Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)
Faust as Scientist
BY FRED KIRSHNIT [NY Sun, 29 Mar 05]
Knowledge and the unknowable are the keys needed to unlock the 19th-century perception of the Faust myth. The modern idea of a deal with the devil for financial or carnal supremacy is completely irrelevant, and speaks volumes about the difference between 20th-century thought and that of its antecedents. In breaking free of the restrictions of formalism and established religion, however, the Romantics in literature incorporated some cautions of their own.
Characters who were daring enough to challenge man’s previous limits were inevitably brought up short when they ventured to go too far. Dr. Frankenstein, called the new Prometheus by his own creator, Mary Shelley, is forced to realize the evil nature of his imperfect creation. Captain Ahab causes his own death and the destruction of all but one of his crew when he dares to approach the white whale too closely. And Goethe’s magician, Faust, makes his deal with the devil in order to acquire not only youth but also the ability to aspire. His one demand of the demon is that he will leave him forever unsatisfied.
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