Goethe's Faust (and modal narration)

2020-06-25 @Literature

Let’s dedicate this teatime reflection to my recent journey across Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, a monumental epic poem that Goethe produced over the span of nearly thirty years of intermittent effort.

Firstly, I opted for Boris Pasternak’s Russian translation adaptation of the German epic poem, a sensational piece of work. (As I’ve previously related, I’ll open to the notion of a poetry ‘translation’ once I traverse the Penrose staircase.)

Having briefly contrasted Pasternak’s rendition with that of the earlier 20th-century professor/translator Cholodkowski (Холодковский), the former seemed poetically superior, the latter more verbose, although possibly more faithful to Goethe’s opus. Alas, I opted for the poetic.

On the poetry. I can imagine Pasternak to have varied the form in accordance with the German original. While the greater portion of Faust cycles between iambic pentameter and tetrameter, what have I not encountered: trimeter, dimeter, amphibranchic and trochaic forms, anapestic on a rare occasion. However, this variance in meter and footing generally reflected a particular story mode (more on modes later), hence not entirely incidental.

Even though governed by a narrative, you can consume the verse in tiny increments over any course of time, yet still extract great benefit.

I identify the same property among the likes of Montaigne’s Essays, Seneca’s Letters (or other writings), Plutarch’s Histories, and probably most epic theological texts or the ancient sources of myth, insofar as my strictly cursory acquaintance with the latter group. I’ve never read Dante, but there I too envision something of a similar nature.

Curiously, I perceived a like effect in Shakespeare’s 1200-line poem Venus and Adonis, the absurdity this may sound. The experience felt that it could stretch across a lifetime.

Unlike the Shakespearean plays, or most verse narratives I’ve read, Venus and Adonis, although embellished in enchanting lyrical device characteristic of the playwright, treads around effectively the same element for the entirety. And yet, each six-line stanza contributes something unique to the perpetual (ofttimes nearly perverse) discourse.

Faust, like these literary works, is primarily a philosophical journey. The storytelling particulars I found quiet secondary, albeit full of bedazzling features.

Granted, certain elements of contingency might confound you if neglected. But even so, each section - each fragment independently interweaves upon the resurging and ever-conflicting matter that is human existence.

We accompany Faust and the diabolical Mephistopheles along a kind of a pilgrimage; a pilgrimage of colossal proportion. Faust’s development follows a certain progression. Plot elements, many important for the story ark, materialize … but ultimately dissolve.

Most, including the Gretchen story, the Homunculus, Helen of Troy, the Emperor, I found supportive in their function, but not strictly fundamental to assimilate in working memory.

This property also owes to the mode-oriented structure I identified within the poem, as opposed to a classic plot progression. This idea of modes I borrow from Jazz (and severely abuse). We can say that Faust builds upon modes in a similar spirit of many Post-Bop period Jazz compositions, contrasted with the earlier, heavily note-oriented forms.

The aforementioned Venus and Adonis, as an extreme case of this phenomenon, arguably danced around a single note, as much of Miles Davis’s 1970’s fusion.

Within the Faust framework, a mode might correspond to a naturalistic - low-key setting (ie Faust’s Gothic laboratory, the village, the town folk, the tavern), the high-class Feudal society, or the supernatural (ie the Masquerade, Walpurgis night, ancient Sparta, etc). A mode might also correlate with the actors involved in a scene - be they literal, symbolic, personified, or allegorical in nature.

This mode-oriented projection, while entirely individual, gave a hint of the kind of a philosophical framework I was to expect in each section of the epic, and a clue to the rhetorical style to ensue; the particulars quiet circumstantial. But whatever the mode, we generally follow a range of philosophical/socio-economic/moral discourse.

Amidst the philosophy, Goethe styles the decorum from an absolutely exuberant range of material. It’s scary. I’ve known no other work to aspire to such. Then again, thirty years for the deed doesn’t sound at all shabby.

Once Faust’s and Mephistopheles’s quest really jumps into overdrive, once the supernatural and the occult begin to violate customary bounds, the narrative gives manifest to all manner of myth, fable, philosophical school and moral foundation at Goethe’s lifetime disposal.

We encounter witches, spirits, deities, creatures of all echelons of Greco-Roman (and other) mythology, natural forces and human emotion personified, ancient war figures and philosophers, all interacting in ways that transcend common literary conventions of space and time.

There’s much I didn’t or couldn’t grasp, or lacked the background to appreciate; possibly most. But no matter. Each reread, each fragment lends to independent study and interpretation; with appetizing poetry to accompany along the way.

Questions, comments? Connect.