Wednesday 11 May 2016


'Baphometh' - Painting by Marilyn Manson

Rarely does an urban legend become a cultural trope and then become a major behavioural paradigm, but the Faustian myth did just that. Beginning with the legend of a Renaissance necromancer in Germany who reputedly sold his soul to the Devil in return for magical powers, only to have the Devil reclaim him on his death, the myth has become the standard all-encompassing story of the 'Faustian Pact' - doing business or working with the forces of moral evil for power, influence or riches, and losing your integrity, soul or purity as a result. But in many ways the story is even more important, representing the fundamental break on which all modern counterculture is based.

The orgins of the story are, in an appropriately modern way, rather confused. As many as three different Faustus' were at large at the time, and the legends were attached to a lesser degree to all of them; likewise his birthplace, career and death are all subject to much conjecture. But the most comprehensive account of the real Faust (Leo Ruickbie's excellent biography 'Faustus: The Life and Times of a Renaissance Magician') explains that the behaviours assigned to him were really just the posthumous inventions of a jealous contemporary rival. So in one way, Faust was simply the victim of an epic diss - or a flame war, albeit one involving actual magicians and one therefore more likely to involve actual flames.  

It could be argued that Adam and Eve made the first Faustian pact in the Garden of Eden, in a rather raw deal involving a snake and an apple. But the difference is that whereas the concept of 'the original sin' is based upon a loss of innocence and a perpetual tendency to corruption, the Faustian ideal is about turning your back on the mainstream, on conformity, on 'virtue' as it is perceived at the time. As Czech film director Jan Svankmajer put it: "Sooner or later, everyone is faced with the same dillemma - either to live in conformity with the misty promises of institutionalised 'happiness', or to rebel and take the path away from civilisation, whatever the results". And it is this notion of rebellion, on turning your back on society and going your own way, which is at the heart of alternative culture; from Robert Johhnson's alleged deal with the Devil at the crossroads, to Led Zeppelin doing the same, to punk rock and goth and even the 'God of Fuck'. So yes - basically, Faust invented rock & roll as we know it.

The founding myth of the Satanic roots of the blues, the fear of the 'devil's interval', the threat of sex or violence or drugs or perversion; all of them are based on the Faustian rejection of a mainstream mentality. Who didn't make their own Faustian pact when they first applied warpaint, torn clothes or spikes, and in some way made a silent commitment to the 'dark side' - that daunting concept that they were scared to travel towards?

But there is a harder edge to the myth, too - that of the imperative to betray. Anyone can build a vast reserve of social capital from 'doing the right thing' (whatever that is), or being dependable, or by having integrity; but maybe this only makes sense when you throw it away. Don't we all have those moments when we think 'fuck it' and walk away, or walk on in? Maybe it takes a certain kind of idealism to seize the chance to sell out, to surrender to corruption, to invert our personalities. The true cultural creations of the Faustian myth are Don Giovanni, the Nietzschean ubermensch, Don Juan, Dracula, the supervillain, the megalomaniac, and the rock star - the Faustian that steps out into a blank, nihilstic void and creates themselves anew.

The Faustian ideal is really just us opening the door of the church, peering into the sunlight, and going out to play...with a cruel glint in our eyes.

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