Reading Faust – II: On the Faustian Pact

In a beautiful essay called The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality, the great philosopher Bernard Williams examines our very human desire to live forever. He concludes (inter alia) that our mortality is precisely what gives our life the meaning that it has. You will notice, at once, that this is the very anti-thesis of Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. Williams neither affirms nihilism in the face of the imminence and inevitability of death, nor advocates peace in a kind of Stoic acceptance. In fact, for Williams, the Sisyphean allegory would be a gross distortion of the human condition. Because our lives are short, because time is fleeting, because nothing lasts for ever, and not even a very long time, life has the beauty and the meaning that it does.

The title of the piece comes from a famous opera by the great Czech modernist composer, Janecek, written between 1923 – 25. Elina Makropulos, born in 1585, has been using an age-defying potion that has allowed her to live for three hundred years, in perpetual youth. And having lived so very long, Elina has come to a point where she is defined by one thing, and one thing alone: apathy. This apathy – or ennui – is reflected in her attitude towards love, in particular, her treatment of her multiple suitors: her falling asleep while one of them pleads his case, her Lysistratan coldness towards a second that she spends a night with (albeit blackmailed to do so), and her callous indifference on hearing that a third has committed suicide after having been spurned. And as the potion wears off, Elina realises that such a life is not worth living. Even though she has the formula that will allow her to live for another three hundred years, she rejects it, offering it to those around her. Nobody takes it, apart from one of the characters, who does so only to cast it into the fire.

This is a gross oversimplification, and omits many crucial plot points and dramatic turns, but it will do. The idea, as Williams points out, is that a mere extension of our physical lifespan will not change the other ways in which we are composed, the other things that make us human – and all of that is entirely at odds with immortality, or even with an inordinately long life-span. Not only our bodies, but our tastes, our passions, our desires – all these, to use a beautiful expression from Swinburne, “endure for a breath”. It is a long lifetime, not a short one, that would trivialise them to the point of irrelevance.

To take a very different example, recall the spacers in Asimov’s Robot novels. Having migrated from earth, living elsewhere in the galaxy, they have also managed to increase their lifespans to Makropulos levels. And for all their posturing, for all their sense of superiority, for all their contempt of “short-lived humans“, do you not sense a deep, profound bone-weariness in them? Asimov treats this brilliantly by showing us that in the Spacer society, because of their inordinately long life-spans, love as a concept has vanished from the lexicon, and from lived experience. “Sex is boring!” complains one of the characters, and proceeds to copulate with a robot (leading to the central conflict in the story), because she looking for something new, something that hasn’t yet been rendered prosaic, everyday and quotidian by repeated identical experiences.

That brings us to the Faustian pact. Recall that Faust offers up his soul in return for experiencing that one moment that he could wish would last for eternity.

When thus I hail the Moment flying:
“Ah, still delay—thou art so fair!”
Then bind me in thy bonds undying,
My final ruin then declare!

What are we to make of this?  Well, first of all, Goethe himself writes, elsewhere, these famous lines:

Alles in der Welt lässt sich ertragren,                                                                                            Nur nicht eine Reihe von schöen                                                                                             Tagen.”

I believe that the accurate translation is “Nothing is harder to bear than a succession of fair days.” At the very least, that captures the essence. Think about it. Keats’ one kiss wouldn’t really yield him the eternal bliss he craves if it simply goes on forever, would it? In other words, we long for a moment that we would long to last forever, but if that desire comes true, then the very raison d’etre of valuing that moment so much would disappear.

This is the interesting paradox. While Faust is asking for a moment that, with its beauty, would so entrance him that he would find himself wishing that it lasted an eternity, he isn’t asking for it to really last an eternity. He can’t be. To bring it back to Williams, it is the very momentariness of these moments that makes them as beautiful, as precious, as rare as they are. And while they do last, they last not as moments, but as memories. That is what gives them their unique, exquisite, bittersweet flavour: they aren’t dead, they aren’t gone, but nor do they exist entirely. They live in a twilight zone, somewhere between substance and shadow, between reality and dreams, between world and word. The moment is beautiful not only for what it gives us, but also for how we are destined to remember it through the trackless years, with longing, with desire, and a whole smorgasbord of complex emotions that would also include, at times, pain, regret and loss. If that was to go, swallowed up by the moment itself, as it stretched on interminably through time, there would be so much that we would lose! Wouldn’t we?

And so, when in the throes of some deep and beautiful emotion, we spontaneously say something such as “How I wish this could last forever!“, what we have actually picked out and identified is, contrariwise, the very fleetingness, transience, impermanence of the moment in which we are living. That is what makes such instants what they are. And that, I think, is what makes the Faustian pact so… perfect. Goethe realises this, and so he has Faust exchange for his soul that most profoundly beautiful of all conceivable human experiences, a moment so wondrous in its momentariness, that notwithstanding the complete irrationality of the wish, it nevertheless compels you to wish that it would last an eternity.

I would joyously give up my soul for such a moment. Wouldn’t you?

(To be contd.)

A synopsis of that brilliant opera, The Makropulos Affair: http://www.leosjanacek.co.uk/makropulos.htm

Bernard Williams’ essay (only an abstract, unfortunately; it’s available in hard copy in his book, Problems of the Selfhttp://ebooks.cambridge.org/chapter.jsf?bid=CBO9780511621253&cid=CBO9780511621253A012

A one-page synopsis by Camus on The Myth of Sisyphushttp://www.sccs.swarthmore.edu/users/00/pwillen1/lit/msysip.htm

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Filed under Bernard Williams, Goethe, Philosophy, Romanticism

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