Ghosts that haunt and daunt us -- a question about Goethe's Faust
April 26, 2021 8:55 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for insight into a particular passage in Goethe's Faust. Specifically, I'd like to understand the context of a line about the nature of signed documents and a reference to "wax and leather" in the scene where the notorious bargain is made. Hope me, scholars of MetaFilter!

The scene is in Faust's study -- Part I Sc. IV. The specific lines I'm looking at are around 1730:

But parchments signed and sealed
Are ghosts that haunt and daunt us; the word dies
Upon the very pen we wield,
And wax and leather tyrannise
Our lives.

Another translation:

Still a document, written and signed,
That’s a ghost makes all men fear it.
The word is already dying in the pen,
And wax and leather hold the power then.

Any insight into this passage, particularly the use of wax and leather, would be much appreciated. I think I understand the gist (Faust is half-heartedly trying to convince Mephistopheles that he doesn't need to sign anything, that his word is his bond, etc.; if I'm wrong about this, speak up please!), but I'm not clear on the historical use of wax and leather in the context of writing instruments.

Are these throwbacks to writing instruments of Goethe's antiquity? I'm sure wax would have been used to seal envelopes in Goethe's time/place, but what about leather?
posted by nosila to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Quick addendum: if there's an annotated Faust, a paper, etc. that provides insight into this particular question, I'd be happy to read and/or buy it. I don't have access to JSTOR, etc. at the moment.
posted by nosila at 8:56 AM on April 26

I assume the wax in question is sealing wax. I’d have to look up and see if seals were ever made from leather.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:59 AM on April 26

Wouldn’t leather be sheepskin parchment, on which contracts and deeds were historically recorded?
posted by Atrahasis at 9:03 AM on April 26 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yes, I would understand leather there to refer to parchment—they’re basically just two different ways of processing animal skin. You can see in this contemporaneous example how the indenture is written on parchment and each party applies their distinctive wax seal to the bottom and signs.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 9:20 AM on April 26

Best answer: Yup, I'm thinking leather is a somewhat poetic reference to the parchment. It gives a feather/leather (in German, Feder/Leder) rhyming couplet.

Also supporting this, in some quick searches online I see more references in German to "Leder" being used to refer to treated animal skins more broadly than we'd do it in English (including pigskin and rawhide, for example), including finding the (perhaps non-standard) "Pergamentleder" (which would literally be "parchment leather".)

So seems pretty clear, pending correction by a German speaker.
posted by mark k at 9:21 AM on April 26 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Atrahasis, that's a good point that brings up another question (gah, Google is so bad at this): was Goethe's Faust set in the Middle Ages, which I understand to be the origination date of the Dr. Faustus legend? While they apparently didn't really use sheepskin/skin parchment in Goethe's 19th century, it sounds like they did in Medieval Europe.
posted by nosila at 9:22 AM on April 26

Response by poster: I think Horace Rumpole's link proves out what everyone is pointing to, but I welcome any other context, commentary, or ideas!
posted by nosila at 9:24 AM on April 26

Best answer: Not just to seal envelopes, but more or less as the equivalent of notarizing.
posted by praemunire at 9:24 AM on April 26

was Goethe's Faust set in the Middle Ages, which I understand to be the origination date of the Dr. Faustus legend?

Yes. Although fantasy-medieval-Europe.
posted by praemunire at 9:27 AM on April 26

Best answer: There's a reference in an 1847 book (in German) which says it does indeed refer to parchment.

The first line you quoted uses "Pergament" (parchment) in German. Leder (leather) is also used in the German to rhyme with Feder (pen / quill / feather) in the line before.
posted by scorbet at 9:30 AM on April 26

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! Sounds like the answer was smacking me in the face ("parchments signed and sealed"), but I was confused by the idea that parchment = paper in 19th c. Europe. Once again, too little knowledge is worse than none at all, and AskMe is the quick fix!
posted by nosila at 9:44 AM on April 26

Now that I’m not on my phone, here’s a link to that book from 1847 “Studien zu Goethe’s Faust” at Google Books. (It’s not just in German, but printed in the Fraktur font!)

Looking at the original German, neither of the translations is a literal one, by the way, instead they’ve tried to get the sense of it, and maintain the rhyme. I’d associate the German word used for “sealed” (beprägt) with an embossed seal, for example.

confused by the idea that parchment = paper in 19th c. Europe. Once again, too little knowledge is worse than none at all, and AskMe is the quick fix!

You might be surprised! The UK was printing acts of parliament on vellum(calf skin) up until 2017, whereas I think Ireland is still doing it, with the vellum copy being the one that the President signs into law.
posted by scorbet at 12:18 PM on April 26

Looking at the original German, neither of the translations is a literal one, by the way, instead they’ve tried to get the sense of it, and maintain the rhyme.

Which is harder than you might think! I was hired once to write an English libretto for a French opera, and I found myself making compromises I cringed at myself.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:34 PM on April 26

German speaker here.

I believe the argument Faust is trying to make is the spirit of the law vs. letter of the law thing. An honourable man will observe the spirit of the agreement and can do so more truly without being bound by a written contract. An agreement in "wax and leather" binds him only to observe the letter of the agreement which makes it ripe for ruleslawyering (while the spirit of it, the word, will die before reaching the page).

"Herrschaft" - the word translated as power or tyranny - was a common expression. It wasn't a bad thing, it just named the power of the employer over his servant, or the Emperor over his subjects.
In fact, mentioning the Herrschaft of the wax and leather subtly recalls the celestial argument in the prologue, where the Lord speaks of Faust as his "Knecht", the counterpart to "Herr". Faust is his servant in an intimate, religious sense. The Lord has "Herrschaft" over him. I don't think this necessarily says anything deep about the play, but who rules over whom - reason over emotion, higher classes over lower classes etc. - was a frequent mental image and no one would have wondered about Goethe using it as a metaphor the way he did.

I do object to the translation of "pen" - I would assume Goethe was talking about a quill. (The word "Feder" can mean either, as well as a simple "feather".)
posted by Omnomnom at 1:26 PM on April 26 [4 favorites]

Faust is recontextualising sophisticated parchment and seal to its basic components, leather and wax. To my ears, it's a disrespectful downgrade, barely better than saying "pig skin".

That's like scoffing that a painting was created using "horse hair" instead of a fine brush.

Faust is, like, totally dissing Mephisto's demands here and he's being a passive aggressive snob about it.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:45 PM on April 26 [3 favorites]

I was going to suggest you might look at a prose translation of Faust--like this one available online. Another interesting resource is this prose re-writing of Faust in German (google translate/English). This edition with English explanations for many of the lines and terms is also very helpful (see pp. 258-259).

I'm no expert in Faust, nor a native German speaker, and it's been a long, long time since I've studied it. But it really strikes me how all the translations you're looking at (including the prose translation I linked above which I had high hopes for) just kind of duck and weave around the actual meaning and point of nearly every line in the passage, without every quite hitting any of them on the nose.

And this really is an important passage in the work--perhaps the very heart of it? Really understanding it seems worth a bit of work.

So without further ado, here is my attempt at a prose version of this section. It's more of a gloss, really, than a translation, but I'm trying to get at the actual meaning of each passage and not worrying at all about verse, meter, or anything like a word-for-word translation (that kind of thing is always garbage, anyway).

Of course I might have misunderstood some basic things myself, and this is way, way more wordy than the original Goethe, so misses much of the punch of the original just for that reason. But it still might be helpful. You can see the original of this passage here - I've tried to make the lines below line up with the original as best I can.
One thing: For the sake of life--or death--
why don't you just jot down a couple of lines for me?

Stickler! Now you'd like something in writing!
Haven't you yet known a human, or a human's word?
Isn't it enough that I'll give my word
and live by it every day for eternity?

Our world is continually flowing forward, continually churning, continually changing;
Is there any kind of promise in that kind of a world that could truly bind me?
But the delusion of that kind of promise, of being able to keep our word no matter what on earth happens, is one that we all hold deeply--who can shake it off?
Happy are they who remain purely faithful to their word, in their own hearts, for all time--
they won't regret any sacrifice their faithfulness may require.

But a document, carefully written out on parchment, signed and embossed with a seal--
that, truly, is a demon that everyone fears.
The spirit of the words dies when you take the nib of a feather and write them out;
A piece of cowhide with some ink and a bit of sealing wax on it becomes your Lord and Master.

So what, demon, do you want from me?
Metal, marble, parchment, paper?
Should I write with a stylus, a chisel, a quill?
The choice is all yours.

How you love your speechifying!
So overheated and full of hyperbole!

Any old slip of paper is just fine.
But--you'll sign it with a drop of your blood.

If that's what you really want,
then I'll go along with your whim.

Blood is a very peculiar kind of ink.
posted by flug at 1:43 AM on April 27 [3 favorites]

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