The carnal beginnings of the Faustus story
The story of the overly ambitious scholar John Faustus, who decides to sign a pact with the devil to attain all possible knowledge, inspired poets like Goethe and Christopher Marlowe. The earliest delivered stories concerning Faustus, however, seem to be a lot more vulgar than these masterpieces of fine literature.
A collection of stories concerning the tragic history of John Faustus first appeared in the German city of Frankfurt around 1580. They first start off with some teachings on morale: “Faustus tried to love what not could be loved. His thoughtlessness and frivolity stinged and tempted him to conjure the devil.”1 But after the pact with the devil is signed the rest of the stories can be characterized as picaresque.
The compiler of the collection that appeared in 1587 was clearly Lutheran: on a visit to Rome Faustus, with the help of his evil servant Mephistophiles, becomes invisible and visits the palace of the pope to mock him. A very prudish scene when compared to Faustus’ visit to the palace of the Turkish sultan in Constantinople:
When the sultan was enjoying his banquet Faustus made a great noise and havoc and put a spell on the sultan so the sultan couldn’t move a limb. Then Faustus appeared to the sultan in very ornate clothing, stated “greetings worthy emperor, this is the prophet Mahomet appearing to you” and left leaving the sultan praying on his knees.2
The next day Faustus visits the part of the palace where the sultan keeps his “wives and whores” which can normally only be accessed by “cut-up” boys. Again Faustus appears claiming he is the prophet Mahomet. Faustus stays in the harem for a couple of days. After he leaves, the sultan’s wives state that the prophet Mahomet has shared the bed with all of them stating that his seamen would produce a great and fierce people. When the sultan asks whether it felt like they slept with a human being the women confirm. The body of the prophet was very well adorned and they would be willing to repeat the experience this very day.
This story would be gefundenes Fressen for Edward Said of course. But Faustus not only indulges his carnal passions in the Orient: back in Germany, Mephistophiles takes care that there will be a new woman awaiting in Faustus’ bed every night. Faustus also takes on binge drinking with students and avenges anyone who somehow aggravates him. When a farmer refuses to give Faustus a ride on his cart, for example, the wheels of the cart disappear and Faustus orders the farmer to carry his cart to the next city where the wheels will be waiting for him.
The sinner is punished by the sinner. That principle inspired Goethe to have Mephistophiles saying: “I am a part of the force that always wants to do evil but only creates the good.” The story of the Turkish sultan is no part of Goethe’s adaptation of the story though.
The original version of the Faustus story can be read in German on the website of the Bibliotheca Augustana in Augsburg.
An introduction to the work of Edward Siad and the Western stance to the Orient is provided by Emory University.
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