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
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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