Mephistopheles in the Anthropocene

May 6, 2022 | 6 books mentioned 10 min read

The Fitchburg Railroad ran a little under 50 miles between its origin in Boston and its terminus. A bit before the half-way point at the Concord station and the train glided along the western shore of Walden Pond. By the time the celebrated Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau had gone to the “woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” making his home in that small cabin in 1845 on the opposite side of the pond from the tracks, and the Fitchburg Railroad had already been operating for a year, built by underpaid, exploited Irish immigrant labor. Making its daily devotionals every day of the year, the Fitchburg thundered past the glacial kettle pond during chill New England winter with its frost tipped pines and the pleasant cool summer days with oaks’ greenness, past spring’s blooming lilac and dogwood and the autumnal maples’ red, orange, and brown. Having conditioned himself to listen to the black-capped chickadee and the song sparrow, of rain lashing against his cedar timber roof or of wind squalls in winter Nor’easters, Thoreau’s reveries were interrupted twice a day by the bestial whistle of the Luciferian locomotive as it made its way west and east. He did not like it. “We do not ride the railroad,” Thoreau wrote in his 1854 Walden; or, Life in the Woods, “it rides upon us.” Examining industrial capitalism’s effect on the globe in the 17 decades hence, and Thoreau didn’t know the half of it.

covercoverRemembering Walden as only the account of this eccentric, solitary quasi-hermit living on the edge of a Massachusetts bean fields in the woods outside of Concord belies the fact that so much of Thoreau’s book isn’t just about nature, but about the transformation of nature. Massive changes were underway on this continent that, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, had been valorized as Edenic since the first European saw land that didn’t belong to them; steam-boat and train, telegraph and factory all refashioned a very different landscape. Men like Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson alternated between despairing and triumphant, and as Leo Marx claimed in his classic study The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, a studied ambivalence marked the intelligentsia on these subjects, noting that the “nothing quite like the event announced by the train in the woods had occurred before.” Regarding that metal shriek outside of Concord, and Marx catalogues numerous other instances as recorded by men like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Emerson, with the train representing how the “great world is invading the land, transforming the sensory texture of rural life… and threatening, in fact, to impose a new and more complete dominion over it,” as Marx writes. Were this an interruption only of the countryside’s quietude that would be one thing, but the train—or at very least what it represents—signaled the beginning of our current Anthropocene, when humanity’s rapacious consumption of the earth for material gain altered the very geology, ecology, and biology of the planet.

It’s estimated that because of the mass burning of coal for industry and transportation—a train’s engine is powered by coal after all—that the average temperature throughout the world rose a single degree Celsius during the 19th century, starting from when steam locomotives became common about three decades before the Fitchburg Railroad rumbled through Massachusetts: the beginnings of the Anthropocene and climate change. (The average temperature rose almost another degree in the last century.) Victorian scientists were aware of this connection; physicist Joseph Fourier writing in an 1837 edition of The American Journal of Science and Arts hypothesized that industrial exhaust “must produce variations in the mean temperature for such places,” while in 1856—two years after Walden’s printing—and Eunice Newton Foote wrote in The American Journal of Science that “An atmosphere of… [carbon dioxide] would give to our earth a high temperature.” Steamrolling towards a distant apocalypse, and Emerson, on whose land Thoreau resided, writes in his journal about how he hears the “whistle of the locomotive in the woods… it is prophetic.” More than they could have realized, for such progress over the past century-and-a-half now threatens to push the world towards an irrevocable climate catastrophe. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in its 2021 report, we are at “code red for humanity,” with one of the coauthors, atmospheric scientist Kim Cobb, telling the American Association for the Advancement of Science that there’s “really one key message that emerges from this report: We are out of time.” Rather than merely the punctured idyl of a Concord evening, the Anthropocene’s dark promise is ever-rising temperatures and disappearing shore-lines, massive raging wild fires and blighted crops, vicious new pandemics and billions of refugees, ocean acidification and the earth’s sixth great extinction. More than just a whistle in the dark, the more potent image of what the train might represent was expressed by Thoreau and Emerson’s contemporary Connecticut Sen. James H. Lanman, who in his survey Railroads of the United States called locomotives “iron monsters… dragons of mightier power, with iron muscles… breathing smoke and flame through their blackened lungs,” these demons which leap “forward like some black monster, upon its iron path, by the light of the fire and smoke which it promises forth.” Lanman understood the attraction, however, for despite their sulphury breath, locomotives are “triumphs of our own age, the laurels of mechanical philosophy, of untrammeled mind, and a liberal commerce!”

coverThat is the great paradox of the Anthropocene: the knowledge that industry and technology are killing us and our world but the fact that we’re forever hobbled by our addict’s inability to do anything about it. Such irrationality can’t be explained away by recourse to simple economic analysis, to the materialist’s fantasy that reason, logic, and utility explicate the ways of humanity. What it requires is the theological imagination, the poetic imagination, the vocabulary of avarice, greed, and vaingloriousness. If there is any myth that has spoken to modernity, especially regarding this ecological precipice, then it’s that master poem of the Romantic period (to which Transcendentalism was only one small branch), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s two-part closet drama Faust, the whole work begun in 1790 and completed in 1831, the decade before Thoreau moved into his little cabin. “If Henry Thoreau was impressed by Faust, he has unfortunately left no record of his enthusiasm,” writes Joel Porte in The New England Quarterly, and yet his landlord was abundantly aware of Goethe’s opus, if conflicted on its merits, Emerson noting in his 1863 Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England that “the great poem of the age is the disagreeable poem of Faust.” Goethe had innumerable antecedents to draw upon in his drama, from the Faustbuch of the 16th-century Christopher Marlowe’s famed Elizabethan stage play of 1592. All took as their subject the notorious historical necromancer, magician, and alchemist who sold his soul to Satan’s emissary, the demon Mephistopheles, in exchange for a limited period of power, ecstasy, and knowledge. Yet writing at the dawn of the Anthropocene, with his Faust in part a critique of the rationalist Enlightenment instrumentalism that would literally fuel the coming industrial revolution, and Goethe’s work speaks to this moment of rising temperatures and sea-levels. Even more than during Emerson’s century, Faust is the operative myth for today.

“Like Faust, torn between his earthly lusts and his spiritual strivings, they were dualists; yet they yearned for unity,” explained Porte in his consideration of the spiritual conflict at the heart of the 19th-century, and if true while Emerson and Thoreau were alive, how much more accurate today? Faust is our operative myth because it’s only this narrative about a man willing to sell his very soul for power—which feels infinite, but is disturbingly finite—that is fully fit to express the madness of a culture collectively endeavoring to bring about the apocalypse all for the piddling convenience that a fossil fuel economy provides. Through his infernal contract, Faust is given certain abilities—he can transport himself anywhere in the world instantly, he has access to all knowledge, he can spy on people unseen—but of course the cost is his soul. What use would he have of Mephistopheles in our century, when Faust could effectively have the same abilities imparted through his smart phone, social media, and the 24-hour convenience of Amazon shipping? “Him will I drag through life’s wild waste, /Through scenes of vapid dullness,” Mephistopheles says, and it might as well describe the experience of endlessly perusing Twitter, anesthetizing yourself from calamity to calamity as you doom scroll. “Ah, what a sense of your own greatness must/You have,” Faust’s servant Wagner says to him, an apt description of our own ever narcissistic, ever insular perspectives that retreat into microscopic granularity, even while the world burns (though that does provide opportunity for a great Instagram background). Unless Mephistopheles simply remains the animating spirit of modernity as it had emerged in the 19th-century, his goal the promulgation of a utilitarian doctrine that sees both nature and other people as tools in the furthering of the individual’s own desires. “Ich bin der Geist der stets verneint!” the demon tells Faust: “I am the spirit of perpetual negation.”        

coverFaustian spiritual malaise and our on-going tragedy of the Anthropocene are not distinct, they are mutually reinforcing. A reduction of the earth’s resources into something that provides mere convenience for us and unimaginable wealth for a corrupt few requires a jaded worldview, a denial of the blessedness of the earth (and of those who inhabit it). Pope Francis writes in his encyclical Laudato si’: Care for Our Common Home that “Economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to… the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let along the effects on human dignity and the natural environment. Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked.” Few adjectives, I would suggest, more clearly describe such a situation as much as “Faustian,” since as the magician foolishly gives away something of infinite worth for the transient and illusory pleasures offered by Mephistopheles, so too does industrial capitalism sacrifice the environment for idols of wealth and myths of progress. What makes Faust such a potent myth—and certainly not just in Goethe’s iteration but in the deep archetypal sense with which people have been drawn to the story of the doomed magician for centuries—is that his human desires for power, meaning, significance, and intimacy, no matter how jaundiced what he actually received may have been, are immaculately understandable. He is not without sympathy.  However, the necromancer’s individual negotiation yielded him the appearance of omniscient powers for a time, and the price was damnation; we’ve been collectively offered oil, gas, and coal, and the cost is nothing less than apocalypse.

I’m under no illusions that relabeling the Anthropocene as a Faustian Epoch will suddenly improve our environmental and economic situation, that merely identifying something so enormous with a term from cultural mythology will reduce the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and transition the global economy to something more humane and sustainable. Yet if there is any central proposition to demonology, it’s that even if you can’t control them completely, there is still a power in knowing the names of those creatures that bedevil you, whether Mammon, Moloch, or Mephistopheles. One need not literally believe in such entities—I don’t, and besides, I’m not even sure what “literally” would mean—but mythopoesis does allow you to measure the enormity of that which we’re up against. Even more importantly, to understand the Anthropocene’s negotiations as Faustian is an important reminder that much like the good doctor, we shouldn’t take those partisans of supply-side orthodoxy at their word that this system is “rational.” Anything that proposes unsustainable and dangerous growth to the detriment of the very biosphere is the exact opposite of rational, courting apocalypse for the benefit of imaginary numbers on a computer screen just like Faust falling in love with chimerical illusions conjured by Satan. What the designation of “Faustian” does is identify libertarianism, neo-liberalism, and all manner of capitalistic enthusiasms as what they are—not economics, but religion.

covercoverThe relationship between free markets and faith has been noted since Max Weber‘s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and he was abundantly aware of the irrationality at the core of a system where economic “striving becomes understood completely as an end in itself—to such an extent that it appears as fully outside the normal course of affairs and simply irrational.” Weber’s thesis concerned the connections between religion and economics, but Eugene McCarraher argues something even more radical and certainly more reflective of the dire state of the world during the Anthropocene in The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity, arguing that “Under capitalism, money occupies the ontological throne from which God has been evicted.” According to McCarraher, the only way to understand the irrationalities of capitalism, especially at this point in our history, is that it’s the dominant religion of our world and age, where the Lord is the Invisible Hand, its priests are those titans of industry, the liturgy is commercialism, and the rites are sacrificial, with the offering of such dark rituals nothing less than the entirety of the biosphere. Capitalism is now no longer simply a means of organizing labor and money, distributing commodities and assigning them monetary value, but rather a dark faith unto itself. The goal is unlimited growth and ever more capital for a smaller and smaller group of people, even while all of our futures are endangered. Moloch, the Lord of utilitarian reductions and blood sacrifices, has been slowly wakening over the past five centuries. We see him in the thought-experiment of the 18th-century physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace, a demon who is aware of the position, trajectory, and velocity of every single particle in the universe, and thus according to the mathematician can predict every aspect of a predestined future with perfect accuracy, all of consciousness, intentionality, and freedom now mere numbers on a ledger. We see Moloch in the grim scholasticisms of John Calvin, who prayed to a God that existed purely for Himself, every bit the same fatalistic tyrant as Laplace’s demon. And now Moloch reaches his apotheosis with Adam Smith’s invisible hand around all of our necks. Such men, puritans and positivists alike, valorized the word “rationalism” as a kind of shibboleth that masked something malignant at the core, envisioning economics, the universe, and God as a type of hyper-efficient and carefully assembled steam engine, but now the boiler is overheating and the entire thing threatens to explode.

“Storms, earthquakes, fire and flood assail the land” says Mephistopheles, though he sounds like somebody reading their newsfeed. Should the Anthropocene reach its terminus when, despite its name, it becomes impossible for the planet to sustain human life, then capitalism will have revealed itself as the most disastrous ideology in history. Or, perhaps more accurately, not capitalism or technology per se, but those powerful individuals that view both of those things as an end unto themselves rather than a means unto an end. Right now we’re at an impasse—there is a new, global, political, and spiritual reawakening from the movement Extinction Rebellion to Laudato si’ that attempts to imagine a more equitable future—but there’s also the enthusiasms of the Lords of Capital, none more so than the confidence men of Silicon Valley who, like Jeff Bezos, shoot octogenarian actors into space or, like Elon Musk, tinker with monkey brains, praying to Moloch’s final incarnation in the form of the technoutopian Singularity, their creed being nothing less than Faust’s injunction “Bin ich ein Gott? Mir wird so licht!”—”Am I a god? Light fills my mind.” Few political movements have been more effectively tarred than the Luddites, who agitated among the textile mills of England a generation before Thoreau, men who understood that mechanization signaled their economic obsolescence, and thus under capitalism their extinction. Far from being antiquated bumpkins, they were radicals attacking the instrumentalism of unfettered technology. It’s not technology that’s the problem—it’s the doctrine that it’s something more than a tool, that in fact we’re tools for it. When Thoreau heard the locomotive’s whistle, his fear was that rather than riding the train, the train was actually riding upon us. The central economic, political, ethical, and spiritual question of the remainder of this century—no matter how much time we actually might have left—is how to stall that engine so that we’re able to get off of the tracks.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

is the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. A regular contributor at several different sites, his collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released by Zero Books this year. He can be followed on Facebook, his website, or on Twitter at  @WithEdSimon.

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