Art and a Deal with the Devil


I happened across an interesting insight yesterday while sitting in a waiting room. I have never read Faust, and so I opened it up on my phone to start reading. I have a fairly vague notion of the overall plot of the book, and so when I started reading I was unsure if I was reading some kind of preface, the wrong book, or something else entirely.

I discovered that Faust begins with a prelude in which the play-house Manager, the Poet (who writes the plays) and the Merry-Andrew (a jester) are talking about their upcoming play, (the actual plot of Faust) a first for them on the German stage. The Manager is nervous because he believes the Germans to be well-read, and to thus expect a spectacle that has never been seen before. Therefore, he desires a play that is fresh and new, something that will set the crowd ablaze with passion and delight, enough that throngs are rushing and shoving to procure tickets. In anticipation, he turns to the Poet to deliver.

The Poet, being enraptured with Art in and of itself, bemoans his plight of having to employ his talents for such a banal purpose. That his services are sought to appease the writhing masses he feels a slight to not only himself, but to Art itself:

Speak not to me of yonder motley masses,
Whom but to see, puts out the fire of Song!
Hide from my view the surging crowd that passes,
And in its whirlpool forces us along!

For the artist, the expectation to deliver, the requirement to please the crowd can be vexing. It can be a feeling of the lack of mastery, of being swept away.

For Art becomes to the artist the height of human endeavor, the crown of rationality, the summit of humankind’s endowed dominion over creation, for it is the closest approach to heaven and the nearest likeness to the divine. The Poet wishes to abstract himself and his art from its concrete reality, to contemplate the Beautiful in its own right, to pursue art for its own sake as an end unto itself:

No, lead me where some heavenly silence glasses
The purer joys that round the Poet throng,–
Where Love and Friendship still divinely fashion
The bonds that bless, the wreaths that crown his passion!

For the Poet, the pure intellectual apprehension of Art is to apprehend Beauty in its universal and transcendental reality. In this transport of rapture, Love and Friendship become one with Art, in its purest and most sublime form.

This kernel of creativity that lifts the mind and the heart to its source is constitutive of humanity’s fundamental being, at least as far as the artist is concerned. Such delicate beauty is as fragile as it is ravishing, for even the deepest inexpressible longings that escape in a breath are ravaged and brought to ruin in their very performance; the moment they are brought to form they begin to disappear:

Ah, every utterance from the depths of feeling
The timid lips have stammeringly expressed,–
Now failing, now, perchance, success revealing,–
Gulps the wild Moment in its greedy breast;
Or oft, reluctant years its warrant sealing,
Its perfect stature stands at last confessed!

Thus, the artist wishes to bring every creative instinct to bear in its perfection as it appears and is revealed to the mind; the pressures of deadlines and performance and approval only serve to sound the death knell for art. A pleased and jubilant crowd, the laudations of fame and the dazzling of wealth are nothing- in fact, they are the very marks of failure, for Art can only be seen for its beauty and depth after the Moment:

What dazzles, for the Moment spends its spirit:
What’s genuine, shall Posterity inherit.

The Merry-Andrew mocks the Poet for his principles, asking where fun is to be had in Posterity. Life, after all, must be more than abstract contemplation. Rather, he desires the cheers and the roses and the money. And as much as the Jester may love Folly, he is, after all, a businessman- the more butts in the seats, the more money is to be made.

Posterity! Don’t name the word to me!
If I should choose to preach Posterity,
Where would you get contemporary fun?
That men will have it, there’s no blinking:
A fine young fellow’s presence, to my thinking,
Is something worth, to every one.
Who genially his nature can outpour,
Takes from the People’s moods no irritation;
The wider circle he acquires, the more
Securely works his inspiration.
Then pluck up heart, and give us sterling coin!
Let Fancy be with her attendants fitted,–
Sense, Reason, Sentiment, and Passion join,–
But have a care, lest Folly be omitted!

The Manager tends to agree with the jester, and wants the Poet to get on with writing something amusing and fun, something that will get the crowd talking. For him, art is about the lowest common denominator:

Only by mass you touch the mass; for any
Will finally, himself, his bit select:
Who offers much, brings something unto many,
And each goes home content with the effect,
If you’ve a piece, why, just in pieces give it:
A hash, a stew, will bring success, believe it!

This sentiment, of course, is sacrilege to the Poet. He feels that to bring his Art down into the sewers and the commonality of all is to become less than himself. In the end, such a request indicates to the artist that those who require such work of him perceive the masters of art to be those who can deliver something cheap and quick:

You do not feel, how such a trade debases;
How ill it suits the Artist, proud and true!
The botching work each fine pretender traces
Is, I perceive, a principle with you.

The Manager, being a pragmatist, is not put off in the slightest by such a reproach, but rather sees virtue in utility. The Poet feels this is little better than slavery:

Go, find yourself a more obedient slave!
What! shall the Poet that which Nature gave,
The highest right, supreme Humanity,
Forfeit so wantonly, to swell your treasure?

Here the distinction between the Manager and the Poet is seen quite unmistakably. The Manager perceives art to be a means to an end; in this case, the poet’s work gets people to come to the theatre, to stare dumbfounded at the spectacle, to tell their friends and family about the wonders they have seen, and thus to repeat the cycle over and over, ad infinitum. The virtue of art is in its utility, and as far as it serves such a purpose is it considered ‘a work of art.’

For the Poet, however, to valuate Art in such a utilitarian way is akin to making Heaven the servant of Earth. The artist understands Art to be the highest endowment of human nature, for it is the nearest means by which we are related to God, for Art is to effect the imposition of form on matter, so that what was not (at least in the artistic sense) comes to be. Such a gift is as precious as Reason, as costly as Life, as beautiful as the Good, and thus the artist feels the sting of death to lower Art to serve such banal employments. It is to give away humanity’s birthright, it is to become sub-human, for then human nature, which is meant to contemplate God in all his Beauty and Perfection, is subsumed in the desire for a lesser good, for the pursuit of shiny rocks and colored paper. It is, in anticipation of Faust, to make a deal with the Devil.

In such a principled reaction, in which the artist feels to be hitting upon the very telos of human existence, lies a great danger, however, in which the Poet takes upon his art and his mastery perhaps too transcendent a measure:

Whence o’er the heart his empire free?
The elements of Life how conquers he?
Is’t not his heart’s accord, urged outward far and dim,
To wind the world in unison with him?
When on the spindle, spun to endless distance,
By Nature’s listless hand the thread is twirled,
And the discordant tones of all existence
In sullen jangle are together hurled,
Who, then, the changeless orders of creation
Divides, and kindles into rhythmic dance?
Who brings the One to join the general ordination,
Where it may throb in grandest consonance?
Who bids the storm to passion stir the bosom?
In brooding souls the sunset burn above?
Who scatters every fairest April blossom
Along the shining path of Love?
Who braids the noteless leaves to crowns, requiting
Desert with fame, in Action’s every field?
Who makes Olympus sure, the Gods uniting?
The might of Man, as in the Bard revealed.

The problem with trying to act like a god is that one can begin to think that one actually is a god. The unmistakable lines between the created and the divine can become blurry, especially when those lines and contours are being traced by one’s own hand. The artist can certainly not make too much of Art or of Beauty, for Beauty is, as a transcendental, ultimately interchangeable with the Good. However, the artist can certainly make too much of his art, thinking himself to be the source and Master of it, rather than humbly standing before Beauty in gratitude and awe. It can become its own deal with the devil.

The Merry-Andrew, of course, loves nothing more than to see men think they are gods, and more amusingly to see them try to act the part. In displaying more wisdom than is wont to his name, the jester taunts the Poet to write something that displays his self-proclaimed mastery over life:

So, these fine forces, in conjunction,
Propel the high poetic function,
As in a love-adventure they might play!
You meet by accident; you feel, you stay,
And by degrees your heart is tangled;
Bliss grows apace, and then its course is jangled;
You’re ravished quite, then comes a touch of woe,
And there’s a neat romance, completed ere you know!
Let us, then, such a drama give!
Grasp the exhaustless life that all men live!

The Poet, perhaps struck by the sting of the Merry-Andrew’s jest, begins to equivocate upon his former sentiments. While perhaps not denying the strength of his words, he- perhaps in humility, perhaps in shame- relocates them to another time, to the ‘then’ when all was right with the world, to a time when Art was unshackled from demands and stages and crowds and money:

Then give me back that time of pleasures,
While yet in joyous growth I sang,–
When, like a fount, the crowding measures
Uninterrupted gushed and sprang!
Then bright mist veiled the world before me,
In opening buds a marvel woke,
As I the thousand blossoms broke,
Which every valley richly bore me!

Of course, the artist is looking back to a time that has never existed, for the ideal is never the real. But lodged in these rapturous lines is a spark of longing, an ember of desire for Beauty in its utter fierceness and purity, where the Beautiful and the Good and the True lose all distinction and meaning, springing wild and free from the fountain of Existence and Being:

I nothing had, and yet enough for youth–
Joy in Illusion, ardent thirst for Truth.
Give, unrestrained, the old emotion,
The bliss that touched the verge of pain,
The strength of Hate, Love’s deep devotion,–
O, give me back my youth again!

The Merry-Andrew gets in one more shot, reminding the artist that youth is for battle and for girls. Since the artist has neither, as both are aware, the jester humbly (and no doubt with a smirk) suggests the Poet simply get back to work; after all, they’ll not think less of him for it, especially if money is to be made.

But that familiar harp with soul
To play,–with grace and bold expression,
And towards a self-erected goal
To walk with many a sweet digression,–
This, aged Sirs, belongs to you,
And we no less revere you for that reason:
Age childish makes, they say, but ’tis not true;
We’re only genuine children still, in Age’s season!

Thus in the Poet and in the Jester we find both the wisdom and the folly of Art on its path towards the Beautiful. Beauty is to be sought, but never proclaimed found; pursued, but never deemed captured; traced, but its contours never considered complete. The artist may long for purity and the transcendent, but he cannot contain it or obtain it in its fullness.

After all, the gods never have an empty stomach.

The spark must be enough, the seed kept in good faith, anticipating the blossoming to come. Art becomes a sort of eschatology, never realized ‘then,’ certainly not realized in its fullness ‘now,’ but waiting for the consummation of all things, when Beauty will be perceived in all his fury and perfection.

*all quotation’s come from Bayard Taylor’s translation, which can be read here.

*for more in-depth clarification on Beauty as a transcendental, see my previous post The Art of Purgatory.

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