Doctor Faust’s Error

Nina encouraged her birthday party guests to prepare something for the delight and entertainment of other guests.  I chose to read a tale from the “Fairy Tales and Stories” collection by Max Frei for the Birthday Salon.  To be precise, I impromptu translated it from Russian.  Despite my getting occasionally stuck looking for the right word, the tale delighted.

Part I of the “Fairy Tales and Stories” book could have been titled, if one were to translate it, “Weird Mythologies”.  It’s unlikely to be translated though, because many of the tales there build on the children’s literature and culture  we grew up with in back in 1970ties, 1980ies back in the urban Soviet Union, and the initial familiarity is a substantial component of the wonder and thrill of the weird mythologies.  Fortunately, the particular tale I read built on broader cultural context, so I brought it to the salon and I’ll translate it here for the delight and entertainment of those my readers who don’t read Russian, more thoughtfully than at Nina’s birthday salon.  (If you do read Russian, head over here for the original and the rest of it.)

Through many a storyteller, in great detail, in many voices (so as to find a version for every listener, according to their size and intelligence), the history tells us the tale of Doctor Faust, as she remains stubbornly silent about his contemporary, neighbor, and the closest friend named Peter.

Next to the tragedy of Faust, this person is more insignificant than mysterious, however, to be fair, one needs to tell his story as well.

Half a century earlier, the old man arrived from England in order to study mathematics and philosophy.  As it often happens to the engrossed and absentminded people, he didn’t even notice as he settled in the foreign land, matured, married, got a house, set up a garden, and, eventually, became a professor at the very same university where he once arrived to in order to receive the answers to all the questions of life, but where instead he learned to not ask any questions and to hide from the green students’ minds that there were no answers to their stupid questions.  His colleagues, wife, and children called him Peh-ter, in the German manner, and he got so settled in Germany that he couldn’t even tell the difference anymore.

The years passed, Doctor Peter became widowed, married his two beautiful daughters off to his best students, and now was sincerely astonished: where did the time of his life go?  What were the great deeds that he spent the shiny Thalers of his days on?

About this (and many other topics of course) he spoke with his colleague Faust over a glass of reinwein during the long evenings that seemed like autumn evenings to both of them, even in May or over Christmas.

It is well known that it’s not easy to hide a secret from a friend, even more so from the neighbors.  Faust was sparing his colleague’s feelings and didn’t want to confide to him the most horrifying of his secrets, but Doctor Peter was observant and had a penetrating mind.  His ability to brilliantly formulate questions returned, and Faust soon got tired of resisting, so Peter’s vague suspicion before long turned into certainty and then into knowledge.

Mephistopheles didn’t mind.  He knew of course that those privy  to his secrets more often become clients than exorcists.  As a black poodle, he sniffed Peter and peed in all corners of his garden: marked the territory, so to say.  Just in case.

As he observed his young again friend, secretly envying his youthful agility, wholeheartedly pitying his fall, Peter almost immediately realized what was Faust’s main error.  His neighbor, one could say, voluntarily put his head on the block.  The youth is not only the time of hopes and delights, but also of great vulnerability.  Never is the man as dumb and defenseless as in his youth.  Drunk with dreams and desires, he mistakes his recklessness for might, bodily liveliness for the warranty of immortality, and carelessness of a reveler for wisdom of a philosopher.  Nothing surprising here, an easy mistake to make.

Faust’s tragedy didn’t impress Peter much.  That is, he felt sorry for his friend, but didn’t take fright, didn’t waver, but only became reassured that his decision was correct.  He chose the day and the hour most suitable for the fateful deal, composed his will in advance, sensibly sharing his possessions among the relatives, burned now useless manuscripts.  He devoted the last days to playing with his grandchildren.  Peter looked at them closely, observed them, analyzed, and saw it more and more clearly that he made the only right choice.

At the set day and hour, Doctor Peter drew a pentagram and recited the appropriate incantation.  Neither the hand nor the voice failed the old man.  The devil spoke with him as he would with an old friend, rejoicing in the easy prey.  But when Peter formulated his wish, Mephistopheles howled in dismay.  The experience of the past deals established that in order to ruin a man, it is usually sufficient to fulfill his heart’s desire.  But Doctor Peter’s heart’s desire didn’t forebode ruin; moreover, the devil clearly saw that its fulfillment would render the newly minted sorcerer invulnerable.

Mephistopheles didn’t want to give in, of course.  For a long time he argued to Peter that he was about to make a fatal mistake.  He threatened, lied, flattered, tempted.  But Doctor Peter remained firm.  He had always been uncommonly stubborn, but this time he stood his ground like a rock.  In advance, he made faces and stuck his tongue out at the devil, teased him like a boy would.  He knew that from now on, the strength was on his side.

His request was eventually fulfilled.  For the justice’s sake one must say that Doctor Peter never had to regret his decision.  Well, almost never.  Everyone has a minute of weakness now and then, but for boys that minute is much shorter than for grown up men.

The neighbors wondered for a while: where could have old Peter gone, our respected, beloved Doctor Peter?  But since this didn’t even smell like a scandal, daughters and sons-in-law of the vanished remained calm, and the will was composed impeccably, everyone decided that the eccentric Englishman went to his motherland to die.  As it often happens, soon forward came the eyewitnesses who saw, with their own eyes, how distinguished Professor Peter Pan hired a carriage that would take him to the port city of Hamburg.


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