The Hell of Ego, the Heaven of Love

Rembrandt, Doctor Faustus

Rembrandt, Doctor Faust in His Study

Spiritual Sunday

A reader’s response to Friday’s post on the Faustus story has me thinking more about Marlowe’s marvelous play. Marlowe informs us that we don’t need to die to go to hell. If we refuse to listen to the voice of our soul, we can find hell right here on earth.

If there were ever a play that reminds us that we must find our spiritual center, this is it.

Marlowe makes it clear that hell is not a place but a state of mind. In fact, it looks a lot like clinical depression—which, as anyone who has suffered from depression can testify, is a form of hell. Here is how hell is described by Satan’s messenger Mephistophilis:

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place; for where we are is hell.
And where hell is, there must we ever be.

Hell, in other words, is being stuck in ourselves.

Faustus sets himself up for this living hell by the way he misuses his divine talents. He is a professional on the top of his game, a physician who cures whole cities of the plague and a theologian who pushes the boundaries of knowledge. Yet instead of being grateful for the chance he has been given to serve (which I would call heaven on earth), he insists that his gifts pay off in ego gratification. He exults in his feelings of mastery:

O what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honor, of omnipotence
Is promised to the studious artisan!
All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command. Emperor and kings
Are but obeyed in their several provinces,
Nor can they raise the wind or rend the clouds;
But his dominion that exceeds in this
Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man.
A sound magician is a mighty god:
Here, Faustus, try thy brains to gain a deity.

Mother Theresa used to talk about how the poverty in India was nothing compared to the “spiritual poverty” she encountered in the West, which she said causes people to feel lonely, empty, and uncared for. Faustus may be the proud possessor of impressive powers, but as soon as his power buzz wears off he finds himself face to face with the emptiness of a soulless world.

One indication he gets of this is when the devil cannot furnish him with a wife. The devil offers him a “hot whore” instead, but if relationships aren’t guided by soul then they provide only temporary gratification, not meaningful commitment. Now, Faustus asking for a wife may seem a positive step.  However, just because he claims he wants a committed relationship doesn’t mean that he’s willing to turn back to his soul. He’s like the powerful man who may say that he wants a soul mate but who then chooses a trophy woman instead.

Exulting in mastery is only one form that egotism takes. Others are “wallowing in our misery,” “self-loathing,” and “suicidal depression.” If these behaviors sound less tempting than fantasizing about power, think again. Each has its own seductive lure, as anyone knows who has thrown a “woe is me” self-pity party.

We may not think we are being self-serving when we judge ourselves harshly and beat ourselves up. We may even imagine ourselves as virtuous or selfless or rigorously honest. But self-attack (it’s also been called self terrorism) is just another way of keeping self at the center. When Faustus starts flagellating himself, when he says that he’s so bad that God couldn’t possibly forgive him, when he contemplates suicide, he focuses on himself no less than he did when he was dreaming of being “a mighty god.”

Wallowing in misery is a particularly pernicious form of soul betrayal. In a lethal mixture of self-disgust and fatalism, Faustus assures himself that, because he is so hopeless and unlovable, he cannot help it when he strays. He almost seems to take a perverse delight in self-flagellation, which he claims absolves him from the responsibility of taking charge of his decisions and his life.

When Faustus says that he is so bad that God cannot love or forgive him, we see both the arrogance and the destructiveness of self-loathing. By asserting that love cannot extend to someone like him, Faustus is assuming he knows the full capability of love. This is not truth speaking, however, but a failure of the imagination. By asserting that he is unlovable, Faustus has closed himself to love’s possibilities and thereby condemned himself to a loveless existence. The mind, especially the willful and unrelenting mind of the intellectual, is powerful enough to pull off this insane course of action.

Almost inevitably, Faustus is drawn to thoughts of suicide. No one is more focused on self, no one has more of a tunnel vision, than the suicide. To keep the focus on ourselves, we may be willing to destroy ourselves. Faustus first contemplates suicide when he realizes, to his horror, that he has traded away everything of value for mere power:

Scarce can I name salvation, faith or heaven,
But fearful echoes thunder in mine ears,
“Faustus, thou are damned.”  Then swords and knives,
Poison, guns, halters, and envenomed steel
Are laid before me to dispatch myself
And long ere this I should have done the deed,
Had not sweet pleasure conquered deep despair.

Faustus’s way of coping is listening to music, which is like using art as a sedative. But this just deals with the symptoms, not the causes. What Faustus must do is turn back to his soul. As the good angel tells him throughout the play, he must pray to God and ask for forgiveness. He always has that option, even in the final seconds before his end. He never takes it, however, and dies a screaming death.

I was teaching King Lear this past week and was struck by the contrast between the endings of the two plays. Lear is no less an egotist than Faustus and, as a result of his monumental selfishness, he chases away the only people who love him, opens his country to civil war and foreign invasion, and finally ends up mad and in prison.

But all these catastrophes serve to bring him back to his soul and, for the first time in his life, he opens himself up to love. The love of Cordelia is more precious than anything he has experienced previously. If you had a choice between a lifetime of being worshipped and a few hours of loving and being loved, which would you choose?

And it is indeed for only a few hours. Cordelia is hanged and Lear is faced with the risk of love: by opening ourselves up to it, we make ourselves fully vulnerable. It sets us up for heartbreak, as Lear’s heart breaks at the end of the play. Yet that is a risk (I told the class, thinking of my dead son) that is worth taking. Give your hearts up totally because what happens later is irrelevant. Heaven lies in the giving.

And hell, to come back to Faustus, lies in the rejection. Towards the end of the play, Faustus is once again contemplating suicide.  At that point an old man appears and tells him to “stay thy desperate steps!”

I see an angel hovers o’er thy head
And with a vial full of precious grace
Offers to pour the same into thy soul!
Then call for mercy, and avoid despair.

Faustus orders the devils to tear the man apart, but he is still not entirely lost.  On his death bed, Faustus catches one last glimpse of his soul:

See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah my Christ—
I’ll leap up to my God!  Who pulls me down?
See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah my Christ—
Ah rend not my heart for naming of my Christ;
Yet will I call on him—

Faustus is dazzled by this vision of a love that is so great that it will undergo the ultimate sacrifice. Jesus is the antithesis of the way Faustus has defined his life, and for a moment Faustus understands that love is more powerful than self-preservation, that soul trumps ego.

Then he rejects the vision, calling instead on Lucifer instead of Christ. He chooses the material over the divine. That’s his tragedy.

Lear in his last hours or Faustus?  Heaven or hell?  Every moment throughout our lives we have that choice before us and, goodness know, we choose to be Faustus much of the time. But the soul option is always available.

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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.

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