Exploring Faust in the 21st Century

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Last time we looked at Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus and the destruction that ripped through Europe in the 1940s. Europe was rebuilt over the following decades and the American empire rose to dominate the world. But the destruction and nihilism that Mann described in his novel didn’t go away. The spiritual sickness is still with us. So who, or what, is Faust in the 21st century?

There are many modern stories and films that feature a Faustian bargain or deal with the devil, but none carry the power of the original Faust myth. Some examples include obvious ones like The Devil’s AdvocateAngel Heart, the comedy Bedazzled, and Ghost Rider who acts as a bounty hunter on behalf of Mephistopheles. And the less obvious ones like The BoxLimitless, and The Prestige, or films about compromised characters like Michael Clayton.

These stories don’t seem to touch us anymore. We watch a character sell their soul on screen and think it doesn’t apply to us – it’s just entertainment. Nobody believes in anything anymore and our souls are mostly consumed by consuming.

This decline in the culture was a central theme in Mann’s Faust, in which the devil mentions Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, published at the end of the first world war. Spengler divided history into different cultural epochs and was heavily influenced by Faust, saying he owed the philosophy of the book to Goethe.

Faust is a specifically Western myth and Joseph Campbell says it reflects European man with his “yearning, striving, creative spirit.” This spirit is also afflicted with a tendency for colonialist imperial ambitions and a will to power that has spread itself around the world. In Goethe’s Faust, he was still striving towards the divine. But by the 20th century, God was dead or effectively ignored as irrelevant, especially in secular Europe.

So it’s no surprise that Spengler named Western civilisation as Faustian. A Faustian culture is one that sacrifices spiritual values for worldly knowledge, power and material gain. The Faustian culture focuses on infinity and limitless knowledge, while the Apollonian classical culture focuses on the present, as Rollo May explains in The Cry for Myth:

“the Apollonian stands for cultures characterised by reason, harmony, balance and justice. The symbol for Apollonianism is the circle. The symbol for Faustianism, on the contrary, is the straight line, always moving ahead in progress…”

But our progress only applies to technical and material things. We don’t apply it to the spiritual and aesthetic realms – religion, philosophy, art and literature – which thrive in the Apollonian culture. The Faustian culture is also more extroverted and focused on competition and materialism. This has created a destructive form of progress as it undermines all the best values of the ‘West’. Rollo May asks:

“Will our ending be self-chosen destruction like Marlow’s Faust? Or will we experience some deus ex machina, like Goethe’s Faust, and be given the chance to repent before the fatal bell tolls at midnight?”

Or are we like Mann’s Faust, cynical and nihilistic and given over to unconscious despair which we act out by destroying everything good? We’ve gone from wanting to be God like Marlowe’s Faust, to wanting God-like power like Goethe’s Faust, to the denial of God and transcendence like Mann’s Faust. What’s next? To deny humanity and life itself?

In Religion and the Rebel, Colin Wilson says that Spengler:

“prophesises an age of complete scepticism, which will be the last stage of Western civilisation.” 

It appears we have arrived.

weak men abound

The root of the problem can be found within the ‘Western’ psyche, which has split itself in two and declared war against nature and itself – Hobbes’ “war of all against all.” We divided science and art, the head and the heart, with terrible consequences. It’s this division that Goethe explores in Faust, as Colin Wilson explains:

“At the beginning of the poem, Faust stands precisely where the modern world stands. He has followed the scientific method to its limit – studied philosophy, medicine, law, and now, he admits, he ‘stands no wiser than before.’ … His knowledge is vanity and futility. It makes him cleverer, but no wiser. His only way to escape is to summon up the devil, and ally himself with him, although he knows the devil is stupider than he is.”

This is an example of the ego doubling down and refusing to admit its limitations. Fast forward to the 21st century and the scientific method is regularly thrown out in exchange for enough money, prestige or power. This kind of stupidity leaves us wide open to exploitation, as Wilson continues:

“Here is modern man – for all his scientific knowledge, as stupid as his forefathers, and turning to all kinds of political charlatans for leadership – wanting only to be possessed, possessed by anything, by the latest politician or the latest crooner or film star – anything to escape his own futility and emptiness.”

You can see this in our hysterical reaction to almost everything over the last few years. The latest wheeze in science is the use of computer models of reality that are riddled with biases and unconscious assumptions. These models are proved wrong time and again, and yet we keep using them to justify our hysteria – as if we can force reality to conform to our models.

The arrogance is stunning. The assumption that every problem can be fixed with a rational solution, with enough data; that we can solve the problem of being human, conquer death and disease, and become gods! There are many modern Fausts who think like this, for example: Jeff Bezos hires top scientist to defeat death!

And then there’s the transhumanist maniacs, like Yuval Noah Harari, who believe that humanity should be erased because it’s just a story we tell about ourselves. He believes that any meaning we attach to our lives is a delusion and he bastardises Buddhism to prove it. In an interview, he said:

“Humans are now hackable animals. The whole idea that humans have this ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’, and nobody knows what’s happening inside them, and they have free will – that’s over.”

Harari is wedded to scientism and reductionist materialism and believes that the future of humanity is to become one with machines. We’ll ‘upgrade’ ourselves until we turn into gods and then humanity will be no more. However, his grasp on history and truth is tenuous – read this from Morten Tolboll.

the delusion is strong with this one!

This kind of ideological thinking is dangerous as well as stupid. When you believe that you’re rational and that history only goes in one direction you can justify unspeakable acts of evil in the name of the greater good. Whatever you do, it’s not evil because evil doesn’t exist – it’s just a story – therefore you can do what thou wilt.

The delusions of scientism arise from our belief in a machine universe devoid of meaning. And this belief is rooted in fear and/or hatred of life (and death, because death is part of life). It also creates an obsession with technology and the mechanical.

In The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Erich Fromm discusses the nature of malignant aggression, which includes “the passion to destroy life and the attraction to all that is dead, decaying, and purely mechanical.” This can be expressed as necrophilia, the love of death and machines, which:

“threatens to become the secret principle of a society in which the conquest of nature by the machine constitutes the very meaning of progress, and where the living person becomes an appendix to the machine.”

Necrophilia isn’t only a sexual perversion, but includes the worship of speed and the machine, the glorification of war, hatred of women, the destruction of culture, and seeing things like cars and planes as living forces. We could also add the preference for computer models of reality over reality itself.

This has become the philosophy of the ‘West’ – if we can call it philosophy, as there’s not much love of wisdom to be found. Goethe described it like this:

“The Godhead is effective in the living and not in the dead, in the becoming and the changing, not in the become and set-fast; and therefore, accordingly, reason (Vernunft) is concerned only to strive toward the divine through the becoming and the living, and the understanding (Verstand) only to make use of the become and set-fast.”

The ‘West’ no longer seems interested in the living and becoming, but only in what it can nail down and hold on to – the set-fast. The set-fast is the world of Mephistopheles: the fixed, empirical machine world of facts and logic. Colin Wilson in Religion and the Rebel again:

“All things are discovered by intuition, as the lives of the great mathematicians and scientists prove again and again. Logic plods after intuition, and verifies discoveries in its own pedestrian way. Logic is a mere servant of the imagination. To exalt it – as modern thinkers tend to – is to invite spiritual anarchy.”

Anarchy used here in the sense of chaos or disorder. He continues:

“Most Western philosophers have been spiritual cripples. The West has exalted the reasoning power above all other faculties, and the scientists and doctors can get away with anything. And yet we know that a man can have an extraordinary reasoning power, and yet still be a fool.”

Our rational mind has got as far as it can in its understanding of the world because it’s locked inside a box of its own making. The box is reinforced by postmodernism which locks us into a self-referential loop that denies objective truth, rooted in a denial of transcendence, like Mann’s Faust. Ironically, the denial of objective reality is deeply unscientific and irrational.

Everything that we don’t like or can’t explain using science has been stuffed into the subconscious from where it causes havoc from our shadow. The collective unconscious is now bursting with trauma and pain and fear and denial of death. We desperately need to break out of the box or we’ll go mad and destroy ourselves.

Our obsession with technology makes this situation worse. Perhaps technology has become our Mephistopheles, sitting on our shoulder, leading us up the garden path and off a cliff.

But there’s a twist. As with Mann’s Faust, it may be that the devil is a figment of our own imagination and a product of our shadow. Algorithms and machine learning act as feedback loops that reflect our own beliefs and behaviour back to us. Social media could be a useful tool for shadow work, if we grow up:

For Mann, the flaw in the culture was the trivialisation of art, i.e. the loss or devaluing of the soul. We all lose part of our soul when we’re born into a system that conditions us to hate ourselves and life. We’re all Faust now, and like Faust, we have access to almost unlimited knowledge and yet we’re bored out of our tiny minds – anaesthetised.

We blame the technology when things don’t go the way we imagined they should. But we were the ones who created the technology. We blamed God because we couldn’t understand him. So we killed him to hide from our failure.

In Beyond the Occult, Colin Wilson says we shouldn’t blame God for the problems of human existence. The real problem is in the limitations of our senses which prevent us from seeing reality as it is. Plato explained this problem in his cave allegory, and William Blake understood, saying:

“Man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through the narrow chinks of his cavern.”

Even Goethe’s Faust says:

“The spirit world is not closed: Your senses are: your heart is dead!”

Some feel trapped in this narrow prison – the gnostic view – but this prison is self-created. That means it can be uncreated. You can free yourself from the wheel of rebirth and suffering, but it takes effort. You can’t just make a deal with the devil for an easy life, like the miller in the Handless Maiden tale.

The trick to overcoming the negation of Mephistopheles and his lies is to see God in all things, like a mystic. Open your senses and your heart to life, and say YES!


Jessica DavidsonThis article is reprinted from Jessica Davidson’s website under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. No alterations have been made in the content except for the removal of some images. Ed.

Originally published here

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