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Professor Ritchie Robertson

At 11 o'clock in the morning of 15 June, a warm day, a handful of people took to marooned chairs in a rather dusty-smelling lecture room in Wellington Square to listen to Ritchie Robertson's valedictory lecture. Only a handful, because some lockdown restrictions were still in place, and by far the greater part of the audience was attending online, or 'invisibly', as Ritchie put it. The subject was 'Faust's Redemption', the occasion Ritchie's retirement from what had shortly, thanks to the generosity of the Dieter Schwarz Foundation, been renamed the Schwarz-Taylor Chair of German. As Ritchie noted when he began to speak from behind a perspex screen, he had for a while felt like 'the last of the Mohicans', faced with the prospect of being the final holder of the unendowed Taylor Chair. But in the event he became not only the last Taylor Professor but the first Schwarz-Taylor. So even before we'd got onto Faust's redemption, redemption was in the air, and the signs were good.

Not that there was a question mark to Ritchie's title. Question marks are perhaps not really Ritchie's thing. He spoke with his usual mixture of modesty and authority – with all the more authority for being modest – and knew exactly where he was going. He would, he said, be 'saying something about Goethe and the Enlightenment from a rather unexpected point of view', and his first step was to claim Faust as 'the great epic of the Enlightenment' (a 'cosmic epic' to be seen in relation to the Divine Comedy or Paradise Lost). This might not seem very controversial. By dates Goethe is squarely of the late Enlightenment, and his play Iphigenie auf Tauris is an Enlightenment fable. But for many, the figure of Faust represents not the Enlightenment but a darker aspect of modernity, as a kind of proto-capitalist or developer pursuing gain whatever the cost. Modernity, according to these readings and in Ritchie's summary, 'is the work of the Devil', and Faust is straightforwardly in league with him.

Against this widespread view, Ritchie sees Goethe as much more sympathetic to his creation, Faust; and he sees Faust as much closer to Goethe's express intention to show in him 'eine immer höhere und reinere Tätigkeit bis ans Ende' ('an ever higher and purer activity until the end'), when this upward refinement of his striving will be met by an equal measure of 'eternal love' from above. There are many reasons for being doubtful about Faust's progress, which leaves plenty of destruction in its wake. But the key episode comes near the end of Faust II, where Philemon and Baucis, an old couple borrowed from Ovid, are burned in their home (Mephisto's doing, but Faust had ordered them cleared from his path) because it stands in the way of a drainage project through which Faust hopes to found a 'pleasant land' and a free society. The play, Ritchie suggests, invites us to see this as 'deplorable', but it also lets us perceive a necessary and in the end tragic tension between great works and their human cost. He understands Faust as an enlightened despot, a bit like Napoleon and even more like Peter the Great whose capital St Petersburg was constructed on a tract of drained marshland. 'We may find this rather chilling', Ritchie remarked, 'but we don't have to like, or accept, what the play presents us with.' No more than we have to assent to medieval Christianity to read Dante, or to subscribe to seventeenth-century Protestantism to appreciate Milton.

And so we come to Faust's redemption. Does he deserve it, and what kind of redemption is it? The first question has already been answered, or neatly turned. Goethe in any case clearly wishes us to feel that Faust is justified by his striving. And, in one of Ritchie's characteristically neat turns of phrase, 'the striving which qualified Faust to enter [heaven] continues there'. He proposes that Goethe may have taken his conception of heaven from Origen, the early Christian theologian. Accordingly, it involves purification, so that Faust is not yet redeemed at the end of the play, but is heading that way in an extension of his striving nature, making of heaven a kind of Purgatory: 'the Enlightenment ideal of progress is transposed to another sphere which combines purgation with salvation'.

Heady stuff, but time appeared to be up. We went not up, but down and out the back door onto the carpark lawn behind Wellington Square where rather improbably sparkling wine was waiting on crimson tablecloths. It was now quite hot, but surprisingly quickly, by bicycle and on foot, listeners left their screens and flocked to congratulate Ritchie on going out in such style. In most cases, this was the first time we'd seen one another in months or more. Faust's redemption. Was that Faust's or Faust's? Perhaps Ritchie had not so much spoken of Faust's redemption as redeemed the play from the misreadings of others. So perhaps not so modest after all? We blinked in the strong sun and sought out the patches of shade.