The Blog

Faust's Utopia

Goethe's masterpiece and perhaps the greatest work in German literature, Faust is one of the central myths of the Western world.

Goethe's masterpiece and perhaps the greatest work in German literature, Faust is one of the central myths of the Western world. Our protagonist, Faust, an audacious man, is a highly successful scholar but one dissatisfied with his life who therefore makes a pact with the devil, Mephistopheles, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures.

Goethe's Faust is a novel rich in metaphor, elaborate verse, imagery, depth, and meaning that not only employs symbolic characters and scenes, but also, through such literary techniques, weaves its main philosophy of striving and experience as mankind's rightful path.

Ironically, Faust reveals his disapproval for books as a true source of knowledge in understanding the world; we must turn to life and living, and experience instead. I call this ironic because while he denounces books, Faust is a book. The text itself seems to imply that although it's imbued with intense profundity, one must "live" it in order to truly understand it. That is to say, reading doesn't do its inherent meaning justice.

Some disagree with the moral of Faust - which, I suppose, could be seen as radical statement. The legend exclaims that striving is what matters. "Whoever strives in ceaseless toil, him we may grant redemption," says an angel at the conclusion, justifying Faust's salvation. Faust strives in seduction, fraud, war, debauchery, empire-building, and exploitation of nature - for this he is redeemed. It is not exactly a religious statement but one of immense reality where life overtly trumps academia.

Faust appears, through time, in many different forms - the legend has become a stimulus for other major works. It's appeal has become a universal tale of divine power and knowledge.

The story of Faust, and his quest for all worldly knowledge, makes up part two of Gustav Mahler's epic eighth symphony with its climatic finale, with over a thousand performers. There are numerous operas by Berlioz, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Gounod, all detailing the plights of a Faustian character.

In literature: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray to Stephen King's Christine and Terry Pratchett's Eric.

In popular culture, music by Muse, Radiohead, Gorillaz, Tom Waits, Randy Newman and Eminem and films such as The Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Wars, Click and Ghost Rider all feature Faustian elements within.

More recently, I was intrigued, as most of us were, by Channel 4's latest British television series Utopia. The story follows a small group of people who find themselves in possession of a manuscript of a cult graphic novel called Utopia, which is rumoured to have predicted the worst disasters of the last century. This leads them to be targeted by a government organisation known only as 'The Network', which they must avoid to survive.

The cult graphic novel is shrouded in mystery, but what we do already know about Utopia is that it is about a scientist who makes a pact with the devil for infinite knowledge in return for his soul - oh, this is a tale of Faustian proportions - though this isn't the primary story running through the episodes, it seems like this could turn into a dark, futuristic sequel to the legend that has captivated audiences in all sorts of different forms.

The first two episodes have been written superbly by writer Dennis Kelly and I'm hoping that the series continues as such.

Wherever the series Utopia is taken, the legend of Faust, even in the present, still remains relevant and valuable. This is because the ideas and thoughts of the work will never have an expiration date and these thoughts can be used and analysed even in the modern world. Our quest for knowledge spans our lifetimes and are never satisfied and Faust's exploration for satisfaction is a journey we will all take in some form.

Great minds, great persons and great thoughts aren't necessarily defined by time.

Utopia continues on Channel 4 on Tuesday at 11pm.