Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Faustus, Mephistopheles, and a Simple Contract: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

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

It's been decades since I read Christopher Marlowe's "The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus." It's an important piece of English literature - in part because it's arguably where a particularly durable story format got started in English.

Cautionary tales of someone making a regrettable deal are ancient. "Faust" and his daft deal with Satan is where folks who use English got a grandiose template: one we've been tripping over ever since.

"My Dear Doctor, I'm Closing In on the Gods"

Recently, the Faustian morality tale got recycled as the B-movie Mad Scientist. The one who meddled with things that Man Was Not Meant to Know. Then there's the story about Science Run Amok, the Handsome Hero, and the Beautiful Assistant.1 Recently by my standards, that is. Movies I think of as new releases have been showing up on American Movie Classics for years. And that's another topic.

Christopher Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus," Nifty 'New' Ideas, and Me

I've started re-reading Marlowe's "The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus," and plan to share what I find. And what I think about this tale of forbidden knowledge and an anti-heroic scholar. I'll be adding to this link list as I go:

Icarus, Faust, and Cautionary Tales

I think telling stories that illustrate some point can be a good idea. Like those public service announcements that show why it's a good idea to 'just say no' to drugs or smoking.2

We've had that sort of thing for decades. Millennia. Like the story of Daedalus and Icarus. I don't think ancient Greeks told it in hopes that fathers of Athens would desist from outfitting their sons with personal aircraft - or to warn the youth of Athens to fly at reasonably low altitude.

In the days before hang gliders and personal jet packs, flight safety simply wasn't an issue. Hubris, "overbearing pride or presumption"3 or "arrogant, excessive self-pride or self-confidence, ... a lack of some important perception or insight due to pride in one's abilities"4 was. And still is.

At a very basic level, Marlowe's "The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus" is similar to the Daedalus and Icarus story. A message of both is 'trying to do the impossible is a bad idea.'

They're different stories, of course.

'Man Was Not Meant to Fly?'

The story of Icarus can be a sort of proof that people aren't meant to fly: 'look what happened to that crazy kid,' and never mind that Daedalus survived.

I don't think many folks in Western civilization still think that 'man was not meant to fly.' It wasn't all that common a notion when I was growing up - and generations of routine air travel seem to have flushed that notion out of my culture's system.

'Read the Contract?'

Faust's tale might be taken as a warning to anyone about to sign a contract. Sure, there are benefits. But what's it going to cost?

In a way, it's 'personal finance 101:' the sort of common sense that should have kept so many folks from making credit card debt relief (real and simulated) a thriving industry. At least I assume it's thriving, based on what they're paying for television ads. And that's yet another topic.

I think there's more to Marlowe's tale.

Faust, Forbidden Knowledge, and Assumptions

Marlowe's Chorus used the sort of language folks expected in a theatrical production, back in Elizabethan times. It sounds a bit odd these days, but I think it's still fairly easy to follow.

Here's how Marlowe's "...Fasutus" starts:

"...The fruitful plot of scholarism grac'd,
That shortly he was grac'd with doctor's name,
Excelling all whose sweet delight disputes
In heavenly matters of theology;
Till swoln with cunning, of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And, melting, heavens conspir'd his overthrow;
For, falling to a devilish exercise,
And glutted now with learning's golden gifts....
("The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus")

Sure enough, there's a reference to the Icarus story. And something else, too:
"...His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And, melting, heavens conspir'd his overthrow;
For, falling to a devilish exercise,
And glutted now with learning's golden gifts...
("The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus") [emphasis mine]
"Glutted" with "learning's golden gifts?" Let's see what Marlowe thinks happens when Faustus learns too much - and still wants more.
Harry Clarke illustration for von Goethe's Faust
Forbidden knowledge, ambitious researcher, helpful consultant:
What's Marlowe's5 message?

Here's more of the context of the previous excerpts:
"...So soon he profits in divinity,
The fruitful plot of scholarism grac'd,
That shortly he was grac'd with doctor's name,
Excelling all whose sweet delight disputes
In heavenly matters of theology;
Till swoln with cunning,5 of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And, melting, heavens conspir'd his overthrow;
For, falling to a devilish exercise,
And glutted now6 with learning's golden gifts,
He surfeits upon cursed necromancy;
Nothing so sweet as magic is to him,
Which he prefers before his chiefest bliss:
And this the man that in his study sits.
(CHORUS, opening of "The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus")
I recognize this scenario:
  • Brilliant scientist
  • Wants to know how things work
  • Flouts the laws of God and man
  • And gets punished
Depending on how an author handles it, you can get:
  • A tale of why researchers need ethical guidelines
  • A rant about how God doesn't want us to know too much
    • We knew everything we were supposed to in, say, 1500
    • And it's sinful to learn more
I'm presenting a caricature of the situation: I'd like to think that even the grimmest of 'serious' writers would have the sense to ease up on the 'relevance' or 'Bible truths.' I think ethical guidelines for research are important, by the way.6

"Divinity, Adieu" - Not Smart

This next excerpt shows Faustus complaining about the limitations of what we'd probably call the sciences. He decides to tackle theology. And doesn't like that, either.

The "Jerome's Bible" is probably a translation done by St. Jerome, around the year 400.7
"...Such is the subject of the institute,
And universal body of the law:16
This17 study fits a mercenary drudge,
Who aims at nothing but external trash;
Too servile18 and illiberal for me.
When all is done, divinity is best:
Jerome's Bible, Faustus; view it well.

Stipendium peccati mors est.
Stipendium, &c.

"The reward of sin is death: that's hard.

Si peccasse negamus, fallimur, et nulla est in nobis veritas;

"If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and
there's no truth in us. Why, then, belike we must sin, and so
consequently die:
Ay, we must die an everlasting death.
What doctrine call you this, Che sera, sera,19
What will be, shall be? Divinity, adieu!
These metaphysics of magicians,
And necromantic books are heavenly;
Lines, circles, scenes,20 letters, and characters;
Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires....
("The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus")

Good Angel, Bad Angel, and Getting a Grip

Here's where it gets interesting. Faustus seems to have decided that the (Catholic) Bible denies the possibility of salvation - that we're all damned, because Heaven's entrance requirements are impossibly high. I'll get back to that.

So he decides to get 'real' power by making a deal with Satan's outfit. And we get this good angel/bad angel recitation:
"...GOOD ANGEL. O, Faustus, lay that damned book aside,
And gaze not on it, lest it tempt thy soul,
And heap God's heavy wrath upon thy head!
Read, read the Scriptures:—that is blasphemy.

"EVIL ANGEL. Go forward, Faustus, in that famous art
Wherein all Nature's treasure23 is contain'd:
Be thou on earth as Jove24 is in the sky,
Lord and commander of these elements.25
[Exeunt Angels.]
("The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus")
I'm a practicing Catholic, so I know that making a deal with Satan is a really bad idea. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2116) Also that reading the Bible is a good idea. (Catechism, 131-133)8

Wanting Dominion Over Creation?!

Let's take another look at what the Evil Angel said:
"...Go forward, Faustus, in that famous art
Wherein all Nature's treasure23 is contain'd:
Be thou on earth as Jove24 is in the sky,
Lord and commander of these elements.25...
"Lord and commander of these elements?" We've already got that authority, and have from day one: Genesis 1:26-28.

Like it says in the footnote:
"Man is here presented as the climax of God's creative activity; he resembles God primarily because of the dominion God gives him over the rest of creation."
(Genesis 1, footnote 4, New American Bible)
I think we can't reasonably expect more 'command' over the elements than that. And considering what God said about our position, I don't see a point in cringing from learning how to use our authority.

Next: Doctor Faustus, His Research Assistant, and Lots of Latin

It's getting late, and this post is already long. Maybe too long.

Coming up is the scene where Doctor Faustus calls in a consultant. Or research assistant.

And the first thing Faustus does is - establish a dress code?!

What is it with folks being so picky about the sort of clothing others wear?

More posts in this series:Other related posts:"Faustus" excerpts in these posts taken from:
1 I'll say this for the American movie industry: they've presented important issues to the movie-going public. Like this selection, dealing with the dangers of scientific research:
2 "Just say no?!" Aren't teenagers incapable of controlling their impulses: and that's why we have to have condom dispensers in school? 'That's different,' of course:
3 Source for this definition of hubris: Princeton's WordNet

4 Source for this definition of hubris: Dr. L. Kip Wheeler, English Dept., Carson-Newman College, Jefferson City, Tennessee

5 That picture was made by Harry Clarke for a translation of Goethe's "Faust:" not quite the same story as Marlowe's. I thought it made a pretty good illustration for this post, anyway.

6 I've got a personal interest in medical ethics, and the lack thereof. My parents didn't know that I'd been used as a sort of lab rat until years later, and that's another topic:
7 St. Jerome was born around the year 340, and died in 420. Wrote quite a bit, and translated the Bible. Did a pretty good job, but that was over a dozen centuries back. We've learned a bit since then:
"...The better understanding of Hebrew and Greek, and the steady development of the science of textual criticism, the fruit of patient study since the time of St. Jerome, have allowed the translators and editors in their use of all available materials to approach more closely than ever before the sense of what the sacred authors actually wrote...."
("Preface to the New American Bible," on the Holy See's website (November 11, 2002)
  • "St. Jerome"
    Catholic Encyclopedia, via New Advent, (1910)
8 Folks can have some very odd ideas about the Bible and the Catholic Church:


Brigid said...

Stutter: "kept so many folks from making credit credit card debt relief"

Forgot to superscript a couple times: "Till swoln with cunning,5 of... And glutted now6 with"

Missing an article: "I'd like to think that even grimmest of 'serious' writers"

More footnotes that haven't been superscripted, and they don't fit in with your sequence, either: "law:16
This17 study fits a mercenary drudge,
... external trash;
Too servile18... Che sera, sera,19... Lines, circles, scenes,20 ... Nature's treasure23 is contain'd: ... earth as Jove24 is in the sky,
Lord and commander of these elements.25"

Odd place for quotes: "Profound (?) dialog"""

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...


Found, fixed: Thanks!

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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.