A book that became a kind of touchstone for me when I was living in Rome, and to which I return during these early weeks of parenthood, via an audio version, which whirrs away for days on end in my head, is John Fowles’ The Magus.
In it, another insular young man, Nicholas Urfe, travels to Greece to escape the end of a love affair, and perhaps too, his inability to love and commit himself fully to another person or project. Once there, he slips “down and down, and down” into a lonely, self-hating depression, until we find him, just eight chapters in, sitting in a gully behind the school with a twelve-bore shotgun borrowed off the gatekeeper, contemplating suicide:
“I reversed the gun and looked down the barrel, into the black o of my nonexistence. I calculated the angle at which I should have to hold my head. I held the barrel against my right eye, turned my head so that the shot would mash like black lightning through the brain and blast the back wall of my skull off.”
In half-acting out the suicide, Nicholas sees the mannered theatricality of it:
“All the time I felt I was being watched, that I was not alone, that I was putting on an act for the benefit of someone, that this action could be done only if it was spontaneous, pure, isolated – and moral.”
The separation between what we call “fiction” and reality disappears and Nicholas suddenly sees himself from the perspective of the reader (20-something me), or perhaps the critic, Michelle Phillips Buchberger for example, who is all too ready to box his moment by moment existence into a categorical theme, such as “the single, white, educated, middle-class male quest for authenticity and meaning after leading a hitherto unimpressive, wasteful, and narcissistic life, and hence one that is detached from the reality of engagement, of intersubjective awareness and any notion of the externality of truth.”
What I see is a man who, like myself, is ripe and ready for a koan.
Nicholas believes there is only one depressing conclusion to be drawn from his current position:
“I saw that I was from now on, forever, contemptible. I had been, and remained, intensely depressed, but I had also been, and always would be, intensely false; in existentialist terms, unauthentic. I knew I would never kill myself, I knew I would always want to go on living with myself, however hollow I became, however diseased. I raised the gun and fired it blindly into the sky. The crash shook me. There was an echo, some falling twigs. Then the heavy well of silence.”
This is the trap of Mu masquerading as depression, a depression brought on by isolation, ill-health, shame (he has contracted syphilis from a prostitute in Athens) and an unanchored lack of vocation.
Into this heavy well of stuck-in-a-rut silence strides Nicholas’s own Zhaozhou, a man with an equally evocative name. Maurice Conchis, a wealthy Greek recluse, a peddler of masques and psychodramas, someone who is willing, even enjoys shining a conscious/Conchis light onto the existential knots Nick has tied himself into. A kind of guru, a kind of parent, maybe even a “therapist” of sorts.
He accomplishes these paradigm shifts by maneuvering the young man with great artistry up against a series of living koans:
-If your teacher is an absence, and his lesson a nothingness, what can you take away from the encounter?
-How can we best live with things as they are, when often, things are very different to how we might want them to be?
-Do questions, without grasping after answers, give us enough sustenance to live our lives through them?
Conchis is not just a Parent-Guru-Therapist, but also a modern-day Prospero, a “novelist sans novel, creating with people not words.” Nicholas realises this quite early on in their relationship.
Fowles’ novel was originally conceived under the title of The God Game, and this is what Conchis begins to play with Nicholas, just as Zhaozhou did a thousand years before with the pilgrim. As every parent does with their human or animal child. And just like every parent, Conchis will also tell his charge that there are no gods, and this is not a game.
If it is though, what kind of game might it be? Like the koan, it appears to be both something didactic and aesthetic. Fowles, quoting De Sade, perhaps supplies us with an indication of what he via Conchis is trying to do:
“La triomphe de la philosophie serait de jeter du jour sur l’obscurité des voies dont la providence se sert pour parvenir aux fins qu’elle se propose sur l’homme, et de tracer d’après cela quelque plan de conduite qui put faire connaitre a ce maiheureux individu bipède, perpétuellement ballotté par les caprices de cet étre qui dit-on le dirige aussi despotiquement, to manière dont il taut qu’il interprète les décrets de cette providence sur lui.”
One translation of this might read as follows:
“The greatest achievement of the godgame would be the elucidation of the means employed by The Parent/Guru/Therapist to achieve the ends which they have in view for us. That is to say: the mapping out of conduct which might assist us unfortunate biped creatures to find our way along life’s thorny path, so that we may anticipate the strange whims of a destiny which we all still struggle to ultimately comprehend and define.”
Conchis, as do maybe all gurus, stands in for either an incredibly masterful guide and teacher, or perhaps a deficient or depriving mother or father. Someone making up for, but also perhaps fated to revisit and replay whatever developmental injuries Nicholas is still smarting from.
Fowles lays the framework for these deprivations on the first page of the novel where Nicholas tells us that he “had long before made the discovery that I lacked the parents…I needed”.
Both himself and his mother were in thrall to his father: “she never argued with him and always behaved as if he were listening in the next room, even when he was thousands of miles away”.
In the novel, Conchis is also given an omniscient and omnipresent quality.
Here’s how Nicholas describes his relationship to his absent, autocratic father, trained initially as a lawyer, a brigadier in the war:
“I saw very little of my father during the war, and in his long absences I used to build up a more or less immaculate conception of him, which he generally—a bad but appropriate pun—shattered within the first forty-eight hours of his leave.”
Nicholas’s guru also manages to maintain a mysterious, and immaculate conception of himself through ludic and gnomic conversation and enactments, which he then shatters over the next 670 pages in a devastating a manner, a version of perhaps an earlier shattering that occurred between father and son which none of the protagonists have any conscious awareness or memory of.
John Fowles’ own father, Robert John Fowles (his son was named John Robert), was also a soldier, seeing three years of action in the trenches of Flanders, demobilized at thirty-one years old, a “neurasthenic” in the terminology of the day.
In today’s terminology this would be diagnosed as PTSD, or as his daughter colloquially put it, “a mess”. His sleep was poor, his nerves were shot, his hands shook so much that he couldn’t even hold a teacup. Conchis was also traumatised by a series of wartime experiences which the novel relates.
Robert Fowles rebuilt his sense of the world from the outside in by taking on the mantle of breadwinner for his family, as a tobacconist, but also from the inside out by reading a great deal of philosophy, especially the pragmatism of William James and Charles Sanders Peirce. These philosophers too a material, anti-idealist stance, testing the truth of a proposition in its practical utility. As Fowles father tried to make sense of a world that was decimated for him first when his mother died at the age of six, and then during the first world war, so he would undoubtedly rehearse these notions on Fowles Junior in a way that perhaps felt to his son like a kind of enforced dokusan. This is the name given to the viva voce in which a disciple’s understanding of his chosen koan is tested by his guru, a painful cross-examination “far more forensic than Socratic” as Fowles describes doing dokusan with his father it in his diaries:
“He has read so much, and knows so many –isms and long words which he brandishes in conversation, mystifying, confounding, or embarrassing as the case may be. With me, usually the latter, as he uses long words to dazzle simple people…arguing, hectoring, talking above everyone else, never listening…an aggressive superiority complex.”
So too Conchis, Nicholas’s guru in the novel, who becomes a more tolerable version of the first guru, Fowles’ father. This allows the writer of the novel to consciously work out a version of repetition compulsion as a form of an education:Conchis putting his disciple Nicholas into the same existential quandaries, that destiny had once brought him up against.