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In a 1935 radio play, a man dies in a car accident and finds himself in a palatial home where a butler fulfills his every wish for wealth, women and so forth. The man (acted by Colin Clive, the first movie Dr. Frankenstein) cannot bear what he takes for Heaven, and tells his butler, “I want to suffer…I’m sick of Heaven…I can’t stand this confounded everlasting bliss…Well, whatever the devils do to me can’t be as bad as this. I want to go to Hell!”
The butler replies, “Why sir— wherever do you think you are? This is Hell, sir!”
America has turned into Hell — not the Hell of Christian theology, to be sure, but the real Hell in which the satisfaction of narcissistic desire drives the damned into ever more intense misery.
The playwright, John Balderston, wrote the 1931 film “Dracula” and other scripts in the horror genre. In 1960 Charles Beaumont, another genre writer, adapted Balderston’s playlet as an episode of The Twilight Zone. The theme derives from Goethe’s “Faust,” which in turn borrows from the biblical Book of Job.
The biblical Satan tormented Job by taking away what he needed, while the modern devil torments Faust by offering him whatever he wants.
Goethe’s protagonist rejects the devil’s blandishments, eschewing the “gold that runs through my fingers like quicksilver, a game that no-one wins, a girl who ogles my neighbor while I embrace her, honor that disappears like a falling star.”
Today’s Americans have taken the devil’s deal. As Faust told Mephistopheles, he is damned once he tries to hang on to the devil’s passing moment of pleasure. The Americans make a lifestyle out of it, and are just as miserable as the Colin Clive character in Balderston’s fantasy.
Balderston and Beaumont wrote horror fiction, but not in their darkest imaginings could they have invented the tortures that the devil inflicts on the young people of the West today.
Faust’s devil tells his victim that he can have whatever he wants; his contemporary successor encourages his victim to be whatever he wants. The updated Faustian bargain comes down to the “right to define and express an identity,” as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy began his opinion in the Obergefell case.
An updated version of Balderston’s story would allow the victim to change his or her or their gender, or perhaps pick something hermaphroditically in between. He/she/they could be nonbinary, or omnigender, or polygender and pangender, transgender, two-spirit, genderfluid, genderexpansive or any number of other things.
I do not know the anatomical implications of these neologisms. For more information, I direct the reader to the website of Medical News Today from which I took the terms.
Bisexuality, Woody Allen joked, doubled one’s chances of getting a date for Saturday night, but the proliferation of so-called gender identities reduces the probability to near zero. Designer identities invented according to individual impulse create a class of individuals who, by construction, are sexually incompatible with no-one else (or perhaps with everyone else, which is just as bad).
A few clicks will take today’s 12-year-old to video sites that show every imaginable variant of sexual activity. Mephistopheles helped Faust seduced the innocent Gretchen and resurrected Helen of Troy. His successor today would transmogrify his victim into a participant.
What would the damned ask of the devil? According to a 2016 report by pornhub.com, the most popular search terms in the United States are “Stepmom,” “Lesbian,” and “Stepsister.” In Europe (including Russia) the top search term is “anal.”
Pornography is not the anticipation of “normal” sexual relations (I am aware how controversial the N-word is when applied to sex) but something entirely different: It is the awakening of an obsessive narcissism that encourages the victim to plumb the darkest recesses of his psyche.
Hell is a lonely place, most emphatically where intimacy is concerned. Dante puts Francesca da Rimini in the same infernal diorama with her lover Paolo, where they are forever blown about in a whirlwind. That shows how little Dante knew about love; real lovers would take think eternal companionship a fate to be wished for, even in Hell. In our Hell, the real Hell as opposed to Dante’s invention, Francesca would be alone, with a vibrator.
Our Hell offers a fantasy orgy that runs 24/7 on the Internet. Virtual reality sex with silicon dolls is still beyond the capacity of household broadband, but can’t be too far away. Fantasy sex displaces real sex; in 2019, the Center for Disease Control reports, only 38% of high school students have had sexual intercourse, compared to 54% in 1991. Pornography erodes virility, extensive evidence shows.
One doesn’t want to encourage sexual activity among high-school students, to be sure, but even the clumsiest adolescent efforts of this sort require a modicum of human interaction.
It’s no surprise that today’s high school students by any measure are far less happy than their antecedents. Professor Jean Twenge chronicles the growing misery of American adolescents, and places the blame on smartphones and social media.
The chart below is taken from material she posted online. Her point is well taken, but I think it more accurate to distinguish between the bacillus and its means of transmission. The smartphone stands to depression as Xenopsylla cheopis does to Yersinia pestis.
Percentage of High School Students With a Major Depression Incident in the Past 12 months
Sexual desire is only one of the temptations that the Devil offers to entertain us in our Hell. An obese 12-year-old boy in a featureless exurb can be a basketball star or an international assassin on Xbox. A lapsed Christian or secular Jew can become an exemplar of virtue by identifying with the marginalized minorities in the United States or persecuted peoples abroad.
The semi-educated scions of this generation can style themselves the first enlightened generation in history, and look back in derision at the racist-colonialist-homophobic-misogynist-classist miscreants who infested the world for all those thousands of years before them. Strutting with contempt for all who preceded them and seething with the zeal of a Saint-Just or Savonarola, they scan social media and faculty lounges for ideological enemies.
The denizens of our Hell live in unrelenting loneliness and fear. If you despise your forebears, your children (if any there be) will despise you the way you despised them. Your earthly existence will pass like a bout of flatulence, and you will have nothing to look forward to but decrepitude and demise. Heaven help whoever calls this to your attention.
Your designer identity is a silly pantomime doomed to come to an abrupt end. Satanic derision dogs the inhabitants of our Hell, whose identities are as fragile as a five-dollar Halloween costume. Well they know that everyone is laughing at them behind their backs. They plug their ears and scream “I can’t hear you!”
That is why the damned in our Hell are so sensitive to “misgendering,” that is, using the “wrong” pronoun to qualify a transgender person (“Misgendering is an act of violence and it needs to stop” reads a recent headline in Brown Girl Magazine).
Federal courts are now considering whether university persecution of faculty for “misgendering” violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment. The issue is not so much a boy’s obsession that he is a girl (or vice-versa), but the protection of obsessions against the prospective intrusion of reality.
The same hysteria governs conversation about race. One is not allowed to mention the sad fact that almost two-thirds of black male college students drop out before earning a degree, because the supposed cause of this catastrophic failure rate is racism. The mere mention of the facts constitutes a racist “micro-aggression” that purportedly causes the problem in the first place. If that sounds silly, it is not my fault.
That also is why students at elite colleges demand “trigger warnings” for Greek mythology, because the mention of rape might rattle their raw nerves, and why college students require “safe spaces” to shelter them from whatever might interfere with their obsessions.
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche saw this coming a century and a half ago, in an ironic riposte to Goethe. Rather than sell his soul to the devil for earthly pleasures, Faust offers Mephistopheles a wager: if the devil can show him a moment so beautiful that he longs for it to linger, then he is lost.
Mephistopheles has offered Faust the usual incentives: money, fame, women, and so forth. What Faust demands rather is life: “to enjoy in my inner self what is apportioned to all of mankind, to grasp in mind the highest and the lowest, to gather their weal and woe upon my breast.”
Mephisto isn’t selling anything that Faust wants. Instead of a pact, Faust proposes a wager to the devil: “If ever I lay down content on a bed of idleness, let me be finished then and there! If you can fool me with flattery to the point that I admire myself — let that be my last day! I offer this bet!” And Faust adds: “If I say to the moment: ‘Yet linger! You are so beautiful!’ Then you will be free of service, and my time will be up.”
Nietzsche made the malicious announcement that he wanted to take the devil’s side of Faust’s wager. He wants to hold onto the moment of bliss (in fact, he wants it to recur eternally). Nietzsche’s alter ego declares (in the “Drunkard’s Song” of Thus Spake Zarathustra):
“Have you ever said Yes to a single joy?… Then you said Yes, to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamored. If ever you wanted one thing twice, if ever you said ‘you please me, happiness! Abide moment!’ then you wanted back all. All anew, all eternally, all entangled, ensnared, enamored—oh, then you loved the world. Eternal ones, love it eternally and evermore.”
This is the same Nietzsche who claimed that the artistic grandeur of Greek civilization was a mere distraction from the terrible truth, namely that man is better off never having been born, and failing that, dying as quickly as possible. Nietzsche knew what was at stake, even if he ended up on Mephisto’s side of the wager. Today’s Americans ask Mephisto, “What’s the catch?”