28 January 2015

'In the beginning was the Act' - Goethe's Faust

I’m not sure when I first learned of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s dramatic masterpiece, Faust, although it was probably around 11 or 12. I’m fairly certain I already knew of it when I saw a copy depicted as part of a small bibliothèque infernale on a poster for the horror-punk band, The Misfits. I think I must have purchased my copy of Walter Kaufmann’s bilingual edition some time during my stint at Barnes & Noble, likely in 1998 or 1999. What finally made up my mind to read it some day, however, was Jaroslav Pelikan’s statement in his brief ‘Personal Memoir: Fragments of a Scholar’s Autobiography’ (here) that he had begun the habit in his teens of reading the whole thing through in German once a year without fail.

By the time I came across that fascinating fact, I already knew of Pelikan’s appreciation for the German Romantic, having heard him refer to Goethe at a lecture at the University of Oklahoma in 1999 (I think) as well as having read his quote from Faust at the beginning and end of his delightful Jefferson Lectures, The Vindication of Tradition:

An older contemporary of Emerson’s, whom Emerson rightly regarded as the wisest and most universal mind of the century (except, Emerson felt obliged to add, for ‘the velvet life he lived!’), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, saw it all more deeply and said it all more clearly:
What you have as heritage,
Take now as task;
For thus you will make it your own! [1]

Nevertheless, despite this long awareness of the book and the inducements of Pelikan’s esteem for it, I only very recently began to read it for myself. When I did, I was very quickly reminded of the treatment of Faust in David Lyle Jeffery’s People of the Book: Christian Identity & Literary Culture, which I finished earlier this summer, so I went back and reread much of that chapter before proceeding further in Goethe.

Jeffrey draws some fascinating connections between Goethe’s depiction of Faust in his study and what DLJ calls ‘the symbolism of the faithful reader’ in the Christian artistic tradition. In this connection, I was particularly fascinated by Jeffrey’s references to the famous engravings of St Jerome by Albrecht Dürer (on which I have blogged a bit here). [2] Indeed, I would love to do some thinking through, or read someone else thinking through, the implications of Yates’s analysis of Dürer for an analysis of Faust.

The passage that carried me a little further outside Faust itself, however, was Jeffrey’s section on ‘Logos and Lector’, where he focuses on Faust 1224-37. I will quote in full Kaufmann’s translation of this passage, including in brackets the German for a few key terms:

(He opens a tome [of the New Testament] and begins.)
It says: ‘In the beginning was the Word [Wort].’

Already I am stopped. It seems absurd.

The Word does not deserve the highest prize,
I must translate it otherwise
If I am well inspired and not blind.

It says: In the beginning was the Mind [Sinn].

Ponder that first line, wait and see,

Lest you should write too hastily.

Is mind the all-creating source?
It ought to say: In the beginning there was Force [Kraft].
Yet something warns me as I grasp the pen,

That my translation must be changed again.

The spirit helps me. Now it is exact.

I write: In the beginning was the Act [Tat]. [3]

Now I admit that the import of all of this is most unclear to me. Why can Faust not accept the first verse of St John’s Gospel? Because all of this follows on his reference to attempting to translate the NT into German, I’m a little tempted to wonder if it’s more the German word Wort he’s objecting to, and not the Λόγος of the Gospel. But I admit that the successive attempts give me the chills, carrying as I’m afraid they can no longer help but do the crushing weight of German fascist association. [4] For his part, Jeffrey finds, ‘Faust rejects in this formulation the source of all Christian symbol, “the Law of the Lord”, but most specifically the Logos, the doctrine of the incarnate Word.’ [5]

My readiness to accept this reading, as undeveloped as it was, predisposed me to be a little shocked when I turned to another reference to this passage from Faust: the epigraph to Chapter Two, ‘Answerability & Ethics: Toward a Philosophy of Action’, in Alexandar Mihailovic’s remarkable monograph, Corporeal Words: Mikhail Bakhtin’s Theology of Discourse. It had been some time since I’d looked at this book, and I only went back to it on a hunch (since Johannine logology was such an important part of Mihailovic’s analysis). Sure enough, at the heading of Chapter 2, we see:

Im Anfang war die Tat.
--Goethe, Faust.

Now, this was intriguing enough by itself, but it was followed immediately by a second epigraph:

The Formalists are imprinted with the seal of overripe clericalism. They are Johannites. For them ‘in the beginning was the Word.’ But for us in the beginning was the act: the word appeared only after [the act], like a shadow made of sound.
--Leo Trotsky, Literature & Revolution (1924) [6]

At this point, of course, I was fully engaged. Unfortunately, a quick skim through the chapter failed to turn up any further references to Goethe or Trotsky until the very end. There we read: ‘In a very real sense, Bakhtin inverts the Johannine conception of the conception of the word: for him, as for Trotsky--and this is the only area in which the critic and the revolutionary would agree--the act comes first, the word proceeding from it as its concretized efflorescence.’ [7]

Of course, I am hardly inclined to take this at face value. First, note that ‘word’ is not capitalised, either in Trotsky’s statement about its appearance after the act, or at all in Mihailovic’s statement about Bakhtin. Indeed, Mihailovic’s whole point seems to be that Bakhtin’s use of theological language almost invariably replaces the theological content of that language with discursive content. He takes what Christians say about ‘the Word’, and applies it to what we say about ‘the word’, i.e., discourse. [8] Second, Mihailovic himself states that for Bakhtin it is precisely ‘Incarnational theology [that] provides a framework for understanding the formal and material dimensions of the human community; according to Bakhtin, it unites that which has been separated by contemporary approaches to ethics.’ [9] If the rejection of Wort for Tat is a rejection of ‘the doctrine of the Incarnate Word’, as I’m inclined to believe it is for Faust, for Bakhtin it must mean that he cannot follow Faust as easily as Mihailovic seems to suggest.

Since writing that last paragraph, I have read very carefully through an interesting article by a Goethe specialist all about the passage I’ve been considering. I can’t say I have perfectly understood all of Erik Eisel’s ‘“In the Beginning Was the Word...”: The Question of the Origin of Language in Goethe’s Faust’ (here). The gist of Eisel’s argument is that Goethe is making his own contribution to the question of the origin of language, a question memorably essayed by Johann Herder, whose contribution to the subject directly influenced Goethe. I admit I struggled a bit with this aspect of the paper, but I fancy I’ve detected one or two things that dovetail with some of my reflections here.

First, Eisel strikes a note of what Harold Bloom might call ‘anxiety of influence’ in Faust. He asks, ‘Will the appropriation of this primal sentence [i.e., John 1:1] into his own primal writing scene establish a  pattern of continued undifferentiation? Or a hoped-for self-differentiation?’ Comparing Faust’s efforts to translate Scripture into ‘mein geliebtes Deutsch’ to those of his historical contemporary, Martin Luther, Eisel notes, ‘Unlike Luther, he cannot decide whether his translation of “word” into “act” establishes a pattern for the emergence of culture that differentiates him from tradition--or from the former self that he wants to escape.’ Later on, he makes two more comments along these lines. First, he observes, ‘Instead of employing a technique of free translation, Goethe depicts Faust using the literary technique of appropriation in order to transform the “original text”(Grundtext) of the Bible into a personal response to the question of language origin.’ Second, Eisel notes that ‘Goethe prefaces the scene...by emphasizing that translation results from a “personal desire” (mich draengt’s) to make something one’s own, “in mein geliebtes Deutsch ze uebertragen”...’

The last comment reminds me disturbingly of Pelikan’s favourite quotation, from earlier in the poem--‘What you have as heritage, / Take now as task; / For thus you will make it your own!’ Is Faust’s translation attempt a perversion of this charge, or a fulfillment of it? Hoping to get some feel for an answer to this question, I paid very close attention to precisely what it was Eisel was alleging as the object of Faust’s anxiety. In other words, what precisely is the ‘tradition’ that he associates with his ‘former self’ and which he hopes to escape?
I remain slightly unclear on this point. In one place, Eisel writes, ‘For Goethe, translation is the preferred method of creating a literary space where his literary creation, Faust, rebels against the Kantian universe with which he is familiar.’ Okay, so despite the obvious anachronism from an historical perspective, perhaps Kantianism is what Goethe is making his character escape from? But delving into Friedrich Kittler’s ‘wide-ranging work, Discourse Networks 1800/1900’, Eisel suggests an answer that may or may not be connected with Kantianism:

An ‘untimely meditation’ if there ever was one, the melancholic sigh in the opening monologue of Goethe’s play is an expression of Faust’s obvious disgust with the uncomfortable, high-vaulted Gothic den where he lives and works. It is, moreover, an indictment of the circulation of words and books being endlessly renewed with the Republic of Scholars and the Four Faculties. According to Kittler, the beginning of German literature is the dismantling of this obsolete discourse network and the self-generation of a narrative newly oriented towards the reader’s bodily experience of the text and of language.

To me this suggests something generally anti-intellectual, the equation of scholarship and the study of texts with dry, inactive, or ineffectual preoccupations, with a negation of vitality. It suggests that it is the whole tradition of Christian culture--represented first by the Gothic den of St Jerome and second by the traditional connotations of St John’s Prologue--that Faust wishes to distance himself from or escape. I certainly don’t think this tradition is in any way Kantian, though perhaps Goethe is suggesting Kant is a kind of logical conclusion of the tradition?

At any rate, it is in particular the way that Eisel describes Faust setting out to effect this distanciation that is in my opinion closest to some of my considerations above.

[At this point I had to leave off working on this post for a while, and returning to Eisel’s somewhat difficult essay, I found I had completely lost my train of thought! What follows is a much later and necessarily truncated attempt to reconstruct the direction I think I was taking with this post. I hope it makes sense in light of the above reflections.]

Eisel draws on a notion he finds in Kittler of ‘the theatricality of performance’ to delineate Faust’s self-distanciation from all the connotations of the Gothic den. At this point I will quote at some length:

It is not Faust’s proverbial thirst for knowledge that makes him an interesting case study for his diagnosis of a European ‘discourse network’, but his love of spectacle and of the physical effect of astonishment. Upon discovering the magic sign of the Macrocosm, Faust shouts out, ‘What play! Yet but a play, however vast!’ [10] Despite reservations about the superficial character of spectacle, he wants more of it, since it commands a sublimity not to be found in the drabness of his Gothic library. In Kittler’s opinion, this appetite for the sublime is something conditioned by the cultural media of the Enlightenment. Faust’s preference for theatrical gesture over linguistic expression grows out of a person ‘resentment’ against the word (Kittler 13). Accordingly, Kittler interprets the crisis of conventionality in the late Enlightenment as provoking the efforts of a new generation of Romantic writers to initiate a ‘paradigm shift’ within the traditional pedagogical scene that Faust describes in the opening lines of his monologue.

Perhaps it’s simply a conversation that I’m coming to far too late, but to me this passage is very obscure. That said, it strikes me that there are a couple of ways to read it. One is that Eisel and Kittler are discerning at work merely the desire for movement and action typical of youth, a desire writ large in the aspirations and fervency of the Romantic movement. But the other is perhaps more interesting. To my mind it may be that these two scholars are talking about an idea with which I have become increasingly preoccupied lately--the idea of poetic knowledge, and its cousin, that of ‘suffering’ or ‘experiencing’ rather than ‘learning about’ divine things (see this post). Although Eisel notes ‘the superficial character of spectacle’, in the enactment of drama (I’m thinking particularly of classical tragedy), we have a discourse that is in some ways akin to liturgy, where the mystery of knowledge is no longer confined to the ‘scientific’ learning of the text, but is entered into by experience with the senses and acted out. Is it possible that it is something not so far from liturgy that Faust is drawn to in his ‘preference for theatrical gesture’?
Either way, I hesitate to make too much of the Bakhtinian inversion of supposedly Johannine ‘word’ that Mihailovic believes he has discovered. If ‘word’ is to be equated with verbal discourse only, then it is natural that it lose its ontological priority, and we could perhaps do much worse than replace it with ‘act’ in the sense of enacting the mystery in which we participate. ‘Word’ can only be restored to primacy of place if it becomes again that Λόγος that dwelt in silence with God in the beginning, already full of the love that would act by creating everything.

[1] Qtd. in Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition (New Haven, CT: Yale, 1984), p. 82; see also the epigraph on the dedication page, p. v. The lines are 682-3, and are found on pp. 114 & 115 of Kaufmann’s edition, where they are rendered, ‘What from your fathers you received as heir, / Acquire if you would possess it’ (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, tr. Walter Kaufmann [NY: Anchor, 1990], pp. 114-5).

[2] David Lyle Jeffrey, People of the Book: Christian Identity & Literary Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 214-5.

[3] Goethe, p. 153.

[4] My Webster’s New World German Dictionary supports Kaufmann’s renderings of the German terms, though it also gives other possible meanings. The first definition given for Sinn is ‘sense’, followed by ‘mind’, ‘feeling’, ‘spirit’, and ‘point’ (Webster’s New World German Dictionary, Concise edition, ed. Peter Terrell & Horst Kopleck [Indianapolis: Wiley, 1987], p. 389) Under definition (a), Kraft is translated ‘strength’, ‘power, force’, or ‘energy’, and under (b) as ‘power’ or ‘force’ (it is compared to Macht) (ibid., p. 258).

At any rate, as Erik Eisel points out, Hitler himself praised Goethe ‘for giving such prominence to “deeds” over “words”’.

[5] Jeffrey, p. 258.

[6] Alexandar Mihailovic, Corporeal Words: Mikhail Bakhtin’s Theology of Discourse (Evanston, IL: Northwestern U, 1997), p. 51. I have posted at some length on Bakhtin and the Formalists here, in a post which somehow earned me the accusation that I ‘hate literature’.

[7] Ibid., p. 85.

[8] In their useful, if flawed, intellectual biography of Bakhtin, Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist quote Kenneth Burke in order to explain their assumptions about Bakhtin’s project: ‘As Kenneth Burke remarked, “statements that great theologians made about the nature of ‘God’ might be adapted mutatis mutandis for use as purely secular observations on the nature of words…”’ (Katerina Clark & Michael Holquist, Mikhail Bakhtin [Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1984], p. 83).

[9] Mihailovic, p. 78. [10] Goethe, p. 99.