|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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