[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1808)
Easton Press, Connecticut, 1980, Collector’s Edition; fully bound in burgundy leather, with gold embossing and gold leaf and satin end-papers with gold silk sash; lithographs by Eugene Delacroix.
I am too young to be without desire,
Too old, too old merely to play.
It is healthy to suggest that people get punished if they get ideas above their station. The greatest pests in history, from Caesar to Napoleon, were those who had to learn the lesson the hard way. So did Adam and Eve. So did Icarus. The Greeks said that hubris would be met by nemesis. In each case, people are trying to rise above the limits of their own humanity, and in each case the supernatural is involved. Even in the tragedy of ambition of our greatest author, Macbeth, the fatal aspiration is planted by witches.
The German myth of Faust starts with a wager between God and the Devil (Mephistopheles). (The great Indian epic Mahabharata starts with a dice game that was loaded.) Mephistopheles bets that he can lead Doctor Faust astray. Faust has climbed every intellectual mountain and is bored. Mephistopheles offers to lend him all his powers if Faust agrees that if he allows himself to say that he is satisfied he will be at the disposal of Devil. The pact is sealed in blood. The Devil does his part and Faust is able to seduce and ruin Gretchen (or Margarete), but in doing so he enables Mephistopheles to call in the debt. In American terms, that is one hell of a price to pay to get laid.
That is Part I of the verse drama of Goethe. Part II is much longer and more esoteric. Part I shows almost every style of theatre including commedia dell’arte. People in Germany and intellectuals outside Germany put Goethe on the same level as Shakespeare. But that, sadly, is about as far as it goes. Goethe suffers the same fate as Pushkin – they are writers who are revered and adored at home but who somehow lose it in translation. People are familiar with the Faust of Gounod, and the Boris Godunov of Mussorgsky, but very few outside Germany or Russia have seen the original.
Two passages will show the problem. This is Mephistopheles:
I am not of the very great
But if you’ll take me as a mate
And go your way through life with me,
I shall willingly agree to be yours on the spot.
I’ll be your comrade to the grave
And if I suit –
I’ll be your servant, be your slave.
This is Gretchen:
I stand before him blushing red
And just say ‘Yes’ to all he’s said.
What a child I am! I cannot see
What he ever finds in me!
In English, that is bad poetry and worse theatre. Compare these passages from the Doctor Faustus of Christopher Marlowe.
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
Oh, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appeared to hapless Semele:
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms;
And none but thou shall be my paramour!
This Faustus does not go to the flames like Don Giovanni:
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The Devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.
O, I’ll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?
See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul – half a drop: ah, my Christ!
Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ!
Yet will I call on him. O spare me, Lucifer!-
Why then is this book there? Apart from courtesy to the Germans, there are three things. This is a very handsome volume that it is a pleasure to hold and read. The story has a resolutive charm, even if it is the diametric opposite of the resurrection story. Finally, about 25 years ago, I saw a production of Part I by the Melbourne Theatre Company directed by Barry Kosky and starring Barry Otto. It was long but it held the attention of my two quite young daughters. At the start, the lights were completely killed; two spotlights shot along each of the three aisles, gorillas galloped up and down the aisles to ultra-loud music; they were stopped by a burst of even louder machine-gun fire; the spots went out and down came a single spot on a gorilla out of which emerged Barry Otto as Faust. It was like 2001, but by a factor of ten, and it never relented or looked back. It takes balls, but Faust can be riveting on the stage.