Mephistopheles and the image of the limited good

And the devil sings dut, da dut, dut ta dut dut da dut…

In the first act of the second part of Faust, the King opens his court to the complaints of his followers. Complaints, doleances, Goethe’s seen a few. While the second part of Faust is written in the midst of the reactionary years, the years of legitimacy, Goethe is well aware of the weakness of the whole schema of legitimacy, within which the advances of the bourgeoisie were – according to the best laid Burkean plans – to be absorbed into the organic tissue of a society based on tradition, religion, respect. Goethe himself has advanced into the elite of a very small state, and of course his genius – and even his vanity - is large enough to judge how small.

There is a thesis, advanced by Arno Mayer, that claims that the nineteenth century was not, as we sometimes like to think, the time of the Great Transformation – but rather saw only the gradual withering of the ancien regime. Although it may appear that Mayer’s thesis is contradictory to another recent thesis – that of Charles Tilley, which locates the start of capitalist relationships in Europe’s rural regions in the 17th century – both of them are reactions to the periodization advocated by a school going through Adam Smith to Karl Marx, which takes industrialization, and especially advanced heavy industry, to be at the very heart of the nineteenth century. Mayer has the figures: except for England, “agriculture persisted as the single largest and weightiest economic sector until 1914”; (34) furthermore, ‘until 1914 consumer manufacture outweighed capital goods industry in the nonagrarian sector of each national economy”. (35)

One should never take arms against a sea of statistics – because here Marxian ‘materialism’ will find itself well and truly drowned, as anybody who has perused the volume after volume of a certain kind of econometric Marxist history that proceeds with a sort of amnesia that what we are looking for are the relations of preduction, not board feet of pigiron produced in 1900. Mayer, I should say, is not one of those econometricians. I refer to him here in order to set up the tension between the spirit of the time and the time – a tension to which Derrida pays attention, under the rubric of a time out of joint, in the Specters of Marx. Although it is not Hamlet that is in question, here – the vengeance thematic is muted, and – for those who have the eyes to see it – put at the margin, where it becomes the larger thematic of Nemesis, of balance.

But again … the king has called together his councilors, and complaints have been made until the king asks his new fool for his complaints – and the fool – Mephistopheles – responds that he is a blithe spirit just to be here. He then surveys the complaints so far in this speech:

Where in the world is there not a lack of something?
The this, the that – well here it’s money that’s missing.
You aren’t going to pluck it from an ostrich, that’s true
Yet wisdom knows how to bring the deepest depths in view.
In mountain’s veins, under the base of walls we find
Gold that is coined, and the uncoined kind.
And you ask me – who will bring this all to light?
The force of human nature and his spirit’s fine flight.
(Okay, I took some liberties with that last line. So sue me.)

(Wo fehlt’s nicht irgendwo auf dieser Welt?
Dem dieß, dem das, hier aber fehlt das Geld.
Vom Estrich zwar ist es nicht aufzuraffen;
Doch Weisheit weiß das Tiefste herzuschaffen.
In Bergesadern, Mauergründen
Ist Gold gemünzt und ungemünzt zu finden,
Und fragt ihr mich wer es zu Tage schafft:
Begabten Manns Natur- und Geisteskraft.)

It is, as we would expect, man’s nature and spirit that causes the controversy. But let’s linger on the suggestion – which is held within the image of the limited good. For after all, what is the good of gold? Whether found as part of a treasure (under walls) or mined (from the veins of mountains), gold is an oddly medieval product upon which to bring the attention of man’s “spirit”. Although of course there were a number of gold rushes in the nineteenth century – California, Alaska, Australia – yet the gold rush was symbolic of the spirit of the age only in as much as it was a leveling wealth, a wealth that depended on the chance of discovery apart from social position (putting to one side – oh that side! – the indigenous people’s whose streams and land were calmly seized by the white male gold seekers). In an earlier post in which we first recognized the importance of the image of the limited good to explain the rise of the happiness society,- here we discussed German treasure hunting via an article by Johannes Dillinger and Petra Feld, Treasure-Hunting: A Magical Motif in Law, Folklore, and Mentality, Württemberg, 1606 –1770. We will leave that and the subsequent posts that followed it as allusions.

Unsurprisingly, it is at the moment in which the image of the limited good confronts the image of growth that the devil and all the specters pop up. About which more later.