Sunday, August 13, 2017

Tonsor: Intellectual History: Goethe III


After the bus returned me to the North Campus, I ignored all the books I'd brought home except Faust. Tonsor had gotten my attention when he said he read Goethe every morning; regarded the Weimar poet as a worthy "mentor and model"; and paraphrased Matthew Arnold to the effect that "Goethe was by far our greatest modern man ... the thinker who, more than any other, interpreted the modern world to itself."[1] 

At this point the distinction between literary criticism and literary history seems apt. The former is about literature that endures by raising questions with which each new generation wants to grapple. The latter is about literature that raised questions with which the author's generation wanted to grapple.[2] Given its critical reception generation after generation, there is no doubt which category Goethe's Faust is in. Let's grant that it was a masterpiece when it came to interpreting the modern world to itself. Yet that was then, in the modern age. We were all postmoderns now.[3] To what extent did the drama continue to have the poetic power to interpret the present, postmodern age to itself? 

That was one question. Another was what Goethe and Faust can teach us about what came before postmodernity. Surely the drama's power is revealed in its critique of modernity -- especially in Faust's encounter with Philemon and Baucis. This old couple from ancient Greek mythology was made famous by Ovid in Metamorphoses. Goethe appropriates the story to make a moral point about Faust's "Faustian" ambition to transform a coastal wasteland into the world's breadbasket. To do so will require flexing modern technology's muscle to reclaim the land -- and also evicting the lovely Philemon and Baucis, known for their sacrificial hospitality, from their humble cottage. The eviction is carried out by thugs who kill the old couple. By showing us Faust's totalitarian ambition and absolute power over Philemon and Baucis, Goethe seems to be confronting modernity for its arrogant and ruthless quest for "progress"; by extension he seems to be criticizing modernity for killing off the West's classical heritage, symbolized by Philemon and Baucis's deaths. These two damning indictments of the modern spirit proved prophetic. 

Also, in interpreting the modern West to itself, how did Goethe navigate Western civilization's two competing sources of authority, Christendom and the Enlightenment? The poet witnessed in his life (1749-1832), on the one hand, the mythic power of Christendom; on the other, the rational force of the Enlightenment; and they were in dynamic tension with one another. While Faust was informed by elements of both -- both Christendom and the Enlightenment -- Goethe was taken in by neither. He was not a fan of the institutional churches Protestant or Catholic, nor did he swallow the Enlightenment hook, line, and sinker. Yet it is precisely his critical distance from these two competing sources of authority that made him such an interesting commentator on them in isolation and in relation to one another. Examining that dynamic tension in Goethe was one of the ways Tonsor wanted me to confront modernity. Consider:

Christendom looked back to the past and carried the burdens of history with humility; the Enlightenment looked forward to the future expecting to muscle mankind toward ever brighter social conditions (the aspiration of the great reclamation project). 

Christendom redeemed man's failures in time by raising them to a higher spiritual plane; the Enlightenment achieved redemption by shaking off the burden of history. The aim was to learn from mankind's past failures. And the Enlightenment did -- perhaps a little too glibly, a bit too arrogantly -- confident that its way would lead to a better world than any of the alternatives. 

Christendom could be pessimistic about change. The Church knew that with every advance in the name of progress, something of great value was lost; progress was stalked by tragedy, so Christendom emphasized continuity. The Enlightenment in its optimism believed otherwise: It emphasized change as necessary to betterment here on Earth. 

Indeed, wasn't Faust a tragedy so long as it embraced the Enlightenment's secular values, seen most poignantly in the great reclamation project's ruthless treatment of Baucis and Philemon? Wasn't it in fact a comedy (in Dante's sense) when it embraced Christendom's transcendent values, which assured the salvation of Gretchen's and Faust's souls? 


Before talking to Tonsor, I thought I knew Faust enough to be conversant. As an undergraduate, I was taught the conventional modernist interpretation: that Faust unfolds entirely within a naturalistic setting; that the symbolic spiritual characters at the beginning and end of the play are just that -- symbolic -- allegorical references that do not upend the "natural supernaturalism" that tied Goethe's worldview together.[4]

After talking to Tonsor and reading several critical essays in the book I brought home, it was apparent that I knew Faust hardly at all. How could I? Goethe tells us he conceived of Faust in his twentieth year and revised it up through his eighty-second year. It is the work of a lifetime, the monument to his genius, and at the same time maddeningly difficult. "Incommensurable" is how he himself described the drama. Perhaps it is telling that Goethe described his work as "fragments of a great confession."[5] A confession of what? Perhaps it is even more telling that he described Faust as "an evident riddle" that would "delight men on and on and give them something to work at" -- itself a Faustian project if ever there were one.[6]

And now I find myself laboring over the riddle that has preoccupied generations of scholars. My first question is whether Faust challenges modern readers with a binary choice -- a stark "either-or": either the naturalism of the neopagans who emerged from the Enlightenment, or the transcendence of earlier generations of Jews, Christians, and Renaissance Neoplatonists? 

But then I realized that was the wrong question. Integral humanist that he was, Tonsor was teaching me to reject "either-or" thinking and instead embrace "both-and" thinking. This hermeneutic of dynamic tension was consistent with the tradition of the humanities, which foster widening circles of interpretation rather than the one-size-fits-all approach of ideologues. So when it came to FaustGoethe invited modern audiences to judge the characters and plot in the light of both Enlightenment values and Christendom's values. Goethe seemed to be shining the light of the transcendent onto the secular modern project, wanting his audience to deal with both. 

A strictly naturalistic interpretation of Faust is contradicted by the internal evidence of the play. In the text are unreconciled tensions that should open us up to explore the ambiguities and ambivalences in the modern project. From the beginning of Part I to the end of Part II, Goethe uses images, iconography, ideas, and language that affirm not just the naturalistic, but also the transcendent -- even a kind of Renaissance Neoplatonism -- which might serve to link the naturalistic and transcendent elements together.

This interpretation, I hasten to add, does not rely on Goethe himself believing in transcendence and Renaissance Neoplatonism. True, Goethe worked on the play for some six decades, from the start of the Urfaust in 1769 to the final revision of Part II in 1832, so all manner of Enlightenment and Romantic ideas made their way into the work. We know, moreover, that the young Goethe was fascinated with Renaissance Neoplatonism, Protestant mysticism, and alchemy. But our interpretation of the play need not rely on any of these biographical nuggets. Rather we should ask: What do we see with our own eyes? What does the internal evidence of the drama say about the relationship between the natural and transcendent?

Goethe pushes his audience into an encounter with the transcendent in the very first lines, at the beginning of Part I, and he drives his audience higher and higher into the transcendent with images, iconography, ideas, and language at the end of Part II. Thus a close reading of Faust supports Tonsor's integral humanistic interpretation of the play -- a "both-and" hermeneutic that weaves together the contrary threads one finds in the immanent and transcendent, time and eternity, secular and sacred, Earth and Heaven, creation and God.

Other "both-and" tensions that Goethe invites us to explore are the Enlightenment vis-a-vis Romanticism, classical pagan Greece in tension with medieval Christian Europe, and premodern beliefs alongside modern skepticism.

Goethe was a great poet, in no small part, because of his keen awareness of these tensions and conflicts, these ambivalences and ambiguities, that characterize the human estate. The fact that this complexity informs his treatment of the characters and worldviews in the play is precisely what appealed to Tonsor. 

Goethe's ambiguous Faust reminds me of Shakespeare's similarly ambiguous Hamlet, where the characters' conflicting values cannot be painted over or easily reconciled.[7] To ignore the ambiguity and tension in Goethe's drama is to do violence to the play by forcing it into the straitjacket of ideology -- which in the humanities is the equivalent to committing a capital crime.


In the face of all the authoritative naturalistic readings of Faust, the burden is on the integral humanist -- a humanist who looks at man as both a material and spiritual being -- to look at the evidence afresh and see if a compelling case can be made for both matter and spirit in the work. Tonsor nudges me in the direction of integral humanism, which searches out the relationship between the naturalistic and the transcendent in images, iconography, ideas, and words. When it comes to Goethe's Faust: 
  • We see the transcendent in the fact that the play has an omnipotent God -- a personal God who oversees the cosmos and the afterlife. He must approve Mephistopheles's proposal. Thus it is not a play that will make atheists feel reassured about denying the existence of God.  
  • We see the transcendent in the fact that the characters have souls. Naturalism would contest the idea of an immaterial soul, arguing that science has yet to discover a soul that can be separated from consciousness at death. But the worldview of the play counters naturalism with an older anthropology. That anthropology sees a desiring soul whose eternal destiny is determined, not so much by the actions in this life, as by a kind of Final Judgment at the gateway to the next.  
  • We see the transcendent in the character of Mephistopheles, the Devil whose two-fold purpose is to undo the work of creation and to negate man's belief in the transcendent. More specifically his goal is to steer man's striving soul away from God, the source of his being, to the endless pursuit of material, worldly, pseudo-satisfactions. No doubt, many nineteenth-century readers would have read Faust with St. Augustine somewhere in their heads, who famously wrote: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you."[8] 
  • We see the transcendent in the first wager, the one between God and Mephistopheles, over Faust's soul. It is treated as a prize of incalculable value. Mephistopheles and God would not contend over Faust's soul if the stakes were merely over corruptible, finite matter as opposed to an eternal spirit.  
  • We see a hint of the transcendent in the suggestion that the soulless and nihilistic Mephistopheles is inferior even to the alchemically created little man, the Homunculus, born from a test tube.[9]  
  • We see the transcendent in the images, iconography, ideas, and language of the Prologue, which takes place in Heaven, as well as in the conclusion, which returns to Heaven. The play's bookends do not present merely a symbolic Heaven because a merely symbolic Heaven would rob Faust of its drama. If the action in the end is just symbolic, why should we care?    

 I also wondered about Goethe calling his play a tragedy. If the reader confined himself to the naturalism that dominates most of the play, it would indeed be a tragedy. In naturalistic terms the story of Faust does not end well. In naming the play, I think Goethe was following his idol, Shakespeare. The Bard signaled that his play was a tragedy if the title was the main character's name: Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello. Thus Goethe titled his play Faust to signal that it is a tragedy, which is true if one follow's only Faust's natural life span.

But as readers know, the play's real meaning is not revealed within Faust's natural life span. At Faust's death, God in his mercy intervenes, tricks Mephistopheles, and arranges for the angels to snatch Faust's immortal soul away from certain damnation. What was a tragedy in its naturalistic setting becomes a comedy in the cosmic setting -- a comedy because it has a happy ending for the main character of the play.

The fact that Faust reveals itself, in the end, to be a comedy is a powerful argument for the transcendent. Nothing Faust does can make this unexpected turnabout happen. It is entirely God's doing. The surprising final scenes are a rebuke to the naturalists who have fallen short of understanding the fullness of reality.


Now, when it comes to transcendence, Faust does not just lead modern audiences into the foggy heights. No, the transcendent is detailed in sharp relief. I would argue that it is a syncretic transcendent that combines concepts found both in traditional Catholicism and in Renaissance Neoplatonism.  
  • We see Catholic traces in Gretchen's intercessory prayers. The reader encounters her in Heaven, praying for Faust's soul in exactly the way Catholics through the ages have been taught that the communion of saints prays.  
  • We see Catholic traces in the allusion to a very traditional Purgatory. Goethe's Purgatory with its hosts looks a lot like Dante's holy mountain in the Purgatorio. Its purpose is to be a school of virtue and holiness for the soul, to prepare the soul to encounter a transcendent God in a transcendent Heaven.  
  • We see Catholic traces in play's insinuation that the socialists and progressives strive for perfection on Earth in vain. Utopian schemes cannot remake human nature. Technology cannot conquer the evil in the human heart. Such measures always fall short of the true progress a society could theoretically achieve. In light of Faust's land reclamation project near the end of the play, the messages seems to be that real, lasting progress only takes place in the soul of one who has struggled to become holier on Earth and who finishes the work in a spiritual Purgatory that prepares his soul for Heaven.  
  • We see Catholic traces in the last lines about "Eternal Womanhood" that "draws us on high" -- surely an allusion to the Virgin Mary.  
  • We see Catholic traces not directly in an encounter with Jesus, but indirectly by the presence of his holy believers in Heaven. By this indirection, Goethe was less likely to offend the modern sensibilities of his readers.

Thus far we have seen how the internal evidence in Faust reveals several interesting things. The play does not support a strictly naturalistic worldview; nor an anti-theistic worldview; nor even an anti-Catholic worldview. Rather, the play is set in a complex cosmos of Goethe's creation, a syncretic vision that is characterized both by immanent nature and by transcendent spirit. As we have seen, the latter seems vaguely informed by Catholic dogma and doctrine, even though Goethe was not a Catholic. 

As surprising as the Catholic allusions may strike some readers, perhaps even more surprising is the Renaissance Neoplatonism worked into the play, like yeast kneaded into flour.
  • There are frequent references to illumination -- from candles to the sun -- that the Neoplatonists are known for. 
  • Also in the course of the play, Faust learns that in this life he will never behold the Absolute (the sun) directly, but only through the mediation of the world. This is the meaning of the famous scene when Faust sees the sun's light refracted into all the colors of the rainbow. 
  • We see the Neoplatonism, finally and most convincingly, in the Mystic Choir's last speech of the play. "All that passes is only a parable." Could Goethe be any clearer? Reality is most fully encountered in transcendence, in Heaven, in the Neoplatonists' sun. It is least fully encountered in earthly things that are distant from the sun. 

The critics who argue that the play takes place strictly within a naturalistic world need to explain the transcendence, Catholicism, and Renaissance Neoplatonism that infuse the work, especially at the end. "All that passes is only a parable." This line of verse can only mean that the symbolism in Faust flows not from the material world to a symbolic spiritual world, as is frequently argued -- not at all. The Neoplatonic symbolism in Faust flows in the opposite direction -- from the real spiritual world to the symbolic natural world.

Thus no arrangement in the material world -- no Utopia, no commune, no social engineering, no project to perfect a man or a people -- can fulfill the striving soul. In fact, any such effort is likely to corrupt the striving soul.

Tonsor had told me that morning: "It was Oswald Spengler, reading Goethe, who discerned the distinctive character of Western culture: It was Faustian because of the way it inspired the striving soul to engage in unceasing though ultimately unsuccessful effort to conquer nature -- including human nature. For when the godly myth of love is displaced by the demonic myth of power, there is a near certainty that the consequences will be disastrous. And yet that precisely is the mythic displacement which increasingly characterizes the modern world."[10]

A profoundly wise insight, this.


So even though Faust is about an increasingly naturalistic West, it is not ultimately a naturalistic play, despite what most critics say. Ninety-nine percent of the action may take place in naturalistic, indeed Romantic, settings, but the reader must account for the one percent of the play that is transcendent and that gives the play most of its meaning -- even if it offends modern sensibilities.

Now, I do not wish to carry the spiritual argument to absurd lengths. The tragedy does not mirror the Catechism; it would not be compelling if it did. It does not rubber stamp Christian dogma; it's fiction and it shouldn't. It is not a picture of Renaissance Neoplatonism; it would lose its relevance it if were. But -- this was Tonsor's point -- a fair reading of Faust should not alienate people persuaded by a Neoplatonic cosmology or a Christian worldview.

Would it be absurd to wonder whether Goethe's was studying Catholic doctrine at the end of his life, when he was composing the final scenes of the tragedy? Was he meditating on the final scenes of his own life? Would it be a stretch to suggest that Goethe was taking one of the most important sets of readings in the liturgical cycle, about God's mercy for all human beings, and applying the lesson to Faust? Many commentators have been disturbed by how easy it is for Faust's soul to be saved at the end of the play, considering what a self-centered, unethical man he has been throughout most of the work. Our sense of justice may justifiably be offended. But scripture has declared that "God's ways are not man's ways."[11] At a crucial turning point in the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah declares that God's mercy is not just for His Chosen People, Israel, but for all human beings.[12] There is a similar turning point during the ministry of Jesus, when he shows mercy to two despised foreigners, the Canaanite woman and her daughter, over the protests of his disciples who want to send them away.[13] Finally, the apostle Paul confirms these turning points in his letters to the Galatians and Romans. The message is: God is the God of all; not of some, but of all human beings, "that he might have mercy on all."[14] I would be interested in searching through the writings that Goethe left behind in 143 volumes plus to see if this interpretation has merit.     


I learned three important things from Tonsor today:

First, as a passionate reader of Goethe, who was his "mentor and model," Tonsor has carefully examined the internal evidence of the document as well as considered its external context. The most literal, commonsense reading of Faust leads one to see both naturalistic and transcendent elements -- the complete cosmos in all its complementarities and contradictions. Thus the play is about as anti-ideological as can be.

Second, perspective matters. It determines the assumptions that are brought to the primary sources as well as the questions that are put to them. If you see the play only through a naturalistic lens, your interpretation will be radically limited -- different from what you will see if you allow for both naturalism on Earth and transcendence in Heaven. The "both-and" approach is the integral humanists' way.

Third, Tonsor is the type of scholar who will not be corralled with the herd. In fact, in his stubborn independence he is a lot like Goethe. If you closely read the end of Faust Part I and Faust Part II, you cannot help but see its creator swimming against the current of modern thought. Goethe was a challenge to his age, a sign of contradiction. It was as Matthew Arnold said: He interpreted the increasingly materialistic modern age to itself, and did so by warning us not to forget the abiding spiritual drama of man's existence.

How bold! Such a thing could only have been crafted and pulled off by a genius. "Goethe was by far our greatest modern man ... the thinker who, more than any other, interpreted the modern world to itself."

Now I think I am beginning to believe it.

Dante's Purgatorio (Canto 27), by Gustave Dore


[1] The sources for each of these statements are found in the earlier dialogue but for convenience are repeated here. For the observation that Tonsor read Goethe every day, see Caroline Tonsor conversation with GW, Chelsea, MI, July 7, 2017. On the comment that Goethe was Henry Regnery's and Stephen Tonsor's mentor and model, see Stephen J. Tonsor, "Henry Regnery," Equality, Decadence, and Modernity: The Collected Essays of Stephen J. Tonsor, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 322. For the paraphrase of Matthew Arnold, see Arnold, "A French Critic on Goethe," in Mixed Essays, quoted by Helen C. White, "Matthew Arnold and Goethe," PMLA, vol. 36, no. 3 (September 1921): 336, 338.

[2] Carolyn Heilbrun's distinction cited by Elizabeth Vandiver, "Foundations," Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition, 2nd. ed. (Chantilly, VA: The Great Courses, 2004), p. 7.

[3] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Why I Too Am Not a Neoconservative," Equality, Decadence, and Modernity: The Collected Essays of Stephen J. Tonsor, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 304.

[4] Goethe, Poetry and Truth, Part II, ch. 7; quoted by Jane K. Brown, Goethe's Faust: The German Tragedy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), p. 29.

[5] Goethe quoted in Susan Sage Heinzelman, "Johann Wolfgang von Goethe," Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition, 2nd. ed. (Chantilly, VA: The Great Courses, 2004), lecture 60, p. 392. 

[6] The term comes from the classic study that Tonsor assigned in the first semester of History 416: M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973).

[7] Goethe's idol, Shakespeare, wrote tragedies that explore the ambiguity of the human condition. On Shakespeare's stage, life is not black and white but gray and grayer -- unending clashes of unreconciled values and opposing beliefs that introduce much misery into the human condition. See Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York: Free Press, 1967).

[8] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, Book 1.

[9] Johann Peter Eckermann, Conversations with Eckermann, trans. John Oxenford, conversation of December 16, 1829, in the Kindle ebook edition, loc. 6657.

[10] Stephen J. Tonsor, "The Use and Abuse of Myth," Equality, Decadence, and Modernity: The Collected Essays of Stephen J. Tonsor, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 184.

[11] Isaiah 55:8; Romans 11:33-35.

[12] Isaiah 56:3-8.

[13] Matthew 15:21-28.

[14] Galatians 3:28; Romans 11:1-32.

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