rather than of reason, and its heroes are men of action
with Nietzsche's morality of masters. (If Goethe's Faust
translates logos as Tat [“deed,” “action”] rather than,
say Ordnung [“order”—for Goethe a highest value],
he does not do so in a moment of supreme insight!)
Although the importance that Spengler's concept of
the Faustian attributes to practical achievement is that
of later historicism and scientism, romantic elements
predominate in his thought, which is thus more
German than Western (Dabezies, p. 152). For H.
Trevor-Roper (Historical Essays, London, 1957),
Burckhardt is a “Faustian historian.”

Simultaneous with the explanation of history in
symbolic and mythic terms was an ever more frequent
reading—and creating (Thomas Mann)—of liter-
ary works as forms of symbolic and mythic expression.
Beginning with his Psychologische Typen (1921), C. G.
Jung encouraged the interpretation of Goethe's Faust
as a visionary work, i.e., not as mere poetic invention,
but as the expression of archetypal truths (Faust vari-
ously as hysteric, as magus-magician, as savior-sage,
and—after World War II—as subhumanly ignorant of
ethical emotion, the protagonist of a work revealing
a characteristically “German” alienation from all con-
crete realities). Following both Freud and the earlier
Jung, Maud Bodkin (Archetypal Patterns in Poetry:
Psychological Studies of Imagination,
Oxford, 1934)
could still recognize that Goethe's poem “is not wholly
removed in spirit from such tragedy as that of Shake-
speare,” deriving its strength from such archetypal
figures—“expressions of the sense of self in relation to
forces that appear under the names of God, or Fate,
and of the devil”—as Margarete (woman as symbol of
a transmutation of sentiment or feeling into spiritual
values) and Mephistopheles (“an apt embodiment of
forces that threaten the ideals of the more concrete
persons of the drama”). Her interpretation of Faust's
final “ascension” as the archetype of human “feigning
for individual lives, after bodily death, the renewal that
we know [to be] true of the life-force within them”
is particularly apt, since this was the meaning Goethe
seems consciously to have attached to it.

Under National Socialism Faust could conveniently
symbolize service to the state and humanity (Alfred
Rosenberg), the supreme value of action (Hitler), and
of course the German genius and Führer-principle. The
irony of this did not go unappreciated abroad, and in
Dorothy Sayers' morality The Devil to Pay (premiere:
1939) Faust's worst crime is having tried to play god.
Paul Valéry's Mon Faust (1941; 1944f.), comprising
Lust, ou la Demoiselle de Cristal and Le Solitaire, féerie
(both uncompleted), transposes Goethe's
“chief figures”—for Valéry these are Faust and
Mephistopheles, the extremes of the human-humane
and the inhuman—into a modern world. In Lust (the
name is that of Faust's attractive secretary) the un-
creative impotence of reason (science? rationalization?)
is accepted as bitter reality, although Faust—poet,
thinker, and “member of the Academy of Dead Sci-
ences”—brilliantly displays reason's power in his dis-
cussions with Mephistopheles, who contracts not to
serve him, but to receive his services. Mephistopheles
cannot even tempt one of Faust's young admirers (“the
Disciple,” whom Faust has cautioned against emotion-
alism) with offers of knowledge and power, or of love.
Yet Faust himself seems capable of something like love
or affection, although Valéry chooses—this is clearly
a corrective to vitalistic interpretations of the Faust
figure—to emphasize the centrality of thought and
memory to human awareness, even to that of immedi-
ate experience.

In Le Solitaire—the figure is a nihilistic philosopher
who, scorning Faust's, and any, intellectualism, con-
sistently destroys himself—the central theme is even
more Goethean: awareness of the potentiality of re-
generation (although its Faust is too wise to accept


the chance to relive life). The dispute for Faust's soul
which was to conclude this play was never written,
but what exists of Mon Faust is a timeless challenge—
there is no mention of purely contemporary events—to
perversely irrational and pretentious interpretations of
the Faust myth.

In contrast to Valéry's “Faust,” that of Thomas Mann
concerns itself directly with the ideological and politi-
cal forces that, producing Nazism and the cultural
debasement of Germany, culminated in the catastrophe
of World War II. Mann's title, Doctor Faustus: The
Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as
Told by a Friend
(1943-46, published 1947), refers to
the Historia of 1587, which is the inspiration of his
protagonist's German style and final musical composi-
tion, and from which derive the main “traditional”
motifs that structure his novel. (Goethe's Faust was
insufficiently apocalyptic to serve Mann's thematic
needs; a writer long devoted to interpreting mythic
archetypes, Mann may have shared the regret—
occasionally expressed earlier, as by Heine in notes to
his Faust ballet [1851]—at Goethe's failure to adhere
closely to the original Faust legend.) Leverkühn's pact
with the devil is his fantasy that syphilitic infection
is the price of heightened creative powers. (Mann had
long thought to discern a connection between disease
and artistic creativity, and had first conceived in 1901
the idea of portraying a syphilitic artist as a Faust fig-
ure.) Doctor Faustus repudiates nationalistic and nihi-
listic interpretations of Faust and the Faustian; parallels
in it to recent developments in historical, philosophical,
theological, psychological, and scientific speculation
insist that the cultivation of musical abstraction by its
coldly intellectual hero also symbolizes a general
alienation from humane values that only a spiritual
breakthrough may possibly overcome.

Mann's return to the Faust-book form of the legend
coincides with a widespread trend to doubt the
exemplary significance of Goethe's Faust. Some theo-
logically-minded critics, still reading it as a glorification
of ruthless activity, condemned it as an expression of
humanistic amoralism, while others interpreted it as
a morality play warning against the destructive conse-
quences of human effort unredeemed by theological
grace. Although Marxists largely continued to see in
it a paean to progress and secular human values, and
although there seems to be a positive connotation in
F. R. Stannard's use of “faustian” to characterize a
mirror- or reverse-time universe (Nature [August 13,
1966], 693ff.), pessimistic interpretations of the poem
prevailed immediately after World War II—hence the
frequently expressed subjective preference (e.g., E. M.
Butler, A. Dabezies) for pre-Goethean forms of the
legend in which the “existential” distinction between
good and evil is made with (naive) clarity. Goethe,
however, interpreted the Faust story in a tragedy, not
in a morality play, and the lasting significance of the
Faust legend will surely again be recognized as deriv-
ing not from the theme of existential despair (which
it shares with many other tales and myths), but from
the paradox of self-limiting and even self-destroying
aspiration which, as Goethe knew, the legend symbol-
izes with apparently unique distinction.