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Faustus and Conceit

Long before the Illuminati started lurking in the shadows, it was a secret society that opposed superstition, obscurantism, religious influence over public life and abuses of state power. A quick read of Doctor Faustus presents him as a hero of German folklore and a plain Christian villain. Illuminati may be spoken of in hushed tones, but the legend it was a possible manifestation of – Faustus – has been a part of popular culture since Faustbuch in 1587.
The historical Faust is said to have immortalized a necromancer, a tangled legend of sorcery, alchemy, astrology and the dark arts. Faust has been immortalized through expressions as recent as Murnau’s film adaptation of the legend in 1926. Roger Ebert considers the film to be a masterpiece, giving it 4 out of 4 stars. The legend too, is a masterpiece – everlasting and thought-provoking. In his treaty against technics, Oscar Spengler wrote, “The history of mankind as a whole is tragic. But the sacrilege and the catastrophe of the Faustian are greater than all others, greater than anything Æschylus or Shakespeare ever imagined.” This tragedy occurs at different stages in human life. Spengler saw it in man becoming slave to the machine and this article sees it in man becoming slave to an overweening and unchallenged political order.

Till swollen with cunning, of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And, melting, heavens conspired his overthrow,
For, falling to a devilish exercise,
And glutted now with learning’s golden gifts,
He surfeits upon cursed necromancy.
(Christopher Marlowe, 1592)

These lines from the Elizabethan tragedy are as relevant today as they were in 1592. This play was a success due to its portrayal of horror, of gruesome acts and devils. However, it is Marlowe’s ability to write a subversive tragedy, masked under a Christian play that makes it an enduring read for all generations. It doubles as an unlikely test for one’s political leanings and which is extremely relevant in the current political scenario of India.

Not marching now in the fields of Trasimene,
….Nor sporting in the dalliance of love,
…..Nor in the pomp of proud audacious deeds,
Intends our muse to vaunt his heavenly verse.

This article is not about repentance and redemption, nor is it about Faustus’ degeneration. This article confines itself to the first act of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe and a subsequent discussion on ambition in the political arena.
There will always be a group of critics who see Faustus’ damnation as his own doing – a result of his arrogance and ambition. Faustus has been read by some critics as a cautionary fable – a way of teaching other people morals.
It is a story of transgression, a lot like Kanhaiya Kumar, an Indian student-activist who has done everything to infuriate the common man and to challenge the foundations of order. Faustus condemned God and questioned the purpose of divinity. Kanhaiya has raised questions about similar modern-day deities of AFSPA, Narendra Modi, nationalism and state control. Media outlets have doubted his credentials, senior journalists have denied his charisma and relevance. Kanhaiya has been tagged as an anti-national slacker; reintroduced as the left leaning JNUSU President; sometimes even a tactician, dying to grab any political opportunity to gain traction and make his claim to power as a future politician. Some have welcomed a new voice of dissent in the absence of a legitimate opposition in the parliament, but that has been limited by and large to academic circles.
This article will focus on the arguments against him in relation to Faustus. People from the first are devouts (bhakts), recasting Kanhaiya alternately as our ‘base of stock’ overreacher Faustus and a Faustus who is “Glutted now with learning’s golden gifts”. The government is the Heavenly Power (by all means through a democratic elections and not divine nomination!) and since the heavenly powers seem to be democratically elected it is only fair to include the people who have voted for them in the scope of this article.
An interesting argument that backfired recently were JNU-Faustus’ humble beginnings. Initially, the skeptical Indians felt that Kanhaiya can never be an anti-national, hate mongering jihadist aligned with Hafiz Sayeed; the media portrayed a son of the soil, with a mother employed at an anganwadi, a father paralyzed, him enrolled at a Wittenberg of a premier institution for post-graduate studies. However, after his onslaught on the Indian Army which followed capitalism, the RSS and intolerance, his scholarship became his Waterloo and counter-characterized him as a delinquent who shuddered his familial duties as a son – that of supporting his family and ensuring their prosperity.
If political opportunism has to be shown as conceit, as an action that deserves nothing but Icarus’ fall and Faustus’ damnation or in this case, thrashing outside a court, then why are populist narratives like ‘a tea seller’ glorified? If altruism is to be preached and self-interest and rationality seen as a devilish exercise of one’s character, should then, abandoning a wife without granting a divorce seen as collateral damage?
Historically yes, since women have been placed at the lowest rung of power and authority. In the heroic portrayal of an alpha male going from rags to riches, there’s hardly any place for a village woman who has been denied a passport, let alone any narrative of her own. The Heavenly Powers have hardly cared about any woman outside of the witch trials or twitter trolls.
Faustus strikes a deal for an ambitious social project when he says

I’ll have them wall all Germany with brass,
And make swift Rhine circle fair Wittenberg,
I’ll have them fill the public schools with silk,
Wherewith students shall be bravely clad;

The questions Kanhaiya raised in a recent open letter to Modi aren’t very different from what Faustus aspires to. Sure, Faustus also wants everlasting fame for himself, or a seat in Lok Sabha, but why does it scare the Indian population so much? Instead, society sees it as a threat, they fear exploitation while comfortably secure in their belief of trickle-down economics. Eons after the Original Sin, is our progressive society still horrified at the sight of sinful nature in man?
Of course the questions raised are uncomfortable but as far the truth is concerned, they’re not far from it. The narratives surrounding Kanhaiya and the rhetoric of an overreacher has proved how society believes academic achievements and political aspirations to be a binary; religion and nationalism make a far better guise for political motivations since there’s little room for any dissent in their doctrines. If religion derives its legitimacy from misinterpreted scriptures then nationalism derives it from a glorified portrayal of war, violence and masculinity.
Women are deified as (stifled) voices when they die. Women alive, in faraway villages of Kunan Poshpora don’t make the cut. Understandably, the question that seems to have stirred up maximum trouble is the Army’s role in shielding those involved in human rights violation under AFSPA. Citizens’ opinion of the Indian Army itself has been complex. A troubling trend that went unnoticed in all of this is the population’s appropriation of a politician to a messiah, a fallen soldier’s plight to a selfish act of defending intolerance; a majority of the voters have shied from accepting economic incentive as a reason for youngsters to join the army. Obviously, on other days the same institution is seen as one of decadence, struggling with deficiencies and weighed down by stagnation and subsidies that provide for excesses.
Tax-payers would rather have their money funding imagined wars than a scholarship for the devilish arts of African studies.
Maybe the ambitious Heavenly Powers did conspire to overthrow our modern-day Faustus or at least stoked sentiments of ambition in Marlowe’s Faustus and intolerance in the Bhakts here, or perhaps the three furies of Greek paganism called Goswami, Irani and Gandhi did that. Secularism is truly necromantic, a forbidden opinion that we must never discuss in public, for it is nothing but a western ploy to undermine our forces and national character from a decadent west with whom we are otherwise happy signing defence deals.
In this age of radical religious preachers, denial and abstinence is endorsed as a way of life while few reap the benefits. If the brilliant Faustus were to be born today, he would’ve scoffed at this witch hunt. Feigning madness seems the only way to be or not to be, for something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

 

Picture credits : https://thefablesoup.wordpress.com/2015/04/29/marlowes-use-of-morality-play-formula-in-doctor-faustus/

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