quinta-feira, março 25, 2004

To Plug the Mighty Hole Withal: "Faust - First Part" by Goethe

(original review, 2004)

I’m planning on spending a few weeks on Goethe’s Faust in multiple translations and as much of the German as I can manage, supplemented by hundreds of pages of notes and commentary.

I first read the book while in high school in the totally un-annotated Bayard Taylor translation from Modern Library – one of the texts I’m currently reading. I’m still pretty fond of Taylor’s version – with some exceptions generally preferring him to Walter Arndt in the Norton Critical Edition. Taylor’s a relatively local boy – born in Kenneth Square, PA where the town library carries his name.

One thing I recall from that ML edition is that a few lines were Bowdlerized with dashes. For example, this song sung by Faust and Mephistopheles with two witches:

FAUST ( dancing with the young witch)
A lovely dream once came to me;
I then beheld an apple-tree,
And there two fairest apples shone
They lured me so, I climbed thereon.
Apples have been desired by you,
Since first in Paradise they grew;
And I am moved with joy, to know
That such within my garden grow.
MEPHISTOPHELES ( dancing with the old one)
A dissolute dream once came to me
Therein I saw a cloven tree,
Which had a————————;
Yet,——as 'twas, I fancied it.
I offer here my best salute
Unto the knight with cloven foot!
Let him a—————prepare,
If him—————————does not scare.

I imagined something really obscene was being masked there, but it turns out to be a double entendre only slightly more risqué than the “apples” in the first exchange. Here’s Arndt’s uncensored rendering:

FAUST [ dancing with the YOUNG ONE]
In a fair dream that once I dreamed;
An apple-tree appeared to me,
On it two pretty apples gleamed,
They beckoned me; I climbed the tree.
You’ve thought such apples very nice,
Since Adam’s fall in Paradise.
I’m happy to report to you,
My little orchard bears them too.
In a wild dream that once I dreamed
I saw a cloven tree, it seemed,
It had a black almighty hole;
Black as it was, it pleased my soul.
I welcome to my leafy roof
The baron with the cloven hoof!
I hope he’s brought a piston tall
To plug the mighty hole withal.

I am reminded in re-reading it how much in common Faust has with the fantasy books that were my staple reading at the time I first encountered it Tolkien, Peake, E. R. Eddison. I was reminded of this by some of the comments today about "The Buried Giant" (disclaimer I’ve not read any Ishiguro). For centuries literature and fantasy were almost synonymous – only in the 18th century did it start to require a kind of warning label.

Just about all the operas are adaptations of Faust Part 1, though Arrigo Boito, as I recall, included an episode with Helen of Troy. The dual language Anchor Books edition with Walter Kaufmann’s translation, which seems to be the most commonly available in my neck of the woods, includes only bits of Part 2 from the first and last acts. This may make sense insofar as the edition is intended for students of German, but really makes a hash out of Goethe’s intentions for the work as a whole. I’m really enjoying wrestling with the complexities of Part 2; my recent readings in Greek tragedy helps – Goethe writes a very credible pastiche of the form in the first half of Act 3. [2018 addenda: In Portuguese, our most distinguished Germanist, João Barrento, has already published his Magnum Opus, Faust’s full translation. I haven’t read it yet, but I will].

In acquiring various versions of Faust over the years I’ve been mainly interested in those that are complete – the portions editors are the most likely to cut are those that I think would gain the most from multiple viewpoints.