The role of madness in genius, sublimation, and pulling one over on the devil.
“Law is mighty, mightier necessity.” - from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s
Faust, Part 2
I’m not a particularly spiritual person, but I believe wholly in the idea that a motivating force, something you see yourself externally accountable to, can be internalized to accomplish meaningful, if not great, things, and potentially even creates the capacity to reconcile trauma in a very real way.
With this in mind, the trauma of dealing with the devil in fiction has long been depicted as a consequence of making a deal by which you are bound by law; a circumstance one does not overcome as long as one remains lawful. As Aleister Crowley puts it, transcending morality (in this case, what is permissible under whatever law) is a matter of will to act: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”. It speaks to a survivalist imperative when you consider the context of stories like Goethe’s Faust or any number of stories that adapt its lesson, and none more so than 2018’s Vox Lux. It’s a film about being driven to more morally and ethically questionable, self-destructive depths in return for, not only survival, but a chance to be a singular voice, to make that survival mean something.
For those unfamiliar, the titular character in Faust makes a deal with the devil, feeling his life has stagnated, his soul for a megamind. Mephistopheles, the devil’s proxy, serves Faust during his life, where he becomes more morally depraved in pursuit of notoriety. The early interpretation of Faust was that the corruption is irreversible, and Faust is irredeemable, and the Devil collects on the debt. Ironically, this is the origin of the term “Faustian deal”, and it’s one that is mirrored in many, many works in this interpretation, however, I find the other, prevailing interpretation a more compelling one.
In Vox Lux, Celeste and her sister survive a traumatic, violent event as children, and in exchange for their lives (to a devil who we do not see), they are saved, and spring board into a musical career when they perform at a vigil for the event. The film features Jude Law in a character much like Mephistopheles, a smooth music industry figure who manages Celeste throughout this downward spiral through self-destruction while reaching higher and higher creatively. The film sets us up to expect the worst outcome for Celeste’s homecoming performance, many years after the violent incident which bore her, you have a sense that Jude Law is prepared to let this end her, and yet, it doesn’t.
Goethe’s telling of Faust is ultimately one of mastering and defeating the contract with the devil that, in Faust, perhaps was merely vanity, but in Vox Lux is a touching appeal for literally one’s life, and the price she pays for this is enourmous— one can be redeemed, and choose to break the contract, or be saved by another.
Note: the next section contains a spoiler
The final act of the film is set in the present day, Celeste, at an all time low emotionally, and with drug abuse, is on the verge of overdose. Her sister and daughter want her to cancel, but she does not, and her manager, Mephistopheles, is even of two minds on this, however, she goes on stage and puts on the performance of a lifetime. As the crowd is immersed in the experience of a fandom, passionately singing along, the final scenes of the film are her sister and daughter in the audience seeing this redemption in her performance, with Jude Law to the side of the stage with a look of disappointment on his face; he will not be collecting on the debt for Celeste’s soul, at least not today.
Like Faust, this film has multiple interpretations, and Natalie Portman, who plays the adult Celeste draws this comparison as well:
“I think it's sort of like
what Raffey was just talking about
, about it being a blessing and a curse when you know that the thing that kind of birthed you was kind of not innocent, like luck [laughs] There's a Faust kind of, you know, story... You want to see her devilish sides for sure.”
Evidently, the film was left intentionally ambiguious; is she singing her heart out to go to hell as a champion of her own trauma, or is she fighting to persist into the next collections attempt? I prefer to think this is the latter because, ultimately, this is a film about sublimation; the riches she receives in return for her survival are vast, but the only thing in her life she seems willing to lay herself down for to save is the right to her creativity.
It’s a film about forging a connection to humanity and the role of that essence of that humanity in one’s agency while the trauma of one’s life might be the single biggest disconnecting factor. For Celeste, it’s an enabler of her one form of resistance, and, in either interpretation of a Faustian bargain, it is successful, and to her fans, at least, those are souls who the devil cannot claim, and her legend is what, in this damnating interpretation, survives.
Out of necessity
Man made boundaries
To conquer and conquer
A meal, the family gawking
Nubiles in the nest
Feeding them makes us happy
That's pure joy
Closest to conquering
- - Minutemen “Pure Joy” from What Makes a Man Start Fires?
But fiction isn’t the only place we see this parable play out for real.
Daniel Johnston was an artist plagued with mental health issues for much of his adult life, and he also often spoke of making deals with the devil that he felt explained the depravity around him, and within him.
That he was considered a genius by many is likely why he attracted so many people—the members of Sonic Youth, Jad Fair, and the entire Austin music scene of the 1980’s- rallied around him to propel him forward; well-meaning Mephistopheles-es, as he would, perhaps in delusional states (or lucidity, as many suggest, as he typically attributed his afflictions to the devil), come to see his many friends and supporters as his mental health deteriorated.
In his later life, Daniel continued making art as he always had, and there were many times he nearly didn’t make it through, but each time he did, his following and his legend grew. By the time of his death, there had been hundreds of covers, more and more elaborate than his own, seeking to honor the work— from tribute albums by his friends in Austin, contemporary artists with their own cult followings like Bright Eyes, to those he merely influenced who are legendary in their own right, the Butthole Surfers and Nirvana.
In the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, his father tells a story about how after a triumphan return to performance after one of Daniel’s early hospitalizations, they were flying home in a small plane, and Daniel removes the keys, and throws them out the window. They both survive the crash, however, it is perhaps the first time Daniel attempts to take control, wrongly or rightly, of where he’s felt this bargain has taken him— he was returning home an unapologetic conqueror of his art, was this as far as he thought he needed to go? Was he simply delusional and felt super human? He was known well for his resentment of devilish evil, his fixation on the dead (even in a fey, childlike manner in the form of Casper, the Friendly Ghost, with whom he related deeply), and ultimately about seeking higher and higher vistas while everyone is asking “Where’s the rush?”. I think this last point explains the resentment; even Daniel would admit his true talent was in composition on the piano, not on the guitar, at which he did not excel, but this was ultimately in service of the goals he set, and improbably, achieved by being an Austin guitar slinger, he compromises, he makes enemies, and he breaks a little bit more each day.
The rest of the film details his long seclusion at home in Waller, Texas, and a return to creating music, without the pomp and frills of being a touring musician, and of being a local artist— something that satisfies him, with a renewed interest in his work later on, until his death in 2019, at home, overnight. By the end of his life, he was even performing as a solo act regularly, appearing nationally, and even had a musicial written for/about him.
There’s a lot of ways to read into the philosophical view of his life, albeit in a kind of parasocial way fans of any musician making deeply personal art, and seemingly sharing very openly, always seem to, but it seems fitting that he’d be taken, rather than go himself. The question his will for survival begs is, “Is this was the other side of trauma looks like?”
What these stories have in common is, yes, as Goethe also said, “Law is mighty, mightier necessity”— can you renege on a contract, yes even one with the Devil, if you feel your work isn’t yet done, or that you have a larger ambition and purpose than merely what you paid for? Will this redeem you? If not, will this heal you?
In the Minutemen’s “Pure Joy”, D. Boon explains that conquering your circumstances is a necessity for survival, it’s the purest motivator of slogging through life as a normal person— for people like Daniel Johnston, the fictional Celeste and Faust, it requires capitalizing on moments where you feel you may never get a second chance, breaking the law, so to speak, to execute on necessary actions for your own survival, if not your agency, and the impact of one’s legacy.
Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending: