The Crisis of Goethe’s Faust

The opening few pages of The First Part of the Tragedy in Goethe’s Faust is where Faust laments and complains. This I call the Faust crisis as it expresses his state of mind – confused, dissatisfied with a willingness to change into something, anything.

This part is what attracted and still attracts me to Faust so I thought I should take this opportunity to understand what exactly is the issue with him – in the process, trying to understand what exactly is the issue with me such that is attracted me to the text.

So, what is his problem?

The situation is thus:

It is night time and Faust is in his ‘high-vaulted narrow Gothic room.’ He is seated at his desk and is restless. And then he begins.

He says he has studied medicine, law and philosophy and worked his way through every school. He has even studied Theology and sweated like a fool. And then he asks himself:

Why labour at it any more?

This feeling of not wanting anything anymore would imply someone has either accomplished something or has realized the incapability of the self or futility of something.

And then he answers:

You’re no wiser than you were before.

Which makes it clear that all those learnings have been futile for him. He pursued them to get wise, but apparently he doesn’t think he has become that.

This has got me questioning: is it because the subjects are futile or it is because Faust is incapable?

He then goes on to reveal that he is a Master of Arts and a doctor too. But he doesn’t value those accomplishments much, as he believes – for ten long years, all he has been able to do is lead his students a fearful dance through a maze of error and ignorance.

And then comes his conclusion after admitting that he is miserable:

There is nothing we can ever know.

The use of we clearly suggests that he is not someone who suffers from self-doubt. He confidently proclaims the fault is in the learner itself. The human inability, rather than the inability of the texts or Faust.

This confidence is verified as he goes on to admit that he is brighter than all relics, professors and doctors; scribblers and clerics. He isn’t troubled by any doubts or scruples and has defied hell and the devil too. But he no longer enjoys self-delusion and says that his search for truth ends in confusion.

His personal affect aside, he is not too positive on the impact of his teachings on society too. He tells himself not to imagine that his teaching will,

ever raise the minds of men or change their ways.

At this point, the Faustian crisis is defined:

We humans can neither know anything nor can develop our minds and change our ways in anything. Yet he has spent his entire life trying to know and do such things. 

Now, it is understandable why someone would feel this way when he has spent so much of his time and life pursuing something that he realizes is vain and has led him nowhere. It is like a gate suddenly appearing and closing access to the upper sky for Mr. Bezos and the likes. Devastating!

This is grave pessimism. But why? Why reach that conclusion?

The character of Faust is based on a real life magician who was popularized by numerous authors during the sixteenth century. Goethe apparently took that character and created a symbolic figure who in the section that we are talking about:

  1. Doesn’t think man can know.
  2. Doesn’t think man can change.

The first part was published in 1790, around the time of Voltaire, Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and the likes. Within the European Enlightenment and before the advent of Romanticism.

I do not know much about scholarly implications, and I do not want to pretend to be or be one, but I cannot help but notice a simple pattern here: the character is fed up with a certain type of learning and wants to explore through some other means. That some other means is different from books and theories apparently. Transition from Enlightenment to Mysticism? To Romanticism, perhaps!

This assumption is backed up by what Faust says after his declaration that minds of men or their ways cannot change.

He bashes himself on the fact that despite all these efforts, he hasn’t been able to gain any worldly wealth, or honor or glory. After which he thinks of turning to a magic lore which – he hopes – will reveal some secret knowledge to him: of what makes the world revolve. Here he also says:

No more in empty words I’ll deal –

Creation’s wellsprings I’ll reveal!

He then calls his room and its stuff a ‘torture’ and expresses a desire to flee that place and walk the mountain-tops again. He wants to make his way through moonlit meadows and in mountain caves play. And then comes another bashing, calling the study ‘accursed dungeon’ where even the light of heaven can only pass through the painted glass. This here is interesting to read:

Immured behind a pile of books,

Motheaten, dusty, in the reek

Of papers stuffed in all these nooks –

This is the wisdom that you seek.

These jars and cases row and row,

Retorts and tubes and taps and gauges,

The useless junk of bygone ages –

This is the only world you know!

And he realizes, it’s no wonder he is feeling this way as all these things have sapped life’s energies.

When God created us, he founded

His living nature for our home;

But you sit in this gloom, surrounded

by mildewed skull and arid bone.

He then urges himself to escape into a wider sphere and opens a book of magic writings guided by Nostradamus. He believes now in nature, who he thinks can help us seek the paths the stars in heaven go.

After this…he opens the books and sees the Sign of the Macrocosm, an astrological diagram representing forces and influences linking the heavens, earth and man. And immediately after this, he is filled with an ecstatic joy with youthful passion glowing through his veins and nerves. His raging soul is now stilled and his empty heart is filled with joy. It is as if all nature’s forces are revealed to him. He questions if he himself is a god with his mind now so clear. He then grasps the wisdom the Seer:

The spirit world is with us still,

Your mind is closed, your heart is dead.

Up, worldly scholar, drink your fill –

At heaven’s gate the dawn is red!

He sees everything in a wholeness and the powers of heaven. He sees the universe in harmony. After this, he turns the page and sees the Sign of the Earth Spirit which inspires him more. He feels new energies, with mind glowing. He now dares to finally face the world again, and share in all its joys and pain. He wants to set his sail into the eye of the storm, before he summons a great spirit and the spirit arrives.

This transition of Faust’s mood and perception, gets me everytime. But in all this, the idea remains clear that the character has transformed from the agitations of vain scholarly pursuits towards the beauty and magic of romance and mysticism. Transition from reason to intuition. From books to nature. From vain theories to beauty. From intellectual pessimism to exploration. To try something new. Something fresh. Something joyful. Something complete. From boring philosophers to Goethe – as far as I understand him. 

Once again, I am not an academic scholar and I do not mean to be one – but these kinds of things fascinate me. Touch me. Thus my idea!

My initial goal to understand the issue with him is clear. I am sure I will have new perspectives on this as I continue to live on and learn on. As to the case of me trying to understand the cause of my fascination and attraction with this, I think it is similar:

It is me wanting to break the shackles that bind me to things of ‘reason’ (the things that ought to be done) and fly towards things of beauty, to things I love (the things that make me feel alive).