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What Is Worth Striving For?

Faust Essay

Sarah Jordan

Humanities IA
Ms. Hildner
15 March 2014

The concept of the good lifestriving as Milton and Lord would say, appears in
Johann Wolfgang von Goethes drama Faust (1774-1808), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozarts opera
Don Giovanni (1787 debut in Prague), and George Bernard Shaws play Don Juan (1903), but
each has a different vision of the good life. In each of these stories the protagonist makes a pact
with the Devil that results in their fall; again the pact is different: direct in Goethe, by implication
in da Ponte/Mozart, and as a conversational opponent in Shaw. But what do they want so badly
that they would make such a deal with the Devil, ultimately giving up their soul? Each artist
addresses the reasons why a reasonable man would sell his soul for something he strives for.
In Goethes tragedy Faust, an elderly professor, frustrated by his inability to discover the
meaning of life despite his other scholarly lifetime achievements, is about to end his life when he
hears celestial music. As Faust sits restless in his office for he muses on, The impossibility of
knowledge! It is this that burns away my heart I cannot presume to make use of my learning, I
cannot presume I could open my mind to proselytize and improve mankind. He continues to say
he hopes that the supernatural may allow him, to learn what it is that girds [holds] the world
together in its [innermost] being. through witnessing and experiencing the way things work will
be the only end of his misery (Faust 227). He wants to live a good life and help mankind. If
Faust ever reaches pure satisfaction, as he says upon making the deal, If ever I say to the
passing moment Linger a while! Thou art so fair! then you may cast me into fetters, I will
gladly perish then and there! (240) Mephistopheles (Satan) can have his soul if he no longer
seeks. In the end of the poem Faust is saved by his continuous drive to strive to understand the
meaning of life, for knowledge, and his efforts to go beyond human abilities. He helps mankind
by draining a swamp so that people could use the land to farm and live on. This, at the end of the
poem, is Fausts first commitment to others rather than to himself. Faust is the manifestation of
the nature of mankind, not only in his deeds and emotions but also his strengths and weaknesses.
It is a Romantic end because Faust earned life by doing.
In Mozarts opera Don Giovanni makes a pact with the Devil for reasons that are unclear
to the spectator. What is made quite clear is that Don Giovanni enjoys fine meals and splendid
wine, lavish accommodations, and a different woman every night (each of whom he falls in love
with). In Leporello's famous catalogue aria he tells the audience of the thousands of his
masters conquests. In other words, Don Giovanni is a party animal and a hardcore player; he has
an extensive list of hundreds of women he had one night stands with from all over Europe. All
Don Giovanni wants is to have a good time, as well as ensuring his guests and everyone else has
a good time.
The opera begins as he flees from one of his lovers, named Donna Anna, whom he
seduced, promised to marry, and left. As he leaves Donna Annas her father, the Commander,
confronts him and is killed in their duel. Donna Anna lies to her fianc Ottavio that Don
Giovanni dishonored her. Later Don Giovanni tries to break up a peasant couple who plan to
marry that very day. He seduces the bride to be and is cock-blocked by a former lover, Elvira,
seeking revenge on Don Giovanni for his perfidious and evil deeds. Together Elvira, Ottavio,
and Donna Anna work to expose Don Giovanni. The trio arrive masked at the Dons mansion for
proof that he killed the Commander. In the original final scene Don Giovannis house prepares
for another party. Elvira seeks him out and pleads with him to change his evil ways of living and
encourages him to repent. She says, Ah, change your life! (43). Don Giovanni refuses. The
statue of Donna Annas father comes to dine with Don Giovanni telling him to Repent, and
change thy life, or thy last hour is come (47). Still Don Giovanni refuses to repent and thus the
scene ends with the screams of Don Giovanni and his manservant Leporello as Don Giovanni
falls into Hell. Unlike Goethes Mephistopheles, the Devil (disguised as a servant) works silently
and goes unacknowledged by the other characters throughout the opera. Don Giovanni is the
only one who recognizes him as the Devil, but only at the end when the Commander takes him
down to Hell. Don Giovanni did not strive to help mankind or seek wisdom, he was so self
involved that he did not listen to the warnings of people who cared about him. He cared about no
one but himself and that concluded in self-destruction because a life of pleasure is thought an
unworthy life, without any redeeming features or values.
George Bernard Shaws Don Juan in Hell is a response to Mozarts opera. Don Juan rests
dejectedly in the pits of Hell, bored by the romantic illusions and delusions of those who dwell
with him. Heaven is coldly intellectual, while Hell is where one pursues happiness and cultivates
the emotions, which are indeed the opposite of our preconceptions of Heaven and Hell, and is a
typical Shaw reversal of values. Don Juan wants to live eternity in solitude to contemplate and
help life proceed for the better. He has absolute faith in mankinds potential beyond the
limitations of human mentality eventually leading to the creation of a superhuman that far
surpasses human beings. His credo is I want to know myself and my destination, and choose my
path; (Don Juan in Hell 290). Don Juan has a philosophical brain, which makes him a good
candidate for Heaven. He believes the core of the Life Force is intellect and that it is necessary
for great ideas to move us so that we strive to achieve philosophical ideals.
There is a constant game of tug of war between striving for wisdom to understand the
secrets of life and striving to achieve quotas of what we should, and should not do because it is
the conventional standard. There is a reason why the Faust Legend is so compelling because it
has been told and retold for centuries. The outlier in this series is Mozarts Don. His pursuit of
pure pleasure has no redeeming qualities and for this he is damned. Goethe and Shaw are akin;
for both the protagonist strive for knowledge of the self that is ultimately to be followed by
wanting to better mankind. But Shaws Faust is completely intellectual, unlike Goethe; or rather
that he begins as intellectual, experiences a long sensual period, then returns not to pure reason
but to the conviction that he must do something for mankind generally.
Other things to consider: Shaw is much closer to Goethe than to Mozart. Goethe and
Mozart are contemporaries and Shaw is a descendant of the Enlightenment. But each follows a
different path although they start out together. Goethe begins his poem as a Romantic quest and
ends up a kind of social reformer. Mozarts Don Giovanni undergoes no transformation. He is a
consistent voluptuary.