Monday, January 2, 2012

Faust, Fear, and - a Femme Fatale?

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

Faust Feels Bad

Here's where I left Marlowe's Doctor John Faustus, last week:
"...FAUSTUS. Sweet Mephistophilis, entreat thy lord

"To pardon my unjust presumption,
And with my blood again I will confirm
My former vow I made to Lucifer.

"MEPHIST. Do it, then, quickly,159 with unfeigned heart,
Lest greater danger do attend thy drift....
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
Faustus had gone through another of his emotional 'repentances,' which last maybe a few seconds. Unless the actors say their lines very, very, slowly. Each time, Faustus noticed what direction he was going and got frightened. So far, so good: I think it's reasonable to be frightened of eternal torment.

Repentance? Sounds More Like Fright

Where Faustus fouls up, consistently, is in follow-through. Each time he gets scared, he 'repents,' then changes his mind as soon as Mephistopheles and company scare him again - or dangle bait in front of the doctor.

Last week, I said that I'd post about OLD MAN being 'to blame' for Faustus feeling bad. In its own way, Christopher Marlowe's "The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus" is a very up-to-date play. Or maybe the feel-good philosophies of a few decades back weren't quite as up-to-date as some folks thought.

Moving along.

"Vile and Loathsome Filthiness" - a Loving Remark?!

I'm pretty sure that the "base and crooked age" that Faustus tells Mephistopheles to torment is OLD MAN, the fellow who gave Faustus that reality check. Maybe you remember him. He's the fellow whose lines started with "Ah, Doctor Faustus...." Oh, wait a minute. I only used a few choice phrases, like "such flagitious crimes of heinous sin." Here's a longer excerpt:
"...OLD MAN. Ah, Doctor Faustus, that I might prevail
To guide thy steps unto the way of life,
By which sweet path thou mayst attain the goal
That shall conduct thee to celestial rest!
Break heart, drop blood, and mingle it with tears,
Tears falling from repentant heaviness
Of thy most vile155 and loathsome filthiness,
The stench whereof corrupts the inward soul
With such flagitious crimes of heinous sin156
As no commiseration may expel,
But mercy, Faustus, of thy Saviour sweet,
Whose blood alone must wash away thy guilt....
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
I can see how someone might not feel good about being told that their recent actions are "vile and loathsome filthiness, the stench of which corrupts the inward soul." On the other hand, Faustus has been engaging in self-destructive behavior. Maybe OLD MAN is being a loving neighbor for Faustus.

Sometimes Love Hurts

Maybe it sounds strange, claiming that someone could be "loving" while obviously not accepting another person's choices. The notion that "love" means going along with another person's self-destructive behavior seems to be wearing thin. Finally.

Take the "friends don't let friends drive drunk" public service announcements. Maybe I missed it, but they failed to spark a storm of protest. I'd guess that quite a few Americans don't think it's "loving" to:
  • Let your friend drive drunk
  • Let your kids eat anything they want
  • Do nothing while someone you know commits suicide
Like I said last spring, " 'love' isn't 'approval.' "

Let's see how Faustus responds to OLD MAN's efforts to save his soul:
"...FAUSTUS. Torment, sweet friend, that base and crooked age,
That durst dissuade me from thy Lucifer,
With greatest torments that our hell affords.

"MEPHIST. His faith is great; I cannot touch his soul;
But what I may afflict his body with
I will attempt, which is but little worth....
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
Offhand, I don't think Marlowe's Faustus is particularly grateful. Or repentant. Temporarily scared at the flash of reality he ran into, yes. Repentant, no.

Helen, Hogwash, and Heavy Irony

In a way, I can see why Doctor John Faustus might have been peeved by OLD MAN. The elderly neighbor had intruded on a 'learned' discussion. A discussion among scholars, anyway:
"...FAUSTUS. Gentlemen,
For that I know your friendship is unfeign'd,
And Faustus' custom is not to deny
The just requests of those that wish him well,
You shall behold that peerless dame of Greece,
No otherways for pomp and majesty
Than when Sir Paris cross'd the seas with her,
And brought the spoils to rich Dardania.
Be silent, then, for danger is in words.
[Music sounds, and HELEN passeth over the stage.] 153

"SECOND SCHOLAR. Too simple is my wit to tell her praise,
Whom all the world admires for majesty.

"THIRD SCHOLAR. No marvel though the angry Greeks pursu'd
With ten years' war the rape of such a queen,
Whose heavenly beauty passeth all compare.

"FIRST SCHOLAR. Since we have seen the pride of Nature's works,
And only paragon of excellence,
Let us depart; and for this glorious deed
Happy and blest be Faustus evermore!...
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
Remember, this was Elizabethan England. The Renaissance was all the rage in Europe. Stories from Greece and Rome were as big as the Kinsey Report was a few decades back. And that's another subject.

Faustus and the scholars were discussing Helen of Troy: 'the face that launched a thousand ships' and all that. Men acting daft about a woman is nothing new: and I am not going to wander off-topic.

Still, a woman who had been dead for thousands of years walks by, and still looks good: and nobody wonders why?! Oh, well. I mentioned emotions and the frontal cortex last week.

Getting back on-track:
  • Faust and the boys were talking about women
  • OLD MAN comes in
  • Faust panics
  • OLD MAN leaves
  • Faust tells Mephistopheles to hurt OLD MAN
I suppose I should give Faust some credit, for holding on to at least one coherent idea for more than a few seconds. Still, I don't think this is what should be on the doctor's mind just now:
"...FAUSTUS. One thing, good servant,160 let me crave of thee,
To glut the longing of my heart's desire,-
That I might have unto my paramour
That heavenly Helen which I saw of late,
Whose sweet embracings may extinguish clean
Those161 thoughts that do dissuade me from my vow,
And keep mine oath I made to Lucifer.

"MEPHIST. Faustus, this,162 or what else thou shalt desire,
Shall be perform'd in twinkling of an eye.

Re-enter HELEN....
("The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus")
There's nothing wrong with sex, or human sexuality. What we do with it isn't always such a good idea: but God created sex, and God doesn't make junk. I've been over this before. More to the point, the Church has something to say about sex. And it isn't 'yuck!' (Genesis 1:22, 28; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1935, 2275, 2331-2391)

Whatever Marlowe had in mind, I don't think it's reasonable to call this Helen of Troy a "femme fatale," or "a woman who is considered to be dangerously seductive." (Princeton's WordNet) Not without a whole lot more explanation than I've got patience for just now.

Christopher Marlowe's Faustus has some downright odd ideas, though: and that will wait for another post.

Other posts in this series:Related posts:"...Faustus" excerpts in these posts taken from: Background:
  • Repentance
    • "Jesus calls to conversion..."
      (Catechism, 1427)
    • Two conversion:
      • Water of Baptism
      • Tears of repentance
      (Catechism, 1429)
    • Interior repentance
      (Catechism, 1430-1433 and following)
    • Repentance is possible before death, not after
      (Catechism, 393)
      • Also see Catechism, 2283
  • Sex
    • Sex is good (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2331-2336)
    • Lust is a disorder (Catechism, 2351)
    • Sex is special (Catechism, 2348-2350)
    • Rape is bad (Catechism, 2356)
    (Not a complete index: not even close)


Brigid said...

Lots of quotation marks, and there's still one missing: "Like I said last spring, ""love" isn't "approval.""

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...


Oops, fixed, and thanks!

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