Posts Tagged ‘Doctor Faustus’

On death in literature (1)

September 4, 2017

I hope readers will bear with me, and not find the following posts too gloomy, but occasionally in a novel I come across a death which strikes me deeply. Characters die in novels all the time, in all manner of ways, and most of the time, because we are plot-driven, we register the death and then continue with the remaining characters and the rest of the story.

We are the only species that know about death, in that we must one day die; at that time, everything ends for us (pace those believers in an afterlife) and yet everything also goes on for everyone else, as if we had never been. What, if anything, comes next, we know not, as Hamlet once told us about ‘that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’; everyone is the first person to die. It has long struck me that we devised religion as a way of coping with these awful certainties, and until relatively recently religion has done a fair, if obscurantist job; however, as the twentieth century progressed, and with it the gradual disappearance of religion from the lives of many, especially in the West, we have been inevitable brought to face our end unsupported, and our main response seems to have been to try and ensure we live as long as possible…

We are (mostly) creatures endowed with reason, and memory; we can think and reflect, and we develop attachments to people, places and things which can go beyond the merely instinctive, beyond the emotional, to another level, and here is our problem. Often we avoid, and novelists are not exempt from this ostrich-posture.

Jonathan Swift, in his Gulliver’s Travels, satirised the idea of living for ever, or even living as long as possible, far better than anyone has done since. The Struldbruggs are immortal; some of the ones met in the third part of Gulliver’s voyage are over six hundred years old, and they are the unhappiest creatures alive. Because, of course, for everyone life goes on: children want inheritances, younger folk want and need jobs; language changes over time and after six hundred years who will understand us and the way we speak? The immortals are an encumbrance. Does this remind you of anything today?

At the other end of the spectrum of taste and decorum, let’s put Jane Austen for a few moments. There are deaths in her novels, but only passim, at the very edges of the story, of minor characters, in order to facilitate an inheritance or shift the plot in a different direction, usually financial or marital: nowhere is such an unsuitable subject allowed to impinge with any depth. Eventually, at some vague point long after the end of the novel, the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse will ‘pass away’ and Emma and Mr Knightley will finally move to Donwell Abbey…

Religion long determined artistic responses to death. In Marlowe‘s Doctor Faustus, the eponymous hero’s death must accompany Lucifer’s taking of his soul at the end of the contracted twenty-four years, but what horrifies Faustus and creates the terror at the end of the play is not so much the devils tearing Faustus limb from limb as his realisation of what eternity in Hell means; he thinks he could put up with damnation if there were an end in sight, but of course this is just what there is not. Similarly the young Stephen Dedalus, in Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is driven to distraction by the famous hell-fire sermon delivered during a school retreat: the walls of Hell are four thousand miles thick, and eternity is more years than all the grains of sand on all the seashores of the world… and it’s his destination for his sexual sins.

To be fair, religion recognised how difficult it was for the individual mortal to contemplate and prepare for death and did its best to help; in mediaeval times there was the Ars Moriendi, a treatise on how to die well, and, recognising that such help is still needed in our secular age, the Catholic church in England and Wales has just launched a new website The Art of Dying Well, which offers much careful and thoughtful advice, obviously from its particular perspective. But for religion, of course, death is a beginning – mors ianua vitae – which many cannot now credit.

Adam and Eve, in Milton‘s Paradise Lost, are the only humans who don’t know what Death is. In the Garden of Eden, there is no death, all are immortal, but Death is a latent threat which will be actualised by their disobedience of God’s command not to eat of the forbidden fruit. And the fallen pair are aware that they will die, that Death is part of their punishment, but still don’t know what it actually is. Will it come immediately and strike them into oblivion, or is it to be feared and awaited at some distant moment? Genesis has Adam live for several hundred years… But the point is, Milton recognises, understands and explores this psychological fear, this existential angst, which struck those first two mythical humans, our ancestors.

to be continued

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On curiosity

February 6, 2016

Are you a curious person? Are you always asking questions? Do you like to learn something new every day? Some of my former students may well recall my offering them a new fact for the day, or announcing when I had learned something new from one of them.

Curiosity must be an essential attribute of human nature, otherwise we would never have got where we are today. There is general curiosity, and then there is a more intellectual sort of curiosity, on which I’ll concentrate today. Literature is full of examples of curiosity, and not all of them beneficial: my first example is Marlowe‘s Faustus, who is so keen to learn everything he can, and have the answers to all the questions which have so far eluded human understanding, that he sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for knowledge and power: foolishly, he thinks he will do well from the bargain, whereas of course, he comes off worse. And when he gets to ask all those burning questions, the devils are elusive, putting him off and distracting him, because knowledge is good, of course, and leads one to God… which is where Faustus may not go.

On a rather lighter level, Lewis Carroll‘s Alice is always asking questions (as children do), particularly about words. And for me, Mark Twain‘s Tom Sawyer has always been a symbol of curiosity, accumulating a rag-bag of random, accurate and inaccurate knowledge which he shares willingly with others and makes up when necessary…his eagerness to stick his nose into things leads him into all sorts of innocent and not-so-innocent scrapes.

And then, in Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World, where everyone is oh so happy! where are the questions? where is the intellectual curiosity? Completely gone, as John the Savage learns to his dismay, horror and disgust, for he is surrounded by happy beings who are surely not humans in the way we recognise them. Questions challenge stasis and lead to disorder.

The ultimates in terms of the human quest for knowledge, for me, have been the real event of the first moon landing back in my younger days, and the fictional Star Trek, with humans boldly going where no-one has gone before – to find out.

And I often wonder what is happening, and may happen to intellectual curiosity in the days of the internet, and instant access to knowledge. Already there is evidence, some anecdotal and some more researched, that many younger people see little point in learning or memorising facts when they are instantly accessible on a device that is always to hand, and, perhaps of greater concern, that curiosity itself may be waning when, again, any information that may ever be needed can be instantly sought and retrieved. Maybe this isn’t terribly significant in the greater scheme of things and in the longer term, but we cannot know whether this is so now, and tomorrow may be too late.

As a teacher, I always found it easier both to motivate and to respond to students in whom I detected curiosity, the need to ask questions, to know and to understand, to question me and to challenge me: they were driven by an urge which I recognised and valued. And yes, I tried to inculcate this into more reluctant students, and did not always succeed. I found it rather saddening when students came to apply to university and played safe, choosing subjects that they thought would guarantee secure and lucrative employment afterwards, rather than choose – in a good number of cases – subjects they loved and were genuinely interested in. Then there were those students who, though extremely able in their fields of study, failed to impress interviewers at top universities because they didn’t have that questioning spark, that intellectual curiosity that was being looked for, and I could see how our education system, with its increasing focus on marks and grades and league tables, especially in the state sector, was depriving those students of the ability to enquire and to challenge…

I don’t ever see myself running out of curiosity, as it were; I’m already putting things mentally on hold until my next existence because there’s so much out there I find interesting and exciting. I’m fascinated by the idea that there was a time – several centuries ago now – when it was still possible for one person to know everything that there was to be known… and it cheers me that I can still be mentally blown away by an idea like that.

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