One may say that the benefit of tragedy is that one gets to witness man self-destruct without having to self-destruct on one’s own. Lessons learned without having to go through the actual act of the crime. Tragedies were incredibly prevalent during the time of the Greeks, and some tragic stories, like that of Faust have pervaded through centuries. Goethe’s Faust, in particular, played with the notion of tragedy, in addition to the question of its usefulness.
When considering the question of whether or not Faust, Part 1 is a tragedy, what tragedy is must first be examined, along with underlining the difference between tragedy and comedy. Both tragedy and comedy rely on incoherence, the tension between two poles in life. However, while comedy relieves the tension between the two poles, often resulting in a happy union, literally, tragedy exposes the tension, bringing it to the surface. And the irony is that what tragedy exposes is only the appearance of the fact that we can only get at things through appearances. And in this case, Faust, Part 1 is certainly a tragedy, because not only does it bring to the surface and give an appearance to the tension between two poles, the play itself, and the play within the play, is about bringing to the surface, giving appearance, to what is inside. Faust, Part 1 is a tragedy that is aware that it is a tragedy.
The self-consciousness of the play is immediately presented to the audience, who is in fact necessary to the construction of the play as a whole, in the three prologues to the tragedy; the dedication, the prelude in the theatre, and the prologue in heaven. With these three prologues, Goethe presents, in reverse order, the beginning of the world of the play with heaven, the actual creators of the play with the theatre, and a reflection on the play itself with the dedication. In order to create a unified image, the image must account for one looking at the image, hence the dedication. The reversal of the order creates another level of tension, of the feeling of moving back and forth between two poles to the point where you’ve created a sphere.
The entire play pulls and pushes between microcosms and macrocosms, and these opening scenes are microcosms of the play as a whole. The dedication calls forth appearances, the theatre presents the beings who create the appearance, and in heaven, light is called forth as the principle for distinguishing appearance. A play striving to be about unity cannot help but begin by first creating what man uses to distinguish unity; the appearance of unity, the creators of that appearance, and the principle of light for distinguishing that appearance. The very first lines of the dedication call forth the idea of appearances, and almost seem to be picking up where something was left off; “You come back, wavering shapes, out of the past/ In which you first appeared to clouded eyes./ Should I attempt this time to hold you fast?” (1-3) Words such as “pictures” and “shadows” come up as well, bringing to mind the image of Plato’s cave, where everything is appearance and shadows, and one must turn around and climb to reach what is real. But despite these reflections on appearances, the word “heart” appears three times in the dedication, which is only thirty-two lines long. Even appearances are rooted in love and passion, and even understanding is an appearance. If the aim of the play and of Faust is to revise understanding, right from the beginning the dedication calls to attention the veil of appearances; the heart is always where appearance is rooted.
The prelude in the theatre brings forth the creators of appearances, the director, the poet, and the clown. The director especially draws attention to the audience’s act of participation in seeing a play. “It’s easy to invent, and easy to unroll./ What good is it, if you construct a whole?/ The public takes it all apart again” (101-3). The fact that even when a whole is constructed, the viewer inevitability will take it apart, but it is then up to the viewer to reconstruct it back as a whole, because the whole did not actually exist without the viewer. This also reinforces the state of the audience as actors and spectators, just like Faust the character. The director believes that “a lot of action” (89) must be had, because “each likes some part of what has been presented” (96); the form comes first, because everyone in the audience will pick a piece and assign their own value to it, “and everybody will go home contented” (98). And it is the director’s job to put together actors and spectators, form and content. In this case, the poet provides the content, and the clown provides a form that the poet is comfortable placing his content in. The poet takes convincing by the clown, believing that his noble words are going to be corrupted; “Go hence and seek yourself another slave!/ The noblest right the poet ought to wave?/ The right of man that nature granted him,/ And waste it frivolously for your gain?” (134-7). The noble job of the poet, who takes “the strength of man, in poets become flesh” (157), is one of the highest acts of creation, and the poet does not want it reduced to a paltry form upon a stage. The clown, who is also concerned with context, provides the poet with a form that will not lower the content; a love story. Since heart and passion are the root of everything, even appearances, the appearance of that heart and passion would be the highest reflection of life in art. And this appeals to the will of the director, who knows that the audience will takes pieces home for themselves, because “one thrills to this, one finds that in your art/ Each sees precisely what is in his heart” (178-9). What better thing to show the audience than that which “all live in it, not many know it well” (168). The heart of the world is gotten at by affecting the heart of the audience by creating a play about the heart of the actor.
This is one of the things that makes Faust the character so intriguing and tragic. He is the actor in this tragedy, in this world, but he is also a spectator of the physical manifestation, the appearance, of his own tragedy. The play begins at nighttime in Faust’s isolated study, where he sits by himself, restless, condemning the fact that “we can know nothing” (365). He is sitting in the cave, and he knows he is in the cave. This is a play about the problem of perception, and it begins with Faust lamenting because of this problem. He wants to externalize “what secret force/Hides in the world and rules its course/ Envisage the creative blazes/ Instead of rummaging in phrases” (382-5). Faust is well studied in philosophy, jurisprudence, medicine, and theology, but none of these have led him any closer to the truth he wishes to behold. He understands that he has failed in his attempt to understand the true nature of the world, but he does not understand why. Faust never reveals his motives behind wanting to know and see the secret force that rules the world. The passion at the root of his intentions is never revealed; he wants to understand the motion of the world without taking into account his own motion which is a part of the world.
If tragedy is the ego’s experience of itself as an individuated being from nature, and a tragic play is the appearance of this experience, Faust is unique because it is the appearance of Faust’s experience not only for the audience, but for Faust himself. Faust wants to understand the motion of the world, the becoming of the world, which is what the Erdgeist represents, but he does not incorporate his own becoming; he individuates himself.
His becoming is then manifested in Mephistopheles, allowing Faust to experience the motion of his becoming while simultaneously being a spectator of his becoming acting as part of the world. Mephistopheles does this to show to Faust the importance of images because appearances are the only articulation of becoming we have access to in order to understand. This is the purpose of tragedy for the audience, and this becoming the purpose of the tragedy for Faust himself; to show the importance of appearance. Faust wants to understand the idea that cannot appear, becoming, but understanding requires articulation, which requires language, which is an image. Faust greatly disparages appearances, which clouds his appreciation of his access to the being of appearances. He is disgusted with the image of the macrocosm because he cannot find his “boundless nature” to “hold fast” (455); it’s all just a play. The problem is that the image of the macrocosm does not account for the movement between man and the universe, the act of looking at the image of the macrocosm, but that movement is impossible to pin down because once it is pinned down it is just another image. Faust even says to Wagner “What you don’t feel, you will not grasp by art” (534). Images are an illusion, but the power of language is the power to create an illusion, and one cannot get at becoming without being. By dismissing the image as a mere image, a mere form, Faust does not account for his own heart in the act of reflection. Faust wants to get at the pure content of the world without taking into account his own content and motion, which is a part of the world. His participation is needed to create an image, to allow for understanding. And he doesn’t realize that the only way to get access understanding is through images, even if the image is inadequate. This disenchantment with appearances and language is what almost drives him to suicide, before Mephistopheles wagers that he can satisfy Faust, who believes that nothing earthly can satisfy him, because everything earthly is appearance, and to escape appearance and the cave he must kill himself and get out of the cave, reaching heaven. Mephistopheles reintroduces striving into Faust’s life, even though Faust believes he has nothing left to strive for, and Mephistopheles refocuses Faust’s eye to earthly passions, which is the purpose of the love story, exactly what the clown recommended.
Mephistopheles reintroduces striving into Faust’s world. Striving is the heart of man, which is what Faust has been denying all this time. However, this striving only comes up as failures. This is what forces man to keep striving. This is the tragedy of life, the tragedy of the play, and the tragedy that Faust is a participant and a spectator of.
Faust is the image for the tragedy of human individuation because he assumes the image of his individuality, yet of all things that Faust seeks to know, he does not seek himself. He begins with the assumption of a unified being. The only method in which Mephistopheles may turn Faust’s eye upon himself, upon his conscience, is through suffering. Only then will Faust question his consciousness, and rather than disparage his alienation, see it as something essential to feeling at all. Without alienation, how is one to know what it feels to be united?
Nowadays tragedy may not be entirely disparaged, but its necessity is no longer felt as it once was. We prefer triumphant phoenixes rising from the ashes than a man with makeshift wings falling to his death. It’s important to always strive for comfort, ease, and speed. There’s no longer a tension to move us forward. Our ends have become our means; progress for the sake of progress. And while the dichotomy of ‘image’ and ‘reality’ has long been abandoned as a method for describing our current world, the tension it sets up is no doubt useful, even now.