The apocalyptic image of Donald Trump being dragged kicking and screaming from the White House is a scene reminiscent of Greek tragedy depicting hubris (excessive pride defying the divine order) confronted by Nemesis, symbol of night and retribution (karma) — also redolent of Dr Faustus finally relinquishing his soul to the Devil.
Jacob Zuma, sharing so many of the same characteristics of attempting to capture an entire country for his own nefarious intentions, arrogantly claiming, “Give me my day in court, and I’ll prove my goodness!” Now squealing and wriggling to escape that day of final reckoning and his permanent incarceration.
THE LEGEND OF DOCTOR FAUSTUS
One of the most hauntingly enduring stories, this 500-year-old legend of a man who sold his soul to the Devil, draws together a striking collection of ancient mythology from a wide number of sources and traditions.
Christopher Marlowe’s drama The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, first performed in London in about 1592, focuses on the historical Dr Johann Georg Faustus, a German astrologer and necromancer who died c.1540. The play develops Faustus’s reputed bargaining with the Devil to grant him eternal youth, sexual encounters, worldly power, knowledge, wealth, fame, in return for eventually consigning his soul to the eternal torments of hell.
Mephistopheles, the Devil’s representative, assists Faustus to traverse history, basking in the glory of some of its great figures — Helen of Troy, Alexander the Great, Darius of Persia — in addition to his seduction of the beautiful, innocent Gretchen, her life destroyed by the birth of Faustus’s bastard son.
Irrevocably corrupted, as midnight approaches and he has one bare hour left to live, Marlowe’s Faustus portrays an excruciating display of utter terror and despair, crying, “Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven, That time may cease, and midnight never come ... Mountains and hills, come, come, and fall on me, And hide me from the heavy wrath of God!”
But, the apocalyptic hour, arrives: “Oh, it strikes, it strikes ... Ugly hell, gape not ...” And Faustus is seized by the Devil “with such fearful shrieks and cries [that] were never heard.”
A later, perhaps more influential, interpretation of the Faust legend was that of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 to 1832), inspiring other plays, operas, novels, films.
Much of the enduring allure of this morality tale of the tragic, self-defeating renunciation of one’s essential soul, has centred round various historical and contemporary, political and religious personalities. Their self-absorbed, narcissistic obsessions and grandiose views of their own talents, result in dissociation from their true selves, unable to make authentic connections with the individuality of other persons — even the natural world.
Such absence of integrity renders them dangerously incapable of assuming leadership securing the wellbeing of others. The Faustian bargain made by politicians to forfeit planetary flourishing for short-term economic gain probably the most agonising example.
Benjamin Ramm, writer for the BBC, comments: “this legend seems to have particular resonance at times of moral crisis”, treated as a metaphor for unholy political pacts through history from fascism and Nazism, to various contemporary populist movements such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.
He comments: “With the exception of Frankenstein, published by Mary Shelley in 1818, it is difficult to think of a more enduring modern legend — both stories reflect unease about the dawning of a new world, full of possibility and anxiety.”
The heart of this compelling narrative is the age-old struggle between good and evil, told and retold throughout the centuries in every religious tradition, using the colourful, graphic imagery of myth. From early human history visual depictions, rhythmic sound, ritual movement have been central to religious expression. Poetic, mythological narratives, conveying attempts to make sense of the mystery of this wonderful, terrifying world; providing us with guidance on our pilgrimage to self-discovery and life-enhancing identity.
We can’t be sure whether Christopher Marlowe himself actually believed in either God or the Devil as metaphysical entities. Although he received an ecclesiastical education and could have been ordained, he chose not to, later in life labelled an atheist. However, his story is not merely about rejecting belief in God and pledging one’s soul to the Devil, but exploring the deep complexity of the human spirit, and the inevitable consequences of choices made.
Mythological narratives, particularly in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, envisage history as having a single beginning and end, looking to a future scenario where this present evil age will be brought to a cataclysmic climax by the intervention of God, marking the final victory of good over evil. The rule of Satan/al Shaitan — literally “adversary” — the Devil (from Greek “diabolos”), the Evil One, totally vanquished; the good enjoying everlasting bliss.
The theme of a celestial being contesting the highest seat of heaven only to be cast down to the underworld, has ancient origins in the movements of the planet Venus, long a source of fascination for many cultures world-wide. After the moon, Venus is the brightest object in the night sky, appearing before sunrise — thus known as the morning star — or at sunset, but never at the apex.
Ancient Sumerians and Babylonians famed for their astrological observations, identified goddesses Inanna and Ishtar with Venus and her heavenly voyage, sharing her brightness and power, imitating her rhythmic cycles of death and rebirth, granting fertility to the earth. Thus she became Goddess of Love, and protector of the state. But her threat to the rule of the two brightest celestial lights, her ambivalent unpredictability and frequent disappearance, invoked the motif of a fall from heaven, and descent to Hades.
The title Lucifer, signifying “morning star” and “shining one”, was given to various religious figures associated with Venus. In Christian tradition Lucifer became identified with Satan, whose eviction from heaven led to his ongoing attempts to seduce humankind from the godly paths of righteousness.
Another interpretation of the continuing saga of good and evil is Manichaeism, the teaching of Mani (c.216 to 276 CE), postulating two ultimate controlling powers, an eternal conflict between light and darkness, denying the absolute omnipotence of a good God, an everlasting contest with Evil. Humankind engaged in the continuing battleground of good and evil, continually choosing allegiance.
Although Satan does not feature frequently in scripture, he looms large in certain Christian imaginations mainly because of his ambivalently sympathetic characterisation in John Milton’s Paradise Lost of 1652. The theme of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained becomes yet another aspect of this complex religious narrative, urging humans to strive, socially and politically, to recreate the paradisal state originally designed by God — a disposition within each individual, as well as communal.
However, it is important to acknowledge that these mythological accounts should not be regarded as scientific descriptions of the universe, but based on archaic cosmology, poetic portrayals of truths generally beyond human comprehension — delving beyond the words to allegorical interpretations, rather than literal descriptions.
Although some believers still imagine the Devil as a wicked, scheming supernatural being, stalking the earth seeking to entrap human beings, others regard the Devil as a personification or metaphor for the destructive inner forces of the human psyche.
Many contemporary traditions reject belief in Satan as an evil supernatural person responsible for corrupting humans — the claim: “The Devil made me do it!” a vacuous eschewing of all responsibility for one’s actions. The fault is within all of us flawed creatures. Walls and warplanes, chest-thumping claims to greatness, will not suppress the enemy.
Humans will continue to sell their essential, authentic selves for hollow, fatuous rewards — “riches, pleasures and pomps” — life-diminishing aspirations. Emphasising the need for ceaseless vigilance over our own greed and concupiscence; motivating the ongoing struggle to avoid the snares of those who have renounced their souls — self-absorbed psychopaths, offering easy, instant rewards and solutions to complex problems.
THE CHOICES OF DONALD TRUMP
Trump’s paternal great-grandfather arrived as an immigrant from Germany to the New World determined, above all, to make a material fortune by any and all means possible.
Thus began a dynasty of ruthless men who exploited and cheated their way to what they and many others regarded as success. They created the values surrounding the upbringing of Donald Trump, motivating his arrogant dismissal of his opportunities to reassess these standards by benefiting from his college education.
Making choices to maintain this callous disregard for the wellbeing of others by adopting self-serving, racist, xenophobic, misogynist attitudes, led to aspirations to control and exploit all who ventured within his orbit — not valuing others for who they are, but solely for how he could manipulate them for his own purposes.
The Faust legend employs the convergence of various myths to warn of the hubris of narcissist psychosis, epitomised so malignantly by the Trumps and Zumas of our world — the cult of the ego, Mammon, peddling fake news, brutally exploiting domination and bigotry, erecting barriers of suspicion and polarisation, sabotaging democratic principles, ruining countless lives. Challenged, they employed everything in their power to destroy their critics, disregarding perhaps the most poignant words ever spoken: “What does a man gain by winning the whole world, yet loses his soul? What can he give to buy that self back?” (Mark 8:36)
But, for now, one rough beast, “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun”, slouching towards Bethlehem and Washington DC, has been mercifully halted. (References: W.B. Yates and Salman Rushdie.)