Monday, September 19, 2011

Christopher Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus:" Full of 'Up-To-Date' Ideas

New post about Marlowe's
"The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus" each Monday

I mentioned Christopher Marlowe's play, "Doctor Faustus," yesterday. Mostly because it shows that new ideas have upset folks for centuries. At least.


My guess is that when someone worked out how to keep a fire going, calmer heads warned that if this sort of thing wasn't stopped, pretty soon everybody would die of burns or smoke inhalation.

Come to think of it, the Great Fire of London (1666)1 killed quite a few folks. And disease claimed more lives, when survivors couldn't find shelter.

And I'm getting off-topic. Or maybe not so much.

Don't worry: this post is more about getting a grip than literature. Or Elizabethan England. Or who started using fire.

Doctor Faustus: Brilliant, and Makes a Really Lousy Bargain

On the off chance chance that you haven't read "Doctor Faustus" recently, here's a little background.

Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus" is a sort of medieval morality play, except it's not. The hero is Dr. Faustus - a sort of anti-hero.

Also, about the last person you'd want to have on your side in a contract negotiation:
"...The play both partakes of traditional forms--it is in some ways a medieval morality play, with its good and bad angels--and breaks with them--Faustus, for instance is the hero of this tragedy, which contains a classic chorus, but unlike the classic tragic character (though similar to Marlowe's own Tamburlaine)
" '... he is born of parents base of stock'
"...The proud Doctor Faustus himself appears as a liminal figure, straddling the ground between residual and emergent modes of behavior and thought, presenting to Marlowe's audience an aspect at times inspiring, but at others frightening, or worse, despicable. Faustus sells his soul for knowledge and power, but gets very little of either....."
("Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus," Dartmouth College, Hanover NH (April 14, 1997))

"Liminal?!" English, Please!

"Liminal" means a period between two clearly different periods of a person's life. Or a community's. We got it from a Latin word for threshold: limin. I put a much longer definition at the end of this post.2 I thought it was fun reading - but your experience may vary. Actually, based on previous experience, your experience probably will vary. A lot. And I'm getting off-topic.

Christopher Marlowe, Elizabethan England, and Familiar Hangups

I've gathered that Christopher Marlowe had some very up-to-date ideas back in the Elizabethan era. About four centuries later, the same ideas are still very up-to-date. Just ask anybody who holds them. I'll get back to that.

I think Christopher Marlowe's works deserve to be remembered. Maybe not for the same reasons as the literary set, though. Let's remember that there's more to Marlowe than this:
"...A member of the School of Night, along with Sir Walter Raleigh and the mathematician John Dee, Marlowe was also suspected of homosexuality and atheism, and was actually picked up and questioned about the latter just days before his death in a barroom brawl--which itself has led to speculation about assassination--in 1593...."
("Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus," Dartmouth College, Hanover NH (April 14, 1997))
  • A possible homosexual?
    • Along with every other famous figure from the past
      • Or has that fad faded?
  • Maybe an atheist?
  • Maybe a victim of
    • Homophobia?
    • Organized religion?
Wow. Now wonder Marlowe's works are on reading lists. More topics.

The Catholic Church, Rules, and Me

With my opinion on why Marlowe is highly thought of by the establishment, you're expecting a rant about the Godless monsters in America's colleges.

That's not gonna happen.3

Doctor Faustus: Man Astride the Threshold, or Mad Scientist?

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, remember, is supposed to be a man "straddling the ground between residual and emergent modes of behavior and thought." (Faustus) I think that's about right. I also think that Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus," first performed in 1595, was arguably an improvement on the German chap-book it's based on.

The various stories of Faust/Faustus - at least the versions Marlowe was working with - had a serious message.

Remember, this is the late 16th century. The Renaissance was going full steam. The Reformation was re-writing the political and religious landscape of Europe. Even ancient assumptions about the nature of the universe were being challenged:
"...the magician's awful fate is held up as a solemn warning to all who might be tempted to resort to black art. The fundamental idea of the story is the wickedness of striving for forbidden knowledge by sinful means. The anonymous author, ... emphatically disapproves of the spirit of free inquiry that characterizes the period following the great discoveries and the Reformation. ... On the basis of an English translation of the German chap-book Christopher Marlowe wrote his well known drama of Faustus (first performed in 1595)...."
(Faust, in "Literary or Profane Legends," Catholic Encyclopedia, via (1910)) [emphasis mine]
Let's have a look at part of that excerpt again:
"...The fundamental idea of the story is the wickedness of striving for forbidden knowledge ... The anonymous author, ... emphatically disapproves of the spirit of free inquiry that characterizes the period following the great discoveries and the Reformation.... "
(Faust, in "Literary or Profane Legends," Catholic Encyclopedia, via (1910)) [emphasis mine]

"Forbidden Knowledge," "Great Discoveries," and "Doctor Faustus:" What's Wrong With This Picture?

Well, naturally Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus" would show how wicked it was to follow "the spirit of free inquiry:" and certainly wouldn't approve of "the great discoveries and the Reformation."

After all, people with religious beliefs are really anti-science, right?

If you're wondering 'what's wrong with this picture?' - you've been paying attention. Dartmouth's class presents Christopher Marlowe as a suspected atheist, among other things: and certainly not a Bible-thumping fundamentalist.

Right now, I think Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus" looks more like a B-movie mad scientist, than a noble pursuer of truth. But I also doubt that it's that simple.

I'll be back to Faust, faith, and getting a grip: but not today. It's late, and I need my sleep.

More posts in this series:Somewhat-related posts:
"Faustus" excerpts in these posts taken from:Background:
1 Western civilization didn't have a realistic view of technology a half-century ago: gadgets won't solve all our problems. The more recent intellectual fashion, assuming that technology was pretty much awful and would kill us all, isn't exactly an improvement.

I've opined about this before:
2 In case you're just simply aching to impress your friends with a hypertrophied vocabulary, or are merely curious about where it came from, here's probably more than you'll ever need to know about "liminal:"
"Liminal: Derived from the Latin word for threshold (limin) liminal space refers to the period in which a person or community is between two distinct phases of life. eg. a honeymoon is a liminal period between a person’s ending their life as a single person and rejoining it in their new role as a married couple. A liminal period is typically marked by a person being introduced to and coming to terms with their new responsibilities and social roles. It is also often identified as a period of freedom in which the normal rules of society no longer apply whilst in this transitional phase. Unlike liminoid space the liminal typically reaffirms the social order through its marking and coming to terms with new phases of life and social activity. Liminal space is always marked by the pre-liminal and post-liminal phases which mark the break and reintegration of the old and new social structures. See also pre-liminal and post-liminal."
("Anthropological Glossary," © University of Ballarat, Australia, used w/o permission)
3 For one thing, I've read and heard enough screeds about how awful the other guy is - and don't feel like inflicting another on the marketplace of ideas.

For another, I'm a practicing Catholic: which means that I'm fettered something fierce by all sorts of rules. Most of which elaborate on these basic instructions:
"Make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19) is another standing order, but I think that's a logical extension of the 'love my neighbor' rule.

The Catholic Church even tells me who my neighbors are:
I don't think ranting about how God should punish my neighbors for not being like me would be "loving" them. So I'm not going to do that. Enlightened self-interest, if nothing else, dictates a more reasoned approach.

By the way: besides being fettered, I'm chained, checked, confined, encumbered, hampered, ham-stringed, handcuffed, hung up, hindered, hobbled, hog-tied, leashed, manacled, repressed, restrained, shackled, and trammeled by the abusive, crushing, disheartening, dispiriting, distressing, harassing, harrying, oppressive, persecuting, smothering, subjugating, suppressing, tormenting, tyrannizing, and icky Catholic Church.

And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Because those 'repressive' rules of the Church - MAKE SENSE. Saying 'they're for my own good' sounds corny, but it's true. I'm not allowed to kill myself - not because the Church doesn't want me to have fun, but because suicide isn't good for a person. Think about it: alive, we've got options; dead, not so much.

Other restrictions on my conduct - like saying that I should keep myself healthy (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2288-2291) - may 'keep me from having fun,' but I think their purpose is to:
  • Keep me from harming myself
  • Help me become a better person
    • Physically
    • Mentally
    • Spiritually

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Marian Apparition: Champion, Wisconsin

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.