Having played Gretchen in a college version of Faust (auf Deutsch, natürlich), this is one of my favorite acts of the play. As the drama nears its end, Faust and Mephistopheles have drawn closer, somewhat tempered each other.
Unfortunately, this causes Mephistopheles to want to regain some of his control over Faust. He is the devil, our shadow, after all. So, he asks Faust if there is anything he would like.
Not as such, Faust replies. This is the man “whom infinity would scarcely satisfy” at the beginning of the book. Mephistopheles offers him the moon, but Faust says he would be content with “a piece of coastline so that he might reclaim land from sea.”
“Water, particularly the ocean, is a universal symbol of the unconscious,” Robert Johnson writes, “and Faust is asking for eternal connection with the depths represented by the sea.”
The true work of man in the latter part of his life, he says, is the cultural process of bringing up some of the contents of the unconscious and integrating them into consciousness.”
Goethe symbolizes this by having Faust reclaim land from the sea–dredging canals, building dikes–taking land from the sea and adding it to the land mass. In this process Faust finds great contentment.
But as we know, nothing is ever that simple. When Faust complains to Mephistopheles that a cottage owned by a couple (Baucis and Philemon), who have lived on his newly acquired property all of their lives, blocks his view, tragedy ensues once again. Mephistopheles frightens the old couple to death and burns their cottage to the ground.
Faust is horrified, particularly as he realizes that he is responsible for the tragic results. It is now that Faust realizes just what his alliance with Mephistopheles is costing him.
“He learns,” Johnson notes, “that he has power over Mephistopheles and that he is capable of misusing that power.”
As he continues to reclaim land from the sea, he does not notice the approach of the “four gray sisters–Want, Debt, Need and Care.” Johnson says these dark forces are the power of necessity. Because of his wealth, Faust can easily ignore the first three as he has everything he needs. But no man can ignore Dame Care. She is something we all need.
When he doesn’t take her seriously, Dame Care blinds Faust. “This leads me to believe,” Johnson writes, “that the blinding was more an inner exchange of sight for insight, a transformation required of every man as he grows old.”
Faust’s excavation now becomes the digging of his own grave as he can no longer see what he is doing. Johnson says that here you can recognize one of the dangers of old age–digging or hacking away at a project out of inertia and habit rather than any sense of purpose.
Just before his death, Faust steps back from his labors and sees a utopian vision of a noble band of people inhabiting his newly claimed land, and utters the fatal words–“Linger, thou art so fair!”
Mephistopheles rushes in to claim Faust’s soul, according to the terms of the contract agreed upon 24 years previously. Faust has lost and Mephistopheles has won! What is the point of inner change if only to have it snatched away by a very human error at the end? Is absolute perfection required of us at the gates of heaven?
But then something miraculous happens. Despite everything, Gretchen’s love for Faust has never waned. She appears at the head of a choir of angels and pleads for Faust’s soul. It was a vision of heaven, they say, that made Faust utter those fatal words, not anything that Mephistopheles created. A technicality, perhaps, but it works. Gretchen leads Faust into heaven where grace, not justice, prevails.
“The masculine stuff of law and order and justice are superseded by grace and love,” Johnson writes.
The Fourth Puer–The Boy Angel
“We have seen no redemption of one in a pair of opposites is possible without the same redemption of the other,” Johnson says. Both Faust and Mephistopheles must be redeemed if either is to find wholeness.
While lamenting his loss, Mephistopheles catches sight of a boy angel in the heavenly band and falls in love with him, neglecting to press his partially limited charges against Faust.
“To understand the multitude of forms in which love may touch you is to gain some sense of its great mystery,” Johnson writes. “Mephistopheles has been touched by that form of love that is specific to his need and his transformation.”
Faust is redeemed by the love of Gretchen; Mephistopheles by his first experience of love. “Ego and shadow each finds its own level of redemption and its own appropriate salvation.”
The boy angel, symbolizing love (not unlike Cupid), is the fourth manifestation of the archetype of puer aeternis. To touch the puer is to touch eternity and love and be delivered from the time-space world, Johnson says.
The play ends with the following lines:
All that is perishable
is but an image;
Here the short-reaching
here it is done;
The Eternal Feminine
draws us on.
This is more than a hint that wholeness is not attained by means of masculine law or contract. It is a gift from the feminine aspect of God.
Next Week: Conclusion