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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