The Two Fausts
[Note: This is taken From John Kelman's Among Famous Books.]
It may seem strange to pass immediately from the time of Marcus Aurelius to Marlowe and Goethe, and yet the tale upon which these two poets wrought is one whose roots are very deep in history, and which revives in a peculiarly vital and interesting fashion the age-long story of man's great conflict. Indeed the saga on which it is founded belongs properly to no one period, but is the tragic drama of humanity. It tells, through all the ages, the tale of the struggle between earth and the spiritual world above it; and the pagan forms which are introduced take us back into the classical mythology, and indeed into still more ancient times.
The hero of the story must be clearly distinguished from Fust the printer, a wealthy goldsmith of Mayence, who, in the middle of the fifteenth century, was partner with Gutenberg in the new enterprise of printing. Robert Browning, in Fust and his Friends, tells us, with great vivacity, the story of the monks who tried to exorcise the magic spirits from Fust, but forgot their psalm, and so caused an awkward pause during which Fust retired and brought out a printed copy of the psalm for each of them. The only connection with magic which this Fust had, was that so long as this or any other process was kept secret, it was attributed to supernatural powers.
Faust, although a contemporary of Fust the printer, was a very different character. Unfortunately, our information about him comes almost entirely from his enemies, and their accounts are by no means sparing in abuse. Trithemius, a Benedictine abbot of Spanheim in the early part of the sixteenth century, writes of him with the most virulent contempt, as a debauched person and a criminal whose overweening vanity arrogated to itself the most preposterous supernatural powers. It would appear that he had been some sort of travelling charlatan, whose performing horse and dog were taken for evil spirits, like Esmeralda's goat in Victor Hugo's Notre Dame. Even Melanchthon and Luther seem to have shared the common view of him, and at last there was published at Frankfurt the Historie of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Dr. John Faustus. The date of this work is 1587, and a translation of it appeared in London in 1592. It is a discursive composi tion, founded upon reminiscences of some ancient stroller who lived very much by his wits; but it took such a hold upon the imagination of the time that, by the latter part of the sixteenth century, Faust had become the necromancer par excellence. Into the Faust-book there drifted endless necromantic lore from the Middle Ages and earlier times. It seems to have had some connection with Jewish legends of magicians who invoked the Satanim, or lowest grade of elemental spirits not unlike the "elementals" of modern popular spiritualism. It was the story of a Christian selling his soul to the powers of darkness, and it had behind it one of the poems of Hrosvitha of Gandersheim which relates a similar story of an archdeacon of Cilicia of the sixth century, and also the popular tradition of Pope Sylvester the Second, who was suspected of having made the same bargain. Yet, as Lebahn says, "The Faust-legend in its complete form was the creation of orthodox Protestantism. Faust is the foil to Luther, who worsted the Devil with his ink-bottle when he sought to interrupt the sacred work of rendering the Bible into the vulgar tongue." This legend, by the way, is a peculiarly happy one, for Luther not only aimed his ink-bottle at the Devil, but most literally and effectively hit him with it, when he wrote those books that changed the face of religious Europe.
The Historie had an immense and immediate popularity, and until well into the nineteenth century it was reproduced and sold throughout Europe. As we read it, we cannot but wonder what manner of man it really was who attracted to himself such age-long hatred and fear, and held the interest of the centuries. In many respects, doubtless, his story was like that of Paracelsus, in whom the world has recognised the struggle of much good with almost inevitable evil, and who, if he had been born in another generation, might have figured as a commanding spiritual or scientific authority.
Christopher Marlowe was born at Canterbury in 1564, two months before Shakespeare. He was the son of a shoemaker, and was the pupil of Kett, a fellow and tutor of Corpus Christi College. This tutor was probably accountable for much in the future Marlowe, for he was a mystic, and was burnt for heresy in 1589. After a short and extremely violent life, the pupil followed his master four years later to the grave, having been killed in a brawl under very disgraceful circumstances. He only lived twenty-nine years, and yet he, along with Kyd, changed the literature of England. Lyly's Pastorals had been the favourite reading of the people until these men came, keen and audacious, to lead and sing their "brief, fiery, tempestuous lives." When they wrote their plays and created their villains, they were not creating so much as remembering. Marlowe's plays were four, and they were all influential. His Edward the Second was the precursor of the historical plays of Shakespeare. His other plays were Tamburlaine the Great, Dr. Faustus, and The Jew of Malta (Barabbas). These three were all upon congenial lines, expressing that Titanism in revolt against the universe which was the inspiring spirit of Marlowe. But it was the character of Faust that especially fascinated him, for he found in the ancient magician a pretty clear image of his own desires and ambitions. He was one of those who loved "the dangerous edge of things," and, as Charles Lamb said, "delighted to dally with interdicted subjects." The form of the plays is loose and broken, and yet there is a pervading larger unity, not only of dramatic action, but of spirit. The laughter is loud and coarse, the terror unrelieved, and the splendour dazzling. There is no question as to the greatness of this work as permanent literature. It has long outlived the amazing detractions of Hallam and of Byron, and will certainly be read so long as English is a living tongue.
The next stage in this curious history is a peculiarly interesting one. In former days there sprang up around every great work of art a forest of slighter literature, in the shape of chap-books, ballads, and puppet plays. By far the most popular of the puppet plays was that founded upon Marlowe's Faust. The German version continued to be played in Germany until three hundred years later. Goethe constructed his masterpiece largely by its help. English actors travelling abroad had brought back the story to its native land of Germany, and in every town the bands of strolling players sent Marlowe's great conception far and wide. In England also the puppet play was extremely popular. The drama had moved from the church to the market-place, and much of the Elizabethan drama appeared in this quaint form, played by wooden figures upon diminutive boards. To the modern mind nothing could be more incongruous than the idea of a solemn drama forced to assume a guise so grotesque and childish; but, according to Jusserand, much of the stage-work was extremely ghastly, and no doubt it impressed the multitude. There is even a story of some actors who had gone too far, and into the midst of whose play the real devil suddenly descended with disastrous results. It must, however, be allowed that even the serious plays were not with out an abundant element of grotesqueness. The occasion for Faustus' final speech of despair, for instance, was the lowering and raising before his eyes of two or three gilded arm-chairs, representing the thrones in heaven upon which he would never sit. It does not seem to have occurred to the audience as absurd that heaven should be regarded as a kind of drawing-room floating in the air, and indeed that idea is perhaps not yet obsolete. However that may be, it is quite evident that such machinery, ill-suited though it was to the solemnities of tragedy, must have been abundantly employed in the puppet plays.
The German puppet play of Faust has been transcribed by Dr. Hamm and translated by Mr. Hedderwick into English. It was obtained at first with great difficulty, for the showmen kept the libretto secret, and could not be induced to lend it. Dr. Hamm, however, followed the play round, listening and committing much of it to memory, and his version was finally completed when his amanuensis obtained for a day or two the original manuscript after plying one of the assistants with much beer and wine. It was a battered book, thumb-marked and soaked with lamp oil, but it has passed on to posterity one of the most remarkable pieces of dramatic work which have come down to us from those times.
In all essentials the play is the same as that of Marlowe, except for the constant interruptions of the clown Casper, who intrudes with his absurdities even into the most sacred parts of the action, and entirely mars the dreadful solemnity of the end by demanding his wages from Faust while the clock is striking the diminishing intervals of the last hour.
It was through this curious intermediary that Goethe went back to Marlowe and created what has been well called "the most mystic poetic work ever created," and "the Divina Commedia of the eighteenth century." Goethe's Faust is elemental, like Hamlet. Readers of Wilhelm Meister will remember how profound an impression Hamlet had made upon Goethe's mind, and this double connection between Goethe and the English drama forms one of the strongest and most interesting of all the links that bind Germany to England. His Faust was the direct utterance of Goethe's own inner life. He says: "The marionette folk of Faust murmured with many voices in my soul. I, too, had wandered into every department of knowledge, and had returned early enough, satisfied with the vanity of science. And life, too, I had tried under various aspects, and always came back sorrowing and unsatisfied." Thus Faust lay in the depths of Goethe's life as a sort of spiritual pool, mirroring all its incidents and thoughts. The play was begun originally in the period of his Sturm und Drang, and it remained unpublished until, in old age, the ripened mind of the great poet took it over practically unchanged, and added the calmer and more intellectual parts. The whole of the Marguerite story belongs to the earlier days.
There is nothing in the whole of literature which could afford us a finer and more fundamental account of the battle between paganism and idealism in the soul of man, than the comparison between the Fausts of Marlowe and of Goethe. But before we come to this, it may be interesting to notice two or three points of special interest in the latter drama, which show how entirely pagan are the temptations of Faust.
The first passage to notice is that opening one on Easter Day, where the devil approaches Faust in the form of a dog. Choruses of women, disciples, and angels are everywhere in the air; and although the dog appears first in the open, yet the whole emphasis of the passage is upon the contrast between that brilliant Easter morning with its sunshine and its music, and the close and darkened study into which Faust has shut himself. It is true he goes abroad, but it is not to join with the rest in their rejoicing, but only as a spectator, with all the superiority as well as the wistfulness of his illicit knowledge. Evidently the impression intended is that of the wholesomeness of the crowd and the open air. He who goes in with the rest of men in their sorrow and their rejoicing cannot but find the meaning of Easter morning for himself. It is a festival of earth and the spring, an earth idealised, whose spirit is incarnate in the risen Christ. Faust longs to share in that, and on Easter Eve tries in vain to read his Gospel and to feel its power. But the only cure for such morbid introspectiveness as his, is to cast oneself generously into the common life of man, and the refusal to do this invites the pagan devil.
Another point of interest is the coming of the Erdgeist immediately after the Weltschmerz. The sorrow that has filled his heart with its melancholy sense of the vanity and nothingness of life, and the thousandfold pity and despondency which go to swell that sad condition, are bound to create a reaction more or less violent towards that sheer worldliness which is the essence of paganism. In Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress it is immediately after his floundering in the Slough of Despond that Christian is accosted by Mr. Worldly Wiseman. Precisely the same experience is recorded here in Faust, although the story is subtler and more complex than that of Bunyan. The Erdgeist which comes to the saddened scholar is a noble spirit, vivifying and creative. It is the world in all its glorious fullness of meaning, quite as true an idealism as that which is expressed in the finest spirit of the Greeks. But for Faust it is too noble. His morbid gloom has enervated him, and the call of the splendid earth is beyond him. So there comes, instead of it, a figure as much poorer than that of Worldly Wiseman as the Erdgeist is richer. Wagner represents the poor commonplace world of the wholly unideal. It is infinitely beneath the soul of Faust, and yet for the time it conquers him, being nearer to his mood. Thus Mephistopheles finds his opportunity. The scholar, embittered with the sense that knowledge is denied to him, will take to mere action; and the action will not be great like that which the Erdgeist would have prompted, but poor and unsatisfying to any nobler spirit than that of Wagner.
The third incident which we may quote is that of Walpurgis-Night. Some critics would omit this part, which, they say, "has naught of interest in bearing on the main plot of the poem." Nothing could be more mistaken than such a judgment. In the Walpurgis-Night we have the play ending in that sheer paganism which is the counterpart to Easter Day at the beginning. Walpurgis has a strange history in German folklore. It is said that Charlemagne, conquering the German forests for the Christian faith, drove before him a horde of recalcitrant pagans, who took a last shelter among the trees of the Brocken. There, on the pagan May-day, in order to celebrate their ancient rites unmolested, they dressed themselves in all manner of fantastic and bestial masks, so as to frighten off the Christianising invaders from the revels. The Walpurgis of Faust exhibits paganism at its lowest depths. Sir Mammon is the host who invites his boisterous guests to the riot of his festive night. The witches arrive on broomsticks and pitchforks; singing, not without significance, the warning of woe to all climbers—for here aspiration of any sort is a dangerous crime. The Crane's song reveals the fact that pious men are here, in the Blocksberg, united with devils; introducing the same cynical and desperate disbelief in goodness which Nathaniel Hawthorne has told in similar fashion in his tale of Young Goodman Brown; and the most horrible touch of all is introduced when Faust in disgust leaves the revel, because out of the mouth of the witch with whom he had been dancing there had sprung a small red mouse. Throughout the whole play the sense of holy and splendid ideals shines at its brightest in lurid contrast with the hopeless and sordid dark of the pagan earth.
Returning now to our main point, the comparison of Marlowe's play with Goethe's, let us first of all contrast the temptations in the two. Marlowe's play is purely theological. Jusserand finely describes the underlying tragedy of it. "Faust, like Tamburlaine, and like all the heroes of Marlowe, lives in thought, beyond the limit of the possible. He thirsts for a knowledge of the secrets of the universe, as the other thirsted for domination over the world." Both are Titanic figures exactly in the pagan sense, but the form of Faustus' Titanism is the revolt against theology. From the early days of the Christian persecutions, there had been a tendency to divorce the sacred from the secular, and to regard all that was secular as being of the flesh and essentially evil. The mediæval views of celibacy, hermitage, and the monastic life, had intensified this divorce; and while many of the monks were interested in human secular learning, yet there was a feeling, which in many cases became a kind of conscience, that only the divine learning was either legitimate or safe for a man's eternal well-being. The Faust of Marlowe is the Prometheus of his own day. The new knowledge of the Renaissance had spread like fire across Europe, and those who saw in it a resurrection of the older gods and their secrets, unhesitatingly condemned it. The doctrine of immortality had entirely supplanted the old Greek ideal of a complete earthly life for man, and all that was sensuous had come to be regarded as intrinsically sinful. Thus we have for background a divided universe, in which there is a great gulf fixed between this world and the next, and a hopeless cleavage between the life of body and that of spirit.
In this connection we may also consider the women of the two plays. Charles Lamb has asked, "What has Margaret to do with Faust?" and has asserted that she does not belong to the legend at all. Literally, this is true, in so far as there is no Margaret in the earlier form of the play, whose interest was, as we have seen, essentially theological. Yet Margaret belongs to the essential story and cannot be taken out of it. She is the "eternal feminine," in which the battle between the spirit and the flesh, between idealism and paganism, will always make its last stand. Even Marlowe has to introduce a woman. His Helen is, indeed, a mere incident, for the real bride of the soul must be either theological or secular science; and yet so essential and so poignant is the question of woman to the great drama, that the passage in which the incident of Helen is introduced far surpasses anything else in Marlowe's play, and indeed is one of the grandest and most beautiful in all literature.
Still, Marlowe's motif is not sex but theology. The former heretics whom we named had been saved—Theophilus by the intervention of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Pope Sylvester snatched from the very jaws of hell—by a return to orthodoxy. That was in the Roman Catholic days, but the savage antithesis between earth and heaven had been taken over by the conscience of Protestantism, making a duality which rendered life always intellectually anxious and almost impossible. It is this condition in which Marlowe finds himself. The good and the evil angels stand to right and left of his Faustus, pleading with him for and against secular science on the one side and theological knowledge on the other. For that is the implication behind the contest between magic and Christianity. "The Faust of the earlier Faust-books and ballads, dramas, puppet shows, which grew out of them, is damned because he prefers the human to the divine knowledge. He laid the Holy Scriptures behind the door and under the bench, refused to be called Doctor of Theology, but preferred to be called Doctor of Medicine." Obviously here we find ourselves in a very lamentable cul-de-sac. Idealism has floated apart from the earth and all its life, and everything else than theology is condemned as paganism.
Goethe changes all that. In the earlier Weltschmerz passages some traces of it still linger, where Faust renounces theology; but even there it is not theology alone that he renounces, but philosophy, medicine, and jurisprudence as well, so that his renunciation is entirely different from that of Marlowe's Faustus. In Goethe it is no longer one doctrine or one point of view against another doctrine or another point of view. It is life, vitality in all its forms, against all mere doctrine whatsoever.
Thus the times had passed into a sense of the limits of theology such as has been well expressed in Rossetti's lines—
So in Goethe we have the unsatisfied human spirit with its infinite cravings and longings for something more than earth can give—something, however, which is not separated from the earth, and which is entirely different from theological dogma or anything of that sort. In this, Goethe is expressing a constant yearning of his own, which illuminated all his writings like a gentle hidden fire within them, hardly seen in many passages and yet always somehow felt. It is through the flesh that he will find the spirit, through this world that he will find the next. The quest is ultimately the same as that of Marlowe, but the form of it is absolutely opposed to his. Goethe is as far from Marlowe's theological position as Peer Gynt is, and indeed there is a considerable similarity between Ibsen's great play and Goethe's. As the drama develops, it is true that the love of Faust becomes sensual and his curiosity morbid; but the tragedy lies no longer in the belief that sense and curiosity are in themselves wrong, but in the fact that Faust fails to distinguish their high phases from their low. We have already seen that the Erdgeist which first appeals to Faust is too great for him, and it is there that the tragedy really lies. The earth is not an accursed place, and the Erdgeist may well find its home among the ideals; but Wagner is neither big enough nor clean enough to be man's guide.
The contrast between the high and low ideals comes to its finest and most tragic in the story of Margaret. Spiritual and sensual love alternate through the play. Its tragedy and horror concentrate round the fact that love has followed the lower way. Margaret has little to give to Faust of fellowship along intellectual or spiritual lines. She is a village maiden, and he takes from her merely the obvious and lower kind of love. It is a way which leads ultimately to the dance of the witches and the cellar of Auerbach, yet Faust can never be satisfied with these, and from the witch's mouth comes forth the red mouse—the climax of disgust. In Auerbach's cellar he sees himself as the pagan man in him would like to be. In Martha one sees the pagan counterpart to the pure and simple Margaret, just as Mephistopheles is the pagan counterpart to Faust. The lower forms of life are the only ones in which Martha and Mephistopheles are at home. For Faust and Margaret the lapse into the lower forms brings tragedy. Yet it must be remembered also that Faust and Mephistopheles are really one, for the devil who tempts every man is but himself after all, the animal side of him, the dog.
The women thus stand for the most poignant aspect of man's great temptation. It is not, as we have already said, any longer a conflict between the secular and the sacred that we are watching, nor even the conflict between the flesh and the spirit. It is between a higher and a lower way of treating life, flesh and spirit both. Margaret stands for all the great questions that are addressed to mankind. There are for every man two ways of doing work, of reading a book, of loving a woman. He who keeps his spiritual life pure and high finds that in all these things there is a noble path. He who yields to his lower self will prostitute and degrade them all, and the tragedy that leads on to the mad scene at the close, where the cries of Margaret have no parallel in literature except those of Lady Macbeth, is the inevitable result of choosing the pagan and refusing the ideal. The Blocksberg is the pagan heaven.
A still more striking contrast between the plays meets us when we consider the respective characters of Mephistopheles. When we compare the two devils we are reminded of that most interesting passage in Professor Masson's great essay, which describes the secularisation of Satan between Paradise Lost and the Faust of Goethe:—
Marlowe's devil is of the solemn earlier kind, not yet degraded into the worldling whom Goethe has immortalised. Marlowe's Mephistophilis is essentially the idealist, and it is his Faust who is determined for the world. One feels about Mephistophilis that he is a kind of religious character, although under a cloud. The things he does are done to organ music, and he might be a figure in some stained-glass window of old. Not only is he "a melancholy devil, with a soul above the customary hell," but he actually retains a kind of despairing idealism which somehow ranks him on the side rather of good than of evil. The puppet play curiously emphasises this. "Tell me," says Faust, "what would you do if you could attain to ever lasting salvation?" "Hear and despair! Were I to attain to everlasting salvation, I would mount to heaven on a ladder, though every rung were a razor edge." The words are exactly in the spirit of the earlier play. So sad is the devil, so oppressed with a sense of the horror of it all, that, as we read, it almost seems as if Faust were tempting the unwilling Mephistophilis to ruin him.
To which Faust replies—
Goethe's Mephistopheles near the end of the play taunts Faust in the words, "Why dost thou seek our fellowship if thou canst not go through with it?... Do we force ourselves on thee, or thou on us?" And one has the feeling that, like most other things the fiend says, it is an apparent truth which is really a lie; but it would have been entirely true if Marlowe's devil had said it.
The Mephistopheles of Goethe is seldom solemnised at all. Once indeed on the Harz Mountains he says—
Yet there it is merely by discomfort, and not by the pain and hideous sorrow of the world surrounding him, that he is affected. He is like Satan in the Book of Job, except that he is offering his victim luxuries instead of pains. In the prologue in Heaven he speaks with such a jaunty air that Professor Blackie's translation has omitted the passage as irreverent. He is the spirit that denies—sceptical and cynical, the anti-Christian that is in us all. His business is to depreciate spiritual values, and to persuade mortals that there is no real distinction between good and bad, or between high and low. We have seen in the character of Cornelius in Marius the Epicurean "some inward standard ... of distinction, selection, refusal, amid the various elements of the period." Here is the extreme opposite. There is no divine discontent in him, nor longing for happier things. He would never have said that he would climb to heaven upon a ladder of razor edges. There is nothing of the fallen angel about him at all, for he is a spirit perfectly content with an intolerable past, present, and future. Before the throne of God he swaggers with the same easy insolence as in Martha's garden. He is the very essence and furthest reach of paganism.
So we have this curious fact, that Marlowe's Faust is the pagan and Mephistophilis the idealist; while Goethe reverses the order, making paganism incarnate in the fiend and idealism in the nobler side of the man. It is a far truer and more natural story of life than that which had suggested it; for in the soul of man there is ever a hunger and thirst for the highest, however much he may abuse his soul. At the worst, there remains always that which "a man may waste, desecrate, never quite lose."
One more contrast marks the difference of the two plays, namely, the
fate of Faust. Marlowe's Faust is utterly and irretrievably damned. On
the old theory of an essential antagonism between the secular and the
sacred, and upon the old cast-iron theology to which the intellect of
man was enjoined to conform, there is no escape whatsoever for the
rebel. So the play leads on to the sublimely terrific passage at the
close, when, with the chiming of the bell, terror grows to madness in
Goethe, with his changed conception of life in general, could not have accepted this ending. It was indeed Lessing who first pointed out that the final end for Faust must be his salvation and not his doom; but Goethe must necessarily have arrived at the same conclusion even if Lessing had not asserted it. It is clearly visible throughout the play, by touches here and there, that Faust is not "wholly damnable" as Martha is. His pity for women, relevant to the main plot of the play, breaks forth in horror when he discovers the fate of Margaret. "The misery of this one pierces me to the very marrow, and harrows up my soul; thou art grinning calmly over the doom of thousands!" And these words follow immediately after an outbreak of blind rage called forth by Mephistopheles' famous words, "She is not the first." Such a Faust as this, we feel, can no more be ultimately lost than can the Mephistophilis of Marlowe. As for Marlowe's Faust, the plea for his destruction is the great delusion of a hard theology, and the only really damnable person in the whole company is the Mephistopheles of Goethe, who seems from first to last continually to be committing the sin against the Holy Ghost.
The salvation of Faust is implicit in the whole structure and meaning of the play. It is worked out mystically in the Second Part, along lines of human life and spiritual interest far-flung into the sphere that surrounds the story of the First. But even in the First Part, the happy issue is involved in the terms of Faust's compact with the devil. Only on the condition that Mephistopheles shall be able to satisfy Faust and cheat him "into self-complacent pride, or sweet enjoyment," only
only then shall his soul become the prey of the tempter. But from the first, in the scorn of Faust for this poor fiend and all he has to bestow, we read the failure of the plot. Faust may sign a hundred such bonds in his blood with little fear. He knows well enough that a spirit such as his can never be satisfied with what the fiend has to give, nor lie down in sleek contentment to enjoy the earth without afterthought.
It is the strenuous and insatiable spirit of the man that saves him. It is true that "man errs so long as he is striving," but the great word of the play is just this, that no such errors can ever be final. The deadly error is that of those who have ceased to strive, and who have complacently settled down in the acceptance of the lower life with its gratifications and delights.
But such striving is, as Robert Browning tells us in Rabbi ben Ezra and The Statue and the Bust, the critical and all-important point in human character and destiny. It is this which distinguishes pagan from idealist in the end. Faust's errors fall off from him like a discarded robe; the essential man has never ceased to strive. He has gone indeed to hell, but he has never made his bed there. He is saved by want of satisfaction.