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Monday, October 18, 2010



III. The 'Revolt of the Masses' on Walpurgis Night

[This section follows from Part II, below]

Salvador Dali, Illustrations to the Faust:

Sorcieres au Balais, 1969

III. The 'Revolt of the Masses' on Walpurgis Night.

The effect which the arrival of the witches and wizards to the Sabbath has on Mephistopheles leads to a polemical interpretation of the Walpurgisnacht scene: 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).

Storming of the Bastille, July 14, 1789

In 1930, Ortega y Gasset wrote: “There is one fact which, whether for good or ill, is of utmost importance in the public life of Europe at its present moment. The fact is the accession of the masses to complete social power. As the masses, by definition, neither should nor can direct their own personal existence, and still less rule society in general, this fact means that actually Europe is suffering from the greatest general crisis that can afflict peoples, nations and civilization. . . . . Strictly speaking, the mass, as a psychological fact, can be defined without waiting for individuals to appear in mass formation. In the presence of one individual we can decide whether he is "mass" or not. The mass is all that which sets no value on itself -- good or ill -- based on specific grounds, but which feels itself "just like everybody," and nevertheless is not concerned about it; is, in fact, quite happy to feel itself as one with everybody else.” Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses [La Rebelión de las Masas] (1930).

The execution of Louis XVI in 1793

For Goethe, this social eruption, in its very early stage, was symbolized by the Terror which swept through France from 1792 onward. In the Walpurgisnacht scene, he depicts the Terror as the orgiastic Sabbath of the witches, so grotesque that even Mephistopheles cannot abide by it. Instead, he leads Faust to a campfire where those displaced by the revolution languish in disillusionment. And he reserves his most pointed criticism for the rationalists of the German Enlightenment who, for the most part, had welcomed the Revolution.

At this stage in the play, Faust and Mephistopheles are almost at the summit of the Brocken, accompanied by a swarm of witches and wizards racing to the top. Mephisto is annoyed and bothered by the push and pull of the mass.

Das drängt und stösst, das ruscht und klappert!
Das zischt und quirlt, das zieht und plappert!
Das leuchtet, sprüht und stinkt und brennt!

Ein wahres Hexenelement!

[They crowd and crush, they squeal and they clatter!
They hiss and whirl, they pull and they chatter!
They spew and sparkle, burn and stink;
This is the proper sphere of witches!]

Faust is anxious to get to the top, where Lord Satan will preside over the Sabbath, but Mephisto is so repelled by the crowds that he is not in the least interested in proceeding with the ceremonies or leading Faust in that direction. Mephisto seems strangely out of control and worried about losing Faust in the mass. “Keep close to me, or we’ll be separated. Where are you?” - he cries after Faust, and the latter refers to him as ‘a spirit of contradiction’ (“Du Geist des Widerspruchs!”), because of his reluctance to proceed to their expected goal.

Indeed, Mephisto definitely wants to head in a different direction, where he can find relief from the pressure of the crowds:

Hier, Doktor, fasse mich! und nun, in einem Satz,
Lass uns aus dem Gedräng’ entweichen; 
Es ist zu toll, sogar für meinesgleichen. 

Dort neben leuchtet was mit ganz besonderem Schein, 
Es zieht mich was nach jenen Sträuchen.

 Komm, komm! Wir schlupfen da hinein.”

[Now, Doctor, seize my coat! We will escape
In one leap to safer ground;
This is too crazy even for the likes of me.

Over there I see a very special glimmer,
Something draws me to that clump of bushes.

Come, come, let us crawl in for now.]

We never see the climactic performance on the summit, presided over by the Devil Lord, ‘Herr Urian,’ because Mephisto drags Faust away from the crowd to a side-spot where a group of sad and broken characters are sitting before a campfire. Faust is diverted to the grieving remnants of Germany after the Revolution in France, to witness the end of an era. There, lamenting the passing of better times, sit a sad group of nostalgic impotents, a General, a Minister, a Parvenu, and an Author. I quote their laments in full, as they provide an accurate representation of reactionary discontent.

General: Wer mag auf Nationen trauen,
Man habe noch so viel für sie getan;
 Denn bei dem Volk, wie bei den Frauen,
Steht immerfort die Jugend oben an.

[General: Who wants to put his faith in nations,
No matter what you’ve done for them?
For with the people just as with a woman
The prize goes always to the young.]

Minister: Jetzt ist man von dem Rechten allzu weit,
Ich lobe mir die guten Alten;
Denn freilich, da wir alles galten, 
Da war die rechte goldne Zeit.

[Minister: They have abandoned all that’s good these days
Bring me back the older generation;
For when we better men held sway
It was a happy, golden age.]

Parvenu: Wir waren wahrlich auch nicht dumm,
Und taten oft, was wir nicht sollten;
Doch jetzo kehrt sich alles um und um,
Und eben da wir’s fest erhalten wollten.”

[Parvenu: We were not altogether stupid either;
Here and there we made some tricky deals.
But now the world is topsy-turvy,
Just when we meant to keep the status quo.]

Autor: Wer mag wohl überhaupt jetzt eine Schrift
Von mässig klugem Inhalt lesen!
Und was das liebe junge Volk betrifft,
Das ist noch nie so naseweis gewesen.”

[Author: Who would want to read these days
A work of any depth and compass?
As for the touted younger generation,
I never saw one more irreverent.]

Goethe had often heard the laments of German émigrés from the lands conquered by the French revolutionary armies, and those of their French aristocratic counterparts, the resentful complaints of the displaced and the disappointed of the Ancien Regime. He had accompanied Karl August and the army of Sachse-Weimar in the march of the First Coalition into France, and been witness to its defeat at Valmy in 1792. He had lived the reaction against the Revolution, and was now putting it into the mouths of these sad and broken old men. And he put his own thoughts into the mouth of the Author, whose ambiguous feelings towards the new generation of the Romantics he shared.

The Ancien Regime: Portrait of
Jean Baptiste De Belloy-Morangle

The lamentations have an effect on Mephistopheles, “who suddenly feels very old” (“der auf einmal sehr alt erscheint”). The implication being that even the Devil has seen enough:

Zum jüngsten Tag fühl’ ich das Volk gereift,
Da ich zum letzten Mal den Hexenberg ersteige,
Und weil mein Fässchen trübe läuft,
So ist die Welt auch auf der Neige.

[Now that I scale this magic hill a final time,
I feel that men are ripe for Judgment Day;
And since my keg is running dry,
The world has reached the edge of time.]

Goethe seems to have planned a crowning scene for this Walpurgis Night wherein Satan himself, Herr Urian, in the guise of Napoleon Bonaparte, was to redistribute to his flatterers the crowns of Europe and much wealth, on the summit of the Brocken, the whole scene concluding with a volcanic eruption. It was never written. Goethe “shied away from depicting the epicenter of the French earthquake, a scene of “Goya-like intensity,” as Nicholas Boyle envisions it, which would have exposed “the moral hollowness of the modern age which Faust has taken it upon himself to represent.” (Boyle, vol. 2, op.cit. p. 771.

It is not so much that Goethe is taking the side of the victims of the Revolution, but rather that he is illustrating the frustration of those whom the revolution had disenfranchised or cast out, in the context of the turbulence and violence that accompanied the overarching social eruption, which was the coming of the age of the masses. He feared the Terror.

And yet, Goethe’s sharpest barbs in the Walpurgisnacht scene are reserved for his rationalist critics. Before the campfire scene, a reference is made to these philosophers, in the form of one voice in the chorus of witches and wizards heading for the summit:

Stimme (von unten):
Wir möchten gerne mit in die Höh’.

Wir waschen, und blank sind wir ganz und gar;
Aber auch ewig unfruchtbar.

[Voice (from below):
We’d like to be with you in the heights;
We are scrubbed and polished to the bone
But forever parched and sterile.]

Scrubbed and polished, but eternally fruitless, the rationalist upholders of the old German Enlightenment had criticized Goethe and disparaged his idealism. In terms of the polemical interpretation of this section of the Faust, these rationalist ideologues stand for the support of the Gironde, the initial unquestioned endorsement of the events in Paris. Thus the satire tails that of the emigres. But whereas the latter were lampooned as impotent nostalgists, the rationalists are reviled for their misunderstanding of the Revolution. Johann Friedrich Reichardt, for example, the intellectual collaborator with the Revolution, is one of them. But most important of all was Friederich Nicolai, who is mercilessly lampooned, not so much as upholder of the Gironde, but as narrow-minded rationalist.

Friedrich Nicolai (1733-1811)

Nicolai’s enthusiasm for English literature won for him the friendship of Lessing and Moses Mendelssohn. In association with Mendelssohn he established in 1757 the Bibliothek der schönen Wissenschaften, a periodical which he conducted until 1760. Together with Lessing and Mendelssohn, Nicolai edited the famous Briefe, die neueste Literatur betreffend between 1759 and 1765; and from 1765 to 1792 he edited the Allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek. This latter periodical served as the organ of the so-called popular philosophers, who warred against authority in religion and against what they conceived to be extravagance in literature. In his old age, he became the enemy of the new heavyweights of German culture, Herder, Goethe, Schiller, Kant and Fichte, whom he was incapable of understanding. Nicolai criticized the emotionalism of the Sturm und Drang movement, which he believed made its literature incomprehensible, and in 1775 published a satire on the reception of Goethe’s Werther in Europe, thus making an enemy of Goethe. But on Walpurgis Night he is lampooned for his dogged rejection of the magical and the supernatural in literature, which he took to be consistent with his rationalism.

Goethe satirizes Nicoai in the play as the “Proktophantasmist,” a term he invented, which derives from the Greek proktos, meaning "anus" and phantasma, "phantom"; the last syllable homophonous with the German word for dung (mist). Thus the word literally means something like “buttocks’ ghost-imaginer.” Nicolai had notoriously argued that ghostly visions and phantasmagorical hallucinations could be treated successfully by the application of leeches on the buttocks. This upon the heels of reported ghostly apparitions at the Tegel Schloss in Berlin, hence the mention of Tegel in the play. Thus to satirize Nicolai on the Brocken, surrounded by witches and ghosts, was a most appropriate idea.

Ernst Barlach, Illustration to Goethe’s Walpurgisnacht:

Proktophantasmist: “ Wir haben ja aufgeklärt!”
[We have become enlightened!]

The Proktophantasmist appears on scene during Faust’s dance with the young witch, which I shall discuss further in Part IV. He is therefore witnessing the spectacle of carnal sensuality which Mephisto has reserved as a last resort to seduce the increasingly impatient Faust. The rationalist dismisses on the grounds of reason what he perceives empirically with his own eyes:

Verfluchtes Volk! Was untersteht ihr euch?
Hat man euch lange nicht bewiesen:
Ein Geist steht nie auf ordentlichen Füssen?
Nun tanzt ihr gar, uns andern Menschen gleich!

[Shameless mob! What on earth is this?
Has it not been proven long ago:
Spirits do not walk on solid ground?
Now you presume to dance like one of us!]

And, as Faust and the young witch continue to dance before him:

Ihr seid noch immer da! Nein, dass ist unerhört.
Verschwindet doch! Wir haben ja aufgeklärt!
Das Teufelspack, es fragt nach keiner Regel.
Wir sind so klug, und dennoch spukt’s in Tegel.
Wie lange hab’ ich nicht am Wahn hinausgekehrt,

Und nie wird’s rein; das ist doch unerhört!

[You are still here! Incredible, such insolence!
Clear out! We are enlightened, don’t you know?
The devil’s pack ignores all rules and standards.
We are so smart, but still the ghosts haunt Tegel.
How I have worked to clear the air of superstition!
But – such insolence - the folly still clings everywhere]

Frustrated, the old rationalist promises to vanquish all the devils and the poets. (“Die Teufel und die Dicther zu bezwingen”).

In the meantime, Mephistopheles is aware that in ‘the sphere of dreams and magic,’ Faust will not commit the sin that will alienate him from God, for a dream is just a dream. The Walpurgis Night must end therefore in an orgiastic dance which might perhaps bring Faust down from the realm of dreams to the material realm, and entice him to sin against God. Faust himself is impatient at lingering over this gloomy campfire, surrounded by gloomy people, and is eager to move on to the summit of the mountain, where the orgiastic Sabbath is being enacted, and he wants to meet there the Devil as Lord, enthroned, as it were. The struggle between desire and reason, between inclination and the Moral Law, is already raging within his own breast, without the need for the promptings of Mephistopheles.

Doch droben möcht’ ich lieber sein!
Schon seh’ ich Glut und Wirbelrauch.
Dort strömt die Menge zu dem Bösen;
Da muss sich manches Rätsel lösen.

[But I prefer that higher region
Where even now I see a smoky, churning glow,
And crowds advancing to the Evil One;
Many riddles may be answered there.]

The scene moves on then to the Vision of Lilith.



  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I hope I thought it out myself, but I may have read it somewhere. Maybe I translated from Trunz, or I saw it in Boyle. I can't recall.