"A Living Oracle"

In conversation with Dietmar Dath

On 4th May 2016, Dietmar Dath will present his video lecture "FaustScienceFiction" in Weimar as part of the MWW’s "Text and Frame" research project. In this interview, Dath, who is a writer and cultural editor for the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung", explains how the required reading of Goethe’s Faust at school inspired him to explore Satanism, why the Faust myth is still very much alive in popular culture and how every few minutes its continued relevance is clear to see.


Poster for Dietmar Dath's video lecture on 4th May in Weimar © KSW

Interview questions by Carsten Rohde 

Mr Dath, can you still remember when and where you first encountered the character of Faust?

It was through my maternal grandfather; he could recite cascades of text from memory, particularly from Faust, Part II. As his quotes were always perfectly fitting to the situation, I did not experience the classical text as a phrasal monument frozen into a pillar of language, but rather as a living oracle. And I read all of it as soon as I was able to.

Presumably, you were ahead of many of your peers. Most of them would have first encountered Faust at school and dealt with the text in a very different way. Interestingly, a few years ago, an exhibition displayed Reclam school literature volumes graffitied by school students (Chocolate Milk and Love – Grafittied Reclam Volumes’, The Mindless Museum, Cologne 1999). The collection included a copy Goethe’s Faust with a pun scrawled on the cover by a school kid: “Ich lach mir ins Fäustchen” (which means ‘I laugh up my sleeve' and plays on the diminutive form of Faust*).

That’s just how children and young people are; we were all like that. It’s not limited to schoolbooks. At 14, we referred to Iron Maiden, the heavy metal band, as Ironisches Mädchen (ironic girl) and things like that. These are the things you laugh about when you don’t yet have to smoke grass to get the giggles for almost no reason. On the other hand, back in the eighties, with our age-appropriate interest in bad guys and mischief, studying Faust at school of course immediately lead us to explore Satanism. In their late adolescence, some friends who were in a band even put the Latin incantations from Marlowe’s Faust to music. However, it is bad news when someone in their late thirties is still using awful Faust-related puns such as 'das passt ja wie der Faust aufs Gretchen' (which means 'two things fit together perfectly' and is a pun on a similar expression meaning the exact opposite*).

Which other Fausts have you dealt with, aside from Goethe’s?

All those I could get hold of. It is an absolutely inexhaustible source which opens up an inconceivable number of themes and can bring many different forms to life. From David Quinn and Tim Vigil’s extremely brutal Faust comic to Michael Swanwick’s superb Jack Faust: of all the reworkings of the material, this one perceives the figure of Faust most consistently in exploring Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology can no longer be distinguished from magic. Or Hans Wollschläger’s Herzgewächse: the most in depth analysis of Faust as a bleak allegory of how susceptible the intellectual is to the temptation of power.

There are not only Faust comics but also Faust films, and even a Faust rock opera. Has Faust been incorporated into pop culture in the meantime?

Well, in the meantime… Murnau’s film of Faust is already ninety years old. Pop culture, in an emphatic sense, more or less emerged in the 19th century, for example, in serialised novels. It is mass culture as a legacy of folk culture. In the second half of the 20th century, a series of niche cultures also emerged: these would not have come about without pop culture. They refer to themselves as underground or independent and so on. Faust is very much alive in all these places, as are other figures and motifs from older popular culture. This is the primordial soup in which the culture industry incubated pop. In some ways, Murnau’s film was just a return to the pre-literary, even the legendary Faust. Its narrative forms want to cast off the conceptual literary form and return to the immediate, in the form of moving images. Pop culture does not incorporate things: such distinguished acts of state are left to academia. Pop culture devours or mates, and Faust and his devil are very well suited to this.

Faust: is he a super hero like Batman? Or a dark wizard like Saruman seeking the ring?

Such reflections are of little interest; they are created by the paranoia of official or fan-based cultural research. They simply lead to a dull nothingness of endless juxtapositions and comparisons of the incomparable. Isn’t Batman actually like Dracula as Superman multiplied by Sam Spade divided by Sherlock Holmes to the power of Zorro… and so on. It’s boring.

Where do you see the greatest relevance of the Faust myth today?

Everywhere. The story of Faust is about us, about a pact with the devil. For more details, see the news, every few minutes. 

* Translator's notes  

Dietmar Dath is an cultural editor for the daily newspaper ‘Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’. He has p
ublished books and essays on academic, aesthetic and political themes as well as several novels, most recently ‘Leider bin ich tot’. At present Dietmar Dath is hosted by the MWW’s ‘Text and Frame’ research project as guest researcher in Weimar. On Wednesday 4th May, he will present the video lecture ‘FaustScienceFiction’. His lecture traces back the recent responses to the myth of Faust in academia and popular culture. 

Associate professor Dr. Carsten Rohde, a research associate on the MWW's 'Text and Frame' research project, researches the medialisation of Faust. Rohde will moderate the panel discussion between Dietmar Dath, Norbert Otto Eke (Paderborn) and Stefan Matuschek (Jena) following the video lecture.

Event details:


Video lecture by Dietmar Dath followed by panel discussion

4th May 2016, 6 PM
Goethe and Schiller Archive, Petersen Library
Jenaer Straße 1
99425 Weimar

The event is open to the public. Admission is free.

For further information about Dietmar Dath’s video lecture, see the MWW events calendar