Faust II and the Darwinian Revolution

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Author: John Gearey
Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2003
From: Drama Criticism(Vol. 20. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,434 words

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[(essay date 1992) In the following essay, Gearey considers the ways in which Goethe's scientific interests and ideas shaped the structure of Faust II.]

In a footnote to the Introduction of his Origin of Species, Darwin cites Goethe as among those earlier thinkers whose views in one way or another had anticipated his own. 'It is rather a singular instance of the manner in which similar views arise at about the same time, that Goethe in Germany, Dr. Darwin [his grandfather] in England, and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire ... in France, came to the same conclusion on the origin of species, in the years 1794-95.' That is precisely my point. Whatever the differences in the concept of evolution that Goethe and Darwin separately espoused, and however significant those differences would eventually prove to be in subsequent scientific thought, they nevertheless partook of the common revolution in thinking that was occurring in the age.1 Darwin refers here, of course, to Goethe the scientist, but we note that he chooses to single out for recognition not any particular accomplishment of his early contemporary, but his general method or approach. The equivalent in art of method or approach in science, however, is form. While the scientific thought of the age played an important role in the creation of Faust almost from the beginning, it is to the form rather than the content of that thought that the second part of the work owes its unusual genius and with which the present [essay], for the most part, is concerned.

Darwin said of Goethe: 'He has pointedly remarked that the future question for naturalists will be how, for instance, cattle got their horns, and not for what they are used.'2 We ask how Faust II came to have its form and not what purpose it served.

The question may seem idle, just as when applied in the scientific realm its implications are not at first clear. But the same distinction between the concept of creation by design and by adaptation that caused a revolution in thought when brought to bear in the natural world has a bearing also in the world of art. Not that the future question for criticism should be how a work of art got its form. Creation by design has been so persistent an assumption in the tradition that it seems almost a definition of art. It is only when a distinct departure from the norm takes place in a radical assertion of content over form that we can speak of a true variant having come into being and meaningfully ask the question.

Faust II provides such an opportunity, perhaps unprecedented. For the sense of form is the product of tradition, and what deviates significantly from the tradition will appear unformed and thus unartistic, unless, establishing itself, the deviant in turn becomes absorbed in a new progression which gradually identifies, clarifies, and justifies its existence. This was the case with Romanticism. The tradition creates form and form is created by the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420050041