Faustian Ambition

AnoukAnge’s post on ambition, which included a range of quotations on the subject, inspired me to think that I might be able to write an interesting essay on the topic of ambition in Goethe’s Faust. This post is a stab at such an essay. Although this may seem like a strange thing to spend time blogging about at the moment, given all the political news and events, I believe this topic is in fact highly relevant to current affairs.

The word “Faustian” is frequently used in books, articles, blog posts, etc on all sorts of topics. I think the image that most people have of Faust is of a man who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for dangerous knowledge: sort of a mad-scientist type. This may be true of earlier versions of the Faust legend, but I think it’s a misreading (or more likely a non-reading) of Goethe’s definitive version.

Faust, at the time when the devil first appears to him, has devoted his entire life to the pursuit of knowledge–in many different scholarly disciplines–and is totally frustrated and in despair about the whole thing. It is precisely the desire to do something other than to pursue abstract knowledge that leads him to engage in his fateful bargain with Mephistopheles.

If it’s not the pursuit of abstract knowledge, then what ambition drives Faust to sell his soul? C S Lewis suggests that his motivations are entirely practical: he wants “gold and guns and girls.” This is partly true, but is by no means the whole story.

Certainly, Faust does like girls. Very early in the play, he encounters a young woman who strikes his fancy:

FAUST: My fair young lady, may I make free
To offer you my arm and company?
GRETCHEN: I’m neither fair nor lady, pray
Can unescorted find my way
FAUST: God, what a lovely child! I swear
I’ve never seen the like of her
She is so dutiful and pure
Yet not without a pert allure
Her rosy lip, her cheek aglow
I never shall forget, I know
Her glance’s timid downward dart
Is graven deeply in my heart!
But how she was so short with me–
That was consummate ecstasy!

Immediately following this meeting, Faust demands Mephisto’s magical assistance in the seduction of Gretchen. It’s noteworthy that he insists on this help despite the facts that (a)he brags to the devil that he is perfectly capable of seducing a girl like Gretchen on his own, without any diabolical assistance, and (b)a big part of Gretchen’s appeal is clearly that she seems so difficult to win–a difficulty that will be short-circuited by Mephisto’s help.

Mephisto, of course, complies with Faust’s demand…this devil honors his contracts…and Faust’s seduction of Gretchen leads directly to the deaths of her mother, her child by Faust, her brother, and to Gretchen’s own execution.

Diabolical magic also allows Faust to meet Helen of Troy (time and space are quite fluid in this play) whom he marries and impregnates, resulting in the birth of their child Euphorion.

So, per Lewis, yes, Faust is definitely motivated by the pursuit of women. But this is only a small part of the complex structure of ambition that Goethe has given his protagonist.

I think critic Marshall Berman gets it right when he refers to Faust as a developer, and to the play as a whole as a tragedy of development. Berman uses the words developer/development in two related ways:

a)Self-development, as that phrase might be used in a modern self-help book:

What this Faust wants for himself is a dynamic process that will include every mode of human experience, joy and misery alike, and that will assimilate them all into his self’s unending growth; even the self’s destruction will be an integral part of its development.

b)Economic, industrial, and political development

The only way for modern man to transform himself, Faust and we will find out, is by radically transforming the whole physical and social and moral world he lives in…But the great developments he initiates…intellectual, moral, economic, social…turn out to exact great human costs.

As people would put it nowadays, Faust wants to “make a difference.” He wants to “change the world.”

And change the world he does. As a reward for services rendered, the Emperor grants Faust a narrow strip of land on the edge of the sea, which Faust intends to turn into a new and enlightened society by reclaiming land from the sea…along the lines of the way that Holland was created, but in a much more intensive manner. Faust’s land-reclamation project goes forward on a very large scale, and is strictly organized on what we would now call Taylorist principles:

Up, workmen, man for man, arise anew!
Let blithely savor what I boldly drew
Seize spade and shovel, each take up his tool!
Fulfill at once what was marked off by rule
Attendance prompt to orders wise
Achieves the most alluring prize
To bring to fruit the most exalted plans
One mind is ample for a thousand hands

Faust’s great plan, though, is spoiled (as he sees it) by an old couple, Philemon and Baucis, who have lived there from time out of mind. “They have a little cottage on the dunes, a chapel with a little bell, a garden full of linden trees. They offer aid and hospitality to shipwrecked sailors and wanderers. Over the years they have become beloved as the one source of life and joy in this wretched land.”

And they will not sell their property, no matter what they are offered. This infuriates Faust…maybe there are practical reasons why he needs this tiny piece of land, but more likely, he simply cannot stand having the development take shape in any form other than precisely the one he had envisaged. Berman suggests that there is another reason why Faust so badly wants Philemon and Baucis gone: “a collective, impersonal drive that seems to be endemic to modernization: the drive to create a homogeneous environment, a totally modernized space, in which the look and feel of the old world have disappeared without a trace…We are bound to be in sympathy with Faust’s hatred for the closed, repressive, vicious Gothic world where he began—the world that destroyed Gretchen, and she was not the first…Those church bells, of course, are the sound of guilt and doom and all the social and psychic forces that destroyed the girl he loved: who could blame him for wanting to silence that sound forever? Yet church bells were also the sound that, when he was ready to die, called him back to life. There is more of him in those bells, and in that world, than he likes to think.”

Faust directs Mephisto to solve the problem of the old couple…and is horrified when Mephisto accomplishes this by the simple expedient of murdering the pair and burning down their house:

FAUST: So you have turned deaf ears to me
I meant exchange, not robbery
This thoughtless, violent affair
My curse on it, for you to share!

CHORUS: That ancient truth we will recite
Give way to force, for might is right
And would you boldly offer strife?
The risk your house, estate–and life.

What motivates Faust in his development efforts? Despite what Lewis said about “gold, guns, and girls,” it does not seem that his primary motivation is financial–indeed, Berman observes that “Mephisto is constantly pointing out money-making opportunities in Faust’s development schemes; but Faust himself couldn’t care less.” Faust himself speaks idealistically about the human value of his project: this idealism is certainly part of his motivation. He wants to create a new, utopian enviroronment for thousands of people–and if the price of this is the destruction of individuals like Philemon and Baucis, well, at least Faust will feel bad about it.

Berman suggests that the portrayal of Faust was inspired in part from the then-prominent Saint-Simonian movement, which favored very large, government-sponsored development projects–what Saint-Simon called “the organizer,” Berman has chosen to call “the developer.” He defines the “Faustian model of development” as follows:

Instead of letting entrepreneurs and workers waste themselves in piecemeal and fragmentary and competitive activities, it will strive to integrate them all. It will create a historically new synthesis of private and public power, symbolized by the union of Mephistopheles, the private freebooter and predator who executes much of the dirty work, and Faust, the public planner who conceives and directs the work as a whole. It will open up an exciting and ambiguous world-historical role for the modern intellectual…

When Faust dies, Mephisto seems justified in assuming that Faust’s soul is his for the taking, and indeed the hell-mouth gate opens and squads of devils appear. But divine intervention thwarts the diabolical intent, and Faust is introduced into heaven by a penitent angel, formerly known as Gretchen…and the play ends with these lines from the Chorus Mysticus:

All that is changeable
Is but reflected
The unattainable
Here is effected
Human discernment
Here is passed by
The Eternal-Feminine
Draws us on high

Faust’s ambition did a great deal of harm on earth, particularly through his impatience and his insistence on utopian perfection: however, Goethe seems to be telling us that there were many noble aspects of his ambition and that these aspects, when combined with Gretchen’s love, were sufficient to merit Faust’s ultimate salvation.

It’s also interesting to look at ambition as manifested in other characters of the drama. Mephistopholes has a form of ambition which is entirely negative, even nihilistic. In her brilliant 1814 review of the first part of the play, Germaine de Stael remarks that Mephisto “criticizes the universe like a bad book of which the devil has made himself the censor…Milton has drawn his Satan larger than man; Michael Angelo and Dante have given him the hideous figure of the brute combined with the human shape. The Mephistopheles of Goethe is a civilized devil. He handles with dexterity that ridicule, so trifling in appearance, which is nevertheless often found to consist with a profundity of malice…”

As one might expect of a devil, Mephisto’s ambition is only to destroy…but he wants to do so in a rather debonair manner. C S Lewis thought Goethe’s characterization of his devil was positively harmful: “But the really pernicious image is Goethe’s Mephistopheles. It is Faust, not he, who really exhibits the ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self which is the mark of hell. The humorous, civilized, sensible, adaptable Mephistopheles has helped to strengthen the illusion that evil is liberating.”

What about Gretchen? One might simplistically read her character as simply representing innocence and purity, but Goethe is far too great a denker und dichter to have created her so shallowly. Gretchen certainly has ambitions of her own, albeit of a very different nature from those of Faust or Mephistopheles. For one thing, she is ambitious for money and possessions, understandably given her poverty. Here’s Gretchen looking through a box of expensive jewelry provided to her by the dark arts:

Were these fine ear-bobs mine alone!
They give on quite another air
What use are simple looks and youth?
Oh, they are well and good in truth
That’s all folk mean, though–pretty fair
The praise you get is half good natured fuss
For gold contend
On gold depend
All things and men…Poor us!

I’d also suggest that Gretchen demonstrates another kind of ambition–a hunger for social acceptance–which has resulted in acts of callous cruelty on her part. After realizing that she is pregnant, Gretchen is talking with her awful friend Lieschen, who (still unaware of Gretchen’s situation) is licking her chops about the prospect of humiliating another girl (Barbara) who has also become pregnant outside of marriage. Here’s Gretchen, reflecting on her own past complicity in such viciousness:

How readily I used to blame
Some poor young soul that came to shame!
Never found sharp enough words like pins
To stick into other people’s sins
Black as it seemed, I tarred it to boot
And never black enough to suit
Would cross myself, exclaim and preen–
Now I myself am bared to sin!
Yet all of it that drove me here
God! ws so innocent, was so dear!

Gretchen is clearly not herself a cruel person: it is her ambition for acceptance by friends like Lieschen (in the “closed, repressive, vicious Gothic world” of which Berman wrote) that has led her to unthinkingly fall in with their cruelties.

There’s surely much more to be said about ambition in Faust, but I think I’ll stop here for the moment. The subject of Faustian ambition is surely one which is highly relevant to many of the most important issues of our time. (Goethe, writing in 1832, said: “The world today is ruled by bewildering wrong counsel, urging bewildered wrong action.”)

I certainly don’t represent myself as any kind of Faust expert, and have indeed read the work only in English, albeit in two different translations. The quotes above are taken from Walter Arndt’s translation.


Correction: Fixed the “bewildering wrong counsel” quote.

20 thoughts on “Faustian Ambition”

  1. I’ve read this twice, and plan to come back again tomorrow. Thank you David. You’ve linked abstract ideas so well here…and so clearly! When I began to look into literature, art, music, politics, etc., I began to realize it was psychology I should concern myself with first. Then sociology, to place the individual in society. It all begins with human nature regardless of time period. Yet, time period can be so relevant in the explanation of it all for any human. Hmmmm….

  2. JosephS…Walter Kaufman’s translation is nice; also, he has German and English versions on facing pages, which is nice if you have a little German but not enough to undertake the whole thing. His version leaves out the classical/Helen of Troy sequence, which I think is generally considered the most difficult part of the work.

  3. Fun Faust Fact: Charles Simonyi, on his second flight to the International Space Station, took along a copy of Faust which he left there as the first book for the station library. He also created a nifty mission patch based on Goethe’s “Eternal Feminine” theme.

  4. When I was in Salzberg 25 years ago, I had a drink in the bar in the monastery that was supposed to play a role in Faust. I’ve also seen a really terrible production of Marlowe’s play, “A Tragical History of Doctor Faustus,” which turned out to be a gay production complete with a pornographic version of the Helen of Troy story. Ugh !

  5. Michael Kennedy-
    It is a plague of our time that producers of staged work feel they have to be original and in the process show themselves to be clueless slobs.

  6. The part where Faust ambition manifests in developing the land, transforming it with the goal of better organization, order, controlled environment sounds very much like mentality and often a job description of a modern architect.

    A few days ago *corbusier @Architecture and Morality posted a great essay on the subject of attractiveness of crisis for architects’ mental outlook.
    An excerpt:

    In this modern outlook, both age-old human problems and new problems resulting from the changes brought about by the industrial revolution were now neatly packaged under the term crisis. What was once the natural cycle of life, death, plagues and famines were now crises of public health, sanitation and unacceptable squalor. As the fecundity of the human population rose with ever greater production of food and improved medicine, there were crises of overpopulation, resource depletion, traffic congestion and pollution. Then later, when the masses were more prosperous than ever before, new crises were made out of more aesthetic and spiritual issues such as a low quality of life, poor education and more recently environmental damage. Labeling the existence of certain complex problems as a crisis instantly lends a sense of urgency and seem to imply that only grand (and preferably state driven) solutions will work. Those that operate with the crisis mentality attribute problems that afflict mankind to a lack of a rationally-inspired design. Architects of the modern era were naturally quite keen on this.

    The timing of the beginning of “modern outlook” *corbusier places at the beginning of industrial revolution, i.e. end of the 18th century – corresponding with Goethe’s lifetime, with Saint-Simon and other early socialists’ utopia. (Aside – there was an earlier one, Thommaso Campanella’s “Sun’s State”, created during those Gothic times so despised by Faust, although in a much milder climate of Italy – but I digress). There is another interesting parallel with Faust – a notion of nihilism, of “clearing the space”, sweeping the environment clean from residue of previous centuries inherent in modernist architectural thought; it was present even in the end of 18th century, intensified along with technical innovation, culminated in grandiose visions of futurists and early modernists of 20th century. I recall relevant lines from Manifesto of Russian Futurists, 1917: “Let’s kick Pushkin from the ship of Modernity!…From the heights of skyscrapers we gaze at their insignificance!”

    However, just as Goethe, I(and I think *corbusier, too) think not all of it is bad; the initial, underlying impulse, the ambition to improve life, to design, to create, to transform for greater comfort, beauty and convenience can only be applauded. But it is so easy to go to extreme of getting drunk on that power…

  7. When the writer of the post says that Goethe’s is the “definitive version” what he means is that is the version which he accepts, and thatversion, a Christina one, is the last of a few earlier ones. One does not have to be named Faust in order to make a Faustian deal, as in Dorian Grey, who sold his soul for eternal life, only to discover that not dying, remaining young, was not all he had imaginedit might be.

  8. “thatversion, a Christina one”…you must be referring to the version Goethe wrote in honor of his girlfriend Christina.

    (And he probably had one, given that his pursuit of the Eternal Feminine also included the best earthly approximations to same)

  9. Between you and anouk, I’ve thinking more about ambition of late! Usually I think of ambition in terms of something I aspire to. But when you referenced the word “drive” my thoughts shifted. Drive to attain things we both want and think we are able to attain — applying this to relationships is a new angle for me. Very interesting. I really enjoyed this essay.

  10. In quoting Faust’s speech about his land-reclamation project:

    To bring to fruit the most exalted plans
    One mind is ample for a thousand hands

    …I referred to his approach as a form of Taylorism, and so it is. It strikes me that the present extreme influence on educational credentials, especially in government leaders, is also a form of Taylorism, though I’ve never heard it referred to as such. “One mind is ample for a thousand hands” certainly captures the attitude of Obama/Pelosi/Reid on just about *any* policy matter.

    Although the industrial managers who first applied Taylorism were themselves subject to tight accountability, in the form of profit & loss statements, production quotas, etc. Our current generation of polical Taylorists have no such personal accountability.

  11. Thank you, this was interesting. And taught me much – including that I should read some Goethe to understand his contemporaries.

    The ambition of the “fortunate fall” is hinted at by American works influenced by German romanticism. Judith Sargent Murray, in defending Eve, notes that her ambition was noble; she wanted to gain knowledge, a laudable goal. The nineteenth century is obsessed with becoming “conscious” – of good and evil, of the alienation from others, the autonomy, the ambition of our separate selves. You can’t truly choose good if you are unaware you have a choice. But, of course, this desire comes from pride and ambition – and like much that encourages our will, it tempts & snares.

    My theological friend tells me the “fortunate fall” has a different meaning, so I may be using the wrong term. My memories are vague. Still, this concept is hinted at in Hawthorne and Melville. Of course, Emerson (in wonderful & empowering prose) seems to argue that your will is your way and fulfilling an ambition is being true to yourself. He, too, is influenced by the Germans and we have come to see in that approach a wrecklessness; in that will, oblivious of the real world and its constraints, lies the policies of Stalin, the arguments of Ehrlich. And of course, we are the real world upon which & with which they intend to build theirs.

  12. I referred to the “present extreme influence on educational credentials”…meant to say either “present extreme *emphasis* on credentials” or “present extreme *influence of* credentials*, but combined them in a way that didn’t make much sense.

    I should probably explain Taylorism, for those not familiar with the term: refers to the world of enormously influential “efficiency expert” Frederick Winslow Taylor, who was active in the early 20th century. His basic approach was (a)the scientific analysis of work and (b)the separation of *thinking and planning* from *doing*.

    Ginny…”we have come to see in that approach a wrecklessness”..wonderful typo! The “recklessness” turned out to be far from “wreckless”

  13. Stupidity, not a typo, but the generousity of Foster is nice.
    And thanks for the definition of “Taylorism” – I always thought it was just efficiency. Of course, mindless work has a kind of zen quality but it surely diminishes later improvements in efficiency by eliminating the most primary source, doesn’t it? Just as we may rightfully fear that innovations in medical care are likey to die, stunted, as responsibility is bureaucratized.

  14. Ginny…”(mindless work) surely diminishes later improvements in efficiency by eliminating the most primary source, doesn’t it?”

    Good insight. This is a point that our manufacturing friends at Evolving Excellence frequently make: if your production work is being done by robots or by roboticized people, then you’re not going to get the benefit of a lot of suggestions for improvement.

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