The most interesting line of questioning from today’s lit survey class was one for which I had not prepared adequately. (I recognize that such is the finitude of humanity, but I still often wish to have such days back.) As we discussed the opening scenes of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, a couple students noted what I hoped they would note, namely that the materials with which Faustus conjures the minor demon Mephistophilis include the name of God in various forms, the New Testament, the Psalms, and other Christian texts. I explained to them (as I had prepared to do) the implications of a belief (common enough in a world of limited literacy) that texts for them were something like lumps of plutonium for us–potentially useful but ultimately very dangerous, especially in the hands of hubristic mad-scientist types like Faustus.
Then one bright student asked how the Bible, which is inherently good, could be used for the sake of damnable purposes like conjuring devils. That brought on an opportunity for me to do my normal riff on positive and privative (or Manichean and Augustinian, if you prefer) theories of evil and their implications for ethics. For those who have not done much historical theology/philosophy (and who don’t read this blog, as this is one of my favorite riffs), positive theories of evil hold that good and evil are matched and warring forces in the universe, and the fate of things hinges upon the good rather than evil winning the war. The best response to evil in this model is to journey forth and defeat it. Privative theories, on the other hand, hold that all being is, because God-given, good, and that evil names not a substance in its own right but some perversion of genuinely good being. Therefore evil cannot ultimately “win” because every evil is after some kind of good, only in a perverse manner. So good beings can resist those seeking bad means to the perverse good but must beware the possibility that one’s self becomes the evil that one sought to destroy.
At any rate, the possibility of conjuring with the name of God depends, I think, on an intuitive if not theorized theory of privative evil: the purpose of the Mosaic commandment against using the name in vain, I told them, was not to limit people’s vocabularies when they missed with hammers but to forbid cursing and conjuring by using the tetragrammaton, the four-letter name for God in Hebrew. I started off down the right path, but about midway through I started reversing terms, forgetting vocabulary, and doing the sorts of things that one does when one hasn’t prepared. Ah, well.
We also had a good discussion about some of the naievete of people who try to do criticism of Marlowe, attributing to Marlowe ideas from Mephistophilis’s speeches without considering the realities that a character in a play, not the playwright, speaks them, and further that said character is by definition a deceiving spirit whose aim at the moment is to get Faustus’s soul to Hell. So who could be more likely to tell Faustus that Hell is really no different than earth, that one carries one’s own Heaven or Hell inside one’s soul? Who more likely to tell Faustus, after he signs the contract, that he’s no longer able to repent?
And here’s the one that I’m still wrestling with: What if Mephistophilis was lying about the reason he came when Faustus called? Mephisto, in his first long speech, tells Faustus that the doctor’s magical spells really have no sway over a demonic spirit, that devils come running not from compulsion but for the opportunity to take a soul to Hell when they hear a mortal cursing the Godhead. So far as the devil tells Faustus, the spells have no power over his will. But a few scenes later (scene ten in the Revels edition, which uses the B-text), Mephistophilis, summoned by Dick and Robin (Ralph and Robin in the A-text, Beavis and Butthead in my estimation), complains to the audience that he’s been summoned by two idiots and laments the life of a devil. Now in their case, they seem too stupid for genuine blasphemy, and they do not as far as I can tell from their garbled Latin curse the Trinity. So Mephisto, in that scene at least, is very much under the sway of the magic, even when wielded by two buffoons.
Now I acknowledge that such a reading might be taking a comic relief scene too seriously, but given all of the obvious interlacing between the grave and grand Faustus scenes and the clown scenes, I have to wonder whether that bit of comic relief gives away the grandest joke of all in the play, one that a devil with no cards to play pulls on the gullible doctor of magic who falls for his bluff.
I’ll have to think some more on this, but that possibility does impress me as something plausible in the logic of the drama.