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Faust, Mailer, and the Comfort of Evil

Norman Mailer famously stated that technology was the work of the devil. Sometimes it’s best to keep the devil close.

Faust, Mailer, and the Comfort of Evil

Norman Mailer famously stated that technology was the work of the devil. Sometimes it’s best to keep the devil close.

Faust: So who are you, I’d like to know?
Mephisto: A humble part of that great power / Which always means evil, always does good. (Goethe’s Faust)

Lately, I’ve been feeling like Faust — more like Goethe’s version, rather than those of Marlowe or Mann. You know, the guy who sells his soul to the devil to have experiences he otherwise would not have in his life as a cloistered scholar. Of course there are many differences between me and the legendary academic, but, like Faust, in my striving for the ultimate meaning in the universe, the reality of of it often seems too, well, real. Yet, instead of turning to alchemy, sorcery, and black magic, I look toward networked digital technologies for my escape. My Mephistopheles didn’t come to me in the guise of a poodle, but as computer-generated avatar carrying a super computer under his arm.

What exactly is Faust hoping to escape? Is “escape” the right word? In a way, Faust is like all of us: he inhabits a reality of his own creation. His life is a combination of external factors and choices he made to form his current reality — a part of the work-a-day world that no longer excites him. So, in his turn to the black arts, he is looking to escape his current life. However, since his reality has left him unfulfilled and longing, he must seek meaning elsewhere and through other means. Faust embraces the verboten, the immoral, the sensuous in order to eventually find redemption. Yet, while his decision threatens to damn him, for Faust, it is a necessary choice in order to experience every facet of creation. As I state elsewhere, “Faust acts by himself, for himself, without relying on an intermediary like the church.” In one respect (the church’s), this is arrogant and dangerous, but in another (Goethe’s), the individual has his own relationship with the divine and will ultimately be accountable for his choices and actions.

I guess I have been thinking about images of evil in literature lately. Mailer, like Goethe, seems to see evil as a necessary component of good, a shadow to the light. In On God, Mailer’s conception of the Devil seems akin to Goethe’s in that they are both challenges to an orthodoxy. Goethe’s Mephistopheles is a component of creation, one that acts on the Lord’s behalf:

Man’s very quick to slacken in his effort,
What he likes best is Sunday peace and quiet;
So I’m glad to give him a devil—for his own good,
To prod and poke and incite him as a devil should. (ll. 102-105)

Reminiscent of Job, Goethe’s Lord allows Mephistopheles to tempt Faust, not as a test of the latter’s faith, but as a way “to prod and poke and incite” him to strive to be better. Goethe’s Mephistopheles is a necessary part of a hierarchical order: in challenging and attempting to undermine the Lord’s creation, he validates and reinforces it. Mailer, too, see the Devil as challenger: God hopes to make his creation better, and the Devil hopes to maim it (On God 36). The Devil, then, for both Goethe and Mailer, is a spirit of negation who attempts to undermine and perhaps replace God’s work, but perhaps a necessary component in creation.

For Mailer, the Devil seems to be similar to an orthodox conception: an accuser or an adversary. In On God, he conceives of God and the Devil as equally matched in their battle over our the souls of humanity. The individual human is a complex mixture of good and evil, with neither dominating absolutely (21). In fact, Mailer sees the individual as an important force in the outcome of this battle: “We are the third force as don’t always know which side we are on in any given moment, or whether on another occasion we are independent of both” (17). With our actions, we can actively oppose or support either side, with the outcome not necessarily matching the intent.

For this reason, I think Mailer makes Jesus or Yeshua the first-person protagonist of The Gospel According to the Son. While the first-person narrative is problematic from a logistical standpoint, it emphasizes the battle between God and the Devil within the all-too-human Yeshua. The first-person struggle seems to be an important part of Yeshua’s quest for his personal identity, his reconciliation with what people need him to be (hero), and what Satan ultimately stands for. His journey is a quest for good, but in any quest for good, one necessarily must confront evil. In fact, evil must be kept close, both as a reminder and a temptation. That is, evil reminds us of our path by offering comfort, an easy path away from our struggles.

During his fast and subsequent temptation in the desert, Yeshua discovers the most dangerous aspect of the Devil:

I was amazed. He did not inspire fear but comfort. Now I knew how it might feel to be a sinner in a low tavern drinking wine. The labors of this long fast were gone; I felt balm come to my limbs. I could talk to the Devil; he was comfortable. If his odor could leave me uneasy, it also offered sympathy to desires I had not yet allowed myself to feel. (Gospel 48)

Comfort suggests an ease, a satisfaction that necessitates a waning of the critical capacity. Like a ripe piece of fruit, the Devil’s words taste sweet but hint at an underlying rot. Indeed, Mailer uses foul odors as a motif throughout Gospel; they always seem to accompany evil, like Yeshua’s breath after his encounter with the Devil, the unclean brigand that is possessed by demons, women and lust, and the “odor of sanctity” (which I’ll come back to momentarily) (80).

Yeshua’s observation about comfort seems to allude to Faust’s own deal with Mephistopheles. Mephisto wins if Faust is ever comfortable:

If ever you see me loll as ease,
Then it’s all yours, you can have it, my life!
If ever you fool me with flatteries
Into feeling satisfied with myself,
Or tempt me with visions of luxuries,
Well, that’s my last day on this earth,
I’ll bet you! (ll. 1464-1470)

For Goethe’s Faust, the ultimate sin is a lack of motion, a satisfaction that comes with comfort and ease and stagnation. This makes sense, since Faust’s redemption is ultimately to come through his ceaseless striving for more of what life can offer, even though, as the Lord states in the Prologue, that “As long as man strives, he is bound to err” (l. 77).

Yeshua seems to have the most disdain for the pious, or those who are so comfortable in their thoughts, beliefs, and practices that they have become evil. Yeshua makes a practice of eating with the sinners, a practice looked down upon by the Pharisees, so much so that Yeshua begins to wonder about the “the godlessness of many who were rich” — who did “not use their wealth to make others happy” (83). As Yeshua gains further experience with the “rich,” the “pious,” and the “righteous,” he begins to see them as narrow of mind and shallow of focus, slaves to a tradition that aligns them with an obedience to an absolute Law, material concerns, a severity of temperament, and an intolerance of difference. Yeshua states: “The righteous could only see my efforts as the Devil’s labor” (88); he continues: the pious cannot be honored, “for no matter what care is taken to satisfy them by studious observance of the laws, they can never be satisfied” (121). These conservative attitudes are what ultimately deliver Yeshua into the hands of the Law: “The rich among them, and the pious, prevailed; how could the Messiah be a poor man with a crude accent? God would not allow it!” (239). The irony is that the Devil has ensnared the pious with comfortable rules, habits, and attitudes so that they were unable to see the truth in Yeshua’s message. At the novel’s end, Yeshua and Mailer seem to become one in role of the prophet:

Still, it must also be said that many of those who now call themselves Christian are the rich and pious themselves, and are no better, I fear, than the Pharisees. Indeed, they are often greater in their hypocrisy then those who condemned me then. (239)

I can’t help but be reminded of Mailer’s depiction of the “flag conservatives” in Why Are We at War?:

Commitment, patriotism, and dedication will become all-pervasive national values again (with all the hypocrisy attendant). Once we become a twenty-first-century embodiment of the old Roman empire, moral reform can stride back into the picture. (52)

While these flag conservatives have recently suffered a democratic upset, they seem to maintain their righteous posturing, opposing change that will separate them from their wealth or ideologies even if it ultimately helps the poor and disenfranchised. The words and actions of Yeshua threatened the enfranchised powers of his day, just as progressive social and moral ideas question the right’s ideology today. The reaction from the right seems to be the same: resist at all costs. For, as Yeshua observes, “A man of small mind develops a hard shell so that he can protect his small thoughts” (189).

So, I mentioned my Mephistopheles at the beginning, and I’d like to close by following up on that. Throughout my experience with Mailer’s writing and ideas, I have always been struck with his distrust of “technology.” By “technology,” I think Mailer means anything that makes life ostensibly too easy — you know — comfortable. This includes everything from air travel to computers. In The Big Empty, Mailer states that he considers it a “point of honor” not to use a computer (5); he continues:

To look at the screen all day is to take one down below the spiritual punishment of those who had to bang away at typewriters all their lives. It’s hard to explain how agreeable it is to do one’s writing in longhand. You feel that all of your body and some of your spirit has come down to your fingertips. (5)

For Mailer, that which is worth doing, particularly the creative process of writing, is worth going through a process, a labor to complete. He states that with computers and the Internet:

[K]nowledge is now easy to acquire. In my ancient time (my boyhood), if you wanted to learn something, you had to get up on a Saturday morning, go to the library, pass through a kindly or cruel librarian — especially if you were a kid — and end up having to know how to search for the information you wanted. And in the course of it, you can into contact with the books which had their own redolence. You were living in a cultural medium that was resonant. Now, it’s electronic. (Empty 8-9)

He takes this idea perhaps to its logical conclusion in On God, where he argues that technology:

[M]ay be the most advanced, extreme, and brilliant creation of the Devil — for technology, of course, does incredible things — then you get a real sense of why some people would be more leagued with the Devil than devoted to God. Half the human universe must now be on the side of technology. (18)

Indeed, technology is a devil that continues to get more powerful. It’s no mystery to most in this room that I sold my soul years ago. Through this deal with Mephistopheles, I’m much more powerful than I was before computers and the Internet. In fact, most of my work takes less time and effort, including keeping in touch with the hundreds of “friends” from my past, allowing me to express my creativity through photography and digital storytelling, and communicating with a broader audience. I might even say that it’s because of technology that I have a Ph.D., a job, and a pleasurable life.

I would suggest that while the ultimate promise of technology is comfort, we’re not there yet. In many ways, technology makes our lives more difficult and challenging and often more fleeting. With a book, we can hold it, smell it, be assured by its physicality. We have no such assurances form the digital world, where a lightning strike or arrant keystroke can easily annihilate a lifetime’s worth of work. The challenges of becoming digital are now facing us — because we are becoming digital. Perhaps it’s not digital technology that is a product of the Devil, but the lack so far or a digital medium that can rival the novel. No medium is inherently evil — just the uses we make of it. Like Faust, we will make plenty of errors while we strive to find our way in the new digital world, but ultimately we still might find a way to redemption.

Presented in October 2009 at the Norman Mailer Society Conference.