Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Week 05, Goethe's Faust

European Romanticism of Herder, Rousseau, Goethe, etc.
Neoclassical and Enlightenment thinkers tended to emphasize the orderly collective, the reason-based and structured community, with perhaps "the passions" yoked as instruments in the service of reason.  (See Plato's Phaedrus for its depiction of the fiery steeds of good and bad passion, both of which need to be controlled by Reason, which alone guides us towards the Good and the True.)

Romantics emphasize the potential of the individual – some of their favorite notions are imagination, genius, particularity, passion – that is, the individual in all his or her eccentricity and emotional intensity, in fact, is often set forth as the universal.  William Blake is the strongest advocate for that kind of striving towards the universal not as a neoclassical abstraction but instead as something inextricable from that which embodies it.  "One thought fills immensity," he says, and how about his opening to "Auguries of Innocence"?

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

Walt Whitman sings a "Song of Myself" that turns out to be a song about everybody else at the same time, no?  But all this is common to Romantic thought, in one way or another.  It is intuition, emotion, imagination, and in some versions (Wordsworth and Rousseau, for example) love of natural beauty and process, that grounds our hopes for progress, for transformation, and a more beneficial and free social order.

Neoclassical and Enlightened art sometimes amounts to a Horatian uplift or affirmation campaign based on "imitation" (mimesis), with the aim being to give you what you have already been led to think, only in a more elegant, memorable form: "whatever is, is right," as Alex Pope says.  The artist chooses to represent and ornament a good, rational order as the ideal, and make us fall in love with it.  (This need not involve lying about the way things really are at present.)

Romantic art can be isolated, brooding and withdrawn (examples would be Byron's Manfred, or Shelley's poet-nightingale singing to soothe itself), but often it is confrontational, expressive, ambitious.  Both expressive theory and mimetic theory tend to advocate an ethics and an agenda, but the ethics and agenda are very different.  Romantic art wants to change you, shake you up; Romantic lyric and music want to turn your head, refocus your attention, start the social and perceptual revolution with you – yes, you!  Neoclassical satire, by contrast, may be wonderfully confrontational, but in a piece like Candide, Voltaire wants to tear down your delusions and propose rational, particular "fixes" or offer limited, sage advice; that is because Enlightened thinkers deal with society and man as a kind of machine or edifice, while the Romantics conceptualize society as a living, changing organism, one moving pretty quickly towards liberation and self-expression.  Who knows where the changing will take us, or even whether it will end?

In an even broader context beyond art, this organic/emotional versus mechanical/rational contrast profoundly affects European politics from the C18 onward.  The American Founders, men of the Enlightenment, drew up contracts of sorts, documents enumerating grievances and setting forth rational, discrete "fixes" and constraints.  That's where we get the salutary notion (poorly defended today by so-called conservatives) that there ought to be strong limits on what government can do to us or make us do to others.  The French Revolution might have begun that way, but it turned into something much more organic, expressive, dynamic, violent, and transformational.  France was never the same after the Revolution of 1789: it led to a near-total alteration of society and politics.  I think our Romantic moment or baptism of fire came with the Civil War – Lincoln's Gettysburg Address reads like it was written by an expressive poet; he speaks of the birth and death of nations, and of souls struggling to break free.  But it's fair to say that America didn't come into its own until the First World War, when our power became manifest as we helped to settle a great European struggle.  Of course, the rest of the C20 pretty much belonged to us, and with the possible exception of the Roman Empire, the world has never seen the like of us for sheer importance and power.

I should add the following: Romantic art is not only ambitious, it is at the same time intensively self-reflective, self-questioning and philosophical – it turns on its own central concepts and submits them to the fires of introspection and critique.  It's true that the Enlightenment fostered the spirit of critique, most notably in the formulation of Kant's injunction sapere aude.  But Romanticism does this with unparalleled feeling and intensity.  So ideas such as intuition, imagination, revolution, social and poetic/linguistic organicism, etc. – are by no means left unquestioned.  Emotion or passion is construed as the ground of human universality, yet who has more closely looked into the risks of such deep passion, the possibility that it may take a tailspin towards mere fantasy, irrationalism, self-delusion, and despair?  Who has noticed and reflected more darkly on the potential that imagination has not only to renew the world but also to trap us with its own productions and isolate us from humane engagement with things and people as they are?  Who has more strongly emphasized that glorifying "the individual" at the expense of the community might well lead nowhere but to narcissism, solipsism, and incomprehensibility?  Or that it might in fact worsen the primal eldest curse, alienation, which, after all, Romantic poets and other artists tend to take as the absolute precondition of authentic humanity?  Count Manfred on the Alps is grand, but not a happy man.  Besides, the Romantics themselves weren't generally so superior and removed: Lord Byron died of a fever in 1824 helping the Greeks organize the fight for their independence from the Ottoman Empire (1821-30).  Not exactly an alienated recluse, was Byron – he was more like a rock star with a scandalous personal life and a principled politics.

With this mention of "passionate self-critique," we should move to Goethe, who was both an early proponent of emotionalist art or "Sturm [stormy passion] und Drang [impulse or stress]" (Werther) and a critic of that impulse when, along with Friedrich von Schiller and others, he moved towards what came to be known as "Weimar Classicism" (Weimarer Klassik) from the 1770's through the first decades of the C19.  To be sought were balance and perspective in and through art and artistic education.  The aim was to promote human integrity, wholeness, clarity well-roundedness – to synthesize the best of the Romantic and the Enlightened outlooks.  Read Schiller's brilliant Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man -- I can't recommend this book highly enough as a meditation on the difficult but ultimately promising relationship between aesthetics, society and political change.  Anyhow, in Goethe we see not only the propensity for self-criticism but also a particularly strong dose of wit and humor in doing so – he's quite the intellectual's poet.  In truth, his own erudition probably rivaled that of Doctor Faust, since there's just about no branch of learning in which Johann Wolfgang von Goethe didn't dabble in a long life that stretched from 1749-1832.  He was a true polymath – artist, scientist, philosopher, you name it.

The Protagonist, Heinrich Faust:
Marlowe's Faustus was nobler in that he at first made his pact with the devil's helper because of his desire for forbidden but genuine knowledge: ultimate understanding of the universe and its secrets.  True, he also wanted to experience the sensual side of life to the fullest.

Goethe's Faust makes his bargain when he has already rejected the quest for such ultimate knowledge.  Now what he wants is more human extremes, a total openness to experience of any kind, be it pleasure or pain.  In sum, he aligns himself with his own romantic or "Sturm und Drang" definition of human nature as restless, perpetually unsatisfied and striving.  The way up is through humanity itself, the inner space of human nature, so to speak.

Margarete, or Gretchen:
She is somewhat more complex than what we might expect: she isn't as pure as Faust insists she must be: she is easily seduced with gifts and kind words, and puts up no real resistance to Faust's advances.  She isn't bad – just ordinary.  After all, Mephistopheles had said the witch's potion would make Faust think every woman Helen of Troy.

Goethe has updated him and given him a wry sense of humor – a new tradition that lasts to this day.  Gretchen sees him in his lineaments nonetheless: repulsive, unsympathetic, antipathetic to love's attractive power.

What is Goethe apparently trying to accomplish with this respinning of the old story in which a learned doctor is condemned for seeking forbidden knowledge at the expense of his humanity?

He turns the usual moral fable neatly on its head: our incompleteness is our greatness; that's the new Romantic paradigm.  But the lesson and path are more complicated than that.  Goethe is mature enough to act as historian and philosopher to the movement with which he is associated, European Romanticism.  Faust's pursuit of extreme experience is by no means purely admirable: in fact, it begins with a species of utter boredom and a self-pitying kind of irony: "Was it for this empty, high knowledge that I've spent so much of my life?"  In the end, Faust isn't condemned in Part 2 as we expected he would be.  His movement away from narcissism and towards compassionate intersubjectivity is enough to earn God's favor.  But the narcissism is there, and it's acknowledged rather than papered over.

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