Early in Goethe’s Faust, Faust tells Mephistopheles that he desires “to expand my single self titanically and, in the end, go down with all the rest.” Faust is rejecting the ideal of moderation, of tempering desire, of knowing one’s limits, of living carefully, within one’s means. He wants ecstasy, not happiness, bliss, not contentment, grief, not sadness, extreme experience no matter the cost. Is Faust on to something? If so, why do so many people seem to settle for lives of bourgeois mediocrity? Or is his example a nice piece of fiction that teaches that one expresses such desire at the risk of disaster, destruction, maybe even damnation?
Faust by Johann Goethe is a play that resists easy and simplistic analysis. It was written over a period of half a century, begun in 1772 and not completed until 1831. It is not a simple tale of good versus evil or God versus Devil, but almost a dualistic argument that both good and evil are necessary for the world and function in a complementary fashion, with evil a force that subverts complacency and good provides ultimate goals.
Faust himself is also a study in contrasts. He starts of the play as a scholar and generally good man who finds his life hollow and in some ways routine. This makes him vulnerable to temptation by Mephistopheles, who rather than appearing evil incarnate at times seems almost more of a prankster. Faust's quest for ecstasy in the company of the Devil figure in Part 1 at times seems almost parodic, with the pleasures offered seeming trivial and evil mundane. His seduction of Gretchen and her death, though, begin to make him understand that thoughtless seeking of...
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