Although I began consciously assimilating the lives and ideas of those contributors to Western Civilization that I encountered by reading to Mr. Cohen, I realize now that a life is being continually constructed by the culture that surrounds us and the opportunities that come our way. I realized this when I first read Goethe’s Faust. He wrote the play in two books. Book I is the familiar theme of Faust the professor, discontent with his life at 50, making a pact with Mephistopheles to explore life to the full as a restored 20 something. It is the story of his love affair with Marguerite and the calamity he brings in his wake as he discovers the sensual life he had neglected. Book II deals with the next 50 years of his life and he tries out exploring, money-making, militarism, conjuring back Helen of Troy (and producing a child homunculus with her), and as he approaches his hundredth year he applies everything he learned to laying out a design for a city, serving as a city manager, helping to design harbors, turn pestilential marshlands into fertile soil for bumper crops, and allow opportunities for the growing population to engage in international trade and the diversity of culture it brings. It is at this point where he tells Mephistopheles that he wants to continue serving humanity through science that he loses the bet with the devil. But before Mephistopheles can claim his soul, God intervenes and takes the dying Faust’s soul to Heaven, praising him for having striven to fully explore the gift of his humanity.
I read this for the first time when the Honors College at Stony Brook University was formed about 1989 and this was one of the books assigned to the freshman class on “progress and its discontents.” As I read the book I realized I had a Faustian personality. I did not repeat a year. I always looked for something new to add to my knowledge, some new skill to acquire, and a zest for plunging into life and enjoying it as much as I could. Fortunately I had a moral restraint Faust lacked until his decrepitude. My high school exposure to those Greek thinkers and writers had as firm a grip on my desires as Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” had on the economy and its usually beneficial outcomes. The Faust theme still resonates in my mind and I have a draft of a novel with the working title: Faust: My First Fifty Years. In it I explore Faust’s childhood. I make him the grandson of Gutenberg’s business partner, Johan Fust (who changed his name to Faust as his printing business prospered). I have my Faust become a priest and physician who teaches the science and math courses in the Renaissance universities he moves to. He is also assimilating the findings of the Renaissance and I have him meet Fracastoro, Machiavelli, Da Vinci, Columbus, and Copernicus as he travels in Europe buying and copying manuscripts for his father’s printing company. He is in Wittenberg when his student, Martin Luther, begins the Protestant Reformation. I make my Faust the proto-scientist who learns from experimentation and whose work leads to the Faust legend of his being a magician, in league with the devil, and a sinister character, chased from one place to another whenever his past catches up with him or when he introduces the findings of his science to his medical practice. I am still revising this book and hope it will be finished before I am.