Ask for Faust. Oh and what do you get?
I think of Faust, poor Faust.
And I think of his black dog. The one that never left his side, and when the infamous canine finally did leave his master, the mutt’s biscuit-giver was face-down in the loam for eternity’s dirt nap. I can picture the dog sniffing Faust’s corpse and finding his master unresponsive wending out of the necromancer’s atelier in search of better accommodations. And biscuits.
Rembrandt must have forgotten about the dog. Rembrandt loved dogs – there’s one in the bottom left-hand corner of the Dutch masters’ sketch “Christ Crucified Between Two Thieves” and another at the point of Joseph’s staff in “Christ Returning From The Temple.”
But in “Faust,” a sketch of Mephistopheles as a blinding specter shining through to an alarmed Dr. Faust (arm half-cocked in a self-defense mechanism), the artist has left out the dog. No black dog.
Recently, while perusing Rembrandt’s sketches on display at the St. Louis Art Museum, I stood before the Faust drawing while two patrons, a tall, elderly man with a vaguely European accent and a cardigan-wearing younger professor. They stood in front of the sketch, a big no-no in art galleries, barring anyone else’s enjoyment of the work and proceeded to pick through the sketch. The pair was discussing various elements that were or were not present in the drawing and contrasting this with what they knew about Faust. It’s a mirror look. No! It’s a portal of some kind. Look at the Zodiac. What about the light coming from the window? You know he was a necromancer. I stood trying to see the work behind them, to no avail. I finally had to ask them to step aside – it amazes me that I would have to ask. The trouble it took to see the piece wasn’t entirely worth it. The sketch is unremarkable, to be honest, and underwhelming; a little too representational for my tastes. It comes across as a cautionary tale, illustrated to thwart a dabbling in the occult. And it’s missing Faust’s dog. So to my eyes, it’s incomplete. Story of Faust’s life, like most bipeds, is a story spotty and fragmented. We hold but a piece.
You might be surprised to learn Faust was an actual person and his infamous deal with the Devil, so much a part of our parlance and psyche, is actually a point of contention. History tells us Dr. (George, Johann, Henry, Heinrich, Johannes, Georg or Jörg, take your pick) Faust was a contemporary of Rev. Martin Luther, the Protestant flag bearer, who hammered ninety-nine theses on the Wittenberg door in 1517. During this time in Germany, Faust was a common name. However in numerous accounts the German doctor’s name was also often given as Faustus. Some speculate the “tus,” ending is a nod to Latin and that the name Faustus might find its origin from the Latin past participle of the verb, “faveo” meaning “favored one,” or “lucky one.” Faustitas in Latin I discover is the goddess of fertility of the soul. Faute is an adjective for fortunately. Finding etymological connection is limitless. Romulus and Remus were shepherded by a person by the name Faustulus.
For our purposes the name will be Dr. Jörg Faust in deference to the umlaut, if for no other reason given that historian and others have played so loose and fast with his names. Faust was born in 1480 or thereabouts in a German hamlet called Knittlingen. Fifty-nine years later he died in Staufen, a town in the southwestern region of Rhineland. During his life Faust self-referentially and perceived by others was said to be: a practitioner of magic, fountainhead of conjurers of the dead, star reader, seer of the future, conjurer of air and fire and was said to be skilled in the art of water – divination, some presume, by patterns in urination. All-around fun guy with an impressive, if not eclectic, curriculum vitae.
Faust did a lot of things, and lived in many Germanic locales, including the city of Erfurt where Jörg taught at the local university. At the University of Erfurt it was said Dr. Faust wowed his students by conjuring Homeric heroes alive right before his students eyes. Here: Theseus. There: Clytemnestra. Word got out, as word does; skeptics and cynics over steins of lager discounted the prestige of Faust’s work. He was using a “magic lantern,” they groused, or, that Faust had somehow placed the class under mass hypnosis (given the proclivity of present day professors to lull their students to sleep with PowerPoint lectures the hypotheses aren’t too far a stretch). As word continued throughout the pubs, homes and churches of the town, Faust’s stature grew and faith’s finger men took great umbrage.
The inciting incident, the flashpoint by which Faust was securely seconded into the pantheon of literary and psycho-social demigods, came when his atelier at Erfurt was visited by a local, anonymous, monk. The monk had gone to the necromancer’s studio to confront the heathen and convert Dr. Faust into God’s loving embrace complete with its own lanterns and mass hallucinations. Jörg was reported to retort, “Mass this, mass that. The Devil has fairly kept what I have promised me and therefore I intend to keep fairly what I have promised and signed away to him.” The monk fled, and sinners and the desperate have been fearful ever since of seeking ambition at the expense of soul. Don’t pay the ferryman at Charon; Orpheus don’t look back and whatever you do don’t ink a deal with the King of Twist, a.k.a. The Devil.
Of course that’s not the whole story. Faust is forever in fragments. And yet his story is a road map, a cautionary tale, a disclaiming nominalization (Faustian bargain): a tripartite account of knowledge.
Theories abound, predictably. Faust claimed to have had the protection of a special supernatural guardian, but the company the professor and dabbler kept suggest the guardian wasn’t Diablo but quite possibly, Deo. After all, Faust’s male companion at the time was Phillip Melanchthon, an associate of Luther’s. He said Faust was a highly respected individual and in fact the University of Krakow in Poland had Faust as a university course subject. Sure, Faust studied, “magic,” said Melanchthon, but then so did, and does, the cosmic Christ found in the Book of John, where most of Jesus Christ’s miracles occur. Melanchthon often “soberly chronicled (Faust’s) feats of magic.” If champions of a people’s faith could speak stoically about Faust, what does this say about his supposed contractual obligation to their arch-enemy?
Still, Faust could be seen flying out of pubs on wine casks (Leipzig) and prophesied the victory of Imperial troops over Italy in 1525-27 and according to Phillip von Hutten a prognosis list drawn up by Faust for Hutten’s 1534 trek through Venezuela all came true. Faust had told von Hutten, a German knight that he would die under a “red moon.” The knight died in Venezuela in 1546 and his governance and life is immortalized in a novel called, “Faust’s Moon.” Not entirely sure of its hue.
Unfortunately the Faust story ends, as it does for us all, in unremarkable death, but for one interesting fact: Faust was found dead lying face down – a sure sign for some of “his infernal associations.”
A black dog, a faithful companion, was never seen again.
I think I might know the whereabouts of that dog.
We are unreliable narrators; our own stories are riddled with gaps, lacunae and often lie in fragments marbled with fissures. What do we know? Biography and autobiography are the aggregate of what, in the former, the author happens to learn, and in the latter, he chooses to tell. Memoir is a best guess.
Only with others do our stories make sense, can we find that faint ring of truth. The other corroborates our version or denies it. It is confirmation or negation. We are ascendant or annihilated. We float, we burn. And you have to wonder where the pieces of us go? Where does the memory, the notion, the gesture or person lost to us, or to them, go? I imagine foolscap leaves, scrolls of scorched and dirtied paper, being whipped about in the wind. I imagine decay. I imagine packs of roving dogs, black ones, yellow fangs in their skulls, on the prowl; to them our moments lost; the bits of our soul we lose in our travels are bone and in that bone is our marrow, our stories.
We are trailed by black dogs.
One is trailing me.
Another is following you.
We supply them with scraps: Scrolls of bone, shards of shrouds, Faust in fragments.