Faust or Faustus of German legend started his literary life in a late sixteenth century chapbook by an unknown author. He was brought to the English audience by Christopher Marlowe in his play Doctor Faustus, and then flourished in Goethe’s Faust more than two hundred years later (and has become a literary trope since then).
Faust is God’s favourite scholar, bent on learning all there is but dissatisfied with what he has thus far achieved. Mephistopheles is a demon who bets with God that Faust can be corrupted, and proceeds to pit his wits against Faust. In Goethe’s dramatisation, Mephistopheles is a whimsical, down-to-earth character—he is the cynic to Faust’s romantic—and he has some of the best, if not wisest, lines in the play.
Since Quiver Quotes is devoted to fine writing, and in that sense too, the art of rhetoric and the power of the word, let us hear what Mephistopheles, or Mephisto as is his hypocoristic, has to say about words, paradoxes, and human nature. (Taken from the Wordsworth Classics edition; translation by John R. Williams.)
MEPHISTO. I’ve always found that you can foxA wise man or a fool with paradox.It’s an old trick, but it works all the same,2560 And every age has tried time and againTo spread not truth, but error and obscurity,By making three of one and one of three.And so the fools can preach and teach quite undisturbed —Who wants to argue with them? Let them wander on;2555 Most men believe that when they hear a simple word,There must be some great meaning there to ponder.(2557–2566)
Mephisto fools men with words, yet words are not to be fooled with. Let’s hear the other side of the argument from Alberto Manguel in The Library at Night:
For the Talmudic schools, as for those of Islam, a scholar can turn religious faith into an active power through the craft of reading, since the knowledge acquired through books is a gift from God.
Manguel then goes on to argue that libraries became a place where all citizens, provided they can read, are granted the basic right to make themselves “powerful against the Devil.”
As with all powerful weapons, both sides claim to use it against the other efficiently. And, as with all other great inventions, words belong to no one, they can be harmless or hurtful or healing, and it is (largely) up to their consumer to interpret them.
Go forth and spawn some devilishly good writing this weekend, but don’t forget to interpret the words of others fairly, with kindness and without prejudice.
- Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. A classic.
- The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel. On libraries as Manguel sees them through the prism of his own, vast collection.
- The Master and the Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov. A different take on the devil and the demons plaguing our world.