Monday, August 15, 2011

Goethe's Faust: Eritis sicut Deus, scientes bonum et malum.

Mephistopheles in Faust's Study - Eugène Delacroix

A few days ago, I quoted lines 2038-39 in the first part of Goethe's Faust:
Grau, teurer Freund, ist alle Theorie,
Und grün des Lebens goldner Baum.
I offered this translation:
Grey, dear friend, is all theory,
And green the golden tree of life.
I then explained:
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.
To add a few points to that . . . Mephistopheles was disguised as Faust in this scene in order to meet with one of Faust's students and offer 'academic' advice, which is what he has done above. I decided to find the passage in Faust, which is how I came to know the precise line numbers above, and I read on to discover that scarcely nine lines later, Mephistopheles writes the following, possibly contradictory advice for the student in line 2048:
"Eritis sicut Deus, scientes bonum et malum."
The line is from Genesis 3:5 in the Latin Vulgate. The King James Version has:
"Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil."
Mephistopheles then advises, in lines 2049-50:
Folg nur dem alten Spruch und meiner Muhme, der Schlange,
Dir wird gewiß einmal bei deiner Gottähnlichkeit bange!
This translates somewhat as follows:
Only follow the old proverb and my cousin, the snake:
You'll surely become anxious sometime through your God-likeness!
If this knowledge is theoretical knowledge, then Mephistopheles has contradicted his earlier advice about partaking of the "golden tree of life" rather than partaking of "grey . . . theory." Of course, he could simply be speaking this way to confuse the student whom he's misleading. Or he might mean that knowledge from the tree of knowledge is really experiential knowledge, knowledge gained by living life to its 'fullest' -- and thus be speaking consistently. I have previously noted this in John Milton's Paradise Lost:
A distinction has been drawn between an abstract, conceptual knowledge of evil and a concrete, experiential knowledge of evil.
But I don't know if Mephistopheles knows enough of Milton's Paradise Lost to play with this concept in this way.

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At 9:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think you can translate "Muhme" in this context as "cousin". "Muhme" may also be the sister of my mother or a not-so-exact defined very close relative. "dear aunt" seems to be a better variant.


At 8:37 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the corrective.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I once read it translated as "ancestor". I don't know german, i was just wondering if the original german word means something like a distant relative or it is something that is lost in translation. Bestwishes.

At 6:10 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks. "Muhme" as ancestor would make sense.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:52 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Seems to me like the devil is picking up where he left off with Adam, that is, he convinced Adam to fall for the temptation of becoming God-like in knowledge, but then God saved him through Christ (also known as the Word, which is ever present in the beginning of Faust part 1); now, the devil wants to prove a point, (as he complains to Faust subtly and not so subtly when they first meet, how what comes from the void should be destroyed), and makes a wager with god almost exactly as he does in the book of Job in the old testament, but this time get Man, who is now tired of god-like knowledge, to also renounce the saving grace God has given through the Word, by accepting from the devil what Christ denies in the New Testament, which is, all the world and its pleasures.

At 2:07 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Maybe so. I apologize for this late response, but Blogger hasn't been notifying me of comments for several days.

Jeffery Hodges

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