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  • Hilary Mantel gets inside the head of Faust: 'The greatest terror is the terror of not knowing'

Hilary Mantel gets inside the head of Faust: 'The greatest terror is the terror of not knowing'

The author of Wolf Hall on artistic pressures and what a pact with the devil might mean today.

By Hilary Mantel (Man Booker Prize-winning novelist)

25 March 2014 at 11.02am | Comment on this article

All artists experience at some time a rising of the gorge. It is the holy fear at the heart of the creative process. There’s something that’s always trying and failing to come to light: at the desk, or in your dreams. It’s something that is inexplicable because it’s in excess of any set of facts you might adduce to explain it. It’s like spare flesh hanging from a bone. It is horrifying, debasing, possibly obscene, disgusting, engulfing, possibly godlike but certainly devilish, and it enforces despair: it has no soundable depths, it increases like a cancer, making more of itself. It is in this quietly breeding superfluity that part of the horror lies, because you can never get to the end of it. You can’t get it into focus in order to contemplate it or discipline it into art. It is exactly what people meant when they used to talk of sin, of the soul’s defilement. People misunderstood and thought of sin as a set of discrete acts, transgressions. In truth, it is a state of being, and you may come to that state because of your actions, or your omissions, you may go there wilfully: or you may find yourself there, helpless, impaled by your own nature.  Many of us have sensed this; it is the demonic; we can feel it but not describe it; we want to know what it is. Curiosity is stronger than fear, or, let’s say, curiosity takes the place of fear; the greatest terror is the terror of not knowing.

This, I think, was Faust’s situation. You stand outside a locked door. Blood is seeping under it. A key is in your hand. In terms of work, in terms of sacrifice, the sacrifice perhaps of money or health family life, you have paid a price already for the chance that is now within your grasp. You may feel that the only way to realize your investment is to pay some more. You must know what is beyond the door, at any price, at any cost to yourself.  You know that the next part of your career may be unsustainable: your brain may be unsustainable. As you turn the key and see what is beyond, your soul might part violently from your body: and that’s the end of you. All the same you feel it, the metal warming in your palm, the impulse to insert the key in the lock and face whatever faceless thing may be staring back when the door swings open.

Hilary Mantel will explore the nature of a modern pact with the devil at an upcoming ROH Insights event on 6 April as part of our Faustian Pack series. Tickets are still available.

By Hilary Mantel (Man Booker Prize-winning novelist)

25 March 2014 at 11.02am

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged Artist, Bring up the Bodies, by Bijan Sheibani, by David McVicar, by Matthew Herbert, devil, Faust, Faustian Pack, goethe, Production, The Crackle, Through His Teeth, Wolf Hall

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