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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.3 (2002) 469-496
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Hidden in Plain View:
Another Look at Goethe's Faust1
Géza von Molnár
When Goethe wrote one of his oldest confidants, Karl Friedrich Zelter, on 1 June, 1831 that he was finally able to put the finishing touches to his work on Faust, he also expressed the expectation that this product of a life-long preoccupation would remain "an unconcealed mystery [ein offenbares Rätsel]." 2 With this definition, Goethe challenges his readers to look closely at the obvious and apparent because it hints at what it may hide. Even his choice of offenbar leads by itself to the same coupling of revelation and concealment because Offenbarung (revelation) is the common designation for Scripture, the very text that exemplifies the word that conceals what it conveys. Just as Faust found out in his attempt to translate the Gospel of St. John (1224-37), revelation is itself an act of concealment. And so it is with Faust. It, too, meets the limits of linguistic revelation and retains something that must remain unsaid. This is its unfathomable or "incommensurable" (Kl. pt. 2, 7: 391) character, which Goethe recognizes with a faint air of surprise once the entire work has effectively been completed.
His attitude is strikingly similar to one in which he presents findings in the natural sciences gained by experiment. The way Faust was composed in separate starts and segments over some sixty years is itself reminiscent of the fitful periods of work and partial publications that contribute to Goethe's thoughts [End Page 469] regarding a theory of chromatics. On an equally obvious but less apparent level, this kinship between his literary and scientific enterprises actually determines the overall structure of Faust. This is one of the revelations that Goethe has hidden in plain view and entrusted to his text, which means that Faust should be read as an experiment. To do so is the task at hand. It will take its direction from some questions that constitute "offenbare Rätsel" of their own, and a brief introduction to Goethe's reception of critical philosophy will precede the examination of the text itself.
On reading Faust, at least four questions stand out that are fairly obvious but have attracted little attention: 1. What do "Prelude" and "Prologue" seek to accomplish or why were two introductory scenes thought necessary? 2. What, specifically, 3 merited the final text's categorical division into two parts? 3. What is the significance of having the drama of Faust's life range from monologue to monologue? 4. And, what point is to be made by framing an existence consciously dismissive of "the beyond" (1660) within imagery traditionally associated with it?
For all their obviousness, these questions either have never been asked or were approached in terms attuned to the obviousness of their appearance. In one of his last statements, a letter of 17 March, 1832 to Wilhelm von Humboldt, Goethe refers to his final product as "dieses seltsame Gebäu," and voices his concern that "this odd edifice" will be viewed in bits and pieces only and that its unifying form will not be readily appreciated by his readership. As Albrecht Schöne comments on these remarks: "The history of [Faust's] reception has proved him right" (Kl. pt. 2, 7: 392). Less apparent are the components of Goethe's intellectual and theoretical "household [Hausgebrauch]" 4 that have contributed to the comprehensive contours in the erection of "this odd edifice" and to the puzzling questions with which it confronts its beholders. The foremost gains made for this "Hausgebrauch" derive from Goethe's growing interest in Kant after he had returned from Italy. It culminated by late 1790 in an intensive study of the first and third Critiques, and thirty years later he still views the pencil marks that trace the course of his readings with evident acknowledgment of their lasting significance. In this 1820 survey of "the impact of recent philosophy" 5 on him, Goethe singles out Kant's teachings as decisive for...