In the movie Midnight in Paris, Gil Pender, a dissatisfied Hollywood screenwriter, takes a trip to the city of love. Paris’s beauty, which lies in delicate fairy lights, honey-brown buildings, rain-soaked pink flowers, contemplative cobblestone streets, and glass and gold, captivates Gil.
One evening, he takes a long walk and sits down on the steps of an old church. Suddenly, like in Cinderella, the clock chimes dramatically at midnight. But at this time in Paris, the magic doesn’t slip away. Instead, it seeps in the form of a dazzling trip to 1920s Paris that provides Gil an escape from his sharp, hotheaded fiancé and incessantly rude future mother and father-in- law.
Gil is placed center stage in the golden age of Parisian art, literature, and science; he takes a carriage ride with Ernest Hemingway and asks Gertrude Stein for advice on his novel. He even falls in love with Picasso’s mistress, Adriana.
However, when he later travels with Adriana to the 1890s, he has an epiphany. Gil recognizes that he is in a state of denial and that any inhabitable time can be considered inferior to another earlier period through a romanticized lens. Transitioning from dreamy to pragmatic, he laments the lack of antibiotics in this time. He sees with great clarity that the past is a vessel for nostalgia whereas the future is the place to live.
This is also one of the central messages of Johannes Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. Goethe was a scientist, novelist, dramatic, and epic poet throughout his illustrious life. Collectively, his written works amount to 143 volumes. After meeting Goethe, Napoléon Bonaparte, thoroughly impressed, proclaimed “Vous êtes un homme!” (You are a man!). Faust, the crowning literary achievement of his lifetime, bears undeniable witness to Goethe’s genius in two parts.
The first part of Faust was published in 1808 following the American and French revolutions ushering in pluralistic economic and political institutions, the Scientific Revolution collapsing the fortress of theocracy, and the Enlightenment redefining the social contract. The sclerotic world of the Middle Ages, which operated as a closed circuit of suffering, was being replaced by the modern-day world — one characterized by rapid change and what we call ‘progress.’
The opening act of the play begins in Faust’s Gothic study, a space that certainly would not be featured on any glossy page of Architectural Digest. He is miserable; despite his wisdom, he feels immense isolation. Taking advantage of Faust’s melancholic mood, the devil (Mephistopheles) appears as a black poodle. Charles van Doren explains in his book, The History of Knowledge, that “he offers Faust the chance to reach beyond knowledge, to enjoy pleasure, wealth, the company of interesting people, and power over nature.” Faust accepts, but declares that he is already in hell. Mephistopheles responds that if he can accomplish the task of satisfying Faust, then he will have won.
Thus, the story commences. Faust falls in love with Gretchen, the archetype of a simple village girl whose mind and heart are governed by tradition. Faust adorns her with jewels, and Gretchen gains a glimpse of a more luxurious future in which she can reinvent herself.
More importantly, Faust’s offer is not only one of love but of freedom; with Faust, she will break through the iron bars of loneliness, familial resentment, and feudal life. As such, Gretchen gives herself to Faust. In Marshall Berman’s All That is Solid Melts into Air, he writes that Gretchen’s acceptance of Faust’s parlous offer was unavoidable. A mountain of pressure had been building upon Gretchen and by extension the medieval way of life since the Renaissance, which inaugurated a series of societal transformations.
While Faust makes one bargain with the devil, Gretchen makes another with a man with devilish inclinations. As Gretchen becomes a mature, elegant young woman, Faust is once again afflicted by dissatisfaction. Adam Kirsch writes in his The New Yorker ‘Life Lessons From Goethe’ that Faust “like an alcoholic… demands ever-stronger draughts of emotional intoxication.” He wants more than the all too available Gretchen can give him. Selfishly, Faust ends his torrid love affair.
Along with abandonment, Gretchen suffers due to a burning scarlet letter being etched on her in the form of a pregnancy out of wedlock. Her tradition-bound community shuns her and she is later imprisoned for committing a violent crime as her despair magnifies.
Faust, crippled by guilt, returns to save Gretchen. Unfortunately, Gretchen refuses to go with her former lover. She doesn’t want salvation from Faust if it is not being offered from a place of selfless love. Charles van Doren explains the symbolism of this refusal: “Although she knows better even than Faust the savage cruelty of her narrow feudal world, she also recognizes the good that persists in it: its commitment to ideals, and its dedication to a life devoted to loyalty and love.” By rejecting Faust’s offer, Gretchen is rejecting liberation from medieval times.
The second part of Faust was published a whopping 24 years later, just a few months before Goethe’s death. In classic Biblical fashion, the devil tempts Faust just as he did Christ with the three temptations. Mephistopheles surveys time and space with Faust and even offers him the ideal woman: Helen of Troy, prompting Faust’s question “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?” Still, Faust is dissatisfied.
One day, looking at the vast and untamable ocean, Faust has an epiphany. He realizes that he wants to control the energy of this vast body of water. This is an eerily familiar desire in the modern day world in which we harness hydro and wind power from nature in order to fuel our society. The devil decrees that Faust must help the emperor win a war and in return, he can develop the coastline. With a victory under his belt, Faust makes the natural landscape a conglomerate of massive buildings and factories.
However, there is one last obstacle on the path to satisfaction. In the distance, an ancient house stands in stark contrast to the modern edifices. An old and kind couple, Baucis and Philemon, have refused the devil’s offer to move elsewhere and are disrupting Faust’s vision of a new world. Although Faust is not inherently cruel, he doesn’t want the couple to destroy his dreams.
At Faust’s bidding, Mephistopheles destroys Baucis and Philemon’s home. When the devil reappears, Faust notices ribbons of flames on the horizon. He is astonished and asks if the couple was hurt. Mephistopheles explains nonchalantly that Faust wanted them gone and thus, he did his duty; Baucis and Philemon are dead.
The play ends when Faust visits Gretchen’s old room in her feudal home. Like Gil, Faust is simply passing through a discarded time. The past has the impersonal air of a museum and serves as a rabbit hole of memory. The future is the only promise of permanence. As a society, we continue to crave parcels of the past – 80’s music, vintage jeans, vinyl records – but the future is the place to live.
We like listening to the elderly tell stories; we marvel at a simple, bucolic time when no child had a smartphone and sometimes, we may even play with the idea that we would have liked to have the lash of living through something – a war, the Renaissance, a dangerous political power struggle – but at the end of the day, we can neither escape modernity nor live without its many comforts. This message is shared by Midnight in Paris and Faust. However, the substantive lessons of Faust are far more wide-reaching.
Here is Faust’s most shocking message: progress is only attained through deals with the devil. Faust is only able to engage in industrialization by destroying Baucis and Philemon’s quaint home. Charles van Doren observes that, “The spirit that negates all, the destroyer of what is, is needed, Faust knows, to make way for the future.” As such, the future is forged in a firestorm of Faustian bargains as scalding as the devil’s own inferno. Change is like wildfire which peels the green layer of the earth away and leaves black in its wake. The great economist Joseph Schumpeter dubbed this process of generating economic growth and technological change as creative destruction.
Faust’s industrialization efforts serve as the deathblow to the medieval world and lay the groundwork for a mercantile, manufacturing based society. Karl Marx compared this capitalistic system to a sorcerer who is no “longer able to control the powers of the underworld he has called up.” Goethe’s story reflects this sentiment as Faust unknowingly orchestrates the deaths of Baucis and Philemon. It is evident that in an attempt to gain power, Faust loses control over the world around him and more frighteningly, himself.
Christopher Marlowe, an English playwright, writes in his depiction of Faust that the greedy protagonist states: “I’ll have them fly to India for gold, / Ransack the ocean for orient pearl, / And search all corners of the new-found world / For pleasant fruits and princely delicates.” These lines encapsulate the exploitative, imperialist streak that stains capitalism.
Although Faust is saved at the end of his tale, the probability of humanity being damned elevates as the scale of creative destruction becomes larger with each step into the future. We are currently emitting billions of tons of pernicious fossil fuels into the atmosphere for the sake of cheap energy access, expanding the world’s nuclear arsenal as international tensions skyrocket for the sake of ‘security,’ and failing to address global poverty and pandemics because of misguided national sentiments and unscrupulous government policies.
New and shiny Faustian bargains which prioritize short term pleasure over long term gain adorn the modern world. Sela Emery ’23 noted that, “It seems to be a defining characteristic of human nature to give into selfish desires and interests which reap consequences generations later. I hope that the arts can open our eyes to this idea and catalyze change.”
To settle the debate of Ancient Greek tragedians, we are the rulers of our own destiny. As Cassius says in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” We still wield the power to make the decision to avoid an ignominious future. As such, we must break the iron chains of our modern day Faustian bind and pave the way for a devil-less future.
The last words Goethe cried out as he died of a painful heart condition was “More light!” In a literal sense, Goethe’s vision must have been dark and he might have desired an open window. Metaphorically, however, Goethe sought brightness – the same light beams that must cleave the stormy skies of the modern day world.
“It seems to be a defining characteristic of human nature to give into selfish desires and interests which reap consequences generations later. I hope that the arts can open our eyes to this idea and catalyze change,” said Sela Emery ’23.