Madame de Staël: Goethe’s Faust 2
Excerpt from DE L’ALLEMAGNE – “Germany” by Madame Germaine de Staél-Holstein (published 1810, the 1813 John Murray translation), Vol. II, 192-203. Unless otherwise noted, all illustrations by Eugene Delacroix.
This momentary enthusiasm does not continue: Faustus is an inconstant character, the passions of the world recover their hold upon him. He seeks to satisfy them, he wishes to abandon himself to them; and the devil, under the name of Mephistopheles, comes and promises to put him in possession of all the pleasures of the earth, being at the same time able to render him disgusted with them all; for real wickedness so entirely dries up the soul, that it ends by inspiring a profound indifference for pleasures as well as for virtues.
Mephistopheles conducts Faustus to a witch, who keeps under her orders a number of animals, half monkeys and half cats. (Meerkatzen.) This scene may, in some respects, be considered as a parody of that of the witches in Macbeth. The witches in Macbeth sing mysterious words, of which the extraordinary sounds produce at once the effect of magic; Goethe’s witches also pronounce strange syllables, of which the rhythms are curiously multiplied; these syllables excite the imagination to gaiety, by the very singularity of their construction, and the dialogue of this scene, which would be merely burlesque in prose, receives a more elevated character from the charm of poetry.
In listening to the comical language of these cat-monkeys, we think we discover what would be the ideas of animals if they were able to express them, what a coarse and ridiculous image they would represent to themselves, of nature, and of mankind.
The French stage has scarcely any specimens of these pleasantries founded on the marvelous, on prodigies, witchcrafts, transformations, &c: this is to make sport with nature, as in comedies we make sport with men. But, to derive pleasure from this sort of comedy, reason must be set aside, and the pleasures of the imagination must be considered as a licensed game, without any object. Yet is this game not the more easy on that account, for restrictions are often supports; and when, in the career of literature, men give scope to boundless invention, nothing but the excess, the very extravagance, of genius, can confer any merit on these productions; the union of wildness with mediocrity would be intolerable.
Mephistopheles conducts Faustus into the company of young persons of all classes, and subdues, by different means, the different minds with which he engages. He effects his conquests over them, not by admiration, but by astonishment. He always captivates by something, unexpected and contemptuous in his words and actions; for vulgar spirits, for the most part, take so much the more account of a superior intellect, as that intellect appears to be indifferent about them. A secret instinct tells them that he who despises them sees justly.
A Leipsic student, who has just left his mother’s house, as simple as one can be at that age in the good country of Germany, comes to consult Faustus about his studies; Faustus begs Mephistopheles to take on himself the charge of answering him. He puts on a doctor’s gown, and while waiting for the scholar, expressed, in a soliloquy, his contempt for Faustus. “This man,” says he, “will never be more than half wicked, and it is in vain that he flatters himself with the hope of becoming completely so.”
It is so in fact; whenever people naturally well principled turn aside from the plain road, they find themselves shackled by a sort of awkwardness that proceeds from uncontrollable remorse, while men who are radically bad make a mock of those candidates, for vice who, with the best intention to do evil, are without talent to accomplish it.
At last the scholar presents himself, and nothing can be more naive than the awkward and yet presumptuous eagerness of this young German, on his entrance for the first time in his life into a great city, disposed of all things, knowing nothing, afraid of every thing he sees, yet impatient to possess it, desirous of information, eagerly wishing for amusement, and advancing with an artless smile towards Mephistopheles, who receives him with a cold and contemptuous air; the contrast between the unaffected good humour of the one, and the disdainful insolence of the other, is admirably lively.
There is not a single branch of knowledge but the scholar desires to become acquainted with it; and what he desires to learn, he says, is science and nature. Mephistopheles congratulates him on the precision with which he has marked out his plan of study. He amuses himself by describing the four faculties, law, medicine, philosophy, and theology, in such a manner, as to confound the poor scholar’s head for ever. Mephistopheles makes a thousand different arguments for him, all which the scholar approves one after the other, but the conclusion of which astonishes him, because he looks for serious discourse while the devil is only laughing at every subject.
The scholar comes prepared for general admiration, and the result of all he hears is only universal contempt. Mephistopheles agrees with him that doubt proceeds from hell, and that the devils are those who deny; but he expresses doubt itself with a tone of decision, which, mixing arrogance of character with uncertainty of reasoning, leaves no consistency in any thing, but evil inclinations. No belief, no opinion, remains fixed in the head after having listened to Mephistopheles; and we feel disposed to examine ourselves in order to know whether there is any truth in the world, or whether we think only to make a mock of those who fancy that they think.
“Must not every word have an idea annexed to it?” says the scholar. “Yes, if it can,” replies Mephistopheles,” but we need not trouble ourselves too much about that, for where ideas are wanting, words come on purpose to supply the place of them.”
Sometimes the scholar cannot comprehend Mephistopheles, but he has only so much the more respect for his genius. Before he takes leave of him, he begs him to inscribe a few lines in his album, the book in which, according to the German way, every one makes his friends furnish him with a mark of their remembrances. Mephistopheles writes the words that Satan spoke to Eve, to induce her to eat the fruit of the tree of life. “Thou shalt be as God, knowing good and evil.”
“I may well,” says he to himself, “borrow this ancient sentence of my cousin the serpent, they have long made use of it in my family.” The scholar takes back his book, and goes away perfectly satisfied.
Faustus grows tired, and Mephistopheles advises him to fall in love. He becomes actually so with a young girl of the lower class, extremely innocent and simple, who lives in poverty with her aged mother. Mephistopheles, for the purpose of introducing Faustus to her, takes it into his head to form an acquaintance with one of her neighbors, named Martha, whom the young Margaret sometimes goes to visit. This woman’s husband is abroad, and she is distracted at receiving no news of him; she would be greatly afflicted at his death, yet at least she would wish not to be left in doubt of it; and Mephistopheles greatly softens her grief, by promising her an obituary account of her husband, in regular form, for her to publish in the gazette according to custom.
Poor Margaret is delivered up to the power of evil; the infernal spirit lets loose all his malaice upon her; and renders her culpable, without depriving her of that rectitude of heart which can find repose only in virtue. A dexterous villain takes care not wholly to pervert those honest people whom he designs to govern; for his ascendancy over them depends upon the alternate agitations of crime and remorse. Faustus, by the assistance of Mephistopheles, seduces this young girl, who is remarkably simple both in mind and soul. She is pious, though culpable; and when alone with Faustus, asks him whether he has any religion. “My child,” says he, “you know I love you. I would give my blood, and my life for you; I would disturb the faith of no one. Is not this all that you can desire?”
Margaret: “No, it is necessary to believe.”
Faustus: “Is it necessary?”
Margaret: “Ah! that I had any influence over you! you do not sufficiently reverence the holy sacraments.”
Faustus: “I do reverence them.”
Margaret: “But without ever drawing near them, it is long since you have confessed yourself, long since you have been at mass: do you believe in God?”
Faustus: “My dear friend, who dares to say, I believe in God? If you propose this question to priests and sages, they will answer as if they intended to mock him who questions them.”
Margaret: “So, then, you believe nothing.”
Faustus: “Do not construe my words so ill, charming creature! Who can name the Deity and say, I comprehend him? Who can feel, and not believe in him? Does not that which supports the universe embrace thee, me, and universal nature? Does not Heaven descend to form a canopy over our heads? Is not the earth immovable under our feet? Do not the eternal stars, from their spheres on high, look down upon us with love? Are not thine eyes reflected in mine, melting with tenderness? Does not an eternal mystery, visible and invisible, attract my heart to thine? Let they soul be filled with this mystery, and when you experience the supreme happiness of feeling, call that happiness thy heart, love, God; it is all the same. Feeling is all in all, names are but an empty sound, a vain smoke, that darkens the splendour of Heaven.”
This morsel of inspired eloquence would not suit the character o f Faustus, if at this moment he were not better, because he loves; and if the intention of the author had not doubtless been to shew the necessity of a firm and positive belief, since even those whom Nature has created good and kind, are not the less capable of the most fatal aberrations when this support is wanting to them.
Faustus grows tired of the love of Margaret, as of all the enjoyments of life; nothing is finer, in the original, than the verse in which he expresses at once the enthusiasm of science and the satiety of happiness.
Faustus: “Sublime spirit! Thou hast granted me all that I have asked of thee. It is not in vain that thou hast turned towards me thy countenance encircled with flames; thou has given me magical nature for my empire; thou hast given me strength to feel and enjoy it. Thou hast given me not coldly to admire, but inwardly to be acquainted with; thou hast given me to penetrate into the bosom of the universe as into that of a friend; thou hast brought before me the varied assembly of living things, and hast taught me to know my breathen in the inhabitants of the woods, the air, and the waters.
When the tempest howls in the forest, when it uproots and subverts the gigantic pines, and makes the mountain re-echo to their fall, thou guidest me into a safe asylum, and thou revealest to me the secret wonders of my own heart. When the calm moon silently ascends the sky, the silvered shades of ancient times glide before my eyes over the rocks and in the woods, and seem to soften for me the severe pleasure of meditation.
But, alas! I feel it, man can attain perfection in nothing; by the side of those delights which bring me near to the gods, I am doomed to support that cold, that indifferent, that haughty companion, who humbles me in my own eyes, and by a word reduces to nothing, all the gifts that thou has bestowed upon me. He kindles in my bosom an untameable fire that urges me to the pursuit of beauty; I pass, in delirium, from desire to enjoyment; but in the very bosom of happiness a vague sensation of satiety causes me to regret the restlessness of desire.”
To be continued…
Scenes from Faust by Moritz Retzsch