Monday, May 9, 2016

Faust and the abence of tranquility

Charles James Fox by Karl Anton Hickel
I have previously mentioned (see here) that Goethe comes up in all manner of contexts. I suppose it is for this reason that this blog has, since 2008, attracted almost a quarter of a million "hits." All kinds of people are interested in Goethe. So it was that I came across Goethe in an article by the scholar Jeffrey Hart, entitled "Burke and Radical Freedom." It appeared originally in volume 29 of The Review of Politics (1967).

Edmund Burke found himself at odds with former allies and friends in 1791, for instance, Charles James Fox, over the French Revolution. Burke was by then well known as an advocate of political reform, urging, for instance, moderation and conciliation toward the American colonies. He was a friend of Dr. Johnson. As Hart notes, Jeremy Bentham had read and written approving notes on Burke's essays on reform. And as Hart writes, the Revolution did not change Burke's principles, "but the deep transformation of the world [that he saw occurring] cast him into an entirely different role."

Hart makes the interesting observation that men like Fox were not equipped intellectually to understand what the French Revolution portended. "They were men of generous spirit, they wished well to the people of France." Fox himself could scarcely be called a hard-line revolutionary. He was "a sympathetic and colorful character. He was fat, he gambled for enormous sums in the front window of Brooks', he stabled a string of racehorses, he kept a mistress." Like all men of this sort, he was possessed of "all the Dickensian virtues –– the very creatures, indeed, of the old order."

According to Hart, Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France did not go after Revolution because of its violence or because it threatened the peace of Europe, which were "derivative" things. Burke instead foresaw a "'revolution of doctrine and theoretic dogma,' by emotions which ... would render impossible any stable condition of society," leading to what he called permanent revolution.

Now, to Faust. According to Hart, the attitudes and doctrines informing the Revolution made tranquility impossible. As Burke wrote: in demands for a mythical freedom, a state of nature in the mode of Rousseau, "no agreement is binding; these [demands] admit no temperament and no compromise; anything withheld is so much fraud and injustice." For Burke, there were intellectual and literary voyeurs of revolution, men who delight in agitation, temperaments for whom it "'is a war or a revolution or nothing.'"

Clearly, Burke did not know Goethe's Faust, but Hart now writes: "There are those who, finally, agree with Goethe that the achievement of tranquility represents the defeat of the human spirit. Faust, that symbol of much, at least, in the modern temper, is never to say to the moment, 'Verweile doch, du bist sch├Ân.' Only a perpetual dissatisfaction, for the Faustian spirit, is truly human. Faust represents the deep antiontologicality which is ... one feature of the modern mind –– its hatred of what is, of the given, its impatience with what it regards as 'irrational differences of nationality, social class, race or sex (modernity is coeducational, as indeed, was Faust)."

The Faustian spirit?
Well, there are some things here with which one could quibble. First off, Hart seems to be equating Goethe with his Faustian character. (For Goethe's conservative reaction to the French Revolution, see the essay by Hans Vaget, "Goethe the Novelist: On the Coherence of His Fiction," in the 1983 volume Goethe's Narrative Fiction: The Irvine Goethe Symposium.)  I also don't get the part about Faust being "coeducational," but maybe someone can explain that to me. And "deep antiontologicality"? Still, Faust might indeed be regarded as the embodiment of a modern revulsion against tranquility.

A book by Nils Reschke, “Zeit der Umendung”: Lektoren der Revolution in Goethes Roman "Die Wahlverwandtschaften" (2007), posits Burke's Reflections as an "intertext" in Goethe's novel. Matt Erlin's review of Reschke appeared in volume 16 of Goethe Yearbook.

On an interpretation of Faust ("The Restless Spirit") via the drawings of William Blake, go to the Poetry in Translation site, which presents a "scene by scene study."

Picture Credit: Yale Center for British Art

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