The Faustian Bargain
The daily White House updates on the coronavirus pandemic bring to mind the Medieval folklore of Faust’s bargain with Mephistopheles (the devil). Faust surrenders his soul for the diabolical blessings of wealth, power, and fame.
Dr. Fauci, Dr. Trump, and Dr. Birx
We see and hear POTUS Donald Trump; then we see and hear Dr. Fauci, and Dr. Birx. Two of three have M.D. degrees required to diagnose and dispense medication. The other has no degree and no license to practice medicine but repeatedly ignores and contradicts Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci.
Yesterday’s White House update (April 23) offers the latest conflict between knowledge and what seems like insanity. The president referred to “emerging” research showing that the increased sunlight and higher humidity of spring and summer kill the virus. Past studies have not found good evidence to support the theory. But that’s not the worst of it.
Noting unidentified research into the effects of disinfectants on killing the virus, the president went further off the rails by wondering aloud whether a disinfectant could be injected into people because the virus “does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that.” Where is Sigmund Freud when we need him?
Sigmund Freud’s Case Study in Demonic Neurosis
We are children of the Enlightenment. Few of us believe in real life Faustian bargains with the Devil. But Sigmund Freud became intrigued by Johann Christoph Haizmann (1651-1700), a Bavarian-born Austrian painter, after reading Haizmann’s newly recovered narrative description (L) and triptych painting (below) of his Faustian bargain.
Haizmann’s personal description of his experience became the occasion for Sigmund Freud’s and Gaston Vandendriessche’s research on “the Haizmann case” became a part of the study of psychology and psychiatry.
The Burgher and the Deal with the Devil
Of interest to us here is Haizmann’s depiction of the Devil as “a fine burgher” in the left panel of Haizmann’s triptych. ‘Burgher’ was a title of the medieval a privileged social class. Public officials were drawn from among the burgher class of medieval towns and cities. Haizmann’s choice of a burgher as the Devil in disguise is its own repudiation of wealth, privilege, and power. Only the Virgin Mary could free him from the pact with the Devil.
Freud de-mythologized the religious language and metaphors by which Haizmann had understood himself and his world. In 2020 only a quack would speak of demonic possession! Yet the biblical pictures of demonic possession still have a way of reaching parts of us we cannot explain or escape. Every one of us is a little insane at night, or locked in during the coronavirus pandemic. Few of us keep our twitter feeds on the pillow to push away the darkness. Few of us belong go the burgher class, yet there is something about Donald Trump that was with us before is election and will remain with us after he is gone: the age-old demonic dreams of wealth, privilege, and power.
We speak of neuroses and psychoses instead of demons or the devil the way Haizmann did. But still, there is the haunting memory of King Saul dropping into the abyss of insanity, throwing his spear at David, and the man who had been possessed by the Legion of demons before Jesus asked his name and sent them into the herd of swine. What is happening to us in America defies rational explanation. How does it happen that we allow a soul-less burgher who imagines injecting Lysol into our veins to take the world stage with Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci?
The Art of the Deal and the Deal with the Devil
The Art of the Deal put Donald Trump on the world stage. Art of the Deal is an autobiography. But it’s not. According to the publisher and the book’s ghost writer, Tony Schwartz, Mr. Trump never wrote a line, but continues to say he was he author. Now that the coronavirus has shut down the economy he tricks himself into being a doctor who always knows best.
By way of contrast, Johan Christoph Haizmann, relieved from the frantic need for the burghers’ recognition. He joined the Brothers Hospitallers of Saint John of God, aka, the Brothers of Mercy to spend the rest of his life serving the poor, and the sick of body and mind.
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, host of Views from the Edge: to See More Clearly, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR), Chaska, MN, April 24, 2020.