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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: March 2018

J. M. van der Laan, Seeking Meaning for Goethe's Faust. London: Continuum, 2007. 202 pp

from Book Reviews


Faust lives on, as J. M. van der Laan demonstrates in this monograph that sweeps through the ages from antiquity to postmodernity with a breath-taking audacity not unlike Goethe's own claim to bridge three thousand years in his play. The book first surveys Faustian themes and formats from the earliest chapbook versions to the wealth of literary manifestations, cinematic and musical renditions, and multi-media events. With that context in place, van der Laan then launches an insightful study of Goethe's two-part tragedy highlighting the tensions of the text in ethical and scientific terms alike. He demonstrates that Goethe's Faust goes head-on into debates that still—or, perhaps, even more so— resonate today in the early twenty-first century. These include such issues as the ethical and practical implications of our quest for knowledge, including whether technology is our magical savior or our destructive master, and, whether the “control” of nature is the human domain or our environmental demise. The play's intense offerings lie in its resemblance to the universe: the Faust texts “constitute just such a system [like Stuart Kauffmann's chaotic molecules that develop into complexity], a site at the edge of chaos where order and disorder, stasis and dynamism, consistence and inconsistence meet and interact” (127). Even as van der Laan demonstrates the scientific potential of this play that inspired such thinkers as those who developed chaos theory, Mitchell Feigenbaum and Albert Libchaber, he also clarifies that Faust simultaneously reveals the potential terror and exploitation of the applications of scientific knowledge in technology: “Only in the technological experience does Faust find meaning and satisfaction, but what he actually achieves once again is not true, but what can only be called false, meaning. After all, the story closes with Faust lost in illusion. What meaning does he actually find?” (106). Van der Laan continues with the problem of the Faustian illusion by suggesting that we, like Faust, may pursue knowledge yet actually determine far less than we believe. This he formulates both in the theological terms of good works versus divine grace, but also via complexity theory's exploration of order and chaos in the universe.