Saturday, January 28, 2006

Faustian bargain basement

In both highbrow and lowbrow adaptations of the Faust legend, the protagonist strikes a hard bargain with the devil. In exchange for his immortal soul, he gets his three wishes. These constitute the stereotypical temptations to which men are wont: fame, fortune, adulation, power, the hand of the world’s most beautiful woman, and so on.

Not terribly imaginative, to be sure. But what it lacks in originality, it makes up for in logicality.

Indeed, it’s logicality is a dramatic necessity. After all, fiction, being fiction, has to be plausible to compel the willing suspension of disbelief. We know it isn’t true, so we only pretend it’s true if doesn’t overtax our credulity. Indeed, fiction must bend over backwards to be realistic at a psychological level.

Reality doesn’t have to be plausible. Reality needn’t be realistic. Reality need only be. It already is. Plausible or not, it’s true. So all plausible fiction must make sense in a way that real life need not and, often as not, does not.

It stands to reason that if you were going to sell your soul to the devil, you’d demand something pretty yummy as compensation for a fiery immortality—maybe a cross between the lifestyle of Hugh Hefner and the Vanderbilts, or something on that order. Before you signed your name in blood, there would be some tough negotiations in a seller’s market.

And yet, in real life, men and women, every day and every year, sell their immortal soul to the devil for cut-rate prices. It’s a buyer’s market. He gets them on the cheap.

Yesterday a phone call brought news that one of my older cousins had died. I remember, years go, visiting the hospital when she underwent quadruple bypass surgery. She developed heart disease from hard drinking and chain smoking.

I, and other family, formed a pre-op prayer circle. Her surgery was a great success—after which she promptly resumed her life of hard drinking and chain smoking.

When her dad lay on his deathbed, she and her husband went down to hold vigil. Not at the hospital, though. Not by his beside.

No, they camped out at the local Tavern, night after night, until he died a week later. They told the bartender to charge it to dad’s account since he was dying, and the estate would cover the tab.

One night, around three or four in the morning, when the bartender told my cousin that they had overstayed closing hours, my cousin unfurled a vocabulary that would do a Marine sergeant proud. I wasn’t there, mind you, but I have it on good authority.

As it turns out, her dad died practically penniless. He was pushing eighty while pasturing a shoestring church in Elma, WA—a small working class town halfway between nowhere in general and nowhere in particular. So much for the estate.

My cousin was a daughter of the manse who turned her back on the church with a vengeance. She was bedridden in her final years. And she died the death of the unrighteous.

If Mann or Marlow or Goethe had made my cousin the lead character, his work would be accounted an artistic failure. No one would strike a pact with the devil to be bitter and miserable in this life—much less the next. That strains credulity beyond the breaking point.

That’s why, in fiction, sin is always aglitter with the gilded sheen of a lustrous temptation. However unpardonable, at least it’s understandable.

Many men find the Bible unbelievable. Surely things like that can’t happen.

Speaking for myself, it’s not the Bible I find unbelievable, but reality.

For many men, the Bible defies reason. For me, reality defies reason.

What is too incredible for fiction, what any decent editor would leave on the cutting room floor, that’s the stuff of a fallen life in a fallen world. Only the word of God can make sense of a senseless world.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sorry to hear about your cousin. But thank you for sharing the story. It really makes one consider what a short life we have on earth, and what we're living for, and why, in light of the eternity set before us. Thanks again, Steve. I'm grateful for the lesson.