Favorite Fictional Characters, #309: Faust
I can't imagine why the classic character of Faust keeps coming to mind these days. The quest for temporary power and knowledge and pleasure at the expense of moral integrity and eternal salvation is played out every day in each of us, in ways both small and large, but rarely is it on so high-profile a display as during national elections. And rarely during national elections as nakedly unvarnished as what we've been subjected to this cycle. More on that later.
Faust stems from a cacophony of folkloric origins and oral tradition, the concept of a deal with the devil one that precedes even the Christian conception of Satan. The most well-known versions of the tale are of course Marlowe's and Goethe's, but the narrative shares many of the same themes regardless of the author. Faust, brilliant and ambitious and thirsty for more wisdom and satisfaction from life, trades in his immortal soul for a defined term of earthly gratification. Some tales end it there, a simple transactional cautionary tale, a pious fable designed to encourage people to scorn the immediate for the lasting, to defer the wants of the present for some greater, perhaps even everlasting reward. Lay up treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not corrupt and thieves do not break through and steal, and all that. There's the religious connotation (pass up carnal desires for a ticket to heaven) and the less wholesome secular aspect (work hard, be productive, and maybe someday it will be worth it). Faust is often depicted as a tragic figure, a fool who makes a bad deal. But he is fundamentally a seeker, a discontented questioner who wants more out of life than the promise of something better in the next. In some versions he makes the deal, enjoys the ill-gotten fruits, and then gets carted off to the pit as the devil claims his due. In some, notably Goethe's, he is condemned but then redeemed, through his own good works and the intercession of God's grace. To be honest, I like to see the devil get shafted.
Back to the present day, as promised. I wouldn't suggest either of our presidential candidates have made deals with the devil. But they've certainly made choices. One has lingering questions about public integrity and honesty, the other about financial ethics and personal morality. Both are inordinately successful, in terms of money and power and fame. But what sacrifices did each make? How much of their reputation, perhaps even their souls, remains intact? It's frequently inquired why we get who we get as candidates for public office in this country. When you take a close look at the bargains that have to be made, at the prices to be paid, it's a wonder we get anyone at all.