sábado, 8 de junho de 2013

The Faustian Principle by Beat Wyss

Goethe defined the practice of descriptive interpretation which he used in his sci­entific writings as ‘morphology’. Spengler repeatedly stresses what a paradigm this method of research was for his own philosophy of history. ‘Drafts for a morphology of world history’ is the lesser-known subtitle of the Decline. The source of this method is found in Goethe’s poem on the metamorphosis of the leaf. The leaf is seen in embryonic form in the seed; it then becomes erect on the growing stem where it multiplies finally in the petals forming the flower head; when the fruit ripens, the leaf dies. Spengler’s four-stage cultural cycle is akin to the development of a vegetable organism; it germi­nates in the seed of the Romanesque, climbs the movement of upward I) striving Gothic art and finally attains the floral magificence of the Baroque. Only in the last phase do Goethe’s flower symbol and Spengler’s image of culture part ways: while the wilted plant conceals the seed of regeneration, the desert climate of civilization can only pro­duce nutshells containing no kernel.

The aim of Goethe’s morphology is to identify what is typical and constant in the metamorphoses of this life. ‘Form is a mobile thing that develops and passes away. The theory of form is the theory of transformation. The theory of metamorphosis is the key to the symbols found in nature.’ (21) What is constant in the multiplicity of species and in the different ways a plant grows is the leaf, the Idea of the plant as such - Goethe calls this the ‘original phenomenon’. The aim of Spengler’s Decline is to arrive at a vision of the original phenomenon in world history. The universal idea of a cultural cycle is its expansion in the space made by time. The nature in which the cultural organism lives out this feeling of depth is the key to deciphering its Weltanschauung. Every culture has a basic image for its aspiration to leave the ‘Here’ and attain a ‘Yonder’: for this reason, maintains Spengler, every culture has one basic style, which it then moderates — as a plant modulates its leaf-shape - according to the four phases of its development. How is the path through history perceived? This question leads us to the primordial form of a cultural sphere. Arabia, for instance, perceives the world as a magically shimmering cavern; it stands in contrast to the Greek world, which is a cosmos of plastic, tangible bodies. ‘Cavern’ and ‘body’ therefore define the prime phenomena of Arabia and of the classical world respectively. For the West, the idea of ‘limitless space’ is most appropriate. Here the sense of the world floats off into infinity, on a quest for Valhalla:

What is Valhalla? Unknown to the Germanic peoples who migrated from the East, and even unknown to the Merovingians, it was imagined by the awakening Faustian soul, doubt­less under the influence of myths of Graeco-pagan and Arabo-Christian origin that spread northwards from these two older and more southerly cultures, whose classical or sacred writings, ruins, mosaics, miniatures, ritual acts and dogmas penetrated into every corner of the new life. Yet despite this, Valhalla floats in a space beyond all perceptible reality, in distant, dark, Faustian regions. Olympus is fixed within reach, in the soil of Greece; the Paradise of the Christian fathers is an enchanted garden somewhere in the depths of a magical cosmos; Valhalla is nowhere.

It appears, lost in limidess space and peopled with unsociable gods and knights, as an egregious symbol of loneliness. Siegfried, Parzival. Tris­tan, Hamlet, Faust are all the loneliest heroes any culture has ever known. One should read the wonderful talc in Wolfram’s Parzival of the inner awakening of his hero. His longing for the forest, his mysterious pity, the nameless sense of having been forsaken: all this is Faustian, nothing but Faustian. It is something each one of us knows.” (22)

True. In Dr. Faustus’ striving without result, Spenglers era recognises its own original phenomenon. The legendary necromancer enjoys widespread popularity: the German soldier goes off to the front in the First World War ‘with Goethe’s Faust in his knapsack’; on his death in 1936, in accordance with the instructions in his testament, Spengler is buried with a copy laid beside him. In 1947, Thomas Mann completed a strikingly accurate character study of this fateful representative of German identity.

Spengler likes portraying the Faustian soul in contrast to the classical physique: ‘The hour of Apollo is high noon, when Pan sleeps. Valhalla is sunless. Even in the Edda, one has a sense of those deepest midnights that Faust spends brooding in his study: midnights that are captured in Rembrandt’s etchings or that drown the tonalities of Beethoven’s music.’ (23) Such sentences express a final turning away from the nineteeth-century reception of the ancient world. In the second decade of the new century, the Greek world depicted in the paintings of Arnold Bocklin and the writings of Jacob Burckhardt and the young Nietzsche faded. One of the works that led this change in attitude was Wilhelm Worringer’s thesis, published in 1908, entided Abstraction and Introduction. This brilliantly written early work distinguishes between the sensuous imitation of nature found in the classical Mediterranean and the northern Gothic denial of the body.

Worringer’s the­ories have a lasting influence on Spengler. The paradigm of the classical world, its normative power over contemporary an, is rejected. The reliance on Greek culture is vain longing for a lost age. In the borrowed form of a Greek hero, the unhappy European dreams up for himself a fulfilled existence. Hellas is where Faust’s unquenchable desire takes him: it is a wish for Nirvana, a Beyond where there is room for everything that the soul doomed to eternal wandering must leave behind in reality. In the quest for ultimate fulfillment, the West forces itself into the alien mask of the ancient gods. Spengler calls the mistaken attempt of one culture to conform to the mould of another ‘pseudomorphosis’. His philosophy of history, according to which each culture grows and declines as a windowless monad, admits no cross-fertilisation between different cultures.

The Italian Renaissance is therefore based on a predictable misunderstanding. It is a typical pseudomorphosis, the West’s final error — a writhing that seizes the Faustian soul before it begins to aspire to its true destiny in the Baroque period. Spengler calls the Renaissance ‘the Florentine episode’, (24) thus indicating what sort of value is to be placed on humanistic ideals. Renaissance is the revolt of the spirit, as humanity’s insolent, unilateral declaration of independence from his destiny. But his destiny will soon catch up with him. The art of Leonardo, Raphael and Giorgione remains a fata morgana which once briefly led the Faustian soul astray. A longing mind calls up for itself a world of dear beauty. The apparition, which flourished in the vapours of Italy’s ‘savage republics’, (25) rapidly vanished; when the Western sense of the world asserts itself, it sinks without a trace. The cultural cycle rolls on unaffected, from Gothic art to the Counter-Reformation.

What does Faust hope to find in the Greek world? He has fallen in love with the unattainable. In the inaccessible classical world he glimpses the Euclidian body that is withheld from him. This delight in sensuousness, this blissful togetherness in ideal physical form - this is what the dark Faust desires as his alter ego. He gazes enviously after the carefree propensity for self-gratification that in the end makes one go soft. He has to deny himself this path. How different is the admirer from his Ideal; the Western character portrait is rough-hewn in comparison with the 'womanish impression’ (26) made by the Greek sculpture oft the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. It comes as no surprise that Winckelmann, the foremost venerator of Greek art, is said to have had homosexual leanings. The principal subject for the visual arts in the classical era is the nude. Western artists have struggled in vain to represent the naked body. ‘A Faustian nude is a con­tradiction in terms.’ (27) An example of this is seen in the bared muscle power in Michelangelo’s figures: nowhere can they be seen in restful harmony within their physical proportions; these people writhe within the cages of their bodies, as if a negative will were crying ro wrench arms, legs and corso apart by putting them through exaggeraced contortion».

The anguish felt by the self trapped in such a body is expressed in the tortured faces of Day and Night in the Medici Chapel in Florence. The physical body stands in the way of a boundless quest for the Absolute. Only the modern European experiences the polarity between self and the world in such a tragic way. The ancient world engenders a space where everything is within reach; its culture could be defined, in Riegl’s terminology, as ‘haptic’ as opposed to the ‘optical’ West. The Greeks attained mastery in sculpture, Western Europeans in painting. They arc drawn by the distant; again and again, their gaze loses itself on the horizon, in the clouds, in the movements of the air. ‘With Leonardo and Giorgione. Impressionism begins’: (28) this is the original style in which the Faustian Weltanschauung presents itself. Impressionism could not be further removed from the classical age; it denies the world of Euclidian bodies. The ancient world, which could only express itself in the tactile, had no feeling for far-off things. Its landscape painting is restricted to ‘the imitation of the immediately visible’ (29). The meaning of landscape is first discovered with Faust’s longing for distant lands. The Westerner cannot abide his own narrow sphere for very long. Bliss is where he is not.

The telescope, the compass and gunpowder could only have been invented within this cultural cycle. ‘The Old Nordic lust for life, the Viking’s longing for the infinite’ (30) is the origin of all the discoveries that reach out into the distance, in order to bring the distant back home. The Westerner’s lack of fulfillment drives him ever onward. The body is subjugated to become an instrument of the will. Where the classical world had conceived the sculpture in terms of a body at rest within perfect proportions, the Western European sculptor sets the body in motion. Michelangelo’s human being is a pure bundle of energy composed of sinews and muscle, against which any classical Heracles seems almost effeminate. The same contrast is to be found in the mathematics of the two opposed cultures. The ancient world operated entirely with whole numbers. It had an instinctive fear of the zero, and its philosophers hastened to support this by saying that nonexistence could not exist. The epitome of the Greek sense of number is the geometric figure, the symbol of a regular, well-knit cosmos. The Westerner rejects static order. He breaks up numbers into fractions, thinks in terms of functional equa­tions, and invents calculus - a blatant sacrilege to the Greek ideal of sophrosyne (σωφροσύνη).

To the West, the world opens up as an immense space to be conquered with un­bounded energy. The Faustian culture is a ‘culture of the Will’. (31) The stone image of this striving for the essential is the cathedral. Gothic architecture crystallises the ‘Ex­celsior!’ in the Faustian ethic. Moral principles arc commands to be given to others with the same harshness with which one disciplines oneself. The Western categorical imperative is diametrically opposed to the ‘carpe diem’ of the classical world. A culture that demands so little self-discipline of itself cannot hope to produce a grand world order. Only an individual who is prepared to do without immediate happiness will come to understand the universe. The precondition for the domination of the natural world is the negation of physical desires. The Westerner uses his frustration to release his energy: his hunger for power feeds on his asceticism. Hence the breeding of the ‘blond beast’ and the ‘man of stone’ who demand everything; a long procession of giants marches through history: ilie Staufer emperors, the conquistadors, the electors and kings of Prussia, Napoleon, Bismarck, Cecil Rhodes. ‘Where has there ever been another culture which could be set alongside this one in any respect?’ (32)

The ancient universe is too small for the Faustian human being. He leaps from the round table of the earth and shatters the glassy firmament of heaven, along with the ridiculous musical-box clockwork dance of the spheres. He would rather take on board the terrible loneliness that comes with the discovery of infinite space, in which his earth circles arbitrarily in the starry mass of a galaxy spinning soundlessly yet furiously into the void. Di/.zying powerlessness and the will to possess infinity arc one and the same thing for the Western European. ‘What I am teaching here is imperialism’; (33) Spengler’s philosophy of history is the metaphysics of violence. Faust’s autocratic nature is seen in the light of his striving for the Absolute. This constant aspiration for something higher is used to justify an actual claim to power. The Greeks only had the easily viewable reaches of the polis to deal with; locked in the jealous disputes of city-states, they were neither capable nor called upon to develop the idea of comprehensive rule. It was the lot of the West to translate its dream of a third empire of humanity into the reality of the Third Reich. The foreign policy of the Nazi state from 1937 on seeks to alleviate the Faustian longing for distant lands by ‘conquering new Lebensraum’.


21. Goethe, Morphologie, note p. 573.

22. Spengler, Oswald: Der Untergang des Abendlandes: Umrisse einer Morphologie der Weltgeschichte. (1918-1923) München 1980, pp. 238f.

23. Ibid., 241.

24. Ibid., 348.

25. Ibid., 350.

26. Ibid., 339.

27. Ibid., 346.

28. Ibid., 308.

29. Ibid., 396.

30. Ibid., 425.

31. Ibid., 394.

32. Ibid., 445.

33. Ibid., 51.

In: Hegel's Art History and the Critique. Cambridge, 1999. pp. 195-199. 

Goethes Faust - Die Puppenshow für Erwachsene Freiburger Puppenbühne

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