Not to include Goethe’s Faust in a library of the Occult is unthinkable. As a conception of the relation between the physical and the spiritual it stands out as prominently as its author’s acknowledged place as one of the world’s literary giants.
Goethe was born in Frankfurt in 1749 and died in 1832. During that long life-span of 82 years his activities were stupendous: not only as a writer but as a statesman, theatrical producer, educationalist and philosopher: his writings on science alone fill 14 volumes. Yet during the greater part of those many years, right up to the last of them, his mind was subconsciously occupied with the legend of Faust. Again and again after brief intervals he returned to the subject to rewrite a passage or add a subtle line.
I have referred to the ‘legend’ but the word is not strictly appropriate since Dr. Johann Faustus was an actual person born towards the end of the fifteenth century. After his death a legend grew up around him to the effect that having mastered all the learning of his day he was so determined to gain yet more knowledge that to acquire the secrets of the occult for 24 years he sold his soul to the Devil. Among his friends were Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa, both masters of the craft. It is said that, on the morning after the 24 years were up, fragments of Faustus’s skull, his teeth and eyes were found scattered in bloody messes about the room in which he died, and his hideously mangled body outside the house on a dung heap.
A history of Dr. Faustus was published by Johann Spier in Frankfurt in 1587 and a translation of it by P. R. Gent in London in 1592 which included the pact in writing that Faust is supposed to have made with the Devil. Then, Christopher Marlowe, having already achieved great success while still in his middle twenties with his first play, Tamburlain the Great, about 1604, added to his fame by producing his Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.
Charles Lamb, and many other discerning people, preferred Marlowe’s less involved version of the story to that of Goethe, which did not appear until nearly 200 years later. But high brows give the palm to that of the German genius and world-wide acceptance as a great classic has long been due to its association with his name, together with the Opera based on the play, with music by Gounod, produced in Paris on March 19th 1859.
Goethe was a precocious child and before he reached his teens he was acquainted with German, Latin, Greek, Italian, English and Hebrew. He studied at the Universities of both Leipzig and Strasbourg.
He had a great admiration for the works of Shakespeare, and it may be this that led him to cause Mephistopheles to talk, at times, like a buffoon; making similar quips to those in Shakespeare’s comedies that were apparently inserted as a sop to the Elizabethans’ sense of humour. The literary egg-heads declare that had Goethe’s Faust been written by him in ancient Greek, so perfectly had he captured the spirit that, had it been dug up in some Mediterranean ruin it would have been declared to be an unknown master of the classic period. However, if we are going into Greek playwriting, give me a good translation of Aristophanes every time, for his wit is of the type that makes us laugh today.
Goethe first achieved fame in 1774 by the publication of his The Sorrows of Young Werther, a name that he also used for the servant-companion of Faust. The novel brought him a host of admirers, including Karl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar, who invited him to his Court. The author was then 25. He accepted the invitation and a great friendship sprung up between him and the Duke. Karl August then did, for those days, an unheard of thing. He made the poet a Privy Councillor. But Goethe’s many-sided genius certainly justified the measure and he remained at Weimar for the greater part of his life.
Another of his admirers was the Emperor Napoleon who, at the Conference of Erfürt in 1808, bestowed upon him the Legion d’Honneur. Six years later when, almost insane with hatred for the French, the Germans regained their freedom and drove their persecutors back over the Rhine, Goethe was bitterly reviled for ever having accepted the decoration. But this trifling political blunder detracts nothing from the greatness of his writings, and to appreciate Faust to the full every line of it should be read and considered with care.