TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. März 2010

Sektion 3.2. Transcontinental Transfer of Literature and Arts to Transform Traditional Societies
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair: Hsia Adrian (McGill University, Canada)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

“Den B`sen sind sie los, die B`sen sind geblieben” –
Goethe’s De-Christianization of the Devil in Bulgakov’s Faust Novel
and in “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones

Richard Ilgner (Memorial University, St. John’s, Canada) [BIO]



The citation from Goethe’s Faust in the title here hints at a possible de-Christianization of the devil out of the mouth of Mephistopheles himself in the scene “Witches Kitchen” of Part I:  “The Evil One is gone, the evil ones remain” (F, 2509).  Goethe, after all, maintained a life-long insistence that there is no radical evil, that dualism of God and Devil is a pernicious human invention: “All evil...actually comes only from error and laziness, there is no radical, original Evil; ... dualism has always produced most of the confusions and errors, split the truly human and entangled human beings in fighting and antagonism with themselves” (Grumach 1949: 930).  Goethe himself asserted, that “the sharply defined Christian-orthodox figures and concepts” in his Faust only served to give “my poetic intentions . . . a benevolently limiting form and concreteness” (Goethe 2006: 18.1, 1165).

If then error and laziness are responsible for the evils of the world, Goethe’s contribution to an understanding of this crucial human problem leads away from demonology to make an important early finding in the field of cognitive psychology.  Speaking of the major dramatis personae of his Faust, Mephistopheles and Faust, he makes this telling recommendation for a theatrical production:  “The dramatis personae of ‘Faust’ occasions a reverse Menaechmi play.  Here there are not two, who have to be taken for one, but rather one person, who is not to be recognized in the other” (Goethe 1975: I, 16, 239).  In other words, the devil Mephistopheles is part of Faust, but having the one human being played by two different actors accentuates the alienation and repression that is the stock-in-trade of most humans most of the time – Goethe himself owns up to his Mephistophelean side by confessing that now and then “I act as Mephistopheles” (Gr@f 1901-1914: 571) against certain people.

In order to more closely and adequately reflect the epistemology and personality structure of modern man represented by the Faust/Mephisto hybrid, the Christian mythology acquires a powerful secularized mythological sub-text in Goethe’s play:  Mephisto appropriates for himself in the scene that is the heart of the Gretchen tragedy, the “Walpurgis Night,” the designation Squire Voland.  “Black Voland”, as he was called in the middle ages, referred to Wayland, the Germanic smith, who was linked to the other more prevalent smith guild in ancient Greece, by having Hephestus considered his grandfather.  Jacob Grimm in his German Mythology suggests that Wayland the smith points to “an unmistakable analogy of the Greek stories of Hephestus, Erichthonius, and Dedalus” (Grimm 1965: I, 312).  With his extensive sub-text in his Faust, Goethe points to the problem of technology alienated from nature as the de-Christianized evil.  Mephisto/Voland becomes the godfather of Wagner’s test-tube baby, Homunculus, in the second act of the second part of Faust.  Homo faber, the fabricator of life, the technician of simulacra, announces the triumphal entry of this modern form of alienation from nature (in Latin, faber meant maker, but also smith and magician).  The smiths then are makers of daidala, or eidola, that is shadows.  In that sense the Trojan War was fought not over the real Helen but over her eidolon; the real Helen, Herodotus tells us, remained with Proteus in Egypt.  Goethe’s recovery of the real Helena then attempts the mimesis of the living situation in its fullness rather than a lifeless simulacrum.  This means above all the reintegration of the smith figure and all he stands for into the fabric of the whole represented by the goddess.  This gives the “antecedents” to Helena, as Goethe called the “Classical Walpurgis Night,” a prime significance in the drama as a whole.  Aphrodite, who rules the mines and smiths of Cyprus, who figures as Helena’s daimon, and who is married to the smith god Hephestus, beloved by the primal sea goddesses despite his deformity, presides over the quests of the three northern travelers that culminate here:

Homunculus, the rigid, bodiless product of the smith/alchemists Wagner/Mephisto, reintegrates himself into the domain of Aphrodite’s living representative, Galatea; Mephisto/Voland also reintegrates himself voluntarily into the group of Phorcids, of whom Medusa is one, and who are cousins to Galatea’s Nereids, thus preparing his role as servitor to Helena; and Faust himself recontacts the Medusa/Persephone aspects of the underworld in order to plead for a restitution of the living Helena in her fullness.  The triple quest thus is contextualized by the Pygmalion myth, Pygmalion being one of the Cyprian artificers/smiths whose statue or eidolon of Galatea (another aspect of Helena’s daimon, Aphrodite) must first have life breathed into it by the daimon Aphrodite herself, before she can figure as anything more than a shadow in the Eros celebrations of the Aegean that constitute the “antecedents” of Helena.  That Goethe’s drama also ends with a reintegration of Mephisto/Voland into the wholeness that is “the Eternal-Feminine” is hinted at by the inclusion of the figure of Pater Profundus, Profundus being the epithet usually associated with St. Aegidius, the patron saint of smiths.  Goethe’s suggestion to Madame de StaNl in 1808, that “she will perhaps meet Mephisto again in heaven” (Gr@f 1901-14: 227), thus is symbolically realized, undoing the Christian demonization of the shamanistic smith figure – among the Siberian Yakuts, for instance, smiths and shamans are from the same nest on the world tree, the axis mundi, just as in China and Japan the ancient secret societies linked smiths and magicians.

Mephisto/Voland therefore represents that part of modern man’s mind that has the penchant “to explain complicated phenomena” (Goethe 1975: LXIX, 252), nailing them down “so that he can use them” (Goethe 1975: LXXV, 126).  Life, therefore, says Goethe “is rigidified in the word, with which one now can operate as if it were a real being” (Grumach 1949: 83).  Goethe therefore rejects the utility principle of the early socialists such as Saint-Simon, and the egocentric personality structure determined by it.

That the development of Russian revolutionary socialism culminating in 1917 has much to do with Goethe’s Faust can be seen among other evidence by the Goethe-based play, Faust and the City, written by Anatol Lunacharsky, people’s commissar of education in the post-1917 Soviet government.  Even Lenin himself always carried a copy of Goethe’sFaust with him.  In fact, the development of Russian literature and culture in the nineteenth century can hardly be thought apart from German idealist philosophy (namely the Jena philosophers Hegel and Schelling) and the idealist literature of Goethe and Schiller (especially the former’sFaust drama).

Starting with the father of Russian literature, Pushkin, with his “Scene from Faust,” and his Faust references in Pique Dame and Eugene Onegin, both later turned into operas by Tchaikovsky, and moving through practically all the major Russian artists of the next hundred years, the Faust theme occupies a central position in the cultural unfolding leading up to the Russian revolution of 1917.  Lermontov belongs to this development as well as the so-called Russian Faust, Prince Odoevsky, with his championing of the disenfranchised and disinherited of tsarist Russia.  The list of Faust themes continues through Gogol, Oblomov, Mussorgsky, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, right up to turn-of-the-century symbolists like Bryusov whose work was used by Prokofiev in his Faust opera.  The paintings of Vrubel, and the work of Gorky and Achmatova round out this preoccupation with Faust before one of the major treatments of the  Faust theme after Goethe’s formulated by Mikhail Bulgakov. 

Mikhail Bulgakov, writing mostly during Stalin’s regime, conceived his two Goethe-based Faust works, The Heart of a Dog and The Master and Margarita, as “protests about the unbearable,” as Doris Lessing so aptly put it in her foreword to another Bulgakov work: “Someone not knowing about the nature of the Soviet regime would have read that book – and these days it is read - without seeing more than ‘magic realism’ or some such phrase that comforts people who need a tidy shelf with a label to sort out their fiction” (Lessing 2003: ix).  The short story itself, The Heart of a Dog, based on the Goethe phrase from Faust, “des Pudels Kern”, referring to Mephisto, leaves no doubt as to where evil is to be located:  The dog finds “evil-minded humans....unbearable” (Bulgakov 1968: 42-3).  The smith/alchemists in this case are Soviet experimenters who have transplanted a human organ into a dog, who then starts immediately exhibiting the most common human vices.  The secret of the “poodle’s core” is summed up by the laboratory perpetrators:  “The whole horror of the situation is that he now has a human heart, not a dog’s heart” (Bulgakov 1968: 110-11).  In other words, here too, Mephisto is who he is because he is part of Faust’s reality just as he was in Goethe. 

In Bulgakov’s major Goethe-inspired work, his novel The Master and Margarita, the devil bears the name Woland, who appears among the Soviet citizens of Moscow with a troupe of four, that includes a giant black humanized cat, and Azazello, one of the rebel angels in The Book of Enoch who imparted the secrets of metallurgy to humans.  Like Goethe’s Mephisto, who is the unacknowledged part of Faust himself, Woland and his troupe are reflections of the Muscovites themselves.  Styopa Likhodeyev, one of the new humans of Soviet society,

“turned from the telephone and in the hallway mirror, which the lazy Grunya had not dusted for a long time, he clearly saw a most peculiar individual, lanky as a pole and in pince-nez... The individual was reflected for a moment and vanished.  Styopa anxiously peered further into the hallway, and was jolted a second time, for a huge black tom passed through the mirror and also disappeared.

Styopa’s heart dropped and he swayed.

‘What is this?’ he thought.  ‘Am I going mad?  Where do these reflections come from?’  He looked into the hallway and cried in alarm:
‘Grunya!  What is this cat slinking around here?  Where does he come from?  And who else is here?’

...A voice replied from the bedroom, but it was not Grunya’s voice.  ‘The tom is mine ... And Grunya is not here, I sent her to Voronezh.  She complained that you had cheated her out of her vacation.’...

His guest was no longer alone in the bedroom.  The second chair was occupied by the character he had just glimpsed in the hallway.  Now he was clearly visible:  a tiny feather mustache, one lense glinting in the pince-nez, the other missing.  But there were even worse things in the bedroom.  A third visitor sprawled insolently on the padded ottoman...- namely, a black tom of terrifying proportions, with a glass of vodka in one paw and a fork in the other with which he had already managed to impale a pickled mushroom ...

‘They, they!’ the lanky checkered character bleated like a goat, referring to Styopa in the plural.  ‘Generally, they’ve been behaving like a dreadful swine lately...”’ (Bulgakov 1995: 90-92).

Styopa, referred to here as the plurality of “the narrow-minded inhabitants of Moscow” (Bulgakov 1991: 130), as they are called in Bulgakov’s diary, entitled Manuscripts Don’t Burn, doesn’t realize that it is his own laziness and cheating that have corrupted his ability to reflect with clear discernment on himself.  This self-delusion Bulgakov already zeroed in on in his short story, The Heart of a Dog, where the mongrel deludes himself in front of a mirror into thinking his dog ancestry is more noble: “Perhaps I’m really a dog prince, living incognito, mused the dog with the smug expression strolling about in the mirrored distance.  I wouldn’t be surprised if my grandmother didn’t have an affair with a labrador” (Bulgakov 1968: 43).  That Bulgakov eventually turned this Goethean dog into a cat may have more to do with the existence of this sub theme as far back in Russian literary history as Odoevsky and Gogol, the latter especially being one of Bulgakov’s favorite forebears, in whose work a black dog had been turned into a black cat, while the Russian Faust, Odoevsky, included his own black cat in his fictions.

Margarita, who is one of the few who doesn’t shirk the hard work of becoming human, sees more clearly in this respect, when she calls Woland “harmless.”  So when Woland in his public appearance refers to his sole purpose for his visit to Moscow, namely to find out whether “the Muscovites changed”, and has to admit that “they remind me of their predecessors,” the Russians under the tsars (Bulgakov 1996: 101, 104), their intransigence marks them for the devil:  “The devil take all the Romanovs!” Bulgakov exclaims in his diary, but it is obvious he also includes the new rulers (Bulgakov 1991: 56), under whom “people started disappearing without a trace,” which was put down to “witchcraft pure and simple” (Bulgakov 1996: 63).

When Bulgakov near the end of his novel drops all pretense with regard to this mystification, the Soviet publishers of 1966/67 have tellingly censured this passage:  “or maybe he didn’t come to Moscow at all? .... What follows from that would be that the administration ... had committed some kind of swinishness themselves” (Bulgakov 1988: 328).

This applies of course to something even more central both to Goethe’s and Bulgakov’s concerns, that is, the punishment meted out for the infanticide committed by Gretchen in Goethe’s play, and a Gretchen-like character named Frieda in Bulgakov’s novel, whom,

 “when she was a waitress in a cafe, her boss lured. . . into the storeroom one day, and nine months later she gave birth to a baby boy, carried him into the woods, stuffed the handkerchief in his mouth, and then buried him in the ground.  At her trial she said she had nothing to feed the child,” (Bulgakov 1996: 228). 

Goethe, by an act of internal censure, suppressed the scene in which Gretchen’s beheading is part of the witch persecution orchestrated by the Catholic inquisition.  And Margarita asks “And where’s the owner of the cafe?” (Bulgakov 1996: 228) also in an effort to unmask the patriarchal societal bias determining the fate of women.  For the biggest evil here too, as in Goethe, has to do with the total mechanization of all human interactions, the creation of an eidolon, the Soviet apparatchic, exemplified best of all by the Gogolesque Prokhor Petrovich, commission chairman, whose body is spirited away, but whose empty suit goes on signing documents, which are moreover completely endorsed by the returned bodily Prokhov.

Bulgakov’s novel was buried with him so to speak at the time of his death in 1940.  It lingered in the desk drawer until the Soviets allowed a somewhat censored version to be published 26 years later.  It was the English translation of this version which the lead singer of the Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger, read in one sitting and then turned out the opening of the album Beggar’s Banquet of 1968, entitled “Sympathy for the Devil”.  But pacts with devils and shaman figures had already been central to the development of blues music that was such a formative influence on rock in general and the Stones in particular.  Robert Johnson, one of the most seminal figures in blues history, was rumoured to have made a pact with the devil, and many of his songs alluded to this, so for instance “Crossroads,” which later also became the signature tune of Eric Clapton.  That Mick Jagger was a careful reader of Bulgakov is already apparent from that first word “Sympathy” and how it was meant to be taken.  Just as Goethe against all expectations was ‘sympathetic’ towards his Mephisto, admitting him into ‘heaven’ at last, and Bulgakov puzzled his readers because of the sympathetic portrayal of Woland, so Jagger, assuming the persona of the devil in his song, pleads,

“So if you meet me,
Have some courtesy,
Have some sympathy” (The Rolling Stones 2005: 343).

Why?  When at first glance it seems the devil is responsible for all the evils in history:

“I was around when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain.
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate.
I watched with glee while your kings and queens
Fought for ten decades for the gods they made.
Killed the Tzar and his ministers:
Anastasia screamed in vain.
I rode a tank, held a gen’ral’s rank
When the blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank.
I shouted out, “Who killed the Kennedys?” (The Rolling Stones 2005:  340-42).

“When after all it was you and me,” (The Rolling Stones 2005: 340-41) is this devil’s famously inclusive answer. Christ’s crucifixion, the religious wars fought over the mere eidola of the spiritual reality, the communist and fascist phenomena and the holocaust, all are human-caused evils.  The French film maker, Jean-Luc Godard, in that same year of 1968 made a film about the Stones song.  His Sympathy for the Devil with its themes of the May revolt in France, the growing technocratic society, the plight of women, the plight of the third world (Godard references the Black Panthers, LeRoi Jones and Eldridge Cleaver), brings the secularized evil up-to-date:  The cause of terrorism resides in us, in our unwillingness to see what our life style is based on.


(All quotes from German sources are translated by the author)


3.2. Transcontinental Transfer of Literature and Arts to Transform Traditional Societies

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For quotation purposes:
Richard Ilgner: “Den B`sen sind sie los, die B`sen sind geblieben” – Goethe’s De-Christianization of the Devil in Bulgakov’s Faust Novel and in “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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