Sunday, March 16, 2014

Fortnightly Book, March 16

The fortnightly book this time around is Goethe's Faust, in a translation by Alice Raphael. Faust seems to have been a lifelong project of Goethe's. The earliest development of it (that we know of) is what is usually know as the Urfaust; it was a version of the basic Faust story that Goethe wrote in his twenties; it was never published and only rediscovered long afterward. The world was first introduced to Faust as Goethe conceived him in Faust: A Fragment, published in 1790. In 1808 we get the first full version of Faust: The First Part of the Tragedy. Goethe reworked it, however, finishing this project somewhere around 1828, and then went on to write the second part, which he finished very shortly before his death. The full work was only published posthumously; and, indeed, it is still the case today that when people talk about Goethe's Faust, they usually mean Part One; this is the only portion I have.

Faust is repeatedly characterized by Goethe as a tragedy. While it would be impossible to expect the multi-faceted Goethe to follow slavishly any neo-Aristotelian canons, he almost certainly understands this term as Aristotelian, although under his own interpretation. Goethe knew Aristotle's Poetics, corresponded with Schiller on it in 1797, translated the work into German, and wrote a commentary on it. Like Aristotle, Goethe sees catharsis as an important element of tragedy; but the role of the passions of fear and pity is secondary on his interpretation of the idea: catharsis is primarily for him a reconciling climax in the play itself that resolves the period of fear and pity leading up to it, and, so to speak, re-balances the imbalances created by these passions. We do have to be careful, since 'tragedy' for Goethe is a word covering all serious drama, but the structure of serious drama as Goethe understands it is very certainly a (broadly) Aristotelian structure.

Schiller and he collaborated on an essay on epic and dramatic poetry that takes its start from the Poetics -- both Goethe and Schiller liked Aristotle's account of tragedy and agreed that the most serious gap in Aristotle's account as we have it is the lack of his full theory of epic. In their essay, they note that epic and tragedy have much in common, including the need for a subject that is human, significant, and emotional, and characterize the difference between the two by saying that epic deals with limited human activity, while tragedy deals with limited human suffering. The thrust of an epic is outward: battles, journeys, and the like. The thrust of a tragedy is inward.

It is, no doubt, the inward tendency of the drama that attracted Alice Raphael to it. Raphael was a famous student of Carl Jung, and lectured and wrote extensively about Goethe's Faust from the perspective of Jungian psychology.

I will be reading the work in a Heritage Press (New York) edition from 1959. It is illustrated with lithographic copies of lithographs by Eugène Delacroix. The significance of this might perhaps be gleaned from the fact that Delacroix gets equal billing on the front cover with Goethe. Delacroix illustrated the work in 1828, and Goethe was very enthusiastic about the illustrations, which he said sometimes surpassed his own conception of the scenes. And people have generally followed Goethe's assessment, taking Delacroix's illustrations of the work to be one of the high-water marks of book illustration as an art. You can see some of them at WikiPaintings (scroll down and click 'lithography').

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