Comments On Faust Part XVI

Continuing with my comparison of the images of transformation in Faust and Zarathustra, I would now like to see if I can discover whether Faust exhibits the characteristics of Zarathustra’s lion. Zarathustra says:

But in the loneliest desert the second metamorphosis occurs: the spirit here becomes a lion; it wants to capture freedom and be lord in its own desert.

This transformation comes because of solitude. Zarathustra had traveled to the mountains where he lived alone for ten years. The seeker of truth who carries the burden of uncertainty will eventually need solitude. Not actually literal solitude, but a separation in thought from those who still adhere to mainstream modes of thought. Only in solitude can genuine creation be brought forth.

By his decision to abandon discursive reason and learning, Faust has separated himself from the mainstream. He is no longer a participant in the “herd mentality.” His thoughts are now flying to and fro, searching for possible ways to fulfill his longing for truth.

A primary step in his development is the resolve to begin practicing magic. The important point is not that magic is necessarily a viable path to truth, but that Faust makes a choice which is not influenced by mainstream thought. Choosing something which belongs to him personally elevates him to a new level.

After making the pact with Mephisto, which he enters into willingly, Faust passes over into the realm of the lion. He now experiences a kind of freedom that is strange to him. He even finds it a bit lewd (e.g. the drinking at Auerbach’s wine cellar), but this is also part of the process. According to Nietzsche, the Dionysian and Apollinian forces must be balanced, and then transcended. This involves an interaction with one’s dark side, which Mephisto, and all that he offers, represents.

The lion is a mighty, noble warrior, and a vicious killer. It is noble in the sense that it craves freedom. It desires to create its own freedom, but it must kill to get it. Later in the story, Faust kills in an attempt to do away with obstacles which stand in his path. He puts to death old ways of thinking, which is what the killing symbolizes. He wants Gretchen at all cost. He will stop at nothing to get her. Gretchen represents the goal which he seeks, i.e., self-realization/individuation.

Who is to be the lion’s victim?

It seeks here its ultimate lord: it will be an enemy to him and to its ultimate God, it will struggle for victory with the great dragon.

The great dragon, which the lion will battle for its freedom, is called “Thou Shalt.” The lion’s foe is the spirit of commandments, i.e., when others seek to instruct us in what we must believe and accept as truth. Faust’s enemies are the established mode of discursive thinking and reasoning, and the spirit of commandments embedded in the Church.

The lion cannot create new values. However, its might is needed to capture freedom for itself. After the dragon has been mauled by the spirit of the lion, what then? The lion must understand that now there is no guiding hand of a transcendental God, or the firm foundation of a realm of absolute Ideas. There is no external authority. Now, the lion is alone; it is responsible for itself. There are no more laws, no more duties for it to bear. Is this not the greatest burden?

Faust is also alone in his responsibility. By making a pact with Mephisto, he willingly relinquishes his claim to salvation through Jesus Christ. It is up to him to keep striving, to keep creating his own freedom, even though he is encountering a side of himself which is very sinister. Now, in order for Faust to be able to create new values for himself, he must undergo yet another transformation. Next, we will look at Zarathustra’s image of the child.

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I will begin this article examining a few metaphors from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, particularly the images of the Three Metamorphoses, and compare my interpretation of them with several statements in Faust. The primary point in doing this is to compare Faust’s transformation with Zarathustra’s three-fold process of becoming.

Let’s look at a statement by Zarathustra:

I name you three metamorphoses of the spirit: how the spirit shall become a camel, and the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child” (Hollingdale translation).

Here, Nietzsche gives us a tripartite process whereby consciousness evolves. Just as we pass through physical stages on our way to adulthood, Nietzsche proposes that we pass through various stages of consciousness. We are constantly becoming.

What does the image of the camel mean? A camel is a beast of burden. When commanded, it kneels down to accept heavy loads. It seems to possess a sense of duty in bearing what it is ordered to bear. It can go days through the desert without water. The camel-image seems to refer to the human tendency to confront that which is difficult for us out of a sense of duty. We do not will what we do at this stage, but do “what we ought to do.” We are not free to make our own decisions because we give our will over to what we believe are our duties. Nevertheless, by doing “what we ought” we challenge ourselves, paving the way for further refinement.

Can we find a stage in the life of Faust where we see such a tendency? I think so. Prior to his pact with Mephisto, Faust is bound by his duties as Master and Doctor. He bears the weight of teaching his students truth, but yet he knows in himself that he can never touch certainty. In Night, he says,

. . . for nearly ten years I have led
my young students a merry chase,
up, down, and every which way–
and find we can’t have certitude.

Here we find Faust in the latter stages of the camel. For most of his life, he has carried the heavy burden of duty on his back, in the belief that, through his scholarly studies and his teaching, he would truly discover the inner workings of the universe. He experiences deep despair, which is, however, a precursor to transformation:

. . . I get no joy from anything, either,
know nothing that I think worthwhile,
and don’t imagine that what I teach
could better mankind or make it godly.

Later in the story, Faust tries to commit suicide, but, upon hearing the music and singing of Easter morning, desists.

Zarathustra makes the statement,

What is the heaviest thing, you heroes? so asks the weight-bearing spirit, that I may take it upon me and rejoice in my strength.

In bearing the heaviest burdens, the camel-spirit becomes lofty in its strength. In comparison, Faust has become a bit arrogant in his quest for truth, believing himself to be superior to his peers in knowledge:

I well may know more than all those dullards,
those doctors, teachers, officials, and priests. . .

Arrogance is a mode of thought which is normal for one who has undertaken to know the secrets of the universe. But it must not be allowed to dominate one’s thinking. If permitted to fester, it will halt the process of becoming:

Is it not this: to debase yourself in order to injure your pride? To let your folly shine out in order to mock your wisdom (Zarathustra)?

Zarathustra asks if it is not a heavy burden “to feed upon the acorns and grass of knowledge and for the sake of truth to suffer hunger of the soul?” For someone who has devoted much time to the search for truth and understanding, it is a very heavy burden to discover that all our so-called wisdom and knowledge is fleeting. The seeker longs for a person, a book, or some other foothold that can lead him or her to a bedrock of truth. It is burdensome because one discovers there is no such absolute foundation. One must consume what small morsels of truth one can find on the cold, damp ground. One must suffer hunger of the soul when the understanding comes that all so-called truths are really uncertain.

This is exactly what Faust is feeling when he decides to begin practicing magic. Now, he is on the very threshold of transformation.

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Photo by George Gastin

In a previous article, I commented on the passage in Prologue in Heaven, where Mephisto likens men to grasshoppers. I said, “Crickets and grasshoppers try to leap as high as they possibly can. In the end, though, they fall back into the grass and sing the same old song.” Indeed, this is where many of us are on the path of becoming. It is where Faust begins his journey in the beginning of the story. Even though he has scaled the heights of learning, he is thrown into despair.

Mephisto is right in one way, for this is the way of life. The human experience is one of conflict. Just as sunny days give way to thunderstorms, hurricanes and tornadoes, and these, in turn, give way again to sunny days, the human being experiences an incessant barrage of pain and pleasure, peace and turmoil, love and hate, calm and rage, etc. Inner forces are constantly ebbing and flowing. Tomorrow may bring a formidable bout with depression, only to find oneself, the next day, wondering why depression had gained the ascendancy.

What Mephisto doesn’t realize is that this ebbing and flowing actually brings about a metamorphosis in human consciousness, which leads one to discover one’s true self. Little does he know that, in his attempt to capture the soul of Faust for eternity, the latter will actually be changed for the better, and will become a sort of Nietzschean Ubermensch.

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche describes a three-fold process of transformation which mirrors the evolution of consciousness that Faust is passing through. In the section entitled, “Of the Three Metamorphoses,” Zarathustra describes what will become his answer to the apprehension created by the death of God. Nietzsche begins:

I name you three metamorphoses of the spirit: how the spirit shall become a camel, and the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child.

These metaphors describe various stages in the transformation of human consciousness. Just as we pass through physical stages on our way to adulthood, Nietzsche proposes that we pass through various stages of consciousness. We are constantly becoming. We are not static creatures. In fact, for Nietzsche, nothing is static; all is in flux; there is no imperishable Being; all is becoming. This process is not necessarily linear. It seems to be more cyclical in nature.

Goethe also believed in cyclical becoming. I think he would agree (as would Nietzsche) with something G.K. Chesterton said in his study of Chaucer:

Up to a certain time life was conceived as a Dance, and after that time life was conceived as a Race (Chaucer. New York. 1932. pgs 158-159).

He is referring to the general philosophy in Medieval times, where life was thought of as one thing balancing another (the Dance), as opposed to how life was viewed after the Renaissance, when one’s life consisted in chasing after objects (the Race). In the race, the dancer loses his balance. The only way they recover it is by chasing objects. The former is cyclical, the latter linear. We’re still chasing objects today.

In subsequent posts, I will examine the Zarathustra metaphors in more detail. For now, however, I will say that I am certain there are many parallels to be drawn between Goethe’s Faust and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, and that the transformations they experience are very much the same.

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In the witch’s kitchen, Faust occupies himself by gazing into a mirror:

What am I seeing in this magic mirror?
A form whose beauty is divine!
O lend me, Love, your fleetest wings
and lead me to Elysium!

Here, in the house of the witch and her grotesque apes, in the midst of supreme ugliness, Faust has a vision of the most beautiful woman he has ever encountered. Now, he longs for the potion which Mephisto has promised will make him thirty years younger. As Faust’s desire mounts, the cauldron begins to boil. This is the unconscious. At a point when Faust’s desire is the greatest, the cauldron boils over. Unconscious contents are rising into consciousness.

Faust seems to have encountered the feminine element in the psyche. In the witch’s kitchen, we have a double-image of the feminine: the witch, and the beautiful woman in the mirror. This is simply more of the same kind of dualism that we have found throughout the Faust story.

According to the witch, before Faust can drink the potion, he must be “prepared.” The preparation consists in the drawing of a magic circle and the recitation of spells and incantations. This part of the scene begins to look a little familiar. It strikes me as being quite similar to the Catholic Mass. We may not think of the Mass in the same way we would a magic ritual, but there are similarities, and there are similar goals in mind. In a Mass, the faithful must be prepared to partake of the cup and the bread. The Church believes there is great power in the ritual, power that replenishes one’s spiritual strength. I think what may happen in rituals of this sort is a kind of raising of mental energy, whatever that may mean. I believe Jung called it libido, but not in the same way as Freud defined the word. I know it’s possible because I have had experiences where I felt terribly drained and depressed. Then, I would hear a certain song, or see a certain film, or read a certain story, and all would be better. The depression would lift and life would be enjoyable again. It may have something to do with the power of myth, as Joseph Campbell talked so much about. There is something in stories, music, art, and rituals (the acting out of stories) that is rejuvenative.

The cup, of course, calls to mind the Grail of Arthurian lore, which says that whosoever drinks from the cup shall live forever.

According to an ancient legend, the Grail was fashioned by the angels from a jewel which dropped from the head of Lucifer when he was being hurled into the abyss. I don’t know what to make of that, but it’s interesting, nevertheless. There is definitely a duality there.
Surely, the cup signifies a quest, ala Parsifal. I suppose this is the quest for self-knowledge, which is what Faust is really about.

It is said by depth psychologists that the encounter with the feminine is one of the first experiences on the road to self-realization, along with the encounter of one’s shadow. I think Faust has now experienced both. He has projected his shadow onto both Mephisto and Wagner. Now, after the feminine has been met in the mirror, Gretchen will be the recipient of this projection.

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Sisyphus, ©1992 Gerald L. Bybee

In this installment of my Faust series, I would like to return, momentarily, to the Prologue in Heaven in order to cover an important point, which I apparently missed the first time.

In the discussion between the Lord and Mephistopheles, the latter says something that is becoming clearer to me as I read through Faust. Referring to mankind, Mephistopheles says,

Their lives would be a little easier
if You’d not let them glimpse the light of heaven–
they call it Reason and employ it only
to be more bestial than any beast.

His contention is that humans, or “little gods,” as he calls them, would
have been better off if God had not given them the gift of Reason. If
they had simply been created as animals without reasoning faculties,
they would have lived gentle, peaceful lives in a state of naturalness.
Instead, he says, they are worse than any animal.

Goethe had no idea what would take place in the twentieth century, what
with two world wars, the Holocaust, and other atrocities. I’m not so
sure he was totally in the dark, however, for there were atrocities in
his day as well. He knew that mankind had an evil side as well as a good
side. Perhaps he was answering thinkers of the Enlightenment, who
painted such a rosy picture of man.

The men we usually consider as being evil in the twentieth century (like
Hitler) probably started out with lofty ideals about the way life
should be. It was only later that they sank into the mire of savagery.

Mephistopheles uses another image to explicate his argument:
they’re like those crickets with long legs
who won’t stop flying though they only hop, and promptly
sing the same old song down in the grass again.
And if they’d only keep lying in the grass–
they stick their noses into every dirty mess!

Crickets and grasshoppers try to leap as high as they possibly can. In
the end, though, they fall back into the grass and sing the same old
song. A very apt image, I must say! The higher they jump, the farther
they fall. Humans strive, at times, to reach unattainable ideals. Many
times, we fall flat on our faces. We end up in a morass of despair and
disillusionment. Does this mean that we should stop striving? Absolutely
not! Sometimes we succeed. One goal attained is worth all the effort.
Certainly, we despair and lose hope sometimes, but this is who we are.
We are not perfect all the time, and we are not beasts all the time.

Faust is a man who strives for happiness and the good life. His
dissatisfaction with life has led him to enter into a pact with
Mephistopheles, who has promised to supply him with all he desires.
Mephisto believes that if Faust continues on this course, he will be
damned. The agreement ensures that both men get what they want.

Faust is seeking that which is really unattainable. There is no perfect
happiness or contentment. Yes, we should continue to strive for ideals,
because I think the mental energy we need to survive is produced by
striving. But we must learn to live with the fact that we will be
forever striving and never reaching goals of perfection.

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After his pact with Mephistopheles is complete, Faust is plunged into a dark world populated by some very strange characters. It’s a lot like the real world, I suppose.

Their first stop is Auerbach’s Tavern, where they encounter a lively drinking-party. This is an interesting scene, but, in this article, I wish to deal with their visit to the witch’s kitchen. Here is the description of the scene given to us by Goethe:

A low hearth with a cauldron on the fire; various figures appear in the vapor rising from it. A She-Ape sits beside the cauldron, skimming it and watching it, lest it boil over. The Buck and Young Apes are sitting beside her and warming themselves. Ceiling and walls are decorated with the most grotesque utensils of sorcery. 

This certainly seems like a strange place to pay a visit. The symbolism, however, is very rich and enlightening. First of all, in this scene I think Goethe is psychologically preparing the reader for what will soon transpire between Faust and Gretchen. What we will see in the witch’s kitchen are symbols which coincide with the darker aspects of Eros.

There are several interesting images here. The cauldron could be the unconscious mind, and the vapors rising from it could be its contents rising up into consciousness. It makes sense that monkeys would tend the pot, since “scimians generally symbolize the baser forces, darkness, or unconscious activity” (Cirlot 212). There could, however, be a double-meaning here. In China, monkeys are said to bring success and good health (ibid.). Of course, as we know, the Faust story is replete with this kind of dualism.

I think it is significant that the She-Ape is watching the cauldron, “lest it boil over.” Does the She-Ape correspond to some sort of sentry in the psyche which watches over the rising “vapors” lest they bring about psychological imbalance (a boiling over)? Perhaps the She-Ape is the same kind of image as the witch.

Traditionally, the witch has been associated with what Carl Jung called the “negative anima.” Jung believed the psyche is composed of both male and female elements. According to Jung, the anima (Latin for “soul”) in its darker aspects has been metaphorically presented in many stories throughout history as a witch (e.g. Hansel and Gretel). Encountering and integrating one’s anima (for a man, anyway) is the beginning of the development of the soul. One must face the negative element as well as the positive so that one may attain individuation, according to Jungian theory.

Upon entering the witch’s kitchen, Faust is confronted with evil. Here is the paraphernalia of Satanism and sorcery. For a European who has been raised in the Christian Church, these things represent the ultimate blasphemy against God. But, if we take Jung’s ideas as worthwhile, this may have been just what Faust needed to begin his journey to self-knowledge. I suppose this is all similar to Nietzsche’s idea about the Dionysian and Apollinian elements being incorporated. Jung must have gleaned much from Nietzsche.

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Who is Mephistopheles?

After Faust has exorcised the spirit from the dog, a figure steps from
behind the stove, clad as a traveling scholar. It is interesting to note
here that Mephistopheles appears in the guise of a scholar, especially
since we have learned that Wagner represents that which Faust has
rebelled against, namely, discursive reasoning and learning. Why does
Mephisto adopt such an appearance? I think he is portrayed this way
because he carries Faust’s shadow, i.e., the negative side of his
personality. Even though the figure of Mephisto conveys much more than
simply Faust’s distaste for pedantry, this is, nevertheless, an initial
point for recognizing and understanding what Mephistopheles means in the

Just prior to the exorcism, there are spirits outside the study which make an interesting statement concerning Mephistopheles:

For he has already done
Much to profit us, each one.

If Mephistopheles is supposed to be the Devil, as in Christian jargon,
then why do the spirits say he has been of great profit to them? What he
represents is not just profitable to the spirits, but to Faust as well.
For an explanation, we need to return for a moment to the Prologue in
Heaven to examine a statement made by the Lord to Mephistopheles:

Mankind’s activity can languish all too easily,
A man soon loves unhampered rest;
Hence, gladly I give him a comrade such as you,
Who stirs and works and must, as devil, do.

Herein is contained Goethe’s explanation for evil in the world. He
believes that good and evil are two equally opposing forces. As in
Hegel, there is no development without both poles striving against each
other. Man languishes, without conflict to keep him developing, to keep
him striving. If there were no friction in our lives, we would never
gain self-knowledge, and we would never develop.

Mephistopheles is the spirit of negation. He represents the
contradictions, the rejections, the refusals, and the denials within us
all. He is the archetypal shadow, in Jungian terminology.

Nietzsche differentiated between the Apollinian and the Dionysian. He
charged Christianity with overemphasizing the Apollinian. He and Goethe
were both saying that Western culture has ignored the dark side of human
nature. Mephistopheles is really the dark side of the Anthropos, the
divine original man of Western society (Christ).

Thus, what does it mean, in Western mythology, to sell your soul to the
Devil? It is much the same thing as what Nietzsche meant by his
admonition for us to make room for the Dionysian elements. It is the
same thing Carl Jung meant when he suggested we get to know our shadow,
thereby allowing commerce between the conscious and unconscious.

During the conversation regarding Mephistopheles’ name, the latter describes a Manichaean-like cosmogony:

But I’m part of the Part which at the first was all,
Part of the Darkness that gave birth to Light,
The haughty Light that now with Mother Night
Disputes her ancient rank and space withal,
And yet ’twill not succeed, since, strive as strive it may,
Fettered to bodies will Light stay.

This is clearly a distortion of the Biblical account of creation.
Whereas in Genesis, light is created by divine fiat, here light is born
of “Mother Night.” Mephistopheles identifies with the Darkness, saying
he is but a part of it. Again, I think this points to his role as
shadow-figure and negator. Originally, all was one. This could point to a
time when consciousness was undifferentiated. At some point in history,
a “fall” occurred, i.e., consciousness fragmented from unconsciousness.
This could have been when the Greeks began overemphasizing the
Apollinian, as Nietzsche described in The Birth of Tragedy. Or it could
have happened when mankind gained an awareness of right and wrong.
Regardless of how it happened, what we now see is a conflict of

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Toward the end of Scene II: Faust and Wagner are strolling outside the gate of the city when Faust catches sight of a curious-looking black dog. It is running around in circles, coming nearer and nearer to them. Perhaps intuitively, Faust senses some malevolent purpose in the dog’s presence:

He’s drawing a magic coil–it seems to me–
For future bondage round our feet.

He seems to be quite alarmed when it draws even closer:

The ring grows smaller . . . he is almost near!

Then Faust says something quite strange. He calls for the dog to “come here to us!.” Furthermore, he now decides that it is “just a well-trained dog, that’s all.”

Initially, Faust has some sort of intuitive experience. The dog, I think, may represent the imminent encounter with unconscious forces, which Faust is soon to face in his pact with Mephistopheles. He viscerally senses the danger in the dark circle about to envelop him, but, when he allows Wagner to sway him towards “a more reasonable explanation,” Faust disregards the vision. He even allows the dog to follow him home.

The circle being drawn by the dog is very significant. As a symbol, the circle is of great importance. According to J.E. Cirlot, author of A Dictionary of Symbols,

Enclosing beings, objects, or figures within a circumference has a double-meaning: from within it implies limitation and definition; from without, it is seen to represent the defense of the physical and psychic contents themselves against the perils of the soul threatening it from without, these dangers being, in a way, tantamount to chaos, but more particularly to illimitation and disintegration.

At the moment, Faust is outside the dog’s circle. But soon, it will overtake him. Perhaps his vision of the dog running in circles is a projection of his mind, trying to defend itself from unconscious contents which have the ability to destroy him.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, Faust seems to be beckoning the dark forces to come to him. As was discussed earlier, he greatly despairs because of his inability to fathom the secrets of being in the universe. He has an insatiable desire to know; he will ultimately attempt to sate that desire by delving into the world of darkness, i.e., the unconscious.

Faust enters his study with the dog trailing behind him. An air of optimism fills his mind, demonstrating, once again, that “two souls within my breast abide:”

The love of man revives in me,
The love of God is stirred again.

But, as Faust is musing on love and goodness, the black dog is snarling and sniffing about the study. This is just another example of the polaric play of opposites. Faust begins talking about reason and hope, while the animal is there beside him, reminding him that, beside reason, love, and hope exists a snarling, and very unlovely, bestial nature. Faust says,

Stop snarling, dog! Your noise is out of key!

The barking is a cacophonous clamor compared to the splendid thoughts running through the mind of Faust. Will he ever realize that he cannot escape the contrary nature existing alongside what he deems good and beautiful within himself?

Apparently so, for in the next few words, he is hurled back into reality:

Contentment flows no longer from my breast.
Why must the stream so soon be dried,
Leaving me to thirst once more?

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 Faust’s despair has brought him to the brink of suicide. Just prior to this, he gazes around the musty walls of his Gothic study at the various accouterments and objects which surround him: old dusty books and scrolls, a skull, medical instruments, measuring tools, a dim lamp, etc. These all represent his fruitless quest for knowledge. Nature will not allow herself to be revealed through the use of these paltry items. Faust says,  

I stood at the door, you should have been the key; 
Though fashioned well, ye raised no latch for me.

Obviously, Faust had put great trust in the scientific method at one time. He felt as if it would open to him the secrets of the universe. His words to the old skull shows his present state of mind:  

Why grin, you hollow skull, except to say, 
That once your brain, perplexed like mine, 
Yearning for Truth, pursued the light of day, 
Then in the dusk went wretchedly astray? 

He has come to the point where he believes all humans who strive for Truth inevitably lose their way, ending life in despair. He thought he had arrived at the true path when he was engaged in discursive reasoning and the scientific method; he had thought that a union with Nature was the key to knowledge; and he had believed that the Earth-Spirit pointed the way. But now, all Faust’s striving seems futile.

The opposing images of light and dusk are quite interesting here. Whereas we usually find light contrasted with darkness, here Goethe utilizes the image of dusk. Dusk is a twilight time, just before total darkness falls. It is gloomy, murky; it is sometimes difficult to see; the shadows grow long; etc. Faust is here experiencing a going-down, a journey toward Hades and the shades. This is the Metaxy, the place of Soul, that intermediate region between contrarieties, ruled by Hades and Persephone.

Faust has abandoned the quest for transcendent knowledge. He is despondent because he realizes his life has been wasted. He is beginning to contemplate his own death. The journey through Hades is a confrontation with death. Death is change, transformation, passing from one state to another. In the Perennial Philosophy, as Leibniz (and later Aldous Huxley) called it, death is closely associated with esoteric initiation into the Higher Mysteries. Plutarch wrote,

At first there is wandering, and wearisome roaming, and fearful traveling through darkness with no end to be found. Then there is every sort of terror, shuddering and trembling and perspiring and being alarmed. But after this a marvelous light appears, and open places and meadows await, with voices and dances and the solemnities of sacred utterances and holy visions. In that place one walks about at will, now perfect and initiated and free, and wearing a crown, one celebrates religious rites, and joins with pure and pious people. Such a person looks over the uninitiated and unpurified crowd of people living here, who are packed together and trample each other in deep mud and murk, but who hold onto their evil things on account of their fear of death, because they do not believe in the good things that are in the other world. — Quoted in Stobaeus, Anthology 4.52.49

Even the Greek words for death and initiation (teleutan and teleisthai) closely resemble each other. This is no accident. Now, in this frame of mind, Faust catches sight of a phial of poison sitting on a shelf. Even though he has supposedly relinquished the idea of union with Nature, Faust begins to wonder if death itself might not lead to a mystical state of bliss:

Why suddenly within me is all as fair and bright 
As when moonbeams flutter in a darkling woodland space? 

Not only is he equating death with moonlight in a dark place, but he goes on and relates it with “a newer day,” “another shore,” a “new pathway through the air,” and to “newer spheres of activity.” Furthermore, he expresses death as  

This higher life, this godlike bliss . . .

So, once again, Faust has experienced images of transcendence and mystical vision, but this time while contemplating his own suicide.

He really doesn’t want to take his own life. What he really wants is to become his true self. His musings are filled with pictures of rebirth and transformation, and it is these very images which startle him just before he drains the cup:  

Christ is arisen! 
Joy be to the Mortal 
Whom corruptible 
Clinging, inherited 
Imperfection imprisoned!

Faust realizes that the Easter message is what he really desires. It is not the religious aspect which stops him from killing himself. Rather, it is simply the images of rebirth, which have inspired mankind since the dawn of time. It really has nothing to do with Christ, other than what archetypal motifs are contained within the Christ-myth. These powerful images bring Faust a sense of peace for only a brief time. Soon, he will make his pact with Mephistopheles.

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Continuing with Night, Faust has just finished conversing with Wagner, a pedant who represents the kind of learning which the former has thoroughly rejected. Faust refers to him in one place as “Earth’s most miserable son.” I believe, however, that he may be referring to his own misery as well.

In the story of Faust, a groundwork is being laid, unbeknownst to Goethe, for what we today call existentialism. This is a broad subject, which would require more than a mere blog article to explicate. I will try to deal with one or two points of similarity. The following passage seems to be an appropriate place to begin:  

In that holy moment I seemed to be 
So little, yet so very great, 
Thou didst thrust me cruelly 
Back into the uncertainties of human fate. 
Whose teaching shall I heed? 
What shall I shun? 
Shall I obey each inner urge? 
Alas! Our deeds, as well as sorrows, one by one 
Clog the current of our life’s deep surge.

This passage comes just prior to Faust’s close encounter with suicide. I believe he is referring to the Earth-Spirit when he says, “Thou didst thrust me cruelly . . .” Just before Wagner knocked on the door of his study, Faust had two very powerful experiences, which I have already discussed (the Macrocosm and the Earth-Spirit). There is a very curious exchange with the Earth-Spirit, where the spirit says, “Thou resemblest the Spirit thou canst understand–not me!” Faust then says,  

Not thee? 
Whom then? 
I, image of the godhead! 
And not like thee?

What does the spirit mean? Faust is quite confused by this statement. His insatiable desire for knowledge has brought him to a point where he feels elevated above the pedantic scholar (someone like Wagner), and perhaps equal to Nature itself. He has felt a kind of mystical union with Nature. Perhaps the “spirit which thou canst understand” is none other than Faust himself. Perhaps the Earth-Spirit is trying to get him to see that self-knowledge is the most important kind of knowledge one can ever attain.

We know from Faust’s own words that his vision was at its height at the point of Wagner’s knock. Has Faust realized the importance of what Socrates knew so well, i.e., know thyself?

Returning to the main passage first quoted, I definitely think Faust is referring to his encounter with the Earth-Spirit. He has learned that he cannot fully transcend Nature, i.e. he cannot completely understand the inner workings of Nature. This revelation upsets Faust’s idealized presuppositions of what it means to know. It makes him feel as if the universe has cruelly mistreated him by casting him into a sea of uncertainty. He is unsure as to which teachings to follow. Furthermore, his ethical foundation has been destroyed; he is uncertain about good and evil. Faust considers this a horrible fate. He seemed to think that if he could just get in tune with Nature, all would be well. But the words of the Earth-Spirit catapult him into a state of despondency.

Uncertainty, doubts concerning one’s existence, Angst, and a relative ethic: these are a few of the catchwords of existentialism. These experiences, however, produce self-knowledge, which is much more important than the quest for transcendence. The Earth-Spirit is trying to show Faust that he is better off trying to understand himself than the entire cosmos. These same topics would later be dealt with quite thoroughly by Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Sartre, et al. I tend to think that Goethe had much to do with the way their existential self-examination began.

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This article continues with Faust musing on the sign of the Macrocosm, and then considering the sign of the Earth-Spirit.

Toward the end of his soliloquy on the Macrocosm, he seems to be having a transcendent, holistic experience, a kind of mystical union with Nature:  

How toward the Whole all things are blending, 
Each in the other, living, growing! 
How heavenly forces, soaring, descending, 
Are in and out of golden buckets flowing, 
While fragrant blessings, lightly winging 
From heaven through the earth, are bringing 
Harmonies which through the Whole are ringing!

But in the very next breath, he exclaims,  

What a pageant! 
But, alas, only a show!

With this statement, Faust has gained a very important insight. Previously, we have discovered that he rejects a strict adherence to discursive reasoning and learning in favor of an experiential view of Nature. It appeared to me, for a time, as if he believed in a kind of pantheism, where he viewed Nature as the All-in-All. But here, he seems to be saying that the quest for transcendent knowledge in Nature is merely a pipe-dream.

Faust has sought knowledge his entire life. He believed that knowledge was the key to happiness. Later on, he thought that a mystical union with Nature would bring transcendence. But with the decision that the wonders of Nature are mere pageantry, Faust is caught in yet another opposition, i.e., between the experience of transcendence and that of existing in a world of limitation. This opposition is affirmed later on in Outside the City Gate, where he says,  

Alas! Two souls within my breast abide, 
And each from the other strives to separate; 
The one in love and healthy lust, 
The world with clutching tentacles holds fast; 
The other soars with power above this dust 
Into the domain of our ancestral past. 

During his meditation of the sign of Macrocosm, Faust asks, “Am I a god? My spirit grows so clear!” During the transcendent experience, it seems as if one really is a god. Problems melt away, or seem to be trivial compared with the ecstasy one is feeling. But this is only temporary. Soon, Faust realizes that we all must continually strive in this world; we must suffer because we are limited beings:  

Where shall I grasp thee, illimitable Nature? 
Where, ye breasts! from which all life doth flow, 
To which my withered soul must strive? 
Earth and heavens ye sustain, 
Ye flow, ye nourish–yet must I long in vain?

This verse hints again at a Neoplatonic worldview; it sems like emanationism, where all things flow from the One. The main point, however, is that Faust feels his striving has been worthless. He realizes his limitations. He has an insatiable desire for knowledge. The knowledge he seeks is not acquired in books or universities. No, Faust yearns for the secret knowledge (gnosis) of the inner workings of the cosmos. His angst stems from his inability to obtain it.

Faust then begins to contemplate the sign of the Earth-Spirit, which he prefers to the image of the Macrocosm. At the sight of this symbol, he feels a different kind of energy within him. He feels a closer relationship with the Earth than he does with the universe at large. This is because the Earth is his home.

The desire for transcendence is a purely normal human emotion. But overemphasizing it results in social isolation, and possibly even mental imbalance (I am thinking here of the strangeness of the Desert Fathers). I think Faust is learning that one must not only strive for the transcendent experiences; one must also pursue a rich sensory experience of the world, even though one must undergo both joy and pain while doing so. Of course, these are the two personalities within us, the one striving against the other. We tend to view conflict as something negative. But is it really? I believe we need conflict. Soul is born in the midst of fire. It forms the middle-region between these two.

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This article continues with the discussion of Faust’s search for a new kind of perception, and the role of Nature in the story. Faust experiences a camaraderie with the moon that opens up new vistas of understanding:  

Ah, could I on mountain height, 
Roam in thy softly tender light, 
O’er the fields at twilight trail, 
Drifting with spirits of hill and dale; 
Then freed from knowledge and its pain, 
Bathed in thy dew, my health regain.

There is an experience one can have with Nature that is unexplainable. It can only be hinted at in poetry. Goethe understood this very well. He knew the link between Nature and the mind of man. He was aware that such an experience could free one from the fetters of discursive reasoning, which tended to reduce the quest for truth to mathematics and logic. Imagination plays a key role in the higher perception. Faust dreams of being able to roam the mountain peaks of the moon, in the soft, tender light. To skip through hill and dale at twilight, with spirits at his side, and finally being baptized in the moon’s dew, which is regenerative. To truly study a plant, a rock, or the planets, we must use our imagination to get at the inner truth of the thing. Measurement is fine, but we should not stop there.

When I studied Heidegger in college, I learned about a kind of thinking that belongs to the being of a thing. In this belonging-together of being and thinking, thinking thinks on being. It does not evaluate and analyze a thing; it experiences it as that which emerges out of hiding. This seems to be the kind of perception which Faust is looking for.

The vision of the moon seems to be the first of several intuitive perceptions which Faust experiences in the early stages of the tragedy. Next, he encounters the sign of the Macrocosm.  

Ha! At this one burning glance what ecstasy 
Courses through my senses once again! 
I feel a youthful holy joy of life, 
Quivering through every nerve and vein! 
Was it a god who wrote this sign, which stills 
My inner tumult, fills 
My troubled heart with joy, 
And with mysterious force reveals 
The power of Nature which about me steals?

The sign of the Macrocosm is “a diagram of the organization of the cosmos in terms of the four elements, the arrangement of the planets, and the relationship of human, natural, and divine spheres” (Brown 53). It is very similar to mandalas used in Tibetan Buddhism, and other parts of the world. It is a symbol which has obviously touched Faust very deeply.

In the sign, Nature encompasses everything and everything is Nature. There is an opposition between Nature and the anima mundi. This sign hearkens back to the opposition we saw in the Prologue in Heaven, where Raphael’s harmony and Michael’s storms were synthesized. There is no doubt now that Faust is leaning toward a pantheistic view of the universe. It is the “power of Nature” which fills his heart with joy and frees him from the chains of a strictly systematic approach to truth. It is more than just an experience of universal order. Faust claims the sign points to “Creative Nature.”

At the end of the vision, Faust calls out for “illimitable Nature.” This is very different than simple allegorizing of Nature’s beauty. Faust seems to view Nature, not as a stepping stone to a transcendent deity, but as God (whatever we may mean by that) here and now before our senses. It sounds more like Taoism.

Bibliography Brown, Jane K. Goethe’s Faust: the German Tragedy. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986.

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In a previous article, I described Goethe as a Renaissance man. I said he was both a proponent of individualism and a student of esotericism. I compared him to Pico della Mirandola and Leonardo da Vinci. One thing I failed to mention is that Goethe was also a skilled scientist, as was da Vinci and other Renaissance intellectuals. The interesting thing about it, however, is that Goethe’s scientific methodology was quite different than what we call the “scientific method” today. I am of the opinion that his methodology can be harmonized with his esoteric interests.

Returning to Faust, the opening scene called Night has Faust seated at his desk, restless and troubled. He is a great intellectual; he has studied philosophy, medicine, jurisprudence, etc., but has not found what he is looking for. He has realized that systematic knowledge, the product of discursive thinking, is not satisfying his hunger for truth. He must transcend this type of thinking, he must get to the inner core of knowledge. Faust seeks a different way of perceiving the outside world. I believe he is seeking an unmediated perception of Nature. Faust desires to stand beside the archangels in the Prologue in Heaven. He longs to share their experience of the Ineffable, which is probably more akin to The One of Neoplatonism. He says,  

So I’ll discover what it is that binds 
The world together, so that I’ll find 
The forces stirring in the seed, 
And from spinning, empty words be freed.

Faust believes that the perception of truth, which he is longing for, is not to be found in a personal deity, as in Christianity. Rather, truth lies in Nature itself, in the “forces stirring in the seed.” He desires to know what “binds the world together.” So, even though we have already seen many allusions to a world of conflicting opposites, still there is a unity, and there is a something that brings about this unity. The words of discursive thinkers are “spinning, empty,” but in this One (for want of a better word to describe “that which unites”) there is a path to truth as it is in itself. This, obviously, is a form of pantheism. Perhaps Faust’s vision of the moon suggests the nature of the alternative form of perception he is seeking. It begins with images of light, a motif we have already seen in the sun-symbolism of the Prologue:  

O glowing moon . . .

Faust believes that in the macrocosm one can discover truth concerning the microcosm. Hence, when one attempts to sense Nature as it is in itself, one gains self-knowledge, which, in my opinion, is what Faust (and Goethe) really wants. Faust believes that Nature and man are one, thus allowing man to learn about himself through Nature. Nature is not to be studied so that we can stuff computer hard-drives full of scientific data, analyze it, sift through it, and catalog it. Rather, Goethe believes that Nature should be studied so we may gain self-knowledge.

Furthermore, the basis of Faust’s frustration stems from his inability to derive self-knowledge from discursive reasoning alone. I believe Goethe is telling us that we need to transcend discursive reasoning, not jettison it altogether, and to unite it with a higher order of perception, which comes when we truly attempt to see Nature as it is.

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Continuing with the Prologue in Heaven, the archangel, Michael, utters these words:

And rival tempests roar and shatter,
From sea to land, from land to sea

Here, I think we have yet another picture of man the microcosm. Goethe is presenting a view of the nature of man that would later become popular in the guise of Freud’s psychoanalysis, and Jung’s analytical psychology.

Goethe is describing man as a being whose life-experience is characterized by “rival tempests.” The human experience is one of conflict, of that there is little doubt. The greatest philosophers and poets have realized this. Just as sunny days give way to thunderstorms, hurricanes and tornadoes, and these, in turn, give way again to sunny days, the human being experiences an incessant procession of pain and pleasure, peace and turmoil, love and hate, calm and rage, etc. Inner forces are constantly ebbing and flowing. Tomorrow may bring a formidable bout with depression, only to find oneself, the next day, wondering why depression had gained the ascendancy.

In the age of Goethe, many believed that the light of Reason would lead man down the primrose path to Utopia. They failed to understand that humans also have a dark side, or a “Shadow,” as Jung put it. The polar opposites, which are innate in man, are at war. This is what Goethe was trying to tell his contemporaries, but the many failed to heed the warning. It would take several bloody wars, and millions of lives being snuffed out, to mitigate the enthusiasm of Enlightenment thinking.

The manner in which storms travel from sea to land, and from land to sea, leads me to think of how my own tempests seem to ebb and flow from consciousness to unconsciousness. A hurricane, for example, when it comes ashore, is usually very destructive. However, when it once again moves out to sea, we forget about it, and it eventually dies out. Isn’t this the way it is with an inner storm? We are conscious of turmoil, depression, rage, etc. But, inevitably, the disturbance flows back into unconsciousness, where it either lies dormant for a time, or simply dies.

And, raging, form a circling fetter
Of deep, effective energy.

This passage, I think, is very important. The path of both inner and outer storms is cyclical. Actually, I believe Goethe would say that Nature, as a whole (microcosm/macrocosm), is cyclical. The give and take of the polar opposites produces a “circling fetter,” a circular chain, of energy. This sounds very much like “Chi” in Taoism. I am also thinking of a Gnostic symbol which has enjoyed some popularity on television (X-Files and Millennium), the Ouroboros. The Ouroboros is a snake biting its own tail. According to Cirlot, “the Ouroboros . . . is symbolic of self-fecundation, or the primitive idea of a self-sufficient Nature — a Nature, that is, which, ala Nietzsche, continually returns, within a cyclic pattern, to its own beginning” (Cirlot 247). From what I have read about Goethe, he was most definitely a man who believed in self-fecundation and self-sufficiency. The references to cyclical paths of self-realization are many. Another which comes to mind is the Zen Circle.

The main point which I think Goethe is trying to make is that the experience of humankind is not linear, as most Westerners like to think. Also, it is not one-sided, with Reason as our helmsman. Rather, our path is one which ebbs and flows cyclically, sometimes dark, sometimes light, sometimes calm, sometimes tempestuous. Self-fulfillment can only come when we recognize and accept these aspects of ourselves.

Cirlot, J.E. A Dictionary of Symbols. New York: Dorset, 1971.

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And swift beyond where knowledge ranges, 
Earth’s splendour whirls in circling flight;

In contrast to the geocentric symbolism of Raphael’s speech, Goethe alludes to the heliocentric view by having Gabriel speak of the earth “in circling flight.” As I mentioned in Part I, I don’t think the mention of cosmology is meant be taken literally. As I’ve been reading about Goethe’s intellectual life, I am discovering that he was very much in tune, not only with Romanticism, but also with the Renaissance, especially those thinkers who exhibited an uncompromising belief in individualism, and in human potential. This image of the earth, in all its splendor, whirling around the sun, seems to represent the plight of the individual who searches for truth. Just as the earth circumambulates the sun, we, as truth-seekers, seem to go around in circles in our journey. In Jungian psychology, much emphasis is placed on the alchemical process, circumambulatio, or the “circumambulation of the self.” Jung believed that the quest toward individuation was circular, which is why many cultures create mandalas, or circular drawings, to symbolize the process of self-realization. Goethe’s image of the earth, whirling around the sun, perhaps in search of light, is a wonderful metaphor for the circumambulatio.

Another thought comes to mind about this image: perhaps Goethe is trying to relate how humans are free to roam where they may, but that this freedom is determined by a certain destiny which must be fulfilled (the circumscribed orbit of the earth). The Romantics believed in unfettered freedom of the human will; I am wondering whether Goethe may have been trying to mediate this notion by saying, “Yes, we are free, but it is a freedom which is circumscribed, not absolute.” This would certainly be in agreement with his belief in the conjunction of opposites.

Goethe seemed to be of the opinion that Nature and mankind were meant to be in harmony. The passage above reminds me of the Hermetic doctrine, As above, so below, i.e., the connection between the microcosm and macrocosm. The image of the solar system is the macrocosm, but there is a parallel image already alluded to above, i.e., man as microcosm. Man is a “universe in miniature,” according to this doctrine. The idea is found in symbolic traditions all over the world, especially in the esoteric teachings of the Renaissance. Goethe, who had a fascination with esoteric philosophy, must have incorporated the idea into his work.

The passage subtly implies that Goethe, as a participant in the Romantic movement, believed in the individual and his freedom, albeit circumscribed. Also, because he was using concepts from alchemy and other esoteric philosophies, it shows that he clearly rejected institutional Christianity. Finally, I think Goethe could easily be described as a Renaissance man as well. His interest, again, in individualism places him alongside such luminaries as Pico della Mirandola and Da Vinci, who were also interested in esotericism.

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Goethe’s Faust is a deep, deep tale, wrought in the bowels of the collective unconscious. For years, it has fascinated me. The following commentary came to me while musing on the great man’s work. This will be the beginning of several installments on Faust that I will post over the next few weeks, as I attempt to peer into the mind of Goethe.

In the Prologue in Heaven, Goethe has the angel, Raphael, saying:

The sun is chanting his ancient song,
In contest with the brother spheres

Goethe is setting the stage for the conversation between God and Mephistopheles. The first line above refers to the Pythagorean teaching of “the harmony of the spheres,” where each sphere in the solar system emits a musical tone, which harmonizes with the tones of all other spheres, forming a beautiful, harmonious music. In the second line, we see that Goethe is veering away from this notion of a harmonious universe, for the sun’s song is at odds with the other spheres’. It is as if the sun wants to sing the prettiest song so that he may be revered above all the other spheres. Thus, the Heaven where God and Mephistopheles will discuss the man, Faust, is not the orderly, harmonious universe of orthodox Christianity. Rather, it is a universe of contention, where the opposites are in eternal conflict.

The next few lines read:

Rolling with thunder steps along,
Down the predestined course of years.

This passage, compared with the previous one, shows that contention of the opposites is a major theme. Above, we saw that the music of the spheres will not be harmonious. But, even though there is no concord between the spheres, the sun is rolling down a course of “predestined years.” Here is an element of orderliness. Perhaps Goethe is saying that, even though we live in a contentious universe, there are destinies to be fulfilled, there are paths of harmony which may be discovered.

Goethe has the sun in motion, thus presenting a geocentric planetary system. Of course, this was the accepted view prior to Copernicus’ heliocentric theory. I doubt very much, however, that Goethe is giving us a cosmology lesson, especially since the geocentric theory was in much disrepute by his day. Could it be that the sun is a metaphor for the ultimate fulfillment of man’s inner struggle, or perhaps a symbol for the light of truth? There is precedent for such solar-symbolism in alchemy, a subject which Goethe was much involved in.

In alchemy, Sol represented the gold which the alchemists sought to make, as opposed to Luna, or the base metals. Many now believe that the alchemists were actually describing a process of self-transformation. The alchemical processes of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, are really, according to some, psychological processes which we pass through on the way to self-realization. The gold, or the sun, corresponds to this state of fulfillment.

Alchemy is replete with symbols of the contention of opposites. When the conjunction of opposites occur, one has found the gold, or the state of self-realization.

His presence gives the angels might,
Though fathom it none ever may;
And Thy sublime works still are bright
With splendor of Creation’s day.

Raphael ends his speech with the idea that the contention of the opposites will never be fully understood. The universe, regardless of how mysterious it may be, is still a marvelous place. The presence of opposition is really a good thing. As with Hegel, negation is something that is quite necessary in our world. Without negation, there is no upward movement.

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