Faust, Alchemy, Everything and Nothing

Goethe’s Faust is one of the most commonly begun, and most infrequently finished, epics of the western literary tradition. Romantics drawn to the tragedy of the first part, the personal drama and heartache, are often estranged from the archytipical allegory of the second, but this is to their own detriment. It is the second part of Faust that really reveals how it is an alchemical drama, and finally makes sense of Faust’s otherwise puzzling statement to the demon Mephistopheles “I hope to see your nothing / turn to everything for me.”

While it may seem prosaic to modern readers, the emphasis on the four elements in the second part of Faust is actually a completion of Faust’s statement. While Earth, Water, Air and Fire might not seem like much to us moderns, with our gaggle of elements to chose from on the periodic table, in the medieval setting in which the Faust drama plays itself out, to say say those four things is to describe the basis of everything.

With this in mind, the concepts of transformation and prime matter inherent in alchemy take on a much more profound meaning.

In 1768, during his convalescent period, Goethe read a number of alchemical authors with Fräulein von Klettenberg. He studied Paracelsus, van Helmont (a follower of Paracelsus who introduced his theories to Newton and his contemporaries) as well as the American George Starkey (who was also influenced by Paracelsus and influential in the Newtonian circle in London) . After his alchemical initiation Goethe became increasingly interested in the chemical-philosophical process, and hoped to create a substance called: “Virgin Earth, which would give birth to other substances from its own womb; to imitate as it were the creation of the universe by producing a microcosmic world of his which would develop of its own accord”. This Virgin Earth appears to have been a purified form of the “prime matter” of the alchemist.

His work in this respect was ultimately fruitless, as one scholar observed: “although in old age he was still struck by the beauty of the experiment, he was disappointed in his efforts”. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that Goethe was well versed in the astrological, numerological and alchemical lore which he elaborated upon, and occasionally criticized in Faust. His notebooks from his time in Frankfurt and Strasbourg have large sections dealing with figures such as Paracelsus and Agrippa, as well as showing his interest in cheiromancy, astrology, and numerology.

The scholarly world, and particularly the English world, has yet to fully embrace the implications of Goethe’s engagement with alchemy, and in particular the role Paracelsus played in his thought. With a better understanding of Paracelsian principles we can gain greater insight into how they inspired Goethe’s account of the role of the devil in creation, as well as the view that the whole world is in the process of revelation through restlessness. Furthermore, it seems more likely that the character of Faust himself was in some ways more based on the person of Paracelsus than the legend of Faust, given the alchemist’s relation to authority and metaphysical doctrines. Finally, with an elemental understanding of the nebulous “Mothers”, we find a greater source of unity in the second part of Faust which binds together the seemingly disparate scenes and phantasmagoric carnivals into a coherent whole. In short, for Faust: “what keeps the world together in its inner essence [rough translation of: “Was die Welt im Innersten zusammenhält“] is nothing less than alchemy.

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