Faustian Ambition (updated)

A post on ambition at another blog (in 2010) , 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.

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.

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Applying the Turing Test to ChatGPT…Using Turing’s Own Example

Alan Turing proposed a simple test for determining whether or not a computer system possesses human-level intelligence: let people communicate with it, via a terminal, and then ask them if they have been talking to a human or an automatic system.   I’ve seen several people asserting that ChatGPT and similar systems have already passed the Turing test, but haven’t encountered anyone who tried it with Turing’s own interesting and subtle example of what such a conversation might be like..  So I decided to do it myself.

Here’s Turing’s example:

Interrogator: In the first line of your sonnet which reads “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” would not “a spring day” do as well or better?

Witness: It wouldn’t scan.

Interrogator: How about “a winter’s day,” That would scan all right.

Witness: Yes, but nobody wants to be compared to a winter’s day.

Interrogator: Would you say Mr. Pickwick reminded you of Christmas?

Witness: In a way.

Interrogator: Yet Christmas is a winter’s day, and I do not think Mr. Pickwick would mind the comparison.

Witness: I don’t think you’re serious. By a winter’s day one means a typical winter’s day, rather than a special one like Christmas.

Now let’s see how ChatGPT responds to the same question:

Me:  In the first line of the sonnet which reads “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” would not “a spring day” do as well or better?

ChatGPT:  The choice of “a summer’s day” in the first line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18  is significant and deliberate, and replacing it with “a spring day” would not have the same effect.

Summer days are typically associated with warmth, beauty, and abundance, while spring days are associated with new growth and freshness. By choosing “a summer’s day,” Shakespeare is setting up a comparison to something that is at the height of its beauty and vitality. The use of “summer” also suggests a sense of fleetingness and impermanence, as summer is a season that passes quickly and is often associated with the idea of youth and the passing of time.

Furthermore, the choice of “summer” creates a contrast with the rest of the sonnet, which goes on to argue that the object of the speaker’s affection will not fade or wither like a summer’s day, but will instead be preserved forever in the lines of the poem. The contrast between the fleeting nature of summer and the eternal nature of the poem’s subject is a central theme of the sonnet.

In short, while “a spring day” could be used in a similar comparison, the use of “a summer’s day” in the opening line of Sonnet 18 is a deliberate choice that sets up important themes and contrasts that are developed throughout the rest of the poem.

Me: Is there also a strictly poetic reason why “a spring day” wouldn’t work as well?

ChatGPT:  Yes, there are poetic reasons why “a spring day” would not work as well as “a summer’s day” in the opening line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18.

One reason is that “a spring day” does not have the same cultural resonance as “a summer’s day.” In Shakespeare’s time, summer was a time of festivals, celebrations, and outdoor activities, and was often associated with love and romance. “A summer’s day” would have been a more powerful image for Shakespeare’s audience than “a spring day,” which was not as strongly associated with these things.

Another reason is that “a spring day” does not have the same connotations of beauty, fullness, and richness that “a summer’s day” does. Spring is a time of growth and renewal, but it is also a time of uncertainty and change, when the weather can be unpredictable and the landscape is often barren. “A spring day” would not have the same sense of completeness or fullness that “a summer’s day” has, and would not evoke the same feelings of joy and contentment.

In short, while “a spring day” could work as a comparison, it does not have the same cultural resonance or poetic power as “a summer’s day,” and would not create the same impact for the reader.

Me:  How about number of syllables?

ChatGPT:  The number of syllables in the phrase “a spring day” is the same as in the phrase “a summer’s day,” so syllable count is not a factor that would make one phrase more suitable than the other.

Both phrases consist of four syllables and follow a pattern of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, known as an iambic foot. This pattern is common in English poetry and is used throughout Shakespeare’s sonnets.

So in terms of syllable count, both “a spring day” and “a summer’s day” would be equally suitable for use in the opening line of a sonnet. However, as I mentioned earlier, there are other poetic and cultural reasons why “a summer’s day” was a better choice for the opening line of Sonnet 18 than 

Me:  How do you get four syllables in “a spring day”?
ChatGPT:  I apologize for my mistake earlier. “A spring day” actually has three syllables, not four. I made an error in counting the number of syllables in that phrase.

To clarify, “a spring day” has the following syllable stress pattern: one unstressed syllable followed by two stressed syllables (a spring day). This is known as an anapestic foot.

Again, I apologize for my earlier mistake and any confusion it may have caused.

Me:  How about “a winter’s day” how would that do?
ChatGPT:  “A winter’s day” could also work as a comparison in a sonnet, and has been used in other poems and literary works. However, it would have a different set of connotations and associations compared to “a summer’s day.”

Winter is often associated with cold, darkness, and death, while summer is associated with warmth, light, and life. Choosing “a winter’s day” as a comparison in a poem would create a different mood and tone compared to “a summer’s day.” “A winter’s day” could be used to suggest a sense of bleakness or despair, while “a summer’s day” suggests vibrancy and abundance.

In addition, “a winter’s day” would not have the same cultural resonance and associations as “a summer’s day.” In Shakespeare’s time, winter was often a time of hardship and struggle, and was not as strongly associated with love and romance as summer was. The phrase “a winter’s day” would not have the same power and impact on Shakespeare’s audience as “a summer’s day.”

So while “a winter’s day” could be used in a similar comparison, it would create a different mood and tone and would not have the same cultural resonance and associations as “a summer’s day.”

Me:  But Christmas is a winter’s day, and most people in Shakespeare’s time liked Christmas?
It is true that Christmas is a winter’s day, and it was an important holiday in Shakespeare’s time. However, it is important to note that Christmas was celebrated differently in Shakespeare’s time than it is today, and was not universally beloved.

During the early modern period, Christmas was a time of feasting, drinking, and revelry, but it was also a time of social upheaval and conflict. In some parts of England, Christmas celebrations were seen as disruptive and even subversive, and there were periodic attempts by authorities to suppress or regulate them.

Additionally, while “a winter’s day” may be associated with Christmas for some people, it is not necessarily the primary or most prominent association. As I mentioned earlier, winter is often associated with cold, darkness, and death, and these associations would also be evoked by the phrase “a winter’s day.”

So while “a winter’s day” could be used as a comparison in a poem, it would create a different mood and tone compared to “a summer’s day,” and would not necessarily have the same cultural resonance and associations as Christmas.

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From the hag and hungry goblin
That into rags would rend ye
And the spirits that stand
By the naked man
In the Book of Moons, defend ye!

That of your five sound sense
You never be forsaken
Nor wander from
Yourself with Tom
Abroad to beg your bacon

The moon’s my constant mistress
And the lonely owl my marrow
The flaming drake
And the night-crow make
Me music to my sorrow

I know more than Apollo
For oft, when he lies sleeping
I see the stars
At mortal wars
And the rounded welkin weeping

With a host of furious fancies
Whereof I am commander
With a burning spear
And a horse of air
To the wilderness I wander

By a knight of ghosts and shadows
I summoned am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond
The wide world’s end
Methinks it is no journey

(Not specifically a Halloween poem, but it certainly sets the mood, doesn’t it? This is Tom O’Bedlam’s Song, dating from sometime around 1600. There are lots more verses, and many different versions.)

“Americans, who are you?”

I left the following comment at zenpundit :

Kabir says,

“I don’t touch ink or paper
This hand never grasped a pen
The greatness of four ages
Kabir tells with his mouth alone”

Tom Tom Club (Wordy Rappinghood) says,

“Words in paper, words in books
Words on TV, words for crooks
Words of comfort, words of peace
Words to make the fighting cease”

And Asia Times writes,

The channel broadcasts in Pashto language from 12 pm to 3 pm in the afternoon and 6 pm to 8 pm in the evening. The programs include jihadi taranay (jihadi motivational songs….

And drones the size of bees, some day

And mobiles crossing the Kush; they play

Tribal songs for jihadi alms, a call-to-arms

On 11/11 our cell phones say:

And Americans can talk endlessly about the importance of democracy, but they never thought to explain to the chiefs why they came back to Afghanistan. They arrived with suitcases full of cash to buy help – but they never told the chiefs that they were there because the way al Qaeda attacked the US on 9/11 meant that many Americans couldn’t find so much as a fingernail of their massacred relatives to bury because the bodies were ground to dust.
Not to be able to bury one’s dead or even a piece of one’s dead — knowing THAT would have meant a great deal to the chiefs and those in their tribes. But the Americans never explained, never even cried, never showed emotion. THEY NEVER ACTED HUMAN; they never interacted with the Afghans in ways that are the same for all — not only all humans but all mammalian creatures. In other words, they displayed not a whit of common sense.
What do you talk about when you first sit down with a man whose life has been circumscribed by war and who knows nothing about you and your tribe? The answer is you tell me of your battles, I’ll tell you of mine and in this way we establish a commonality of experience.
You transform the rug or patch of sand you’re sitting on into the terrain of the battle, and you use sticks and stones or teacups as place markers for the troops to show how the battle was fought. In this way, you demonstrate that the battle is truly in your heart, that it means enough to you that you can bring it alive for another.
If you don’t show what’s in your heart, then you haven’t established a basis for developing a mutual understanding, so then there is no way to move off the dime. Only when you’ve demonstrated by your stories of war that your tribe also shed much blood for independence, can you move on to explaining stuff about government. You can explain that you were losing too many of your sons in battle so you devised a type of government that would help defend your freedoms and with less bloodshed. And so on.

Pundita, “Americans, who are you?

Contra Pundita, I bet this has been done sporadically between some who are working together as NATO attempts to build an Afghan Army – one able to protect its borders and serve as an irritant to transnational groups in the region. Many stories have yet to be told….

I don’t usually read poetry but….

One hundred years after her birth in Worcester, Mass., in 1911, Elizabeth Bishop stands as the most highly regarded American poet of the second-half of the 20th century. She is admired in every critical camp—from feminists to formalists—who agree on little else. Her work also attracts a wide general readership. Taught and studied in high schools and universities, Bishop is, for the time being at least, the most popular woman poet in American literature after Emily Dickinson.

Wall Street Journal (via Arts and Letters Daily)

Filling Station

Oh, but it is dirty!
–this little filling station,
oil-soaked, oil-permeated
to a disturbing, over-all
black translucency.
Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it’s a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
impregnated wickerwork;
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.

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