Why grinnst thou at me, thou hollow skull; save that thy brain, confused like mine, once sought bright day in the sombre twilight dull, and whose lust for truth went wretchedly astray?
As in most Anglophilic countries, today is Halloween in the U.S. What better character, especially in Southern U.S. Romantic mindsets, is there than Faust? He that forsakes everything wholesome and wise in exchange for power and knowledge beyond compare that he cannot at all control.
Faust barters his soul with Mephistopheles in exchange for the beautiful Gretchen and for knowledge beyond this world. Goethe’s Faust follows alchemical understanding of the world through Renaissance Magic and pseudoscientific understandings. These facets are interesting in that practitioners of these magics, “sciences,” and philosophies believed that through faith, knowledge, and power man could control the legions of Satan through naming them and bringing them to submission. The Faust legend demonstrates fully that this cannot happen.
In my own part of the world, individuals that have reached iconic folkloric status are surrounded by whispers, indictments, or proven charges of having “sold their souls” for their work. Huey Long of Louisiana was a populist politician in the early 20th century whose good was overshadowed by the pall of the corruption he allowed during his power (this is immortalized as the Kingfisher in film and novel formats). Robert Johnson, itinerant bluesman of the South, sold his soul at the Crossroads in Greenville, Mississippi to play the blues, dying under mysterious circumstances in 1938. These are just two such examples.
Faust, specifically as written by Goethe, has been institutionalized in Southern U.S. romantic literature, art, and folklore. Faulkner made a career writing about divine justice and retribution; Cormac McCarthy uses this in a fair more nihilistic bent. This can even be seen as the racist institution of the Southern Court Room in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It is seen the in plays of Tennessee Williams and in the prose of Flannery O’Conner.
Happy Halloween all!