Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 May 2013
A chapter analyzing the aesthetics of the 1587 Spies Historia von D. Johann Fausten may strike many as an oxymoron. We need only a brief review of previous assessments to suggest such a conclusion. Let Wilhelm Scherer's devastating critique from 1884 of the anonymous author's literary skills represent a point of view that still has subscribers up to the present day. Scherer begins, “Wie schlecht erzählt er! Wie schlecht hat er seinen Stoff disponirt. Wie wenig Übersicht und Klarheit besitzt er!” (How badly he tells a story. How badly he arranges the material. How little oversight and clarity he possesses). Scherer goes on to list a whole series of stylistic problems that his successors would also cite. As recently as 2001, Walter Haug found it impossible to avoid using the term “Machwerk” (botched job) in his assessment, given the Historia's abundant “Ungereimheiten und Widersprüchen” (inconsistencies and contradictions).
Granted, there are more than enough factors to make a literary analysis of the Historia (hereafter the Faustbuch) especially difficult. Since the late nineteenth century, scholars have struggled to come to grips with it as a work of literature. Not only is there no consensus on the identity and literary stature (if any) of the anonymous author(s)—or should we say compiler(s)?—there is also no consensus on the Faustbuch's literary worth. Was it “the most important literary product of the sixteenth century,” “the most inspirational book of modern times,” a work worthy of being called “an early manifestation of the novelistic form”? Or was it “a crude piece of compilation of no literary value,” “ein elendes Machwerk,” the product of “a real bungler who lacked just about all the qualities we demand from even the most modest of writers”?