Melania, meet Mephistopheles

The True Cost of the Art of the Deal?

MANDEL NGAN — AFP/Getty Images

When First Lady Melania Trump wore a coat emblazoned with the words, “I really don’t care. Do U?” on her way to visit a detention center holding children who were forcibly separated from their parents by her husband’s inhumane policy, she not only sent a message to the American people; she sent a message to the Gods. In Goethe’s Faust, these words echo the refusal of Faust to acknowledge Care, just before the perilous jaws of hell open for him. Whether or not her message was conscious matters not at all to the forces of myth. By invoking Faust, it conjures up the proverbial “deal with the devil.” Stemming from a 15th century European legend, the story of Faust was also linked to Nazi Germany in the wake of WWII by Thomas Mann. Considering the blatant racist, white supremacist and Fascist ideologies espoused by the Trump Administration and his followers, Melania’s uncaring message echoes through our culture ominously.

The final pages of Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus convey the bursting of a breaking heart. The narrator has recounted the eerie death of his beloved friend Adrian Leverkühn in circumstances reminiscent of the demise of Goethe’s famous character Faust. His death is a display of the pathos of a fallen soul in the final payout of a moral trade-off. In parallel, Mann’s narrator grieves for his nation’s fall into Fascism from the cultural heights of German philosophy and art. He does not flinch from the sight of the inherent flaw within such creative achievements: a sense of supremacy; an obsession with purity; the immortal wish of a sublime ideal. Mann recognizes complicity as he condemns his own beloved cultural heritage. Complicity lies in the lives of the bystanders, in “an originally honest, law-abiding, but all too docile people … all too happy to live by a theory!” (506). Blame could be laid at the marble steps of the State, that “vile regime of conspirators sworn to nihilism from the very start” (505). Mann admits that such a curse would feel good, if such a state could be divorced from the swelling patriotism that gave it rise. He drives home his point that cursing the Nazi regime as something “forced upon us…without roots in our nature as a people” would honestly be “more high-minded than conscientious” (506).

At the moment Mann writes these words, the ghastly revelations his fictional character describes were truly occurring. “Our ignominy lies naked before the eyes of the world, of foreign commissions, to whom these incredible scenes are displayed on all sides now and who report home that the hideousness of what they have seen exceeds anything the human imagination can conceive” (505). It is history now, but at the time of writing it was contemporary news.

As I write this paper, the news of the day is again making history. Protests are breaking out all over the world to denounce President Trump’s family separation policy for asylum seekers crossing the border into the United States. Thousands of children have been forcibly taken from their parents’ arms to be held in child detention centers across the country, prompting international outrage and countless references to the removal of Native American children into boarding schools, the Holocaust, Japanese Internment, and slavery in the US. This historical moment is widely understood to be a threshold in which citizen action just might tip the balance against the continual erosion of human rights and the virulent rise of Fascism and white supremacy in the States. Holocaust survivors are speaking out around the world imploring those who are not current targets of the Trump administration to take action in this time of moral peril. Now is the time to take compassionate action for the sake of those who come knocking at our doors, requesting safe harbor.

Mann delves into Germanic folklore to expunge the diabolical cultural myth living at the heart of his high-minded Christian nation. Citizens of Weimar “who went about their business in seeming honesty… though at times the wind blew the stench of burned human flesh up their noses” are forced to witness the results of their shared guilt. Mann takes this guilt to the full collective: “all that is German — even German intellect, German thought, the German word — shares in the disgrace of these revelations and is plunged into profoundest doubt” (505). For the regime, and the patriotism that bore it, was “both in word and deed, merely the distorted, vulgarized, debased realization of a mindset and worldview” authentically rooted in “the traits of our great men” as “embodiments of Germanness” (506). Mann does not proclaim his condemnations in statement form, but poses each of them as questions. “Am I asking too much?” the narrator ponders. He compels us to ask these questions of ourselves.

Dr. Faustus revolves around the fictional life story of Adrian Leverkühn, who rose to a glorious pinnacle of creativity upon a negotiation. Mann describes Leverkühn’s artistic achievements as “compensation… for having been denied permission to love” (507). Mann’s parallel is drawn to the German spirit, which finds threaded through its grand philosophic and romantic heritage an echo of the Protestant legend of the magician Johann Faustus, who reputedly sold his soul to the devil. The 15th century chapbooks, morality plays, and puppeteer performances that proliferated during the rise of Martin Luther’s radical revisiting of the individual’s relationship with morality set the stage for Goethe’s fine poetic rendering of the German legend, Faust. Goethe positions the bargain between Faust and the devil Mephistopheles as a dare. Faust claims he will never be satisfied with the glories and horrors of the world, but will eternally covet more and yet more agonies and ecstasies. Worldly experiences constantly accrue to his striving individualism as fodder for a self-consuming intensity that will never say ‘enough!’ Mephistopheles complies to provide a steady stream of carnal feasts, until the moment that Faust’s blindness to the cares of the world catches up to him. His turning point comes upon the destruction of those who welcome the stranger. From this act rises the personification of his uncaring, returning to haunt, to curse him.

Mann draws a parallel of the fall of Faust to the fall of the German people at the close of WWII. He describes the historical moment: a “nation now stands wild-eyed before the abyss,” witnessing its “ghastly failure.” He bemoans the “hundreds of thousands of Germans who committed acts before which humanity shudders.” Masses were swept up into “enraptured frenzy… under whose garish banners our youth marched with flashing eyes” (506). The extreme agony of this position in this moment in time and history is just another monstrous Faustian achievement. It is a hellish self-consumption which has its parallel in creative glory. Faust must inevitably fall in a “final reversal of meanings” to which Mann points out was always seeded in the core of the lamentable bargain for supremacy.

It is the inability or unwillingness to care, to love, which is the pivot on which Leverkühn and Faust draw their bargain. The downfall of Faust, for Goethe, is set in motion by the action of the Grey Crones. Care, with her sisters Want, Need and Debt finally catch up with him. Faust has just had his hit men torch the hut of the mythic figures Baucus and Philemon. Viewing from his walled castle, he claims to regret their destruction, but excuses himself: they were in the way of his newest most glorious project to drain the shoreline and expand human dominion. Faust observes the smoke rising from the ruins from his balcony. “What wanders here, of shadows spun?” he muses (11383). From the dark wisps four figures take form. In the next scene, at midnight, they approach his palace.

These four wraiths are spun from the ruins of the prime mythic symbols of hospitality to the stranger. In The Metamorphosis of Ovid, Baucus and Philemon are an elderly couple who live in a homely hut by a stagnant marsh. A beautiful linden tree grows nearby. When the Olympian gods Jupiter and Mercury wander on their journeys “in mortal guise” (273), they are refused shelter “at a thousand doors” (273). Finally they are welcomed by a humble old couple. Baucis and Philemon are poor, but invite the strangers in and feed them what they have available. As their wine bowl begins to replenish itself, the old couple realizes their guests are not ordinary. “Begging pardon for food so meager… they got set to kill their only goose” (275). To prevent this act of self-sacrifice, the gods reveal themselves. In return for their great hospitality, the hut of Baucus and Philemon is transformed into a temple in the middle of the swamp. Jupiter offers them a wish to fulfill, and they simply ask to serve the temple as long as they live, and once their time is up, they simply wish to die together. The story of Baucus and Philemon is a famous tale of the sacred honor of hospitality to strangers and the power of love. They are the original border keepers, welcoming refugees with warm hearts. Their story speaks of the gift of the stranger: the arrival of God at the door. To welcome the stranger is to tend that temple.

Faust is enraged at Baucus and Philemon’s resistance to his plans to requisition their shoreline. “That aged couple must surrender/I want their linden for my throne/The unowned timber-margin slender/Despoils me for the world I own” (11239–42). His plans to drain the ocean he considers his “achievement’s fullest sweep” as a “masterpiece of sapient man” (11246–8). Before Faust’s will to conquer, even the bloom of the linden tree annoys him. Listening to Faust’s complaint, Mephistopheles eggs him on, “one has to tire of being just,” he cajoles him, “have you not colonized long since?” (11272–4). Mephistopheles is, of course, well aware of the significance of Faust’s decision to clear Baucis and Philemon from their ancient, mythic home in his closing line of the scene: “There once was Naboth’s vineyard, too” (11289). Mephistopheles is referring to the Old Testament story of murder and betrayal of a man of God for his land by the the vilified Canaanite Priestess-Queen Jezebel. Complying with Faust’s wishes, he and his lackeys visit the old couple and set their hut ablaze. It is from the vapor of the rising ashes of the temple of hospitality that the Four Gray Crones of Want, Debt, Need and Care are formed. In the dark of night they approach Faust’s citadel on the hill.

Goethe makes a social point that the three sisters Want, Debt, and Need cannot enter to a wealthy man’s home. They proclaim how they are barred from access. Want slips into shadow, Debt passes into naught, and Need declares, “The pampered dismiss me from sight and from thought” (11389). But Care can “creep through the keyhole unseen” (11391). It is significant that from the smoky remains of the traditional honor of hospitality for the Sacred Guest, only Care remains with a chance to enter the fortress of the rich. Revealing herself, she demands of him, “Am I unknown to you?” (11432). Faust refuses her. “All I did was covet and attain/and crave afresh, and thus with might and gain/stormed through my life” (11437–39) he preens, with the excuse that an able man may seize and “stride upon this planet’s face” (11449). Care has given him one last chance to repent, but he has failed. “Desist! This will not work on me!/such caterwauling I despise” (11467–68). Even as he finally rejects her, he admits, “yet your power, o Care, insidiously vast/I shall not recognize it ever” (11493–94). Care then curses Faust: “Man is commonly blind throughout his life/My Faust, be blind then as you end it” (11497–98). Faust’s own proclamation is his curse: “I really don’t care, do U?”

It is the breath of Care upon Faust that renders him blind. In his hubris he is blind to care, and so as he believes his workers are draining the wetland for his new real estate enterprise, he cannot see that they are actually digging his grave. The height of his adventure, in blindness, becomes his final downfall. The curse of blindness to Care was placed upon him by the wraith formed from the ashes of those he killed: those who welcome strangers; those who honor the Sacred Guest. It is such blindness to the humanity of others that causes our downfall.

It is the act of hospitality that humanizes us. This is where we are leveled. The capacity for compassion, for Care, breaks open one’s heart. To destroy the Sacred Guest — the sacred act of recognizing the heart of another human being — is the ultimate mythic sacrilege, for in this betrayal lies the seed for all crimes against humanity. Care may be the only Gray Crone who might slip unnoticed into the hearts of the rich, but Goethe does not suggest that the rich might save the world through finally discovering compassion, or even worry. He is saying that the moral failure of willful, blind uncaring ultimately portends spiritual downfall.

Mann saw this in his own nation in 1945. This trade-off of the glorification of a concept of cultural supremacy at the expense of the sacred leveling involved in honoring common humanity can only end by falling as far as the fantasy flew high. In the days before the end of WWII, “Germany, a hectic flush on its cheeks, was reeling at the height of its savage triumphs, about to win the world on the strength of the one pact that it intended to keep and had signed with its own blood. Today, in the embrace of demons, a hand over one eye, the other staring into the horror, it plummets from despair into despair. When will it reach the bottom of the abyss?” (534). Mann describes the paradox at work by this inversion: that the moral lament inherent in Faust’s, Leverkühn’s, Germany’s (and America’s) ultimate betrayal of Care is foundational to the underlying structure of cultural concepts of supremacy. To finally stare into the horror of the real results on human lives that this deal with the devil begets is the Faustian payout. This reckoning is the beginning of being able to acknowledge the reality of the stranger at the door, the Sacred Guest, the asylum seeker, the child. To truly care for the incarcerated, separated children is to see them, to acknowledge the depth of the reality of their pain and terror. To truly care would shatter Melania’s heart, just as the revelations of the Holocaust shattered the heart of Thomas Mann.

Goethe rescues Faust from hell in the last scenes of Faust. In Dr. Faustus, Mann offers no such escape for the German people, except for one last note of hope. The act of embracing the abyss of despair that opens when facing our complicity in our nation’s monumental moral failure, he intimates, may somehow be an act tended by Grace. “To the very end, this dark tone poem permits no consolation, reconciliation, transfiguration,” (515) Mann writes. If there is a “miracle beyond faith” which can offer hope out of despair, it is in allowing the “dying note of sorrow” (515) to hang in the silence, to which the soul must continue to listen. This is what it means to hear the cries of frightened children. This is what it means to Care.

It is up to all of us.


Works Cited:

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang Von. Faust. Walter Arndt, trans. New York: WW Norton and Co, 2001. Print.

Mandelbaum, Allen, trans. The Metamorphosis of Ovid. New York: Harcourt, 1993. Print.

Mann, Thomas. Dr. Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend. John E. Woods, trans. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. Print.

Robbins, Ted. “This Jacket Caused A Racket: What, Exactly, Does Melania Trump Not Care About?” NPR Analysis. June 21, 20188:27 PM ET https://www.npr.org/2018/06/21/622410485/whats-up-with-melania-trump-s-i-really-don-t-care-do-u-jacket. Web. Accessed 21 June 2018.

Kirsten Ellen Johnsen

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Mythology Mom, Archetypal Activist, Investigative Philosopher