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  • Searching for Signs
  • David James Prickett (bio)
Verhandlungen mit Faust: Geschlechterverhältnisse in der Kultur der Frühen Neuzeit (Faustian Negotiations: Gender Relations in the Culture of the Early Modern Period) Bettina Mathes Königstein/Taunus: Helmer, 2001. 229 pp.

The first published German dissertation in the field of gender studies, Bettina Mathes's study is an unusual, innovative, and challenging reading of the Historia of D. Johann Faustus.1 This anonymous work, which first appeared in 1587, has been labeled "one-dimensional, lacking conception, and 'trivial'" (196), of interest to scholars only as the first complete literary manifestation of the Faustus myth. [End Page 648] However, Mathes convinces her reader that much more is at stake in the Historia than a story of temptation without redemption. Both the Historia and Mathes's examination deal with gender relations in the early modern period: "Or, to be exact: [the study] deals with sex, blood, sperm, nutrition, and male fashion; with seeing, touching, smelling, and tasting; with bodies, speech, written language, and guilt; with Christ, Judas, Mephistopheles, and Faust" (9). Mathes's analysis of this broad thematic spectrum is successful largely due to her interdisciplinary approach. She bases her analytic model on Stephen Greenblatt's notion of "cultural poetics," made famous by his Shakespearean Negotiations (1988).

As if to buttress her case for transdisciplinary analyses of early modern texts further, Mathes dedicates the first section of her inquiry to a résumé of cultural politics, gender studies, and literary studies. Her aim is to stress the importance of text and context as an analytic method. Mathes explains that taken in context, "'the' history and the text as a work of art are decentralized, and . . . new cross-connections and points of intersection are created" (19). According to Mathes, a "double gesture" of de- and reconstructing these cultural and textual narratives makes visible "the play of difference" between signs and their meanings (20, 21). For this reason, cultural politics as a method of analytic deconstruction is ideal for studying gender relations, that is, relations based on a difference "that makes possible the intelligibility of identity and body" (27). The intention of Faustian Negotiations, then, is not only to illustrate how gender as a category of analysis highlights a textual and cultural "play of difference." Mathes's "search for signs" (9) also proves that cultural poetics and gender can help today's scholar better understand the interrelationship between cultural signs and their meanings. These new connections yield complex new readings of early modern texts, most notably the Historia.

For Faustian Negotiations Mathes has "chosen three social and cultural constructs which play an important role in the Historia, and which are dealt with equally throughout the [Faustus] text. These are 'Body,' 'Visuality,' and 'Guilt'" (40), to which Mathes devotes one chapter each. The first, "Body," offers the reader an analysis of the feared "masculine fate" (40) that could befall the male not only in the early modern period but also in the twenty-first century: "im/potency" (chap. 1, sec. 1). Today's success story of Viagra and the potency potions of the early modern period both evidence the importance attached by Western society to male sexual potency and the (male) fear of becoming impotent. Mathes shows that the penis was (and is) a fragile and uncontrollable organ (54) and that the attention paid to male genitals in fashion, in the visual arts, in medical texts, and in the Historia reflects the preoccupation of early modern society with male "im/potency." The [End Page 649] unlimited sexual potency that Faust derives from his pact with Mephistopheles serves as a "phallic-pornographic fantasy of the masculine body [as an ever-erect, ever-potent member]" (64). So as not to "biologize" the phallus, Faust's masculinity (i.e., penis) is "buffered" by constructions of the phallic other, represented not just by women but also by other models of masculinity such as the castrated Eunuch and the "over-sexed" Turk (70-75).

In "Visuality," the focus shifts from sexual to "visual" potency. Beginning with an analysis of the "gaze" and the "glance," Mathes sets out to "more closely determine Faust's gaze with respect to both his subject and...


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