Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres Faculty Profile
Retracing her tangled relationship with Faust, in this fascinating excerpt from her forthcoming book of personal and critical essays GSD professor Ruth-Ellen Joeres explores the complexities of being a feminist Germanist.
I grew up in a generation that believed in the Canon—that believed in Eternal Truth, too. The Canon was the conveyer of Eternal Truth, and needed not only to be known, but also to be remembered and displayed. All around me when I was a student were professors spouting canonic names and quotations that they had committed to memory; in fact, I grew up thinking of the academic profession as occupied above all by those who possessed prodigious memories, and I worried because I could never remember very much.
I do remember once as an undergraduate staying up most of one night to memorize Keats’ ode “When I Have Fears,” not because anybody had ordered me to do so but because it fit my almost always melancholic mood. And its words were so beautiful—on occasion I still murmur that last line, “Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.” Same with Schiller’s “Nänie,” which also ends bleakly and brilliantly with the lines “Auch ein Klaglied zu sein im Mund der Geliebten ist herrlich,/Denn das Gemeine geht klanglos zum Orkus hinab.”
But I also remember Faust—most particularly a minor figure in Part II named Manto, who appears only in one scene but who has the significant role of pointing the way for Faust to continue his trek through the Classical Walpurgisnacht. But she is sitting; in fact, she doesn’t move at all. “Ich harre,” she intones, “mich umkreist die Zeit.” She provides an utter contrast to Chiron, the wiggly, never-resting half-horse, half-man, who gallops through these strange scenes with Faust on his back. I never liked Chiron; he made me nervous.Whereas Manto, resting, still, serene, seems to possess pure wisdom. Or something like that.
Faust is the German Canon. Faust is to German literature/culture what The Divine Comedy is to Italian, or Don Quixote is to Spanish.When I was a student, Faust had to be known, maybe even recited on occasion. But when I trace my own connections with it, they come out in a very tangled way.And thinking about that complex history helps me think about other things as well. Such as the assertive feminist side of me. Such as my ongoing ambiguities connected with being a Germanist and a feminist at the same time. Such as truth.
Although my first acquaintance with Faust was a reading of Part I in undergraduate school, it was the reading of both parts in graduate school that has remained vivid in my memory. I was taking a seminar with Harold Jantz, who was probably the first professor whom I recognized as a scholar: that is, he also wrote about Faust and I made that connection vividly for the first time in that seminar.We read his books; he talked about his books; he taught and wrote. I knew what it was to be a teacher—my mother had been one, after all—but now I could see what it was to be a university teacher who thought enough about what he was teaching to want to write about it. I wonder if it was that realization that made that round of reading Faust so memorable.
And maybe that was why I assumed that the canonical Faust—as well as Harold Jantz’s take on it—represented truth. He read literally, as one tended to do in the sixties. He cited everything, of course, from Greek and Latin sources to medieval references.And it was after a session of his seminar that I went home thinking probably for the first time that this was where I wanted to be and what I wanted to be; I wanted to be a student in that seminar and ultimately a professor just like Jantz who would impress my students with my erudite wisdom, my control of the truth.
Maybe that is also why I remained yoked to that particular truth— as well as to the ever more frayed notes I had taken in his course— for such a long time. And when I eventually taught Faust myself, I allowed myself virtually no variation, no deviation from what I had been taught. It was as if I were chained to those notes, practically had them memorized, so that I too could cite sources, drop names, show how knowledgeable I was.
But there was a difference. I didn’t write about Faust at all. Instead, I headed off in other directions, exploring women writers, thinking about social history, trying to re-think the canon—while all the while perpetuating the canon, teaching Faust, trying to instill in my students the same sense of dutiful reverence that Jantz had instilled in me. In a way, I was living parallel but separate lives, the life of the respectable canon with all due obeisance, and the life of the rebel, the deviant, who argued against that very same canon.
It really could not continue that way. The break came during a research stay in Munich when I learned that the Swiss theater director Leopold Lindberg was preparing a rare staging of Faust II at the city’s Residenztheater.When he agreed to my attending rehearsals, I went every morning for a number of weeks into the darkened theater, crept to a seat, accustomed my eyes to the dimness so that I could scribble a few notes, and immersed myself in the intricacies and confusions of that most convoluted work. The experience was a mix of things: my Jantzian irritation at Lindberg’s non-literal interpretation, but also my increasing fascination, all on my own, at how I was seeing the living play, for the first time without all those notes pushing into my brain.
I was overwhelmed. Faust was suddenly animate for me, no longer confined to pages of print.And when I later taught the play, I talked about my own experiences in that dark space, I talked about dramatic techniques, I made a break from the drabness of classical philological thought. I placed myself in the position of someone who had deeply experienced the play.
At the same time, however, I was continuing to move away from my obedience to the canon, feeling increasingly contemptuous of anybody who was choosing to write about Goethe. My feminism began to overtake my Germanism, and while I was enlivened at the memories of that production in the making, I was also increasingly irritated at what I thought were the tenets of the play, the brutal capitalist push that is behind Faust’s development from musty, limited scholar to the builder of a new realm, a builder who does not hesitate to kill to get what he craves.
For a while, I stopped teaching Faust altogether. Didn’t want to deal with it, felt bored and alienated by it, blamed it for just about all the negativity I have periodically felt about my chosen field. I guess this was my break from my elders, a fairly delayed rebellion.
The end of the story might be characterized by the first part of my title, the in-your-face putting myself,ME,ahead of the drama. Because ultimately I returned to teaching Faust, only this time in a way of my own, still involving the careful close reading that Jantz taught me because I love words and do not want to misread or overlook them, but then exploding all the rest of it in a rebellion of theorizing, getting my students to bring the play into their lives, via Bakhtin or queer theory or feminism or canon formation or whatever will let them think about Faust in terms that are more familiar to them.
It is a triumph of sorts, this self-assertion over the past, whether in their terms or on my own, because I, too, get to be present. Happy End. A chance for me to declare the absurdity of idol worship, which is, after all, such idle worship.
But not quite. On to the second part of my title, Manto and buying into her. After all these years of doing Faust, sometimes I still feel very trapped in some non-place, commuting between the respectability of an awestruck stance and the deviance of my feminist skepticism. Gretchen is a wimp, right? Having to die before she can assume any role at all—I mean, what is this? Whereas Faust gets to live and thrive and experience and act, Gretchen has to die. Has to be sacrificed. Has to retreat to the pedestal where, I once wrote, any overt movement would be extremely dangerous, not to mention unwise.And the only other women, aside from witches and other minor figures, are either wittily shrewish (Marthe) or passive (Manto).They are all instruments, really, to further men.They are mostly extraneous. They are fringe. They bore me.
And yet, and yet. I have indeed bought into Manto, that still figure who does not move, who only points. Aside from her being a lot more interesting and mysterious than the restless Chiron, I like her words. Maybe it is that I am sucked up by the sheer beauty of it all, loving the theater, saying again and again “ich harre, mich umkreist die Zeit,” relishing the words, wishing I could write something as good. I hope that it is the case that it is her words that seduce me—buying into her passivity would produce more ambivalence than I can tolerate.
But it is not only Manto whose words I love, it is Faust as well and even the wily Mephistopheles. It is the theatrical beauty of the piece.And it is also that terrible conflict of the beauty of language versus the often awful, stifling impact of its meaning.
So might that be why I am writing about ME and Faust? I have met the Canon and, thanks to the welcome interference of feminism, I have begun to doubt its Truth. I have retreated from that stage when I could buy into the validity of canonical thinking—I have broken away from my elders—but at the same time, I have found myself sucked back in on occasion, at least, like laughing at a sexist joke or weeping at a war movie. I am as torn and as place-less as I ever was, even now, with knowledge and at least occasional bursts of independence. I am more subtle in my thinking, more thoughtful about words.
But even in that assertion of ME, I become ungrammatical, not to mention unladylike. That is, neither pure nor entirely correct. Guilty, in fact, of an error my overly correct and precise mother would shudder at. And there I go again, a preposition at the end of a sentence.