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IAN WALKER: Examining the Faustian Pact

Dr Faustus falls to hell in the English National Opera's 2011 production of Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust. Picture: Robert Piwko/ArenaPAL - Credit: Robert Piwko / ArenaPAL

German culture’s enduring and changing relationship with the mythical Dr Faustus and his deal with the devil has coloured how the country views itself, says Ian Walker.

Bin ich ein Gott? Mir wird so licht!’

(Am I a God? Light fills my mind); Goethe’s Faust

The Faust myth – the story of a man who wagers his soul with the Devil – is an ancient one. Its origins can be traced back to the Samaritan Simon Magus, who appears in the Bible as someone who got into a conflict with Saint Peter. Magus was a sorcerer – he was said to be able to levitate – and as such he existed, much like Jesus, outside the rules of nature.

But Jesus’s existence was part of God’s creation and the miracle of his Resurrection became the basis of faith. Magus, however, existed as a rival to this faith; his ‘magic’ rivalled Jesus’s miracles. Instead of being the son of God he was a man who had secret knowledge and, as such, became a counterpoint to the natural, divine order. His power challenged that of God’s. He became something demonic.

Magus, this Bad Samaritan, was the false messiah as far as the early Christian church was concerned. But this idea – that someone could be possessed of knowledge that lay outside God’s natural order – continued to lurk in the imagination. Indeed, from its origins in the deserts of the Middle East two millennia ago, the story of a man who risks his soul in return for some sort of magical power or secret knowledge has become universal.

It has appeared in everything from plays performed in the Elizabethan theatres of Cheapside to 17th century German puppet theatre, from Dorian Grey in Oscar Wilde’s fin-de-siècle tale of youth, beauty and decadence, to the fanciful myth of the Blues musician Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil at a crossroads in Clarkdale, Mississippi, and even to The Simpsons, where Bart sells his soul to his friend Milhouse.

But if the telling of the Faust myth can be traced from the ancient Middle East to the modern Mississippi, it has been, essentially, a German story. It is one that is so tied to the nation’s history that its greatest telling – Goethe’s play Faust – became part of how Germany understood itself. And this ‘Faust as Germany’ idea persisted well beyond the age of Goethe. Indeed, Thomas Mann, the great German novelist of the 20th century, turned to the myth in his book, Doktor Faustus, to explain his country’s greatest disaster – the rise of Adolf Hitler. Even now, a major cultural festival is running in Munich, examining Germany’s Faust connection.

The infusion of the character, with its Biblical roots, into the German soul came via an actual, historical figure who lived in medieval Germany. What little we know of the real Faust is shrouded in myth and the misinformation that comes with sensationalist storytelling. Johann Georg Faust was born in the south-west of Germany around 1480. It is impossible to pin too many more verifiable, biographical details to this shadowy figure from the depths of medieval Swabia; but what little is known, or is hinted at, is quite vivid.

The real Faust was an academic. He graduated in divinity from the University of Heidelberg in 1509 and then seems to have become an itinerant, a swindler and a trickster. He passed himself off as a magician and sold horoscopes and was apparently just as at home among thieves and rogues in low taverns, as he was among bishops and princes in palaces and cathedrals.

At the time that the historical Faust was swindling bishops in late medieval Germany, the country was in flux as a result of Luther’s Protestant revolution. This had changed everything, by fundamentally altering the individual’s relationship with God. In the medieval world view, God was truth; in the Protestant imagination, truth became more personal. It wasn’t found in nature or the world, it was found within.

In this society of shifting meaning, a figure like Faust – rattling about upsetting the natural order, possessed of mysterious knowledge, reminding everyone of Simon Magus – would have had a hold on the imagination and given new life to a character and concept already familiar from the Bible and subsequent stories. (Luther himself probably knew of Faust and it is said that one of Luther’s assistants found Faust’s body after he died, his head twisted 180 degrees, in a sign of demonic possession.) And it was because Faust had such a hold on the public imagination that his story found its way onto the printed page.

Luther’s revolution in the human imagination was predicated on a revolution in technology. In 1439, Gutenberg invented movable type in the city of Mainz. This was the birth of the modern book and therefore of the rapid dissemination of ideas.

Luther’s ideas were printed and that – along with the printing of the Bible in German – meant that truth was now to be found more in reflection than in tradition. It no longer came exclusively from the pulpit but could now also be found in books. The word of God – the truth in the medieval world – that had once belonged to priests and Popes now belonged to everyone.

Alongside the printing of the word of God came the printing of the adventures of Faust. The Historia von D. Johann Fausten was what was known as a chapboook. These were cheap, mass-produced works aimed at a popular audience. The stories they contained were part folklore, part sermon and part gossip. At this point in German history, Faust sat somewhere between the religiously-charged atmosphere of the Reformation and gossipy folk tales. He was in the medieval tabloids and in the medieval broadsheets.

The Faust chapbook was popular and translated copies found their way into England. At some point, and no-one is quite sure when, the English playwright Christopher Marlowe adapted the chapbook into his play The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus.

Marlowe himself was a shadowy figure. He was murdered in a Deptford inn on May 30, 1593, for reasons that are unclear. It may have been just a random fight (he was a brawler and a troublemaker), but there is evidence that he served as a spy on behalf of the Elizabethan court. He also may have been a Catholic agitator. He also may have been an atheist.

His play caught the imagination of a London, where the religious schisms that had begun in Germany a century earlier were also being played out. The metaphysical good vs evil morality, and the idea of secret knowledge – both themes at the heart of the Faust story – resonated with audiences attuned to questions of damnation, power and religious spies. Myths grew around the play. Real demons supposedly stalked the stage and Marlowe himself was regarded as a demonic figure.

Both Marlowe and his contemporary and rival, Shakespeare, wrote when England was becoming one of the first nation states. In England, there was centralised power, albeit still with the feudal institution of the monarchy, but there was a degree of meritocracy. And there was a state which was partially shaped around the early days of mercantile, global trade. Add all that to this shifting religious sensibility which put greater emphasis on the individual and you can see that Shakespeare and Marlowe were writing as the modern world was first coming into being.

These first signs of the emergence of the modern state were also playing out in France, Spain, Portugal and the Dutch Republic. In Germany, however, they were not. Until 1871, Germany was not a unified geographical area. Political power remained fragmented. Until 1806 it was ruled under the Holy Roman Empire, a complex mixture of kingdoms, free states, principalities and duchies. Even after 1806, when power began to coalesce around Prussia and Austria, feudal anachronisms remained.

Yet the region did have a mercantile, or middle, class that was politically and culturally assertive. It also had plenty of universities and, starting with Luther, a tradition of intellectual investigation into the self. This was the country that produced Leibniz, Kant, Hegel and Marx. It also produced Goethe.

If you visit Bebelplatz, near the Unter der Linden, in Berlin, you will see a modern sculpture called Der moderne Buchdruck (Modern Book Printing). This sculpture is of a huge pile of books each with the name of a German writer on the spine. The largest of these books, and the one that sits at the bottom supporting all the rest, has Goethe’s name on it.

When Goethe was born in 1749, the North American colonies were still British, Australia was largely unknown and the Holy Roman Empire was still the site of semi-feudal wars of succession. When he died in 1832, the first photographs had been taken, the first trains had run, the United States existed and the French Revolution had given birth to the ideals of political equality and freedom. Goethe’s life straddled some of the key events in the development of a modernity that would, for the coming centuries, define so much of the Western World.

He belonged to a generation of German writers – the Romantics – who were aware that ‘Germany’ was as much a linguistic definition as a geographical one. And it was built around books and publishing. Germany had invented moveable type and the publishing industry and the first ‘blockbuster’, Luther’s translation of the Bible. This was all central to how the country understood itself.

But despite all that bookishness and the entwining of the German language and the printer word with what it was to be German, the German-speaking people of the late 18th century did not have their own literary tradition. Their identity, which was built on both The Word and the word, had no Shakespeare, Cervantes or Rabelais.

What it had were folk tales, and it was these that began to shape a literary revival among what is sometimes called Romantic nationalism. One of the best-known examples is the Brothers Grimm, with their reworked tales of psychotic old ladies, death, dangerous virginity and violence against children. And alongside these psychotically-deranged stories – still beloved by Disney and goths today – stands one of world literature’s greatest masterpieces, Goethe’s Faust.

The author first began working on his version of the Faust folk tale when still a young man. This version, known as the Urfaust, was written between 1772 and 1775 and owed a lot to Marlowe’s telling of the story. It pretty much sat around in a drawer for much of the rest of Goethe’s life, though he would occasionally rework parts of it. Then, towards the end of his life, he rewrote the entire play which he presented in two parts. He didn’t finish the second part until 1831, the year before his death.

People are generally more familiar with the first part of Goethe’s play. This tells the story of Faust, who is a scholar and who feels as though he has come to the end of intellectual enquiry. He can find nothing in nature (or religion) that satisfies his desire to understand. He wants to be able to encompass the whole universe with his feelings and with his intellect but has come up against the limitations of existence and knowledge.

And then Mephistopheles appears. He offers Faust a wager: Mephistopheles will become Faust’s enabler here on earth and give him what he wants, but the moment that Faust finds deep sustained happiness or satisfaction the Devil will have his soul.

Faust comes close to finding the happiness and satisfaction that he believes does not exist when he sees Gretchen, a beautiful, innocent, virtuous young woman. The love, desire and lust that Gretchen and Faust have for each other makes Faust happy. Faust, it seems, has found that connection between inner longing and external satisfaction that he has been searching for.

But, much like Mick Jagger a century and a half later, Faust doesn’t get his satisfaction. Instead, the whole thing, thanks to Mephistopheles, turns out to be the bad date from Hell. Faust ends up accidentally killing Gretchen’s brother and mother. Then Gretchen gets pregnant and, because this is based on German folk stories, she murders her baby. Sentenced to death, she refuses to take the offer of escape from Faust and Mephistopheles. This act of eternal self-sacrifice guarantees her ascent to Heaven.

Despite the stuff about devils, Heaven and witches, this play is modern. Its mixture of alienation, the search for meaning and happiness, psychological impulses, ambition and raw sexual desire makes Goethe’s Faust one of the first truly modern heroes in fiction or drama.

What is more, while the religious aspects of the play, along with the folklore and witchcraft stuff, provide its tone, the story takes Faust away from that world. Faust’s journey is out of this past world of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo before moving into another world where

 the individual is a self-creating being who exists on the terms of his own experience, his own reason and his own imagination. Goethe’s play liberates the self from the past. This is a seismic moment in Western culture and civilisation. And it is in the second part of the play where Faust soars, where he truly becomes the modern, self-created being who exists in time and space on his own terms. There is a wild freedom to be found here.

In Part Two, Faust becomes independent of both time and space. His adventures start in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor. Here he invents paper money. He then, after having invented the modern political economy, moves back through time, tracing the origins of humanism through the French Revolution, the Renaissance and antiquity.

He also travels down within the human psyche, to its deepest womb-like recesses. Here Faust tries to find beauty at its purest and finds it in Helen of Troy. He then moves from Classical Greece into Hell before returning to the court of the modern Emperor. Here he reclaims land from the sea and carries out engineering projects. He destroys anything that gets in the way of progress. Finally, after travelling through the outer reaches of experience, imagination, history and psychology he surrenders to a sublime view of God as nature. This frees him from Mephistopheles, who instead of keeping up with Faust, prefers to lust after the angels.

In Faust, Goethe wrote a book that in the scale of its imagination challenged the Bible. He found ways of expressing the modern condition – experience, psychology, reason, imagination and time – that usurped the pre-modern condition – superstition, deference, repression, ignorance.

Much of what came after Goethe’s play is indebted to it. Even our idea of the genius artist is mixed with this play. It changed how we understood much of what came before. Dante, Rabelais, Marlowe, even Shakespeare, all become different in the way we understand them after Goethe’s Faust. It is one of the first great works of art where we see the individual as a figure in history. This German story is about the triumph of the imagination, it is about the triumph of the ego.

Faust established in Western culture the idea of the artist or philosopher genius – the great romantic figure who rails against the quotidian and who rises above the ordinariness of everyday life because he (it’s always he) is possessed of some higher truth. Goethe and Beethoven, Wagner and Nietzsche are all of this type.

And so was Hitler.

This triumph of the ego is another way of saying the triumph of the will. It is possible, if you are so minded, to draw a line from Goethe’s Faust to Hitler’s bunker. In the last days of the war Hitler justified all that he had done as being part of some epic Germanic romantic adventure which was now playing out its final Gotterdammerung dénouement.

You have to be wary of making this connection between culture and the war, though. The Second World War and the Holocaust were not the consequences of a literary or intellectual adventure – that’s the sort of nonsense that Hitler believed and which he used to justify an evil that, because it was entirely secular, surpasses anything found in books. After Auschwitz, folk stories about devils become absurd. But this Faustian idea that there is some sort of higher truth that great men can find if they unshackle themselves from this ordinary world, from its tiresome morality and its mundane concerns, was part of the Nazi ideal. Thomas Mann saw that and he understood it.

On May 22 1944, the Allies bombed Frankfurt-am-Main, the city that had become the centre of the German publishing industry. In the raid, Goethe’s childhood house was destroyed. Plans to rebuild it after the war were controversial. There were many who argued that the culture that produced Goethe also produced the Nazis. In the end, the house was rebuilt, but that idea that there was something inherently rotten in German culture never quite went away. And that is perhaps why the Faust story has not had a really decent new telling since Mann’s novel in 1947, Doktor Faustus. But the self-examination continues. The city of Munich is currently hosting a Faust Festival; a series of plays and operas, musical pieces and exhibitions based upon the story of Faust. These events feel like a retrospective. The whole festival feels as though it is saying ‘this is how we used to think’ – and ‘this is what German culture was once capable of’.

But it is also the case that Goethe’s play was, and still is, one of the great triumphs of the human imagination (as is Mann’s reworking). Despite everything, despite it becoming part of civilization’s greatest crisis, Goethe’s Faust remains not just a cornerstone of who we were, it is still who we are. As the exhibition about the Faust myth currently running at Munich’s Kunsthalle puts it… Du bist Faust.

The Faust Festival is currently running in Munich; for more information visit

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