The Abasement of the Sublime: Why Faust Fails to Become a Romantic Hero ~ Christian Fernandez

The Romantic hero is an idea expressed across generations of Romantic literature. The Romantic concept of a hero entails three factors: a persecuted agent, a spirited means, and an ethereal end. The agent is an individual persecuted by circumstances, typically beyond his control, that threaten his quest for the end. Emotions and sensations are the spirited means, which the individual uses as a guide to overcome the circumstances and achieve the end. The ethereal end is the highest level of emotional experience called “the sublime.” The important element of the Romantic hero’s journey is that the hero must ascend above the corporeal to find the sublime in the celestial.

Goethe’s Faust: Part One introduces Faust, a man who seeks to become this Romantic hero. He desires the sublime above all. Yet, he does not understand that the sublime is a transcendent force that he cannot abase. Therefore, Faust fails to become a Romantic hero because he seeks to contain the sublime in his desires rather than use his emotions to elevate himself to the sublime.

To introduce the idea of the Romantic hero, Goethe portrays a Poet, a Director, and a Clown debating value systems. Goethe uses the Poet as the standard of the Romantic hero and therefore details his attributes for the audience to later juxtapose with Faust’s attributes. Whereas the Director and the Clown value writing for the sake of entertainment and fun, the Poet seeks to compose for posterity. The underlying principle the Poet holds is that the sublime exists, and he must express it as a coherent whole. This contrasts with the Director’s urge for the Poet to compose “a stew,” or a play of episodes (100). The idea of an episodic plot contradicts the Romantic conception of the sublime because such a plot is composed of short moments of frivolous entertainment; it rejects the presence of an elevated principle that connects everything. This elevated principle is manifested on earth in the form of Nature, which the Poet cites as his inspiration. However, the Poet understands that Nature is not the sublime itself, simply a manifestation of it. He appreciates Nature because he loves the sublime, not the reverse. The Poet’s job is to elevate the mundane to the sublime rather than simply to praise Nature.

Once Goethe emphatically establishes the Romantic hero’s narrow focus on the sublime through the Poet, he introduces the character of Faust. Faust’s introduction is designed to give the impression that he is a Romantic. He is an old, depressed professor weary of the unfulfilling Enlightenment lifestyle that devotes itself to acquiring intellectual knowledge. As he remarks, “Hard studies all, that have cost me dear. / And so I sit, poor silly man, / no wiser now than when I began” (357-59). Though he has intellectual knowledge, Faust agrees with the Romantic mentality that emotional knowledge is superior and more fulfilling.

However, Faust fails to become a Romantic hero because of his dilemma of desires. The Faustian dilemma is that he wants more than earthly desires, yet seeks to abase the sublime into his earthly experiences. In other words, Faust seeks to make the sublime tangible. A key to understanding Fausts’ desires is the concept of titanic energy. Previous conceptions of the Faust legend had a value scheme of good versus evil, but Goethe changes that. Instead, his value scheme is the energy (streben) to ascend to the sublime versus the sloth of reveling in earthly pleasures (Swales 30). Energy is the Romantic hero’s virtue. In contrast, Faust’s dilemma places him on the fence between the two forces.

Faust is portrayed early on as an individual focused on the energy of the universe and all its creatures. Goethe shows this when Faust translates “the Word” in John 1 as “the Deed.” His energy to apprehend the sublime is again illustrated in the Night scene when he summons the Spirit of the Earth. Faust believes he will find fulfillment in conversing with the Spirit. Yet, this scene also illustrates the futility of making the sublime tangible. Instead of enjoying the Spirit’s presence, he cannot bear the sight of it. The Spirit criticizes Faust for attempting to become an “ubermenschen,” or, “superman,” an individual who surpasses all other humans in passionate experiences on earth (490). The Spirit reminds Faust of his limits when it says, “You match the spirit you can comprehend: / I am not he,” and vanishes (512-13).

Nevertheless, Faust insists on attaining the sublime on earth, highlighting his preference for the earthly desires that oppose the Romantic concept of energy. Faust demonstrates this when he tells Mephistopheles, “Out of this earth all my contentment springs,” and later expresses a disinterest in the afterlife (1663). Thus, when he and Mephistopheles create the wager, it is experience-based. Faust describes it as the moment when he can confidently say, “Beautiful moment, do not pass away” (1700). Because Faust is on the fence between focusing on the sublime and on earthly experiences, he faces the problem of vagueness and overlap between energy and sloth. Mephistopheles understands this and takes advantage of it to push Faust away from the sublime.

Mephistopheles is more than an agent of evil in Goethe’s play: Goethe makes him a nihilist (Wells 392). Rather than tempting Faust with sinful desires, he operates as a “spirit of perpetual negation” (1338), who seeks to distort Faust’s quest for the sublime by depriving him of his energy (Swales 30). Mephistopheles’ method is to fuel Faust’s fascination with tangible sublimity by encouraging him to believe that his passions are the sublime. Whereas the Romantic hero overcomes this misconception, Mephistopheles manages to persuade Faust with this lie and gain the victory.

Two particular acts of deception are central to Mephistopheles’ strategy. The first is distorting Faust’s fascination with youth. Faust believes that youth and passions are interlinked, and therefore seeks youth in order to better experience those passions. Mephistopheles grants him youth through a brew in the witch’s kitchen, but deceives Faust into thinking his passions are fulfilling. Rather, Mephistopheles reveals that youth is a stage of extreme naivety that suppresses an individual’s vision from looking above the earthly. By reducing his age, the devil has reduced Faust’s energy to a focus on only earthly desires. Thus, the young Faust’s supposedly fulfilled passions are nothing more than mere satisfaction in hindsight. The climax of Faust’s indulgence in worldly pleasures is his sensual experiences with the witches in the Walpurgis Night scene.

The second act of deception is Mephistopheles’ distortion of Faust’s love for Gretchen. Originally born out of lust, Faust’s love for Gretchen is sometimes genuine. For instance, when Faust enters Gretchen’s room, he is overcome by a force that enables him to love and not simply lust. However, Mephistopheles, a “cynical sensualist,” does not permit him to remain in such a state of ecstasy (Wells 394). He ensures that Faust’s experiences with Gretchen are episodic, and therefore, like the Director in the beginning, are concerned with entertainment and pleasure, not the overarching principle of love. This is why the Gretchen love story in Faust: Part One skips quickly and selectively through his process of wooing her to their sexual intimacy. Such an episodic love story demonstrates again Mephistopheles’ deceptive strategy to deprive Faust of the energy that oriented him to the sublime.

It is tempting to presume that because Faust satisfied his passions, he acquired what he sought and is a Romantic hero. Yet, there is a vital discrepancy between the passions of the Romantic hero and the passions of Faust. Romantic emotions are meant to elevate individuals’ spirits beyond the worldly and into the celestial realms of the sublime. In contrast, Faust’s passions reduce him to earthly desires that he confuses as the sublime. A perfect example of this is the Gretchen love story. Goethe included the Gretchen love story to “define a yardstick by which we [the readers] can distinguish triviality from substance” (Swales 31). For most instances, save his experience in her room and his desire to free her from prison, lust dominates Faust’s relationship with Gretchen. Goethe stresses this overwhelming sensation of lust in the Forest Cavern scene. Faust enters, praising Mephistopheles for granting him what he desired. If this were so, Faust would harbor an unselfish, caring sense of love in his heart. Yet, that is not what Faust feels. Instead, he is open to Mephistopheles about his lust for Gretchen. At one point, Faust even claims to be jealous of the Lord’s presence with her. Faust may have found temporal satisfaction, as is the case with all sin. He may believe that the sublime is manifested in his corrupted idea of love. However, he has still not acquired what he actually thirsts for: the sublime in its ethereal and perfect form.

Faust could have become a Romantic hero if he understood two lessons: first, that on this earth, his quest for a totality of emotional experiences is in vain. To encounter the sublime by reducing it to an appetitive human desire distorts the sublime. Furthermore, as Mephistopheles admits, possessing the totality of the sublime is “only for a god,” for only a divine being can fully comprehend such an ethereal force (1781). This proves the second lesson: the sublime is found only in the divine. Goethe sneaks in appearances of the sublime without formally introducing them as such. The clearest examples are the instances of divine intervention, such as when the heavenly choruses prevent Faust from committing suicide and when Gretchen is redeemed. This final scene portrays the clash between the sublime and earthly desires. Faust implores Gretchen to leave the prison, revealing his desire to continue his association with worldly pleasures. In contrast, Gretchen does not leave the prison, submitting herself to God’s judgment. In the end, Gretchen’s spiritual development and focus on the divine redeems her. Faust and Mephistopheles vanish, illustrating the extreme separation between Faust and the sublime. Faust has not only failed to become a hero by submitting to Mephistopheles; he has also failed to become a Romantic hero.

Faust is a persecuted agent. Faust has the spirited means. Where Faust fails to become the Romantic hero is in his understanding of the sublime. The sublime is ethereal and intangible, yet Faust believes he can define it and make it tangible. In the end, Faust is defeated. He never gains what he desires, he loses his only object of potential love, and serves as a mere pawn for Mephistopheles’ deceptive craft. The product of such a reduction of the sublime is a scenario where Faust finally says, “Life-giving intuitions of great worth / Are stifled in the muddle of the earth” (639). The Romantic hero recognizes the indescribable, undefiled beauty of the sublime, and ultimately finds it, not in his desires or on this earth, but in the divine.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Faust, Part One. Trans. with introd. and notes by David Luke. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
Swales, Martin. “The Character and Characterization of Faust.” A Companion to Goethe’s Faust Parts I and II. Ed. Paul Bishop. Rochester: Camden House, 2001. Print.
Wells, B.W. “Goethe’s ‘Faust.’” The Sewanee Review 2.4 (1894): 385-412. Web. 5 October 2013.


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