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Conference to connect disciplines with Faustian themes

Claire Reising | Thursday, April 17, 2008

Scholars will connect disciplines ranging from literature to physics at an academic conference Friday and Saturday, as one of “Faust at Notre Dame’s” concluding events.

German and Russian professor Robert Norton, who will speak at the conference, said that visiting and Notre Dame professors will show how Faustian themes relate to their academic fields and in some presentations, how these themes remain relevant in today’s society.

“One of the [best] things of the Faust [theme] is it’s not confined to a single culture or a single theme,” Norton said.

Mathematics professor Alex Hahn, who organized the conference, said a group of Notre Dame faculty members began searching in November 2006 for a variety of academics with a background in Faust. The conference will feature six presenters, including Norton, and guest speakers will come from the University of Cambridge, the University of Chicago, Columbia University, Northeastern University and the University of Pennsylvania.

“We were looking for powerful scholars who had published substantial treatises on these themes, [such as] literature, history, science, philosophy and film,” Hahn said.

According to Norton, his presentation will cover the influence that German intellectual Johann Gottfried Herder had on Johann Wolfgang Goethe, who would eventually go on to write Faust. Norton said that Goethe was a law student when he met Herder, but Herder helped convince him to choose poetry and writing as his vocation.

“He had a great influence on Goethe in terms of awakening Goethe to the importance of German speaking, cultures art and German history,” he said.

Moreover, Norton said he will discuss how Herder contributed to Germany’s distinct “Faustian” culture, which is “not compatible with some of the fundamental ideals of the European Enlightenment,” such as ideas of equality, democracy and governmental organization.

To connect Faust with today’s world, Norton said that two presentations will encompass modern themes: Cambridge Professor Nicholas Boyle’s “Wagering on Modernity: Goethe’s Eighteenth Century Faust” and University of Pennsylvania Professor Gino Sergre’s “Faust in Copenhagen.”

Boyle will discuss “the Faustian wager and relation to questions on modernity,” Norton said, and according to an abstract of the discussion, will explain how Goethe’s Faust is a “modern, post-Christian” figure.

Norton added that Sergre’s presentation will center on physicists in Copenhagen who performed a parody of Faust that addressed developments in physics and science’s moral bounds.

“The question is whether they should pursue what’s scientifically possible, as a scientist ought, or not [pursue it] for moral and ethical reasons because they realized the disturbing potential of nuclear fission,” he said.

Hahn said that one can connect the risks one takes when pursuing nuclear physics to Faust’s story.

“Nuclear physics is, in a way, a bargain with the devil,” he said.

The conference will take place throughout the day on Friday and Saturday in room 210 in McKenna Hall, and Friday’s agenda will also include a presentation on performing the opera Faust 1859 at Notre Dame by director Mark Beudert and Professor Scott Pratt of the University of Oregon.

The schedule can be found online, at http://www.nd.edu/~faust.