July 27, 2018

Dear Drama Observers,

Have you ever had that experience of reading or hearing a term that you sort of knew what it meant but weren’t quite sure? You were familiar with it, but since it’s not part of your everyday vernacular, the term’s meaning was a tad obscure.

Faustian bargain is one such term for me. I’ve been hearing it a lot recently and I may have even used it on occasion. It’s one of those terms that certainly makes you sound more intelligent when you drop it in a sentence. Unless, that is, you use it incorrectly as in, “I bought six rolls of toilet paper today at Faustian bargain prices!” But if someone had asked me, “Faustian bargain. What does that mean exactly?” I probably would’ve finished answering that question in about ten seconds. Maybe five. (Stand by, I’ll give you the longer answer shortly.)

In reading up on the term, it’s occurred to me that the concept of a Faustian bargain fits right in with what I’ve been saying about dramas and how people get sucked into them. I’ll explain what I mean, but first, let me back up and review just a bit so we can place this concept in a larger context. Imagine, if you will, a voice—perhaps that of James Earl Jones—saying, “Previously on The Drama Review.”

We’re all flawed or cut from what Immanuel Kant referred to as the crooked timber of humanity. Consequently, we have problems with each other when we get in close. Normally-functioning people use their reasoning abilities to work out the myriad of problems that come with closeness. That’s why we call them reasonable or reason-able people. They use their reasoning abilities to problem-solve.

But Drama People lack such abilities, which is why we call them unreasonable or un-reason-able. They have neither the ability nor willingness to solve the inevitable problems that come with closeness. And yet, they yearn for relationships just like everyone else. Consequently, they have a dilemma—how to achieve closeness when normal problem-solving capabilities are lacking. For them, drama resolves that dilemma. Drama provides an alternative way of connecting since they can’t relate through reasoning.

Here’s how a drama functions: My role in the relationship is this; your role is that. As long as we both stay inside of our roles, we’ll “get along.” Therefore, relational success is contingent upon participation in the drama.

But drama takes a toll on those who participate. In short, drama participation makes you sick, drives you crazy, and wears you out. I’ve seen countless people in my office over the years who have come in complaining of the adverse effects in being stuck in someone’s drama.

It seems most common that people get sucked into dramas unwittingly. They’ve gotten snookered and feel so stupid when they realize what has happened after the fact. Their drama participation didn’t result from conscious, deliberate decisions but—like the proverbial frog boiling in the water—from incremental acclimations.

There are cases, however, in which people play their roles deliberately. Believing their eyes to be wide open, they willingly participate in the drama for some supposed gain, only to later discover the unseen dangers lurking backstage.

Which brings us back to the Faustian bargain. Here’s how Encyclopedia Britannica concisely defines the term:

Faustian bargain– a pact whereby a person trades something of supreme moral or spiritual importance, such as personal values or the soul,  for some worldly or material benefit, such as knowledge, power, or riches. The term refers to the legend of Faust, a character in German folklore, who agrees to surrender his soul to an evil spirit (in some treatments, Mephistopheles, a representative of Satan) after a certain period of time in exchange for otherwise unattainable knowledge and magical powers that give him access to all the world’s pleasures. A Faustian bargain is made with a power that the bargainer recognizes as evil or amoral. Faustian bargains are by their nature tragic or self-defeating for the person who makes them, because what is surrendered is ultimately far more valuable than what is obtained, whether or not the bargainer appreciates that fact.

Colloquial expressions of the Faustian bargain include “deal with the devil” or “selling your soul to the devil.” I’ve also heard it referred to as “transactional-ism.” One who enters a drama through the Faustian bargain doesn’t get sucked in; he steps in… and does so voluntarily.

In keeping with the words of my letter’s subtitle, examples of the Faustian bargain abound in “relationships and culture.” On a relational level, an example would be the son who voluntarily lays aside his own career pursuits to enter Dad’s chosen profession, knowing full well that charting his own professional path will likely get him disinherited. An example on the cultural level would be the constituent who overlooks the debaucheries of his unprincipled party leader for the purpose of gaining and maintaining the power to advance his party’s principles.

I’d like to highlight several features of the Faustian bargain stemming from the above definition:

The Faustian bargain is exceedingly tempting.

Here’s where we might employ the term transaction. I’ll give up something of extreme importance to gain something I consider to be more important. “Join me,” Darth Vader dared Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back, “and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son.” That was very tempting.

The Faustian bargain is knowingly entered.       

The bargainer recognizes the power as “evil or amoral.” In most dramas, the evil of the manipulator is an after-the-fact realization. The person who enters through the Faustian bargain, however, sees the evil upfront but disregards it or minimizes it, figuring the ultimate gains will outweigh the losses.

The Faustian bargain is immediately satisfying.      

At first, the bargain does indeed seem to pay off. The tangible upsides override any concerns about the potential downsides. Mussolini’s excesses were overlooked because, after all, “He got the trains to run on time.”

The Faustian bargain is insidiously corrupting.

Anakin Skywalker, Luke’s father, was seduced by promises of power to join the dark side, at which point he became Darth Vader. When principles are forfeited to gain power, you’ll ultimately end up with neither power nor principles. And the corruption doesn’t usually occur in one fell swoop, but in increments. Those who enter dramas through involuntary manipulation wish to get out. Those who enter dramas through voluntary Faustian bargains wish to stay in, holding out for the never-to-materialize payoff. And the longer they remain, the more pervasive the corruption.

The Faustian bargain is ultimately bankrupting

Faustian bargains are by their nature tragic or self-defeating for the person who makes them.” The person gives up something valuable in exchange for something of supposed greater value only to discover that the sought-for prize is fool’s gold.

In response to Emperor Palpatine’s strong-arming to abandon his silly Jedi principles and join the Force, Luke responded. “I will not turn, even if you are forced to kill me.” He turned down the offer of a Faustian bargain.

There’s a term we use to describe such a person: Hero.

Till next week.

6 replies
  1. Allison McNeese
    Allison McNeese says:

    Great article.

    None of my students seem to have heard of Mussolini with respect to trains running on time, though.

    Reply

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