The Devil. Old Scratch. The Prince of Darkness. And so on. We have more names for Lucifer than we do for varieties of cheese. Even for a being I do not believe exists, Satan and his methods provide us with more metaphors than did most folk who ever lived among us.
Enter Faust and his Faustian bargain with the powers of darkness. I learned of him via Christopher Marlowe’s excellent play, Doctor Faustus. Others have met the legend through Goethe’s plays or not at all, in literature at least. Yet we have a wonderful literary metaphor that has endured, thanks to an academic who wanted to know more than permitted. Through Mephistopheles, Faust got power and knowledge, but in the process he made a terrible bargain.
The play is far older than the usage history in The OED Online. The real Johann Georg Faust lived not that long before Marlowe, and his legend grew over the centuries, though today it’s only we academics and our students (how appropriate) who might know something of his origins. To Marlowe and his contemporaries, the stories of Faust’s death in an alchemical experiment gone wrong, his body horribly mutilated, only deepened the mystery.
I find it interesting indeed that our metaphor, suggesting a bargain too terrible to make long-term, yet made anyway for immediate gain, has no OED entry. Nor do I find it in my print dictionaries. I would enjoy knowing who first coined the term, and when.
Whatever the origin of the term or its history, be careful when sealing any deal. I have heard the term used flippantly, for used-car buys that went wrong or credit-card debt foolishly or desperately taken on at usurious rates. More seriously, it has described alliances between great powers, treaties signed that should have been shunned.
Faust also gives us an appropriate metaphor just before an election.
Please nominate a word or metaphor useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.