Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born on August 28, 1749, in Frankfurt am Main, and died on March 22, 1832, in Weimar. After studying law in Leipzig, he worked as a lawyer in Frankfurt and then underwent further practical training at the Court of Appeal (Reichskammergericht) of Wetzlar. Influenced by the Sturm und Drang movement, he wrote dramas and poems such as Prometheus, Götz von Berlichingen, and The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers). A rough draft of what later became Faust goes back to his time in Frankfurt; in this drama, the topic of time has an important role.
In 1775, Karl August, the duke of Weimar, asked Goethe to join his court (Weimarer Hof) and work with him as a state representative. In 1786, Goethe made his first visit to Italy, which lasted 2 years and had a significant influence on his life. Of particular importance for him was his becoming familiar with classical works of art and the scientific research he made on the journey. A meeting with Friedrich Schiller in 1794 encouraged Goethe to increase his literary productivity again. He wrote Xenien, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre), began writing his autobiographical Poetry and Truth (Dichtung und Wahrheit), and continued working on Faust. However, international political events such as the French Revolution and in 1806 the fall of the German Reich deeply influenced Goethe’s thinking, as did numerous innovations in science and technology and their consequences for the life of the people. He became one of the central figures of the Weimar classical period (Weimarer Klassik).
Faust and the Theme of Time
Since Goethe worked on Faust throughout his life, this drama reflects the whole continuum of his research and interests, and also reveals the changes his thinking had undergone. An important aspect of the drama is the question concerning the relationship among human beings, time, and eternity. In the Prolog im Himmel (Faust I), Goethe’s concept of eternity is conventional and depends on the Christian worldview. This concept changes with the last scene, titled Bergschluchten (Faust II), into something transcendental. The connection between the periods past, present, and future plays a particularly important role. Goethe assembles the scenes into an order that is remote from ordinary human perceptions and experiences of time. The meeting and union of Faust and Helena encompasses a period of more than 3,000 years, whereas the story time of Faust I comprises less than one year. The union of antiquity and modernity is not only the reason for the break in the structure of time. Timelessness also arises because Helena symbolizes eternal beauty while Faust stands for eternal striving.
Another type of time is the lifetime of Faust. It limits the period of impact concerning the bet he made with Mephistopheles. Only as long as Faust is alive can Mephistopheles try to satisfy his desires with earthly pleasures and thereby give him a feeling of complete contentment. Consequently, in Goethe’s Faust, three important spheres of time are united: eternity; the union of past, present, and future; and Faust’s own lifetime.
Faust’s desire to experience the eternal is in sharp contrast to his limited existence as a human being. His aim “to get to know everything” fails. He realizes that the studies of science, the Bible, and magic cannot help him in his endeavors, which is the reason why he abandons them and turns to everyday life. As he grasps that the act and not the word is the beginning of realization, Faust becomes aware of the importance of the present moment.
In his pact with Mephistopheles, Faust is interested in the quality of a certain moment he wishes to experience. The problem is that the two partners in the contract have different opinions about time. Mephistopheles affirms this worldliness and inevitable death, so eternity itself is hostile to him. According to Faust, however, time that passes is hostile, because he sees eternity as a cycle of life, growth, death, and rebirth.
In the pact, Faust demands total fulfillment in one moment. Only then is he ready to give his soul to the devil. Mephistopheles tries to win the bet by offering Faust various types of sensual pleasures, but he underestimates Faust’s spiritual nature. It is very convenient for Mephistopheles that Faust seems to reject eternity in favor of the moment; this is because God represents the eternal, while Mephistopheles stands for the single moment. In the beginning, Mephistopheles confronts Faust with the pleasant aspects of life in Auerbach’s cellar, trying to cheer him up and ease his thoughtful mind.
Concerning individual pleasure, time is a succession of moments that are not related to one another. Faust’s striving in the company of Mephistopheles represents the timeless element in human beings. For Faust, momentary pleasures are not sufficient for complete fulfillment. This seems analogous to the beauty of Helena, which is also timeless because beauty is hidden in the law of nature. Therefore, the union with Helena is important for Faust. Faust’s situation begins to change when he recognizes past events as important. He develops a new attitude toward sensual experiences, because in his union with Helena he realized how fulfilling a moment can be. His failure to combine eternal beauty, represented by Helena, with present time leads to the need for significant actions. Act IV of the second part of Faust shows Faust’s development, his willingness to do things for their own sake. At this point, the dangers and consequences of his activities become clear. The need for power and property (land reclamation) brings with it destruction (of landscapes and buildings) and death (Philemon and Baucis).
The process of acceleration is manifested in Faust as well as Mephistopheles. Faust curses slowness; he is marked by precipitated striving, which is cultivated by Mephistopheles. He forges plans and carries them out quickly (money economy at the emperor’s court, draining of the coast to gain land). As a consequence, others are damaged and he destroys himself. Lemurs dig Faust’s grave under Mephistopheles’ supervision. Faust, as an old, blind man, interprets the noises as a continuation of his project to drain the marshland. In this moment, in a vision of a future, free society, Faust asks, with the words, “Stay, thou art so beautiful!” for the moment to stay. He dies, and the devils come to take his soul. But his immortal soul could be saved.
The polarity of moment and eternity corresponds to Goethe’s development from youth to old age. The importance of the moment is a quality associated with the Sturm und Drang movement; classical antiquity, however, offers timelessness and permanence.
For the phenomenon of acceleration, Goethe formed the expression velozifearisch. It consists of velocitas (hurry) and Luzifer (devil). For Goethe, the acceleration of time is the origin of modernity. Modern civilization, which is characterized by rapidity and acceleration, also affects the mental states, thinking, and acting of modern human beings. Faust values progress and so he becomes restless and unscrupulous; omissions, mistakes, and violence result.
Goethe’s Historical Interests
In the field of historical research, which was important to Goethe all his life, the polarity of permanence and fast change plays a significant role. In the early decades of his life, Goethe’s historical interest can be found in his dramas Götz von Berlichingen and Egmont.
During his stays in Italy, Goethe realized nature and art were permanent and reliable because history was present in the antiquities. Back in Weimar, he was caught up in the events of world history and his belief in stability began to fade. He regarded the French Revolution as chaotic and as responsible for accelerating the historical process. Goethe wished to understand events and acted accordingly, but felt helpless. He realized that his own desires could not affect the progress of history, and recognized the arbitrariness and unpredictability of events, which reminded him of natural changes. Looking for stability, he discovered his roots and began his autobiographical work, Poetry and Truth (Dichtung und Wahrheit). Nonetheless, Goethe continued to place a high value on progress.
The ambiguity between Goethe’s interests in progress and his own thoughts on development (metamorphosis) come out clearly and are put into perspective. According to Goethe, time plays an important role in nature. One of his fundamental ideas was the organic development from the simple to the absolute. He believed he recognized a special type of original plant (Urpflanze) in every plant. To verify this idea, Goethe undertook biological research during his journeys to Italy and at his home, on his idea of an original plant type. He looked for something that is common in all plants. This led him to make generalizations different from those of Linne (Linnaeus), who tried to find a classification based on the differences between plants. With his generalizations, Goethe progressed from the original plant to the original leaf (Urorgan Blatt). In his opinion, all parts of the plant emerged from this leaf. Two laws are responsible for changes in the plant: A law of nature constructs the plant, and a law of the external circumstances modifies it.
Later, Goethe gave up his idea of an original plant type in favor of the theory of types (Typus). He subsequently made his theory of the evolution of plants more general so that it included animals. In contrast to the theory of metamorphosis, his type theory represents a constant in natural biodiversity. Nevertheless, both terms (Leitbegriffe) in Goethe’s scientific studies are connected and lead to biodiversity. The type sets limits that metamorphosis cannot exceed, though it can shine though as an original principle (Urprinzip) because of the creation of organisms brought about by metamorphosis.
The concept of duality of moment (type) and eternity (metamorphosis) are implicit or explicit in Goethe’s theoretical writings.
Sophie Annerose Naumann
See also Becoming and Being; Eternity; Evolution,
Organic; Novels, Time in; Poetry
Goethe, J. W. von. (1987). Collected works. Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press.
Gray, R. (1967). Goethe: A critical introduction.
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Vincent, D. (1987). The eternity of being: On the experience of time in Goethe’s Faust. Bonn: Bouvier.
Williams, J. R. (1998). Life of Goethe: A critical biography. Malden, MA: Blackwell.