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  • Art, Truth, and John Fowles's The Magus
  • Frederick M. Holmes (bio)

It is by now widely accepted that The Magus is a metafiction that is as much an inquiry into the ontological status of its own processes as a novel as it is a depiction of the education of its callous young hero, Nicholas Urfe. Fowles has stated that "The Magus was of course a deliberately artificial model-proposing novel, a good deal more about fiction than any 'real' situation" (Bigsby and Ziegler 120). And yet this assertion is inadvertently misleading in implying that The Magus is indifferent to the connections between fiction and reality. On the contrary, as William Palmer states, the "relationship between art and life is a recurring theme throughout the fiction of John Fowles" (30). Like The Tempest, one of the literary works it overtly patterns itself after, The Magus in particular reveals an abiding preoccupation with the complex and problematic connections between fiction and truth. This aspect of the novel has received attention from several astute critics,1 but it is a vexed subject, the paradoxical implications of which are still insufficiently understood. Fleshing out some of these implications is the task I have set myself in this essay.

The self-consciousness of The Magus as a fiction is most readily apparent in its innumerable allusions to other works of art. These have [End Page 45] the cumulative effect of alienating techniques that disrupt the illusion of actuality and jolt the reader into an awareness that he is reading not a documentary report of events that actually took place but a fiction. Fowles thus forces the reader both to distinguish between art and life and (because often the illusion of reality is very intense) to recognize how difficult it is to do so, how intricately and intimately art and life are linked. Malcolm Bradbury discerns another means by which Fowles makes his novel self-referential: he creates in Maurice Conchis a substitute artist whose godgame constitutes an image of the novel itself (264). It is intentionally ironic that, although at one time or another Conchis reveals himself to be or feigns to be a musician, a dramatist, and a movie director, he never claims to be a novelist. Conchis thus signals Fowles's self-conscious questioning of the medium he has chosen to work in by disavowing the novel (96),2 the one art form the reader would have expected him to champion, because he is, after all, a character in a novel, not in a play or film.

What the foregoing suggests is that Fowles's investigation of the status of his own work is motivated by a fear many contemporary writers share, namely, that narrative art has somehow lost its potency. It is true, of course, that Fowles builds up his surrogate as a figure of immense power and knowledge, thus suggesting his own godlike capabilities as a novelist.3 But he also deliberately undermines Conchis in the role of sage. One source of ambiguity can be found in the ethical implications of his teaching and behavior. However pure his motivation, Conchis' willingness to manipulate the actions and feelings of others and to expose them to psychological and physical dangers is potentially damaging. At times his pursuit of existential freedom takes him into a realm beyond good and evil, and this has a dubious moral quality he does not attempt to hide: its ambiguity is evident in both the fact that the heroic freedom fighter whose life Conchis spared during World War Two was a notorious murderer and that Conchis' seizing of his own freedom entailed allowing the execution of scores of innocent people by the Nazis. Indeed, Patricia Kubis even argues that Conchis is a variation on the archetype of the Devil, although she concludes that he is ultimately a positive one (190225).

Another source of doubt about the wisdom of Conchis is the fictive character of his knowledge, its lack of a solid basis in literal truth. He is shown to be a charlatan as well as a sage, but it is impossible to distinguish precisely where his real discernment ends and his fakery begins. Bradbury notes that the uncertainty...


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