Faust and Wagner, Adolph von Menzel (1815–1905)
But why, one is driven to ask, why has the tale of terror so special an appeal to Americans? Surely its success must be derived in part from the failure of love in our fiction; the death of love left a vacuum at the affective heart of the American novel into which there rushed the love of death. The triumph of the genteel sentimental incapacitated even our most talented writers, left them incapable of dealing with the relations of men and women as subtly and convincingly as the prose writers in the great novelistic tradition of France. Our novelists, deprived of the subject that sustained Stendhal or Constant, Flaubert or Proust, that seemed indeed to them the subject of the novel, turned to fables of loneliness and terror.
Moreover, in the United States, certain special guilts awaited projection in the gothic form. A dream of innocence had sent Europeans across the ocean to build a new society immune to the compounded evil of the past from which no one else in Europe could ever feel himself free. But the slaughter of the Indians, who would not yield their lands to the carriers of utopia, and the abominations of the slave trade, in which the black man, rum, and money were inextricably entwined in a knot of guilt, provided new evidence that evil did not remain with the world that had been left behind—but stayed alive in the human heart, which had come the long way to America only to confront the horrifying image of itself. Finally, there was the myth of Faust and of the diabolic bargain, which, though not yet isolated from gothic themes of lesser importance (that isolation was to be the word of American writers!), came quite soon to seem identical with the American myth itself.
How could one tell where the American dream ended and the Faustian nightmare began; they held in common the hope of breaking through all limits and restraints, of reaching a place of total freedom where one could with impunity deny the Fall, live as if innocence rather than guilt were the birthright of all men. In Huck’s blithe assertion, “All right, I’ll go to Hell,” is betrayed a significant undermeaning of the Faustian amor fati, at least in its “boyish” American form: the secret belief that damnation is not all it is cracked up to be.
From Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel (1960).
Don Juan and Faust alike are former villains of the orthodox mind made heroes in an age of unorthodoxy, Promethean or Satanic figures; and both come to stand for the lonely individual (the writer himself!) challenging the mores of bourgeois society, making patent to all men the ill-kept secret that the codes by which they live are archaic survivals without point or power.
Often the two archetypes are blended in a single literary character, as in the lover-scientist Goethe calls by the name of Faust. But there is a real difference between the rebel whose life style is cued by passion and the one whose life style is compounded out of pride and terror—between the seducer and the black magician. Faust challenges the limitations set upon experience not in the name of pleasure but of knowledge; he seeks not to taste life without restraint but to control it fully; and his essential crime (or glory!) is, therefore, not seduction but the Satanic bargain: to sell one’s soul to the Devil. But what does it mean to sell one’s soul? The symbol is immensely complex, its significances multiple; they can be summed up, however, in the single phrase to choose to be damned, whatever damnation is. Not to fall into error out of a passionate loss of self-control, not even to choose to sin at a risk of damnation; but to commit oneself to it with absolute certainty for “as long as forever is.”
Damnation itself means various things to men of varying belief: a commitment to the vagaries of the unconscious; an abandonment of the comforts of social life—of marriage and the family, wealth and recognition; a rejection of all bonds of love and sympathy, of humanity itself; a deliberate plunge into insanity; and acceptance of eternal torment for the soul. When Huck Finn cries out, “all right, I’ll go to Hell,” and Ahab, “From hell’s heart I stab at thee!”; when Hester Prynne tears off her scarlet letter, they are Faustian heroes; but so, too (in all modesty and moral elegance), is Henry James’s Strether when he rejects Mrs. Newsome and Maria Gostrey alike, refuses all rewards from life; and so, too, is Hawthorne when confiding to a friend, after the composition of The Scarlet Letter, that he had written a “hell-fired book.” Anyone who, in full consciousness, surrenders the hope of heaven (what everyone says heaven is) for the endurance of hell (what everyone knows hell to be) has entered into a pact with Satan; and the very act, therefore, of writing a gothic novel rather than a sentimental one, of devoting a long fiction to terror rather than love, is itself a Faustian commitment.
From Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel.
…Faust was an actual person. Somewhere between 1510 and 1540 this “wandering conjurer and medical quack” made his travels about the southwest German Empire, telling people his knowledge of “secret things.” I always puzzled over why such a legend was so basic to the Western mind; but I’ve thought about it and now I think I know the answer. Can’t you imagine this man traveling about with his bad herbs, love philters, physicks and potions, charms, overcharging the peasants but dazzling them with his badly constructed Greek and sometimes labeling his “wonder cures” with gibberish titles like “Polyunsaturated 99½% pure.” Hocus-pocus. He makes a living and can always get a free night’s lodging at an inn with his ability to prescribe cures and tell fortunes, that is, predict the future. You see he travels about the Empire and is able to serve as a kind of national radio for people in the locales. Well 1 day while he is leeching people, cutting hair or raising the dead who only have diseases which give the manifestations of death, something really works. He knows that he’s a bokor adept at card tricks, but something really works. He tries it again and it works. He continues to repeat this performance and each time it works. The peasants begin to look upon him as a supernatural being and he encourages the tales about him, that he heals the sick and performs marvels. He becomes wealthy with his ability to do The Work. Royalty visits him. He is a counselor to the king. He lives in a castle. Peasants whisper, a Black man, a very bearded devil himself visits him. That strange coach they saw, the 1 with the eyes as decorations drawn to his castle by wild-looking black horses. They say that he has made a pact with the devil because he invites the Africans who work in various cities throughout the Empire to his castle. There were 1000s in Europe at the time: blackamoors who worked as butlers, coachmen, footmen, pint-sized page boys; and conjurors whom only the depraved consulted. The villagers hear “Arabian” music, drums coming from the place but as soon as the series of meetings begin it all comes to a halt. Rumors circulate that Faust is dead. The village whispers that the Black men have collected. That is the nagging notion of Western man. China had rocketry, Africa iron furnaces, but he didn’t know when to stop with his newly found Work. That’s the basic wound. He will create fancy systems 13 letters long to convince himself he doesn’t have this wound. What is the wound? Someone will even call it guilt. But guilt implies a conscience. Is Faust capable of charity? No it isn’t guilt but the knowledge in his heart that he is a bokor. A charlatan who has sent 1000000s to the churchyard with his charlatan panaceas. Western man doesn’t know the difference between a houngan and a bokor. He once knew this difference but the knowledge was lost when the Atonists crushed the opposition. When they converted a Roman emperor and began rampaging and book-burning. His sorcery, white magic, his bokorism will improve. Soon he will be able to annihilate 1000000s by pushing a button. I do not believe that a Yellow or Black hand will push this button but a robot-like descendant of Faust the quack will. The dreaded bokor, a humbug who doesn’t know when to stop.
From Ishmael Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo.