# LITERATURE /// The Faustian Pact of the Artist: Hell Screen by Ryunosuku Akutagawa


Literature and cinema regularly question the metaphorical -sometimes literal- pact with dark forces that one makes to transcend him(her)self. This scheme is, of course, the one of Faust’s in classic German mythology, famously adapted by Goethe in 1808. Faust is indeed a successful scholar accepting a pact with the devil giving him the access to unlimited knowledge in exchange of his soul. This scheme will be later re-interpreted by Honoré de Balzac in 1831 with his Peau de Chagrin (The Magic Skin in its translation) which grants its owner a certain amount of wishes but deteriorate after each of them at the same time than the health of the owner. More recently, and quite note as literally  the cinema of Darren Aronofsky seems to formulate a good affiliation to the Faustian Pact with films like Pi, The Wrestler or Black Swan. The latter introduces (through very unnecessary visual effects unfortunately) a dancer achieving the climax of her art to the detriment of her mental health. One can find a very similar narrative in the life of pianist David Helfgott dramatized in Scott Hieks’ film Shine (1996).

There are probably a multitude of other examples I am forgetting but, for now, I would like to exit Western culture to introduce Hell Screen (Jigokuhen), a short story written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa in 1918, few years after he wrote Rashomon, then magnificently adapted by Akira Kurosawa in cinema in 1950. In Hell Screen, Akutagawa, in his own unique subjective narrative mode, tells a story, originally from the 12th century, in which an old cantankerous renowned painter, Yoshihide in the court of Emperor Horikawa (late 11st century) who is asked by the latter to paint a screen representing hell. Yoshida, whose ambition seems to be only equal to his cruelty, paints what he sees in his nightmares and complement those visions thanks to models forced against themselves in situations he creates. This is how he unchains one of disciples for many hours and makes a bird attack another in order to paint their terrified faces. Such Sadian situations are representative of a man who exercises full power over another to a point that the former considers the later as a mere body (see previous article), in that case for artistic purposes. After a sum of similar event, one only thing is missing to Yoshihide to finish his painting. He thus asks the Emperor to burn a float for him with a woman inside to constitute the main element of this painting.

What Yoshihide does not know is that the woman chosen by the Emperor to test him is the painter’s own daughter. When he realizes that fact, he is so fascinated that he eventually does nothing against it and watch his daughter burning in front of him before finishing his painting and thus sacrifying his own family to his art. Once the screen is done, he hangs himself.

One can see that we are very far from the Torcello bridge legend in which a woman succeeds to trick the devil out of a pact she made with him. There is no escape from the contract signed by the artist with the dark forces of cruelty he entangled himself to. Where does our dedication to art stop? This question is even more problematic in this case as the artist is not the only one -far from it- who suffers from his “pact”.

In his conversations with Claire Parnet, Gilles Deleuze offers his intuition according to which great artists are reporting something they saw that was “too great for them” and thus always renounce to a part of their health (mental one like for Sade, Artaud, Van Gogh, Nietzsche etc. or physical one like for Spinoza or Deleuze himself). Knowing that, a more “reasonable” way to approach this problem might consist in a negotiation with those destructive forces rather than the absolutism of a pact. Maybe such thinking is however what condemns us to mediocrity!