By Wendy Bruneau
Goethe’s Faust is a perennial college text, but in many Waldorf schools it is a standard block in the 12th grade. Why do we bring this play, published almost 200 years ago, to our seniors? What does it have to say to them? Every year as I hand out the books at the beginning of the block, someone inevitably asks “why are we reading this?” I’ve had to face this question squarely in order to stand at the front of that room and feel confident that they will see the answer at the end of three weeks.
As high school teachers, we recognize that that the essential question for 12th grade students is who am I? As they prepare themselves to go out into the world, young people ask themselves what is my place in the world? And perhaps more importantly, what kind of person do I want to be? What am I here to do? Woven in with such concerns are the related questions of the role of good and evil in the world, and the foundations of moral action.
To address these questions, the senior-year curriculum includes required block classes with topics focusing on the study of the self and views of the human being, and the human race, through time. For example, the seniors study human evolution, world religions and the Transcendentalist poets, all important topics in understanding what it means to be a human being. Faust addresses the central 12th grade question head on, although from a different perspective than these other block classes. It does this in two ways: first, through the story itself, and second, through the biography of Goethe.
In the previous year, the students will have studied Gilgamesh. This ancient story addresses the question that worried the people of the earliest civilizations: why is there death?
In the modern world, we accept death. As Goethe wrote, we have moved beyond that question to the conundrum of the modern world: why is there evil? How is it that human beings are the most benevolent and altruistic creatures on the planet – as Steinbeck wrote, “the only species willing to die for a cause” — but also the most cruel and evil? The catalog of horrors of the last century — from Nazi Germany to Rwanda to Darfur — calls us to try to understand evil, and to face the ultimate question of what it means to be a human being when humans are capable of such extremes in behavior.
Goethe gives us in Faust the splendid character of Mephistopheles, who struts onto the stage in a way that instantly brings to mind both Milton’s extraordinary Satan and the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil: “please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste.” His wisecracking character is instantly intriguing to students. Mephistopheles takes no guff from anyone, he has the answer to everything, he makes fun of education, he argues with God, and looks down on the mass of humanity as insects who stick their noses “in every piece of dung.”
Students are fascinated by this character; they too have developed quite a swagger in that senior year as the big kids on campus! But this is the devil! Are we supposed to like him? What a surprise to learn that God, as presented in Faust, requires the devil to keep humans striving toward the accomplishment and achievement of which only they are capable.
Seniors are almost ready to step out into the adult world, and they feel quite proud of themselves that they have come so far, quite grown up and ready to leave the sheltered world of high school. But at the same time, they are afraid. They want the rights and freedom that come with adulthood, but they don’t want to lose the qualities that make childhood so magical. They don’t want to become cynical or jaded. They don’t want to lose their imaginations and live a life of dulling routine. They may worry about becoming their parents (or at least blindly repeating what they perceive as their parents’ lives).
Mephistopheles hits to the core of this fear. Here he is, laughing at humans because (in his view) their lives are pointless — they just keep doing the same things generation after generation, trying to achieve, no matter how he tries to stop them.
As for that scum of beast — and humanhood,
There’s just no curbing it, no quelling,
I’ve buried them in droves past telling,
Yet ever newly circulates fresh blood.
Through the play, Mephistopheles appears in different costumes, either red or black, representing two aspects of evil. In red, he presents the active, passionate side of evil — the violent, the rash, the angry. In this guise he goads Faust to kill a man. In black, Mephistopheles represents the colder side of evil — the calculated, the neglectful, the unfeeling. In this costume, Mephistopheles first introduces himself to Faust as representing the void that came before creation, stating that his ambition is for the world to go back to that void of darkness and nothingness. He prefers the “Eternal-Empty.” Ultimately, what he represents is not active evil as we usually think of it, but rather the evil of simply not caring, of finding life hopeless, pointless and not worth pursuing.
What has this constant doing ever brought
But what is done to rake away to naught?
Exploring these two aspects of evil, and discussing where we see them in the world, brings home the idea that it is not only what we do that may cause harm, but what we allow to be done. What an important idea to face when considering the question of who one wants to be!
When we meet Faust himself, we find a disappointed, middle-aged man grousing about in his dusty study. He is a professor, a learned man, but feels fragmented, unfulfilled; he has wasted his life in second-hand book learning, never made much money, never had anyone love him. How can any teenager identify with such a character? In the negative! This is precisely what they don’t want to be. They don’t want to go out into the world and become complacent, boring adults who never achieve what they once set out to do. They want to change the world!
But then we see Faust have an epiphany; after a miserable night in which he contemplates suicide, he walks through the town on Easter morning and passes through the masses of common folk. They talk about drinking, about who is handsome, who is going with whom — all silly and pointless chatter, from Faust’s educated point of view. But these people are happy and smiling, and he is miserable! Is it better to be superficial and ignorant? Is that what brings happiness? If not, why is that? It would be so easy to be like a cat snoozing on the bed all day, but would it be any good for long?
Through his association with Mephistopheles, Faust puts aside his dusty books and sets off into the world of sense experience, to find things out for himself, to really live. Under Mephistopheles’ tutelage, he starts with bars, skirt-chasing and visits to satanic dens — all very unsatisfying.
But then Faust goes on to grander things: an imperial court, a science lab in which life is created in a glass jar, a massive building project, marriage, and fatherhood. By the end of the play, Faust has quite literally changed the world. And — contrary to popular misconception — he doesn’t have to sell his soul to the devil to do it. Goethe leaves us with the extraordinary idea that redemption lies not in refraining from doing bad things, but in doing things, getting things done, exploring and learning, even if terrible mistakes are made along the way. It is human action and effort which are the antithesis of the void that Mephistopheles would prefer. As Goethe wrote, “how can you come to know yourself? Never by thinking, always by doing.”
Faust ultimately brings us the message seen on so many T-shirts: “life is good.” And not only that, but you can choose what kind of an adult you will be.
Goethe’s biography is also brought to bear on this subject. Like the play itself, his life is not presented as a venerable relic, but as something alive – Goethe’s life has something important to tell us today. Like Goethe’s characters, the man himself is intriguing to students and can be identified with easily, which is not something they expect to find in this “dead white guy” at all! Goethe burnt himself out as a teenage law student, overdoing the coffee and alcohol and staying up all night madly writing poetry. He was a love-sick youth, hopelessly in love with his best friend’s wife. What teenager has not suffered the pain of unrequited love? Goethe’s coup, however, was to turn this experience into a best-selling novel which made him the toast of Europe. He was then hired to be a companion and mentor to a young nobleman, providing further adventures, many on galloping horses and involving close encounters with the law. But the wild living was always tempered, in Goethe’s case, by responsibility and achievement.
Goethe is the anti-Peter Pan. For those students who aren’t quite sure if they are ready to step out into the world, his life says, “It is good to grow up; it is exciting and rich with possibility.” Here is man who was a bureaucrat for much of his adult life — but was also a celebrity novelist, a scientist, a great dancer, a writer of poetry in praise of intimacy with the love of his life. There’s that message again: You can choose what kind of an adult you want to be, and in spite of its many difficulties, life is good. “Nothing is worth more than this day!”
Now out into the world with you!
Images above: Emerson by Amber Johnston '11; Faust by Mica Low '10; Faustszene by Friedrich Gustav Schlick; black and white still from FW Murnau's 1926 film. A version of this article was published in Renewal: A Journal for Waldorf Education in the Spring/Summer 2010 issue, and this version appeared in High Notes, Winter 2013.