A deal with the Devil

Image from Lynd Ward, Gods' Man

Lynd Ward, Gods' Man

The first American wordless novel, Gods’ Man by Lynd Ward, was published in 1929, one week before the stock market crash. The timing must have made the book’s message seem all the more relevant. Ward tells of a struggling young artist who comes to the city and makes a Faustian bargain. After signing a contract with a masked stranger in a top hat (a symbol in wordless novels for capitalism), he receives a magic brush that brings instant fame and fortune. A beautiful woman catches his eye, but as he is painting her nude portrait, he notices a dollar sign tattooed on her shoulder. This triggers hallucinations in which he sees her as a prostitute—another symbol of capitalism, representing buyer, seller, and desire gone too far. We spot her carousing with a police officer, sailor, priest, and judge. Is capitalism corrupting society’s protectors?

The woman’s lovers chase the artist out of the city. In the countryside, he meets another woman, a goatherd, with whom he has a child. Traditionally, goats have symbolized peace and independence, both of which the man finds. However, they also represent sacrifice. At first, this may refer to the life of luxury the artist has given up in the city. In time, though, we realize that he himself is the sacrifice. The mysterious stranger returns with the signed contract and leads the artist up a mountain to paint his portrait. Tearing off his mask, he reveals himself as the Devil (or his agent), come to claim the artist’s soul.

The book’s title, with its possessive plural apostrophe, alludes to a line by the ancient Roman playwright Plautus: “He whom the gods favor, dies young.” Ward saw evidence of this in the short lives of so many artists. Had they made a deal with the Devil to receive special powers in exchange for their soul? The idea dates back to the Middle Ages and was retold most famously in the Romantic era by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his play Faust. A silent film rendition of the Faust legend, produced by F. W. Murnau in the German Expressionist style, appeared in 1926. Though Ward’s direct inspiration for Gods’ Man was Otto Nückel’s wordless novel Destiny, he was living in Germany in 1926 and presumably saw the film.

The era of wordless novels witnessed the signing of many Faustian contracts. Hitler’s rise to power is the most obvious example. In the United States, too, people made foolish decisions that brought short-term gain and long-term pain. Unregulated stock speculation in the Roaring Twenties gave way to the hell of the Great Depression. On the Great Plains, farmers sold out their respect for the land, thinking it would bring them everything they ever wanted. It brought them the Dust Bowl. Not far away, in the deserts of New Mexico, mankind initiated what may one day turn out to be the worst deal of all: knowledge of the power of the atom at the price of all life on earth.