THE tragic play Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe presents a relevant analogy to the ideas presented in the articles ‘Cost of neoliberalism’ (July 30) and ‘Fish, Farm, Forest’ (Sept 3) which discussed the consequences of mismanaged modernity.
As the story goes, desiring development and growth, Faust strikes a bargain with the Mephistopheles, the devil, who will allow Faust to tap “sources of all creativity” and development, but to do so Faust must be ready to “let everything go.” Faust agrees.
Faust transforms into an eclectic developer. On one instance, he bemoans the state of the sea. He argues: “For all the vast energy expended by the sea, it merely surges endlessly back and forth and nothing is achieved!” Faust makes plans to exploit the sea for human purposes and develops harbours, canals and dams. New towns and cities also come into being.
Faust is proud of his achievements. He unleashes productive forces and transforms landscapes. However, his endeavours do not come to an end. Faust observes a piece of land along the coast that remains in its original condition.
The land is inhabited by an old couple. Faust is eager to build an observation tower there and offers them a cash settlement, but the couple refuses. The couple stands in the way of development and progress. Infuriated, Faust summons the devil and orders him to get them “out of the way”. Mephistopheles completes the task and Faust learns the couple’s fate: their house was burned and they were killed. Faust is left aghast and disturbed.
In his book, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Marshall Berman comments: “The very process of development, even as it transforms a wasteland into a thriving physical and social space, recreates the wasteland inside the developer himself.”
Perhaps Faust can serve as an admonition to policymakers and individuals alike, who are ready to strike an unconditional bargain with our own version of Mephistopheles. The bargain can run amok. Beware.
Published in Dawn, October 13th, 2021