Framing Faust: Twentieth-Century Cultural Struggles

Inez Hedges, Framing Faust: Twentieth-Century Cultural Struggles (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005).

The story of Faust is one of the great floating signifiers of the last 500 years. Depending on what you want from the story, the protagonist can be seen as a rebellious over-reacher whose quest for forbidden knowledge — gained by making an unholy pact with the Devil — is rightfully punished; or perhaps he is the ultimate dissident — a seeker after truth who rejects the oppressive and blindered worldview of the traditional hegemonic elite. As for Faust’s antagonist, Mephistopheles can be seen as the arch-tempter, intent on destroying Faust by playing on his innate hunger for knowledge; or perhaps he is Faust’s anti-self, his opposite equal twin brother, and a fellow dissenter himself, who facilitates the protagonist’s spectacular act of defiance.

Onto this fertile terrain Inez Hedges brings her formidable gifts as a scholar of film, as a cultural critic, as a historian of political discourse both Left and Right, as an appreciator of “plural feminisms,” and as an incisive student of the avant-garde. Framing Faust is in fact a dazzling reading of the politics, culture and intellectual struggles of the 20th century, with a masterful guide pointing out to us new aspects of things we thought we knew well, and new things we are glad to be apprised of. What we carry away from the book is an enlivened sense that a myth like the Faust story “can be seen as a battleground on which opposing ideologies fight for power — in essence as the site of dialectical struggle.”

The author has chosen six foci for her discussion: 1) the crucial role the Faust legend played in the early years of narrative cinema, especially in Germany; 2) “the struggle over the German cultural heritage [specifically Goethe’s Faust] between the Weimar spirit and Nazism”; 3) how socialist thinkers like Anatoli Lunacharski, Leon Blum, Georg Lukács, and playwrights Hanns Eisler and Volker Braun reworked the Faust story for progressive ends; 4) how such disparate feminists as Louisa May Alcott and Hélène Cixous work at “gendering Faust”; 5) how avant-garde artists in the 20th century re-imagined Faust as “the enemy of reason, the necromancer who sets himself up as the opponent of those very humanist values with which the myth had been traditionally associated”; and finally, 6) how the Faust myth is reframed by (manufactured) Cold War anxieties about hidden conspiracies, especially in American film noir.

The arguments are so rich and subtle that a reviewer finds them difficult to summarize. But we can touch upon some of the high points in each of the six units.

In “Faust and Early Film Spectatorship,” Hedges argues that while film began as working-class entertainment, full of slapstick, eroticism and subversive depictions of authority figures, with Faust seen as a rebel and Mephistopheles as a clever trickster (a case in point is Georges Méliès’ Faust aux enfers, 1903), a steady movement toward attracting a bourgeois audience -– and drawing on the tropes of traditional theatre rather than popular fun -– defanged the sharpness evident in the early films. The critic Siegfried Kracauer, Hedges writes, saw that

[early] film was in a position to entertain and thus serve the need for distraction among the urban masses, while at the same time mirroring the disorder in society. This could prepare the way for what he called “the inevitable and radical change.” He argued that this galvanizing potential was thwarted by the movie palaces, where audiences were lulled into passivity by the reinscription of film’s radical form into conventional modes of theatrical representation.

By the time we get to Henrik Galeen’s Der Student von Prag (1926) the protagonist, Balduin, is “Faustian in spirit” but is far from being “a social rebel.” And in the same year F.W. Murnau’s Faust gives us a Mephistopheles who “has shed his ironic philosophical nihilism” and a Faust who is “usable in cinema’s bid for respectability.”

So as film moves from being disruptive delight for the masses toward becoming a capitalist industry, we come to understand the “dialectical relationship between film form and the evolving film audience and the economics of distribution and production.”

In “German Fascism and the Contested Terrain of Culture,” Hedges contrasts attempts by figures like Thomas Mann to “take back” the traditional humanist image of Goethe’s Faust—cosmopolitan, tolerant—while at the same time showing how vulnerable that view is to what Mann calls “the popular intoxications of fascism.” Well before Mann began Doctor Faustus in exile in California (1943-46), the Nazis had seized upon the Faust legend through a series of moves that Hedges calls a “mythic aggrandizement and distortion of the German cultural past.” A 1940 book by one Georg Schott argues for a “Führer Faust” and suggests, as Hedges puts it, “that Hitler is Germany’s new Faustian striver.” For Schott, Mephistopheles is a “slick Talmudic scholar” armed with irreverent and satirical barbs. Hedges moves from her fascinating reading of Schott to a discussion of contrasting (Nazi vs. anti-fascist) retellings of traditional fairy tales, and to a discussion of the figure of Mephistopheles in novels and films. It is an exciting chapter.

“Socialist Visions: Faust and Utopia” deals with the ways key socialist thinkers have reworked certain elements in the Faust story. Anatoli Lunacharski’s “reader’s play” Faust and the City (1908) depicts a Faust who renounces his role as ruler of the lands he has reclaimed from the sea and lives “incognito among his people as a plain citizen” although he does continue developing new technologies that will free workers from the burdens of labor. Lunacharski was an avant-garde poet and playwright, a commissar for education, and a friend of Lenin’s. As Hedges points out, both men were “steeped in the classical literary tradition,” but the advent of Stalin in 1922 meant the end to Lunacharski’s influence over communist policy in the USSR: he was charged with a “failure to distinguish ‘between bourgeois and proletarian elements of culture.”

Even before Lunacharski, French socialist leader Léon Blum had written Nouvelles conversations de Goethe avec Eckermann (1901) in which Goethe is presented as “objective, rational and antiauthoritarian.” Both Faust and Mephistopheles in this imaginary set of conversations are socialist agitators but with radically divergent ideas about progress: “Mephistopheles leads the people in burning some newly invented labor-saving machines, on the grounds that workers will lose their jobs. Blum, through his character Faust, condemns this action and the assumption that technological progress and socialism are incompatible.”

In 1940 the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács wrote a study entitled Goethe und seine Zeit. “Lukács includes Goethe among the great realist writers like Balzac and Thomas Mann who, despite being members of the bourgeoisie, represented in their works the social contradictions that would inevitably lead to the demise of their class.” For Lukács, Faust is “a prescient critique of the capitalism that would not reach its fullest expansion until more than a century later.”

Two East German (GDR) playwrights — Hanns Eisler in Johannes Faustus (1952) and Volker Braun in Hinze und Kunze (1973) — also played theme and variation on the Faust story. Eisler’s Faustus is “a warning of what can happen if working-class leaders fail to identify with, and cast their lot with, the people.” And Braun’s play mocks the sort of GDR economic planning in which “workers alternately fill in and dig out the same hole.” Kunze, the Faust figure, says to Hinze, the Mephisto: “‘To burrow without thinking is sabotage; to drive yourself without logic is stupid.’”

Hedges turns to “plural feminisms” in “Gendering Faust,” with a remarkable overview of how feminist artists and critics have approached various elements of the Faust story “in twentieth-century expressionist theatre, in Weimar cinema, in French écriture feminine of the 1970s, and in modern fiction,” but in fact begins with a reading of a recently recovered manuscript by Louisa May Alcott called A Long Fatal Love Chase (first published in 1995) — one of two works of fiction Alcott entitled “A Modern Mephistopheles.” Hedges remarks: “Alcott’s Faustian heroine bends her whole will toward escaping male domination, whether of the grandfather or the lover.”

Then, expressionist theatre: “As a play about a Faustian woman [Frank] Wedekind’s Franziska [1911] shows an awareness of the limitations to self-realization that society imposed upon women in his time. It is all the more remarkable that he explores this theme not because of any sympathy with feminism but because of a prescient awareness of the relation of power, gender and sexuality.”

Hélène Cixous’s Révolutions pour plus d’un Faust (1975), “written in the wake of the social upheavals of 1968, is a whirling star cluster of discourses that try to spin their way out of the male universe, while referring back to revolutions past, present and future.” In Hedges’ careful reading of this text, there are two Fausts for Cixous: one “a negative force, eternally unsatisfied, continually desiring,” and the other “the real Faustian spirit [which] is one of continual creation, reproduction, and multiplication.” “Counterhegemonic” readings of the legend, such as those of Alcott, Wedekind, Cixous, and Emma Tennant (in her Faustine, 1992), are the result of plural feminisms with distinctly liberatory aims, especially for “socialist feminists who will put their imprimatur on Faust’s active principle and prove themselves agents for revolutionary social change.”

Turning her attention to the 20th-century avant-garde(s), Hedges examines the work of playwrights, composers and filmmakers for whom a reconfigured Faust becomes an enemy of complacent humanist rationality. From fascinating discussions of Alfred Jarry’s Les Gestes et opinions du docteur Faustroll, ‘pataphysicien’ (1897-98) and Michel de Ghelderode’s La Mort du docteur Faust (1925) to Gertrude Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights (1938), Hedges moves to a substantial reading of Stan Brakhage’s tretralogy of films dealing with the Faust story that he completed between 1987 and 1989. “In the Faust series, that search for inner light is still held within the narrative of the Faustian, yielding one of the most remarkable syntheses between myth and film form to be achieved in cinema’s first one hundred years.” And yet Brakhage both pays homage to the tradition and creates an Anti-Faust by insisting — as do the other avant-gardists under discussion — on “a renunciation of the interpretation of meaning.” In every case, “avant-garde artists played off the hegemonic status of the Faustian hero, subverting his role as model, his traditional humanist aspirations, and his authority.”

In “Oneiric Fausts: Repression and Liberation in the Cold War Era,” Hedges addresses a number of topics, including the way the film noir classics from the post-war period fused the grittiness of Italian neo-realism with the psychological power of German expressionism to create a genre perfectly in tune with the atmosphere of paranoia created by the Cold War, and quotes George Lipsitz’s observation that “film noir ‘powerfully registers the unstable state of class relations in the postwar United States.’” She also shows how on the other side of the Cold War divide, a novel like Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (begun in 1928, kept under wraps, and finally published in 1966) represents another dream-like fantasy of a dystopian (Stalinist) world in which the Mephistophelian figure of Woland is actually seen as bringing justified punishment to the wicked. And her analysis of Jack Kerouac’s Dr. Sax (written before On the Road but not published until 1959) seeks to show that, “As opposed to film noir’s emphasis on the destructive pact with the forces of evil, Kerouac experiences the Faustian as liberation from conformity and the claustrophobic atmosphere of the small town.”
Hedges concludes this wide-ranging, learned, immensely engaging book by urging us to learn what we can about the “negative pole” of the Faustian bargain—“the cost of what might seem to be an attractive, if temporary gain”—while at the same time seeking an image of “the positive Faustian hero(ine),” who will offer us those Promethean energies of resistance and liberation we so sorely need.

Reviewed by David Gullette
Simmons College


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