Lovers of Lifestyle, not Life!
For many months, I have been reading “Faust,” a poem of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), published in two parts – in 1806 and in 1832. Originally written in German, it has been translated by several people. The translation by the American poet, Bayard Taylor, done in 1862, reached me. Later, I came to know that it is the best English translation done, including one by the famous poet, Shelley. I got into this book, as Carl Jung (1875-1961) called the character of Faust as his lifetime inspiration. Upon reading it, I found it very touching, and the storytelling was, indeed mesmerizing.
One must read world-class literature, if interested, for expanding one’s mind beyond the 24×7 show of “make-beliefs” and pride and prejudices injected into our minds through “education” and “cultural conditioning.” This becomes even more important as the education system has disowned moral education and turned itself into an exam-passing machine; and culture has been hijacked by social media. We must read books starting with our mother tongue and national authors, and then move on to world classics and all-time greats.
In the last one year, I have read Tolstoy (1828-1910), who wrote in Russian, the French author Victor Hugo (1802-1885), and now, Goethe. The beauty of “Faust” is that it makes you aware of yourself, raising questions about what it means to be a human in this imperfect world. As another German author, Karen Horney (1885-1952), puts it, there are three ways in which people manage their lives: by moving toward people, by moving against people, and by moving away from people. However, there are no pure types, and a lot of mix and match goes on, to make life complicated.
In the poem, Faust is a 50-year-old, highly educated and accomplished man living in Germany. He finds his life without purpose. He is unable to comprehend what holds the world together at its core (line 382). At this juncture, Faust is approached by Satan, who makes a deal that he will get Faust whatever he wants in this world, in exchange for controlling his afterlife. The moment Faust signs the contract, with his blood as ink, Satan becomes his slave to fulfill all his desires.
Your palate also shall be sated
Your nostrils sweetly stimulated
Your sense of touch exhilarated
The desire of Faust to regain his youth is quickly met. Then, he wants to marry a pious girl. But, meanwhile, she ends up poisoning her mother, her brother is killed in a fight over her reputation, and she is hanged for drowning her illegitimate child. This is the story of Part One. It shakes you off from being a desire machine, as no desire is without consequences. The picture shows a painting of Faust and Satan playing chess to convey that every move of a piece on the board affects the entire game.
Goethe very aptly describes life as simultaneously living in two worlds – one, small and another, bigger. The smaller world is our personal world – what we think and feel, our family, friends and adversaries, helpmates and tormentors, our pursuits, successes, and failures. Our free will is all we have here. The bigger world is that in which this small world exists – the society, economy, politics, nature, and so on. We hardly have any control on what happens in this world, and must make our way through it by taking good decisions.
In Part Two, which I find the most brilliant literature I have ever come across, Goethe creates Faust, facing characters and situations representing the Old World of Spirits and Providence and the New World of Science and Rationality. This time, Faust desires the resurrection of Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman ever born, as his wife, and a kingdom for himself. Both happen, but again end in tragedy. There is a last-minute twist when Faust desires for salvation and, unable to accomplish it for him, Satan defaults on the contract and Faust finds impunity in Cosmic Unity (line 11807, 8).
What is the message? My takes are three.
The first is the brevity of human life. Even if we live for, say, 100 years, it is a very short time if we include our ancestors, whose DNA and karma we are living out, and our future generations, living out after our death, our DNA and karma. It is, indeed, most stupid to take decisions without considering this big picture. None of us exists as an isolated entity – everything is connected, not only here, in this world, but in other unseen realms and space-times. The spirit-world is, indeed, “running” our lives, through the impulses and drives emerging from within us.
The second learning is the mistake of trying to achieve stardom instead of living properly, or creating a perfect society without sorting out our own personal defects. People run businesses without sorting out the problems within their own families. Modern workplaces smack of unhealthy promiscuousness. Children and the elderly are neglected by the “global executives” and adultery is packaged into lifestyles. It is stupid to change and better the world without living a clean life oneself and attending to the responsibilities that the fundamental institution of a family entails. Many of these people end up in addictions.
The third learning is, misunderstanding the purpose of human life itself. There is no “I” here. This is the biggest illusion that we carry. In whatever we do, or whatever happens to us, or even what we think, there is an involvement of others. Faust tries to step beyond the limitations of a human life, to seek that which is not given to mankind to know or experience. Because of this, his life is a constant series of disappointments and frustrations. So are the careers of people in the modern corporate world.
Faust is a hero because he never loses heart and continues with the struggle. Ultimately, he comes to understand the meaning of life as to learn, as an eternal soul, different experiences in this mortal and ever-changing physicality. Interestingly, Goethe differed with Newton on light and colors. According to Goethe, the highest degree of light, such as that of the sun, is colorless. Only through a medium, is it seen as colored. Similarly, the pure cosmic soul acquires different qualities upon entering physicality.
Life is the striving of a soul during its evolution. It means action. Even if you have made mistakes, keep pursuing your path. Giving up midway, abandoning your responsibilities, failing your obligations, and letting down your own self by laziness and cowardice, is following Satan. There are no miracles, only traps with disastrous consequences. All you need is to say no to anything that is given, apparently free, or promised by breaking natural laws.
The Scottish poetess, Carol Ann Duffy (b. 1955), in her poem, “Mrs Faust”, sums up best the predicament of the contemporary woman and man chasing wealth, power, and pleasures in the world, and living their lives as if playing chess with the Devil:
I grew to love lifestyle, not the life.
He grew to love the kudos, not the wife.
She concludes the hard-hitting poem by questioning if the clever, cunning, and callous modern people have even a soul to sell.
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