Goethe's Faust, Gertrude Stein's Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, and Stan Brakhage's Faust Series

By Elder, R. Bruce | Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Goethe's Faust, Gertrude Stein's Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, and Stan Brakhage's Faust Series


Elder, R. Bruce, Canadian Journal of Film Studies


Résumé: Alors que plusieurs critiques ont reconnu que Faust de Goethe fut une inspiration importante pour la tétralogie de Stan Brakhage, « Faust Séries », peu ont signalé l'influence de l'opéra Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights de Gertrude Stein. Une analyse des parallèles entre l'opéra de Stein et la série de Brakhage (et des différences entre celles-ci et la célèbre pièce de Goethe) démontre que Doctor Faust Lights the Lights fut au moins aussi essentiel dans la conception de « Faust Séries » que l'oeuvre de Goethe. Cette analyse illumine aussi les liens entre les quatre films de la série.

Moderns generally experience the internally sensed self-the self of intense energy and sensations-as a refuge, as the external world collapses into nothing.1 The idea that the intensity of imagination (the vivacity of the manifold of consciousness) brakes the fall into the abyss of nothingness is fundamental to Stan Brakhage's aesthetics. Brakhage combined these ideas about the self and identity with some of the literary influences that bear on his oeuvre in a remarkable series of films he made in the late 1980s, based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's presentation of the Faust legend.2

Like Brakhage, Goethe was deeply interested in the phantasmagoria of the imagination. A "Dedication" at the beginning of the play states,

Ihr naht euch wieder, schwankende Gestalten,

Die früh sich einst dem trüben Buck gezeigt.

Versuch ich wolh, euch diesmal festzuhalten?

Fühl ich mein Herz noch jenem Wahn geneigt?

Ihr drängt euch zu! Nun gut so mögt ihr walten,

Wie ihr aus Dunst and Nebel um mien steight;

Mein Busen fühlt sich jugendlich erschüttert

Vom Zauberhauch, der euren Zug umwittert.

[Once again, you draw near, wavering shapes,/ from the past in which you first appeared to clouded eyes./ Shall I try this time to hold you fast?/ Do I feel my heart still inclined toward that illusion?/ You push yourselves forward! All right, have it your way./ As you climb out of vapours and fog, / My breast feels itself trembling in a youthful manner/ from the breath of magic that hovers round your train.3]

This suggestion that the characters in the drama are forms in the author's mind would have appealed to Brakhage, as would the phantasmagoric, discontinuous, subjective temporality of the play that embodied these forms. Goethe explained that when he first sat down to write Faust, a hundred-fold motley, sensuous impressions came to him. The beginning of Brakhage's Faust also seems to present a hundred-fold motley impressions, so we may assume that his creative endeavour began in a similar vein to Goethe's-and that his Faust films depict aspects of his creative process.

Several other reasons might be given for why Goethe's Faust attracted Brakhage's attention. Despairing over circumstances is a tendency the two artists share: Brakhage would have sympathized with the sentiments Goethe's Faust voices in his first major monologue:

Auch hab ich weder Gut noch Geld,

Noch Ehr und Herrlichkeit der Welt.

Es möchte kein Hund so läger leben!

[And also, I have neither holdings nor money,/ nor honour or worldly glory,/ I wouldn't wish that a dog would go on living so! (Faust, I, i, "Nacht," 21-3: 374-6)]

Goethe's Faust is alienated both from his contemporary world and the world of classical antiquity. By the mid-1980s, this is exactly the situation Brakhage felt himself in-he despaired that tradition was no longer a vital force that could spur artists to new achievement and had concluded that contemporary America failed to nourish the creative imagination. He might also have been self-critical regarding such feelings, realizing, as Goethe's character did that, "Drum [hat er sich] der Magie ergeben [that's why (he'd) given (himself) over to magic." (Faust, I, i, "Nacht," 24: 377)]

Goethe's Faust depicts a world pervaded by omnipresent evil. …

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