Faust, Part I
A drama by
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
“Whatever is the lot of humankind
I want to taste within my deepest self.
I want to seize the highest and the lowest,
to load its woe and bliss upon my breast,
and thus expand my single self titanically
and in the end go down with all the rest.”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, Part I
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust begins with a prologue set in Heaven. The scene is modeled on the opening of the Book of Job in the Old Testament. While the angels Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael praise the Lord, Mephistopheles mocks human beings as failed creations because reason makes them worse than brutes. God tells Mephistopheles that he will illuminate his servant Faust. Mephistopheles wagers with god that he can corrupt Faust instead. With the assent of god Mephistopheles goes into action.
In the next scene, Faust appears in acute despair because his intellectual studies have left him ignorant and without worldly gain and fame. In order to discover the inner secrets and creative powers of nature, he turns to black magic. Thus, he conjures up the Earth Spirit, the embodiment of the forces of nature. However, the Earth Spirit mocks Faust’s futile attempts to understand him. As he despairs of understanding nature, he prepares to poison himself.
At that moment, church bells and choral songs announcing that “Christ is arisen” distract Faust from killing himself. Celestial music charms Faust out of his dark and gloomy study for a walk in the countryside on a beautiful spring day in companionship with his fellow human beings. Observing the springtime renewal of life in nature, Faust experiences ecstasy. At this moment, Faust yearns for his soul to soar into celestial spheres.
This Easter walk foreshadows Faust’s ultimate spiritual resurrection. However, he must first undergo a pilgrimage through the vicissitudes and depths of human life. In a famous moment he proclaims that "two souls are dwelling in my breast". It is in this battle within himself that he becomes emblematic of modern man. As he battles Mephistopheles offers him a wager for his everlasting soul that will provide him a fleeting moment of satisfaction in this world. Mephistopheles commands a witch to restore Faust’s youth so that he is vulnerable to sensuous temptations. When Faust sees the beautiful young girl Margaret, he falls into lust and commands Mephistopheles to procure her. Mephistopheles devises a deadly scheme for seduction. Faust convinces Margaret, who is only fourteen years old, to give her mother a sleeping potion, prepared by Mephistopheles, so that they can make love. Mephistopheles makes poison instead; the mother never awakens.
Unwittingly, Margaret has murdered her mother. Furthermore, she is pregnant by Faust and alone. When Faust comes to visit Margaret, he finds her brother, Valentine, ready to kill him for violating his sister. Mephistopheles performs trickery so that Faust is able to stab Valentine in a duel. Dying, Valentine curses Margaret before the entire village as a harlot. Even at church, Margaret suffers extreme anguish as an evil spirit pursues her.
In contrast, Faust escapes to a witches’ sabbath on Walpurgis Night. He indulges in orgiastic revelry and debauchery with satanic creatures and a beautiful witch until an apparition of Margaret haunts him. Faust goes looking for Margaret and finds her, in a dungeon, insane and babbling. At this moment, Faust realizes that he has sinned against innocence and love for a mere moment of sensual pleasure. Even though it is the very morning of her execution, Margaret refuses to escape with Faust and Mephistopheles. Instead, she throws herself into the hands of God. As Faust flees with Mephistopheles, a voice from above proclaims, “She is saved!”
Goethe will continue his drama with a second part, but the narrative from this first section has become one of the markers for the beginning of the modern era of human culture. I have previously written about some of the ideas in this drama in my discussion of "Active vs. Reactive Man". Translated by many over the two centuries since its original publication it has become a touchstone for the study of the development of the human spirit. It has also inspired other artists to create operas and novels based on the characters from Goethe's drama.