Thursday, August 13, 2015

"Faust" and the self

Yolanna has once again made me the recipient of her garden's bounty. First the flowers, then a bag of greens, including the beautiful chard. The lovely piece of salmon comes from Don and Sue. With my limited pantry, I was able to prepare half of the fillet with a lemon-maple syrup glaze. I have plans for the other half with the large zucchini Yo gave me.

I continue to make my way through Jane Brown's Goethe's Allegories of Identity. The chapter “The Scientific Self: Identity in Faust” is an analysis of role playing. It continues her examination of Goethe's literary responses to Rousseau, in the case of Faust the representation of the lack of fixed identities. Jane Brown is an expert on Faust, and her rapid fielding of textual examples that “reflect” (which includes mirrors) the instability of identity follow one another as rapidly as the shifting cloud shapes (another reflection of instability) in that play. Even the shifting forms (“schwankende Gestalten”) of the opening lines of the play announce the theme of instability. One must read the chapter slowly.

Let me quote Brown herself here: “The process of recurrent destabilization is largely driven by theatricality, the primary mode of representing the world in Faust.” Everyone “plays a role” in this drama, even God in his opening scene with Mephistopheles, who first appears to Faust not as “himself” but as a black poodle. Faust thus becomes not simply a case study of shifts of identity, but also of the instability of identity. Throughout, there are “parodic or collateral versions of Faust the striver.”

My first salmon "catch" of the season
As I am not quite half way into he book, I hesitate to make any judgment on a larger argument (or one of her arguments), namely, that the “true self,” as Brown writes in this chapter, drawing on Goethe’s reading of Kant, “like the thing in itself, is the equivalent of natural law.”  Both are fluid, existing in time, but also mirroring “something more permanent than themselves.”

In the previous chapter, “The Theaterical Self,” in which Egmont, Tasso, and Iphigenie were analyzed in regard to this instability of self, Brown mentions in passing the mixing in Egmont of an 18th-century neoclassical political tragedy and a sentimental tragedy. As she remarks, the play separates the two genres into separate scenes. This subject interests me very much, as I have written on the poetic mixing of genres in a similar play, Clavigo. My essay (Goethe Yearbook, vol. 8 [1996]: pp. 1-27) addressed the range of Goethe’s literary efforts of the 1760s and early 1770s, when Goethe was clearly more imitative. Yet, while experimenting in a variety of traditional forms (e.g., pastoral, anacreontic), he was not necessarily faithful to his literary models. Clavigo, as I argued, received its “existential weight” by such poetic contamination: the introduction into a classicist play of a non-heroic (i.e., bourgeois) character literally altered the character’s self-conception. Clavigo, almost literally, did not know “who he was.” The drama Faust, of course, is a mixing of the most diverse poetic genres and meters, of which Brown's reading reminds us anew.

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