Saturday, 18 February 2012

Reading Group Report: 'Faust in the Machine Age: Myth-making and Critics of the Industrial Revolution'


Led by Kate Katigbak (Durham University)

16 February 2012
Texts Discussed:
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust Parts I and II (1806-1832)
Thomas Carlyle, Signs of the Times (1829)
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848)


In this session, the reading group was once again delighted to welcome new members from Durham and Newcastle Universities. This seminar sharpened the focus of the previous session on the relationship between Romanticism and science, by exploring how nineteenth-century writers linked the decline in artistic inspiration to the rise of commercial values. We opened our discussion with a reading of Goethe’s Faust Parts I and II. It was considered how a variety of economic thinkers can be viewed as aligning growing industrialisation with the dynamic, yet unsettling pact made between Faust, the secluded genius, and Mephistopheles, the Devil. Faust is faced with a dilemma as to whether a lifetime of sensual experience and infinite knowledge is worth eternal damnation. Parallels were thus made between this Faustian pact, and commercial developments that promised prosperity at the cost of inverse proportions between wages and profits. By considering how capitalist gain could only be achieved by the reduction of human beings to automata, it was suggested that Goethe’s Faust can be seen as relevant to contemporary economic debates. Furthermore, it was remarked how Part II incorporates capitalist themes, such as a critique of paper money and concepts of land ownership. As a result, it can be said that Goethe not only discusses commercial themes in Faust, but also suggests how capitalism has cultural as well as economic implications.

This led us into a discussion of how Goethe’s work can be contrasted with other Faustian narratives, such Marlowe’s play of 1604. It was remarked how, unlike his predecessors, Goethe considers Faust’s relationship with Mephistopheles as being a wager, rather than a pact. As a result, rather than portraying Faust as irrevocably damned, Goethe suggests that he has the opportunity to becomes master of his own fate. That Faust escapes the clutches of the Devil at the play’s conclusion, provides an interesting reading in relation to capitalist values. The discussion then developed into exploring how Goethe’s work was admired by the Victorian economists Thomas Carlyle and Karl Marx. Carlyle was a lifelong admirer of Goethe, writing various articles that praised his work, as well as corresponding with the author himself. Similarly, Marx was influenced by Goethe’s philosophy as well as his Romantic reputation, especially in terms of his own early literary aspirations. We found these tensions between Romantic concepts of freedom and changing economic values to be interesting. It was considered whether Marx rejected Goethe’s emphasis upon individual genius, in terms of his interest in the community and its dynamics. Furthermore, despite his conservatism and nostalgic view of the literary as well as historical past, Carlyle was attracted to Goethe’s views on the benefits of self-interest. We remarked how Goethe balances emotion with intellect in his work, and that this can explain how his philosophy appealed to economic writers.

We then discussed Carlyle’s essay in detail. It was considered how his suspicion towards print culture contradicted his determination to publish lengthy volumes of his works. However, such reticence can be seen as connected to the fraught political climate in England following the French Revolution, and concerns over the diffusion of the ‘wrong sort’ of knowledge. We also thought about how Carlyle’s conservative stance led him to admire Enlightenment political economists like Adam Smith and David Hume, whilst condemning the reductive conclusions of utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham and James Mill. This led us to consider how these writers defined social ‘happiness’. Carlyle condemned Bentham’s moral code as having, ‘more Mathematics than ever; but less Mathesis’. This suggests that Bentham and his disciples value only the empirical conclusions of mathematics, rather than the enlightened and even imaginative process that underpins them. Similarly, Marx considered how both the ‘causes’ and ‘effects’ of happiness were very different across the social spectrum. For example, he contrasted the demand for luxuries amongst the aristocracy, with the wage dependencies of labourers. In this respect, Carlyle and Marx anticipated John Stuart Mill’s attempts to extend utilitarian ideas into a wider cultural sphere. Furthermore, both can be viewed as foreshadowing aspects of postmodern thought, in their criticism of ‘the noise of the world’.
Another major theme of this session was how such approaches to capitalism shaped attitudes towards education. Carlyle always encouraged intellectual development, and emphasised spiritual as well as academic growth. It was suggested that, despite his rejection of utilitarianism, he would have supported Malthusian proposals for parochial education. In contrast, Marx began his career as an admirer of the French Revolution. An interesting point was made about how Marx first published The Communist Manifesto in France in 1847, although it did not gain notoriety until the 1870s. In terms of his rhetoric, it was also suggested that Marx’s lament for the decline in family values seems to respond to Edmund Burke’s anti-Jacobin propaganda in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Whilst Marx criticised capitalism as undermining revolutionary principles, Carlyle aligned it with utilitarian ideology that made institutional religion and government redundant. It is interesting that Charles Dickens admired Carlyle in this respect, with Hard Times (1854) reflecting his anti-utilitarian stance.

We concluded by returning to Goethe’s work. It was commented how Faust degenerates from a man of feeling and intellectual curiosity, into a sidelined figure who rapidly loses control of an increasingly industrialised society, with its specialised approaches to economic growth. Furthermore, we observed how Goethe’s admiration for Renaissance values, with their thirst for all-encompassing intellectual powers, explained his appeal to Romantics like Byron and Shelley. Faust’s comment that ‘all knowledge’ eventually ‘disgusts him’ can be aligned with Goethe’s concerns that commercial advances were eroding the possibility of a cultural view of history. Nevertheless, by focusing upon how his ideas were developed by Carlyle and Marx, such a dichotomy becomes problematic. Rather than questioning whether capitalist concerns can be perceived in a cultural light, this session contemplated whether such a union is positive or negative, in both the Nineteenth Century and beyond.


By Leanne Stokoe, Newcastle University.

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