Christa Knellwolf King, Faustus and the Promises of the New Science

Christa Knellwolf King, Faustus and the Promises of New Science, c. 1580-1730: From the Chapbooks to Harlequin Faustus (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008). 216 pp. £55 hb. ISBN 0754661334.

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It is one of the most widely acknowledged truths in the Faustus criticism that the dangers of unrestrained curiosity have always been among the major theme of the story, from the sixteenth century on to its romantic and post-romantic offspring. Recent studies, in the wake of New Historicism, have shown that long before the nineteenth- and twentieth-century versions of the myth – of course prone to represent the devilish temptations of an all-powerful modern science – the relationships between literary sources and various fields of Renaissance knowledge (mainly alchemy, astrology, magical arts, theology and demonology) have been crucial in its genesis and success. The originality of Christa Knellwolf King’s Faustus and the Promises of New Science is to focus on the broad period that spans from the first chapbooks to Enlightenment variants, and to confront literary texts with a wider history of the changing attitudes towards scientific inquiry (Ch. 1: Introduction). As she centres this history on the rise of the so-called “new science”, the author contends that the Faustus tale’s many metamorphoses – generic plasticity and a discontinuous history are indeed two of the most striking features of this literary myth – have something to do with a dramatic shift in the appraisal of curiosity in the lapse of a century and a half. Her promises are not vain.

Chapter 2 links the birth of the Faustus figure to the many anxieties surrounding intellectual speculation during the second half of the sixteenth century: despite their slightly different accounts, both the anonymous German Faustbuch,published in 1587 by the Köln Editor Johannes Spies, and its English translation of 1592 known as The English Faustbook, can be read, unequivocally, as “cautionary tale[s] about the dangerous consequences of an intellectual’s unorthodox study of self, world and God” (p. 27). Yet, the origins and the significance of the Faustus figure are about as complex as the tale is plain. Drawing from well known sources and reference studies, the author traces back the development of the legend, from a series of unimpressive anecdotes about some dull contemporaries (notably Johannes Sabellicus, 1480-1540, a quack astrologer who took Faustus as a pseudonym) to the entertaining character of the chapbooks and the exemplary figure of damnation in Protestant rhetoric. Faustus’ sins are numerous, ranging from stubbornness to despair, but curiosity is mentioned as the first one: he is introduced as a “Speculator”, a Renaissance scholar perverted by his passion for magical arts, a restless mind craving for answers, which makes him turn into a gullible disciple of Mephistopheles’ lectures. Knellwolf King carefully tries to unfold the various cultural layers involved in the literary figure: Luther’s criticism of the illusion of free-will, popular anti-intellectualism, Renaissance concerns for individual self-assertion and the rejection of authority to name a few of them. The study is rich, a cornucopia of references and hypotheses, but it is sometimes repetitive and laborious. One can wonder whether so many explanations, not always clearly structured, are needed: is it necessary, for instance, to refer so insistently to the Gnostic heresy (whose influence on the sixteenth century remains quite hypothetical – the author often relies on A. D. Nutall’s The Alternative Trinity: Gnostic Heresy in Marlowe, Milton and Blake, a reference which might be dealt with more caution) to understand the folkloric portrayal of a “strong mind”, modelled on widely shared biblical, mythical and literary references? Other points, like the crucial influence of early Lutheran theology (with all its intricacies), would require more expertise. Some suggestions are very stimulating, for instance when Knellwolf King shows that Mephistopheles’ gibberish on the genesis “represents a comic attempt to force the competing explanations that were circulating in the late sixteenth century into one coherent whole” (p. 57). But if Faustus certainly exemplifies a negative version of the spirit of inquiry that characterized Renaissance humanism, the traditional rhetoric of the chapbooks is entirely at odds with the assumptions that will ground the later “scientific revolution”, which the author(s) of the Faustbuch barely anticipated.

Knellwolf King deals with this contradiction by repeatedly asserting that “There is a subversive message to the story in defiance of its ostensible purpose as a cautionary tale, which legitimated the intellectual ventures of the enquiring mind” (p. 184). Concerning the chapbooks, the idea is half-convincing, and the plea for a reassessment of the Faustus figure (“His character demonstrates many weaknesses, but his transgression does not deserve the eternal damnation demanded by traditional morality”, p. 109) is the wish of a modern reader. One ought to distinguish more clearly the case of Marlowe’s play, to which Knellwolf King turns in Chapter 3. Marlowe raises the “overreacher” to the greatness of a tragic hero, but he also depicts him with more ambiguity, as he tends to transfer his own perplexities, and probably his own religious dissatisfaction, to the character. But is this to say that “Marlowe’s Faustus acts in the spirit of Bacon’s scientific programme when he rejects all previously published explanations of nature”, and that “he approaches his period’s received wisdom with a soberly rational mind” (p. 91)? Not exactly, as the author concedes, since Faustus’ bent for magical arts hardly corresponds to an empiricist’s stance, and makes him the follower of an ancient science rather than the forerunner of a “new” one.

At this point, the reader might still be looking for the connection between a literary creation of the Renaissance and the advent of modern science. The author tries to bridge the gap by way of a long digressive chapter (Ch. 4) on “The Alternative Worlds of the New Science: Burton, Milton and Fontenelle” (the title is quite misleading, since Thomas Browne is treated extensively rather than Burton, who is only briefly mentioned, p. 114). Apart from the fact that they never refer to Faustus, the various seventeenth-century authors scrutinized here share a more positive attitude towards intellectual curiosity, although always ambivalent and cautious. Browne’s attempts at justifying daring researches, notwithstanding religious dogmas, are contrasted with Milton’s poetical warnings against transgression, which tempered his interest for scientific circles and new discoveries. As for Fontenelle, he played a major role as a propagandist of the new science in France, enhancing the idea that the cosmos might harbour a multiplicity of worlds in his Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (1687) – a “scientific romance” which is one of the first modern literary works explicitly dedicated to vulgarising recent theories in astronomy and physics. On Milton and Fontenelle, Knellwolf King is remarkably synthetic, and many of her analysis are penetrating, especially when she suggests that “The imagination not only plays a vital part in determining the mode of representing new and daring theories but it is a means for the self to position itself in a world that has become radically unfamiliar” (p. 145). Even though some hasty judgments can be found in the midst of an impressive display of readings, the chapter can be read for itself, as a good introduction to the changing attitudes towards curiosity and discovery. Yet, a paradox is looming: “The scientific developments of the seventeenth century would no doubt have been to the taste of Faustus, had he been resuscitated in a fictional form as a witness of the period. But no attempts were made to re-invent the Faustus figure for the main part of the century” (p. 114). Precisely: the (temporary) oblivion of the Faustus legend may be held as a sign that scientific curiosity, progressively decriminalized, had gained a new status throughout the seventeenth century. Some blanks, in literary and intellectual history, can be meaningful.

What to think, then, about the theatrical resurgence of Faustus under the guise of Arlequin, at the end of the century? Surveying in Chapter 5 a broad corpus of plays performed between 1680 and 1740 (William Mountfort’s The Life and Death of Doctor Faustus Made into a Farce, c. 1684; Evaristo Gherardi’s Arlequin empereur dans la lune, 1684; John Turmond’s Harlequin Doctor Faustus, 1723; John Rich, Necromancer, 1723; Lewis Theobald’s A Dramatick Entertainment, call’d Harlequin a Sorcerer,1725), Knellwolf King draws some balanced conclusions. The hybrids of Faustus and Arlequin owe something to the stereotype of the crazy scientist popularized by Shadwell’s Virtuoso, which testifies to the fact that, even during the rise of the Enlightenment, the average public remained suspicious about disinterested scientific inquiry. Yet, when Faustus goes to hell, it is nothing more than “the hell of farce” (p. 167). Knellwolf King shows how far this trivialised character, a Protean Arlequin-Faustus who embodies social aspirations to upward mobility, differs from the victim of the grand drama of libido sciendi enacted by the sixteenth century (and maybe as much from late eighteenth-century romantic versions, including Goethe’s). This chapter is probably the best of the book: with subtlety and accuracy, it demonstrates that it is less the type of the curious mind which is ridiculed (this feature even tends to disappear in the portrayal of the character), than the cautionary tale about the dangers of curiosity and transgression. The argument of subversion is not misplaced here, precisely because parodies are subversive, formally and ideologically.

On the whole, Knellwolf King’s eclecticism is refreshing. After some decades, if not centuries of Quellenforschung (the first attempts at separating the historical facts from the Faustus legend dating from the early seventeenth century), her approach cannot seriously claim to make a substantial addition to the already long bibliography of studies on the sources and significance of the Renaissance Faustus, or on Marlowe’s criticism. But it offers a detailed and comprehensive study on the many dimensions of the Faustbuch and the English Faustbook, which is not so common. It is even more instructive on the often overlooked comical Faustus of the Restoration and Enlightenment period, as the effort of contextualisation in Chapters 4 and 5 proves to be helpful. Although sometimes written quickly (with some references not included in the bibliography, for example), and only more or less successful in its attempt to link traditional problems in Faustus criticism with the most recent researches on the status of curiosity and science in the early-modern era, Faustus and the Promises of New Science is a resourceful book and an invigorating read, worth the attention of anyone interested in the connections between literary studies, the social perception of science, and cultural history.

Nicolas Correard, University of Nantes