The Fall, Part III
This post contains spoilers for the series Altered Carbon and the drama Faust.
"I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.”
-Faust, Johan Wolfgang Von Goethe
“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
-Robert J. Oppenheimer, quoting the Bhagavad Gita while speaking of the atomic bomb
“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”
In the first post of this series, we looked at the Luciferian Myth, mostly through the lens of John Milton’s poem, Paradise Lost. The poem provides a nuanced origin story for the conflict between good and evil. Motivated by a vain sense that it was he who was meant to be in control, Satan rebelled against God, but failed. Evil then proceeds from his ongoing attempts to recover his exalted state. In Part II, we observed these archetypes playing out in a number of sci-fi films where human civilization is upended. In these films, however, it came to light that it is not quite clear whether they are stories about a godlike humanity facing a rebellion of their own creations, or a satanic humanity in revolt against nature. This is because the archetypal identities become less clear as they become more human; passing down from symbol, to myth, to metaphor. When this clarity disappears, a new stage begins. Once the archetypes cease to be experienced as an inner reality, they become seen as external sources of strength. We think we can easily select which archetype we wish to tap into, but there may be a disconnect between what we imagine to be choosing and what we are choosing. What happens when we misjudge both the source of these powers and our own ability to contend with them? This new stage is the transition from a Luciferian Myth into Faustian Myth.
The term ‘Faustian’ comes from the name Faust, a character from a variety of early modern literary works. Historically, he was based on an actual alchemist accused of studying the dark arts who then died in a lab explosion. For our purposes, we will consider Faust, a drama by Johan Wolfgang von Goethe, in order to understand the myth.
The story begins in Heaven where the Devil makes a wager with God that he can provoke even the most pious of men to stray from righteousness. God accepts. The target chosen is Heinrich Faust, an old but learned man, for whom life has lost its joys. Faust is exasperated, believing he has learned everything there is to know and begins to consider suicide. But his life changes when the Devil, in the form of Mephistopheles, makes an appearance. Mephistopheles sets up a second wager: that he will attempt to placate every one of Faust’s desires, and should he succeed in giving Faust a sense of bliss from this, Faust will die in that moment and serve Mephistopheles in hell. Faust agrees and the two set off. While cavorting about town, Faust sees Gretchen, a young girl from the village, and falls in love. He and Mephistopheles conspire to win her over. They succeed and Gretchen goes mad for Faust. She attempts to sneak out of her house, first sedating her mother with a sleeping potion, but she uses the wrong dose and kills her. She becomes pregnant, but drowns the child. Her brother challenges Faust to a duel and dies as well. Gretchen herself is condemned to death.
From this, a number of key points can be extracted to identify what makes the Faustian Myth unique.
-An exasperation with existing in the world as it is, the desperate need for a new source of thrills
-Willingness to enter into a compact with a mysterious force to alleviate this despair. We may also take note that Faust is not tricked into any of this, he acts in full knowledge of what he is doing
-Tragedy as a result of unintended consequences, misuse of power. There is no clever rigging by the Devil, the fault lies with Faust.
All of this is now commonly entailed in the phrase ‘a deal with the Devil.’
The 1926 film adaptation by F.W. Marnau, also named Faust, puts a further twist on the myth. In the film, Faust is motivated by slightly more altruistic intentions. A plague descends upon his hometown and it is in hopes of defeating it that he turns to the dark arts. However, he acts with the full expectation that he will be rewarded when he succeeds. Thus, the film fills the gap between Goethe’s play and the dystopian films of Part II. The motivations are Doctor Faust—in whatever form he may appear—can be understood as the co-mingling of both altruism and vainglory. Such a character seems to fit right in in our own times.
FAUST AT LARGE
The German sociologist OswaldSpengler describes the West as a Faustiancivilization. It carries the characteristics of both versions. Like Goethe’s play, Spengler claims the West has also become depleted, unable to experience simple joy anymore. In desperation, we seek out the bizarre and the extreme; flaunting taboos for the thrill of breaking the rules, excessive chemical stimulation, fast-paced entertainment, a fascination with sexual violence, etc. And like the cinematic Faust, our civilization is further captivated by the idea of control. Every natural process is slated for regulation; markets are expected to grow forever, ecosystems are rewired for our convivence, and unintended consequences abound.
The Faustian Myth, both its personal and social characteristics, can be seen in the Netflix series Altered Carbon. The backstory takes place several centuries in the future where, by the development of abandoned alien technology, humans are able to live forever by inserting their consciousness into a disc. This disc can then be transferred from body to body. But the world is far from perfect. Humanity separates into two distinct social classes, between which there is an immense gap. As a result, the underclass lives under the constant abuse of the wealthy elite. The woman responsible for developing this technology feels remorseful and so begins an insurrection against the establishment. The show itself begins in the aftermath of these events.
The full genealogy of Luciferian to Faustian Myth can be identified. At its base layer is a Luciferian motivation: the desire to overthrow the order of the nature by defeating death. But this cannot be done without resorting to an unknown power, the alien technology—this is the Faustian pact. And like Marnau’s film, the creator is moved by both altruism and selfishness. But her plan goes awry and an immense of amount of suffering is brought into the world. Further, the wider society has all the characteristics of Spengler’s Faustian civilization; restlessness, an absence of creativity, and obsession with the perverse. The show repeatedly highlights these vices amongst the wealthy elite, but a careful viewing reveals the underclass is just as afflicted.
The examples given throughout the last three posts are all works of fiction. All take fanciful liberties with reality, but if they have survived, it seems reasonable to assume that they have something to say about the world we live in. For now, the most pertinent issue may be that of unintended consequences.
Earnest Luciferian rebellions, in which one actively lives out the archetype, seem rare. More often, rebellions against the innate order of things appear in the Faustian form, in which individuals seek to create change by tapping into an immense, but semi-occluded, source of power. The act is not wrong in itself, but its proper execution is often spoiled by hubris. Further, this power source does not necessarily mean something like magic. Nuclear energy, genetic engineering, and artificial intelligence are all examples of such powers, open to both use and abuse by an eager humanity. It seems too that there is another form beyond the Faustian bargain, one which seems to almost revel in the absurdity and doomed nature of a plan. Because of that self-destructive intent, this new archetype breaks with the Luciferian-Faustian curve and follows it own trajectory. Where that leads will be open to the study of the next generation of artists.