Somebody famous once said that all Western literature arises out of the dialectic between Christ and Faust. I wish I’d said that. It’s a really clever thought. If you’re unfamiliar with Hegelian thought, a dialectic is the juxtaposition of two thoughts – the thought and its negative – called the Thesis and the Antithesis, out of which arises the Synthesis. Hegel is notoriously difficult to understand so I’ll abandon any more abstruse terminology than that, but the idea has weight.
The story of Christ is the single most infectious idea in human history. I’m not inclined to agree with Richard Dawkins’ idea of Memes, discreet ideas that perpetuate themselves through culture like genes do, but if I was, I’d say that the Christ meme is one of those with a lot of staying power. The Christian mythos is largely derivative (see fig. 1), depending as it does on a number of ancient traditions, but the essence of the New Testament depends on a single idea – the idea of perseverance.
Christ is, within the context of the story, the son of God, the absolute perfect entity. I don’t want to start a theological argument because, being a scientist and a philosopher, I know there’s absolutely no way that’s true. That’s actually irrelevant – truth and veracity have no real place in literature. If we’re going to talk about Christ, we’re going to talk about the story – the story is what matters.
The character of Christ is born into the world with a terrific burden, or rather two; being a product of God, and being tasked with God’s ultimate mission, Christ is endowed with the power and perception of a god, but with the fallibility and foibles of a human being. I remember, years ago, reading about the furore that greeted Scorcese’s 1988 meisterwerk The Last Temptation of Christ. Christians were incensed by the depiction of Jesus as a rude and lusty male – a man tortured sexual desire, depression, fear, and doubt: in short, everything that besets a human being in day-to-day living. They were particularly appalled by a brief scene where Jesus imagines himself and Mary Magdalene consummating their marriage. These Christians, of course, missed the central point of the film – the eponymous last temptation – but more importantly, they missed the very essence of what makes the Christ story most captivating, and it is this: Jesus was a man. Christ was the son of god. And they shared one body, one soul, and one conscience. These are the twin burdens that Christ has to bear throughout the story of the New Testament – a delicate balancing act between the human and the divine, the strength of the soul versus the lusts of the flesh. The agenda of the Christian god, in sending his son to earth, was to show the world that, just once, God had taken the time to understand the human being and its attendant condition, had grasped what it meant to be human, and had refreshed his knowledge of what it is to be fallible, weak, and prone to all the bodily horrors that beset the human species on a daily basis. God’s quest, in the Christ story, is a quest of sympathy, but this is a subsidiary aspect of the Christ story. The essence of Jesus’ story is the dialectic between holy duty and human fallibility.
This strikes to the heart of what makes the Christ story so compelling. In the last proper essay I wrote, I argued that Superman is an unrelatable character because of his apparent infallibility. This is a flaw that Superman shares with the Judeo-Christian-Muslim god. This god (and they all share the one, never forget that) is perfect, flawless, all-knowing and all-seeing and therefore, from a human perspective, impossible to relate to. This is a flaw, or a limitation, of our perception. Just as we can no more imagine a colour we’ve never seen, or imagine a shape that doesn’t conform to our geometric expectations of the universe, so we can no more imagine a perception more perfect than our own. We cannot relate to the Abrahamic god because he is beyond our conceptual boundaries.
Hence the permanence and importance of Christ. We can imagine the man because we grasp the essence of being human. That is within our purview. We can also grasp what it would be to labour under an impossible burden. The significance of Christ is that he humanizes our perception of god. He acts as the bridge between the Trinity and the human, between the divine and the earth-bound. Intelligent Christians may pray to god, but children and simpler folk pray to Jesus, because Jesus is a tangible aspect of the divine.
This is largely irrelevant to literature. The story of Jesus rests on perseverance in the face of almost impossible odds. The Temptation of Christ is a central aspect of this perseverance: Luke, Matthew and Mark all agree on the salient details of the story, while disagreeing about nearly everything else. The story runs like this: Jesus travels into the desert and fasts for forty days. During this time, the Devil appears before him and tempts him to sate his hunger, rely on angels to break his fall, and use his god-given power to rule the Earth. To each of these temptations Jesus says no. Can we grasp what that would take? What external and internal struggle it would require of a human, to be alone and starving, to feel forsaken and doubtful, and to decline dubious help? Jesus knows he’s going to die. He has enough understanding to know that his life will end violently, in pain, betrayed by one of his closest friends.
So what saves him? Perseverance. The power of the mind over the body, of faith over weakness, and of strength that arises not from the body but from the soul. The story of Christ revolves around perseverance: against external odds, against internal weakness, overcoming the physical failings, pain, doubt and fear. Another significant example of this theme is the Agony in the Garden story: on the night he will be arrested, after which he knows he will die horribly, Jesus prays for strength. He has to power to leave, to abandon his followers to their fate, or even use his spiritual power to prevent it from occurring, but his perseverance to the bitter end demands that he allow events to happen, to be passive, and to accept his destiny. When I was younger I went to a Presbyterian school, and we had Bible lessons, and I can’t remember any of the stories from the New Testament except these two, which resonated with me. In both stories the cowardly, life-preserving choice is clear, but Jesus doesn’t take it. He has a mission and he follows it through.
By contrast, the story of Faust is more convoluted and has no specific point of origin, except in the mangled traditions of the Middle Ages. There may once have been a German alchemist called Faustus, but maybe, as with Christ, the elements of the story evolved out of earlier legends. Faust as a story doesn’t become refined until Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, which served as the basis of the best known version of the story: Goethe’s Faust, a work of literature equally as important as Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Faust’s story is simple enough: a philosopher, polymath and sorceror, Faust is in the constant pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the universe. In Marlowe’s play, Faust is largely satisfied by his life’s work, as evinced by the legend Vi Veri Veniversum Vivus Vici (attributed incorrectly to Marlowe, and Latin for “I have conquered the universe with truth”).
Goethe provides more explanation for what happens next – Faust declares at the very beginning:
Medicine, and Law, and Philosophy,
You’ve worked your way through every school,
Even, God help you, Theology,
And sweated at it like a fool
Why labour at it any more?
You’re no wiser than you were before.
You’re master of arts, and doctor too,
And for ten years all you’ve been able to do
Is lead your students a fearful dance,
Through a maze of error and ignorance
Faust’s dissatisfaction with what can be known about the world leads him to make an unholy pact with the demon Mephistopheles, who trades him Truth for his mortal soul via a series of journeys into the otherworld. Faust, the fallible human character, is literally taken for a ride by powers far greater than himself, and in the making of this pact seals his damnation. He is a man who studies for vanity, who esteems himself by his reputation as a scholar, and so is as weak as the best of us, but Faust’s pursuit of Truth differentiates him from others who, it is implied, have made similar journeys. In the Urfaust, the companion piece, Faust’s love for the capricious Gretchen and his noble intentions serve him well, because god recognizes that Faust’s desire for Truth were noble enough, and frees him from his Satanic pact. The central theme of the story is this: Faust is a fallible human being, but one motivated by noble ideals – ideals that tend towards truth, reason, and honesty, and that gradually become more and more significant throughout the course of the story. Faust’s tale is one of redemption, redemption for his human faults and redemption for doing all he can to cling to noble ideals in the face of evil.
So Christ and Faust, in their thesis and antithesis aspects, occupy two sides of the human coin: the former, the incorruptible, the latter, the corrupted but redeemable. These stories appeal to us in a very basic sense because they play on our conception of humanity. We see ourselves in Faust, the weak man redeemed of his flaws by his virtues, and wish to see in ourselves a Christ figure, a person capable of overcoming their own fear, doubt, and selfishness. These two stories, and all that arise out of them, play to the most understandable of human virtues and flaws.To return to the opening statement, these two stories are the basis, by way of synthesis, of every story in the Western literary tradition, right up to film, television and radio. You can play this game at home, whenever you’re watching something: is this a perseverance or a redemption story? Because, fundamentally, most stories fall into this category.
Let’s take two examples: Hamlet and Luke Skywalker. The first is a relatively simple case of redemption: Hamlet is a man possessed by rage and a feeling of injustice who then proceeds to hurt or kill nearly everyone close to him (I’m cliff-noting), consumed by his own madness and lust for revenge. Only in the last moments of the play, while dying, does he feel guilt and attempt to mend the many wrongs he has committed in pursuit of a greater wrong. Hamlet dies, and the play ends, on a theme of redemption: his contrition is sufficiently heartfelt for us to sympathize with a man who has done so much wrong.
By contrast, Luke Skywalker is definitely a Christ figure. Handed, more or less out of the blue, a great and terrible gift and an even greater purpose, Luke struggles to to fall to the dark side, managing to overcome his fallible human(?)ity and redeem his father, the much more Faustian Darth Vader. Luke is purely good, though weak, and his perseverance is what makes Star Wars a great story.
I can do this all day, and I would, but I’m tired and I’ve reached my word limit. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is find the funniest and most surprising example of a Christ or a Faust story that you can. If you can convince yourself, and me, that Spongebob Squarepants is either a Christ or a Faust figure, there may be some sort of prize in it for you.