Sunday, 22 November 2020

The Tale of the Black Poodle

In which John looks at the temptation to sup with the devil ... 

It is Easter in Germany, a chilly spring night, and sounds of celebration are in the air. Faust is out walking, and a stray poodle follows him along the street. To his surprise and pleasure it accompanies him all the way home to his study. There, the poodle turns into a demon - a particularly talkative demon, with a notably seductive verbal style. He makes Faust an attractive offer: 'I will use my supernatural powers to provide you with everything you want here on earth while you are alive - but on one condition.' 'And what is that?" asks Faust. 'When you die, you will pledge to serve the devil in Hell.'

Faust and the poodle
So goes the opening of one of the greatest ever works of literature to come from Germany - 'Faust' by Goethe. 

The play was published in the early 1800s, but has had a curious resonance for Germany throughout its history. In 1914, a hundred years after its first performance, the people of Germany pledged their allegiance to Kaiser Wilhelm, their last emperor. The Kaiser promised to make Germany great, to restore pride in the face of the other superpowers of the day - France, Britain, Russia. He had a pathological hatred of foreigners, and was, in the words of a German historian of this era: "unsure and arrogant, with an immeasurably exaggerated self-confidence and desire to show off ..."

He was the reality TV star of his day.

Almost every New Zealand town, however small, now hosts a marble or granite monument bearing a list of the names of young men who died as a result of this particular Faustian transaction. 

Twenty-five year later, the German people did the same once again, with another charismatic populist leader, and with an even more catastrophic war. 

Erich Fromm
Thus was born the notion of the Faustian Pact - something that arose from German literature, and was enacted by its peoples in the most calamitous and literal way.

It was as if this great German writer had discerned something in the soul of his countrymen that made them vulnerable to this kind of obedience - and had issued a chilling warning. 

In 1941, at the height of WWII, another great German writer, the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm published 'Fear of Freedom', in which he explained how at a time of uncertainty and economic chaos, the people of a nation may willingly give up their freedom and autonomy and blindly follow an autocratic leader - largely out of fear. 

Rather than embrace their own power and agency, the populace may voluntarily surrender their democratic and tolerant principles, for the illusion of stability promised by a 'strong man'. A truly Faustian bargain, because such a leader brings repression, chaos and collapse as he pits himself - and his subjects - against symbolic and imaginary enemies at home and abroad. As a psychoanalyst, Fromm saw this behaviour in the population as a regression to a childlike state, an abrogation of the responsibilities of adulthood and maturity.

'Please look after me ... and make my decisions for me, because it is too troubling and difficult to make these decisions for myself.' At its core, the Faustian pact is an act of cowardice. Every day, throughout the world, vast numbers of people retreat from the chance to determine their destiny, and instead delegate this responsibility upwards to authoritarian leaders.

In 1885, three years before Kaiser Wilhelm came to power, an illegal emigrant left Germany for the USA. He had avoided compulsory military training - he was a draft dodger - and was stripped of his citizenship as a punishment. He worked as a barber for six years, then gathering his life savings, he bought a piece of property in Seattle - a restaurant - with a particularly resonant name: The Poodle Dog. 

This was the grandfather of the American president Donald Trump, and it was the first of many pieces of property acquired by the dynasty that followed; which developed into a massive empire riddled with fraud, dishonesty, corruption and labour violations, and financed by loans that were never repaid.  

Right now, we are at a cross-roads in history.

Right now, the three most powerful men in the world, the Presidents of the three most powerful nations, including Donald Trump, are strong-man leaders, whose instinct is to humiliate, denigrate, imprison ('lock her up!') - and even kill (nerve agent in perfume bottles) those amongst their populations who dare to oppose them. In the last few weeks, a great nation, perhaps the most influential nation on earth, has teetered on the brink of forming a Faustian Pact with its leader, and has narrowly stepped back from the brink.

No wonder that some historians have seen the recent US elections as the most consequential since the German presidential elections of 1932. 

Our best writers have illustrated the price a populace pays for entering such an agreement. In his timeless tragedy, 'MacBeth', Shakespeare laid bare the anatomy of such leaders, men whose 'vaulting ambition o'erleaps itself' and whose exercise of power is delivered with the explicit or tacit collusion of their followers.

MacBeth, a man animated by an insatiable desire for power, and who refused to recognise the legitimate authority in the land, is driven to deceive and murder the sitting king of Scotland. To cover his tracks, and cement his victory, he must execute a string of additional murders. By sheer force of character and - like Faust - after consulting demonic figures, MacBeth moves from one act of evil to the next, all the while demanding slavish loyalty from his court.

Eventually, spurred by their repugnance and horror at MacBeth's deeds, the opposition coalesces against the tyrant: he is held accountable for his crimes and brought to account.

In these fictional narratives, Goethe and Shakespeare invite their audience to contrast the better angels of their nature with the seductive demons that may beset them - loyalty to a leader who may deceive, lie, or establish tyrannical power over them. Since WWII, there has been little doubt that in the West, at least, these better angels have been in the ascendancy.

What is astonishing and unprecedented in post-war history, is that a major Western power, a nation looked to as a beacon of democracy around the world, has come so close to stepping out of that arena and into the realm of chaos. 

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