CEPA eprint 1347 (EVG-057)
Reflections on John Fowles’ “The Magus” and the construction of reality
Glasersfeld E. von (1979) Reflections on John Fowles’ “The Magus” and the construction of reality. The Georgia Review 33(2): 444–448. Available at http://cepa.info/1347
My fascination with John Fowles’s novel The Magus has a single source: it is one of a small number of literary works into which I can read, without apparent effort on my part, a view of the world and a constructivist theory of knowledge that I have worked at for a good many years. Students of the art of expression and the writer’s craft in general may be more interested in the unusual fact that here is an author who brings out a “revised version” of a novel that was published and had a certain success more than a decade ago. No doubt it could be rewarding to find out in detail exactly what a novelist of Fowles’s standing considers “improvements.” To me they are not significant – a word changed here and there, a phrase dropped, another added, and a few new more explicit sexual scenes that alter neither mood nor meaning of the whole. It is that meaning of the whole that interests me here.
I am well aware of the fact that interpretations of meaning are necessarily subjective and that mine may, indeed, be highly idiosyncratic: but I am not in the least deterred by that. Fowles himself makes a strong case for reasoned subjectivity. In his preface to the second version, he says of hiss book: “Its meaning is whatever reaction it provokes in the reader, and so far as I am concerned there is no given ‘right’ reaction.” That is a close paraphrase of what Paul Valéry, half a century earlier, wrote in his preface to the 1928 edition of Cbarmes: “Once a work of verse or prose is finished and offered to the public, nothing, its author suggests or states could have greater import, could explain it more exactly than what anyone else might say about it.”
This reverberation of Valéry is not the only one. Valéry the philosopher, rather than the poet, spoke of the “ennième coup de la partie d’échecs que joue la connaissance avec l’être,” and Fowles’s novel is indeed one long game of chess between knowledge and being. It ends the only way such a game can end: in a draw.
The game unfolds in a multitude of scenes and events that constitute a predominantly psychological plot, and in more or less self‑contained stories told as inserts into the present of the novel. All this is written in a realistic key, as it might actually be experienced, but it is wholly fictitious in that the scenes, events, and stories are all deliberately arranged and produced for the benefit of Nicholas Urfe, the narrator, by the worldly, civilized, and immensely versatile and gifted Magus, Maurice Conchis.
At first, the narrator does not know, nor even suspect, that what he experiences is the result of artificially construed “facts.” He finds out bit by bit, and it is not until the very last part of the book that he realizes the full extent of the machinations to which he is being subjected. Conchis, though it often seems like it, does not use magic or sorcery. He uses money and imagination for a purpose that lies altogether outside the usual and predictable. He does not operate for gain. He is conducting a novel kind of therapy. He calls it the “Godgame” because, as he says in his characteristically cryptic way, there is no God and the game is really not a game.
With the help of an ensemble of professional actors and talented amateurs who are his friends, he choreographs systematically timed and sequenced happenings, and they are staged exclusively to be experienced by a chosen individual. His purpose is to awaken, to change attitudes and ideas, and, ultimately, to instill what I would call Wisdom.
Nicholas Urfe is a typical product of the postwar atmosphere of general, profound disorientation and of the British upper middle-class. (It is important not to confound that term with the American usage of “middle class”; in Britain it refers to a segment of society that, although it has absorbed most of the habits, manners, and speech of the aristocracy “ is not determined by income and has for a long time been the prime locus of intellectual emancipation.) Nicholas becomes the chosen victim or beneficiary of the Godgame when, in a halfhearted attempt to escape from his aimlessness, he takes a job as English teacher in a boys school on a small Greek island, part of which belongs to Conchis. Nicholas has been deliberately warned that there is something odd about the Conchis domain, and that, of course, makes it irresistible. He goes there and at once falls under the spell of the Magus. There is nothing surprising, let alone supernatural about that spell. Conchis is a splendid host, a fascinating talker full of knowledge and insights; he has beautiful things, plays the harpsichord, and speaks almost perfect English; and – perhaps the strongest attraction – he has a knack for doing the unexpected in a portentous manner and creating coincidences that are utterly mystifying. It takes Nicholas the entire span covered by the book to find a viable interpretation of what is going on.
Since Nicholas is the narrator, the reader is in much the same position. Given that Fowles is an efficient and, indeed, captivating writer, the Godgame and its therapeutic intent have a good chance of working on the reader as well. Early on, there is a hint, clear enough, but also easy to overlook; a quotation from T. S. Eliot’s Little Gidding:
We shall not cease from explorationAnd the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.
That, indeed, is what happens time and time again in different areas and on different levels of experience.
Halfway through the book Nicholas has lost many a certainty. Every time he thought he knew what was real, the rug, was pulled from under his feet. “For weeks,” he records, “I had a sense of being taken apart, disconnected from a previous self – or the linked structures of ideas and conscious feeling that constitute self; and now it was lying on the workshop bench, a litter of parts, the engineer gone. – ‑.” There is no way, he feels, he can put himself together again. Then, a page or so before the last, he comes to the end of his ultimate exploration. Having reluctantly, accepted that almost everything that happened since his arrival on that now distant island – all his pleasures and all his pains – had been deliberately arranged by the Magus and was, therefore, in some sense fake, he realizes that the Godgame has ended. There is despondency, self‑pity, and also rage. He knows, or thinks he knows, that THEY are no longer watching. “The theatre was empty. It was not a theatre … They had absconded … How could they be so cold, so inhuman, so incurious? – How could they so load the dice and yet leave the game?”
At that moment, I believe, the answer comes to him. He has arrived where he started, is once more lost, unwatched, feeling insignificant and resenting the disinterest of the world. But now, for the first time, he knows what he never knew before: Life is not a performance. As long as he acts for the sake of spectators, human spectators or divine, as long as he expects praise or punishment, counts on approval or condemnation that are not wholly his own, he can be neither free nor human – and neither freedom nor humanity is possible without the other.
Of course the Godgame was played with loaded dice, but it was not the throws of the Magus, diabolical though they seemed, that drove Nicholas nearly out of his mind. It was the way he, Nicholas, interpreted the events. He himself had loaded the dice long ago by unquestioningly accepting a naive, commonplace view of the world. Like so many of us, he thought he knew what the world was like. It is a widespread ailment and, as Fowles illustrates in a variety of ways, it is causally connected with the belief that “reality” is what it is, quite independent of us. Conchis demonstrates to Nicholas, and through Nicholas to us, that it is the experiencer who creates his “facts,” the relationships between them, and thus the structures that he comes to consider real. To the extent to which we can see ourselves in Nicholas, we are brought to see how often and how tenaciously we cling to our constructs long after they have ceased to provide plausible interpretations of our experience.
The situations Nicholas is put through in the course of this experiential therapy range from the cliché of a counterfeit painting (taken for real, giving real enough pleasure, and then discovered a fake) to the drastic example of the girl with whom he makes what he believes to be love, and who shows him, as she leaves their bed and him for good, that she is not who he thought she was. One by one, his ideas, his values, his preconceptions are demolished. There is a striking parallel to Castaneda’s Don Juan – another sorcerer – who reiterates to his disciple that all stereotypic, habitual ways of thinking and seeing have to be “undone” before any wisdom can be attained.
Fowles comes to the core of constructivist epistemology when he lets, Conchis explain the idea of coincidence. Nicholas is told two dramatic stories, one about a wealthy collector whose chateau in France burns down one night with everything he possesses; the other about an obsessed farmer in Norway who has spent years as a hermit awaiting the coming of God. One night he has the vision he has been waiting for. Concliis adds that it was the very same night that the fire destroyed the chateau. Nicholas asks: “You are not suggesting …?” Conchis interrupts him. “I am suggesting nothing, There was no connection between the events. No connection is possible. Or rather, I am the connection, I am whatever meaning the coincidence has.” This is an everyday – paraphrase of Einstein’s revolutionary insight that in the physical world there is no simultaneity without an observer who creates it.
In the modern constructivist theory of knowledge, not only coincidences are seen as arising out of the experiencer’s own activity, but also the events that are coinciding, the notions of space and time, of motion and causality, and even those experiential compounds that we call “objects.” They all come about through the experiencer who relates, who institutes differences, similarities, and identities, and thus creates for himself a stable world of sorts. Jean Piaget, the widely misunderstood philosopher and psychologist, has spent the better part of sixty years working out a theoretical model of how a living, organism might achieve what, in one of his most fundamental works, he has called The Construction of Reality in the Child. But while Piaget and an avant‑garde of scientists comprising physicists, neurologists, anthropologists, and cyberneticians are concerned with the operational analysis of such a theory of knowledge, Fowles has focused on its pragmatic and its ethical aspects. His conclusion, I believe’ transpires from the many phases of the intellectual and sentimental education of which this novel is an account. It could be described as the ideal intersection of the stoic and the epicurean attitudes.
At one point, Nicholas is shown one of those archaic Greek sculptures that are portraits of a smile. It is the smile of the sorcerer, the Wise Man, who knows that although the world of experience is of his own making, the pain and the pleasure he creates for himself and for the others in his world are real and forever his responsibility.
From a self‑consciously contemporary critic’s point of view, The Magus might well be considered an old‑fashioned novel – as old‑fashioned as Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes or the work of Pirandello. Seen in the framework of the history of ideas, it belongs to the front of constructivist thought that is today considered modern because it is found to be thoroughly compatible with the theory of knowledge grown out of the great revolution in physics. But constructivism has roots that go back very much further to an enlightened, undogmatic form of humanism that has sprung up sporadically ever since the Pre‑Socratics. Fowles sees himself in that tradition, when says in his preface that there is a series of human illusions about something that does not exist in fact, absolute knowledge and absolute power.
The destruction of such illusions seems to me still an eminently humanist aim. …” But it is not a question of destruction only. Hand in hand with the elimination of these illusions, as Nicholas is so harshly brought to see, must come the growth of an inner certainty, an inner confidence that ultimately breeds the sorcerer’s smile. It is the only knowledge that promises to hold the balance with being, a knowledge that no one has expressed more simply than Paul Valéry: “It is with our own substance that we imagine and form a stone, a plant, a movement, an object: any image whatever is perhaps but a beginning, of our selves.”
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