Crossing the Line of Forbidden Knowledge
By John Yohalem
As the Metropolitan Opera prepares to open its new production of Gounod’s Faust next month, John Yohalem delves into the origins of the legend upon which the opera is based.
When Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a lad, the most popular cheap pamphlet on sale at German country fairs was the age-old tale of Faust, the scholar of unholy knowledge who bartered his soul to the devil for gold, or power, or a date with Helen of Troy, and only to be dragged to hell at the last. Faust was also a familiar figure in puppet theaters at these fairs, presented by wandering players using ancient scripts, with topical interpolations and the most lurid effects at the puppeteers' command. While still in his twenties, Goethe began to write his own Faust, drawn to the story, in part, precisely because it was a favorite among the all-but-unlettered folk. He hoped--like all the romantic writers--to create national art, purified of foreign influences, and in some 60 years of work--Faust was finally completed eight months before he died in 1832--he succeeded. (Part One was already a bestseller in several languages by then.) His poem became, for the Germans, what Shakespeare's plays are to English speakers: the epic text at the head of the culture, at once classic and popular.
Outside of German-speaking lands, though Goethe's poem is universally respected, the best-known version of the Faust story is Gounod's opera, based on Michel Carré's sentimental drama taken from Gerard de Nerval's French translation of Goethe's Part One. Germans often deplore this fact, and denounce Gounod for his treatment of so small a portion of their encyclopedic epic--in Germany, the opera is known as Margarete. But Gounod, who loved Goethe's work, aimed to please the tastes of the Théâtre Lyrique; a philosophic treatise was not their idea of a good show. Like the peasants at the German country fairs, the Parisians--and the rest of the operatic world, evidently--wanted a simple melodrama, with a clear moral and spectacular magic scenes. By 1859 Paris had seen many Faust plays and it was usually either the special effects or the "Gretchen tragedy" that got them mounted. Gounod provided both, though the Carré-Barbier libretto reduced Goethe's insatiably intellectual philosopher to a bookish old coot who wants one last crack at young love.
The legend of the magician who crosses the line of forbidden knowledge is of great antiquity. Its elements strayed through time, from storyteller to storyteller and country to country, long before they came to rest on the head of disreputable Dr. Faust in the early 16th century. Their attraction is plain: What would you ask for, if you could have anything in the world? What would you have to pay for such power? Surely no one can broach the uncanny and not pay dearly for it, and magical knowledge is fraught with spiritual dangers--just as every state claims a monopoly on legal violence, and every religion claims a monopoly on wholesome supernatural access. But such prohibitions only make illicit magic more attractive, and curiosity is, perhaps, the most natural human trait.
The golden age of magic was the Hellenistic era, when the lore of all the peoples conquered by Alexander the Great mingled in the Middle East. From this time come such fables as the sorcerer's apprentice who learns just enough to get into trouble. The world was full of new revelations and mystery religions promising keys to salvation. The magus, at first, was the man (usually) who could compel the supernatural to do his will--in this world and perhaps the next. He knew secret words, had special friends, or servants, awaiting him at the doors of the eternal places.
Christianity's attitude towards extracurricular magery was disapproving from the start: In the Acts of the Apostles, found in the Bible, one Simon Magus attempts to buy the curative powers of the apostles, with predictable results. According to a later version, Simon convinced the Emperor Nero that he could rise from the dead, and even fly--and he could, held aloft by invisible demons, until St. Peter told the demons to drop him.
The saints' lives of antiquity are full of this sort of thing. Cyprian, a lustful magician of Antioch, sent demons to kidnap the pious Justina, but she made the sign of the cross and the demons fled. Cyprian then took the form of a swallow and flew to her yard--but one glance from Justina and he resumed his true form. She had to fetch a ladder to get him down from a tree. Realizing the cross was mightier than his demons, the wizard repented. He and Justina were martyred together and died happily ever after.
Theophilus of Adana, envious of the bishop's steward, submitted to the devil, renounced belief in Christ and the Virgin Mary, and signed a pact in his own blood. Years later, wealthy but fearful, he prayed for pardon; Mary forgave him and got his contract back. This 8th-century tale was one of the first stories of the all-powerful intercession of the Virgin, a theme that took Christendom by storm and that Goethe made use of in the final scene of his Faust. From such stories the first Faust legends derived their traditions of what a magus was expected to know, but by that time penitent saints and the Virgin Mary had lost their traditional authority, and Faust had to be damned to suit theological fashion.
During the Reformation, when all Europe was convulsed and all traditional beliefs were in question, there lived a certain Georg or Johannes Faust, his origin and circumstances as obscure as the nature of his talents. The few "facts" that can be gleaned from accounts by those who met or heard of him suggest that he was more a conscious fraud than a self-deluded mystic. He lied, he cheated, he debauched, he cast fraudulent horoscopes, he pretended to learning he did not possess, and he played magical tricks (and stupid practical jokes) on anyone who thwarted or challenged him--which is easy to do, if the victim believes you have such powers. He was said to have cleansed cities of the plague (suspicious behavior right there) and served fruits and flowers at parties in mid-winter. An enemy called him a "necromancer (that is, someone who can call up dead spirits and question or employ them), astrologer, magus, palmist, and a diviner with earth, fire and water." Astrology, palmistry, and divination are all methods of seeing the future--a sort of supernatural insider trading--and this was construed as an insult to God, who lets history unfold in his own good time.
Soon after the actual Dr. Faust disappears from the record, about 1540, edifying horror tales began to circulate, according to which he had bargained with devils for his powers, and was carried off by them after a certain number of years--usually 24, the equivalent of the number of hours in a day, implying the brevity of the devil's offer in contrast to an eternity of service in Hell. The tales lost nothing with retelling: Faust had cast magical circles and spoken forbidden names, had dispatched devils for treasures and pretty girls, had traveled the world on borrowed eagle's wings, had made use of demons to discover the nature of the universe (how else could anyone learn such things?), had demanded the right to visit and observe Hell--always described in salacious detail. Like Simon Magus he had flown through the air, like Cyprian he had changed his shape, like Theophilus he had signed a bond in blood. The most detailed "Life" of Faust appeared in 1587, and was soon translated into English. Christopher Marlowe pounced on it.
Marlowe's Dr. Faustus resembles such Marlovian egotists as Tamburlaine and Barabbas: he despises humanity, learning, and all limits on his will. He has no problem summoning a devil, or nerving himself to the bond in blood, but nothing the devil can offer is as luscious as the mere power to command it. The material joys of wealth or beauty bore him precisely because they are so easily his. He asks about Hell, and Mephistophilis, a fallen angel, explains that Hell is the world, since he is forbidden to leave it to see God. Faustus wins the world, but has lost the capacity to enjoy it. Even practical jokes, even Helen's charms, do not cheer him up for long.
First printed in 1604, Marlowe's extravagant tragedy appeared in Germany as early as 1608. Troupes of "English comedians" roamed the land, and Dr. Faustus, one of the few English plays with a German setting, was always in the repertory. The intricacies of English verse might be incomprehensible (they were translated in time), but everyone loved the scenes of Hell and the witches' Sabbath, and, for the educated classes, mythological tourism. It was a lasting trope: When Gounod was working on his Faust in 1858, the Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin down the street was playing a non-musical Faust whose piece de resistance was a visit to the volcanic destruction of Pompeii. All the old plays and puppet shows ended predictably, with Faust, repentant too late, torn to pieces by devils, but the pleasures of his bargain were limited only by the imagination of the scene-painters.
By Goethe's time, with traditional religion in disrepute and a spirit of heroic challenge to authority in the air, Faust underwent a further transformation. The diabolic pact and the rest of the travelogue structure are present because Goethe inherited them and his readers expected them, but there is more wordplay than anything fearsome about it. This existential Faust does not fear Hell--as a man of the Enlightenment, he sees such punishments as unworthy of the creative deity, and therefore does not believe in it--and creation no longer disgusts him. On the contrary, it is dry erudition that drives him to the deal, and life in all its complexity, all its possibility, that he demands. He agrees to forfeit his soul only if Mephistopheles can conjure an experience so wonderful that he won't want to rush on to something else--which would be easily achieved for most of us. But Goethe's Faust is the spirit of human curiosity personified--and his curiosity, because it is essential to him, and to the human condition, is ultimately forgiven. Indeed, at the last, the maternal principle that he has offended with his discontent becomes his advocate.
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