The “Giving” Tree or Something Else?

The message offered in the “kids” book, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, is surprisingly debatable. Some people think it’s a beautiful story of love and self-sacrifice, the mother-child relationship. The most common summary of the symbolism I find in a quick search on the Internet is, “The Giving Tree is about a mother and son. The Giving Tree is about the relationship between a mother and son. The relationship between the boy and the tree is almost exactly like a mother and son, or child. The son takes from the mother, and she gives.”

Some people think it’s a grim story of selfishness and exploitation.

A student gave the book to me when I was a teaching assistant in grad school. At first, I loved the book. When I looked at it again — putting it on my shelves here in my house when I moved in — I thought, “What a sick and miserable story.” Sometime not long after I read an essay in the NYT that put it out there, The Giving Tree: Tender Story of Unconditional Love or Disturbing tale of Selfishness Quoted in an Op Ed about the book, “We need to Talk About The Giving Tree” one of the book’s editors, Phyllis Fogelman, expressed her opinion. “I have had qualms about my part in the publication of ‘The Giving Tree,’ which conveys a message with which I don’t agree,” she said in an interview. “I think it is basically a book about a sadomasochistic relationship.”


I now see the story as a parable about human’s relationship with this planet.

In The Giving Tree, the tree sacrifices itself so the boy can have what he wants. The tree gives the boy her apples to sell, her branches to build a house, and her trunk to make a boat. Pretty soon, she’s nothing but a stump, and IF she is NOT the kind of tree that reproduces through cloning (as do Aspen trees), well, that’s the end of it. SO…if the tree IS our planet — which does NOT reproduce through cloning or in any other way — (I’m not sure Shel Silverstein thought of that at all) it’s a very sad story. One of the most disgusting things I’ve seen in the litany of disgusting news is that we’ve left some of our trash on Mars.

A reader pointed me to Wikipedia’s entry on this book, and there I found this WONDERFUL (IMO) article: “That Insufferable The Giving Tree”

If you don’t know the book, it’s here in an animated version.

Other Lives and Other Times

I used to come across the word of the day, “moue,” pretty often back when I was reading Victorian fiction. I never looked it up. I guess, even as a kid reading Little Women, I understood its meaning in a general sense. It seemed to happen to the faces of the female characters when they didn’t get their way. In Little Women Amy was alway “pulling a moue” when she didn’t get her way. Of course Beth, the good sister, NEVER “pulled a moue” though she had more to endure than the other three sisters. It was an object lesson in putting a brave face on things. The message came through pretty clearly that it was far more noble (and therefore better) to be like Beth than to be like Amy.

I like Victorian fiction or maybe, more accurately, 19th century fiction. I’m not sure that we’ve ever done better in English than the novels of Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. This was also era in which American fiction began to blossom and that, right there, is pretty amazing. Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, and a plethora (since I’m writing about literature just like an English teacher) of female (they were called that back in the day) writers whose names have been forgotten but whose books were read more than those by male writers. Whatever the natal genitalia of the writers, the 19th century gave us great stories with three-dimensional characters involving themselves in realistic and complicated situations.

Wow. I remember feeling bereft the day I finished the last of the Thomas Hardy novels from the library at the University of Colorado. At that very time I was working on my senior paper which was about Sarah Josepha Hale and Godey’s Lady’s Book, a project that later evolved into my thesis.

In the process of writing my thesis I learned that when we look at history we don’t see very much. We see less of the iceberg than did the captain and crew of the Titanic.

My first encounter with Mrs. Hale or the 19th century happened when I was a little girl, so little that when I sat on a sofa my legs still stuck out straight in front of me. My dad had acquired a book at the University of Denver library book sale and he brought it home for me. It was A Poet’s Offering one of the coffee table books of the 19th century, a compilation of poetry organized according to topic.

Of course I couldn’t read it, but I could look at the beautiful engravings.

Immediately inside the embossed cardboard cover was an engraving of the woman who’d sponsored the compilation, Sarah Josepha Hale.

I have imagined the book being given as a Christmas gift back in 1850 and sitting on a velvet or lace covered table, thumbed through on rainy days and used as a reference in times when a certain thought, a certain poetic line, could turn around the course of a day. Most of the names in this book would be unfamiliar to people alive today, but they were famous in their time. Women were always “Mrs. Whoever” unless they were unmarried and then, chances are, they wrote under a nom de plume.

I gave the book my dad gave me to a Chinese professor from the University of Chengdu. I have a partial copy here that I scored on Etsy some time ago. He was struggling to compile a poetic lexicon of English and that’s essentially what A Poet’s Offering is. We knew each other in Denver the year after I had returned from China. He was a sweet, intelligent, kind and sincere man who’d been redeemed from the shit he’d endured in the Cultural Revolution and put at the head of an English department, then, miracle of miracles (to him) sent to America to study.

Is it Luck?

Years ago, while I was writing my thesis, my thesis adviser and I got into a conversation about luck and Horatio Alger. “Did you notice, Martha, that all Alger’s heroes have a lucky moment and they’re smart enough to grab it? It’s not just that they work hard and are humble. They’re lucky. That is undervalued in our society. We like to say hard work leads to success, but a person can work hard all his life and without a little luck, no one succeeds.”

I don’t think I answered him. I think that a light bulb was flashing in my brain.

Medieval people believed in the Wheel of Fortune and looked for ways to remain in a good position on that wheel. The Wheel of Fortune controlled everything, determined by the will of God which could be manipulated by prayer, penance and good deeds.

Candide by Voltaire is my “desert island book.” It’s the one volume I have in fancy leather binding on purpose. Godnose what you pick up in used bookstores (be warned). Among all the other wild and wonderful things that book is, it offers a wise perspective on “fortune.”

Dr. Pangloss — a world-renowned philosopher and the teacher of Candide, a wide-eyed, innocent and sweet young man — subscribes adamantly to the idea that “All things work together for good” and we live in “the best of all possible worlds.” What this means is that every horrible thing that happens will lead to something wonderful down the road. He’s incorrigibly positive.

Impossible coincidences, bad choices, horrific natural disasters, lost love and resignation, all there.

I read it in high school. I was far more jaded in high school than I was later in life or am now, the affectation of sophistication that many adolescents run with, the “too cool for school” thing. I thought it was boring. My dad said it wasn’t. I said it was. He said it was satire. I said it was stupid. He shrugged. I wrote my paper. It got a B.

Then, for some odd reason, I read it in my 40s. I laughed all the way through it and didn’t put it down until I found out what happened. Then, for years, I taught it to post-adolescents who rivaled me for jadedness and ended up liking it. 🙂 (Good teacher!)

So what’s the point? At the end of the novel (it can’t be spoiled, even if I quote the entire ending) the trio of survivors, and a few more who join them, are somewhere in Turkey growing peaches or pistachios or something. Dr. Pangloss starts to make a speech about it being “The best of all possible worlds” that has brought them there.

“There is a concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds; for, in short, had you not been kicked out of a fine castle for the love of Miss Cunegund; had you not been put into the Inquisition; had you not traveled over America on foot; had you not run the Baron through the body; and had not not lost all your sheep, which you brought from the good country of El Dorado, you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts.”

In my mind, I see Candide sigh, thinking, “This again?” But he replies, “Excellently observed. But let us cultivate our garden.”

In my 40s, when I read Candide for real, I saw that this is pretty much all we CAN do.

The sign on my front fence. 🙂

A Word on Behalf of Beowulf

A few days ago I read a thread on Twitter that didn’t have to do with the president of the United States. It was about Beowulf.

I know the Beowulf is not on the top of most peoples’ minds. I know that he’s largely a cause of much pain and suffering in high school. He was for me, too. It wasn’t until I suddenly (really, it was sudden) became something of a medievalist that I began to revise my views on this amazing work of poetry. In 2002, on my way to a job interview in Cheyenne, WY, I found Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf at the Denver airport where I changed planes.

It was so captivating that I didn’t do much to prepare for my interview except get dressed up and show up on time.

I love Beowulf the character. He’s just wonderful, but I’m not a “modern” person. I don’t have the preconceived biases people are taught today and that I found on the Twitter thread.

You see, here’s the thing. Beowulf wasn’t written by a 20th century author. No one knows who wrote it or even why other than to entertain people. It’s a composite of mythic stories and historical events. It’s now believed to have been written in the 8th century. Some of the factual information in the story has been confirmed. But…

These people were not us — or were they? Could Beowulf be just another scary story about men vs. monsters along the lines of The Thing or Alien? But somehow — according to the long, disturbing thread on Twitter — it’s now being taught as White Males vs. The Poor, Suffering Other portrayed by the trolls, Grendel and his mother. For them Beowulf is not a hero; he’s a villain, and the poor monster, Grendel, is the true hero because he is the victim of hatred. In fact, I don’t see a lot of hatred in that story. The person who’s hired Beowulf — King Hrothgar — is angry because Grendel keeps breaking up parties in the mead hall and eating people. I’d be angry too. Beowulf takes on the job for pay.

In my opinion, if there’s any backstory involved, fitting with Medieval people would be a Biblical allegory — especially as this was the era in which the Scandinavians were converting to Christianity. But I like the hired killer vs. monster angle myself and I’m sticking with it. The story was never written as “Literature.” It was written for those long, cold, Scandinavian nights by the fire in the mead hall, when people were bored.

And, isn’t this beautiful and true:

…Men were drinking wine
at that rare feast; how could they know fate,
the grim shape of things to come…

Beowulf, Seamus Heaney translation p 87

A Challenge

I don’t “do” blogging challenges much any more, but as Denny from “The Ceaseless Reader Writes” I don’t really have a lot else to do right now 😉

The challenge is to post three quotations from the works of a 19th century author and say something about him/her. As it happens, the 19th century was “my” century when I was writing my masters thesis, but in the meantime, I’ve traveled back in time six hundred years, I’m having a hard time thinking of a favorite 19th century author. I used to love a lot of them — it was the golden age of the novel. I loved Victor Hugo. Balzac, and Dostoyevsky. I loved Denny’s fav, Thomas Hardy. I was in school back before Women’s Lit was a thing, but we still read Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Edith Wharton, George Eliot and others. Between us, I don’t think “gender” should be a designation for genre, but no one asked me and no one cares now about my opinion.

SO… I will offer Ralph Waldo Emerson because I once liked him a lot and view myself as a type of transcendentalist.

This one is for Denny from Emerson’s essay “The Poet”: ”

Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say ‘It is in me, and shall out.’ Stand there, balked and dumb, stuttering and stammering, hissed and hooted, stand and strive, until at last rage draw out of thee that dream-power which every night shows thee is thine own; a power transcending all limit and privacy, and by virtue of which a man is the conductor of the whole river of electricity.”

This one is from Self-Reliance an essay I LOVED teaching because it is so meaningful and has so much to say to post-adolescents. “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”

One more from Self-Reliance: “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

Emerson was an essayist — a very popular one — from New England in the 19th century. Now that I know Goethe, I see how completely derivative Emerson was. Some of his most famous ‘sayings’ simply paraphrase Goethe. I was disappointed when I realized that, but there is really little that is truly new anywhere ever. AND that fact doesn’t make many of the ideas held by Emerson wrong or their expression without beauty.

Oh, I almost forgot:  I have to challenge other Bloggers, too.  Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to post about your favorite 19th-century author.  Other than that, feel free to make your own rules, but please do challenge a few of your own friends.

I challenge:

Tracy of Reflections of an Untidy Mind so maybe we’ll get some Australian writers!

Teddy (or his person) from Teddy the Dog Talks

Cara from Another Good Dog

via Daily Prompt: Forest



When I first started teaching critical thinking from Vincent Ryan Ruggiero’s book, Beyond Feelings, I was stunned by the chapters about what we think we know (but don’t). Basically, chapters about how incomplete information, partial truth, fake news and biases pollute knowledge. One point Ruggiero makes — and I think we need it now — is about slavery. He says something to the effect that there is nothing special about there having been slaves in the American colonies and, later, states. What is notable (he said) is that people STOPPED owning slaves because other people were willing to die for their freedom. His perspective looked back throughout human history and there was never a moment when someone wasn’t enslaving someone else.

We don’t think about the time before motors when people and animals did everything. Humans were most valuable for their labor.

Anyway, what I took away from this burst of insight is that we’ve got it all wrong. We should be happy that we were able to progress both mechanically and in the more important humane sense we were able regard owning other people as morally wrong. We should think, “Wow. At a certain point in time it became an almost universal idea that slavery is wrong. Humans did that. Awakened to that reality. We’re amazing.”

But that’s not how we work.

Last night I read a question posed on a site that exists to stimulate respectful debate. The question was whether or not the word “Nigger” should be expunged from Huckleberry Finn. The actual word itself was not used. The euphemism, “the ‘N’ word” was used instead. I don’t like euphemisms. The thing they represent is still there. Why pretend to hide it?

I read through the thread of responses to this question and was surprised at how many people did not understand the novel, how many people thought Huckleberry Finn is a book for children, how many people thought “the ‘N’ word” should be expunged, how many people faulted Twain for not “taking a stand against racism.”

I’m not even convinced that every use of “the ‘N’ word” in the 19th century was a racial slur. I’m relatively certain it was the word people used as we use African American or Black. I think WHO used it and HOW might be the problem. Still and all, it was the word in use at the time, whatever miserable connotations it has today.

I kept thinking of a passage from Fahrenheit 451 where Bradbury (in the voice of Beatty, the Captain) writes about how people had gone through all the literature of the past and expunged things that offended them.

“Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog?lovers, the cat?lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second?generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic ?books survive. And the three dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals.”

The result of this is depicted beautifully in the film of the novel staring Michael York. Passengers on a bus have nothing to do but feel their own faces and look into mirrors. Books are pictures, only, no words.


Anyone with half a brain reading Huckleberry Finn will get the satire, will see what’s going on, will understand that in their attempt to free the slave, Jim, Huck and Tom are on very different journeys. That the idea is to FREE Jim is, right there, pretty important.

Twain somehow saw his world from a rather high elevation and made fun of it in nearly everything he wrote. As someone who loves — and studies — history I value very highly an authentic voice from a past time. I don’t have the illusion (any more) that “now” has more right answers than did “back then.” We forget knowledge at least as fast as we create it, learn it.

I do not believe racism can be fought on a social level. It can be concealed. The rule of law is there to mandate justice and it’s a good thing it is. It’s all we have. But racism, at its core, must be confronted by individuals.

One of the saddest moments in my white, privileged (I don’t buy that, by the way) little life was when I met my next-door neighbor in Descanso, Andy. Andy is Mexican. I already knew the kids. His oldest daughter and I were pals. She was in 3rd grade, an outgoing little girl, who wanted to know me and the dogs. I knew his wife, who didn’t speak English. But I did not know Andy. When we met, Andy addressed me with the formality a Hispanic man uses to an older woman (which I expected) but also with a certain deference to my being a white lady who taught college. I saw in his approach to me a lot of what he’d experienced in his life and it made me really sad because I am not and never have been those women. Andy learned that over time and all was well.

I later learned, also, why Blanca didn’t try to speak English, even though she could, a little, at least as well as I spoke Spanish. She told me a story about meeting the wife of one of Andy’s bosses at a party and speaking English. She made a mistake; there are a lot of false cognates between English and Spanish and she got tangled up in one. The woman laughed at her and retold the story to everyone around.

To me, that’s racism, unless, of course, Blanca had been able to laugh, too, but that isn’t how she is made. She was also much younger and wanted very hard to impress her husband’s boss’ wife. The woman was uncaring and unimaginative — and she didn’t speak Spanish.

I don’t think censoring masterworks of literature written in the past is the answer to racism. I think each individual person (of all colors) learning humility and compassion is the answer to racism. I don’t think a person with a half-way decent mind and human feelings can maintain a blanket prejudice against a group of people because of something as superficial and stupid as skin color. It amazes me this lingers in our world. It’s a problem we could easily solve just by changing ourselves.


A Confucian Parable

“Struggle” was a common vocabulary word in Communist China. In fact, everything that was worth anything came at the price of a “struggle.” The great prize of Communism could not be reached without it. It was a way of justifying the incredible hardships everyone went through from, uh, well, yeah, we’ll pander to the illusion, from Liberation on. It’s a good idea to indoctrinate a people with this idea because it means they will never, never expect life to be either easy or happy. The elderly Chinese I knew did not live with axiomatic “struggle;” whatever terror their lives had held (and that was a universal element of lives lived during WW II and the Cultural Revolution) they still lived with an “…expectation of the dawn.”

Life was supposed to be hard. If life wasn’t hard and you were actually ENJOYING it, you must be some kind of bourgeois loser. To become a modern country, China had to struggle, but the struggle didn’t begin with Mao and it did not begin joylessly.

Some thirty years ago now (?) I was researching and writing a book about Pearl S. Buck as a writer in the Chinese vs. the Western literary tradition. I have/had a good case for this. She, herself, said that her background as a writer was different. BUT…A major element of the Chinese literary tradition is the motive behind someone picking up the pen to write a story. Since, for centuries, novels were severely frowned upon in China, and those who wrote them, if caught, could be punished by death or castration, those people driven to write them wrote them secretly, published them secretly and acted like they’d never heard of it if the Emperor’s men came to question them about it. Novels were written for the pleasure of the writer and anyone he might share the stories with. Pearl Buck insisted this was her world, too. I was so wrapped up in this when I was working on the project that a simple truth didn’t occur to me.

She sought publication for The Good Earth in the United States and became a best-selling novelist then, for the rest of her life, struggled hard to remain a best-selling novelist.

But in this research I learned a lot about China in the early 20th century, the pre-Mao “struggle” to simplify the characters so people could learn them more easily and faster. I learned about people — young people — going from village to village teaching people to read and write. I learned about the protest against foot-binding and how that really played out in action — and at what cost for some young women. I saw absolute shining hope.




Back to modernization.


Warlords tear the fledgling nation apart, subvert efforts to educate the people and move the “nation” forward. Famine, drought, flood, oppression


The Japanese.

Fate. In stories written by Pearl Buck’s Chinese contemporaries there is often an old woman, an Amah or an Old Mother, who lifts up her hands in resignation at some point, utters “Ay-yah!” and puts the whole thing down to fate. In earlier Chinese fiction, the inescapable fateful situation is set up in the beginning of the story where a human’s will comes up against supernatural powers and loses, but not immediately or there’d be no story. The story is, then, about the protagonist’s “struggle” against fate.

At one time in my life I owned every one of Pearl Buck’s novels and other writings. I don’t think I have any now. I think they were jettisoned with my move. But I do have a copy of her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, autographed (and stolen by me from the San Diego Public Library) and her translation of Shui Hu Chuan (The Water Margin retitled as All Men Are Brothers) a very old Chinese novel about conscientious, poetry-writing, sometimes cannibalistic bandits and their overthrow of a corrupt dynasty. It’s a great book.

I found the project yesterday in the garage. It’s in one of those very-common-in-my-generation blue canvas binders, printed out on old-style computer paper with a dot-matrix printer. The computer of the era was an Amiga. Yesterday I thumbed through the pages and thought of picking up where I left off but soon realized the struggle to retype that whole thing would be more than I wanted to undertake.

Apropos of this post: “China Buries Memories of the Cultural Revolution.”

Icelandic Sagas

A long time ago when I was first researching and writing Martin of Gfenn, I was wandering around Hillcrest in San Diego with my friend, Denis Joseph Francis Callahan (RIP). He bought me a book and made a wisecrack, “If you’re so interested in medieval shit you’d better read this.”

It was Njal’s Saga.

I did. I loved it. It’s Beowulf on steroids. I didn’t know much about Icelandic sagas then but then last year I took an online class which was pretty tedious and academic about “Space in the Icelandic Saga.” But I learned about more sagas and something about Norse mythology and I finished the class “with distinction” and that was cool.

In two weeks, I will be in Iceland. What drew me to Iceland in the first place wasn’t the sagas but the horses. I saw them in a movie Beowulf and Grendl which was filmed in Iceland. I was amazed at the little horses that hung around like buses or cars waiting for Vikings to ride them. I began researching the little horses and learned where they were.


Then I began to put the country together with Njal’s Saga and that added a whole dimension of interest. Now I’m reading Egil’s Saga which is about Egil (duh) but also about Norwegian history, telling of the tyrannical king, Harald, who drove many good people out of Norway including Egil’s father, Skallagrim. And, as it happens (quite accidentally!) I’ll be staying not far from Skallagrim’s original homestead.

I did a little research into saga sites, too, and found one I would love to go visit but it doesn’t seem practicable for this trip. One of the responses I got, though, asked me if I were a teacher or something that I was interested in the sagas.

I thought about that and felt sad. The sagas are popular literature — folklore that was written down in the 13th century by a guy with the most awesome name: Snorri Sturllsson. But now, because of their age and obscurity have been relegated to the grey/brown realm of “literature” much like Beowulf and the Odyssey. Really and truly, though, these are adventure stories that are nine million times more accessible and fun to read than anything by Richard Brautigan, Dan Brown, Danielle Steel and I dunno, the Game of Thrones guy. They are wonderful.

Egil is a big, violent, dark, bald guy; he’s a superlative viking. He fought for the English King, Athelstan against the Scottish King Olaf (Olaf?). Through this I see a lot more clearly how the British and Viking cultures became inextricably connected during the years of viking raids. I’ve also learned that viking raids were the normal activity of the “hot bloods”  — restless young men trying to make a fortune. Most of them settled down on a farm when their viking years were over. I’ve learned about going “berserk” as a viking quality.

Egil was a poet and the saga is filled with his spontaneous verses. The book is fun to read and an object lesson on basic human nature (jealous, vengeful, passionate, hard-working, longing for home).

Let’s follow a friendlier
Feeder of wolves:
Let’s beat the oar-blades
Of our shield-adorned boat
That sword-bender won’t shun
Me, seeking his company:
Let’s sling our shields
Aboard, let’s make sail.


Good or Evil? Des Lebens labyrinthisch irren Lauf

“I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.”

—Mephistopheles (In Faust I by Joann Wolfgang von Goethe)

Anyone who’s read my blog for any length of time knows I love Goethe. What I love about Goethe is not so much the great masterpieces (Faust for one) but the way he seems to have thought about things.

All his life he was fascinated by the Faust story, the scientist who sold his soul to Satan so he could have powers and experiences beyond those his life had given him. Faust (in my imagination) is the driest of icky dry academics and, in my imagination, at a certain point in his life, he realizes he’s missed out. All his studies of magic, philosophy, alchemy have not brought him knowledge. He realizes he doesn’t know anything and he’s missed the life of experience. He wants another chance, but within 20 years of his 4 score and 10, no longer young, he doesn’t know how he can do this.

Enter Mephistopheles, blackness, emptiness, the spirit of negation — in more simple and conventional language (for the time), Evil. In the traditional Faust legend, Faust dies at the end tormented by devils. Marlowe’s Faust asks for God’s forgiveness. Goethe’s Faust discovers the truth of life (the universe and everything?) and dies in God’s embrace. God (Goethe’s God) knows it is Faust’s nature to pursue the path he has pursued; he could have done nothing else. Gretchen, the woman whose life Faust ruined in Faust Part 1 waits at Heaven’s gate to console and teach him in Faust Part 2

While Goethe didn’t deviate completely from the legend, he added two important elements: humor and ambiguity. Mephistopheles enters Goethe’s Faust as a black poodle…

For Goethe, Mephistopheles doesn’t represent evil so much as that which has yet to be seen, the mysterious realm from which that which is known emerges (and is judged). The unseen and the seen realms exist side-by-side, and the unseen realm is unseen mostly because we do not look in that direction. Why? Social convention? Religion? Fear? All those things. Goethe’s Faust does look and the inevitable result is that Faust acts, and in his actions, a world is set in motion with all its consequences, tragedy, regrets — and its beauty.

Faust’s pact with Mephistopheles is not the first pact made in Goethe’s Faust. God makes a bargain with Mephistopheles first; a bet. He bets that the Mephistopheles will not succeed in drawing a good man into evil. For Mephistopheles, temptation is a cat and mouse game, and God gives him permission to play this game with Faust:

“…I grant that you may try to clasp him,
Withdraw this spirit from his primal source,
And lead him down, if you can grasp him,
Upon your own abysmal course–
And stand abashed when you have to attest:
A good man in his darkling aspiration
Remembers the right road throughout his quest.” (Faust Part 1, Trans. Walter Kaufman)

God knows that Faust is searching for something and that, in the end, Mephistopheles will be only a tool in Faust’s journey.

So, can bad lead to good? For Goethe there is no “bad,” and all things which exist come from the place where nothing exists. The lost and empty person Faust knows himself to be at the beginning of the story is, at the end, a wise and transcendent being.

“What occurred is dead and ended
Pain and joy have passed away;
You are healed–oh, apprehend it,
Trust the newborn light of day!” (Faust Part 2, Trans. Walter Kaufman)

Sorry I could not find a video with English subtitles, but I think the sense of Mephistopheles and Faust comes through anyway. It’s a masterpiece of a film, Karl Maria Brandauer in Mephisto. The film is based on Mephisto: Novel of a Career by Klaus Mann, Thomas Mann’s son. A play-within-a-play, the story is set in Nazi Germany. Brandauer plays an actor whose great role is Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust.

This is my response to Bumblpepuppies prompt on Blacklight Candelabra

And, Faust definitely studied abroad, so: