In the wake of Valentine’s Day 2015 and the unveiling of the much-anticipated theatrical release of Fifty Shade of Grey, I tried to pin down the appeal. It can’t be the prose—that seems to be one element at which all critics cringe. Nor can it be the level of explicit pornography. As the New Yorker’s review claimed, more graphic nudity can be found in a lecture on the Renaissance. Why then did this R-rated movie just pull in nearly $100 million on its opening weekend? In contemplating an answer, I began to consider the German novel Faust. Written by Johann Goethe in the late nineteenth century, Faust posits a bored academic who makes a bargain with devil. In so doing, Faust follows Mephistopheles (the devil) on a stream of adventures ultimately leading to tragedy. By understanding the Faust story, I think we can recognize the appeal of Fifty Shades of Grey.
In his interpretation of the Faust myth, Goethe changes the legend from a bored academic who makes a deal with the devil to a wager about the nature of the world. Goethe’s Faust concludes there is no cause of happiness in the world, and nothing beyond it. He is the epitome of dissatisfaction, and not even the Devil can show him lasting happiness. Mephistopheles as the modern image of the Adversary is more than happy to take this wager; after all, Faust’s wager serves Mephistopheles’ bet with God that Faust will choose the Devil’s path. This divine wager introduces the play, and serves as the primary point of the story: will Faust fall completely into the devil’s grasp, or regain his humanity by turning to God? The remainder of the play/novel/poem consists of a whirlwind of experiences, cycles of speed and experience swirling Faust ever downward into his own depravity, with naught but the love of Gretchen crying, “Heinrich, Heinrich!” as she ascends to heaven to provide any hope of redemption by the end of part one.
Mephistopheles is a clever devil. Gone are the old ways where the demonic fiend might get his prey addicted to drink, or harlots, or greed. No, Mephistopheles plays a closer game by showing Faust purity (in the form of Gretchen), and then leading him to corrupt the purity. Faust misses the actual hope of happiness in his quest for corruption. Faust is consumed with lust for Gretchen, and consummates his desire, leading to tragic consequences. In his quest for Gretchen, however, Faust discovers the one transcendent quality in his world: love. He cannot achieve that love, however, without abandoning his existential quest for proving the dissatisfaction of the world. In constantly seeking the hurly-burly of Walprugis Night, Faust fails to grasp the good in the world and instead condemns Gretchen to prison while he grinds against a naked witch in the Brocken.
Faust provides a helpful metaphor in light of the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. After three poorly written erotic novels and a now-released film, the New York Times, Washington Post, Independent, and the Guardian carried articles the week before the premier about the upcoming movie and tie-in erotic toys. Why is this such an event? This film is garnering quick attention for at least two reasons. First, and most obviously, it is the entrance of BDSM into mainstream cinema. Secondly, however, it represents the temptation and titillation of a Faustian sexuality with all the incumbent promises of true happiness and empty fulfillment.
Fifty Shades of Grey is a recent re-articulation of the Marquis De Sade’s vision of sexuality: dominance and submission, power and punishment, pain and satisfaction stewed together producing the best experience for both participants. This vision of sexuality is exciting, and ultimately tragic. Just as Faust missed true happiness in the mundane, in a life wedded to Gretchen in the world, so Fifty Shades of Grey misses the right place of true sexuality: marriage. Men, women, and sexuality are all made in such a way that when sexual intimacy is embraced outside the confines of marriage, such as when Faust rushes into the orgy with Mephistopheles by his side, humanity is gradually eroded. Fifty Shades of Grey provides a stimulating pornographic vision of excitement while actually delivering a dehumanizing love of slavery enshrined in the closest physical human connections.
In the confines of marriage, sexuality becomes a raging force used constructively. Within a lifelong commitment between spouses, sexual intimacy serves a higher calling and produces true joy. Gretchen offered this life to Faust: the life of confinement, restraint, and true joy. Faust instead chose to allow Mephistopheles to “carry him away” into the never-ending rush of constant experience. Faced with a Faustian sexuality at the movies in coming weeks, the ticket-purchasing audience will be faced with a choice: is Fifty Shades of Grey be a celebration of real love between two humans who are called to serve, honor, submit to, and respect one another? Or is this film a call to step onto Mephistopheles’ cloak and be whisked away to a false pleasure creating a deceptive experience leading to tragedy?