Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – Faust (1770s to 1820s/1890) [Translated by Bayard Taylor]
Aaaaand here we go again, another “classic” tale, this one from about 200 years ago, that has influenced culture in innumerable ways, but which few people who I’ve spoken to have ever actually read. This translation attempts to keep Goethe’s metered form for the play (which was originally written in verse,) but I honestly can’t say how well the translation holds up, not knowing the original German version. For my taste, and I do have some experience with poetry, the rhyme and rhythm seemed passable, if not fantastic. I was pleasantly surprised, however, that there was also a fair bit of humor in the story, which you don’t often see mentioned in regards to a Faustian tale. (One particularly humorous exception is The Simpsons Halloween episode in which Homer sells his soul for a donut.)
The gist of the play goes something like this: Mephistopheles goes to the Heavenly hosts and makes a bet that he can turn Faust, a titan amongst men, from godly pursuits to more hellish ways. As with Job, the bet is accepted, and the Devil goes about his corrupting ways. HOWEVER, when we meet Faust, he is already engaged in an exploration of magic and is in the process of attempting to summon otherworldly creatures to glean what knowledge he can from them. He successfully conjures a powerful spirit, and then quakes in his boots before it, too frozen in terror to do anything but stare. Next, he walks around with his somewhat dim-witted disciple, saying how much humanity bugs him and expressing how he, personally, feels like a fraud, worshipped by most folks even though he doesn’t deserve their praise. Shortly after this battle with self-doubt, Faust sees a big, black poodle wandering around the out-of-doors, which follows him home, then transforms into Mephistopheles, disguised as a traveling scholar.
Faust, only mildly surprised by this turn of affairs, is offered knowledge and sensual experience in exchange for an eternity of slavery in Hell when he dies. He thinks about it for a few minutes and says, “Sure! Why not?” Mephistopheles doesn’t really have to work very hard to corrupt Faust. He’s basically on a bullet train to Hades before the Devil even makes his bet with Heaven!
The rest of the tale follows Faust as he becomes enamored with an innocent young woman, seduces and corrupts her, and then he and Mephistopheles head off to attend a Walpurgis Night bacchanal, where witches and demons and evil spirits gather together to dance and make merry. Unfortunately, the version of the play that I read has virtually no stage directions, so there’s no way to imagine what this wild get-together was supposed to LOOK like, but the various spirits that come through and say a few lines each do explain a bit about what’s taking place. It’s a neat, humorous scene, but nowhere near as entertaining as the crazy Devil’s sabbath in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. (To be fair, Bulgakov was writing in the 1920s, when humans had gotten pretty wild, even without demonic influence…)
Like most plays, this is a fairly quick read, and this version is pretty entertaining. I am interested in maybe trying a different translation someday, but for a 130-year-old version of a 200-year-old classic, it was still rather readable! Faust is clearly a culturally important work, as symbolic “deals with the devil” are still a powerful metaphor for over-reaching and losing-for-winning, but the play (at least in this translation) doesn’t quite have the KICK that some of the more modern retellings of the tale now have. (In particular, Bulgakov’s great novel, which I’m going to have to review here real soon.) I would say, give this book a read if you what to check off that particular box in the “classics I’ve read” list, but maybe look for a more recent translation. (I read this version, primarily, because it was free to download…) And, as always, beware of big, black poodles who MIGHT be traveling scholars in disguise!!!
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)
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