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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
From ‘Goethe’s Faust: The Methods of Exposition’
By Kuno Fischer (1824–1907)
Translation of Richard Jones

I. The Age When the Poem was Written

IN 1813 Goethe, wishing to express anew and more comprehensively than ever before, his appreciation of the poet to whom his highest admiration was ever devoted, took for his theme the words “Shakespeare without end.” “So much has already been said concerning Shakespeare that it might appear as though there were nothing more to say, and yet it is the nature of his mind that he always arouses mental activity in others.” The same is also true of Goethe himself and of his ‘Faust.’ The world will never cease to read Dante’s world-poem, for the subject of which it treats is a theme of eternal moment,—the guilt, the purification, and the salvation of man. The same is true of the importance and abiding influence of Goethe’s ‘Faust.’ It would betray an ignorance of world-literature and of its worth should one in a tone of irritation exclaim, “Goethe’s ‘Faust’ without end.”
  This poem roots itself deep in the past, and is not of less worth because it grew out of the ‘Volksbücher’ and popular plays; for in the realm of poetry the worth of a popular origin is fully recognized. The age in which it was written, the stamp of which the poem bears, was one of the richest in ideas and in deeds which man has ever seen; and never before has such an age developed in so short a time. When the ‘Fragment’ of our ‘Faust’ appeared, the French Revolution had just begun, it had run its course and had given birth to a Cæsar, who was already the ruler of the world when the First Part of ‘Faust’ saw the light of day. In the same year Napoleon appeared in Erfurt, where he called to him the author of ‘Werther’ and advised him to compose a ‘Cæsar,’ since the destiny of the world now lay in politics.  2
  When Goethe was asked which one among modern philosophers he considered the greatest, he answered, “Kant, unquestionably; for he is the one whose doctrine proves permanent and has penetrated most deeply into our German culture.” Contemporaneous with the origin of Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ was the origin of Goethe’s ‘Faust.’ Contemporaneous with the ‘Critique of the Judgment,’ Kant’s last great work, appeared the ‘Fragment.’ The Königsberg philosopher stood at that time at the summit of his mental activity. The philosophers Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel had followed him and had filled the world with their ideas, when Goethe published in 1808 the First Part of his ‘Faust.’ Some seventy poems have dared to vie with it, but in the light of the great star have quickly paled. No one of these had the power so to express and reveal the spiritual fullness of this age, rich in thought and events, as did Goethe’s ‘Faust.’ All influential thinkers of the time compared their ideas with this work, and endeavored to show their spiritual relationship with the same, in order thereby to establish their own worth and import….  3
  It is impossible that a poem which rules so great a past and present, and which has so great a following, should be so short-lived that scarcely two generations after its completion it has lived out its life, its fundamental thought exhausted. Indeed, the vast and always growing number of expositions of Goethe’s ‘Faust’ proves to us that the world desires an interpretation of this work, and that the attempts hitherto made have either failed in their purpose or have not solved the problem completely and fundamentally enough. It may, I trust, be permitted me in the present discourse, so far as the time permits, to examine into the nature of these attempts and to pass judgment upon them.  4
II. The Philosophical Method of Interpretation

  THE KERNEL of all Faust literature is a religious fable. A nobly striving and highly gifted man, impelled by thirst for truth and also for the pleasures of the world, becomes untrue to the service of God, strives after the powers of magic, calls up the Devil and subscribes to him his soul, which shall remain forever in hell after he has enjoyed a proud and wanton world-career. This fable contains, even in its rudest form, momentous thoughts concerning the struggle between good and evil in the heart of man, concerning the motives to guilt and destruction,—clearly the profoundest themes both of religion and of philosophy.
  In the course of the sixteenth century, the age of the German new birth of Christianity and of ancient art, there arose under the influence of the religious and philosophical ideas of that time the myth of Doctor Faust, whose religious tendency stamped itself clearly in the ‘Volksbücher.’ In the years from 1771–1831,—an age deeply moved by religious and philosophical ideas, the greatest age of German philosophy, reaching from the beginning of the epoch of Kant to the death of Hegel,—there arose, developed, and was completed, Goethe’s ‘Faust.’ The old fable of the German magician of the sixteenth century, and the new ideas of German philosophy which stirred the last generation of the eighteenth century and the first generation of the nineteenth,—these are the elements our poem must needs take up and unite; for it could deny neither its inheritance nor its birth. Therefore this work is by virtue of its origin a religious and philosophical poem, which cannot be thoroughly comprehended without a knowledge of the ideas contained therein. The meaning of this poem was and still is, therefore, a philosophical problem.  6
  Therefore the first attempts at interpretation, which followed immediately upon the publication of the poem, took this direction. Their problem was to explain the fable of our ‘Faust’ and to find its moral. This was considered as the fundamental idea, which was intended to be allegorically portrayed in the persons and events of the poem. So the philosophical interpretation became allegorical interpretation, and then forced and absurd interpretations. The entire poem appeared at last like a magic sphere, wherein one could no more trust his senses, but must look upon the most natural things as something entirely different from what they seemed to be. One was taught the recondite signification of the pedestrians before the gate, of the dance under the linden tree, of the rat which gnawed the pentagram, of the revelers in Auerbach’s cellar, of the wine which flowed from the table, of the jewel casket in Gretchen’s press, of the bunch of keys and the night lamp with which Faust entered Gretchen’s prison, and of various other similar riddles. It was even asked, What is the meaning of Gretchen?  7
  The fundamental error of all these interpretations was that they assumed as the basis of the poem a wholly invented, entirely original, not partly inherited, fundamental idea; in accordance with which, it was said, the poem grew,—i.e., the fable grew out of the moral. However, concerning this fundamental idea the interpreters were by no means agreed. But they interpreted the poem as though Goethe had himself wholly invented his Faust legend, and had then completed the poem in accordance with the requirements of the invented legend, according to one plan and in a white heat of composition; whereas in truth the Faust legend was already two centuries old when Goethe appropriated it, and Goethe’s ‘Faust’ was two generations old when it was brought to completion.  8
  The problem could not be solved by these methods of interpretation, because of the underlying false conceptions of the origin and production of the poem.  9
IV. The Extreme Positions Taken by Both Schools

  OVER against the earlier philosophical—i.e., allegorical—interpretations I have placed the historical investigations of to-day, and shown how widely the latter method has extended its questions and subdivided into so many individual investigations.
  Opposed as are their tendencies, so also are the byways into which both methods of interpretation get astray. If the allegorists consult tradition not at all, or too little at least, and prefer to ascribe everything to the assumed inventions of the poet, so on the other hand, many of the historical expositors of to-day are inclined to exaggerate tradition to such an extent that they would leave nothing to the ideas and power of invention of the poet. The former would, if possible, make everything invented; the latter make everything borrowed. We find that the former ascribed to the poet of ‘Faust’ ideas,—the latter borrowings,—of which he never thought. Here extremes meet.  11
VIII. The Religious Idea of the Poem

  I HAVE attempted to show the directions which the expositions of Goethe’s ‘Faust’ have taken, by the philosophic methods of exposition as well as by the historical and the philological. The poem needs an explanation of the entire circumference of its ideas, as well as of its origin, which can succeed only when both methods of exposition—the philosophical as well as the historical, which includes also the philological—are united. Separated from each other, neither takes the right way. The philosophical consideration which to-day deserves this name is itself of a historical nature. It must recognize, through the course of development of the poet, the ideas which have in truth inspired and filled his work. Where the poem itself takes the form of allegory, the philosophical interpretation must proceed allegorically. It must ask, for example, What means the Witches’ Kitchen, the Witches’ Sabbath, the Mothers, the Homunculus, the classical Walpurgis Night?
  The legend of Faust was a religious fable, and its theme was the guilt and condemnation of a nobly striving man entangled in the pleasures of the world. Goethe’s ‘Faust’ is a religious poem, and its theme is the guilt and purification of a high-minded man, whom the pleasures of the world entice and sweep along but never satisfy. Were this non-satisfaction the final theme of the ‘Faust,’ as is commonly held, I should not call the poem a religious poem. It would then be merely pessimistic, as are the poems of Byron. There is a religious view of the misery in the world and a pessimistic view; the latter finds the world evil because it is not rich enough in enjoyment. This pessimism, which in our day is the fashion, is at bottom nothing but unsatisfied pleasure-seeking.  13
  This was not the view of Goethe, not that of his ‘Faust.’ In his second monologue he portrays the wretchedness of human existence in a manner which can be compared only with the famous monologue of Hamlet. To Faust also, death appears to be a goal to be desired most fervently. He wishes to shuffle off the mortal coil of life as a burden. Then the Easter song moves him with admonition. Life is no burden; it is a test,—a painful but a wholesome one!
    “Christ is ascended!
Bliss hath invested him,—
Woes that molested him,
Trials that tested him,
  Gloriously ended!”
  Life has the importance of a trial which is to be endured by continued purification: this is the fundamental religious thought which Goethe introduces into his ‘Faust’ tragedy in the ‘Prologue in Heaven,’ and makes it the theme of the same. He permits his ‘Faust’ to strive upward, and reach a height where the enjoyments of the world and the evil of the world touch him no more.  15
  Upon this height he answers the tempter who places before his eyes the glories and enjoyments of the world:—“Base and modern Sardanapalus! Enjoyment makes common!”  16
  From this height he says to Care, who paints to him again the misery of the world, “I will not recognize you.” The energy of endeavor and striving is not to be dispirited by the misery of life’s cares. There is a genuine and real non-satisfaction; it springs not from the misery of the world, but from the wants and weakness of one’s own powers:—
  “Firm let him stand, and look around him well!
This World means something to the Capable
In marching onwards, bliss and torment find,
Though every moment with unsated mind!”
  However, it is not the province of this address to go into the course of development of the poem itself, since I only wished to present and to criticize the methods of exposition. The work progressed with the poet and with his views of life, and it was two generations of men in coming into being. In order to appreciate it correctly, and to apprehend the ideas which this world-poem presents, let us take as a prototype that view of the world, full of love, which the Lord in the Prologue commends to his own:—
  “But ye, God’s sons in love and duty,
Enjoy the rich, the ever-living Beauty!
  Creative Power, that works eternal schemes,
Clasp you in bonds of love, relaxing never,
  And what in wavering apparition gleams
Fix in its place with thoughts that stand forever!”

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