(Un)Faustian Bargain – “The Corner That Held Them” – Chapter 11

A Faustian bargain is where one makes a spiritual sacrifice in order to gain the world.

Strangely, as hard as I think about my time in church, and in my adult years seeing people give themselves over to religious communities, I have not come across a term for the opposite.

Could someone make an undue sacrifice of the world in order to gain a sense of spiritual well-being?

I suppose we would just call that faith, or belief? After all, in many traditions it seems to be the path to enlightenment. It is the relinquishing of the world. It is the loss of material possessions. It is “giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” according to the scholar Jesus Christ.

But if one can take the calling too far, does that exist? Is there such thing as an (Un)Faustian Bargain?

Sylvia Townsend Warner explores this concept in chapter 11 of The Corner That Held Them, a book which has seen a dark turn in the last two chapters.

Henry Yellowlees witnesses Sir Ralph going mad…again. Talks of baptism and water (and his general disregard for his nuns) has Yellowlees upset: he was supposed to be dead by now. Henry makes it no secret that he would like to be the priest at Oby, but as long as Sir Ralph lives, he holds the mantle. If he were to go to the Bishop, Walter, to offer his complaints, the timing would not be right, and the Bishop would appoint someone else. So Henry must wait on Oby, a place which stinks of decay. All the nuns have grown old and fat, and they are unable to tend to Sir Ralph’s madness, nor do they have the energy to confront it.

It is here that the chapter shifts point-of-view to Bishop Walter, who sent young Dame Sibilla, a nun from his own tribe, into Oby “like a lamb into a den of wolves.” Fearing for her, he wonders why he did it at all. He required of himself in his report that he would send Yellowlees along with three nuns. But the sacrifice of a dear friend far away to Oby is his (Un)Faustian Bargain. Was it a sacrifice that had to occur at all? Decisions like these are Bishop Walter’s claim to fame. He is not a skilled speaker or a charismatic man. He is known as an austere man, relinquishing all that is dear to him. It is what makes him good at religion…as well as balancing the books.

And yet, as we’ll learn from Dame Sibilla’s perspective, it led to Bishop Walter having an impoverished and unnecessarily painful existence.

The Bishop is taken by fits and coughing, as well as vomiting, and tells Yellowlees to perform the routine visitation to Oby on his behalf. Walter will never see Oby again. He dies horrifically. They recall Dame Sibilla from her charge to visit her Bishop, in the hopes that her virginity in his presence will nurse him back to health. But in those intervening days, he grows mad in his own way, and shouts the most terrible and unreligious things. It goes on for four pages, to the point where his screams for devils to torment him truly scare those around him, and so they wish him a speedy death, and a speedy funeral.

After his death, Dame Sibilla rides to Oby. She converses with Dame Lilias. Lilias wants to know, during his last moments, if Bishop Walter ever got around to approving of Lilias to be an anchoress. Sibilla obviously says no. Dame Lilias for several chapters now has been trying to be an anchoress, which is when a servant of God is shut into a room with no exit save for tiny slit windows to converse and offer advice. Besides that, it is solitary confinement, a contemplative existence in a 12′ x 12′ cell. Sibilla takes this plea as a calling: she will make Dame Lilias an anchoress in order to serve a patron saint’s bidding.

Still she wonders why Bishop Walter had not gotten around to approving Dame Lilias’s wishes when he had the chance? Her conclusions offer us some of the weirdest and, because of that, most profound ideas in the novel so far:

In order to establish this frame of mind Dame Sibilla had had to yield a little ground in the matter of Bishop Walter. A new truth was made plain: that saintliness and episcopacy cannot abide under the same hood, and that a bishop as saintly as Bishop Walter left too much to his secretaries, and was flouted by his underlies, who disregarded his intentions and hoodwinked a good old man with stories of: ‘Yea, immediately, it shall be seen to tomorrow.; Witness the case of Dame Lilias’s vocation, trampled and forgotten under the feet of these officials.

‘They should have left him in peace among his poor,’ she grieved. ‘They should not have compelled him to become a bishop. He was not meant for a bishop. If they had not bishoped him, I daresay he would be alive and with us to this day.’

She was about to add, ‘And making Dame Lilias an anchoress,’ but she remembered that the presentation of anchoress is an appurtenance of bishops.

Sibilla realizes at the end that her “calling” to make Lilias an anchoress may backfire, just as it did with Bishop Walter, who should have existed without his position the whole time. She would lure Lilias right into their hands…

Are some people better off without religion? Or is there something else going on here? …”that saintliness and episcopacy cannot abide under the same hood.” An episcopacy is an institutionally run religion by bishops. It is a clergy. To say that saintliness cannot be paired with this is a strong statement against organized religion as a method of governance. It is a separation of church and state.

Because it seems to Sibilla as if the (Un)Faustian Bargain perpetuates itself. Lilias feels a calling only because there were saints of the past who experienced this calling. Nowhere in her resume does it say that Lilias would be a particularly good “fit” for the role of anchoress, much as Bishop Walter ended up living a miserable life, one of hatred for anyone who did not know how to write down in a ledger what happened to a rabbit that some nuns bought in October of 1374 (long story).

It is strange that the concept of (Un)Faustian Bargain should be so hidden behind other terms. It is something, regardless of religion, that could be applied to many of the more abstract goals we are so often told are worth sacrificing for.

Take the case of teaching in the United States right now. Because of coronavirus, many of our children have been without schools for long enough that people are naturally concerned about their health, safety, and emotional engagement. Teachers are being told to sacrifice their health and safety, “for the kids.” The assumption is that when some teachers get sick and die, others can replace them, and we can continue the cause of education anew. And make no mistake, teachers in the United States treat themselves terribly. Overworked and underpaid, they eat themselves fat with fast food, they do not sleep enough, and they are stressed at having to handle children who yell because teachers do not behave like their smart phones. They are a hair’s breadth away from falling over, and coronavirus could be the thing to do it.

This is an (Un)Faustian Bargain, but we call it sacrifice.

Again, this concept is easily applicable in times of war. Young men are told that their patriotism is serving national interests, and that if they die, they will be a hero. Even if one does happen to live, something else is taken away. The trauma and stress from conflict digs its ugly claws into young boys and can turn them into hostile and grieving men.

This is an (Un)Faustian Bargain, but we call it honor.

Warner’s 11th chapter is an unreligious one. With all the institutions and deep thoughts we have layered over the world, why should religion get a fair pass to take people and wrangle them into servitude? What does this sacrifice lead to? In Bishop Walter’s case it led to bitter resentment, sending away the people he cared most for, and a very loud death. It may still be that way for Sibilla. Without a crystal ball, how does she know this fate will not befall Dame Lilias?

She doesn’t, for the good reason that religion blankets all sacrifices as equally righteous.

And what are we to make of Henry Yellowlees and his quest for priesthood? It is incredible that he views Sir Ralph’s mad diatribe about water being the best element, and eels being the doctors of the ocean for “their brittle bones” with longing. Not once does Henry step back and ask himself, “Is this really what I want?”

The (Un)Faustian Bargain is the best lesson I have seen to fight against dogmatism of any sort. Abstract concepts like religion and economics and democracy are useful only when they provide the health, safety, and wellbeing of as many people as possible, without requiring the absurd. Whether one is religious or not, these decisions that leverage a person’s future against themselves should be fought against at all cost. There is enough pain in the world without asking explicitly for more.

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