Recently, I had the pleasure of reading Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s famed classic, Faust. I bought the dramatic poem some time ago, and years prior to that I had put the book on my reading list, but against my best wishes I ended up leaving the tale on my shelf, allowing months of dust to collect on it.
Before leaving for my study abroad in Belgium, I found the book whilst packing and brought it along with me, my mind set on reading this masterpiece. To conclude, I have now read it, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and I regret taking so long.
What made Goethe’s Faust such a masterpiece to me?
If one searches the internet, one is certain to come across their fair share of literary analysis, reviews and critiques of the book. Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe is a famous German writer, his prominence extending far beyond his death. It stands to reason that anything I claim about the literary excellence of Goethe’s Faust has already been stated and expanded upon. So, I won’t talk about the literary techniques or language skills employed in Faust, which made reading it so impressive, instead, I want to discuss the concept of Goethe’s Faust.
The concept of making a deal with the devil, the discussions about the human soul, the witty parables about the human condition. In my opinion, what made Goethe’s Faust such a masterpiece was not just how the story was executed, but the haunting reality of the story itself.
At the core of Faust, there is that age-old fight between good and evil, that constant pull between opposite forces. Conflicts of this nature have been haunting humanity for many years and are evident in our various texts, from the Bible to books that predate it, such as ‘The Book of the Dead’ (Written around 1550 BC) and’ The Epic of Gilgamesh (Written around 2100 BC). There is something about the conflicts between the light and the dark which we find so mesmerising. Perhaps because these conflicts peer into a realm beyond our perception that we can only speculate upon.
When Goethe wrote Faust, he was influenced by tales of Dr Faustus, a rumoured magician that lived between 1480-1540. This Doctor had a very scandalous career that was penned in an autobiography titled “History of Dr Johann Faust, the notorious magician and nigromancer” written by an anonymous author. Goethe put his own spin on Dr Faust and included his own speculations of society, history, institutions, and humanity upon it.
What made Goethe’s Faust so memorable, was that he explored these powerful concepts. Life, death, the devil, and God. Concepts which are still enigmatic and powerful to us today. Goethe explored the vulnerability and susceptible nature of humanity; he puts all the flaws of the human ego onto the pedestal and mystifies us with its truths.
There is nothing more haunting than the mysteries that surround our reality, and I constantly find that writers who explore these mysteries and make use of this fear tend to be extremely compelling. Many have used the concept of bargaining with the devil and exploring the human condition, but few can portray this concept in the way that Goethe did with Faust. Few can replicate the rhetoric between Faust and Mephisto, few have the courage to tackle the tragic pathos and balance it with black humour, and few can bring the reader on such a spiralling journey.
Goethe’s Faust is such a masterpiece because It bravely tackles the mysteries that haunt humanity and flirts with our fears.
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“Faust had become an ambivalent and composite figure who represented almost emblematically the contradictions and tensions of the age…he was the godless apostate, the renegade intellectual whose presumption and pride had led him to arrogate to himself powers beyond those properly given to him, to defy God and to ally himself with the Devil”
John R. Williams
Writer & Translator