Essay | Kevin Potter
Recently, I’ve been replaying in my a head a particular scene from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. The scene opens when readers see Margaret, the “paragon of womanhood,” for the first time:
Scene VII: A Street
(Faust. Margaret, passing by.)
Faust: Lovely lady, may I offer you
My arm, and my protection, too?
Margaret: Not lovely, nor the lady you detected.
I can go home, unprotected.
(She frees herself and exits)
Being a man, and reading this scene alongside the ongoing discussions about sexual assault and harassment—which have been heightened in response to the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the ensuing #MeToo campaign occurring through social media, there’s a lot that I uncover about its significance in 2017.
Look at the stage direction right underneath Margaret’s response. It says: “she frees herself and exits [Sie macht sich los und ab].”
Without even having to spell it out, we know that Faust—the never-satisfied, tragically hubristic scholar—has given himself license to grab Margaret’s arm, and that, after she denies his advances, she releases herself from his grip. Never given permission, nor asked for protection, Faust invites himself nonetheless to put his hands on her.
Because it happens so quickly, it’s easy to miss this stage direction unless you’re looking for it. And as men, we’re still more likely to just pass by it without batting an eye.
Wir Sind Faust
When I first read Faust, I was an undergraduate in a literature course. Though not a lot of time was spent discussing its significance during the class itself, I’ve lately come to realize just how much more this brief scene must have meant to the women in my class than to the men in the room.
Faust is, after all, that creepy guy on the street telling you to have a nice day. He’s the guy asking you to smile when you’re leaving the subway platform. He’s the guy whistling at you from his window. He is the guy relentlessly asking you for a date. He is the guy touching you on the bus without your permission. Goethe doesn’t even tell us that Faust grabbed Margaret’s arm before talking to her; and there is no stage direction to say so before his line comes in. But, as readers, we don’t even need to question its absence. Considering how Faust behaves, that’s a given.
Ten lines after that short exchange, Faust turns to Mephistopheles and demands: “Listen, you must get that girl for me! [Hor, du mußt mir die Dirne schaffen!]” The word “Dirne” alone says enough, translating roughly to “wench” or “whore.”
This is the flagrant desperation, it seems, that women everywhere experience with an exhausting amount of frequency. In Faust’s mind (and throughout the rest of the tragedy, arguably), Margaret is beholden to his whims, needs, and desires (this is further symbolized in the way Faust insistently addresses her by the diminutive “Gretchen” throughout the play, effectively laying claim to her). Yet, somehow, she still exhibits an acute sense of guilt and remorse. She’s not only a victim of coercion; she is a victim of gaslighting.
As men, it’s easy for us to brush moments like this aside, and see Faust as a grotesque, overly-exaggerated version of humanity’s avarice and acquisitive nature, our Promethean desires to become as gods. Yet, that tendency is what enables us to falsely see the Harvey Weinsteins, the Bill O’Reillys, the Donald Trumps, the Bill Cosbys, and the Roger Aileses as exceptions to the rule. To see them as merely existing in a world separate from us, as powerful men who welcome themselves into women’s spaces, is to not only miss the point; it is to ignore what our friends, colleagues, teachers, and brothers are doing every single day.
Social media trends and campaigns can sometimes be risky territory, a realm where the internet’s most egregious hostility and shaming is unleashed, often anonymously. What is difficult to reconcile, for me, is the context that precipitates their emergence.
What I’ve come to realize is the instinct (a word I use with trepidation) among men to immediately defend ourselves from being implicated in yet another public story of sexual assault, harassment, and violence against women. We, for some reason, continue to present ourselves as the moral arbiters, granting ourselves the omniscience to believe that this couldn’t possibly be a problem of our entire gender, or something perpetrated overwhelmingly by people of our gender. But it is and it always has been. Not only should we be ashamed of this; we should be outraged. Faust is a reflection of us.
I remember back to the 2014 Isla Vista shootings in California, when, following the shootings, it became immediately clear that women were the primary targets of the attack. Prior to committing it, Eliot Rodgers released a YouTube video, titled “Eliot Rodger’s Retribution”, detailing his sexual frustration, his anger toward women who rejected his advances, and his jealousy toward sexually-active men. “Women,” he says in the video, “gave their affection, sex and love to other men but never to me.” Rodgers, like Faust, made a bargain with Mephistopheles for the sake of sexual gratification.
Like most occasions of tragic shootings, media pundits and commentators scramble for motivation that can’t possibly have anything to do with hatred, racism, or misogyny.
However, as the details of his life began to unfold, women everywhere were finding a narrative familiar to their own lives. Men feel that they deserve affection from women; by being the stand-up “nice guy”, men are sure that, just like Faust, they immediately have some kind of ownership over the women whom they are infatuated with.
“But, but” said most men on the internet, “this is just one man. We’re not all like this.” What ensued, then, was an absurd derailing, where men co-opted the conversation and made it about themselves. “#NotAllMen,” read the hashtag, in which men were keen to convince the world: don’t worry, some of us are exceptions. This was such a baffling sleight of hand, distracting and redirecting focus away from the real problem.
In response, women worldwide had a stronger, more powerful narrative to share. While men wanted to show that we are exceptions to the rule, women showed us that, in their world, there are no exceptions. #YesAllWomen became the trending campaign, expressing the sentiment that, “yes, we have all experienced this.” We, men, were poised to sit down, to learn, and to listen.
This narrative was supposed to (and did) relegate men in the overall narrative. This wasn’t our story to tell, nor was it one for us to speak to. We were asked to let the story come directly from those who own the story. The narrative was to affirm the a counter-narrative to the prevalent understanding of the world that we men had tried to secure. It is a story told not from Faust’s self-obsessed melancholia, but from Margaret’s self-possessed claim to dignity.
That sentiment applies to this essay, too. I don’t write it in order to supply a perspective or a story to this movement. My story isn’t needed. I write this essay in order to highlight the fact that these stories are not, and have never been, new. And it is my failing, as it is a failing of all men, to not read these stories when they are spelled out for us. Roxane Gay, in a recent piece for New York Times, spells this out perfectly: “It’s time for men to start answering for themselves because women cannot possibly solve this problem they had no hand in creating.”
I look back at the 2016 Presidential Election with the confirmation that the country I am a citizen of has a deep-seated contempt for women (a point I probably needn’t belabor). Throughout 2017, the attention given towards sexual harassment and widespread misogyny is, I would imagine for most women, too little, too late. Electing an alleged sexual predator for a president, followed by myriad revelations of sexual harassment from celebrities and politicians, was something disgusting to behold, but not surprising to those who encounter it on a daily basis. Until now, this behavior has, after all, been normalized and trivialized to such an extent that men have decided that it’s a negligible problem, existing outside of ourselves.
Of course, it’s easy for me to type this, to despise the president, Harvey Weinstein, and characters like Faust. But the truth is that they all reflect something really, and that’s deeply built into the world’s psyche. This is why a German tragedy from 1808 can show a scene that’s immediately recognizable today.
One thing we can avoid is giving ourselves a god-like perspective to issues to which we have no epistemic access. This is Donna Haraway’s great notion of “situated epistemology.” We can think about how limited we are in understanding the particularities of a woman’s life, because we don’t embody that existence. We can only speak, as clearly as we can, about how severely limited we are from our location. This the real lesson of, “Write what you know,” the old lesson from writer’s workshops; unless you do your homework, you should probably avoid what you don’t know. After all, taking a god-like, omniscient perspective, wherein we become the arbiters of a narrative that we are not privy to is, like Faust, a hubristic ambition for power and control.
Kevin Potter is a University Assistant and Ph.D candidate in the Department of English at the University of Vienna. He is originally from the U.S. (Tampa, FL), but has lived abroad for the past 4 years.