Rajeshwar Upadhyaya

Editor-in-Chief

The Faustian Dilemma: To Have or To Be

Rajeshwar Upadhyaya

Dr Faustus

By the time one realises the difference between tirelessly wanting power, and then living with power alone for the rest of your life, the damage has already been done.
Marlowe, a famous Elizabethan playwright, perhaps would have surpassed Shakespeare but did not live long enough. He is credited with reintroducing the concept of ‘high tragedy’ to the European thought, for the first time since the ancient Greeks.
Doctor Faustus is his most famous and enduring play dealing with a learned man, who sold his soul to the devil in return for power and knowledge. The good doctor already has ample knowledge; he feels exhausted with the gigantic amounts he already knows in many schools of wisdom. He also feels that they are arid, and not of any real value, rejecting in turn, logic, law, medicine and theology for being incomplete and unsatisfying. In his hubris of being the most learned man of his time, one who has literally reached the limits of each field, Faustus decides to learn magic and wrest the ultimate answers from the universe.
His magical incantations and presumptions cause a devil – Mephistopheles, to come to him. This devil offers the doctor 24 years of complete power and learning after which he will be consigned to the hell for eternity. Faustus seems to think that in reaching the limits of learning, he is damned anyway, and does not flinch. This attitude raises a lot of troubling questions, not least of which, is the question of destiny. Is one’s fate merely something that one chooses with willful stubbornness? Is the quest for power and ever increasing knowledge worth any price? No matter what the ultimate consequence is? Is it a delusion that acquiring knowledge and power will also ensure happiness? Is Faustus really in search of knowledge or is he looking for the acclaim, which comes from having a reputation of being wise? To what extent do humans disguise their desire for worldly power as a quest for knowledge and wisdom?
Faustus seems to have an insatiable appetite for more. Even the most famous lines from the play echo his disappointment at reality, which never matches his expectations. Conjuring up Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman ever to comfort him, he muses, “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, And burnt the topless towers of Ilium.”
The unquenchable thirst to gain more knowledge and power has long been suspected by prosaic people to be a form of mental illness and the quest to have the ultimate power translates into living in your self-created hell. Says Mephistopheles, “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it. Think’st thou that I, who saw the face of God, And tasted the eternal joys of heaven, Am not tormented with ten thousand hells. In being deprived of everlasting bliss?
To sin, therefore, is to create an enduring experience of suffering, to be out of joint with happiness. So great was the impact of the character of Faustus on the psyche of Europe that Goethe’s “Faust” narrated his story, again.
Much of Faustus’ despair comes from the fact that he has no one but himself to blame. He curses his parents for giving birth to him, but quickly realizes where the real fault lies. “Cursed be the parents that engendered me! No, Faustus, curse thyself, curse Lucifer / That hath deprived thee of the joys of heaven.” Faustus, at least, knows that he shares the responsibility for his own damnation, even if he partly implies that the devil made him do it.

The Faustian Dilemma

It is ultimately a work of moral seriousness, insisting that human beings should understand their limits, the consequences of their reckless actions in the pursuit of proud dreams. But most of all it is about individuals comprehending themselves. It pleads for responsibility and moderation even in virtues. Faustus was so used to, and so well-pleased with the appellation of a ‘genius’, that it became impossible for him to live without such praise. He was willing to descend to any level to keep that high reputation intact, speaking brilliantly and acting vilely at every chance – not a human, but only a mask now. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, warns an old saying, and Faustus races along that path.
The chorus emphasises on the lost potential represented by Faustus’ failure. He is the cut “branch that might have grown full straight.” In reaching beyond human limits, Faustus transgresses the natural order of the world and asks the same old question, “What does it profit a man to win the world if he lose his own soul?”
Faust, as a contemporary metaphor, is a haunting one. What it really means is that we have bitten more than what we can chew.  We have desired more than we need, and consumed in excess of what is required. A cursory glance around our surroundings and it is clear that everyone is working harder and longer only so that they can keep up with the mounting cycle of incredible expenses. To have more is to be less. An inauthentic life visits all those, who stretch themselves into the realm of fulfilling their social needs and not cater for the higher aspects of their own psycho-spiritual lives. The   ‘human being’ has gradually become ‘human wanting’ and ‘human doing’. From more action and consumption comes the need for coping with psychological consequences. And the Occam principle is worth a mention here – ‘it is foolish to do with more where less will suffice’. Faustus’s greatest tragedy is that he had the potential for greatness, for heroism. He had the potential that could leave behind a lasting legacy. But, he chose the path of least resistance, indulgence, and that of frightening levels of pride. He held everybody in contempt and ridiculed them. Bartering one’s soul is equivalent to the corporate executive’s golden cage. He has a lovely house, a wonderful car, a busy day, a fatigued night and lives out his days as though all is ‘fine’ and ‘ok and’ ‘great’. However, he quietly desires more time with family; more time to read, but settling yet again to the demands of the bell curve.
Faustus had many flaws but the most abiding one was that he neglected his inner-most self. He failed to seek out his authenticity and live out his life on his terms. Always toyed by that insidious devil of excess, Mephistopheles. Here then is a reminder from TS Eliot:
“Where is the life you have lost in living/
where is the wisdom you have lost in knowledge/
where is the knowledge you have lost in information”

 

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