Part one of Kit Marlowe: Money as daemon

April 18th, 2012

From the journal Rethinking Marxism we found this hidden gem by Myka Tucker-Abramson, The Economic Reformation of Magic in Doctor Faustus:

Editor’s introduction

For those with an interest in considering Marxian approaches to literature, this issue offers Myka Tucker-Abramson’s ‘‘Is Marlowe a Marxist? The Economic Reformation of Magic in Doctor Faustus.’’ In a richly nuanced reading of Christopher Marlowe’s 1594 play, Tucker-Abramson argues for a new interpretation of the transitions represented in the work. Fixing upon magic as a structuring metaphor for her analysis, she contends that the play’s subordination of the ‘‘old’’ magic of the emperor and the church to the ‘‘new’’*and considerably more potent*magic wielded by Faust via Mephistopheles (and Lucifer) signals an important change taking place in Marlowe’s world. For Tucker-Abramson, this ‘‘new’’ paradigm is metonymic with (and representative of) emergent capitalism. Faustus’s inevitable ‘‘fall’’ into the clutches of the demons who ‘‘serve’’ him is an analog for the practices of capitalism as they remake human subjectivity. Thus, the play is less about the moral shortcomings of its eponymous ‘‘hero’’ than the pernicious, destructive power of this new order as it establishes its dominance.

In Christopher Marlowe’s 1594 play, Doctor Faustus, magic is a metaphor for exploitation. My paper argues that Doctor Faustus is based on a carefully constructed comparison between the old and ineffective magic of the Emperor and the Pope and the new, very effective magic of Mephistopheles and Lucifer. The transition from Catholic to Luciferan magic represents the dissolution of the old order and money’s entrance into a capitalist system. I argue that Faustus’s ‘‘fall’’ to the devil enacts the larger process of exploitation and commodity fetishism overtaking the play’s entire social world, from the Pope and the Emperor down to the servant and the Vintner. From this perspective, Doctor Faustus is not about a personal or moral failing, but a mapping of, and challenge to, the naturalization of capitalist ideology.

In Christopher Marlowe’s 1594 play, Doctor Faustus, magic is a metaphor for exploitation. Doctor Faustus is based on a carefully constructed comparison between the old and ineffective magic of the emperor and the pope and the new, very effective magic of Mephistopheles and Lucifer. The transition from Catholic to Luciferan magic, which this play charts, represents the dissolution of the old order and money’s entrance into a capitalist system. Having made his deal with the Devil, Faustus travels around Europe wrecking havoc on, and exerting his power over feudal society. On these travels, two scenes stand out: that in which Faustus plays a practical joke on the pope, and that in which he impresses the emperor by creating the illusion of raising Alexander the Great and his paramour from the dead. Faustus’s interactions with the pope and the emperor are first and foremost about the end of the magic of feudalism. The pope’s futile response to Faustus’s trick *he rants ‘‘Bell, book, and candle; candle, book, and bell. /Forward and backward to curse Faustus to hell’ (DF 3.2)*reveals the Catholic Church’s power and exploitative abilities as depending on the superstitious and false belief of the pope’s connection to God and, more generally, the church’s connection to the divine. Similarly, the emperor’s acceptance of Faustus’s resurrection of an illusory Alexander bespeaks the ways in which the emperor and the pope are part of a system of exploitation based on false (and ultimately obsolete) magic. The power and wealth of the pope and emperor do not stem from their magical ability to extract money from their subjects through labor, but more crudely rely on the threat of physical or spiritual damnation. If, as Marx points out, the ‘‘personal dependence’’ of feudalism means ‘‘there is no need for labour and its products to assume a fantastic form different from their reality’’ (1976, 170), then Marlowe’s pope and emperor prove the futility of attempting to create a fantastic form out of feudal exploitation. As a counterpoint, Marlowe constructs the magic of Mephistopheles and Lucifer as a ‘‘real’’ magic that, as we will see, is tied up in the emerging system of wage labor.

Many thinkers have grappled with the relationship between the economic and religious reformations of the sixteenth century: between the transformation from an agrarian to a capitalist mode of production and the simultaneous transformation from Catholic to Protestant rule. While deterministic arguments have been drawn from both sides, the answer of course is never so simple. R. H. Tawney highlights the relationship between materialist and moral shifts in society: ‘‘The impetus to reform or revolution springs in every age from the realization of the contrast between the external order of society and the moral standards recognized as valid by the conscience of reason of the individual. And naturally it is in periods of swift material progress, such as the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, that such a contrast is most acutely felt’’ (1998, 109).

Following in the footsteps of Tawney, a host of social and economic historians such as Christopher Hill, and K. George, and H. R. Trevor-Roper have all theorized the complex interplay between economic and religious revolution. However, this kind of dialectical thinking between economic and ideological transformation has rarely filtered down into the literary criticism of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Instead, critics have largely focused on the relationship between Doctor Faustus and Calvinist exegesis (McAlindon 1995; Streete 2001; Hamlin 2001) or attempted to fit Faustus into the position of either the ‘‘bad boy’’ of Protestantism or its greatest explicator (Masinton 1972; Dollimore 1984; Sinfield 1992). The reason critics cannot agree on the ideological message of Doctor Faustus is that Faustus’s grappling with the Reformation is not simply doctrinal or metaphysical; it is also a struggle to come to grips with the economic, social, and political transformation that shaped and was shaped by the Protestant Reformation. In what follows I will argue, first, that the magic in Doctor Faustus can be read as a metaphor for the growing daemonic power of capital in early modern England; second, that Faustus’s relationship to Catholicism and Protestantism is always mediated through the emergence of early capitalism; and third, that as a result of this interconnection, Faustus’s fall to the Devil must be read not as a personal failure (or as a liberal plea for a kinder, gentler Protestantism), but as emblematic of a social struggle to grapple with the emergence of Protestantism and nascent capitalism in seventeenth-century England. (1)

Notes

(1) There are two published versions of Doctor Faustus: the 1606 (A) text and 1616 (B) text, as well as a large body of criticism seeking similarities and breaks between the two texts. This essay sides more with critics like Clifford Davidson (1969) and Pompa Banerjee (1993), who emphasize the similarities of the texts, and thus read the B-text as an amplification of the A-text. Because critics generally see a greater concentration of imagery playing off the relationship between magic, religion, and capital in the B-text, I have decided to rely on the A-text to show that this complex relationship between religion, politics, and economics is central to all versions of Doctor Faustus For a discussion of the differences between the text, see W. W. Greg’s edition of Doctor Faustus (Marlowe 1950), Emily Bartels in ‘‘Demonizing Magic: Patterns of Power in Doctor Faustus,’’ Leah Marcus’s ‘‘The Case of Doctor Faustus’’ (1990), and Pompa Banerjee’s ‘‘I, Mephastophilis: Self, Other, and Daemonic Parody in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus’’ (1993).

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