From the sphere of religion we are transported to that of superstition. With Gretchen’s swoon the poem moves into another world where human values are inverted and satanic degradation reigns supreme. If Mephistopheles has hitherto lived in Faust’s environment, Faust is here taken into his. He has already reached so debased a moral level as seducer, murderer and deserter that it is now only necessary, his tempter doubtless believes, to envelop him in triviality and lewdness in order to break his titanic personality. It is in Mephistopheles’ interest to cause him to forget Gretchen entirely and to counteract any lingering remorse that he might feel both for his desertion of her and for his murder of Valentin. If Faust had once left Gretchen (when he fled to be in communion with nature) from motives of his own, he is now shown as having left her at Mephistopheles’ instance.
The Walpurgisnacht scene is the climax of a long series of diabolical
distractions designed to complete Faust’s ruin, not one, as some assume,
that was conveniently due to occur two days after Valentin’s murder and
a prelude to subsequent ones which necessarily would have to be of a less
thoroughgoing nature. It can logically only be the last of a series, the
culminating event in which Evil itself is to be bestially enthroned and
to hold its obscene court, Mephistopheles’ final move in the campaign of
sensual degradation which he had started in ‘Auerbachs Keller’ and developed
in the Hexenküche. The temptation fails when Faust sees a vision
of Gretchen. After that his mood is changed; the apotheosis of satanism
that was prepared could have made no appeal to him even had he witnessed
it. There was no need to proceed further with the scene, as future temptations
would be vain. All that was necessary was to return Faust, the poem and
the spectator to the actuality that had been so abruptly discarded. Goethe
did not advance to the enthronement of Evil, of which he left a plan, not
because of any artistic insufficiency on his part, but because the occasion
no longer demanded it. Gretchen’s vision took Faust prisoner, as the seductive
mirror image in the Hexenküche had done on an earlier occasion.
Having thus failed to destroy Faust by sensual means, Mephistopheles must henceforth have recourse to other methods when he moves to the ‘greater world’ of the Emperor’s Court.
Faust’s first reaction on ascending the Brocken is to remark upon the
refreshing influence of nature in springtime. He is in good humour. He
does not require a broomstick to convey him upwards; his own feet and a
stout staff are enough. He delights in the climb among the labyrinthine
valleys and cliffs and will hear of no device to shorten the ascent:
|Solang ich mich noch frisch auf meinen Beinen fühle,
Genügt mir dieser Knotenstock.
Was hilft’s, daß man den Weg verkürzt! --
Im Labyrinth der Täler hinzuschleichen,
Dann diesen Felsen zu ersteigen,
Von dem der Quell sich ewig sprudelnd stürzt,
Das ist die Lust, die solche Pfade würzt!
Der Frühling webt schon in den Birken,
Und selbst die Fichte fühlt ihn schon;
Sollt’ er nicht auch auf unsre Glieder wirken?
[[ While I feel fresh I like this walking pace,
And then my black-thorn stick is all I need.
What gain have we in shortening our ways?
I love to thread the giant valleys’ maze,
Then climb the fell from whose majestic height
The torrent falls in ceaseless silvery flight:
Thus beauty gives the zest to travelling days.
Already through the birches steals the spring,
And even quivers soft in sombre firs,
Shall not our limbs then feel the quickening? ]]
He is aware of the animation of the whole of nature, hears songs in babbling streams and legends of the past in the echoes of the night, and discerns phantom faces in the rocks and trees around him. There is a note of philosophical curiosity in his attitude to this new world, a desire to gain intellectual satisfaction that is quite out of accord with Mephistopheles’ intentions. The mists and exhalations, the mysterious subterranean glow of precious ores representing Mammon, are viewed by him through the spectacles of a scientific observer who is captivated by the energetic life which he perceives in all natural phenomena. Mephistopheles finds it necessary to keep a watchful eye upon his companion, for he shows signs of taking an independent line and becoming separated from him in the bustling crowd.
It is a mad orgy in which the two find themselves. Will-o’-the-wisps
light the way, an obscene cavalcade of witches and warlocks and demi-witches
fills the air, raucous music, indecent dancing and even a cabaret, are
provided among the sulphurous entertainments of the Brocken. Distractions
are presented on every side. Faust is assailed by dubious company and offered
|Das drängt und stößt, das ruscht und klappert!
Das zischt und quirlt, das zieht und plappert!
Das leuchtet, sprüht und stinkt und brennt!
Ein wahres Hexenelement!
[[ Here’s shoving, bustling, crowding, clattering,
Whizzing and squirming, flitting, chattering,
With singeing spark and stink and speed,
True product of the witches breed! ]]
(Much is lost in translation here, since Goethe used the actual sound of the German words for the effect.)
But he is unwilling to be diverted from his main purpose of reaching
the peak to which all the crazy beings are making their way:
|Doch droben möcht ich lieber sein!
Schon seh’ ich Glut und Wirbelrauch.
Dort strömt die Menge zu dem Bösen;
Da muß sich manches Rätsel Iösen.
[[ Yet on the upland I would rather be,
Where glowing fires begin and whirls of smoke.
The Soul of Evil dominates the folk,
And surely many riddles will be solved. ]]
Mephistopheles intends, even in the sphere of evil, to drag him into
the realm of triviality and keep him from the highest level. He takes him
to a club of old fogies, laudatores temporis acti, whose presence
has the effect that Mephistopheles himself acquires old age in its atmosphere.
For he is a person of many metamorphoses, as we have seen and shall continue
to see; wandering scholar, cavalier, professor, minstrel, court fool, magician,
Phorkyad, strategist, pirate, these are only some of the forms in which
he adapts himself to his environment. A huckster-witch calls Faust’s attention
to her display, daggers that have all dripped blood, goblets that have
all held poison, jewels that have all served to seduce, swords that have
all been used for treacherous attacks, the very wares, indeed, which had
played their part in his own tragic relationship with Gretchen. At the
moment when he declares that he fears that he may lose command of himself:
|Daß ich mich nur nicht selbst vergesse!
Heiß’ ich mir das doch eine Messe!
[[ This, with a vengeance, is a Witches’ Fete.
I fear lest sense and reason abdicate. ]]
A vision of Lilith, the irresistible, lures him to join a witch in an
obscene dance. The professor’s desire to reach the central event of the
sabbath is thus prevented. The dance is proof against an interruption by
a curious being called the Proktophantasmist; it could indeed withstand
Goethe could not resist his desire to satirize those of whom he disapproved by presenting them in disreputable company. The Proktophantasmist is more famous than the nameless old fogies Faust had so far seen; he is Nicolai, the rationalist critic and satirist of Werther, who claimed that visitation by spirits could be prevented by the application of leeches to that part of the anatomy which the Greeks called proktos. The opponent of superstition, he is shown among the very people who, in his view, should have no existence at all, but who none the less go on their way independendy of what he thinks. The poet acts like the mediaeval sculptors who immortalized contemporaries among their grotesques.
At the height of the dance, Faust suddenly breaks away; he is disgusted by a red mouse which emerges from his partner’s lips; then he is haunted by a vision of Gretchen, shackled, with lifeless eyes and a red line, thin as the back of a knife, around her neck:
|Mephisto, siehst du dort
Ein blasses, schönes Kind allein und feme stehen?
Sie schiebt sich langsam nur vom Ort,
Sie scheint mit geschloßnen Füßen zu gehen.
Ich muß bekennen, daß mir deucht,
Daß sie dem guten Gretchen gleicht.
[[ Mephisto, see you where
There stands a girl unfriended, pale and fair?
She slowly turns, and moves with steps of pain,
And, as I live, I think I recognize
My loving Gretchen, there before my eyes. ]]
|Fürwahr es sind die Augen eines Toten,
Die eine liebende Hand nicht schloß.
Das ist die Brust, die Gretchen mir geboten,
Das ist der süße Leib, den ich genoß.
[[ Indeed, indeed, the eyes are of the dead,
Eyes that no hand has closed or comforted.
That bosom Gretchen yielded, lovely, warm,
I took my joy of that dear, gentle form. ]]
|Welch eine Wonne! welch ein Leiden!
Ich kann von diesem Blick nicht scheiden.
Wie sonderbar mulß diesen schönen Hals
Ein einzig rotes Schnürchen schmücken,
Nicht breiter als ein Messerrücken!
[[ What longing love, what ecstasy and woe!
This haunting gaze will never let me go,
And strangely clear, around her lovely throat,
She has a single cord of red,
Thin as a knife-blade is the thread. ]]
The words, unemotional at first, gain in emphasis as Mephistopheles tries to discredit what Faust sees.
The diabolical phantasmagoria has turned out to be of no avail; the spell is broken. Mephistopheles drags his companion to a cabaret that is just about to begin, the Walpurgisnachtstraum. The last of seven performances, we hear, it will, he hopes, deaden any reviving curiosity concerning Gretchen. But the sabbath, as far as Faust is concerned, is finished. Its hoggish shamelessness needs no continuation.
The Dream, the Intermezzo, as it is entitled, is a satire on cultural and social vanities which Goethe originally intended for use in another connection. Had he wished, he could easily have found other means of publishing it. He did not do so, clearly intending that it should appear where it does. Its empty triviality accords with the plan that Mephistopheles had in mind for Faust, while the satirical effect which the poet desired to achieve at the expense of his victims was obtained by their appearance in this satanic connection. The details of the revue are of minor importance. The human follies which are exposed include those which have been or will be dealt with elsewhere in the drama. They range from dilettantism and snobbery in art, fashionable gentility and religious meddling in criticism, to systematic philosophies of various kinds and dubious political modes of behaviour. They are a suggestion, trivial to be sure, that the theme of Faust is not limited to any single aspect but ranges over the whole of life in general. The scene lifts the poem into the realm of the timeless and universal in which it will move more and more as it proceeds. At the same time, it indicates by implication the eternal value of love’s fundamental force -- the reconciliation of Oberon and Titania after their quarrel over the Indian boy being its very raison d’être -- that force which the Lord had emphasized at the start and which is the mainspring of redemption at the close.
Indeed, in Ariel’s final words:
|Gab die liebende Natur,
Gab der Geist euch Flügel,
Folget meiner leichten Spur,
Auf zum Rosenhügel!
[[ Does fair Nature give you wings,
Wings that the soul discloses?
Follow where your Ariel sings,
On paths and hills of roses. ]]
there is a suggestion that salvation from earthly error and sin may be acquired by spiritual means. It is Ariel who appropriately appears again as the presiding genius in the opening scene of Part II of the poem, where Faust is healed from the tragic effects of his experience.
It is not necessary here, however, for more than a hint of all this
to be given. There is nothing profound in the performance that takes place
on the natural open-air stage. The actors are unsubstantial creatures;
they comprise Shakespearean beings, symbolical personages, members of the
orchestra and stage staff, mythical characters, individuals from real life
and figures from the witches’ sabbath itself, including the ubiquitous
Nicolai. Each speaks his little introduction in doggerel and passes on.
The band is composed of flies and gnats, frogs and toads, with a soap-bubble
droning out a bagpipe melody; the choreographic and musical direction is
in the hands of Puck and Ariel, sprites of earth and air respectively.
Faust, absorbed in self-examination and horror mingled with desire as regards
Gretchen, is silent in face of the chaotic scene. It is symbolic indeed
of the confusion of his own spiritual state. It is no more than a ghastly
dream. In a sense, it may be regarded as his own dream, presented to him
in the form of a stage-show. And it is in a dream that the diabolical Walpurgisnacht
fades out as the dawn approaches. Reality is regained not in one sudden
bound, but by means of a musical and dramatic pianissimo,
|Wolkenzug und Nebelflor
Erhellen sich von oben.
Luft im Laub und Wind im Kohr,
Und alles ist zerstoben.
[[ Clouds go by and mists recede,
Bathed in the dawn and blended;
Sighs the wind in leaf and reed,
And all our tale is ended. ]]
The scene changes abruptly from Mephistopheles’ world to Faust’s. We are taken on a gloomy day into the open countryside, into an atmosphere, as has frequently been noted, that is reminiscent of Macbeth’s blasted heath, where Faust can speak his mind without inhibition. In the interval he has searched for Gretchen and discovered the story of her tragic adventures since that first fateful night. Mephistopheles has concealed it all from him and lulled him with sensual distraction. We do not know by what means Faust has discovered the facts; the details are indeed actually withheld from the spectator for reasons of dramatic suspense until the final scene. We are merely shown here the effect of his discovery upon his character.
It must be assumed that Faust began his quest for Gretchen directly after the Walpurgisnacht and that it rapidly led to the outcome which we now see. It is scarcely reasonable to suppose that Mephistopheles could still further have diverted him after the appearance of the vision on the Brocken, in order that sufficient time might elapse for everything that happens to her. That is why the Walpurgisnacht must be deemed to take place a year after Valentin’s murder as the climax of many attempted distractions. Faust has by now learned everything about Gretchen, her long wanderings after her brother’s death and her public ostracism, the birth and death of her child, her trial on a charge of infanticide and the imposition of the death sentence. His eyes are fully opened to the evil effects of his association with Mephistopheles. The deaths of Gretchen’s mother, brother and child, and now her own imminent execution have been brought about by him. His resentment takes the form of an appeal to the Earth Spirit, whose emissary he considers Mephistopheles to be, and he demands that the Spirit should restore Mephistopheles to his one-time canine form, ‘wie er sich oft nächtlicher Weile gefiel vor mir herzutrotten‘ (words which suggest that Mephistopheles had attracted Faust’s attention several times before the two joined forces). Mephistopheles’ brutal reply: ‘Sie ist die erste nicht‘, his reproach that Faust should not have associated with evil if he did not wish to go through with the association, his correct ascription of the responsibility to Faust, his claim--no doubt simulated--that he has no power to liberate Gretchen (on the grounds that the death sentence is passed in the name of God), and his final and highly invalid objection that Faust is risking his own safety in approaching her, all this serves to infuriate his companion more and more. He finally agrees to provide his magic horses and to cloud the senses of Gretchen’s gaoler while Faust himself frees her. The lover must face yet another trial.
Is this what Faust wanted when he spoke of ‘schmerzlichster Genuß’? Is his personality to be enlarged at the cost of the tragic fates of others? Is this really a part of ‘was der ganzen Menschheit zugeteilt ist’? Is it not rather a shattering exposure of Faust’s illusions and a proof, if any more be needed, that he is outside the limits of normal humanity ? This does not mean that he has advanced beyond illusion. He still believes that Mephistopheles, so far from being avoided, must be accepted as an indispensable part of the earth’s attributes. His outlook is still that of the Wald und Höhle scene. His complaint about Mephistopheles to the great Spirit that ‘knew his heart so well’ is still the same. His odd theological assumption concerning Mephostopheles is really at the basis of his attempt to saddle the latter with the responsibility for his own guilty behaviour. To view evil as a necessary part of earthly life, and to regard all existence, as Faust had said in the second Garden scene, as manifesting the divine, is to expose oneself to the illusion that personal ethical responsibility can be evaded. Horrified though he is at Gretchen’s doom, filled, as his better feelings are stirred, with an overwhelming desire to save her from it, and knowing that his actions have brought it about, Faust none the less lays the responsibility at Mephistopheles’ door and ultimately at that of the Earth Spirit as well. Despair, rage, resentment, human sympathy are all represented in his words, but no repentance. His dubious theological and ethical system is finally crowned by a vague belief in ‘der ewig Verzeihende’, who is now called upon in this moment of hopelessness. Never was the bankruptcy of an imprecise religious structure basing itself on ill-defined half-truths so tragically laid bare. The erudite professor who could discourse obscenely with a dancing witch could not apprehend and integrate the central truths that govern human existence.
Faust is far from having learned the full lesson of responsibility. His whole character is in danger at his adversary’s dehumanizing hands. His desire for the maximum of human experience threatens to conclude in the loss of his own spiritual existence. It is true that he is now in open rebellion against Mephistopheles. But he had been in rebellion once before, in the Wald und Höhle scene, and to little purpose. He has not completely succumbed to his adversary, but, despite his revulsion, he has no thought of dispensing with him. He demands his aid in the liberation of Gretchen. He still cannot grasp as a reality that the devil can do nothing but evil. He is still the victim of illusion.
The scene is written in prose. Whereas Goethe recast the other prose scenes which he had written for Faust, he retained this one, presumably not because he was incapable of rendering its passion in verse but because verse, as he wrote to Schiller on the 5th May, 1798, acts as a veil that softens the direct effect of naturalism that may often be unbearable. He retained prose, in this case, with his eyes open. The violent contrast with what had gone before, the changed mood of the principal figure, the insupportable weight of emotion and the explosive realism of its expression, all no doubt combined to persuade him to make an exception in the form of this scene.
Whether or not the few lines entitled ‘Nacht’ that follow are in prose or in rhymeless verse is not clear. The two companions are now on their way, mounted on the black horses which Mephistopheles had promised, to Gretchen’s prison, which is presumably at some distance from the scene of the previous conversation. They pass the scaffold that is ready for Gretchen’s execution, and figures are seen busily moving up and down beside it. Mephistopheles declares that they are witches engaged in evil rites of dedication, but in view of his first expressing or feigning ignorance and his subsequent anxiety to keep away, there is reason to suppose that they might be angels or good spirits hallowing the site of Gretchen’s death and thereby indicating her salvation.
Be that as it may, we are next shown Faust carrying the gaoler’s keys and a lantern inside the prison and about to open the door of Gretchen’s cell. Gripped by profound horror and sympathy, he hears her singing an old folk-song, into whose coarse tragedy she reads her own. The revival of Faust’s human feelings has endured. He has been made to believe by Mephistopheles that he is endangering his own safety in coming to her. He is now left to his own devices without further magic means. Mephistopheles, knowing his character, foresees how futile his efforts will turn out to be, as indeed they do.
Gretchen is mad, but she is more than a match for Faust’s illconceived and irresolutely executed plan to rescue her. Has he paused to consider the sort of life he would have wished for her had he succeeded in freeing her? Has it not occurred to him that liberation in the final instance would have meant her subjection, with himself, to Mephistopheles?
Gretchen’s madness is interspersed with brief moments of lucidity. She
passes from one state to the other in response to the stimuli and associations
that Faust’s words present to her. Until he speaks her name (the first
time he has actually addressed her by it in the whole play), she
takes him -- ironically -- to be her executioner; as he kneels before her,
as she mistakenly believes, to pray, she throws herself beside him. Then,
when she hears his voice and rises released by him from her chains, she
has only the one thought of surrendering to the endearments of love. ‘Ich
bin gerettet’ (l. 4474), she says, words that curiously anticipate those
that are soon to be spoken from Heaven. Love that is all in all to her
has brought her spiritual safety, just as in fact divine love will redeem
her. The memories of their meetings well up in her mind. Her madness recedes,
clarity momentarily returns. As Faust urges her to flee she proceeds to
confess her guilt. We hear of the drowning of her child; in her earlier
mental wanderings she said it had been taken from her and she has been
charged with its death. Later on she pictures it struggling in the water.
It all took place when she did not know what she was doing. When Faust’s
pleas grow more insistent and even a note of angry impatience enters, her
mind clouds over once again. There is something symbolical in all this.
Faust’s thoughts for her physical safety mean nothing to her, except that
they disturb the purity of her love which alone consoles and sustains her.
She cannot go. She speaks of her family’s graves and her own. Taught by
her insane wanderings how futile flight would be, she rambles on about
her child and her mother, and, as the distance grows between herself and
Faust, the vision of her own execution rises in her imagination. The entrance
of Mephistopheles, coming to warn Faust that there is no time left, is
the last straw. She shrinks from her lover. Her prison has become a holy
place, a sanctuary, in which she can commend herself to God’s justice and
to it alone and accept death as a step towards salvation:
|Dein bin ich, Vater! Rette mich!
Ihr Engel! Ihr heiligen Scharen,
Lagert euch umher, mich zu bewahren!
Heinrich! Mir graut’s vor dir.
[[ Lord, I am thine, oh, save me and defend!
Father, let angels now have charge of me,
Encamped around in heavenly company.
Heinrich, I have a dread of thee. ]]
(“Heinrich, mir graut's vor dir” isn't well translated here, because of the curtness and resultant effect in the German.)
Lucidity has returned to her once more at the end.
Her final thoughts are of Faust. Despite all that he has done, her love, even while death approaches, is still strong enough for that. When he leaves with Mephistopheles, she twice calls out his name, as horror, anxiety, supplication and joy mingle in her tortured soul.
She has withstood the temptations of evil, and, as a voice from Heaven announces, gains redemption. How she wishes that Faust could share her rapture and her victory over the devil! But we do not know whether he hears or is intended to hear the divine voice as Mephistopheles drags him off the stage; if he does, his future behaviour makes it clear that its message certainly conveys little to him. In his confused state of thought and belief, he is still unable to understand that evil is not a necessary part of everyone’s life and that it can be repelled. Nor does he yet comprehend that titanic striving for universal experience is not the supreme end of human life. Neither restraint nor repentance have shown any signs of existing within him. His departure with Mephistopheles is thus symbolical. He had been persuaded that he was risking his life in coming to join Gretchen. As the murderer of Valentin (though who was really to know, in the absence of witnesses to his identity, that he was the criminal unless he confessed?) he could have shared her fate on the scaffold. But he deserts her in death as he had done in life.
Beside his squalid behaviour, Gretchen is endowed with celestial glory. By refusing to accompany him from her prison, she had cast aside all thought of personal safety, dubious though it might well have been, and accepted death. Her fate thus partakes of the nature of self-sacrifice. Her determination is the means of preserving him from the utter submission to Mephistopheles’ authority that flight, with the inevitable consequences of evasion of the law, would have involved. If the lovers had departed together they would have surrendered their individual fates to the devil. This Gretchen has prevented and in so doing has taken a vital step in preparing the way towards the final situation when she can intervene yet again in Faust’s destiny.
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