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Magus by John Fowles
In Memoriam 1926-2005
father read The Magus a few summers ago. He tells me he
slowly made his way through the first half and then finished the
book in one night, unable to put it down. I was happy about this,
since my father is an engineer and not the sort of person to read
one of the twentieth centurys best pieces of literature.
Im sure he didnt get out of it what I did, but he
did make the comment "What was true in the book? Nothing."
novels all deal with the problems of imagination and reality and their
relation to freedom and responsibility. His characters use their existential
freedom responsibly, to walk the fine line between the two and thus
give up the metaphor, the unreal, for reality. I "borrow"
many of Fowles ideas from time to time, not because I think he
has the answers, but because I think he has the questions.
in most of his work, he doesnt give answers. The French
Lieutenants Woman actually has two endings. One explanation
for the novels alternative endings is that they allow Fowles
not to choose between the values of absolute individual freedom,
the preservation of the self at whatever price, and the necessary
social compromise entailed by that "true freedom" which
In The Magus,
a man named Conchis takes freedom to its biological or physical extreme,
and in so doing makes the protagonist, Nicholas, experience the need
for conventions that check both rampant freedom and the insidious penitential
distortions of remorse. The godgame in The Magus consists of a long
series of masques, or lies, in which a final truth slowly becomes revealed.
The truth that there is no truth. No limits.
Conchis uses Nicholass relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Alison,
who Nicholas gives up for the "mystery" of the godgame, as
the objective correlative to his lesson. Nicholass earlier treatment
of Alison becomes a metaphor for this fine line between freedom of the
self and the responsibility to not use that freedom to hurt others.
The debate over the paradox between fiction and reality in Fowless
work seems to be the central focus of scholarly work. Most critics agree
that Nicholas Urfe must transcend his dependence on metaphor, on art,
before he can appreciate ordinary life. The Unreal, mystery, God, art,
all is shown to be contrary to the taking of responsible action within
the freedom that Nicholas is given. Fowles writes in The Aristos, "Freedom
of will is the highest human good; and it is impossible to have both
that freedom and an intervening divinity." Discounting his atheistic
arguments, Fowles also says, "Since God is unknowable,
we cannot dam the spring of basic existential mystery."
In the absence of a god, freedoms fine line is where
Fowles locates morality. This principle in The Magus and later
The French Lieutenants Woman grounds them in the idea that
"good" can possibly be accomplished and there is a definite
human morality in this balance, and therefore a truth, even if there
is no judgment. He writes in The Aristos, "To accept ones
limited freedom, to accept ones isolation, to accept this responsibility,
to learn ones particular powers, and then with them to humanize
the whole: that is best for the situation."
Who knows if my father got any of this out of his summer reading? But
he got something out of it, no doubt. Fowles writing is accessible
to all, whether his philosophy is or not. All of Fowles novels,
especially The Magus, are on my list for anyone who wants a good
read. Anyone who wants to be lied to, cheated, and deceived. Because
only through realizing the lies will we have the freedom to really choose.
© Eric Lehman
an English professor at the University of Bridgeport and has traveled
extensively throughout the world. He has been previously published
by various web journals, such as August Cutter, Niederngasse, Simply
Haiku, and of course Hackwriters.
Eric D Lehman in the USA
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