We are the slaves of objects around us
We are the slaves of objects around us, and appear little or important
according as these contract or give us room to expand.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832)
German poet, novelist, playwright, courtier, and natural philosopher, one of the greatest figures in Western literature. In literature Goethe gained early fame with The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), but his most famous work is the poetic drama in two parts, FAUST. Like the famous character of this poem, Goethe was interested in alchemy. He also made important discoveries in connection with plant and animal life, and evolved a non-Newtonian and unorthodox theory of the character of light and color, which has influenced such abstract painters as Kandinsky and Mondrian.
In 1810, Goethe published his Theory of Colours, which he considered his most important work. In it, he (contentiously) characterized colour as arising from the dynamic interplay of darkness and light. Goethe was the first to systematically study the physiological effects of colour, and his observations on the effect of opposed colors led him to a symmetric arrangement of his colour wheel, ‘for the colours diametrically opposed to each other… are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye. (Goethe, Theory of Colours, 1810).
Faust or Faustus (Latin for “auspicious” or “lucky”) is the protagonist of a classic German legend who makes a pact with the Devil in exchange for knowledge. The meaning of the word and name has been reinterpreted through the ages. “Faust” (and the adjective “Faustian“) has taken on a connotation distinct from its original use, and is often used today to describe a person whose headstrong desire for self-fulfillment leads him or her in a diabolical direction.
The legend of Faust was an obsession of Goethe’s. The composition and refinement of his own version of the legend occupied him for over sixty years (though not continuously). The final version, published after his death, is recognized as a great work of German literature.
The story concerns the fate of Faust in his quest for the true essence of life (“was die Welt im Innersten zusammenhält”). Frustrated with learning and the limits to his knowledge and power, he attracts the attention of the Devil (represented by Mephistopheles), who agrees to serve Faust until the moment he attains the zenith of human happiness, at which point Mephistopheles may take his soul. Faust is pleased with the deal, as he believes the moment will never come.
In the first part, Mephistopheles leads Faust through experiences that culminate in a lustful and destructive relationship with an innocent and nubile woman named Gretchen. Gretchen and her family are destroyed by Mephistopheles’ deceptions and Faust’s desires and actions. The story ends in tragedy as Gretchen is saved and Faust is left in shame.
The second part begins with the spirits of the earth forgiving Faust (and the rest of mankind) and progresses into rich allegorical poetry. Faust and his devil pass through the world of politics and the world of the classical gods, and meet with Helen of Troy (the personification of beauty). Finally, having succeeded in taming the very forces of war and nature Faust experiences a single moment of happiness.
The devil Mephistopheles, trying to grab Faust’s soul when he dies, is frustrated as the Lord intervenes—recognizing the value of Faust’s unending striving.
Many of Goethe’s works, especially Faust, the Roman Elegies, and the Venetian Epigrams, depict hetero- and homosexual erotic passions and acts. In Faust, having signed (the Devil insists on his signature in an actual contract) his deal with the devil, the very first use of his new power thus gained sees Faust raping a young teenage girl. In fact, some of the Venetian Epigrams were held back from publication due to their sexual content. However, Karl Hugo Pruys caused national controversy in Germany when his 1999 book The Tiger’s Tender Touch: The Erotic Life of Goethe tentatively deduced from Goethe’s writings the possibility of Goethe’s homosexuality. The sexual portraitures and allusions in his work may stem from one of the many effects of Goethe’s eye-opening sojourn in Italy, where men, who shunned the prevalence of women’s venereal diseases, embraced homosexuality as a solution that was not widely imitated outside of Italy. Whatever the case, Goethe clearly saw sexuality in general as a topic that merited poetic and artistic depiction. This went against the thought of his time, when the very private nature of sexuality was rigorously normative, and makes him appear more modern than he is typically thought to be.