Shattuck, Roger: Faustian Man

An extract from Forbidden Knowledge. From Prometheus to Pornography, St Martin’s Press, New York , ISBN 0-312-14602-7

Το a remarkable degree, the opening scenes in Faust’s study recapitulate the first two parts of Descartes’ Discourse οn Method. Descartes tells us how he abandoned the study of literature, mathematics, theology, philosophy, law, medicine, and rhetoric for more practical knowledge to be gained from travel, experience, and common sense. Faust tells us that he has an advanced degree in all those fields. The difference between the two stories lies in their timing, in where they pick up the thread of the action. We come upon Faust in his study just when he is impatiently trying to break out of his musty learning in order to seek a life of action. We come upon Descartes just as he settles back into his study (poκle) after years of soldiering and travel. What Descartes describes as being behind him forms not a bad summary of what still lies ahead of Faust. Three hundred years later, these sentences retain a trenchant timeliness.

Ι completely abandoned the study of literature. Deciding to seek only that knowledge Ι could find in myself or in the great book of the world, Ι devoted the rest of my youth to travel, to visiting foreign courts and armies, to frequenting people of diverse characters and conditions, to accumulating varied experiences, to testing myself in whatever encounters came my way, and at all times to reflecting profitably on these events For it seemed to me that Ι would discover much more truth in the reasoning of men about what they know directly, men who will bear the consequences if they make α bad decision, than in the reasoning of α scholar in his study, who produces speculations without application and without consequence to him, except perhaps the vanity he finds in their remoteness from common sense. Discourse οn Μethod, Part One)

Descartes could be speaking for Faust at the opening of Goethe’s play. Then, with Mephistopheles as tour guide and tutor, Faust flies off to seek the practical knowledge and experience of the ways of the world from which he has sheltered himself. Unlike Descartes, Faust never returns to his study to take stock of what he has learned. His experiences and enterprises go οn and οn. Death alone can close the structure of the play.

Any museumgoer knows that a common subject in Renaissance painting is Saint Jerome in his study. He is depicted in his monastic cell, with books, cross, and death’s head. Like Marlowe, Goethe chose Faust’s study as the principal scene for his intellectual drama, to which the Gretchen story forms an awkward yet appealing appendage. Having dismissed all traditional fields of study in the first scene and invoked any nearby spirits in the second scene, outdoors, Faust discovers that a spirit (in the form of a poodle) has followed him back into his study. After comic conjurations, Mephistopheles stands before him “dressed as a travelling scholar” -that is, as Faust’s parodic double. Faust is the one to propose “a pact,” as if he already knew the particulars of his οwn myth from earlier sources. Mephistopheles stalls; his attendant spirits put Faust to sleep so that this lesser Lucifer can consult with higher authoriry.

When Mephistopheles returns, Faust is in a foul mood and curses “all the things that now entice my soul” (1587). The curse includes the very faculty of imagination: “The god that lives within my bosom” (1566) and that drives him away from dusty books to seek the sublime. All the discussion here is both very abstract (unless convincingly staged) and improbable as a prelude to the big moment. It takes a spirit chorus to talk Faust back down to tractability so that Mephistopheles can deal with him. By declining any conventional offer of gold, girls, and glory (1679-87) Faust rejects the historical quid pro quo of a soul exchanged for a period οf magical bliss. Instead, Faust proposes a wager.

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