Recently I read both Goethe’s and Marlowe’s Faust plays–the Faust legend has been a major influence on many generations of composers and authors. I found them exceedingly dull, except that the Marlowe made me think about changing English syntax in relation to the other germanic languages. And in the case of Goethe, I was curious about the psychology that would lead someone to torment over this story for one’s entire career.
What they made me realize though, is that ideas of the value and endurance of art are tied to our world views. The Faust legend has very little appeal to someone who believes that Christianity is only one among many competing superstitious ways of understanding the world. After you take out the struggle between Christian sin and virtue, the story become nonsensical. This is especially so when you consider that many of the vices that damn the characters in both versions became pillars of Western civilization over the past 150 years.
Even the core concept behind the myth seems problematic to me, because it is inherently moralistic. The basic premise is that of over-extending and being punished for it. In the case of Faust, the over-extension is in terms of Christian morality: dealing with the devil and so forth. The closest recent parallel I could find is the sub-prime mortgage fiasco in the US. That seems a question of over-extension, the hedge fund speculators having dealt with the devil of questionable investments. In our case, however, there’s a lot less gnashing of teeth and a lot more people trying to solve the problem. Punishment, moreover, is largely absent from any discussion I’ve seen, since it would be ludicrously unproductive. (Granted, Goethe starts hinting at the punishment problem in the end of Part 2 when the angels steal Faust’s soul away from Mephistopheles at the last minute. But Part 2 leaves the core of the myth behind anyway, and Goethe refused to have it published during his lifetime, so…)
The value of the Faust myth to art has become historical at best. Increasingly, I think all art follows this path. Faust as an idea served a purpose. It was useful to a Christian society trying to come to grips with the problems in its beliefs. But what would a Confucianist scholar contemporary with Goethe have thought of it? Or would it have made any sense framed by Buddhist morality? Would it have survived in a non-Western literary canon? Even for Christians living today, is it particularly inspiring?
When we make art, perhaps we should keep this specificity of purpose in mind. After all, when art does seem to last, the reality is that it’s been reinvented: the music Mozart wrote for his patrons’ parties is not really the same as the Mozart that is now part of the Top 100 Relaxing Classical Hits collection in your car CD player. The reasons it has survived have nothing to do with why it was successful during Mozart’s lifetime.
So let’s forget about immortality and lasting art. Sure, I’d like people to keep on enjoying what I make long after my death. But that’s not something anyone can control; it’s purely at the whim of historical fancy. And given the exponential increases in the amount of art being made, our abilities to store it, and its accessibility, it seems to me this vision of creating lasting art is becoming increasingly problematic. Art becomes more disposable, more individual, more subjective by the minute. That, in the end, is what Faust really has to say to us today.