I have been fascinated (but not surprised) to see a Faustian novel on the best-seller list for the past six months. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a Faust tale with a twist, and quite enjoyable reading. There are actually two deals with the devil in this book. Addie, the main character, has made a pact with Mephistopheles (here nicknamed Luc) which includes both a kind of immortality and eternal youth. The problem is that she has asked for time and freedom. No obligations. Luc fixes this for her by making sure that no one remembers her from one encounter to the next. It makes robbery easy, but relationships hard. Henry, the love interest, has made his own deal with the devil based on his desire “to be loved.” So, everyone he meets loves Henry, but it is clear that they do not love him with discrimination or of their own volition. They love him because a spell has been cast. There is an especially funny scene in which Henry has a reunion with his dysfunctional family of origin where he has always been a black sheep, but now is the clear favorite of all. Nevertheless, both deals are very unsatisfactory after theinitial euphoria. Be careful what you ask for. Or as Truman Capote reminded us, when the gods want to punish us, they answer our prayers.
Since the original German chapbook about Dr. Faustus in the 16th century (based on even earlier legends), there have been numerous versions of the Faust story. Goethe and Marlowe wrote theirs in the form of plays. Thomas Mann wrote a good one (Dr. Faustus) and his son wrote one too (Mephisto – but if you’re going to read one, read the father’s and pity the son). Washington Irving and Stephen Vincent Benet wrote famous versions. It was done time and again in music too. Bohemian Rhapsody is thought to be based on a Faust story, as is music written by Liszt, Schumann, and Wagner. There was at least one successful Broadway musical on the topic (Damn Yankees), and even an episode of The Simpsons (“Bart Sells His Soul”).
The Faust story fascinates us. Maybe this is because we have all sold our souls for one thing or another – individually and collectively. Spengler posited that Faust was the core myth of our culture: “Western man sold his soul for technology.” Take your nose out of your cell phone and think about this. While not all technology is bad, most technology has some bad consequences, and all technology can be used for evil purposes. Progress does not necessarily lead to paradise.
But I am especially interested when poor souls make a pact for eternal youth and longevity. This, for example, is the basis for Gounod’s opera, Faust, where the title character seems to want youth more than anything. I thought of this recently as I read an article entitled “Is Life Extension Today A Faustian Bargain?” The author (S. Jay Olshansky) is concerned that while the “longevity revolution” increased life-span by 30 years over the last century or so, we are now trading small increments in life-span for large increases in chronic illnesses:
But Mephistopheles isn’t done with us. Like the street magician that lets you win the first game, and then sucks you into a bigger con with larger stakes, or a drug dealer that gets you hooked with free samples, the next much costlier offer is before us now. We’ve had our taste of longevity, and now we want more – much more at any cost, and Mephistopheles knows this.
We know this. We also know that the chances of dementia after a certain age balloon upward, and as we watch our diets and take our statins, we have to worry about whether we are just preserving our bodies for a longer stay in the memory care facility. As with most technology, we tend not to think of the negative ramifications. In the article referenced above, Dr. Olshansky suggests that we might concentrate our research more on having a better old age than having a simply longer one. I think we also have to think about what a “better” old age means – does it simply mean retaining our youth or is it something different? What would a “better” old age mean to you? Mary Oliver asks, “When men sell their souls, where do the souls go?” Old age might be a good time to get them back.
Faust fascinates me. Life is like Borges’ “Garden of the Forking Paths;” every time we choose one experience over another, we are bartering away our future – for good or bad. Faust’s experience with Mephistopheles is one metaphor for this. A more benign one might be Robert Frost’s “two roads diverg[ing] in a wood.”
I have written on this topic before (“Notes on Faust”) and written a novel (unpublished) with a Faust theme, the Prologue of which can be accessed here. I have also posted a portion of Chapter 5 of that book (A Kind of Joy) wherein Pauline (an agent of the Mephistopheles figure) works out her deal with Faye, a young mother and novelist.
Meanwhile I encourage you to think about the bargains you have made, and what a good old age should look like.