The opera Faust had its premier at the Paris Opera in 1859. In a coincidence that now seems a hellish juxtaposition, 1859 is also the year Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species. The opera made Charles Gounod the most famous musician in Paris. Since then Charles Darwin has been on the ascendant. The demonology of Faust’s bargain with the devil clangs uproariously against modern materialism, and where scientific reductionism waxes philosophical, The Origin of Species has the status of dogma. Evidence for a cosmology richer than we find in Darwin includes grand opera. Can the theory of evolution account for the moral conflict, human nobility, and ignobility found in the plots of musical drama of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? The character Faust in the title role of Gounod’s opera is presumed to be a man well versed in natural philosophy—science of the era of the Faust legend—as well as medicine and jurisprudence. After a lifetime of study in these fields Faust despairs of finding satisfaction in the Western cultural legacy. Satan offers to disencumber him of his rational and metaphysical inhibitions, and Faust consummates a transaction.
Faust’s search, simply put, is for the satisfaction of a moment that he would wish to sustain. An abbreviated treatment of Goethe’s version of the Faust legend, the opera centers on Faust’s seduction of Marguerite, a peasant girl who soon finds her life in ruins. Faust’s conquest can be seen as an upshot of the materialistic world view. There are many versions of the legend, and several operas based on it. In some versions of the odyssey the philosopher’s quest becomes the life of a sensual athlete, including romps with courtesans of legendary reputations—Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, Thäis. In the opera by Gounod Satan serves Faust’s inclinations while amusing himself baiting the bourgeoisie. Using the power Satan puts at his disposal, Faust enraptures Marguerite with jewelry and his transitory affections and then deserts her. But this story resolves on Marguerite’s redemption. Her apotheosis and translation to heaven is musically exultant, ascending chromatically and aimed at an experience of transcendence. (audio-7) It concludes with a chorus of angels singing, “Christ has triumphed over sin and death; there is now no condemnation for those who put their trust in him.”
This traditional Christian cosmology evidently played very well in Paris in 1859. The opera was an immediate success, revitalized French opera, and remains a standard of the repertoire. It is remarkable that the French responded in droves a hundred years before their existentialists and atheists—Sartre, Derrida, Foucaut et al.—took center stage. The hell of it—as if Satan is collecting on Faust’s agreement and taking his due—is that Darwin’s materialism supplants metaphysics for ensuing generations. Dialectical materialism, that presumed-inevitable liberation of the underclass, becomes an obsession among the intelligentsia. Marxists, and the nihilists who follow them, are a thousand times more predacious than the bourgeoisie they depose. Blind to atrocities by regimes claiming to redistribute material resources—for what other resources are there?—they abet or incite revolts against every civilized institution. Western Civilization is, of course, an obstacle to those who would take back territory lost by oligarchies of earlier eras. If it can be deconstructed, deconstructionists or their minions will march in to fill the void.
Excerpted from Civilization and the Sublime
Audio-7. Faust; Gounod; excerpted from EMI recording 79-750462; 1979; Domingo/Freni/ Ghiaurov/Pretre.