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Sunday, October 17, 2010


II. Goethe’s Return to the Mountain on Walpurgis Night

[This section follows from Part I, below]

Goethe returned to the Brocken, this time in spirit, in the "Walpurgisnacht" scene of his Faust, Part I, composed in 1801, but which first made its appearance in the completed Faust I of 1808. (ll. 3835-4222). According to the legend, devils, witches and other evil spirits congregated on the Blocksberg, known as Brocken in the modern period, on Walpurgis Night, the night of April 30-May 1. Goethe inserted this scene directly after the scene where Gretchen, praying in the Cathedral (Dom), is confronted by the Evil Spirit (Böser Geist) and accused of various foul crimes for which she is only partially guilty, and Faust complicit. The scene marks an abrupt change in mood and circumstance. To remove Faust from Gretchen, to dampen his ardor, assuage his guilt and withdraw him from the location of his crime against Gretchen and the mess he has made, Mephistopheles takes Faust to the Brocken for the Witches Sabbath on Walpurgisnacht.

The Walpurgisnacht scene begins with an ironic question of Mephistopheles to Faust, an allusion to the connotations of witchery with which the Brocken has traditionally been associated: Verlangst du nicht nach einem Besenstiele? (Don’t you want a broomstick to convey you hence?). He himself would prefer to ride a sturdy goat, because they are still very far from their goal. Their ascent commences in “the vicinity of Schierke and Elend,” (‘Elend’ means misery in German), which is the location of Goethe’s own assent with the forester, in the neighborhood of the two little towns which lie south of the summit, at the foot of the Brocken.

In response to Mephistopheles’ grousing about the difficulty of the climb, Faust responds with a paean to the beauty of the place, the excitement of finding a way through the forest, toward the cliff, the source of eternal spurting and plunging waters (“Von dem der Quell sich ewig sprudelnd stürtzt”), and the joy of experiencing the hike. “Das ist die Lust, die solche Pfade würzt!" (That is the joy and seasoning of such a path!). The coming of spring is visible in the birches and firs, should it not also lighten his limbs and thus make his climb more enjoyable? Faust has a positive attitude and looks forward to finding his way through the labyrinth of the forest to the spurt of ascent. But Mephisto shares none of this enthusiasm and complains about hunger and cold. “Führwahr, ich spüre nichts davon! Mir ist es winterlich im Leibe . . . .” (Myself I notice no such thing. I feel the winter in my belly). Because the reddish pale moon above them gives sparse illumination, he decides to call upon a Will-o’-the-Wisp (Irrlicht), a “friend,” to shine a light on their path through the forest. The Irrlicht is the ignis fatuus, a wavering light formed by marsh gas, which in the tradition of German folklore was thought to lead travelers to their destruction.

Mephistopheles is the Lord of the Brocken, which is a crucial factor in the understanding of the scene in its totality. In all of the tasks set by his relationship with Faust, in the latter’s constant striving for new ventures and horizons, Mephistopheles is always in alien territory, particularly in Hellas, where the Classical Walpurgisnacht (Klassische Walpurgisnacht) takes place, in Faust Part II, and where he makes no secret of his acute discomfort. But here, in the Brocken, he is Lord and Master. He is disguised, but his cloven feet expose him. The Will-o’-the-Wisp however recognizes him by his peremptory manner of command, and says so: “Ich merke wohl, Ihr seid der Herr vom Haus , / Und will mich gern nach Euch bequemen. / Allein bedenkt! der Berg ist heute zaubertoll, / Und wenn ein Irrlicht Euch die Wege weisen soll, / So müsst Ihr’s so genau nicht nehmen.” (I see you are the lord and master in this house; I’ll do my best to keep you satisfied. But keep in mind, the mountain is magic-mad today and since you’re asking me to light the way, do not expect too much precision.).

Ernst Barlach, Illustration to Goethe’s Walpurgisnacht: Faust, Mephisto and the Will-o’-the-Wisp (Irrlicht)

The three figures now begin a fast chant in the manner of an operatic trio, which in trochaic tetrameter bears the rhythm of the strenuous hike, of the ascent through the forest, presaging the surge of elemental demonic forces that is the essence of the Walpurgisnacht scene. It is as well an introduction to the Witches’ Sabbath, an acknowledgement of Faust’s and Mephisto’s arrival and penetration into the “Traum- und Zaubersphäre,” the ‘sphere of dreams and magic,’ which is the Brocken on the night of Walpurgis. The poem takes on the enchanting atmosphere of witchery and mystery by echoing the sounds of the forest at night, the heels crushing the undergrowth, and the creatures that reveal themselves in a variety of colors therein:

“Uhu! Schuhu! Tönt es näher,
Kauz und Kiebitz und der Häher,
Sind sie alle wach geblieben?
Sind das Molche durchs Gesträuche?
Lange Beine, dicke Bäuche!
Und die Wurzeln, wie die Schlangen,
Winden sich aus Fels und Sande,
Strecken wunderliche Bande,
Uns zu schrecken, uns zu fangen;
Aus belebten derben Masern
Strecken sie Polypenfasern
Nach dem Wandrer. Und die Mäuse
Tausendfärbig, scharenweise,
Durch das Moos und durch die Heide!
Und die Funkenwürmer fliegen
Mit gedrängten Schwärmezügen
Zum verwirrenden Geleite.”

[To-whit! To-whoo! Not far away
Are the plover, owl, and jay.
Have they all remained awake?
Are there newts behind the reeds?
Skinny legs and swollen glands!
Here a root and there a snake,
Coiling through the roots and sands,
Sending strange and dewy threads
To frighten us and hold us here.
From living burls on crooked trees
They wind their fibrous polyp-tether
To trap the wanderer. And the mice
Of myriad colors, far and near,
Scuttle through the moss and heather
Glowworms gleaming in a crowd
Conjure up a sparkling cloud,
A shimmering escort of confusion.]

[Unless otherwise indicated, all English translations from the Faust are from the Peter Salm translation of the Faust, First Part, in the Bantam Classics edition of 1962]

The sphere of magic dreams, wherein which the Will-o’-the-Wisp is guiding the travelers, is also a kingdom of material wealth and sexuality, the realm, as well as the medium, of Mephistopheles’ power over human beings. This is quickly evident as Mephisto breaks off from the song and reveals to Faust the presence of the “seams of gold” which glow through the rocks in the mountain and which illuminate the palace where the orgiastic Sabbath celebration will take place.

“Fasse wacker meinen Zipfel!
Hier ist so ein Mittelgipfel,
Wo man mit Erstaunen sieht,
Wie im Berg der Mammon glüht
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Erleuchtet nicht zu diesem Feste
Herr Mammon prächtig den Palast?”

[Seize my coattail with a steady hand;
we’re flying by a central peak
where we can marvel at the sight
of Mammon glowing deep within.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Has not Sir Mammon lighted splendidly
The palace for this great occasion?]

Yet, Faust is unaware of the significance of Mammon, the diabolic personification of gold and material wealth, but is rather more in wonder of the spectacle before him, which appears as if the mountain were on fire, with deep ravines and gaping chasms emitting fumes and golden mists and showers of sparks. “Doch schau! In ihrer ganzen Höhe / Entzündet sich die Felsenwand.” [And look! The mountain wall from top to bottom ignites and seems on fire.] Mephisto will shortly introduce him to the great witches feast, but as yet Faust is unaware.

Ernst Barlach, Illustration to Goethe’s Walpurgisnacht: Faust and Mephistopheles: “Hier ist so ein Mittelgipfel . . . .”

What kind of world is this realm of Mephistopheles, wherein he is leading the dreamy Faust? Already he has pointed to the veins of gold in the mountain. But his design on Faust, who is by now in the play totally under his governance and influence, is to lead him into a world of sexuality.

Faust’s wager with Mephistopheles contains within it the logic of the World Journey that follows, and the first experience in that journey is Faust’s passion for Gretchen and its outcome. Thus far in the drama, as Erich Trunz observes in his Commentary on the Faust (Goethes Faust, Kommnentiert von Erich Trunz, Christian Wegner Verlag, Hamburg, 1963), all has been action, but in Walpurgisnacht we enter the realm of the symbolic. Goethe is not reluctant to uncover the Erotic, but he does so in the form of the symbolic, and not as reality, and not in the domain of human action, but rather in a magical world of spirits. Walpurgisnacht is carnality, fleshliness and sensualism, in a word, sexuality. But sexuality is not in itself evil, rather, evil only in terms of what human beings make of it.

Indeed, Faust’s journey into Walpurgisnacht is an arc which spans the initial “Spring fever” of his exhilaration in personal physical strength and admiration for the natural, as he sets out on the climb (“So lang’ ich mich noch Frisch auf meinen Beinen fühle, / Genügt mir dieser Knotenstock.” [As long as my legs feel fresh and strong the knotted stick will serve me well]), as a bridge to the subsequent Vision of Lilith, (discussed in Part IV), and his dance with the young witch. These two encounters with sexual desire, still in the realm of the symbolic, are the moment when Mephisto is total Lord over Faust. Yet what concludes the scene is a rejection of the fleshly temptations offered by Mephistopheles, just as Jesus rejected the temptations of Satan. Mephisto leads Faust into Walpurgisnacht, his domain, but Faust ultimately remains autonomous. When, at the conclusion of the scene, Faust has a vision of Gretchen in distress, and utters words of love, a fundamental reversal of the symbolic occurs, and the arc is closed.

The orgiastic element of the Witches’ Sabbath, the Erotic element in the drama, is introduced against a backdrop of wind, thunder and storm, by the sudden sound of various choruses of witches and wizards. As well, the entire tone of the poem changes abruptly as the trochaic tetrameters of the hiking song suddenly cease, and Faust ominously exclaims “Wie rast die Windsbraut durch die Luft!” (How the wind-hag races through the air!) To which Mephisto responds in tenebrous iambic pentameters as he begins to notice the rising mist (“Du musst des Felsens alte Rippen packen, / Sonst stürzt sie dich hinab in dieser Schlünde Gruft. Ein Nebel verdichtet die Nacht.” [You must grasp these ancient ribs of rock, or else she’ll hurl you down headlong. A mist is thickening the night.], and he is alerted to the emerging commotion which threatens to decimate the forest:

“Höre, wie’s durch die Wälder kracht!
Aufgescheucht fliegen die Eulen.
Hör’, es splittern die Säulen
Ewig grüner Paläste.
Girren und Brechen der Äste!
Der Stämme mächtiges Dröhnen!
Der Wurzeln Knarren und Gähnen!”

[Hear how the timbers creak and moan;
Frightened owls are streaking through the trees
Hear through the palaces of evergreen
The towering pillars crack and shatter,
The squeal and crash of tumbling branches!
The hollow thunder of the trunks!
The groaning of the roots below!]

He then asks Faust whether he can hear the choruses, above them and below them, near and far, as the mountain comes alive:

“Hörst du Stimmen in der Höhe?
In der Ferne, in der Nähe?
Ja, den ganzen Berg entlang
Strömt ein wütender Zaubergesang!”

[Do you hear the voices high above?
Far away and close at hand?
The entire mountainside has come alive
With frenzied chants of sorcery.]

And, indeed, what follows is a dialogue among choruses, some of them proceeding from above and some from below, of wizards and of witches, all intent, like Faust and Mephisto, on reaching the summit of the Brocken. Among them comes the old Frau Baubo.

Ernst Barlach, Illustration to Goethe’s Walpurgisnacht: “Die alte Baubo kommt allein, Sie reitet auf einem Mutterschwein.”

“Stimme: Die alte Baubo kommt allein,
Sie reitet auf einem Mutterschwein.
Chor: So Ehre denn, wem Ehre gebührt!
Frau Baubo vor! Und angeführt
Ein tüchtig Schwein und Mutter drauf,
Da folgt der ganze Hexenhauf.”

[Voice: Our ancient Baubo rides alone
With a mother sow beneath her buttocks.
Chorus: We like to cheer when cheers are due!
Let Lady Baubo lead the crew.
With mother on a strapping swine
The other hags will stay in line.]

Frau Baubo, here depicted by Goethe as a leader and mother of the witches, is a personage of Greek mythology, variously described as the midwife of the Greek goddess Demeter, who jested with the goddess to console her for the loss of Proserpina. The story goes that Baubo exposed her genitals to the goddess, and this made Demeter laugh. [In the witches’ chorus scene, she cries out, among the gaggle of the others: “Mich hat sie geschunden, Da sieh nur die Wunden!” (The sow has treated me badly, look at my wounds!)]. But according to Robert Graves, it was Iambe, the lame daughter of Celeus, King of Eleusis, who "tried to console Demeter with comically lascivious verses, when a dry nurse, old Baubo, persuaded her [Demeter] to drink barley-water by a jest: she groaned as if in great travail and, unexpectedly, produced from beneath her skirt Demeter's own son Iacchus, who leapt into his mother's arms and kissed her." Graves writes, "Iambe and Baubo personify the obscene songs, in iambic meter, which were sung to relieve emotional tension at the Eleusinian Mysteries; but Iambe, Demeter, and Baubo form the familiar triad of maiden, nymph, and crone. Old nurses in Greek myth nearly always stand for the goddess as crone." (Robert Graves, The Greek Myths. (London: Folio Society, 1996, at vol.1, pp. 92 and 96).

In Walpurgisnacht, old Baubo sets the tone for the obscenity of the rabble of witches, sweeping the wind like locusts, whom she leads towards the summit where Herr Urian, the Devil, will preside as Lord. The scene is all confusion, shouting and scrambling, as the witches mounted on broomsticks race to the top of the hill.

Ernst Barlach, Illustration to Goethe’s Walpurgisnacht: “Nehmt mich mit! Nehmt mich mit!”
[Take me along! Take me with you!]

The effect which the gaggle and noise of the choruses of witches and wizards have on Mephistopheles points to a further interpretation of the Walpurgisnacht scene: the Witches Sabbath as Goethe’s reflection on the 1789 revolution in France. Nicholas Boyle writes: “During the winter of his illness [1801] Goethe built up the ‘Walpurgis Night’ into what promised to become his most devastating satirical onslaught on the intellectual lackeys of the Revolution, and on the Revolution itself. Faust is shown abandoning his true and personal responsibilities in the little world of Gretchen and striding through the Harz with Mephistopheles towards the Brocken and into ‘the sphere of dreams and magic,’ the world, at once violent and unreal, of those who think they are making history.” (Boyle, vol. II, op.cit., p. 770).


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