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
There is no alternative in life to torture except fine art.
~~George Bernard Shaw
That is to say, Robert Johnson writes, that we can find an alternate interior environment for experiencing and integrating our lost youth in the realms of symbol, ceremony, art and imagination as the exist apart from time and space. It is like hearing the Easter music again.
A man caught in the early stages of three-dimensional consciousness will still find a little to nurture him in the remnants of his two-dimensional consciousness–sport, play, adolescent behavior, closeness to nature, adventure, hero worship.
At the close of his three-dimensional consciousness, he can receive nourishment in the anticipation of his four dimensional consciousness.
“It is the dead center that is so dangerous when one is shut off from both the two- and four-dimensional worlds,” Johnson says.
Nicodemus voices this dilemma in his question to Christ: “Must a man enter his mother’s womb a second time?”
“No,” answers Christ, “except a man be born of the water and the spirit he cannot see the Kingdom of Heaven.” (John 3:4-5)
“This is to say that man cannot be redeemed from his unfulfilled life by any literal rebirth but he can be redeemed by the water and the spirit,” Johnson writes, “the world of imagination and symbol.”
Inner work requires that the ego consent to a subordinate, but still important, role, he says. It is taking part in a process in which every element of life, including the dark elements, has a place of dignity and worth.
It is a difficult balance: without the ego, chaos erupts; with the ego in control, you are blocked by egocentricity. In Part I of Faust, his ego was in control and he made a huge mess, a horrible tangle, of everything.
When one reaches this stage, Johnson says, it is tempting to use your egocentricity for “spiritual”purposes. Further progress is not possible unless you realign your ego’s place in your life.
Jung described this moment of realignment as the relocation of the center of gravity of the personality. Because this process is so painful, essentially the dethroning of the ego, it is rarely done.
“This process requires that you give honor and dignity to every dimension of your life,” Johnson writes.
The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ provides a good example of this as Christianity gives equal validity to the human and divine dimensions of Christ.
“Any variance in this balance is fatal to spiritual growth and is also the basic definition of heresy in the Church,” he writes.
Most of us live lives of heresy by giving dominance to one principle over all others.
“It is the unity of life,” Johnson says, “not the triumph of one faculty over another, that is the goal of imagination, fantasy, and ceremony.”
Next Week: Four-Dimensional Man
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
If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love’s sake only. Do not say
“I love her for her smile–her look–her way
Of speaking gently,–for a trick of thought
That falls in well with mine, and certes brought
A sense of pleasant ease on such a day”–
For these things in themselves, Belovèd, may
Be changed, or change for thee,–and love,
May be unwrought so. Neither love me for
Thine own dear pity’s wiping my cheeks dry,–
A creature might forget to weep, who bore
Thy comfort long, and lose thy love thereby!
But love me for love’s sake, that evermore
Thou may’st love on, through love’s eternity.
~~Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese
Being an island unto myself,
Buddha is my mindfulness, shining near, shining far.
Dharma is my breathing, guarding body and mind.
I am free.
As an island unto myself,
Sangha is my five skandhas working in harmony.
Taking refuge in myself, coming back to myself,
I am free.
Breathing in, breathing out,
I am blooming as a flower,
I am fresh as the dew.
I am solid as a mountain,
I am firm as the Earth.
Breathing in, breathing out,
I am water reflecting what is real, what is true;
And I feel there is space deep inside me.
I am free.