Understanding Faust: Mortal Bodies, Immortal Desires
By Linseigh Green
When I was first cast as Faust in Faust Shop, the 2022 adaptation of the Faust legend to the digital age co-directed by Annja Neumann and Alex Mentzel, I struggled more than I had ever done before to understand my character (and I’ve played a metaphor). I was familiar with the tale of Faustus from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, and had performed “L’Air des Bijoux” in a recital after seeing Gounod’s Faust in high school.
Don’t fear I won’t keep to the here agreed.
For what I promise is indeed
The striving of all my energies.
See, back at NYU, I thought I understood Faust. In Marlowe’s rendition, he desires more knowledge than any man ought to have. Even when I auditioned for Faust Shop, its argument that we make regular Faustian pacts with technology made perfect sense to me. But this short adaptation was of Goethe’s version, a different interpretation of the legend in which Faust is ‘cured of the knowledge-drive’. The thing Goethe’s Faust yearns for with so much of his being, that makes his stomach ache with desperation, depression, and hope, is an immersive and lived experience of the physical world — to consume it and be consumed by it so wholly that doing so can only be achieved through supernatural means — through Mephistopheles. Or in Faust Shop, to extract, with the aid of technology, something more potent from life through augmentation. This comes to fruition with the creation of the New Lands, which are derived from the sea (or in Faust Shop, a sea of data). While this concept made sense, especially when I considered humanity’s insatiable craving for power, in order to step into this character, I needed a deeper Why. Why was this striving so consuming that it led to a suicide attempt? I didn’t believe him.
You heard me, joy is not the issue.
I give myself to frenzy, to pleasure that hurts most,
Hatred in love and setbacks that revive.
My heart, cured of the knowledge-drive,
Henceforth to all the sorrows will be host
And what is dealt to all humanity
That I’ll enjoy in myself’s innermost
And maybe I didn’t believe him because I’ve never experienced even the standard tier of life he finds so treacherous. Ironically enough, I’m driven mad with striving, too.
I’ve been grasping at life since I was born. I entered this world sick and was sent straight from the delivery room to the NICU. Faust desires to see “food that leaves the eater hungry, a game I lose at every time.” I couldn’t hold down anything I was fed, and I was about to lose very, very badly.
I was diagnosed with necrotizing enterocolitis. Like most rare diseases, it has an essential acronym: NEC. NEC is a gastrointestinal disease that impacts fragile infants. Essentially, part of the intestine “dies.” And often, so does the baby — especially in the 90s. We don’t know what causes it. We don’t know when or why it occurs. And we don’t have a way to prevent or cure it. There isn’t even an agreed upon definition.
I survived thanks to a sigmoidectomy (part of my colon was removed). Growing up, my family was haunted by a claim they’d read stating that by the age of 7, I would fall behind in school. My mother was determined to fight this expectation, working with me constantly after school and over the summer. Though my pacing was slow, by the age of 7, I was ahead in most subjects. But there were other things we couldn’t fight: my gross motor skills were poor, I struggled with a feeding disorder, and I had an occasional inexplicable pain around my scar that was akin to being sliced open with a carving knife. When I was 16, one episode was so severe that I had to go to the hospital. It was the first time I was convinced I was going to die. After several hypotheses were passed around, a nurse said she had heard something about the long-term complications of NEC. And that’s exactly what it was.
I would continue visiting the hospital with these issues at least once a year. Each time, I would nearly go under the knife before being sent home with an admonishment. Each time, if the doctor had heard of NEC, they’d say it was irrelevant; that the real issue was that I must have been abusing substances/ pregnant/ eating too many burgers. I have been rejected by countless gastroenterologists, including the entire GI department at one of the US’s top hospitals. Because I cannot get care or help with understanding what’s going on in my body, I have no idea what to expect for my future. And as I get older, these NEC-related issues keep getting worse.
As soon as I’d made peace with this, I was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, an autoimmune disease in which your thyroid is overactive, causing the rest of your body to operate at full throttle. My quality of life slid backwards again. While I was able to find care for this issue, there was nothing I could take to make it go away. When I’m not in remission, I have to take medicine that makes me feel less like myself; that gets in the way of my daily tasks; that makes me feel like I’m unraveling. It also costs an exorbitant amount of money, but untreated, I’m at risk of dying of a heart attack or thyroid storm. Eventually, I will need to have surgery or radiation treatment, after which I will rely on a different medication to survive.
When I was about 21, I started experiencing weakness. It became hard to type or hold a book. My legs would randomly shake, threatening to give way. And then, they did. I started collapsing regularly, sometimes blacking out, other times just going down like a folding chair. Some days, I was too afraid to go down the four flights of the narrow winding staircase in my tenement building. I had to do risk assessments before heading down the busy streets of Manhattan to get to class. Once, I spent the entire day making failed attempts to feed myself, collapsing in the kitchen before making it to the fridge.
(Faust commenting on his land reclamation project, using dykes and dams to hold back the sea, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, Part II, translated by David Constantine (Penguin Books: London, 2008), p. 237.)
But I was desperate, and unlike every other doctor, this one listened. He promised to help me. He made me believe that if I did as he said, I might someday “settle on a bed of ease.” And when the delusion of progress dwindled, I realized I was still at square one. Just with lighter pockets, concerningly low blood sugar, and cabinets overflowing with cockroach juice.
Right before the second year of my masters at Cambridge, the summer of 2020, I was walking down the hall in my childhood home when I suddenly heard myself hyperventilating and a bang, bang, bang against the wall. I woke up on the floor, and random parts of my body were bruised as if I’d intentionally tried to hurt myself. Shortly thereafter, as I was beginning my creative writing dissertation, I began to have difficulty with reading and writing.
I finally visited a neurologist, who ordered a brain scan to check for seizures or MS. She found a malignant brain tumor. She said we’d start treatment once I started losing my vision and experiencing significant brain damage. The irony is astounding: blindness is the punishment Care bestows upon Faust for his disrespect for the needs of others; for me, it was the only way my needs would be tended to. I continued to fall regularly. I couldn’t read emails. In meetings and lectures, English began to sound like a foreign language. I continued to fight for care, calling everyday for a month until one day, I found myself pleading with a nurse over the phone, sobbing like a child. “I cannot keep living like this!” When they hung up, I realized there was a possibility I may be saddled with the life I had.
In May 2021, I woke up one morning and couldn’t feel my right arm. Then I couldn’t feel my leg; my face. I was hospitalized with partial paralysis. I was finally discharged when I regained a bit of feeling. As they handed me my discharge papers, they reassured me I’d be called back for a follow-up investigation with a neurologist. The first day home was fine. The next week, however, my body screamed and twisted with incessant nerve pain that made me want to claw out of my skin. My arm and leg writhed violently like they were possessed. I became obsessed with doing everything I could to quiet the pain; to press my face into the glass of whatever intangible thing was supposed to be a full life. I danced in a friend’s backyard at 3am. I ran down the street and chased fireworks. I did physical theatre for the first time, just to prove to myself that I could. I strived and strived to collect whatever drop of life I could eke out, reassured by the fact that my condition was only temporary.
After months of struggling to train myself to read again, I finally managed to understand exactly what was written in my discharge papers. They said I was just stressed; that I said so myself. No further action would be taken; the patient was happy with this. The patient was to go back to her country and seek psychiatric help; she agreed and was happy with this. And that is when my hope crumbled.
I am still fighting for neurological and gastrointestinal care. I do not know why. To continue to fight for my quality of life, for my survival, there has to be some hope that things will get better some day. At the same time, I am skeptical and jaded. At the same time, I am depressed. I have contemplated preserving my energy, going back to the US, and rotting on my parents’ sofa. As Faust asks: “What can the world give me?”
My mother tells me to hold onto the possibility of a miracle. My cousin sends me articles about the latest developments in medical technology. I struggle to access the belief that my life can be transformed by technological innovation. One might say Faust Shop was an exercise in puncturing my walls of disbelief.
At the start of the rehearsal process, when creators Dr. Annja Neumann and Alex Mentzel explained their vision of bridging the physical world with the virtual through open, seamless portals; of populating environments with analogue, augmented, and virtual beings, I could not wrap my mind around it.
We began with a couple of exercises: improvising a Faustian Pact in the setting of a tech store; experimenting with mirrored movement to simulate interaction with a virtual or augmented self; running lines while watching footage of paradise on a phone screen. One of our first Homunculus rehearsals took place in the Magdalene chapel, where the stained-glass windows supplanted screens and the digital became the spiritual. Whether it was technology or miracles, we understood that Faust was dealing with something that transcended mortality. Both require faith. Neither can truly be dominated by humanity.
As the exercises intensified, so did our perspective. When we performed the Homunculus scene at an event for PhD students, they watched us through their phones, fusing the banopticon and panopticon as we were simultaneously sharing a physical, open space with the audience and boxed into hundreds of small screens, coexisting with notifications and silicon. For Michelle, the actor and dancer who played Homunculus, being the focal point of this virtual gaze was empowering. She was in everyone’s hand, yet she was the one who was in control. The irony is that the Intellectual and the Technologist dismiss this power — convinced “realness” begets dominance, they retort, “You don’t influence me”; “No, I control you.” But can one blame them — one of technology’s strongest weapons of manipulation is deluding its users into believing that they are the ones with power. Technology “may be intelligent, but [it isn’t] alive.”
I, unlike Homunculus, felt both uncomfortably close to the audience and unnaturally far away — the portals provided both an intimate entry point and an obstruction to traditional audience-performer reciprocity. And perhaps it is because of this lack of inherent dominance that Faust solicits Homunculus’s help in acquiring it. But when Homunculus dies and is no longer an option, Faust can only achieve said dominance in the end through, again, the delusion thereof.
In another experiment called the Discovery Workshop, the cast assumed the role of the audience. We were invited to step through a portal of draped cloth. As I would later learn, tapestry is the material of choice for the virtual architects at Space Popular and would be used in Faust Shop’s New Lands. Unlike gates or doors, draped tapestry is democratic, inviting, and transparent, always offering a view of the other side to ensure informed consent before one’s crossing. At least, it offers informed consent. When I was handed a cookie, I instantly accepted and ate it without thinking. After I had swallowed the last bite, I realized what my choice represented. But I didn’t care. I wanted the cookie. Just as I enable cookies as soon as I see the pop up so I can get on to browsing a website, or agree to terms and conditions without reading them. I’m not the only one — in both our experiment and the actual performances, most participants consented to selling their soul without bothering with the provided information. Because what we cared about most was getting to the offering: a room filled with virtual environments.
Even in our Discovery experiment, the classroom was transformed with other worlds displayed on laptops, plush cushions, warm darkness, and gentle music. Stimulating and meditative, it was the embodiment of an invitation. In this beautifully strange environment, we explored the pact scene as we became each other’s augmented twins, and we created the Homunculus by melding our bodies into a new, unsettlingly harmonious creature. And I began to realize: comprehending Faust Shop was as much about discovery as it was a self-aware deconstruction of our quotidian digital behaviors.
A few weeks into Faust Shop rehearsals, when I put on my motion capture suit and witnessed how sixteen infrared cameras could give me a digital twin; how the two Mephistos could suddenly provide gifts that were simultaneously real and unreal; I realized that in this world, technology can be the closest we can get to magic. Perhaps it is its own kind of magic. And even though there was still so much left to do — mapping onto avatars, building environments, etc. — I believed in every possibility for this virtual world. I legitimized this new life, augmented with tools and technology, and extended not in time, but space and reality. I wasn’t the only one — after one of our performances, an audience member shared that Faust Shop felt both real and unreal; people believed in the installation and its grasp on their own lives.
If, like our Faust, technology could make me believe in the inconceivable, why can’t that belief in technology’s promises be extended to my own desires? Especially with the emergence of the Metaverse, wonders such as the New Lands, which fill users with light, aesthetic beauty, and empowerment, are not as farfetched as we may think. As Faust Shop makes clear as Faust muses about Paradise while the surrounding screens turn bleak and the actors devolve into wretched, enslaved lemurs, these new worlds, constructed by magic or technology, are illusions — or in this case, delusions. An illusion cannot save me. A delusion may put me as ease, but it will not stop my body from failing me. In a world in which a bodysuit and cameras can give me a virtual twin, I still cannot obtain answers about what on Earth is happening inside my analogue body.
Two days before Faust Shop opened, I was hit by a wave of confusion and instability. My tongue was heavy. My eyes closed or darted from side to side whenever I tried to look at a face. My forehead was filled with so much pressure, it felt as if it was being tugged by aggressively by a puppet string. The A&E doctors suspected I was suffering from cerebral edema, or perhaps a stroke. Fourteen hours later, they decided I wasn’t dying, but they didn’t have the knowledge of technology to know exactly what was wrong. I walked home at 5am with a new speech impediment.
Perhaps because I was stubborn, or stupid, or simply accustomed to pushing through as a means of keeping my head above water in this world, I did all four performances of Faust Shop. During the pact scene, as I scoffed at Mephisto’s promises of freedom by way of fanciful attire or material joy, I imagined they were offering me relief from my own dysfunctional body. When I encountered the Homunculus, the first (failed) glimpse of seeing my desires fulfilled, I translated it as a diagnosis; perhaps even a treatment.
(Scripted and adapted by Alex Mentzel for the Faust Shop: New Lands production.)
And when it died, a guttural sob rattled through my body, for that solution had been snatched away from me. In Faust’s final moments, the New Lands meet his desires, but as I said: he is delusional.
Then to the moment I’d be allowed to say
Bide here, you are so beautiful!
Aeons will pass but the marks by my stay
On the earth will be indelible. –
My forefeeling of such happiness.
I released myself into the true unraveling that I’d been fighting so hard to keep on track; I allowed the confusion to happen; the instability to happen. But at the same time, in the end, I convinced myself that I was finally free. A delusion.
Yes: I too understand what it means to carry the battling weight of hopefulness and hopelessness. I know what it’s like to strive, endlessly, for an intangible life, while also not fully believing in the possibility of its attainment. I know what it is like to subject myself to physical and emotional pain, humiliation, gaslighting, procedures gone wrong, and, despite it all, to keep trying and trying until my efforts embody the definition of insanity. I know what it’s like to give someone all you have, even if they seem suspect, even if you don’t fully trust them, everything you have — simply because they promised to help me. I know this desperation.
But I also know where Faust and I depart from one another. “Show me food that leaves the eater hungry.” For him, it’s a miracle. For me, it’s the tube that kept me both nourished and starving when I was 18. For him, technology’s gifts of beauty, of god-like power, unlock the highest feelings of happiness. Oddly enough, that which satisfies this insatiable human being is not enough for me. But at the very least, when I return to Goethe’s text and our adaptation thereof, I think finally, I might be able to begin to understand this man who is so starved with desperation.
Faust Shop: New Lands was a performance as research project produced by Annja Neumann. It was co-directed and co-scripted by Alex Mentzel and Annja Neumann. For further details on the production see here. Watch the trailer here. The Faust Shop was funded by Cambridge Digital Humanities, the Isaac Newton Trust and supported by Sook Space, the Cambridge School of Creative Industries at Anglia Ruskin University and Space Popular.
Quotations from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, Part II, translated by David Constantine (Penguin Books: London, 2008), unless otherwise indicated.