Friday, October 20, 2006

Friday Reflection: A Poetic Prelude to the Devil's Impeachment

Before we get to the Friday Reflection for this week, The Progress Report has a cool reflection of its own on the Crawford Cannon's "National Character Week" (what a friggin' joke that is). Here's a piece of it:

President Bush declared this week "National Character Counts Week." Americans are supposed to remember our commitments to "values such as integrity, courage, honesty, and patriotism" that "sustain our democracy, make self-government possible, and help build a more hopeful future." But the nation's lawmakers are the ones most in need of the reminder. Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi writes, "These past six years were more than just the most shameful, corrupt and incompetent period in the history of the American legislative branch. These were the years when the U.S. parliament became a historical punch line...a stable of thieves and perverts who committed crimes rolling out of bed in the morning and did their very best to turn the mighty American empire into a debt-laden, despotic backwater, a Burkina Faso with cable."

Last month, one of the last voices of sanity and wisdom in the MSM, Eric Alterman, was booted out of MSNBC. How much longer, I wonder, will they take to attempt to silence this guy?

Our banner quote this week comes from a work that is frequently celebrated as the greatest piece of epic verse ever written. But I'm sure that Mr. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wouldn't care in the least how he ranks with the likes of Homer, Virgil, or Shakespeare.

Faust is an ancient story of a perpetually modern man—a fellow who thinks he has all the answers but is miserable nonetheless, because all his answers are riddled with cynicism and hatred of his own humanity. He is joined by the poet while Faust is turning his hatred against himself and wishing he were a magician instead of a mere man. He accordingly conjures up an Earth Spirit, followed by the ghost of Wagner, who provides a dose of pompous comic relief. The next significant arrival is a black poodle, who Faust sees trailing flames in its wake. The dog, of course, is soon revealed as Mephistopheles, "a portion of that power which always works for Evil and effects the Good." The devil further announces his action and purpose (and here is where I would ask the attentive reader to begin thinking "Karl Rove"):

Think of the multitudes I buried!
Yet there is always fresh new blood in circulation.
And so it goes; it drives me to distraction...
Had I neglected to reserve the flame for me,
I should now be quite without a specialty.

I mean, who needs Bush's Brain when you have this already? Just read through Faust once if you've never seen it before, and you'll be convinced: Mephistopheles is a portrait of Karl Rove—a demonic, cynical, opportunistic image-builder; the sculptor of monuments made of shadows.

Now, whether Faust mirrors Bush or not is another matter; but we are not here to debate that (although it would make a great tavern conversation, whenever you're up to it). Let's stay with Rovistopheles and the bargain he arranges with his victim:

I pledge myself to serve you here and now;
the slightest hint will put me at your beck and call,
and if beyond we meet again,
you shall do the same for me.

All right then, here's my theory about Faust: he represents the American public, or, more specifically, the American mass media. Witness Faust's response to the devil's trade offer:

If you should ever find me lolling on a bed of ease,
let me be done for on the spot!
If you ever lure me with your lying flatteries,
and I find satisfaction in myself,
if you bamboozle me with pleasure,
then let this be my final day!
This bet I offer you!

The bet is appropriately sealed, at the demon's request, with a drop of Faust's blood. The devil instantly recognizes his prey's essence:

For you there is no boundary nor measure.
As you are pleased to grasp at what you can
and, flitting by, to see what you can get,
I hope your pleasures may agree with you.

The Roveian Beast is an action-figure, who follows impulse after impulse and leaves others to sort out the dead and wounded, the causes and effects.
Who gives a damn! One's hands and feet and toes,
one's head and bottom are one's own,
but if I seize and feel an alien thrill,
does it belong the less to me?
If I can buy six stallions for my stable,
is not then their strength my own?
I race along, I am a splendid specimen
as if two dozen legs were mine.
Go to it then! Leave off your ruminations,
and go with me into the teeming world.

In light of the recent destruction of habeas corpus and the continuing mockery of the Geneva Conventions, it is worth hearing Roveistopheles' remarks on justice:

In this I cannot find much blame;
I'm well acquainted with that discipline,
whose laws and statutes are transmitted
like a never ending pestilence.
Laws drag on from old to newer generations
and creep about from place to place.

The Mephistopheles of Part 1 is also an entertaining, sly, and lascivious devil, and modern readers would be astonished at the deadpan baudiness of Goethe's characterization. Yet some of the really cool stuff (for the purposes of our comparison here) comes in the oft-neglected Part 2. Check out this conversation between Rove and the Emperor:

Mephistopheles (Kneeling in front of the throne.)

What is cursed, and yet is welcomed?
What’s desired, yet chased away?
What’s always carefully defended?
What’s abused: condemned, I say?
What do you not dare appeal to?
What will all, happily, hear named?
What stands on the step before you?
What’s banished from here, all the same?

The Emperor

For once, at least, spare us your babble!
This is no time or place for riddles...

And here, where "the ancient fluid" may be oil, and where "terror hides":

And if they wants to try their uses,
Beside them there’s the ancient fluid.
Yet – I would trust the expert though –
The wooden casks rotted long ago,
The wine makes tartar, in the liquid.
Not just gold, and jewels, fine
But the essence then of noble wine
Terror hides, and night, as stark.
So quiz the wise untiringly:
It’s trivial, by day, to see:
Mystery: houses in the dark.

When at war, the Devil's advice is typically and astonishingly Rove-like. First he says:

Driven by blows, ten times repeated,
The enemy force has retreated,
And in the uncertain fight
Drifts away towards the right,
So defusing all the force
Of their army’s sinister course.
Our phalanx with its spears tightening
Moves to the right, and like lightening
Strikes them in the weakest place:
Now like the storm-driven waves
They roar, with opposing force,
Wildly on their dual course:
Gloriously all sound dies away,
And victory is ours, I’d say!

...And then:


The birds announce a dreadful fate:
Beware the enemy at the gate,
Near our heroes’ rocky wall!
They’ve attained the narrow height,
If they gain the pass, and fight,
Our position’s critical.

Roveistopheles is cynical and miserable to the bitter end, where he eventually loses his prey to the spirit of Love:

I’ve mishandled it all disgracefully,
A common lust, an absurd passion,
Swayed the hardened devil foolishly.
And if Experience was in a mess,
With all these childish, stupid things,
It was, in truth, no trivial Foolishness,
That took possession of him in the end.

Soon may our present Mephistopheles—all of them in Washington and elsewhere, as well as their credulous victims in the mass media—find their inevitable fate.

Meanwhile, I would encourage interested readers to discover (or rediscover) the wonders of Goethe's Faust. And I hope you don't think it presumptuous of me to provide the closing moral for the purposes of our comparison here (hey, it's my blog, after all):

The only fool is the one who imagines himself foolproof. Tyrants are nurtured on the blood of belief; from childhood, they spend their lives sucking at the tit of deceit; drawing into their receptive bodies the lies that god is hatred, that violence is the key to salvation, that profit is the way of progress. They are only weaned from this poisoned milk when the delusion of power is ripped from their filthy, cold hands. That part, my friends, is up to us.


Goethe's Faust and related literature can be cheaply purchased, or read online. I have quoted from A.S. Kline's translation for Part 2 (the previous link); and from Peter Salm's translation of Part 1 (Bantam Books, 1985). I have heard very good things about David Luke's translation, though I have not read it myself.

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