Water, water every where, Nor any drop to drink. –Samuel Coleridge
In great literature, symbols take on multiple meanings concurrently. Some of them are intentional, but they are also joined by the symbols projected in by the reader. This happens rather a lot in Goethe’s Faust part 2 as the entire thing seems to be a stack of symbols and allusions.
It is not uncommon for water to serve as a symbolic element for femininity, and it is similarly not uncommon for scholars to claim on a de facto basis that Faust’s restraining of the sea is a struggle against femininity. For example, in her doctoral dissertation, Gabriela Luschei claims to agree with Harold Jantz, but doesn’t bother to cite Jantz’s actual claim on this point. I’d be surprised by this if I hadn’t seen a similar claim made elsewhere last year, as it is hardly the most proximate symbol to the surrounding lexicon of allusions.
To turn our focus to Dr. Luschei’s dissertation for just a moment, I would like to observe a minor point where she writes:
Recalling how much of the Netherlands was formed by dikes, I suspect that Europe’s relationship with the sea differs psychologically from my own, American understanding. Faust’s resentment of the tides seems to me entirely unfounded.
While it is an honest confession, it strikes me as unexpected in its context: this is the gap in her understanding where she is projecting too much of herself into the work. Beyond the Euro-Alien Mindset excuse which is unreasonable on-face since both the artifact and the methodology for examining the artifact are European in origin (Goethe and Jung), Luschei is seemingly ignorant of real-world coastal reclamation programs in, for example, Rio de Janeiro and even Honolulu’s Waikiki (on account of its wetland nature having been “deleterious to public health — is low covered and partly covered with water — is not drained at all — is incapable of effectual drainage and — is in an unsanitary and dangerous condition.”) But that short shrift of engineering genius isn’t the enduring literary point. The enduring literary point is that Faust was picking on a natural element that transcended human civilization, probably as a proxy for Goethe. In his notes, Bayard Taylor claims of Faust’s plan that:
In this description, from first to last, we recognize Goethe… Society and Government have not satisfied the cravings of [Faust’s] nature; the Ideal, though its consecration is permanent, cannot be a possession; and he now determines to enter into conflict with a colossal natural force and compel its submission to the imperial authority of the human mind.
And Jantz and Luschei agree with Taylor on the scope of the project, Luschei citing Jantz on a creation scene from Paradise Lost. I think it’s easy to agree that this is not a “blasphemy or parody, but rather an old conviction (clearly found in Renaissance art theory and elsewhere expressed by Goethe) that man’s creative activity is a symbolic restatement on a human level of the great act of divine creation” (Janzt, 1969, p 40) but the point of reference is misguided: the prologue in heaven is a clear refraction of Job, but later in Job — Job 38:11 — God describes creating the tides as a matter of telling the sea “This far you may come, but no farther, and here your proud waves must stop!” (NKJV). By stopping the thousand channels that the sea was “creeping” in through, Faust was restating God’s prohibition against the sea consuming the land. And if this is the precise case, then attaching symbolism to the sea that Faust knew that didn’t apply to the sea that Job knew would be exceptionally dubious.
Which is what I’ll do in a few paragraphs; be watching for it.
In this case however, Goethe leans against the feminine-sea reference by starting Act 4 with the idealized feminine “like Juno, Leda, Helen” as a cloud that “floats to ether far on high” (Wayne trans) — not the same thing as an abyss at all. It does, however, foreshadow the closing lines of the play: “The Woman-soul leadeth us upward and on!” (Taylor trans). Contrast this with Faust’s description of the briny water: “in a thousand channels creeps the sea, Sterile itself, it spreads sterility.” — hardly femininity — “It seethes and swells streaming far and wide Takes desolate regions in its rolling tide” (Wayne trans). Faust is staring at tidal flats, too salty and wet for agriculture but also too shallow for shipping. So Goethe has elevated the feminine and seems to be looking at the seepage of the depths in some other way.
But I’m going to go on a brief religious tangent here: of the execution of the plan Luschei claims that “Faust’s attempt to dominate the forces of nature to be destructive rather than fruitful,” citing the confrontation with Baucis and Philemon. While this was a tragic incident, it was also a common incident; Taylor points out that Goethe was also alluding to Frederick the Great and the miller of Potsdam as a modern reference in addition to Naboth’s vineyard (that Mephistopheles explicitly calls out). Indeed, Taylor brushes right past it when looking to the conclusion of Faust’s life with references to Schiller and Montesquieu as he rolls out
Faust’s great work, which was first planned to exhibit the victory of Man over the forces of Nature, now becomes, to his clearer spiritual vision, a permanent gain and blessing to the race. All unselfish work is better than the worker knows: and if Faust has only given ‘free activity’ and not absolute ‘security’ to the millions who shall come, he sees, at last, the great value of their very insecurity, as an agent which shall keep alive the virtues of vigilance, association, and the unselfish labor of each for the common good. He foresees a free people, living upon a free soil, — courage, intelligence, and patriotism constantly developed anew by danger. … Not through Knowledge, Indulgence, Power, — not even through the pure passion of the Beautiful, or victory over the Elements, — he has reached the crowning Moment which he would fain delay; the sole condition of perfect happiness is the good which he has accomplished for others.
Note, though, that Faust did not actually reach the crowning moment: he explicitly says he is making a “proud fore-telling of such lofty bliss” (Taylor’s trans.) which is necessary for him to be weaseled out of damnation. But the larger point is that while Luschei sees nothing good in the societal wealth Faust has created by facilitating prosperity, Taylor fails to note that Faust’s last victims were pretty much exactly the sort of people, abstracted, that he gave his life of labor for. It is a lot easier to believe in the Human Spirit than in Janitor Joe’s Spirit, for example; Winston Smith had a similar dichotomous difficulty when placing his hope in the proles of 1984.
It is, however, interesting that Faust’s salvation relies upon his striving — a point that God made clear to Mephistopheles in the prologue: that humans aren’t supposed to be lazy. In that way, Faust’s restless activity is a form of worship — which contrasts sharply with the sedentary bell-ringing of Baucis and Philemon. What this says to me is that Faust’s relationship to God is based on the power of the intellect, while Baucis and Philemon is based on the instinctual, on the ritualistic carried in the collective unconscious, and no matter how intellectual the Individual relationship to God may become, there’s always going to be an underlying primal element to it which can only be squeezed out at the peril of the whole. I would go so far as to speculate that this was the meaning behind Jung’s inscription on his stone tower: “Philemonis sacrum, Fausti penitentia” — having dedicated so much of his identity to being regarded as an intellectual and scientist, Jung had to consciously leave space for his own subconsciousness.
And this is where we turn the sea into a different symbol. “The sea is the symbol of the collective unconscious,” says Dr. Jung in Individual Dream Symbolism in Relation to Alchemy, “because unfathomed depths lie concealed beneath its reflecting surface.”* Nietzsche warned us in Beyond Good & Evil that “When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” And unlike the sterility spreading from the sea that Faust saw, God tells Job of the Leviathan that “makes the depths churn like a boiling cauldron… Nothing on earth is its equal — a creature without fear.” (Job 41:31, 33, NIV)
Pro-tip: when going abyss-gazing, start with the ones that don’t have Leviathans in them.
But if we look at the primal violence and power within the sea as a symbol for our collective unconscious, and consider how often people find themselves undone and their best-laid plans subverted by their subconsciousness sapping their will, we can see how the sea of primal life can sterilize our cultured and cultivated conscious human life. Symbolically speaking, this is the tidal flat that Faust is blocking off and re-claiming for civilization. He doesn’t set out to pave the ocean — and indeed, the ocean provides transit for “a splendid ship… with rich and colorful cargo from foreign lands” (Wayne trans) — but he has to keep it clear out of his land and conscious intent. But it is impossible to do this task perfectly: we always end up with a blind spot we can’t actually afford to not keep (Baucis and Philemon) and everybody has their own blind spots to tend to (giving ‘free action’ and not absolute ‘security’) — a dubious blessing, but one that spurs the personal transformation of those that are capable of comprehending it, which forms a tight philosophical loop with the assertion that “This World means something to the Capable!” (Taylor trans).
Overall, Faust’s engagement with the sea operates literally as a demonstration of using a will to power for the good of the species, but can also operate symbolically as the differentiation between conscious intellect and subconscious instinct to help activate the (Jungian) transcendent function. Furthermore, without discounting the feminine symbolism that can be associated with the ocean depths, I’ve extreme doubts that Goethe was trying to activate them with the seeping sterility of high tides. Finally, I have my doubts about educational institutions that grant doctorates to candidates who essentially admit that they have to project into their artifact because they know they don’t understand it as originally intended. Though, to be fair, this isn’t far off from having an introduction written by a person claiming that nobody really likes the protagonist at all, as Byatt did for Constantine.
I think Henry Faust just has a difficult time with the whole “know and be known” aspect of loving. But we shouldn’t be surprised; Dr. Jung observed that “if a man knows more than others, he becomes lonely” and Faust was the most knowledgeable man in the world with Mephistopheles being his only consistent companion for the whole of his tragedy.
* To be fair, Jung does go on to say “A man’s unconscious is likewise feminine and is personified by the anima,” except that this is assuming gender to be the primary source of identity, and then assuming gender to be binary. Given (per Jung elsewhere) that the female unconscious is male and personified by the animus, the symbols can simply be abstracted as the unconscious being Other to the conscious self. Furthermore, Jung goes right on to observe that the virgin “Mary was the dark earth of the field — “illa terra virgo nondum pluviis irrigata” (that virgin earth not yet watered by the rains), as Tertullian called her,” and, more than a discussion of how protestants treat Mary like dirt, clearly demonstrates that the feminine symbol is not just aquatic and furthermore supports the hypothesis that Faust was defending a more distinct feminine (the cultivation of crops and raising life) from the creeping incidental feminine of his subconsciousness (the saltwater) in the same way he pursued Helen to save her from Paris et al. I still maintain that the boundary Faust sets between the sea and the land is symbolic of controlling both the power of the conscious and unconscious minds together.
Addendum: Later on in Individual Dream Symbolism in Relation to Alchemy, Jung spends some time on Faust’s phantasmal sea and Goethe’s allusions to alchemy which I had completely missed in my sub-scholarly reading of it. This did, however, recall my attention to the interesting point that Faust’s subconscious sea is Greco-Roman. This is relevant because of Mephisto’s disguise when pushing Helen: Mephisto is disguised — transvestite-wise — as Phorkyas, called out by the chorus in Act 3 as a daughter of Phorcys (“Which of Phorcys’ Daughters then are you? For I perceive that Family likeness,” Constantine trans) with Phorcys being “a god of the hidden dangers of the deep,” note the masculine, which associates with prime sea-god, also masculine, Poseidon, with Poseidon being the god that persecuted Odysseus because of the blinding-of-the-Cyclops bit, since that Cyclops was Poseidon’s son by Thoösa, whose father was Phorcys. And this would allow us to jump to some very interesting analysis on Odysseus and the violent rejection of the primal/collective in his subconscious (Cyclops) leading to his personal subconscious (Poseidon) undermining his conscious will, as might be seen in somebody trying to suppress PTSD built up over a decade of warfare, but our interest is in how this plays in Faust’s mind. And what we’re distinctly left with is the Greek context that Goethe framed Faust pt 2 in gives the sea gives the sea a markedly masculine character, both on the treacherous surface (Poseidon) and as the source of the monsters in the deep (Phorcys).
Furthermore, Jung often encounters four-packs of people in dream symbolism and I’m staring at “11. Dream: The dreamer, the doctor, a pilot, and the unknown woman…” on one hand and Luschei’s …The Problem of the Missing Fourth… on the other. While Luschei barely touches on the Homunculus at all save to note that it has “yet to be explored by any Jungian researcher,” it seems to me that Helen is the Missing Fourth being sought for by the three guys in the first half of Faust pt 2. Faust would be the dreamer (obviously), Mephistopheles serves as the pilot driving the movements, Homunculus acts as the doctor as recognized by Mephistopheles to analyze the dreams of Faust so that Mephistopheles can know where to move things to (Act 2, Laboratory scene). Indeed, it isn’t until the Homunculus joins the party as the third that they can begin a successful search for the Missing Fourth as Faust and Mephistopheles were apparently in entirely the wrong mental location when pursuing Margaret (a point that Mephistopheles mentions to Faust when Faust decides to pursue Margaret, earning Faust’s ironic rebuke of “Spare me, Professor Plausible, your saws And plaguey discourse on the moral laws,” in the Wayne translation). Frankly it seems to me that the role of Margaret’s character — who manages to kill two people before being executed in roughly one-sixth of the drama’s length — is predominantly to be a blank screen (hence her youth and innocence was necessary) for Faust to wrongly-but-not-uncommonly project his anima on to in his tragic descent. If only Faust had taken Nietzsche more seriously (“all intercourse is bad intercourse except with one’s equals,” BG&E), and also come after Nietzsche instead of before, Margaret might have been saved from her brief life of misery and woe. Regardless, it is again disappointing to find such a gap in a doctoral dissertation that should be serving to separate the authoritatively lettered ivory-tower elites from the proles like myself.