All That Is Solid Melts into Air

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Marshall Berman, who teaches at City College and City University of New York, has written an intriguing history of a dominant theme in Western thought—or, perhaps more accurately, a dominant Western attitude or mood: the ambivalence toward the idea of progress or development. In an analysis of the work of writers ranging from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to Fyodor Dostoevski to Dylan Thomas, and with forays into architecture, Berman has discerned the nature of modernism to be the tension between the will toward social and physical change and the desire for social and physical stability. “To be modern,” says Berman,is to be both revolutionary and conservative: alive to new possibilities for experience and adventure, frightened by the nihilistic depths to which so many modern adventures lead, longing to create and hold on to something real even as everything melts.

To be modern, says Berman, is to live in perpetual tension between personal and social development and decay, but to be modernist is to be at home in this environment. Berman wants to make modernists of his readers; he wants them to feel at home in the world in which they live. For this reason, he argues, it is crucial to understand contemporary modernism as the product of two earlier modern periods, represented by, among others, Goethe and Karl Marx.

Goethe’s Faust (1808, 1832), one of the first major treatments of the themes of modernism, is set up in three stages: Faust the dreamer, the lover, and the developer. In the first stage, Faust awakens in the middle of the night, tempted to commit suicide because he realizes that he belongs to the privileged class and is free to engage in esoteric pursuits while most people are trapped by a stagnant society. His despair about his remoteness from the rest of humanity is relieved when he hears church bells, which remind him of his childhood and the memories and feelings that he had suppressed. He remembers that he and his father had worked as physicians among the poor, but that their efforts had been futile, even destructive, so he had withdrawn from practicing medicine to engage in a solitary intellectual quest. Only now does he realize that self-fulfillment cannot be solitary, and he wants to unite his intellectual life with life in the world. He also learns that creation necessitates destruction and that he must risk physical, emotional, and financial ruin if he is to find self-fulfillment. The theme of the first stage, then, is the desire for authentic human existence.

Faust’s new mind-set makes him less self-preoccupied and more sensitive to others. He becomes self-confident, and with the help of stylish clothes and drugs that make him feel and look years younger, he becomes attractive. He soon seduces Gretchen, a poor young girl from a small town. She loses her virginity and her naïveté and focuses all of her passion upon Faust. At first, he is delighted with her development and newfound self-respect, but Gretchen’s intensity scares him, and he leaves town to participate in an orgy of sex, drugs, and heady conversation. He returns, however, when he hears that Gretchen’s family and village have turned against her. Faust kills Gretchen’s brother in a fight, and when Gretchen is condemned to death for bearing Faust’s illegitimate child, he sneaks into the prison to rescue her. Gretchen refuses to go, because she senses that Faust no longer loves her, and she dies. From his involvement with Gretchen, Faust learns that if he wants to help others to grow, then he must take responsibility for their development or be responsible for their destruction. Faust the lover shows that change necessitates struggle and destruction.

In Faust’s third and final metamorphosis, his dreams and loves are transformed into strategies of economic development. Standing by the sea, watching its endless tossing, he decides to channel the water for the sake of human productivity. He strikes a bargain with the emperor: he will solidify the monarch’s power in return for complete freedom to develop the coastal region. Faust organizes workers for the rapid industrial transformation of the coast and is very pleased that the intense, systematic labor stirs the stagnant economy. When a virtuous old couple refuse to move from their seashore house to make way for the developers, Faust orders them removed by any means. When Faust discovers that his orders resulted in the murder of the couple and the burning of their house, he becomes outraged and sad, even though he refuses to accept responsibility. Faust’s...

(The entire section is 1866 words.)