Remarks on Part 2, Act II

Scene 1 (Gothic Chamber)

In this scene, which you are not required to read, Mephistopheles engages in an amusing dialogue with the Student from Pt. I, who has recently graduated (Baccalaureus) and displays a number of Faustian attitudes: "All is in motion, all astir with deeds, / The weak succumbs, the vigorous succeeds" (6870-1), and: "But I, true to my spirit's dictates, free, / In joy pursue the flame that burns in me" (6803-4).

Scene 2 (Laboratory)

In Faust's absence, Wagner has been pursuing his alchemical research and is on the verge of producing the homunculus ("little man"), an artificial being produced through the alchemical art.  Unbeknownst to Wagner, M helps bring the process to fruition, and Homunculus awakes.  Unlike a naturally produced baby, he is instantly knowledgeable and wise.  Although he looks like "a perfect little man," his body is insubstantial and he stays inside the alchemical flask (alembic) in which he was made (although he can float around in his flask).

Homunculus is an important character and you should pay attention to the details of his characterization.  First, as I mentioned, he is insubstantial, very much like a spirit or a mind without a body.  Second, H is another one of the childlike figures (like Gretchen's child and the Boy Charioteer) who represents the product of the alchemical conjunction of opposites.  In this case, the "little man" results from an explicitly alchemical procedure, presumably involving the unification of such opposites as (alchemical) sulphur and mercury (fiery/watery, male/female, etc.).  Also, we cannot ignore the dramatic fact that Goethe put the creation of H immediately after the explosive union between Paris and Helen.

Faust is still unconscious as a consequence of his attempt to physically seize the image of Helen.  Homunculus drifts over to him and is able to see what Faust is dreaming, which happens to be the myth of Leda and the Swan (which tells how Leda became pregnant with Helen).  Homunculus realizes that what F needs is to get out of musty medieval Germany and to journey to the land of classical Greek mythology.

As a spirit and a product of a union of opposites, Homunculus also represents a further integration of Faust's psyche.  Thus H can know F's dreams and lead him on to the next stage of his psychological development (for F has yet to be successful in his union with the feminine.)  (H is something like an alter-ego to Faust's ego; observe that here and in later scenes, H is never present when F is conscious on stage.)

Of course, the creation of Homunculus is suggestive of many contemporary Faustian technologies, such as cloning and the direct assembly of organisms from their DNA sequences (which has been done with viruses already).  Consider Wagner's view of the mystery of life:

What we extolled as Nature's deep conundrum,
We venture now to penetrate by reason,
And what she did organically at random,
We crystallize in proper season.    (6860)

Wagner thinks that his unnatural, chemical creation of life is preferable to "Begetting in the former fashion" (6838) and will soon replace it.  (Thanks to M, Faust has had a taste of "begetting in the former fashion," but W has not emerged from his musty intellectualism.)

The creation of H also suggests my own research areas of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Artificial Life (AL).  Homunculus has been created in vitro (in glass), whereas AL researchers speak of developing artificial life in silico (in silicon), for computers are made of silicon (as is glass).

Also, like some AI researchers, Wagner thinks his artificial intelligence will be superior to natural intelligence:

A great design appears at first insane;
But chance will soon seem quaint and blind,
And such an exemplary thinking brain
Will soon by thinkers be designed.    (6870)

Traditional AI systems have been attempts to create a disembodied intelligence, in the sense that it exists in an immobile computer, which is not much of a body.  Interestingly, recent research in AI and cognitive science has demonstrated the importance of embodiment (having a significant body, like an animal's, in significant interaction with a real natural environment) as a precondition for genuine intelligence.  So a disembodied intelligence must be, at best, incomplete.  Homunculus, take note!

Scene 3 (Classical Walpurgis Night: Pharsalian Fields)

This scene introduces the "Classical Walpurgis Night," which is a sort of witches' sabbath in Greek clothes and parallel to "Walpurgis Night" in Pt. I.  The remainder of Act II is devoted to this Greek festival, and it can be fairly difficult to understand.  The action is somewhat chaotic and bizarre, and it might be helpful to read it like a dream sequence; however it is rich in symbolism.  There are also many allusions to classical mythology, literature, and history, so I suggest you pay attention to the footnotes, which explain the allusions.

After an introduction by Erichtho (a well-known witch from classical lit.), the trio of Homunculus, Mephistopheles, and Faust (still unconscious) arrive on a sort of magic carpet made of Faust's moth-eaten cloak.  All three can be interpreted as aspects of Faust's personality.  After they alight, they decide to split up, each pursuing his own quest.  (Contrary to my remark above, F is briefly conscious on stage at the same time as H, but shows no awareness of H, for he is still obsessed by Helen.)

Scene 4 (Upper Peneios)

You are not required to read this scene, which has Mephistopheles interacting with hybrid creatures from Greek mythology (e.g., Griffins, Sphinxes, and Sirens).  One interesting aspect is that M feels out of his element in the classical world, which is unaware of his concept of sin (7080-90).  Faust appears briefly, in search of Helen, and the Sphinxes tell him to seek out Chiron, the famous Centaur, for information.

Scene 5 (Lower Peneios)

It's probably worth remarking at this point that some commentators connect the five acts of Pt. II with the five  "elements" recognized by the alchemists (familiar material to Goethe).  The first act highlights the element fire, for example at the end of the Carnival, when everything goes up in flame, and at the end of the act, when the apparition of Paris and Helen explodes.  The second act, which we are now reading, highlights the element water, and so we find that most of the act takes place on the River Peneios and on the shore of the Aegean Sea.  In alchemy, but also for fairly obvious reasons, fire and water were considered opposed elements, identified as male and female.  The goal of the alchemical work then, was a paradoxical union of the opposed elements (that is, a union in which the opposites do not merely annihilate each other, but form a new synthesis transcending the differences).  The next two acts highlight the elements air and earth (so you should watch for that), which are also opposed (male & female, respectively); thus we have the four elements of which the material world was supposed to be made.  The fifth act corresponds to the Quintessence, the immaterial element (or aether), which was supposed to the heavenly substance (according to Aristotle).  The goal of the alchemical process was to combine the four material elements, transcending their oppositions, to distill or sublimate from them the spiritual Quintessence, corresponding to the Philosopher's Stone.

Also in connection with water, it's worth noting that water is a common symbol of the material world, in which everything is in a constant state of flux, coming to be and passing away.  Heraclitus said "you cannot step in the same river twice" and "everything flows."  Therefore, the union of fire and water can symbolize the union of mind (or spirit) and matter, or of soul and body.  On a cosmic level, they may symbolize the union of the divine father (the mind of the world) and the divine mother (the body of the world).  (These ideas are found in Neoplatonic philosophy, with which Goethe was very familiar, as well as in alchemy.)

Further, the sea was considered the source of all life (as modern biologists agree), and brine was supposed to prevent corruption (for it is a preservative).  Hence sea water was used for ritual purification in the ancient world; running fresh water was also used, for it symbolizes washing away guilt, impurity, etc.  Now on to the action.

The scene opens with the spirit of the River Peneios and his daughters, the river nymphs, who encourage Faust to rest and recuperate, but his attention is seized by Leda, with her attendant nymphs, in a nearby pool.  This is the same vision that he previously experienced as a dream, but now he is a part of it.  Soon the swans arrive, and the most regal swan, who is Zeus in disguise, "invades the sacred site" (7306).  Of course this is an ancient myth, but Goethe's version of it may have been inspired by Correggio's painting (p. 502 in your text).  This simultaneous union of the human and divine realms and of the human and animal kingdoms was the origin of Helen.

Chiron the centaur, who is always in motion, arrives, and F mounts him so they can carry on a conversation.  Chiron was supposed to be the moral and cultural teacher of many heroes in Greek mythology, and so F's contact with him may represent another step in F's psychological development.  As a centaur, Chiron is a union of man and beast, which symbolizes his wisdom as a combination of human knowledge (which animals lack) and the natural instincts of animals (with which many humans are out of touch).  (In humans these instincts are experienced as the archetypal perceptual-behavioral structures of the collective unconscious.)

Chiron has several important lessons for Faust.  For example he points out that true loveliness is found, not in statically beautiful features, but in graceful action; in this Helen was perfection (7399-7405); beauty arises from beautiful living.  Second, Chiron cautions F against an over-literal approach to mythic symbols (a mistake already made by F when he tried to embrace the apparition of Helen).  Here is Fairley's prose translation of 7426-33:

"I see the philologists have fooled you as well as themselves.  It's queer about women in mythology.  A poet does what he likes with them.  They never grow up, they're never old, they're always enticing, they're carried off in youth, courted in old age.  Chronology means nothing to a poet."

Or, archetypal beings are timeless structures in the unconscious mind, and we distort them if we project them into historical time (says me!).  Next, Chiron observes that F is in a state of ecstasy or enthusiasm and offers to take him to Manto, daughter of the healing god Asclepius, to be cured.  But F does not want to be cured.  (Plato discussed three kinds of god-given frenzy or madness: prophetic madness (inspired by Apollo or another god of prophecy), poetic madness (inspired by the Muses), and erotic madness (inspired by Eros).  Despite the difficulties they may cause, Plato thinks that all these divine frenzies should be considered gifts of the gods, as opposed to ordinary insanity, which is a curse.  Here Faust is inspired by erotic madness, and perhaps also by the poetic kind.)

Chiron and Manto are an important complementary pair.  Chiron is always in motion, Manto is always at rest.   He says, "You ever dwell in sheltered stillness pure, / While I delight in circulating" (7479-80), and she replies, "Time circles me, while I endure" (7481).  This contrast recalls the polarity between the active and contemplative lives, which F called his "two souls" (in Pt. I), and which F must find some way of reconciling.

The pair of Chiron and Manto represent a spiraling toward the center, where all the opposites meet.  This suggests the third and fourth stages in Boehme's version of the alchemical process (which also inspired Goethe's theories of natural development, as in plants).  The first stage is contraction, considered male, and the second is expansion, considered female.  The third stage arises from the dynamic interaction of these two opposites, this polarization, which creates a rotation (considered masculine), which contracts towards the center.  The fourth stage (considered female) is the exact instant when it reaches the center and achieves stillness, peace loss of individual identity, and liberation; Boehme describes this as the instantaneous transition from death to rebirth, a process of expansion.  This leads directly to the fifth stage, in which male and female are joined (another contractive stage), which also symbolizes the union of God and human, or of heaven and earth, from which the divine child is born.  (More than you wanted to know, no doubt!)

At the end of this act, under the guidance of Manto, Faust descends, like Orpheus, to the underworld, where he will petition Persephone for Helen's release.

Scene 6 (Upper Peneios, as Before)

I realize that I've given you a big batch of reading for this week, so if you want to skip some of it, I would suggest skipping the first part of this scene (7495-7820), until Homunculus arrives.  The scene begins with an earthquake, in which the god Seismos pushes up out of the earth creating a mountain.  This alludes to a geological theory, popular in Goethe's time, called Vulcanism, according to which geological features result primarily from volcanoes and similar subterranean forces.  It is a sort of creation through fiery destruction.  In the play, this Seismic activity exposes veins of gold, which various mythological creatures begin to gather and hoard.  Soon there is a war and slaughter of innocent creatures, followed by revenge killings.

The scene shifts (7676, still in the part you can skip) and we find Mephistopheles pursuing the Lamiae, ghoulish beings who feed on human flesh and blood, who have taken on the form of attractive young women.  They taunt him and lead him on, playing the same sort of tricks on him that he has played on people in the past.  M is disgusted with himself, both because he cannot control his desire for the Lamiae and because they do not satisfy his desire when they allow themselves to be caught.

I remarked before that the trio of Homunculus, Faust, and Mephistopheles can be thought of as three aspects of a person; they correspond to the powers of the spirit, soul, and body (that is, alchemical sulphur, mercury, and salt).  In this mythological realm, each is seeking its own kind of completion and satisfaction.  Faust (the soul, which links the spirit and body) is, of course, seeking Ideal Beauty (Helen).  Mephisto (body) is, as usual, after sex (which was what induced him to accompany F & H, 6976-84).  Homunculus (spirit), who led the trio here, has his own goal.

After line 7820 (where you should begin reading) Homunculus arrives back on the scene.  Remember that he is a disembodied spirit (or marginally embodied in his alchemical vessel), and therefore his creation is not complete; thus he is "Keen on the finest manner of becoming; / I cannot wait to smash my glass and flare" (7831-2).  Later he says, "I aspire to come to be!" (7858).  To find out how to accomplish this (re)birth, he is seeking two ancient Greek philosophers, Anaxagoras and Thales.  M wisely advises him not to worry about philosophical theories, but to discover his own way: "By going wrong alone you come to rights! / If you would be, become by your own lights!" (7847-8)

M departs and the two philosopher wander onto the scene.  In history, Anaxagoras is known for proposing that spirit or mind (nous, in ancient Greek) is the primary force in the universe, whereas Thales is known for the view that the primary substance, from which all other things are made, is water (associated with material reality, you will recall).  So we have again a mind/matter polarity,

In this scene, Anaxagoras defends Vulcanism, arguing that fire is the most creative force and can erect a mountain in a day (7859-60).  Thales defends a different popular theory (which Goethe preferred), called Neptunism, according to which sedimentation under water was the most important geological process.  Thales grants that it is slow, but he says Nature is gentle, patient, and has plenty of time (7861-4).  Also, against A's assertion that fire creates mountains and cliffs (lifeless matter), T argues that moisture is the source of life (7855-6).  So again we have the opposition of fire and water, here considered as creative forces.

A, in an act of hubris or inflation, prays to the moon and calls her down from the sky (7900-9), which was supposed to be a power of ancient Greek witches.  When the moon appears to descend, he becomes frightened and throws himself on the ground (7910-29).  It turns out that it was not the moon but a meteorite, which crashes on the mountain (Seismos), killing all the creatures on it.  (So fiery forces from earth and heaven have met, annihilating life, but creating a nonliving mountain.)  But it turns out that it was all an illusion (7946), and this new trio (Homunculus, Anaxagoras, and Thales) departs the scene (7950).

Mephisto returns and introduces himself to the Phorcyads, three hideous goddesses (or demonesses) who share one eye and one tooth and live in a cave.  It seems that he finds their ugliness fascinating, for it surpasses that of his Northern witches and apparently all the horrors of hell (7876-9).  He is also surprised to find them in this mythological realm of classical beauty.  Indeed, he is as astonished — and even ecstatic — at their ugliness (7992-3) as Faust is at Helen's beauty, and so we have an interesting complementarity: F in search of Ideal Beauty, M in search of Ideal Ugliness.  Further, just as F desires to unite with Ideal Femininity, so M effects a kind of union with his feminine side.  He takes on the appearance of a Phorcyad, including the single eye and tooth.  Thus transgendered, Mephisto worries, "Oh pain! they'll call me an hermaphrodite!" (8029)

Scene 7 (Rocky Inlets of Aegean Sea)

This last scene of Act II is one of the symbolic climaxes of the drama.  The entire Aegean Festival is presided over by Eros (Love), whom the Greeks considered one of the oldest gods, instrumental in the creation of the universe.  (In some Orphic theologies, it was Eros — bisexual and self-fertilizing — who emerged from the Cosmic Egg and produced all the other gods.)  The (Germanic) Walpurgis Night of Pt. I was also dominated by Eros, but there it was of a purely Mephitophelian, physical sort (i.e. sex).  Here, in the culmination of the Classical Walpurgis Night, Eros also operates on a higher level; while Faust continues to pursue Ideal Beauty, Homunculus is striving for self-creation.

Like several other scenes (Outside the City Gates, Carnival Masque) this scene is dominated by a procession in which various individuals and groups appear in succession.  Several of these relate to the Cabiri, or Great Gods of Samothrace, who were a subject of much scholarly interest in Goethe's time.  They were considered primeval gods, the origins of the Greek gods.  As interpreted at that time, they have multiple connections with the themes of Pt. II, for they were identified with (1) Ceres (the Great Mother, representing a desire for creation and growth), (2) her daughter Proserpina (Queen of the Dead, whom Faust is visiting, wife of Pluto), (3) Dionysus (who has a role similar to Pluto's as King of the Dead), and (4) Mercury (the guide of souls into or out of the underworld, but also up into heaven).  They represent a spiritual ascent "proceeding from the primal urge of nature through erotic union toward complete consciousness and intelligence" (your text, p. 437).  There were another three (or four) gods who recapitulated this ascent on a higher level, and you will find allusions to all of these ideas in this scene.

The central character of this scene is Homunculus (indeed, Faust and Mephistopheles are completely absent).  He is brought by Thales to Nereus, the old man of the sea, for advice because "This flame here, quasi-human though it be" (8104) — that is, Homunculus — "This boy would know how best to come to be" (8133).  Nereus, however, is preparing for the arrival of his daughter Galatea, and so he sends them off to Proteus for advice, for Proteus is a mythological shape-shifter, able to adopt any form he desires, a symbol of transformation.  "Be off to Proteus now!  Ask how one can / Take shape and vary, of that wonder-man." (8152-3).

Thales explicitly describes H as half-born, because he has a mind but not a body (8246-52).  Proteus tells H, "You are before you ought to be!" (8254).  Finally, T observes that H is a hermaphrodite (8256), which is important for several reasons.  First, since he does not have a body (he's really just an incorporeal spirit in a bottle), he lacks sexual organs.  Second, he was produced by an alchemical process based on the union of opposites, and specifically on the union of male and female.  Further, the Hermaphrodite is a common alchemical symbol for the Philosopher's Stone because it unites and transcends all the opposites.  Psychologically, it represents, according to Jung, a fully integrated personality.

However, H is not complete, for he lacks a body.  His integration is entirely mental; he is not yet at home in the physical world.  In other terms, his integration encompasses the life of the mind (contemplative life) but not the mind of the body (active life).

The scene ends with an obvious union of the opposites fire and water.  Homunculus is a disembodied mind or spirit, described as a flame and glowing.  Galatea is a daughter of a sea god (Nereus) and has taken on the role of Aphrodite, goddess of love, herself described in mythology as born from the sea.  G arrives on a scallop shell, drawn and accompanied by all variety of sea beings.  Thales praises her, saying "From the water has sprung all life! / All is sustained by its endeavor!" (8435-6), and Echo adds, "Of life's renewal you are the fount" (8444).  So she symbolizes the fruitful source of self-renewing natural creation.  H, in contrast, is a product of inanimate matter brought artificially to life.

The scene ends with a grand chorus in which everyone celebrates the erotic union of fire and water (8479-83) and salutes "All four elements as one!" (8487).

Although Homunculus achieves his goal, he is destroyed (as an individual) in the process.  He has become living matter, which nevertheless must evolve much more before reaching the human level (8321-32).  This is the third time that the child born of the alchemical conjunction has been lost (Gretchen's child, the Boy Charioteer, Homunculus).  But Faust and Mephistopheles are still engaged on their own erotic quests.

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Last updated: 2005-02-20.