We have little recourse but to strike a “Faustian bargain” — we’ve to forge, in other words, “a pact with the devil.”
A deal whereby a person exchanges something of moral importance, e.g., their values (or their soul), for something more tangible like say knowledge, power and/or riches.
Who the hell’s this “we”? I hear absolutely nobody ask, but they continue: Is it a literal or a Royal ‘we’? No, I reply to the void that’s devoid of humankind of any kind, it is an allegorical we used only to illustrate and introduce the phrase that’s under the lighthouse’s glare today:
According to traditional European beliefs — like those held in the Middle Ages and the Elizabethan Era — such bargains were between a person and Satan and have been linked to the quaint pastime of hunting witches (see 📙 Hammer of Witches). Based on some age-old folklore stuff, such pacts came to form a cultural motif — one of a myriad really that carry over from Europe’s medieval past to today’s globalised world. Pacts may have been entered into under duress but also, we may suppose, voluntarily (out of let’s say boredom or a desire for the darker more debauched modes of worldly gratification). Where then to start? When seeking to understand this phrase, where should we begin? With love (amour) possibly [sic]:
Love is, after-all, the great destroyer (and the great healer) the Master of the game of thrones (and the supreme leveller). Love is, after-all, the root of all that\s bad (and the root of all that’s so damn good). It gnaws our nerves and forbids us our sleep. It is elemental, it is fundamental. But no. It would be better to begin with the Polar opposite (lexically speaking). We would be better off focusing on hate and hatred. I mean to say our penchant for loathing, licentious lust and diabolical debauchery of the dirtier kind are what epitomise our desire for the (so-called, loaded and pejorative) dark side. Our poetic nude *muse* both loves and hates [that autocorrect I’m gunna leave!] Oh life! It’s a love/hate relationship isn’t it so? In this dimly lit regard — on the side where lights flicker, fade and die — allow me to introduce the devil — for it’s him or her that comprises part of the synonymous phrase: “to make a deal/pact with the Devil.” The devil, you see, is said to be the (conceptual) entity that sent the snake to seduce Eve, the thing that shoulders the blame for ‘making’ us (or tantalisingly tempting us) to permit a hand or two to wander South every once in a while.
The devil (Lucifer, Mephistopheles, Satan, Shaitan) is a key protagonist in the three religions of the book and the one that seduces humans into committing sinful doings (oh how convenient a scapegoat). The story implies that the devil may have been a fallen angel (good turned bad) and/or some form of ghostly Jinn, who was once all sweet and cherub-like, but then rebelled and’s turned aquiline n chiselled… (why this entity is allowed to exist — within the mythical fairy tale — and wreak his/her havoc upon us is a question for another post; why’d the creator not simply expunge him/her?). As a kind soul wrote in their contribution to the Wikipedia canon, “in the Synoptic Gospels, The Devil tempts Jesus in the desert and is identified as the cause of illness and temptation” (emphasis is my own). In the Elizabethan Era Satan’s significance greatly increased as beliefs such as demonic possession and witchcraft came to the fore (became the fashion, were en vogue). In the Quran, Shaitan (شياطين/Iblis), is an entity made of fire who was cast out of Heaven because he refused to bow before Adam… As the same or another kind soul altruistically contributed, the devil, “incites humans to sin by infecting their minds with evil suggestions” (وسواس/waswās).
(Forgive me, I digress)
Lucifer is a Latin name for the planet Venus (that itself stems from the Ancient Greek name Ἑωσφόρος, ‘dawn-bringer’ or ‘light-bringer’). In Greco-Roman civilization, it was often personified and considered a god — a similar name used by the Roman poet Catullus for the planet in its evening aspect is “Noctifer” (‘night-bringer’). Ovid, in Metamorphoses, writes:
“Aurora, watchful in the reddening dawn, threw wide her crimson doors and rose-filled halls; the Stellae took flight, in marshaled order set by Lucifer who left his station last.”
However, interpretations of “Lucifer” from Latin and English versions of the Bible led to the tradition of applying the name, and the associated stories of a fall from heaven, to Satan (see e.g., Isaiah 14:12) — that this is now known to be a misinterpretation matters not.
A plate from an early print of Dante’s, 📙 The Divine Comedy (c. 1491).
“Lucifer arousing rebel angels”
An illustration by William Blake in an 18th c. volume of John Milton’s 1667 Paradise Lost.
Delta of Venus (Analogous with Crimson Doors?)
Written in the 1940s, published posthumously in 1977.
The devil you see, and how we deal with temptation and how we reconcile with moral responsibility in relation to our actions are integral to the curious case of Faust (the case ain’t so curious but references and claims to it are, for me at least, somewhat confusing). (Dr.) Faust(us) and the figure of Mephistopheles (the devil or his/her envoy — the German word is derived from the Greek: he who shuns the light) are said to best be able to articulate this bargain — indeed, it’s in the phrase’s name! The thing is, and this for me is the initially confusing part, there’s Marlowe’s, Goethe’s and Mann’s Faust. In fact, there’s a Faust for every era and — should you decide to believe it so — there’s a Faust in each and every one of us.
Faust entered the German canon in 1587 — The Historia von D. Johann Fausten that was, one can but logically assume, based on the life and times of an actual alchemist Johann Georg Faust (c.1480–1541). Faust is documented as being a traveling astrologer and alchemist who attracted tales of demonic association, “as if by inter-molecular force.” In the Historia, Dr Faust conjures up Mephistopheles in the woods and makes him an offer: his soul in exchange for 24 years of absolute power and knowledge. ((Why 24?)) With the devil at a poodle dog side-kick Faust wines and dines with the greats of his times and previous millennia, pompous popes to the sumptuous Helen of Troy. After his 8,760 days of total power etc. The devil takes his dues (gets his/her side of the bargain) in the hours after dawn on day 8,761, Faust’s innards are discovered splattered around his bedroom, the remainder of him is scattered around his garden. ((But come on, how many of us would turn down such a pact outright? two dozen years of everything in exchange for a grizzly end? I’d bet that in 24 years you’ll have sated every desire and whim imaginable; seen it all, experienced it all and knowing all there is to know would mean that on the eve of your death you’d be able to tranqualise yourself with the requisite levels of dopamine, endorphins and serotonin to take the edge off of things and ease the impending goddamned pain.))
Less than a decade on from the publication of The Historia von D. Johann Fausten in Germany came the English version as a play written by Christopher Marlowe: The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus (which premiered in 1594 to one hell of a lot of puritanical condemnation — you know, the sort of condemnation one gives after experiencing all of the titillation first!). According to Simon (2016), the Puritan pamphleteer and ideologue William Prynne (1600–1669), in his massive 1633 anti-theatrical tome Histriomastix, recounted diabolical legends surrounding this most infernal of plays. One story has it that at the Rosie Lee Theatre in London — amongst the pubs, brothels, and bear-baiting pits — that today sits under a car park and a budget hotel, the devil himself was spotted in the audience.
In Marlowe’s play, the protagonist — Dr. Faustus — is torn between faith and doubt, insignificance and omnipotence, sin and salvation, and particularly between freedom and fate. ((Yes we might take the 24 year unadulterated headonism bargain but, known again, in the dead of night, we surely will feel guilt and remorse etc.)). As Simon (2016) parallels, “Dr. Faustus is a creature, and in part a creator, of our world. (What could be a more Faustian bargain than ours, in which we gain immense technological power under the perennial threat of complete ecological collapse?”
If Dr. Faustus is one of the first modern men, then so was Marlowe. He certainly lived by the sword, kept fast company — meeting with Sir Walter Raleigh and the astrologer John Dee in graveyards to discuss forbidden things — and died young. He is aid to have shared a bed with Thomas Kyd, and allegedly said, “they that love not tobacco and boys are fools.” More shockingly — for the Elizabethan Era — he was also meant to have mentioned to a memoirist that, “Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest.”
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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Faust (worked on for some 50 plus years: 1772–1830) is a tragic play in two parts by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It is considered by many to be the greatest work of German literature. As I recently read this neat comparison: in the 16th c., Faust bartered mortality for knowledge; in the 19th c., he made a gentleman’s wager to achieve Romantic transcendence.
As Giovetti (2019) paints it, Goethe became the grandmaster of the Frastian bargain legend after his work and the plays of it became known. However, by now the tale was more nuanced than it was in Marlowe’s day. Goethe’s Faust bemoans in Part I, “Two souls are locked in conflict in my heart/They fight to separate and pull apart.” This chronic dissatisfaction, rather than the specifics of his contract, becomes Faust’s downfall — as well as the downfall of Marguerite, a love interest he seduces once he regains his youth, but is incapable of fully loving. His bargain with Mephistopheles becomes a bet: He’ll serve the Dark Lord if and when he finds pure, unadulterated happiness within the totality of the human experience. Until then, he’ll take a particularly Romantic reward: “a frenzied round of agonising joy, loving hate, of stimulating discontent,” and “the whole experience of humankind, to seek its heights, its depths.” Goethe’s Faust is one of the first to become relatable rather than revilable. In the wonderfully put words of Giovetti:
In Goethe’s Faust, we can see our own desires and dissatisfaction, as opposed to a cautionary tale that reminds us to suppress those same desires.
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Winner of the 1929 Nobel Prize in Literature, Thomas Mann was born in Germany in 1875. After his political writings were burned in 1933, he emigrated from Nazi Germany to Switzerland… from there it was to ‘Merika but as a result of numerous essays, lectures, and tours, that denounced tyranny in all its forms — including McCarthyism – led him to emigrate once more to Switzerland. Thomas Mann took the mantle and Faust with his 1947 work, Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, as Told by a Friend.
The legend of Faust is born of the Western ambivalence toward individual responsibility.
What can we say? We can say this: each telling of Faust is a telling of the times — think of the dystopian novel, it tends to tell us of contemporary fears ported to future dates — As Mann’s Devil says, “how I look… happeth… according to the circumstances…” In Mann’s, work, the protagonist laments that nothing remains in heaven or earth of which he has not already mused about and so decides to (metaphorically) sell his soul to Mephistopheles in exchange for knowledge and power. In reference to the populism of the Trump era, Crain (2019) suggests that another phrase for “Make America Great Again” might be “Reaction as Progress” — this is how Mann, borrowing from Nietzsche, described the ethos of Germany’s Third Reich.
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Crain, T. (2019). “Making Faust Great Again.” Epiphany
Giovetti, O. (2019). “‘Faust’ Was the Original Viral Content.” Electric Lit.
Simon, E. (2016). “One Devil Too Many.” The Paris Review