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  • Faustus’s Fortunes: Commodification, Exchange, and the Form of Literary Subjectivity
  • Graham Hammill

I. Malediction

When in 1927 T. S. Eliot asserted that the blasphemy so crucial to Marlowe’s work necessarily implies some sort of belief (a felicitous link of signs with what they signify, as C. L. Barber put it in 1964), Eliot quite perspicuously located the stakes of Marlowe’s Faustus; however, in a fashion perhaps to be expected, he also contained what is most disturbing about that insight. 1 Faustus’s blasphemy develops out of a sense of language that displaces theological belief. What makes the Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus tragical then is not exactly Faustus’s renunciation of God and pact with Lucifer. Rather, the play is a tragedy because of the relation that it establishes between Faustus and the literary, a relation that makes the literary, as the site of what Eliot calls blasphemy, absolutely inescapable for Faustus.

What I mean by the literary is a language that is performative, a language based neither on a one-to-one correspondence between words and things (what we can call, following Sidney’s Defense, the language of historians) nor a one-to-one correspondence between words and concepts (again, following Sidney, what we can call the language of philosophers). Literary language is based on the assertion that it is true because it is not true; as Sidney puts it, the poet “nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth.” Literary language can affirm nothing and never lie because it abstracts from the material world. Sidney writes: “We see we cannot play at Chesse but that wee must giue names to our Chesse-men; and yet, mee thinks, hee were a very partiall Champion of truth that would say we lyed for giuing a peece of wood the reuerend title of a Bishop.” And yet, literary language also has the power to remake the material world, to “growe in effect another nature” that supersedes the natural world. 2 Or, to put the point in a different way, literary language is a shift in modes of representation, from a mode that treats language as a more or less transparent medium to a mode that underscores the medium of [End Page 309] language and the work that medium does, what Joel Fineman has called “the languageness of language.” 3

Perhaps most important about this mode of representation is that it assumes a sense of disbelief that non-literary language suspends. We can see an example of this suspension of disbelief in act 3, when Faustus, supposedly invisible, beats the Pope’s friars during their attempt to exorcise him by saying the maledictat dominus. Because Faustus continues to beat the friars even after they say the maledictat dominus, the play demonstrates the literariness of this phrase. The phrase itself is not invested with the protective power of an extra-literary signified assumed by the friars. Rather, the phrase has a protective power only because the friars can suspend the prior disbelief in the phrase’s protective power. One could argue that this example only serves to prove Faustus’s evil and not the performativity of language, except that in the scene (in the B-text) immediately following, when Robin calls forth Mephostophilis, he uses a bastardized Latin, “O per se, o,” that mocks Faustus’s incantations in act 1. 4 If the maledictat dominus is not invested with the power of the signified, neither is the language that Faustus uses to call forth Mephostophilis. Neither Faustus’s incantations nor Robin’s “O per se, o” call forth Mephostophilis because they are invested with power from an evil signified; these words call forth Mephostophilis because of Robin’s and Faustus’s suspension of disbelief.

I want to put forth three hypotheses about this literary language and its relation to disbelief: (1) What I am calling literary language has a great deal to do with books, writing, and print culture. Faustus’s renunciation of God is prompted by the reading of books. “Negromantike bookes are heauenly” (A-text, 78), Faustus says, establishing a seeming paradox in which necromantic books are signified by precisely their opposite, “heauenly.” When, before...

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