Can You Refuse the Bargain of a Lifetime? Dr Faust and the Ultimate Hire-Purchase Deal

By Benton, Howard | New Statesman (1996), September 13, 1996 | Go to article overview

Can You Refuse the Bargain of a Lifetime? Dr Faust and the Ultimate Hire-Purchase Deal


Benton, Howard, New Statesman (1996)


"A Faustian pact" is a contemporary cliche: ravers make one with E and journalists one with Rupert Murdoch. Tony Blair, Tory Central Office would have us believe, has signed up with Mephistopheles himself -- though one suspects that new Labour's Faustian pact is with a demon called Respectability.

The legend of the ultimate hire-purchase agreement -- all that you desire in life, paid for by eternal torment after death -- is as old as Christianity. It begins with the Devil offering Christ a deal in Matthew's Gospel: "The devil taketh him up to an exceeding high mountain, and showeth him all the kingdoms of the world; and saith unto him, 'All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.'"

The first Christian heretic, the shadowy Simon Magus, a contemporary of St Peter, took the name "Faustus", which means "fortunate omen". There's a story that he declared his prostitute lover to be Helen of Troy brought back to life.

That episode, having the Devil procure the most beautiful woman ever, stuck to the sensationalised life of the real Dr Faust, who was born in Knittlingen and died in 1542. Faust was probably a travelling doctor-cum-showman, mouthing magical gobbledegook yet developing treatments from empirical experience. We only know of him because Martin Luther denounced him in his Table-talk for being "the Devil's brother-in-law". Luther's successor, Melanchthon, took up the theme in a series of violent sermons describing Faust as a "shithouse full of demons". It was the time of the witch-burning craze in Germany; the Devil was thought to be everywhere, and Faust's damnation was great material with which to frighten congregations.

It was also a terrific story. It quickly slipped its religious and moral moorings for the murky waters of puppet plays, pamphlets and prints sold at fairs, the equivalent of today's Evil Dead videos.

The German Faust book of 1587 collected and roughly shaped the stories; Marlowe fastened upon the English edition and wrote his play, and the legend was on its way to the cultural high ground of Goethe's Faust, the operas of Gounod and Busoni, the last movement of Mahler's Eighth Symphony and Thomas Mann's terrifying version, Doktor Faustus, which ends in the ruins of Berlin in 1945.

Faust is both a folk hero -- who has the devil deliver him the best wine, who drinks the elixir of youth and sleeps with Helen of Troy -- and the moral anti-hero who obsessed Goethe. This is the myth's power: it flourishes in both low and high culture. From an old heresy and the morass of 16th century German religious controversy, we have inherited a story on the very fault line of western culture.

The heresy of Simon Magus was gnosticism: the belief that the struggle between good and evil, between light and dark is eternal. …

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