Wednesday, August 10, 2011

"Grey is all theory . . ."

Mephistopheles and Faust
Bewitching Students
(Image from Wikipedia)

On our hike a few days ago up Bulamsan, one of the many mountains in and around Seoul, Sun-Ae and I took a break on a ridge leading up to the mountain and sat under a roofed platform beside the path to rest, sip water, gaze down at Seoul, and talk about various things.

My wife has a doctorate in German literature, and we met in Germany, so we both know a bit of German literature, and when she made a reference to Goethe's Faust, the line about striving and satiation, I caught her point and exclaimed:
"Verweile doch, du bist so schön!"
We discussed what was meant by Faust saying to the moment:
Remain, you are so beautiful.
To say those words to a moment of satisfaction, in the desire that it remain, that one might no longer strive for change . . . that would have been Faust's undoing, his damnation to hell, based on the particular pact that he'd made with Mephistopheles.

I know Faust fairly well. In fact, I read all of Faust, in German, when I was 21, in Mr. Martin's class at Baylor University. He taught a two-semester, upper-level seminar on Faust and invited me to take the class even though my German wasn't very good because he knew that I liked literature. I didn't understand very much at the outset, but I learned a lot, and still remember a few lines. For example, as my wife and I discussed the contrast between our scholarly life in books and our outdoor life hiking up the mountain, I cited Mephistopheles:
"Grau . . . ist alle Theorie . . ."
That led to a fuller citation:
Grau, teurer Freund, ist alle Theorie,
Und grün des Lebens goldner Baum.
Suddenly, I was struck by the deeper meaning of the lines. Mephistopheles is contradicting Satan, ostensibly, anyway. Here's the translation:
Grey, dear friend, is all theory,
And green the golden tree of life.
The original promise in the Garden of Eden was that eating from the Tree of Knowledge would make one god-like, and perhaps it did, but that proved unsatisfactory for the scholar Faust, as the first scene of him in his study makes clear, for he decries the futility, the sterility, of all the scholarly knowledge that he has accumulated.

Mephistopheles therefore offers 'fruit' from the Tree of Life, presumably, the experience of living life to its fullest. He happens not to be speaking to Faust at the moment that he makes this offer in these particular words (for he's chatting with a student at the time), but that's also what he offers Faust in return for Faust's soul -- though Mephistopheles only wins if Faust utters those fateful words:
Verweile doch, du bist so schön!
Faust eventually utters the words, but he states them subjunctively -- if I correctly recall -- and they mean the opposite of their literal meaning, anyway, in the sense that he uses them, for he addresses a moment of striving, not satiation.

Or so we discussed, before continuing on our hike, and you can now see why I married the right woman for me . . .

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At 9:00 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Thanks for this discussion. As you know, your citation of this line has been preserved as a footnote to my "Love Poem" in Emanations

At 9:19 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I knew but forgot, though I now recall again.

By the way, I wonder if posting the Table of Contents for Emanations on Amazon might garner interest.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:46 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Sounds like a goood idea, and I'll look into it. Thanks for the suggestion.

At 6:08 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I've since seen that the "Search Inside the Book" function allows access to the table of contents, but that's an extra step for viewers to take.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:59 PM, Blogger jsquarek said...

Beautiful little
piece. It may
have moved me
to read Faust
in German.

At 5:17 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'm pleased to have been of some use.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the nice explanation on the quote that I've been searching the meaning of. I don't know why I liked this part of Mephistopheles's words and I'm not sure if it's right for me to think it has a positive meaning. I'm reading Faust but I'm not a scholar and I'm really keen to know it the grayness of theories and the greenness of life's golden tree has got to do with the same modern notion we have when describing happiness. Could you send me a paraphrase to mamisa at gmail? Blogger is filtered in my country. Thank you.

At 3:15 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You're welcome.

Jeffery Hodges

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