Friday, 12 August 2011

Literalism

A woman in pants and bra, her lipstick scarlet, her tongue extended like some wobbly diving board, performs lasciviously before John Faustus, gesturing him jump in.  He does.  Lust has overwhelmed his senses.  We are watching an arrogant scholar reduced to a travelling showman; to an old fashion celebrity who has fame and every woman that he wants.  A large mind once intoxicated by knowledge and its possibilities has been reduced to a body’s appetites.  It is the senses that hold court now.

It is a sad fall.  To give up the chance of eternity for drink and pretty girls.  It seems so trivial, conjuring up Alexander and his paramour from the dead, mucking around with the pope’s dinner, cavorting with the empress…  It is a circus act; with no grandeur in it, and thus no tension, we feel, as the play comes to its close.

A fault of the staging?  Is the performance a little too literal?  Reinforcing our all too secular concerns…   Would we, if we had lived in Marlowe’s century, have read the play more as allegory; living for a few hours on the metaphysical plain, watching a cosmic battle worthy of Faustus’ talents?  If the staging had been sparser, more suggestive, generous to our own imaginations, would we have spun off into these heavenly realms, and found a depth, a richness, that this performance sadly lacks?  For this one seems too obvious and mechanical; too theatrical.

The mind has an extraordinary gift – it can create perfection.  Although few can attain such heights; and desperate are the scholars who would think themselves the next Newton or Gottfried von Leibniz; these mountains they in fact can never climb.  The temptation, like drugs in sport, is to find a short cut, a magic remedy to rectify one’s deficiencies.  Is this why Doctor Faustus calls up Mephistopheles?  Like so many intellectuals, both before and after him, he is very smart but no genius; lacking the ability to penetrate nature’s greatest secrets he is no Galileo or David Hume, and must find some artificial help, to magic something out of nothing.

Mephistopheles is so dull, our doctor recognises this from the start: his knowledge that of a mere freshman.  He is a corrupter of mind, replacing the eternal eye with the daily pleasure of the five senses.  Worldly power is all that he can offer.  Its fruits are small indeed.  Even the emperor Charles and his wife seem silly and pointless, not worth thinking about, let alone wasting one’s time in their courtyard and bedroom - the empress’ underwear may be expensive, and there will be a thrill in removing it, but her cavorting will be all too familiar; though less artful than that of the prostitutes in the back streets of Rome.  That perfection he could have achieved, to exist for all human time, he could have been like the moon in the night’s sky!, wrecked on the bodies of beautiful ladies and the smiles and laughter of clowns and foolish courtiers.  How easy it is to trick the mindless and the stupid; even if they rule half of Europe, and have the wealth to buy a thousand libraries.  Nothing to be remembered by, and all is so trivial and mundane; another silly joke, a gasp of amazement, a pair of crumpled knickers on the bedroom floor.  Those immense powers wasted, thrown away like water over the city’s paving stones.

It is no surprise that he is so desperate at the end.  We see him first, the whole universe at his fingertips, the whole of reality in his library, and thus within his mental compass.   At the end he is a sensuous individual reduced to mere animal cravings, just one man amongst a million others; who eat, drink and are consumed by sexual longing.  He has become just another human animal.  Nothing special about that all…  After the debauch the morning of enlightenment, but it is too late: no different from anybody else; when he could have been so great!  He might have been a Copernicus, instead he is just one more devil on heat, too hot to keep his pants on. 

Earlier in the play one of the tavern bumpkins says that if he could be magicked into anything it would be a flea: so he could travel around every part of a woman’s body.  This is Faustus at the end; he has achieved the supreme mastery of the senses; penetrating all aspects of worldly life he can roam anywhere: now invisible he can buzz about the pope’s table, upsetting all the guests with floating oranges and inexplicable pokes and pinches on bottoms and fat necks.  He is amusing to the stupid and lascivious, but irritating to just about everyone else.  The wise are merely sad.

Can you create a tragedy out of sadness?  It seems too weak an emotion, with hardly any oomph to fight against; with the battles not big enough; the forces no longer evenly matched.  But what if… the staging had been different?  Would the meanings have been greater, more resonant, if it had been staged more sensitively?  To suggest, perhaps, a higher metaphysical realm… Or are we destined today to give this play a secular, psychological reading; the cosmic battle of heaven against hell, and its concomitant theological dispute, no longer impinging upon us with any force.  For in truth its psychology is extraordinarily accurate: the fall into the passions is an agonizing one, with rare moments of ecstasy; like a sailor adrift on the ocean, the distant ships his mad moments of hope.

Three centuries later and John Faustus was reincarnated into a great writer.  Who, and we could easily convince ourselves of this, used Marlowe’s play as a self help manual; although he was more self aware, but equally mistaken.  Arthur Rimbaud also wanted to attain the Godhead; he needed to penetrate the ultimate mysteries; to discover reality to recreate it; and so become it himself.  He did so in his poetry, but poetry was not enough; the life force itself, its creative energy, is what he wanted to grasp.  He needed to immerse himself in absolute reality; to come out again holding its deepest secrets.  Magic, he thought, would help him; a man-made tunnel that would take him into the mountain fastnesses of mystery and incomprehension.  And so like foolish John Faustus he ended up living in the senses, losing his precious gifts; though for a while they did bring rare fruit: Illuminations, A Season in Hell, The Drunken Boat…  Rimbaud, it appears, although also fallen, is much more complicated; his failure far more ambiguous.   

Rimbaud believed in the black arts, although his reading was superficial.  In particular he accepted that to achieve enlightenment one had to go through a number of physical and mental stages; from an initial dissent in black degradation (colours are symbolically important) to the ultimate accession into a golden paradise; where the self is merged into the cosmos; that old mystic vision, although always in new forms, changing in each century.  He thought that degradation would give him new insights into reality; that sin, which he did not enjoy, was a microscope into nature’s secrets; its deepest layers opaque to the normal mind.  And so he took up the life of drink and drugs and sexual excess.  The rock n’ roll lifestyle was essential to cosmic insight, he thought; the price one paid for genius.  We know better today.  The years of torment had followed his fall are well recorded, eventually forcing him to sail to a new hell on the other side of the Mediterranean; testing himself to the limits of bodily endurance, a new kind of transgression, in a world that he slowly made his home.   A merchant, slave trader and gun runner in Abyssinia. 

After losing faith in the poetic god he became a simple bourgeois, with remnants of the old peasant mentality; of money cunning and obstinacy.  What Enid Starkie’s biography shows is that his mythical flight from Europe and its civilisation was a journey into the most banal of middle class mindsets: wanting money for future security.  He was even contemplating marriage at the end.  So we see him scrambling after a range of jobs from merchant to newspaper reporter; and always the dream of a big coup, of large money made quickly.  He would wait outside when it was wet, hoping the raindrops would turn into silver coins…. 

Everything must be now!  He wanted to learn engineering, science, all the latest discoveries.  He didn’t have the patience to acquire real knowledge, it all came digested in simple handbooks; always he remained the clever student, who knows all the answers, those plethora of facts he would stuff inside himself, like a child his biscuits and sweets.  He had a great imagination, and brilliant associative skills; these are the source of his poetry.  However, although very clever, a magician with languages, a poetic artist of the highest rank, he had, ultimately, a weak mind; without the strength to hold up an empire of knowledge or conquer unknown realms.  And so he followed the well-trod road of John Faustus.  And like him was in agony in the end.

This is the attraction of magic: they are the trinkets and goblets of the superficial mind, which replace insight with gaudy decoration.   It is never that easy, of course; the roots of modern science are entangled deep in the earth of medieval magic: listening to Doctor Faustus speak we catch echoes of today’s scientist.  Although there are important differences between them: science has dug deep into reality, returning with real treasure.  While Magic is now outside the academy’s ancient gates, still trying to decipher the symbols on old fa├žades that hide its nondescript offices.  The magicians believed in the power of words, of numerology.  They knew there had to be another language to describe this world; they realised that common sense was too weak to grasp nature’s laws.  In this they were right.  But they chose the wrong language and the wrong symbols; their formulas were meaningless.  Science was lucky; it found a powerful language to drill deep into nature’s soil; it is mathematics; and it has elucidated our world like never before; helping to create it afresh.  

John Faustus, more mature and sophisticated than Rimbaud, had strong intellectual reasons to be attracted to magic; it offered real hope of enlightenment, although of a risky kind, while being a real threat to the theologians, their Christian theology having begun its long drift into intellectual suburbia.  A few centuries later, in the provinces of France, there was no excuse: it was simply a boy’s dream.

There is perfection in the human mind.  And that mind has an urge to reproduce that perfection in the world outside itself; in scientific formulae, paintings, words and songs.  In a play this can be hard to achieve; especially in a theatre where the architecture, scenery, and to a degree the performance, are more or less fixed, repeated from show to show.  This encourages the tendency, inherent in any play, to break into fragments: a maiden here, a dragon ride there; some mucking about with the king; a gay courtier leering at the young women in the audience.  This performance emphasises the fragmentation: the dragons, the angel, those seven deadly sins, are all clothed in their antique theatrical dress; which jars somehow, each one jostling with the other.  They do not fit neatly together; do not have the feel of a completely integrated piece.  Thus it never quite captures that special atmosphere: it does not have the feel of an organic whole; it is not, we come to feel, quite perfect.

A great play, like the mind that made it, is a well-constructed, completely integrated whole; each facet interlinked to create its resonances.  Few achieve that perfection, and always there is the danger of break up, and disintegration.   This is what happens here.  The props seem wooden: not properly integrated into an overall design they look stiff and odd, artificial, and amateur.  It is the laymen’s view of art.  And there were moments I looked around the Globe I wondered if I was the only native in the audience.  Was everyone else a tourist?  An illusion, of course.  But does the company believe this?  For there seems an overriding urge to play to the audience, to turn the performance into a sort of cabaret; the recreation of Elizabethan art as popular entertainment.  It has effects, and is enjoyable, but that buzz, a certain quiet tingling, is lost; we see the strings and pulleys; and the magic has gone.

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