Mephisto and Words: Quirks and Perks

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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 fox
                           A 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 again
                           To 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)

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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.


Reading Recommendations

  1. Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. A classic.
  2. The Library at NightAlberto Manguel. On libraries as Manguel sees them through the prism of his own, vast collection.
  3. The Master and the MargaritaMikhail Bulgakov. A different take on the devil and the demons plaguing our world.

18 responses

  1. Another book I’ll have to look up. But one of the joys of using words is in interpreting some of the subtleties of usage and ambiguity. For without these there would be no humour nor would there be inspiration. (And may I direct you to my latest little effort. http://wp.me/p8PuzR-K
    John/paol (I haven’t decided who I am yet)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I read Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus about twenty five years ago, and then had to read it again about ten years ago. It was a better read latterly but I still think I need to read it again!
    For me what happens seems commonplace and, from what I remember, I can’t place the major themes of the Faust story within the book, apart from the overriding selling of the soul, success and demise.
    If that’s it the story seems fairly subdued.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmm, I haven’t read Mann’s take, so I can’t comment meaningfully, but as a literary trope Faust follows a simple arc like the one you describe. Each fleshing out of the arc will hopefully be fresh, but beyond that I’m not sure how much more is to be expected …

      I’m putting Mann’s Doctor Faustus on my to-read list, thanks for the recommendation 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Great
        Before I read it for the third time I thought I’d do a Wikipedia on it.
        I’d forgotten it was a metaphor for Nazi Germany, and other things which I wont say… as such it’s pretty much a bona fide Faust story updated to the twentieth century.
        I’m sure you’d love allegorical symbolism!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Gorgeous article. I’m such a huge of Faust and the power of language and communication. I don’t know anything about Alberto Manguel, but I love this quote. I’m not religious, but I think it’s still apt – it’s power against ignorance and arrogance. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right! Reading as an ability to obtain knowledge, and knowledge as a power against ignorance and the host of problems ignorance brings—that’s how I was interpreting Manguel.

      And Mephisto warns that words can also be misused (e.g. indoctrination, lies, etc).

      Both are important messages.

      I was trying to keep the topic within the purely literary realm, and it sounds like it worked 🙂

      Thanks for letting me know your thoughts!

      (In case you’re interested: Manguel has a brilliant, well-researched and well-written, non-fiction book called A Reader on Reading, full of essays on the topic of reading and words and language. That was the one I read first; I enjoyed it so much I decided to read more books by him.)

      Liked by 1 person

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