Remarks on Part 2, Act IV

Scene 1 (High Mountains)

According to the elemental analysis of Pt. II by Jungian psychologist Edward Edinger, Act IV corresponds to the element Earth, and so this act shifts the focus from the spiritual issues of the previous act ("Air") to earthly matters of warfare, money, and technological and urban development!  Thus Act IV begins in the air, alights on a mountain peak and then descends to the foothills to enter the rival emperor's tent; the movement is progressively "down to earth."

Recall that at the end of the previous act, Helen's robe and veil had transformed into clouds and carried Faust away.  Act IV begins with the cloud-vehicle's arrival on a mountain peak in the Alps.  The cloud divides into (heavenly and earthly) halves, reminiscent of the egg from which Helen was born (and of the diabolical egg in the Carnival Masque, 5475-83), and Faust steps out.  The lower half drifts away toward the eastern horizon as a cumulus cloud, which assumes the form of an ideally beautiful woman: either Juno (queen of the gods), Leda (Helen's mother), or Helen (10050); at the horizon it clings on the border between earth and heaven, visible but inaccessible.  The upper half of the egg becomes a cirrus cloud that rises high into the heavens; Faust's description (10055-66) compares its appearance with Gretchen, "an enchanting shape, / As of long-lost, most cherished boon of earliest youth." (10058-9)  Thus these two kinds of clouds (which Goethe knew from his scientific studies) represent the two principal objects of Faust's erotic pursuit, Gretchen and Helen.  Ideal though Helen is, her beauty is essentially earthly, material.  As we will discover, although Gretchen was a real women, her beauty is more celestial, spiritual.

Mephistopheles arrives.  Their location on a mountain peak inspires M to tell the tale of how, when Satan and the rebellious angels were ejected from heaven, and plunged into the fiery earth's core, they began to cough and fart (10081-2) so violently that they forced the mountains up.  This is M's theological version of the Vulcanist geological theory (referred to in Act II, 7503-81, 7851-929), according to which geological features were created by volcanic activity and earthquakes.  M is expressing the paradoxical idea of creation through violence and destruction.  Faust, in contrast, advocates a more gradualist, organic theory of geological change (10097-104): "Nature can rejoice in this without needing your wild upheavals" (Fairley tr.).

In an episode echoing Christ's temptation in the wilderness (Matthew iv), M asks F if he is tempted by anything on earth (10129-33).  F replies that there is something, and he asks M to guess it.  M answers with a description of modern urban life at its shallowest and materialist worst (10135-75).  As expected, M's ideas of what is worth pursuing are limited to power, prestige, and pleasure.  F counters this with his own dream, a unique and remarkable vision in which he becomes a symbol for modern technological society (10198-233).

Faust has been observing the sea, and so it is important to contrast his view of it with the symbolism of the sea as it is used elsewhere (especially Act II, the Classical Walpurgis Night).  There the sea was identified with the ever flowing, ever changing source of continual (re-)creation, the living womb of Nature.  (Similarly, according to modern biology, life emerged from the sea.)  The Aegean Festival was presided over by Galatea, a sea goddess as well as a goddess of love.  It ended with a celebration of the living sea:  "From the water has sprung all life! / All is sustained by its endeavor! / Vouchsafe us, Ocean, your rule forever." (8435-7)  "Of life's renewal you are the fount." (8444)  "Hail the deeps with secrets pregnant!" (8485)

Faust, however, describes the sea as sterile and imparting sterility (10213).  Although brine can destroy life, this perception of the sea as lifeless and destructive of life is certainly odd, and in a historical sense represents a new attitude.  It can be compared to the rise in the 16th and 17th centuries of the "mechanical philosophy" according to which the material universe (i.e. everything but human souls, God, the angels, etc.) is fundamentally inert and obeys mechanical laws.  Since, according to this philosophy, the material world is essentially soulless, and therefore theologically valueless, it can be exploited without limit or compunction for our needs and desires.  (We discussed the mechanical philosophy a little in the first class, and it is described in more detail in the Introduction on the course website.)

Faust is frustrated by what he sees as a lack of progress or purpose in the endless cycles of nature:

There wave on wave imbued with power has heaved,
But to withdraw -- and nothing is achieved;
Which drives me near to desperate distress!
Such elemental might unharnessed, purposeless!  (10216-19)

Therefore he conceives a desire to conquer nature, to push back the sea, and to create a new state on the reclaimed land.  This is the new object of his "striving":  "There dares my spirit soar past all it knew; / Here I would struggle, this I would subdue." (10220-1)

F's description of his plan is interrupted by the sounds of an approaching army, and M informs him that, while they were chasing after Helen, the Emperor's state has fallen into anarchy through his mismanagement (and, no doubt, currency inflation).  Most of the nobles and the clergy are opposed to him (because anarchy threatens their wealth), and a Rival Emperor is challenging him.  (Recall also that one aspect of Ideal Beauty is the conflict it causes, as in the Trojan War.)  M suggests that they help their old friend, since the Emperor can grant F the seaside real estate that he needs for his project.

M says that his demonic magic can help the Emperor win, and as a start he calls up three Mighty Men, allegorical figures named Pugnacious (violent for the sake of violence), Rapacious (who grabs what he can), and Tenacious (who is concerned only with holding on to what he has).  It's hard to say why Goethe has introduced these characters.  Certainly, all three represent kinds of power, and they are causes of conflict.

In terms of the ancient philosophical idea that Love and Strife (associated also with the gods Venus and Mars) are the two opposed cosmic forces that govern all change in the material world of the four elements, Acts II and III were focused on Love (including beauty, harmony, union, and cooperation), but Act IV swings to the Strife side, with its emphasis on power, competition, and conflict.

Scene 2 (In the Foothills)

In this scene, which you are not required to read, the Emperor wins his war, thanks to the diabolical aid of Mephisto and Faust.  First, in conversation with his Commander-in-Chief, the Emperor observes that their somewhat desperate circumstances will at least give him an opportunity to prove himself as Emperor.  Faust enters with the three Mighty Men and offers magical aid.  To allay concerns that the Devil might be involved, F says that they will be aided by the "Sorcerer of Norcia," whom the Emperor happened to have pardoned, much to the Church's displeasure, years before when the sorcerer was about to be burned.  The CiC (Commander-in-Chief) deploys the Emperor's forces in three groups, and F sends one of the Mighty Men to fight with each of them.  ("Rapacious" is accompanied by "Grab-swag," a female camp-follower who decides there may be some profit from going with him.)

Mephisto arrives, in command of a phantom army.  He has gathered all the antique arms and armor from museums, castles, etc. and has animated it with devils; they are rather like robots.  As they enter the battle, accompanied by strange phenomena, the Emp. becomes concerned again that this might be the Devil's work, but M credits it to the Sorcerer of Norcia.

In spite of the magical aid, the battle is not going well for the Emp.  M says he has some more tricks he can use, and asks to be given command.  The CiC is skeptical of this use of magic ("No lasting luck can magic earn" - 10695), but has nothing better to suggest.  He offers to give up formal command to M, but the Emp refuses, because he does not trust M to that degree.  Nevertheless he tells M to do what he can.

Therefore M orders the Undines, the water spirits, to create a flood, and he orders the dwarfs, who have their smithies underground, to produce fire and summer lightning.  Although the water and fire are both illusory, they confuse and frighten the enemy soldiers, and so the Emp. wins the battle.  As usual, M achieves his goals by creating chaos.

Scene 3 (In the Rival Emperor's Tent)

Mephistopheles magic is successful and the Emperor defeats his rival.  As this scene begins we find Rapacious and Grab-swag attempting to plunder the Rival Emperor's tent.  They are stupid and ineffective and are driven off with little or nothing when aides of the victorious Emperor arrive.  Soon the victorious Emperor himself arrives with his chief ministers.  They all congratulate each other on their victory (for which they were largely not responsible) and the Emperor promotes them all to princes.  All they can think about is future celebrations.  The Archbishop remains behind when the other princes depart and confronts the Emperor with his use of demonic magic.  He says that the only way for the E to be forgiven is to grant the Church a large tract of land, to build a cathedral on it, and to guarantee the Church tax income from all of his kingdom (including the part granted to Faust, even that which is still under the sea).  The Emperor's euphoria over his victory has been short-lived; after the Archbishop departs, he says ruefully to himself, "Why not sign over all the realm while we're about it!" (11042)

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Last updated: 2005-03-09.