And thus ensues the most tragic part of the book. Faust makes a pact with Mephistopheles, and making a deal with the Devil can only ever lead to destruction. In Christopher Marlowe’s play, the pact Faust makes leads him to hell.
The pact is simple, really, Faust asks for 24 years of restored youthful vitality. What man does not want to be young again and re-live his youth? While Marlowe’s pact is the 24 years in exchange for Faust’s soul, Goethe changes the pact slightly. Faust’s soul will not be required if he doesn’t grow attached to any part of his unlived youth.
“Unlike Marlowe,” Robert Johnson writes, “Goethe teaches that the unlived life (and who does not have a huge store of unlived life following him around like a reptilian tail?) can be caught up, restored, recovered, and experienced without doing basic damage to one’s inner life.”
Faust can remain spiritually safe if he refrains from any attachment to any of his experiences in the following 24 years. This is a spiritual truth so profound, Johnson says, that it takes years of observation before its full impact can be comprehended.
And so Faust and Mephistopheles, exact opposites, head out on their adventure to begin what becomes the most important lesson in Faust–that both sides of man must be redeemed, self and shadow. True redemption does not come from one side triumphing over the other.
In the beginning, Faust is weak, shy, frightened and inept, and Mephistopheles is ruthless and bold, unhampered by morality or ethics. By the end, Faust has become strong and Mephistopheles has learned to love.
No matter what he experiences in the ensuing adventures from time spent in taverns to the seduction of Gretchen, Faust never finds happiness. And Mephistopheles always replies that he promised only youth and experience, not happiness.
Faust brings about the greatest destruction in his seduction of the innocent and pure Gretchen. She becomes pregnant, which leads to her misery and shame. Her brother challenges Faust to a duel to defend her honor and is killed by Faust. Finally, Gretchen kills herself and her newborn child. This ends Part I of the book.
“There is a terrible lesson to be learned from Part I,” Johnson writes. “It is a chronicle of the hungering of a middle-aged man for the youth he missed. . .There are not enough Adidas shoes, Hawaiian shirts, or exercise machines in the world to fill the middle-aged man’s longing for his lost youth.”
Few misconceptions of modern man cost him so heavily as this tendency toward literalness, he says. And if Goethe understood this is the early 19th century, it is much more urgent for us to understand it today.
“The American ideal of perpetual youthfulness dies very hard in us,” he writes.”We are so materialistic and so enamored of the power of will that we refuse to relinquish what is irretrievably out of our reach.”
Essentially, there is no literal solution to unlived life. Water that has passed under the bridge is gone forever. How do we make conscious the problems of meaningless and loneliness, the results of our unlived lives? Johnson says it’s a painful task, and Goethe addresses this dilemma in Part II.
Next Week: The Horrible Tangle