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The Theme of Faust Through the Ages, Interpreting Culture (202-0-20)


Peter D Fenves
1880 Campus Drive, Kresge 3329
Office Hours: Mon, 12 - 1:30 PM and by appointment

Meeting Info

555 Clark B03: Mon, Wed, 1:00PM - 1:50PM

Overview of class

"To sell one's soul," "to strike a bargain with the devil," or even "to beat the devil at his own game"—these expressions and similar ones continue to enjoy undiminished popularity. For more than five-hundred years the legend of Faust has served as means to express the daring and danger of pursuing an aspiration even if it comes at the cost of one's soul. The specter of a "Faustian bargain" often appears when narratives identify individuals whose inordinate achievements are both destructive and self-destructive. The theme of Faust provides a perspective in which one must thus reflect on the highest and lowest values.

Dr. Faustus has undergone many mutations since he first appeared in central Europe around the early sixteenth century. This class will begin with a question at the foundation of the Faust legend: what is a "soul," and what is worth? While examining these and kindred questions about the nature of the self, the class will continually reflect on what we are doing when we evaluate a work of art in relation to the culture of its "time" or "period." In addition to listening to some musical compositions and reading some shorter texts, we will examine the earliest versions of Faust, which derives from the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation and then proceed to read Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's great drama of cosmic knowledge and sexual seduction, Faust I, followed by selections from its strange sequel Faust II, in which Faust invents paper money and then becomes a real-estate developer or social-engineer who wants to reorganize the very surface of our planet. We will ask what Goethe, near the end of his life, gave to "world literature" (a term of his own invention) when he presented his final version of Faust as a man committed to a total terrestrial transformation that inadvertently destroys innocent lives. As a conclusion to our analysis of Goethe's Faust, we will read two very different kinds of poetic responses, Paul Celan's "Death Fugue" and Carol Ann Duffy's "Mrs. Faust." And in the final two weeks of the class we will view three versions of the Faust legend for our times, beginning with a story involving bluesman Robert Johnson, as represented in Walter Hill's Crossroads, followed by Sophie Barthes' Cold Souls and concluding with Danny Boyle's Yesterday.

Registration Requirements

No requirements; taught in English; all readings in English

Evaluation Method

Writing assignments

Class Materials (Required)

History and Tale of Dr. Johannes Faustus ("Faust Chapbook"); Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust; selected short poems and three films, which will be available for streaming.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust: A Tragedy, Parts One and Two, trans. Martin Greenberg (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 2014). ISBN-13: 978-0300189698

Class Attributes

Literature & Fine Arts Distro Area

Associated Classes

DIS - Harris Hall L28: Fri, 11:00AM - 11:50AM

DIS - Locy Hall 303: Fri, 1:00PM - 1:50PM

DIS - Locy Hall 301: Fri, 1:00PM - 1:50PM

DIS - Parkes Hall 212: Fri, 12:00PM - 12:50PM