Notes on Faust

I just came back from visiting my mother in Memory Care. A few days spending time with patients in various stages of health and dementia has gotten me thinking about Faust again – about the Faust legend in general terms and what kind of Faustian bargain we might have made and be making for the miracles of life extension.

Spengler called Faust the fundamental myth of Western Civilization and this myth has been tackled by great authors from Marlowe to Goethe to Mann to Bulgakov. In case you have forgotten, Faust is a scholar who sells his soul to the devil in return for knowledge, power, wealth. Faust supposedly traces back to an historical figure in early 16th century in Germany, and was kept alive because it struck a deep chord in those who heard it or read it – in farcical plays, in fireside tales, or in early chapbooks.

“Not enough Fausts are written. Everyone should write one,” said Ludwig von Arnim in the early 19th century. In fact, we all write one with our lives. For what are we willing to sell our souls? I, in fact, wrote a “Faust” novel a few years back (the prologue to A Kind of Joy or An Essay with Characters is here), and the exercise forced me to think about this question and how other authors have dealt with it. Marlowe’s Faust asked for magic, Mann’s wants to create great musical compositions, and Goethe’s wants never to be bored. The Faust I created was a woman, and she wants the opposite of what Goethe’s Faust wanted – my fictional Faye wants contentment, peace. For that she is willing to sell her soul. But that is a story, a thought experiment.

If the Faust legend is the central myth of Western culture, of the Enlightenment, then what has our culture bargained for? Like Goethe’s hero, we surely don’t want to be bored; one might wonder what we have sold our attention for. And we don’t want to die. In most of the Faust stories, the protagonist gets twenty-four years before the soul must be handed over. But twenty-first century people do not want to die at all, and has continually increased life spans until our bodies often last much longer than our minds. Science may solve this problem, but don’t count on it. And thus we keep building “Memory Care” facilities to house our bodies, and we keep uploading our pictures and memories to the cloud to ensure that they are not lost forever. I don’t have an answer. Science has done wonders in eradicating disease (think of polio vaccine!), disability (think of cataract surgery!), and the debilitations of old age (think of hip replacement!). It has also made many deadly diseases into simply chronic ones (think of insulin!). But it has not yet enabled our minds to function as long and well as our bodies do.

In the end, most fictional Fausts learn their lesson. Sometimes they lose their lives and souls (Marlowe) and sometimes they recant and the author rescues them at the last moment (Goethe). It doesn’t really matter. The important point is to consider what we sacrifice in life for what we receive. It is easier to think about the rewards and not the payment, but there is that unavoidable moment when payment comes due (Goethe notwithstanding). My mother has lived far longer than her parents or grandparents, but finds herself in a mental state that they never had to experience. Our planet has afforded most of us in the West lives of comfort and plenty, but now our seas are rising and our summers are stifling. Faustian bargains are traditionally with the Devil, but perhaps we could think of the Devil as representing our more impulsive nature, of the tendency to favor immediate gratification over the long-term good. In any case, it is an interesting problem to think about.

Faust might be an especially good legend to contemplate in our old age. In Goethe’s version, it is the old mythological couple, Baucis and Philemon, who stand up to the land-developing, greedy Faust. They refuse to sell out and move from the remote bungalow and thus anger Faust: “Their stubbornness, their opposition/ Ruins my finest acquisition.” Needless to say, they lose (and die), but they will forever stand on the moral ground. In the remoteness of old age – past the time of ambition and acquisition – maybe we can see the ramifications of the Faust myth more clearly  than our children. It is worth thinking about. What did you sell your soul for? What would you sell your soul for?

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