Saturday, March 05, 2011

# 93 The Magus – John Fowles

Anthony Quinn as Conchis
Picasso: saurian and simian?
Hannibal Lecter, classical musician

Dio: Devil's Horns

First off, the centathlete needed to confim the correct pronunciation of the title of The Magus, the 1965 novel by John Fowles, because he has never heard the word spoken. It’s “may-gus,” according to the OED and Anthony Quinn, who played the mysterious Conchis in the 1968 movie adaptation.

Most of us are familiar with the plural on account of the three wise men of the Gospel of Matthew. A British friend once uttered, puzzlingly, the word “magi” as “Maggie” (a name that brings to mind songs by The Beatles and Rod Stewart). Years later this was brought to attention of her father, who was also perplexed and, as an ex-pat, unsure of how most Englishmen today call their Biblical adorers. We Americans prefer the A long and the J soft, so we say “may-jeye.” Anyway, with the singular text now placed on the shelf, we have to keep repeating may-gus, may-gus, may-gus.

Playing the desktop etymologist, the centathlete found that both “magus” and “magic” share ancestors in ancient Greek and old Persian. A magus was a member of the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism known for its development of “Eastern” and “non-Christian” wisdom, notably through the practice of astrology, the interpretation of dreams, and the ability “to foretell events of world importance,” according to William Davies and Dale Allison.

The seemingly related word “magister” may not be related at all: the OED sources the classical Latin title that we moderns have transformed into “master.” For several reasons, The Magus evoked an earlier novel by Hermann Hesse alternatively titled Magister Ludi and The Glass Bead Game. Hesse told the Nobel Prize Committee he spent 11 years writing the book; Fowles spent more than a decade writing The Magus—its draft title was The Godgame.

Both works present profound, enigmatic “games” that are existential, psychological and pan-cultural. The authors’ parallel motifs and themes were not lost on readers of the ‘60s, according to Bill Kruse, who wrote, “…those youngsters who had once carried battered copies of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and Demian in the back pocket of their jeans now replaced them with a copy of The Magus."

The final image of Siddartha is of the “wise, thousand-fold smile of Gotama, the Buddha.” Like Hesse, Fowles considers a certain kind of smile the representation of enlightenment. Throughout The Magus, the young protagonist Urfe is described as “grinning,” on occasions when he thinks he knows what is truly transpiring and why—to find out later that he does not. It’s the grin of immaturity and shallow presumption. In contrast, Conchis smiles cryptically and deeply. Paul Laurenz, in analyzing Urfe’s quest for self-discovery, writes, “Conchis’s new world demands the Heraclitean complement, the knowing smile of a buddha who is aware that he does not know.”

(Now, a quibble. Hesse and Fowles, these giants of fiction and philosophy, both uphold “the smile,” yet in their writing they are unable or unwilling to make the reader laugh. Just saying.)
While Hesse toiled over his masterpiece, the Dutch social philosopher Johan Huizinga published Homo Ludens (in English The Playful Human) and argued for the fundamental cultural importance of play. In discussing Huizinga, Daniel Rigney wrote:
“There is something enchanting and captivating about playing games—something that draws us into their imaginary worlds and seals us off from the world outside… Games are at once both imaginary and vividly real to those who fall under their spell.”
This observation describes the process and the appeal of The Magus, in which Urfe is effectively isolated in a marvelous “domaine” on a remote Greek island, and forced to navigate the reality and illusion of Conchis’s godgame. In an interview, Fowles himself acknowledged the role of play in the mind of the writer: “I think literature is half imagination and half game. One’s feeling alter, sometimes very greatly, from one creation to the next.”

(Some will remember that an earlier detour in the centathlon took us through the recent ascendance of the rules of games as entertainment in themselves.)

As the arbiter and leader of the imaginative godgame, Conchis embodies the magus, or the magician, the powerfully resonant card (the very first trump) in the tarot deck, as Urfe reminds us. There are 78 cards in the traditional tarot deck and 78 chapters in The Magus, but “little correlation between the individual cards and chapters,” according to Barry Olshen as cited by Jens Pollheide, who pointed out that John Fowles “encourages” certain identifications, such as tarot iconography, in the reader and then “frustrates” them.

Carl Jung thought that tarot cards represented timeless archetypes that could help an individual on the road to transformation. Gerald Schueler noted, “In Jung’s analytical psychology, these archetypes comprise the major dynamical components of the unconscious which affect the human psyche in many different ways.”

Fowles relied on Jung for provocative fodder rather than for therapeutic dogma. He told Dianne Vipond, “Jung is infinitely more valuable [than Freud] for an artist. One of the Eranos yearbooks was important for The Magus.” So we readers have Urfe as The Fool, the archetypal youth on the journey to self-realization and the authentic life, and Conchis as The Magus, the wise trickster, and little other reason to consult in the tarot deck.

The centathlete, it must be revealed, endeavored to read tarot cards years ago. The Rider-Waite deck was acquired. Illustrated guides were studied. The exercise proved to be an entertaining novelty and one thing became immediately clear: many women want to have their cards read. The readings, this fortuneteller found, were “successful” when suggestive and interactive, rather than authoritative and one-sided. You should read the client at the same time you read the cards.

The most memorable reading illustrates this perception. At a party, the centathlete occupied a corner by the radiator of his Manhattan apartment and read for a few people. One young woman, whom he had never met before, sat down and requested advice concerning the theme of Love. As the cards were turned and interpreted, the centathlete found himself, by observing the woman’s reactions, suddenly referring to her object of desire as female rather than the male, intoning “she will be…” rather than “he will be…” Days later a mutual friend, who was at the party, expressed great surprise that this orientation could have been discovered in that setting—and she confirmed that it was in fact true. Despite this discovery, the centathlete shortly thereafter lost interest in tarot and discontinued the hobby in much the same way he briefly took up and dropped the games of chess and croquet.

Croquet: leisurely, brilliant July afternoons in the front quad of New College at Oxford University. During a study abroad summer program, the centathlete (who typically sported a cap for stale comic effect) and a few fellow students often shirked research and writing for a few games of croquet on the lawn. There was even a final tournament, which the centathlete did not win.

Only by stumbling through the centathlon, admiring Tom Wilson’s heartfelt blog post, do we learn that during the late ‘40s John Fowles attended New College. Other alumni include top 100 novelist, Virginia Woolf and the actor Hugh Grant. While there, we Americans were never told who may have once slept and scribbled in our rooms (most of them spacious, fusty singles)…

After Oxford, Fowles taught on the Greek island of Spetsai. His descriptions of the light, landscape and aura, so different from England, will impress anyone who has had the fortune to visit that mythmaking cradle of the world, as the centathlete has. The blues and whites of Santorini, the butterflies and buttresses of Rhodes, the neglected ruins on the roadside—they are unlike anything back home and they do engender a new mindset for the tourist.

The lord of a columned mansion on Spetsai where he conducts “metatheater,” Conchis personifies an intense classical sensibility at odds with the uptight, English Urfe, who writes, “[Conchis] had a bizarre family resemblance to Picasso; saurian as well as simian, decades of living in the sun, the quintessential Mediterranean man...” Before coming across this vivid comparison, the centathlete had a page earlier actually envisioned Anthony Hopkins as the painter in the south of France in the 1996 film Surviving Picasso. Watching the movie’s trailer today we see a manipulative, randy genius creating art and games in the sunshine—just like Conchis.

Now, Picasso isn’t Hopkins’s only role that comes to mind while reading The Magus. Hannibal Lecter (whom Hopkins played in The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal), Thomas Harris’s cannibal and serial killer, gives us a man who is an initiator of games and a connoisseur of art, a debauchee of utter erudition, who has plumbed the depths of horror and shines the lamplight of perverse insight.

Lecter is a magian caricature in the footsteps of Conchis and his one-time mentor, Count de Deukans (not to be confused with Count Dooku of the Star Wars saga). The Belgian count, according to Conchis, was “immensely rich” as well as “most abnormal, politest, most distant [and] most socially irresponsible.” He was not then unlike Conchis himself, and we can say he ably preceded Lecter.

Let’s get specific. Conchis played a Pleyel harpsichord and it was the key to his meeting Count de Deukans, who owned “five or six harpsichords, museum pieces” and played them himself. In Harris’s 1999 novel Hannibal, “Lecter plays the harpsichord and the theremin,” Gary Moore notes, while the 2001 movie adaptation shows him playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations on a clavier. Through this arcane musicianship, the characters seduce us as astute keepers of tradition and beauty.

Len Platt elaborates on the dangerous seduction, asserting that the character of Hannibal Lecter represents an elevated concern for the very state of Western society and culture. He writes:
“…[Lecter] epitomizes the taste, tradition, and distinction that have been all but dispatched by the leveling dynamic of mass society and mass culture. In this context, the key elements in Dr. Lecter’s make-up, his extraordinary intelligence and great refinement (see, for instance his taste for exotic food…for classic cars, the best perfumes and so on), these become culturally placed in unequivocal ways and deployed against Harris’s version of the awfulness of modern life.”
There comes a strong and clear warning when we consider the diabolical figures of de Deukans, Conchis and Lecter, the latter two personally acquainted with the horror and atrocity of World War II (Lecter’s traumatic childhood is detailed in the 2007 film Hannibal Rising). Sam Ford observes:
“…no matter how superior we become through education, through culture, and through refinement, the basest aspects of human nature—to dominate others, to be violent—will still prevail."
As he was years earlier indoctrinated into the excellence of human achievement by de Deukans, Conchis introduces Urfe to the finer things. He adds the harsher things as well, making Urfe despise his contemporary, bourgeois English life. This tearing down of common values is called out by the three quotations in French in The Magus from the old depraved shadow, the Marquis de Sade.

Fowles was not the only writer thinking of the marquis during the early ‘60s. The German Peter Weiss wrote the play Marat/Sade, which was first performed in 1964 in West Berlin, a year before The Magus was published. (Peter Brooks’s celebrated movie adaptation of Marat/Sade followed in 1967.) For the next decade it was de rigueur to film de Sade; the wave of soft-core was capped by the transgressive, scarring 1975 film, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, by Pier Paolo Pasolini, who hated fascists perhaps even more than did John Fowles.

Fowles, Weiss and Pasolini all weave de Sade’s rejection of virtue and behavioral boundaries into greater explorations of war, politics, history, and heightened individuality. What is freedom? How should one behave with power, or without it?

Fowles seems to have made use of the marquis in the manner he appropriated Jung for provocative imagery (and, for that matter, in the same way Picasso used the horned Minotaur in many paintings). In his interview with Dianne Vipond, he said, “I don't for instance have much time for texts like de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. I'd rather say I am implicitly erotic!” A key to the sexiness of The Magus is Fowles’s tactic of serial suggestion and frustration, as noted in the earlier reference to Jens Pollheide.

At the end of Urfe’s stay in Spetsai, he is led to a trial that involves his own humiliation, despite the fact that he is placed as the judge rather than the defendant. The charged conflation of domination and subjection, as well as the binding and gagging, evoked the presentation of Trent Reznor in the Nine Inch Nails 1994 video of “Closer,” named the second sexiest song of all-time in one poll. The band’s mud-coated live performance at Woodstock in 1994 channels the lyrics into ecstatic mayhem.

Reznor, as the composer/performer, explored isolation, addiction and violent desperation. Mark Romanek, as the director, created one of the most popular videos ever (17th on MTV’s greatest videos), mainly by borrowing very heavily from the artwork of Francis Bacon and the photographs of Joel-Peter Witkin. The photographer, called in “the reigning king of deviant imagery” and known for provocative nudes and crucifix masks, among other representations, actually considers himself a “Western Christian” artist, as he told Cindy Marler. Fowles, in contrast, tells us in his book’s foreword that he denies God and aims to portray “a series of human illusions about something that does not exist…”

In The Magus, at the trial of Urfe, there is a human illusion that brings to mind a second hard-rocking musician. The narrator describes, “…a huge left hand…with the forefinger and the little finger pointing up and the two middle fingers holding down the thumb.”

Consumers of heavy metal music wield this symbol en masse and call it “the Devil’s horns.” It was popularized by the late Ronnie James Dio, who learned it from his Italian grandmother. The gesture wards off “the evil eye” and, Dio added in an interview, “puts an exclamation point and a period to what you’re doing.”

Like Fowles, Dio knew a distinctive, timeless Mediterranean motif when he saw one, and he had the insight to employ it in memorable, contemporary fashion. This was a man—whom the centathlete saw in concert on August 15, 1984—who wrote or co-wrote songs entitled “Tarot Woman,” “Stargazer,” “Heaven and Hell,” “Voodoo,” and “The Bible Black.” Evidently, he too was a magus, one of many magi.


Martin Olson said...

Your blog is excellent.

The Centathlete said...

Thanks, Martin! said...

This post was so much more interesting than The Magus was! I did not know the fact about the 78 chapters and tarot cards. I really enjoyed your post. :)

The Centathlete said...

Thanks for the compliment, Pam! I see you're cruising through the list a lot faster than I am. It's going take me years...