There’s always something that’s not quite right in one’s life that keeps one in a state of discontent. The artist, completing a new work, one that he’s excitedly convinced will surely reveal his genius to the world, instantly loses the euphoria of achievement the moment he gives the final touch to the work and despairs that he has once again failed to create a masterpiece. The scientist, hitting upon the equation that establishes a new law governing the universe, is frustrated that there’s something else out there that his theory cannot explain. All our scholarly investigation which promised the revelation of some ultimate meaning fails us in the end. A harrowing sense of failure pitches humanity into a Faustian despair — if all that learning explains nothing and if art and science with their aura of pushing the boundaries of knowledge are merely an engaging irrelevance that gives us the illusion of achievement and advance but leaves us staring at a void, then mankind must either accept the grander illusion of religious redemption and an unbelievably wondrous afterlife or abandon itself to Dionysian sensuality on earth.
Though originating in Germany, the principal elements of the Faust legend, like that of many a myth or legend, are universal. In most versions of the story, Faust is first seen as an elderly man at the peak of his intellectual accomplishment. He is in his study or laboratory surrounded by books or scientific gadgets. His mind is saturated with learning, and whether the subject is physics or metaphysics he knows all there is to know. And yet he despairs that there is an emptiness at the end of that knowledge, a darkness surrounding reality like a black fringe when all that learning and experimentation should have revealed the brilliant light of an all-explaining truth. The devil’s spirit incarnated as Mephistopheles appears before Faust and offers him a magical power which will give him a mastery over life that his rational learning has failed to do; all he will need to give the devil’s master Lucifer in return is his soul.
That wish to relieve oneself of material discontent and spiritual despair with a magical flick of the fingers and to create an absolute happiness for oneself is, of course, the universal dream of having the power to control the future so that each of our wishes is granted, and the temptation to make a bargain with Lucifer is almost irresistible. Politicians exploit this common discontent with the present by promising ‘change’, a much-abused word at election time, evocative of a future that’s all bucolic charm under a blue unpolluted sky, but once we make the Faustian bargain by voting for them, we’re back in the purgatory of discontent.
A look at the German legend of Faust and an array of artistic and literary works it has influenced throughout history
Many works of fiction — among them three notable 20th-century novels: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, Changing the Past by Thomas Berger, and Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann, and before them, Honoré de Balzac’s masterpiece, The Wild Ass’s Skin — use a variation of the Faust legend, which has also inspired several operas and musical scores — Doktor Faust by Ferruccio Busoni, Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito, Faust by Charles Gounod, The Damnation of Faust by Hector Berlioz. Much of the artistic inspiration behind some of these works is drawn from two great works of literature, the plays Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe and Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Of the operas, Boito’s Mefistofele follows Goethe’s narrative line more closely than do the others and watching it performed (the DVD with Samuel Ramey in the title role is excellent) would be a fine approach to acquainting oneself with the story. While following the basic plot, Boito has the theatrical intuition to present an absorbing human story, and so concentrates on Faust’s seduction of the chaste and virtuous Marguerite (Gretchen in Goethe) and through her demonstrates the triumph of faith.
In the end, for all the unanswerable logic with which Mephistopheles maintains his blasphemous attack on the Gospels, at one point desecrating the Bible, Mephistopheles is destroyed by Faust holding up the Bible to his face and letting the cross on its cover perform its miracle of extinguishing the devil. No doubt, for Boito’s 19th-century Catholic audience awed by superstitions promulgated by the priestly tyranny sanctioned by Papal authority, that religious stroke was the inevitable and fitting conclusion to Mephistopheles’s heresy. If you can’t defend your faith with reason, no problem, just hold up the cross and victory is yours. There’s no such easy victory for Goethe’s Faust who is conducted away to his eternal damnation by Mephistopheles.
Of the two modern English translations of Goethe by the poets Randall Jarrell and Louis MacNeice, Jarrell’s is freer and an easy read for those who just want the story; MacNeice’s is a closer version in a tighter verse form and is the superior translation. However, as an English reader, I’ve never been able to see in Goethe’s famous works —Faust, The Sorrows of Young Werther, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship — the element that makes them stand out as great works of literature. Apparently, there is something in the German originals — so English writers who read German assure me — that doesn’t come through in English. And so, while one should read the Jarrell translation for the basic story or the MacNeice version for a misty glimpse of the real Goethe, the truly memorable experience of the Faust legend for English readers is provided by Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.
The principal elements of the Faust legend, like that of many a myth or legend, are universal. In most versions of the story, Faust is first seen as an elderly man at the peak of his intellectual accomplishment. He is in his study or laboratory surrounded by books or scientific gadgets. His mind is saturated with learning, and whether the subject is physics or metaphysics he knows all there is to know.
Marlowe’s play also exemplifies an important aspect of literature: the content of a familiar story is organised to give the appearance of fulfilling each element of the plot that the reader anticipates the story contains, but the language in which the writer does so is supercharged with ambiguity that invisibly conveys a contrary meaning or at least one at variance with the reader’s first impression of it. For the audience, Doctor Faustus is a morality play; whether Marlowe intended to subvert Christian belief in those early years of the Reformation can never be known, but there is enough in his language to suggest a serious criticism of the current religious belief. In another play, The Jew of Malta, Marlowe has Machiavelli speak the Prologue in which he states that he thinks religion “but a childish toy” and that “there is no sin but ignorance”, and sidesteps any charge that he, Marlowe, is attacking the Church by suggesting that the words are not his but Machiavelli’s.
Christopher Marlowe was born in the same year as Shakespeare in 1564, but little is known of his life except that he performed some secret service for the government, had a brilliant career as poet and playwright, and was murdered in a tavern when he was 29. Biographers note that 12 days before he was killed he was summoned to appear before the Privy Council on a charge of atheism and they quote his contemporaries to suggest that he had a reputation as a blasphemous freethinker. These were serious charges in 16th-century England — and, indeed, continued to be so into the 19th-century when even an institution like Oxford University was beholden to the Church and summarily rusticated the 19-year-old Shelley for publishing ‘The Necessity of Atheism’ (1811) when its proper function as a university ought to have been to welcome challenging new ideas and not remain a cowardly apologist for the moneyed establishment. Of course, one can only speculate as to what drew Marlowe to the Faustus story but what makes his version such a memorable experience is the shimmering ambiguity of his language which sends out sparks of convincing rational thought while seeming to hold up the blinding torch of faith: the general text shows him to be presenting the triumph of Christian belief but a close reading reveals him to be subtly insinuating into his text philosophical doubt considered heretical in a society kept backward by powerful interests while its intellectuals were progressing towards the Enlightenment.
Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus begins with a soliloquy in which, even as he makes a reference to the works of Aristotle as a gesture of intellectual allegiance, Faustus reminds himself to “be a divine in show”, that is, to let his outward appearance resemble a pious theologian. In that guise, he can assert that the study of logic has nothing more to teach him and he bids farewell to the philosopher’s obsession with being and non-being — unlike Hamlet for whom that “is the question” — and turns to the art of healing. As a doctor, he is already eminent in Europe and has cured a “thousand desp’rate maladies”, but in spite of that success and eminence, he is disappointed to be “still but Faustus, and a man”, that simple condition of a human that he sees as a dead end. Now in his old age, what he seeks is the secret to immortality. Religion based on a system of rewards and punishment is a “mercenary drudge”, he concludes, and dismisses divinity as a facile profession. He turns instead to the “metaphysics of magicians” and studies books on necromancy from which he expects to draw knowledge that will make him omnipotent, giving him the power of “a mighty god”. One is reminded of Shakespeare’s Prospero in The Tempest who acquired that godly power by mastering books on magic, and just as Prospero has the spirit Ariel at his command, Faustus wishes for spirits to serve his fancy, such as to “fly to India for gold” or into “the ocean for orient pearl”. He has had enough of learning: philosophy “is odious and obscure” and “law and physic are for petty wits”.
Having received instruction in necromancy from the master magicians Valdes and Cornelius, Faustus is ready to consort with spirits and to test his newly acquired power summons Mephistopheles by uttering a bloodcurdling conjuration in Latin, which as a theatrical effect explodes in the audience’s awestruck imagination. Seeing Mephistopheles, Faustus orders him to go and disguise himself as a Franciscan friar, adding ambiguously, “That holy shape becomes a devil best”, another quick stab at priesthood. In the dialogue that follows, Mephistopheles identifies himself as one of the fallen spirits damned with their commander Lucifer to live in hell, and when asked how come he is out of hell at the present, Mephistopheles answers, “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it”, a line that must have made Marlowe’s Christian audience gasp. In a succeeding scene, when Faustus has sealed his pact with the devil with his own blood, surrendering his soul in exchange for 24 years of voluptuous living, he asks Mephistopheles where is hell and is told “where we are is hell, /And where hell is must we ever be”. It is as if Marlowe mocked the Christian complacency of his audience in plague-ridden London.
Having made his pact with the devil, Faustus is ready to command Mephistopheles and first asks for a beautiful wife. After teasing him by magically summoning a devil incarnated as “a hot whore”, Mephistopheles assures Faustus he can choose from “the fairest courtesans” to be brought to his bed every morning, and then presents him with a book containing magical symbols and incantations that will give Faustus the possession of encyclopedic knowledge and the power to control the world, raising tempests if he chooses or armies of men for him to command. Lucifer himself appears before Faustus and shows him the spectacle of the Seven Deadly Sins, among them Envy whose remark, “I cannot read, and therefore wish all books were burnt”, sounds like another of Marlowe’s satirical stabs at the ignorant congregation that comprised the humanity of his time.
With Mephistopheles to transport him through time and space, Faustus goes to Rome where, becoming invisible, he observes the Pope at a banquet and, unseen, delights in mocking him and then boxing his ears. In most of the middle of the play — Acts 3 and 4 — Marlowe presents amusing or visually spectacular scenes that make the drama a highly absorbing theatrical experience. He does not need, as do Goethe and the operas with their Gretchen or Marguerite, a heroine to create a sexual interest on the stage; he reserves the appearance of female beauty as an instant’s projection of magic on the stage: she is summoned as a spirit, that indescribably attractive elusive form that electrifies the male nervous system and awes the audience.
In the poetry of love, the physical female is the earthly shape of the ultimately ungraspable and unobtainable essence of beauty that shimmers in the male imagination. She is a goddess figure whom he worships with gifts of flowers and precious jewels, and the ecstasy of the male’s union with her is a form of his death. There are examples in Sufi poetry and in ancient and modern English poetry of the physical self seeking extinction within the embrace of sublime beauty, as in these lines by Wallace Stevens in his poem, Sunday Morning:
Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams
And our desires.
When it is nearly time for Faustus to surrender his soul to Lucifer, he asks Mephistopheles to grant him one more wish, bring to him the “heavenly Helen” that embracing her he could suppress the thoughts tormenting his mind. Instantly, Helen of Troy, reputed to have been the most beautiful woman in the world, is before him, and he says to her, “Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss”. Kissing her, he cries aloud, “Her lips suck forth my soul. See where it flies!” Then, kissing her once more, he says, “Here will I dwell, for heaven be in these lips”, and after a dozen more glorious lines in which he sees her “Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars”, concludes by declaring, “And none but thou shalt be my paramour”. It is one of the most perfect moments in the theatre. There is a beautiful tableau on the stage beholding which the viewer is receiving literal and symbolic meanings while hearing a language of matchless imaginative force.
The play has essentially ended; the secular Marlowe has made his point. Having extended his years, acquired more knowledge, realised his dreams of pleasure, Faustus has come to face his end, and Marlowe contrives that to be a moment of supreme beauty when the physical dissolves into the spiritual. But the Marlowe who must outwardly conform to the religious ideology of his time, which demands that a blasphemous sinner receive eternal damnation, is obliged to add a scene in which the clock is striking and Faustus faces the terrors of hell. To prevent this scene from being anti-climactic, Marlowe creates in Faustus’s final soliloquy one of the finest speeches in Elizabethan drama, to which he adds thunder and lightning as sound and visual effects to highlight the declamation of his terrifying vision as Lucifer and Mephistopheles come to take him away. It is the triumph of art over content. Presenting the expected conclusion for his Christian audience, he does so in a language that does not entirely compromise his own rationality, as in Faustus’s final invocation —
O soul, be changed into little waterdrops,
And fall into the ocean, ne’er to be found!
— from where neither heaven nor hell could claim it. Though Lucifer and Mephistopheles then enter to take him away, Marlowe keeps them silent, showing the audience what it must believe is Faustus being conducted to hell while in his final line he shouts, “I’ll burn my books.” It is his last gesture, an ironical offer to become one of the ignorant when, dwelling already in the heaven of Helen’s lips, he knows that being spiritually locked in an embrace with beauty that is timeless and ethereal, he has achieved the grace of infinite content.
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 10th, 2016