Hell, an Inner Emptiness that Can’t Be Filled

Welch as "Lust" in Bedazzled

Welch as "Lust" in Bedazzled

“I think Hell is a fable,” Doctor Faustus tells Mephastophilis at one point in Marlowe’s 1593 tragedy. While many Elizabethans would have disagreed—the play terrified them precisely because they believed in a literal hell—we’re more sympathetic with the notion now. To most of us, fire and brimstone and devils with pitchforks are the stuff of cartoons. What Faustus doesn’t realize, however, is that it doesn’t matter whether or not hell is a fable. He is already living in hell.

I think Marlowe wants us to understand that hell is living a superficial life. I introduced this idea to my British Literary survey class last Friday, and to fully grasp it we had to move beyond two interpretations of the play: (1) that it is church propaganda designed to scare independent thinkers away from questioning authority and (2) that it is a secretly subversive work that pretends to conform to church orthodoxy while undermining it through the dynamism of the hero. Putting it another way, we had to move beyond seeing Faustus as Galileo.

It’s not that there aren’t elements in the play of intellectual rebellion against church narrow-mindedness. Marlowe himself was a freethinker and was undoubtedly expressing some of his own frustrations through Faustus. But I think the play becomes more interesting, at least for modern audiences, when we see Faustus as a man in agony because he is misusing his considerable gifts and selling himself out. Thoreau would say he leads a life of quiet desperation. Or in his case, not so quiet desperation.

As we discussed the play, one of my students, Jemarc Axinto, talked about Faustus as an addict trying to fill the emptiness inside with superficial pleasures. Tobias Franzen thought that Faustus experiences an internal hell in his final hours because he feels remorse for having wasted his life. Caroline Posner wondered why he doesn’t repent if he feels such remorse, given that both the good angel and the good old man assure him he can do so. Michael Young said that it might be easier to go to hell than do the hard work of repentance.

To make his point, Michael gave us an example we could relate to. He spoke of a family friend, a CEO, who was so addicted to his work that he lost his family. The kind of effort it would have taken to reconnect with his wife and children, Michael said, seemed harder than continuing along the path he was already taking, spiritually desolate though that path was. That’s why Faustus doesn’t repent at the end, Michael said. The road to hell is the path of least resistance.

Tobias’s point about remorse is an interesting one because it indicates that Faustus is aware he has misused his life. Much of the drama in the play is about Faustus overriding his self doubts. Every time the voice of his higher self speaks up, the devil counters with material enticements. At one critical junction, when Faustus appears ready to turn back to God, the devil responds by staging a floorshow of the seven deadly sins. (See my post on the scene here.) Faustus allows these to sidetrack his good intentions and lives the rest of his life in a shallow, pleasure-seeking existence. Until he is on the verge of death 24 years later, we don’t see him admitting a single doubt. Presumably he could continue on this way forever if death didn’t prompt him to reflect upon the life he has been living.

That’s one thing positive we can say about death: it gets us to look at ourselves.

During his pleasure-seeking years, Faustus spends his time messing with the pope, entertaining emperors, and playing practical jokes on people he doesn’t like. It’s a comedown for someone with the mental capacity of Galileo, but if there’s no introspection, is there unhappiness? Are people desperate if they don’t know they are desperate?

This is what religion is for, and literature as well: they challenge us to find meaning in our lives. I suppose it could appear that religion and literature exist to make us dissatisfied and unhappy—but a more accurate description would be that they alert us to a deep joy and a deep peace that we would otherwise miss.

Doctor Faustus tells us that, if we want this joy and this peace, we must be true to some essential self, to some inner calling. Even my students who don’t believe in literal souls believe this. Selling one’s soul makes sense to them when it is described as a fundamental self-violation. They can see how a life that involves betraying one’s inner essence is hellish.

Which means (I told them, drawing on an earlier conversation about Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” in which we talked about Hugh Hefner’s recent marriage), the Playboy Club is hell. Hefner’s marriage is directly relevant to Marlowe’s play because, immediately upon selling his soul, Faustus asks the devil for something the devil can’t provide: a wife. Mephastophilis can offer him gorgeous women and men, but anything involving the marriage sacrament, no.

Why is the 85-year-old Hefner getting married to 25-year-old Crystal Harris? After all, doesn’t he already have everything that Mephastophilis could furnish? But maybe a life of one damn gorgeous chick after another is a meaningless life.  Maybe the ritual of marriage points to something beyond pleasure.


If that’s the reason Hefner is getting married, however, I don’t think this union with his “soul mate” will suddenly give his life meaning.  The marriage resembles more the scene in Faustus where the doctor, facing death, desperately asks for the ghost of Helen to embrace him: “Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss:/Her lips sucks forth my soul, see where it flies!” There is no moving past death for either Faustus or Hefner. I suspect Hefner, while he like Faustus may sense that he wants something spiritual, in the end can’t see marriage as anything more than a way to add spice to jaded sexuality. And not even entirely new spice since he’s been married twice before. Maybe he just wants to get in the headlines.

When watching the Satyajit Ray film The Middleman many years ago, I became aware of a tradition in India where some people at a certain age will give up all their possessions and embark on spiritual pilgrimages. Not until Hefner does something equivalent will I believe that this marriage means anything. Unfortunately, I suspect that Hefner, when he dies, will be like Faustus on his own deathbed and will call out to Lucifer–which is to say, will see and believe nothing other than his own material demise.

Faustus’ celebrity escapades are one vision of hell, the Playboy Club another, life as a workaholic CEO yet another. Marlowe’s play calls to us to wake up and embrace what is true and good. The bad news may be that hell is within easy reach.  The good news is that the heaven of a fulfilling life is close at hand as well.

Do you feel encouraged that members of our next generation are wrestling with what makes for a meaningful life? Chalk one up for classic literature.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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