The Faustian Ideal: Eternal Relevance?

By February 21, 2024 No Comments

Not to sound like a pretentious German snob, but Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust: Part One (1808) is fucking good. As a humble little academically inclined 16-year old-rural German kid “Faust” had a profound impact on me — not only because of its crass portrayal of pedophilia or because it deals with identity crises – but because it lets me seem pretentious, educated, and fuels my sense of superiority. But in all honesty, Faust deals brilliantly with questions of how we situate ourselves in the world and how we deal with uncertainty.

Be ready for a very unexhaustive and super simplified description of a 90-minute play: Faust starts with a prologue in which God and Mephistopheles (a representation of Satan) make a bet on the goodness of humanity — for Mephisto humans are purely driven by their hedonistic drives. 

With this context, the play jumps into the life of a 50-something-year-old Faust (just keep this in mind for later). He is an academic who, despite having studied all subjects, feels unsatisfied with his life due to his limitations as a human. He wants to understand what holds the world together at its core, and so turns to magic to satisfy his inquisitiveness. Here Mephisto makes a pact with Faust, ensuring that he gets Faust’s soul for eternity if he succeeds in fulfilling all of Faust’s desires. 

Following this premise, the second part of the play starts with Mephisto trying to win the bet by making Faust live through all the worldly hedonistic pleasures: Impregnating a 14-year-old, partying with some witches at a sex party on a random hill, and doing some other wild shit in Faust: Part 2 (but, again, that one kinda sucks so it will be ignored here). 

Firstly, let’s deal with the elephant in the room — a 50+-year-old bloke impregnating a 14-year-old. I do want to note that Faust does drink a magic potion from a witch first which turns him into a young hot hunk of a man (i.e. the age gap is apparently not that bad)…. Yet, you would have to be kinda crazy though to believe that that makes it any way better. Additionally, two other factors persist here:

Firstly, Faust actively lies to the 14-year-old Gretchen, belittles her, and misuses the class dynamic in order to seduce her. In no part of the seduction process does Faust point out that he is actually a 50+-year-old failed academic. Ignoring the obvious pedophilia, this also raises questions about actual consent, as the information on which the decision is based is manufactured through the clear existence of a power asymmetry. To make it sound fancy (in typical Sciences Piste fashion) we could apply Chomsky’s concept of “manufactured consent” to this situation (I am too lazy to explain it, just read the book or trust me that it makes sense). 

Secondly, after the magical act was concluded, Faust dipped harder than my mental health during the last exam season. He simply disappeared, leaving Gretchen alone. Gretchen then had to deal with 18th-century German social standards about being unmarried and pregnant (believe me, they are worse than you think). And if that was not enough she also had to mourn the death of her brother (who was killed by Faust, I might add) and also deal with being in prison because she killed her kid —I want to reiterate, she is like 14 years old. Whilst all of this is happening, Faust is at a witch’s sex party, living through all of the sensual experiences a human being can. 

I think this analysis is so interesting as it deals with the duality of the Sciences Po life: the intellectual pursuit of analyzing Chomsky, whilst facing the grim reality of getting fucked and dumped. 

But I don’t know, it was 1808 and people did weird and sus shit and I do not think that that is the reason you ought to read or see the play. I think it is because of the representation of Faust as a modern human. It is the modern human who always strives for more: More money, more sex, more satisfaction, …. Humans, no matter where they are, are never satisfied with what they have. They strive for eternal growth, even if this is impossible. Eternally unhappy, eternally unsatisfied, their efforts to free themself from the shackles of nature, religion or belief are futile.

According to Goethe researcher Michael Jaeger, Faust can be read as a parable of the globalized and accelerated world. The environment is exploited, and people seek all their happiness in consumption and are increasingly dissatisfied, speculating incessantly about the future. Faust is the unconditional individualist who knows no limits, who restlessly goes from one event to the next, who unscrupulously destroys himself, others, and even the very thing that  keeps him alive. Whilst people might not sell their souls to Satan anymore (also lowkey doubting if they ever did), the Satan in disguise might be the corporate sellout opportunities promising a life of hedonistic joy through really fucking high salaries. 

Faust further discusses religion, belief, trust, relationships, identity and many other beautifully important themes in life today, so when I say read “Faust” I am not just trying to be pretentious, I really do mean it!


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