Why we’re all Fausts now

Image of Harry Eyres

One popular explanation of the ultimate failure (I mean moral rather than practical failure) of the New Labour movement in Britain is that the party made a Faustian pact with the lords of finance. The politicians would favour the financiers, fawn at their feet, drink on their yachts, let them get away with blue murder (the lightest of light-touch regulation) on condition that tax revenues from said financiers would pay for the social and infrastructure rebuilding projects that constituted New Labour’s soul, or raison d’être. Remember that in the popular version of the Faust story, the scholar Faust sells his soul to Mephistopheles for worldly glory and happiness.

It sounds superficially plausible, like many such explanations, until you start to look or think more closely. For a start, who in this scenario is Faust and who is Mephisto? I assumed that New Labour was Faust and the lords of finance Mephisto – on the grounds that the former possessed at least the vestiges of a soul and the latter, according to popular demonology, did not. But could it be the other way round?

Faust, in both Marlowe’s version and Goethe’s, is the man who wants everything – knowledge, money, power, love (or sex). Or you could say that he starts off wanting knowledge, as a scholar, convinced that knowledge is power. Then he wants only power, and as power is money, he wants only money (well, he also wants Helen of Troy, but let’s leave that fast lady to one side).

In that case, Faust could represent the financiers as well as the politicians. And as for Mephistopheles, could central casting come up with a better person to play the suavely smiling old devil than Lord Mandelson? Did the politicians egg the financiers on in their ultimately destructive pursuit of short-term profits?

 A particularly thoughtful and nuanced take on the idea of the Faustian bargain comes in the book Good Value by one of the leading lords of finance, Stephen Green, the chairman of HSBC, published a year ago but raising questions that seem more pertinent than ever. A great advantage here is that the multifaceted Green, who is also a priest in the Church of England, is a keen student of German literature and of Goethe in particular.

Green thinks that all of us in the post-Enlightenment capitalist world are at least to some degree Fausts. We are all restless pursuers of material satisfactions, all in danger of selling our souls for something, money, or heartless sex, or just bland careerism, which turns out to be ultimately unsatisfactory or worse, destructive of our human essence.

I suppose most of us tend to think that the Faust story ends badly – but that is Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus rather than Goethe’s Faust. In Marlowe, midnight strikes and hell does indeed swallow up the Renaissance overreacher. In Goethe, things are rather different. Near the beginning, Faust has laid down his wager to the devil: if Mephisto can make Faust say to any passing moment “Stay awhile!”, then the devil has won.

At the end of the second part of Goethe’s immense verse drama, however, Faust discovers something that had eluded him in all his years of restless, egotistical striving and hedonism. He discovers the profound satisfaction of working constructively with others – in this particular case, draining marshland for agriculture. Flushed with this triumph, he pronounces the words that apparently seal his doom: “To stand on free ground with people who are free!/ In that moment I could say/ ‘But stay awhile – O how beautiful you are!”

Mephisto thinks he has got his man, but he is wrong. What follows, at the end of Faust Part Two, which Goethe completed months before his own death, is not Faust’s damnation but his apotheosis. The crucial distinction that has eluded Mephisto, according to Green, is that “Faust’s admission is triggered by the prospect of something that will create human well-being, not by a moment of self-gratification.”

Even Mephisto himself is confused and defeated by the chorus of heavenly spirits strewing roses over Faust’s bier and then transporting his soul into the ether. Faust is saved not because he is without fault – far from it, he is a ruthless self-gratifier – but because he never ceases from mental toil and exploration.

You might think now we are living in profoundly Mephistophelian times. There is a sense of emptiness and negation; just as Mephisto mocks Faust’s efforts at land reclamation, we suspect that no noble action is worth undertaking because everything comes to nothing in the end. In that case, why not hasten the destruction, by reckless gambling (with other people’s money) and exploitation (more deep sea oil drilling)?

We tend towards Mephisto’s view of nature, a hellish place of explosions and hot gases, rather than the one articulated by Faust in the Mountain Heights scene of Act IV: “The nobly silent hills loom up on high/ In peace that stills my question whence or why.” But Goethe, at the end of Faust, places his faith in the long, slow processes of growth, and ultimately in love, or what he called “the eternal feminine”.


More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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