Thursday, January 13, 2011

You've Read Faust, Haven't You?

 A couple months ago I began the joyous task of reading through the complete works of Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock often flexes his knowledge of literature by quoting other works, but one case in particular struck me.

He twice quotes Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in The Sign of Four. Referring to Goethe's Faust ("We are accustomed to seeing man despise what he does not understand"), Holmes says, "Goethe is always pithy." Later, Holmes again quotes Goethe, "Nature alas, made only one being of you although there was material for a good man and a rogue."

Until the Scottish author and physician Sir Arthur Conan Doyle from the late 19th century quoted it, I was oblivious to Faust, which the German playwright Goethe wrote in 1806.

Less then a week later I found myself reading another Scotsman, though of a different variety.  George MacDonald was an author, poet, and minister from the first half of the 19th century. Also known as the "father of fantasy", I was reading his work Phantastes.

MacDonald introduces Chapter VIII by quoting Mephistopheles in Faust; "I am a part of the part, which at first was the whole".

My curiosity was peaked by these two brilliant Scotsman from opposite ends of the19th century writing in very different genres who both quoted Faust. I quickly ordered a Norton Critical Edition of Goethe's Faust from Powells.

In the meantime I got sucked into the new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and attempted assassin of Hitler. As you can imagine, Faust works it's way into the life of this young man growing up in early 20th century Germany.

It is a thrill to be reading this profound work, knowing the same words have penetrated the mind and spirit of so many great individuals around the globe over the last 2 centuries.

The other night Elena was reading A Gentle Creature, a short story by Dostoevsky (For those keeping record, a Russian novelist from the mid 19th century). In it my good friend Fyodor puts it as well as anyone can:
 "You've read Faust, haven't you?... You out to read it."

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