Recently in New York I went to a preview performance of a rarely staged piece of music theater called "The Damnation of Faust," by Hector Berlioz. In his introduction, the manager of the opera house jested about the relevance of the subject to the current economic crisis, and the audience gave a grim chuckle. As if we collectively knew that at the heart of the meltdown there was some kind of Faustian bargain.
I started thinking about what the expression could truly mean to someone for whom the Devil is fiction, or at least metaphor. Even people who don't believe they have a soul sometimes swear they'd sell it for x, y or z. Those we envy are often assumed to have traded with the Devil for their success. What is the truth we are alluding to, whether or not we believe in eternal damnation as a literal threat, or an imperishable something within us as a mindful actuality?
The legend of Dr. Faust, originally a German Renaissance alchemist, has inspired poets, playwrights and composers for centuries. A discontented old philosopher is visited in his study by Satan himself (billed as Mephistopheles). In exchange for signing his soul over to his diabolical guest, Faust gets another crack at youth, fucks the world's most beautiful women, enjoys luxuries that Robin Leach would drool over, on and on until the piper insists on payment. The moral: a life dedicated to the pursuit of personal ease and pleasure will be punished. For a literalist Christian, Faust is dragged into the flames of Hell, and that's that.
To a more flexible mental approach, the story's enduring hold suggests a multitude of possibilities. What are we really talking about when there's something, anything, we'd Sell Our Soul to the Devil for? If nationally we've sold our soul (henceforth SOS), as the audience that afternoon seemed to affirm, what was the asking price? If the meltdown is really the fruit of a Faustian bargain, even as metaphor, what did our duped side get for it? And if the devil is bogus, whom did we SOS to? What does this figment represent, and what desired object did it deliver at such disastrous cost?
Because without desire, we'd never SOS. The Soul (pretending we have one) is the most precious item at our inner disposal, the source of our vitality, our filament in the web of existence, our Isness, and we wouldn't surrender it for just anything. Desire must be the motivating factor, prolonged and unfulfilled desire, and its forms are as infinite as humankind, as insistent as an infomercial.
To SOS, there must be an object of desire, be it person, treasure, substance or office, without which we think life won't be worth living. Something that we imagine will make us so happy that to get it, we'll part with our most precious item. Obviously our most precious item isn't doing its job, and a soul that isn't doing its job is already the devil's perfect tool. The filament is severed, the web unraveled, the Isness lost. We feel an alien emptiness where the soul ought to be. Why not then hand it over to whatever devil (Mephistopheles or Madoff) promises to heal the ache?
To the planet's masters, of course, the deal delivered a cornucopia of coddled luxury that would have left Faust aghast. Till recently this plutocratic domain was borne aloft, like the gondola of a zeppelin, by the relentless inflating of the middle class with the hot air of consumerism. The campaign began in the Twenties, halted temporarily for Depression and war, then took advantage of America's postwar economic boom to bring undreamed-of convenience to millions of homes. But the demonic side was always present, warned against as early as the Fifties by C. Wright Mills, who saw alienated office and factory workers acquiescing zombie-like in the creation of a permanent war economy, kept in place by the political, military, and economic elite of either party.
His cautioning voice and others (like the Beats and later the hippies) were submerged by the twin tsunamis of TV and credit cards, innovations which wiped out the lessons of the Great Depression. In 1929 there were radios in barely 30% of American households. Penetration more than doubled by FDR's inauguration, but nobody needed commercials to tell them what they lacked.
After the war, TV's invasive, mesmerizing imagery created an entirely different ethos of lack, based not on scarcity but abundance. Where not having enough had been the curse of an ailing prewar economy, it became a way of life for postwar shoppers, a commercially manipulated appetite, inculcating the value system, currently tottering, whose by-product turned out to be a restlessness incapable of saying Enough. More natural paths to contentment were obscured by an American culture "demented with the mania of owning things," in Walt Whitman's phrase. SOS.
But now, with the dirigible crashing in flames, what will happen to the manipulation, the appetite, and indeed to the culture itself? Is more hot air the solution? Will we turn to the government to help us continue buying stuff we don't need with money we don't have? (Missiles as well as cosmetics.) Will we continue to SOS, or can our public discourse begin to examine alternatives to the devil's bargain of the past sixty, and especially the past thirty years?
In Berlioz' drama, Mephistopheles traps Faust with the demand for "your oath to serve me." "Got To Serve Somebody," Dylan reminds us. Maybe the meltdown is upon us because America's soul has been serving the economy, instead of the other way round. If the economy actually served the people, who are truly the country's soul, goods and services would flow where human needs, not financial ones, direct them. The economy would hasten to deliver health care, housing, education and more, if it weren't enslaved by the addiction to unlimited private profit which has at last brought capitalism to its knees.
But the economy has no will of its own. It isn't a living thing, even if it appears to be dying. It's a set of concepts meant to facilitate an ongoing result, the well-being of a community and, as now we see, of a species and a planet. And the real Faustian bargain was that we looked for well-being in all the wrong places. We mastered production for profit until profit became master. Could it be time for the overconsuming hamster to get off the wheel? Time to examine the failures of distribution that tarnish all our successes at production?
If capitalism fails, what will happen to innovation, many experts cluck. But how many more toys do we need, after a century and a half of astonishing technological breakthroughs? What would happen if we said Enough, and directed our innovative focus to distribution, and in global terms? It would be a way to win our soul back, for sure.
Because the soul, besides being our filament in the web of existence, is the link to whatever makes us prefer kindness to cruelty, and generosity to selfishness. If we lose it, we are truly doomed. If we thought affluence could take its place, we were wrong. A healthy economy may produce necessities, conveniences, and luxuries, but to swill in the last before all members are equipped with at least the first is a sure warning of decadence and collapse.
Will inherent goodwill prevail over collective psychosis? In a culture that puts a price on everything, can the soul survive? Faust hurtles into flame at the end of Berlioz' opera, but Marguerite, his abandoned lover, ascends to heaven as angelic voices celebrate her redemption with soft blissful melody. Here's the good news: the only devil is the voice in our mind that persuades us to delay contentment. The soul can always be revived. Greater riches than all the decades have dreamed of await an America that wakes up to tranquility within and community without.