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Sacrifice in Goethe’s Faust

From: Goethe Yearbook
Volume 21, 2014
pp. 129-156 | 10.1353/gyr.2014.0031

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Analyses of Sacrifice in Literature treated it for a long time as a unified phenomenon, in which sacrifice is always the manifestation of a particular kind of violence. The most prominent example of this approach is that of René Girard, whose idea that every sacrifice is an example of a universal scapegoat mechanism has inspired many readings of sacrifice in literature. As in Freud’s discussion of the death drive in Civilization and Its Discontents, Girard assumes that violence and aggression naturally build up in human society in the form of the “mimetic violence” that arises through uncontrollably escalating rivalry. Mimetic violence ends only when all aggression is channeled against one innocent scapegoat, who is sacrificed. While this approach has maintained a sense of the continuing importance of sacrifice for all human cultures, the focus on sacrifice as itself an expression of violence rather than an attempt to structure the human relationship to violence has meant that this theory has tended to read all sacrifice as both irrationally violent and structurally identical.

More recent theories of sacrifice have attempted to offer a more nuanced perspective, first by recognizing the positive aspects of sacrifice and second by differentiating between various structures of sacrifice in the separate manifestations. Jan-Melissa Schramm’s study of Victorian fiction sees stories of sacrifice as examples of the attempt to construct an ideology of the nation and at the same time a basis for creating a general substitution of the self for the victim in a way that creates a bond of empathy. Describing the notion of sacrifice in France, Ivan Strenski contends that “there can be no durable social life—much less a ‘nation’—without sacrifice and the transcendent sanctions embodied in it,” and he demonstrates that Catholic understandings of sacrifice in France were not eliminated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but were revised to fit into nationalist conceptions of collective identity. Similarly, Yael Feldman shows how narratives of sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible were transformed in the twentieth century through secular interpretations that linked them to a new Israeli nationalism. These studies move toward a theory of sacrifice that treats it, not so much as an affirmation of violence, as a means of establishing a collective understanding of the human relationship to death. For Derek Hughes, for instance, “[a]ll communities need rituals and systems of exchange to make sense of death; it must fit into an intelligible system of circulation, even if it is the end of the road for the dead individual.” The focus, then, is not on demonstrating the irrationality of notions of sacrifice but on tracing how these notions supersede each other over time in a particular tradition.

In one of the most emphatic attempts to rehabilitate the notion of sacrifice, Douglas Hedley argues that sacrifice must be understood as a Christian structure that is to be opposed to the deficiencies of a secular culture. His approach is most relevant for the discussion of sacrifice in Goethe because it considers the opposition between Christian submission to a transcendent order and the primacy of the individual, an opposition that becomes a key theme in Faust. As Hedley writes, “[m]any of the critics of the idea of sacrifice are anti-Platonic and so is Nietzsche’s odd retrieval of sacrifice, where sacrifice is an expression of the Will to Power and not the slave morality that encourages sacrifice of self for the sake of metaphysical values. Nietzsche is very telling in this reversal of the idea of sacrifice. The increasing emphasis upon individual freedoms and rights and the horizontal web of beliefs and commitments: dimension of family, friends, and contracts has been combined in occidental culture with an erosion of vertical sense of a mediated transcendent order.” The opposition between metaphysical values and human freedom lies at the heart of the Faust story, and Goethe’s Faust is significant in that it marks the boundary between a Christian notion of sacrifice and the Nietzschean modern one.

The idea of this boundary presumes a theory of sacrifice in which it is not a fixed structure of violence but an aesthetic form that sets up a relationship to violence and that can...

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