Bin ich der Flüchtling nicht, der Unbehaus’te,
Der Unmensch ohne Zweck und Ruh,
Der wie ein Wassersturz von Fels zu Felsen braus’te
Begierig wüthend nach dem Abgrund zu?
(I am a refugee; a homeless one,
A monster, without purpose or rest,
who, like a torrent of water, gushes from rock to rock,
raging yearningly down into the abyss.)
Goethe, Faust I, “Forest and Cavern,” ll. 3348–51
But it’s worth noting that Goethe does not put any poetic innovation into Faust’s mouth. In fact, the mountain stream is a simile that the oldest Western poets applied. Homer was the first that we know of to do so: for him, the cataract was also a sign of the human will. The metaphor comes up at least three times in the Iliad, each time to describe a warrior on the battlefield. Here is just one example: Diomedes, whom Athena has filled with godly power, charges towards the Trojans, mad with deadly passion.
Θῦνε γὰρ ἂμ πεδίον ποταμῷ πλήθοντι ἐοικὼς
χειμάῤῥῳ, ὅς τ᾽ ὦκα ῥέων ἐκέδασσε γεφύρας·
τὸν δ᾽ οὔτ᾽ ἄρ τε γέφυραι ἐεργμέναι ἰσχανόωσιν,
οὔτ᾽ ἄρα ἕρκεα ἴσχει ἀλωάων ἐριθηλέων
ἐλθόντ᾽ ἐξαπίνης ὅτ᾽ ἐπιβρίσῃ Διὸς ὄμβρος·
πολλὰ δ᾽ ὑπ᾽ αὐτοῦ ἔργα κατήριπε κάλ᾽ αἰζηῶν.
(Thus did [Diomedes] charge on the battlefield, similar to an overflowing winter-stream that wrecks the bridges in its swift flow; which, as it rushes onwards, swollen by Zeus’ rain, is withstood by neither dykes nor the walls of fruitful orchards.) —Iliad V.86-92
It is obvious here, and from the other Homeric examples (cf. Iliad IV.450–56 and XVI.384–93) that Goethe’s simile was not unprecedented. But even Homer was not the only, just the first ancient poet (as far as I know) to use it. At least two Latin poets—Virgil and Lucretius—also described human lust as a swollen torrent. (For the latter, see De Rerum Natura, I.281–9.) Here, for instance, is Virgil narrating the battle between Aeneas and Turnus:
[Ac velut] decursu rapido de montibus altis
dant sonitum spumosi amnes et in æquora currunt
quisque suum populatus iter: non segnius ambo
Æneas Turnusque ruunt per prœlia…
(Just as frothy rivers give off a roar as they pour swiftly from high mountains and run to the sea, destroying everything in their path, so did Aeneas and Turnus rush through the battle.) —Aeneid XII.523–6
Virgil uses the same image as Homer in order to bring out the murderous desire of each warrior. Here, it is doubled: instead of one powerful stream, we have two, each surging towards the other. But the essential meaning conveyed is the same.
The Italian opera, too, is filled with these torrents. In L’elisir d’amore, for instance, Adina demands to know why Nemorino won’t find someone besides her to love. He responds:
Chiedi al rio perché gemente
dalla balza ov’ebbe vita
corre al mar, che a sé l’invita,
e nel mar se n’ va a morir:
ti dirà che lo strascina
un poter che non sa dir.
(Why? Ask the stream why, moaning, he runs from the cliff that gives him life to die in the tempting sea. He will tell you that he’s dragged by a power he cannot tell.)
And here’s Handel’s Julius Caesar, swearing to kill Ptolemy:
Quel torrente che cade dal monte
tutto atterra ch’incontro lo sta.
Tale anch’io a chi oppone la fronte
Dal mio brando atterrato sarà!
(The torrent that falls from the mountain wrecks everything that stands against it. So am I to him who opposes my brow: he will fall to my sword!)
It looks, then, like Goethe’s metaphor was commonplace in ancient epic poetry, and that he was not alone among the moderns in taking it up. So when Faust declares his destructive love to Mephistopheles, his speech takes part in a long artistic tradition. But we can’t conclude that Goethe simply forged a new and identical link in the classical chain. There’s a great difference between the ways in which Goethe and the classical poets apply the roaring-stream metaphor.
The subject of Vergil’s and Homer’s similes is always a man who strives after a graspable goal. When Diomedes storms the battlefield, his rage is directed against a solid object; namely, to slaughter the Trojans. Likewise, when Aeneas and Turnus engage each other, their violent rivers of passion pour out to sea in each other. Nemorino, meanwhile, loves Adina alone, and Caesar hates Ptolemy.
Du kommst ihr gar nicht aus dem Sinne,
Sie hat dich übermächtig lieb.
Erst kam deine Liebeswuth übergeflossen,
Wie vom geschmolznen Schnee ein Bächlein übersteigt;
Du hast sie ihr in’s Herz gegossen,
Nun ist dein Bächlein wieder seicht.
You do not leave her thoughts;
her love for you has overpowered her.
First came your seething love, flowing over her,
like a stream swollen with melted snow.
You poured into her heart,
but now your stream is shallow again.
—Faust I, “Forest and Cavern,” ll. 3307–10
The river of Faust’s desire, in other words, can move beyond Gretchen, leaving her stranded. Faust loves her, no doubt. But his will is nonetheless far greater than his sexual lust for any person in particular. This is proven by his behavior at the end of the play: given a choice to stay with her in prison, he flees instead with Mephistopheles, in search of some greater satisfaction. Gretchen is not the final end of his longing. The true object is something else, far greater—something unutterable. Faust’s torrent of desire is, in his own words, “without purpose or rest;” it “pours into the abyss.” There is nothing in the world that he can really be said to want, and his destination is an unknowable darkness.
This chaotic yearning has no counterpart in the classical sources. Even the cosmic rage of Achilles has its end: it is buried with Hector in the last scene of the Iliad. Goethe’s use of the ancient simile is original: it expresses a kind of desire that is foreign to the Greeks and Romans. Faust flows onward with the same intensity as Aeneas and Diomedes; but towards nothing. (Oswald Spengler called this the distinction between the Apollonian and Faustian; that is, the Classical and Western world-views, but that’s too much to get into here.)
In any case, Faust’s desire gets expressed in a still clearer form earlier in the play:
Der Gott, der mir im Busen wohnt,
kann tief mein Innerstes erregen;
der über allen meinen Kräften thront,
er kann nach außen nichts bewegen.
The god who lives within my breast
can deeply stir my soul down to its roots.
But when it comes to earthly strength,
he cannot move a single outward thing!
—“Study-room,” ll. 1566–70.
These lines are a metaphysical explanation of Faust’s relationship to the world. The external world cannot fulfill a single one of his wishes; not because it’s insufficiently enticing, but because the very fact of being in the world entails unslaked dissatisfaction. Faust’s inner god will always stir him up to desires that reach beyond the shifting images of the world. There is therefore no worldly thing between the torrent of Faust’s will and the abyss that can quiet him.
Arthur Schopenhauer, Goethe’s close intellectual kinsman, set up this objectless desire as the central pillar of his philosophical system. For Schopenhauer, blind will is the basic principle of reality. The creation of human consciousness is just one of the uncountable ways in which the will of the world seeks to free itself from pain. The will itself is eternal, formless, and unchained to any causality—it is the basis of all conscious life. And since it is insatiable, there is nothing in the world, except a Buddhist renunciation of the will to live, that can redeem a man. Here is Schopenhauer in his chief work, The World as Will and Representation:
In fact, the absence of any goal; any limit, belongs to the nature of the will itself, which is an endless striving. This was already touched on when I mentioned centrifugal force; it is also displayed in the most basic level of the will’s objectification; namely, in gravity, whose unending struggle lies before our eyes, obviously lacking the possibility of a final goal. ... And so is it with all manifestations of the will. Every end attained is itself the beginning of a new course, and so on forever. (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, edited by Wolfgang Frhr. von Löhneysen, p. 240, my translation.)In the sweep of history, this philosophical statement is something new. Plato and Aristotle, for one, praised desire as essential to human life, but explained that nature forbids going beyond its proper limits. It took a Western sprit, and a Romantic one at that, to fully express the kind of unbound longing that engulfs Faust. The riddle is why Goethe expressed this longing in the tropes of the ancients.
At the least, we have an inkling of what Goethe’s classicism was: he cannot be properly understood without familiarity with the classical sources that he continually draws on. But unlike the artists of the Renaissance, Goethe’s project was not to repeat or even go beyond the humanistic attainments of the ancients. Instead, he put their classical forms to Romantic purposes. He took up Homer’s mountain stream, for instance, and animated its visible form with a modern ghost. In doing so, he brought a strange fire into the sanctuary of ancient art. This kind of classical formalism is the opposite of what modern directors do, who put old thoughts (like the script of Macbeth) into modern clothing (like gritty guerrilla warfare). Needless to say classicism is harder work, and has a far more beautiful result.
This is a chunk of a paper I wrote for a class last year. It was originally longer and in German.