Updated: Sep 5, 2021
[Warning: This article contains spoilers for Episode 4 of Marvel's What If ]
It's usually difficult for me to get into an animated series, but I admit that I have really been enjoying What If so far. If you aren't connected with contemporary pop culture, What If is the latest production in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which explores the multiverse, that is, alternate timelines based on alternate events in the MCU canon. As fun as it might be to nerd out about this concept, that is not the goal of this post. Instead, I want to provide some reflections on the latest episode (as of now, #4), which is certainly the best yet. While the previous episodes had entertainment value, this one was a substantial cautionary tale. This article seeks to unravel the moral content of that tale with the help of Faust and Kierkegaard.
In Doctor Strange, the agnostic genius surgeon Stephen Strange cripples his hands in a car accident, rendering him unable to conduct surgery. With his identity in shambles, he eventually learns to engage with reality anew and becomes a powerful sorcerer, able to manipulate time and space within certain parameters and defeat the villain. This is a fairly shabby summary of his first movie, but it's enough to advance my main point. Furthermore, the odds are that you have seen it if you're still reading up to this point.
In the What If version of these events, Strange is unharmed by the car accident, but his love, Christine Palmer, is killed. Thus, he keeps his hands, but loses his heart. As in the original chain of events, Strange falls into despair and then seeks renewal in the east, becomes the Sorcerer Supreme, and defeats his film's baddie. However, still unable to accept the loss of Christine, he is increasingly tempted to use his powers to go back and prevent her death. However, because her death was the event that begun his heroic journey, undoing it with the use of his power would create a universe-destroying paradox. Due to plot events I'm not going to take the time to describe here, he is split into two sub-timelines within this universe, so that he both attempts to change history (bad Strange) and leave it as it is (good Strange). Bad Strange tries to save Christine in a number of ways, but the reality of her death reasserts itself again and again as a dark Groundhog Day sequence. Eventually, he realizes that he needs more knowledge and power to achieve his goals. As he was warned, bad Strange's quest begins to unravel the universe. Good Strange figures out what is happening and does battle with bad Strange, but ultimately loses. Bad Strange then manages to prevent Christine from dying, but she is horrified at what he has become and then fades away, along with the rest of reality. In the end, Strange exists alone in a small and otherwise lifeless universe.
The MCU is not known for being terribly deep. While I appreciate them for entertainment value, the stories almost always follow the same pattern: The would-be hero encounters an identity crisis, learns humility and purpose in relation to some kind of external power, and defeats the villain. The story at hand, however, is markedly different. In this story, the villain is the hero, or at least a version of the hero, and the villain is ultimately defeated, not by the hero, but by the tragic consequences of his victory.
As I was watching this story unfold, I was soon reminded of the story of Faust. There are a number of different versions of this German legend, so I'll provide a hodgepodge synopsis here. Faust was an erudite scholar who was dissatisfied with the knowledge and experience afforded to him in his finite existence. After considering suicide, he made a deal with the devil via the demonic agent Mephistopheles, who offered Faust knowledge and power in exchange for his eternal soul. According to Goethe's version, as well as others, Faust used his demonic power to seduce the innocent Gretchen. In shame at committing such an unholy act, she kills the child born of this union. After being executed for murder, she is graciously received into heaven as a victim rather than meeting with eternal condemnation. In Goethe's version, Faust himself is ultimately received into heaven upon death, at least in part because of Gretchen's intercession for his soul. However, in the older versions, Faust's original deal is upheld and he is condemned to eternal damnation. I don't claim to be a dramatist qualified to criticize Goethe, but I can say that I strongly prefer this legend as a tragic cautionary tale.
In our episode of What If, Strange is divided between the part of his psyche that is able to accept tragedy as a past event - even if still embedded in the present - and the part that is unable to see a potential reality in the wake of the tragedy. This latter "bad" Strange is not bent on catastrophe for its own sake, as many comic villains are, but he is instead devoted to something apparently noble: overcoming suffering. He is so dissatisfied with existence, with its seemingly arbitrary pain, that he is willing to enter into a Faustian bargain to make things what they should be. Willfully ignorant of the consequences, he does whatever it takes to rescue his Christine. Ultimately, it is this despairing Strange that "wins," with the result of losing both Christine and potential existence after tragedy.
While Mephistopheles may take different forms and offer different goods for all of us, we regularly accept Faustian bargains. We accept earthly goods that feed our unexamined ego while starving our purpose in relation to the true Good. For some, this might look like achieving professional success at the expense of family. For others, this might entail trading integrity for social acceptance, whether on social media, in a local peer group, or with a significant other who has attracted you for all the wrong reasons. Or, perhaps in a more obvious situation, it might look like the accumulation of hedonistic pleasures at the expense of spiritual, psychological, and physical health. In all of these situations and more, we become singularly focused on some good at the expense of the Good. Whether it be instant or slow-burning, the result is always isolating despair.
Despair ought to be differentiated from depression. Depression is a complex phenomenon that is, at least in part, physiological. Despair is a sickness of spirit. While there can certainly be overlap between despair and depression, they are not the same thing. Someone can be in depression, but still choose the good, and someone can be in despair, but feel happy. To better understand exactly what I mean by despair, I'm going to refer to the Danish Christian philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, who writes extensively on this subject in The Sickness unto Death.
According to Kierkegaard, the human self is a composite of several opposing poles. When these poles are not appropriately related, the self falls into despair, that is, the self is attempting to be something it isn't and thereby plunges into futility. Perhaps one day I'll write a series of articles explaining this in detail, but for now I just one to highlight one of these paired polarities: the finite and the infinite. As a finite creature, the human self has a nature established by God and exists in a particular place at a particular time. In other words, despite the popular mantras of our era, we are not self-creating. We have constraints. We cannot become whatever we want to be simply be willing it to be so. We do not have unlimited power. Sometimes things just happen to or around us and there is nothing we can do about it. As an infinite creature, however, we have potential. We are capable of imagining new possibilities, both external, and, far more importantly, internal. We can make movements toward or away from ideal human existence.
The finite-infinite poles are in balance when we are simultaneously able to affirm our limitations and see the potential for positive change. In contrast, we are in despair when one pole overshadows the other. In the despair of finitude, we are only able to see the finite, being willfully blind to new possibilities. In a sense, this is where Strange went in our story. His love for Christine was not connected to a higher good, so her death brought the end of future possibilities worth considering. He simply could not imagine a worthwhile life following her death. This is often the case for those of us who have experienced significant tragedy, which is, in the end, a universal experience. Either you already have been through this or you will. This is part of our finite experience in a world given to corruption.
For us, this despair of finitude climaxed while waiting and waiting for a positive test after already losing six children. We always imagined raising several children together, but, in addition to the pain of losing each child in their own rights, the finitude of not raising children at all was closing in on us. In lesser fashion, for me the despair of finitude also often looks like being stuck in the doctoral education process and stuck doing a job that doesn't interest me or provide as much for our family as I would like. This has been a prevailing struggle for me.
In the despair of infinitude, we lose touch with actual realities in favor of possibilities. This is expressed in popular slogans such as, "Live your truth," and "You can be anything you want to be." Our willing does not determine truth. Every individual simply is not equipped to adequately fulfill every desired accomplishment. Furthermore, there are some things that no human can do. There are fundamental constraints to reality and to our human experience. When we fail to recognize these constraints, we lose contact with actual reality, and instead become lost in a romanticist dream of self-creation and illusory utopia. As Kierkegaard writes, “Eventually everything seems possible, but this is exactly the point at which the abyss swallows up the self.” This, I would argue, is the fundamental despair of our age.
Because Strange was so dissatisfied with the finite experience of loss, he eventually chose the illusory path of the purely infinite. Despite being warned repeatedly that this pursuit would result in disaster, he took Mephistopheles's deal. He traded his soul for supposed power over finite experience. In the end, he destroyed the part of himself that was willing to accept the finite and, with it, he destroyed the universe. He destroyed the potential of meaningful existence. In the end, he was alone, lost to the abyss. This is despair in its fullest manifestation. This is always the conclusion of the Faustian deal in which we trade the Good meaning of existence for some lesser, fleeting good.
In light of these themes, how do we deal with tragedy?
We must accept that we are finite. There is so much about our experience that is simply beyond our control. We get sick. We lose our jobs, sometimes through no fault of our own. Hurricanes destroy our homes. People die. Tragedy is simply part of existence that we must embrace if we are going to live meaningful lives. As Job asks, "Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?" (Job 2:10). To be human, however, is to be something more than the finite. To a significant degree, we are able to change reality. Of course, as I've argued, we can't always change external realities, but we can change our relation to these realities. We don't have to let external realities define us. I am not suggesting a dispassionate Stoicism that avoids attachment, but, with Kierkegaard, I am suggesting that our loves for others and for noble pursuits in this world be tied to the eternal Good, which is God. Without the Good, there are no good things. When good things are removed, the Good remains. In this changeless Good, our changing selves might fight rest.
I don't want to imagine the pain I would experience if I lost my wife, but my love for her is part of a divine community of love sourced in and directed toward the Good, which remains even through loss. The loss of our children actually served to accentuate this community in my own life. As we continue to grieve each of their deaths, my tears have further grounded me in the One who makes human life sacred and the loss of children into a true loss. Through loss, therefore, I have gained a greater sense of stability and identity. Through embrace of the finite, I have learned how better to embrace new possibilities. While I still wish we had not lost children, I have learned to be grateful for the things that I most wish had not happened.
I don't want to make it sound like this has been easy or that I know what horrors you might be going through. I only know that I have found these things to be true. The Faustian bargain is never worth it. We can only become properly constituted selves when we embrace the totality of existence, in its sorrows and joys, as the gift that it is. This life has meaning, and that meaning is good, but it is not something we can create on our own. Therefore, it is only at the end of our striving for self-sufficiency, whether in relation to the finite or infinite, that we can be at meaningful rest. Kierkegaard writes:
“What is decisive is that with God everything is possible. This is eternally true and consequently true at every moment. This is indeed a generally recognized truth, which is commonly expressed in this way, but the critical decision does not come until a person is brought to his extremity, when, humanly speaking, there is no possibility. Then the question is whether he will believe that for God everything is possible, that is, whether he will believe.”
I will leave you with one final passage from The Sickness unto Death:
“Christianity teaches that this individual human being – and thus every single individual human being, no matter whether man, woman, servant girl, cabinet minister, merchant, barber, student, or whatever – this individual human being exists before God, this individual human being who perhaps would be proud of having spoken with the king once in his life, this human being who does not have the slightest illusion of being on intimate terms with this or that one, this human being exists before God, may speak with God any time he wants to, assured of being heard by him – in short, this person is invited to live on the most intimate terms with God! Furthermore, for this person’s sake, also for this person’s sake, God comes to the world, allows himself to be born, to suffer, to die, and this suffering God – he almost implores and beseeches this person to accept the help that is offered to him! Truly, if there is anything to lose one’s mind over, this is it! Everyone lacking the humble courage to dare to believe this is offended. But why is he offended? Because it is too high for him, because his mind cannot grasp it, because he cannot attain bold confidence in the face of it and therefore must get rid of it, pass it off as a bagatelle, nonsense, and folly, for it seems as if it would choke him.”
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