- The Dialectics of Debasement in The Magus
Commentators and Readers Alike have praised The Magus as a fascinating and powerful novel of great audacity, richness, and intellectual depth. I am sure that many, like myself, have also found it to be an eminently teachable work that rarely fails to intrigue and to challenge those who study it. Yet The Magus profoundly disturbs many college students; it often affects these young readers in unexpected and unsettling ways. Although praising the novel as a compelling and absorbing work, students frequently express an uneasy concern about various problems: the meaning of Nicholas Urfe's bizarre experience, the extent to which he learns and changes, the unresolved ending, the motives and morality of those who conduct the godgame. One detects a sense of desperate urgency as these readers struggle to address such problems and to solve the book's mysteries. At the same time, surprisingly, students resist Fowles's assertion that the individual reader has the right as well as the obligation to decipher the events narrated. They typically view his advice on interpreting The Magus as an evasion, a "cop-out": "Its meaning is whatever reaction it provokes in the reader, and so far as I am concerned [End Page 71] there is no given 'right' reaction" (9-10). Although readily accepting this sort of interpretative principle when studying other literary works, many students, perhaps unaccustomed to experiencing agitation and anxiety as a consequence of reading a literary work, insistently demand an explanation of the book's meaning, a denunciation of the ethics of the godgame, or a scenario of what will transpire after Nicholas and Alison are reunited at the end of the novel.
Rather than advancing what Fowles terms a "right" interpretation, the purpose of this essay is to account for the confusion, uneasiness, and—not infrequently—genuine terror The Magus is likely to evoke in the reader, especially the college student. Although the book is a complex, multilayered work possessing many themes and capable of sustaining numerous interpretations, the elements responsible for this troubling effect compose a particularly important dimension of the novel—an import perhaps not immediately apparent or specifically intended by Fowles. This dimension endows The Magus with relevance and significance as a work of cultural criticism, for the novel serves as a troubling and, I think, profound commentary on contemporary man and civilization.
Several aspects of the novel contribute to the work's unsettling effect; these include the episodes of perverse and wanton cruelty, the apparent amorality of those who conduct the godgame, the unresolved ambiguities and unexplained mysteries. Yet the distressing, haunting impact of The Magus resides in a pervasive logic more fundamental and insidious than these individual scenes and problematic elements: the novel develops a dialectic of debasement whose final synthesis asserts a view of life that is both empty and terrifying. The view the book propounds is a compound of nihilism and narcissism; it is the response of impotent, insignificant man attempting to cope with immense, threatening, and often mysterious forces he can neither understand nor control. As a microcosm of a world beset by these vast forces of negation, the godgame advances the nihilistic doctrine that there is no meaning. Conchis' premise that "an answer is always a form of death" (637) and the assumption of Wimmel and his fellow Nazis that "nothing is true, everything is permitted" (435) are versions of this "meaningless meaning" that resonates throughout the book. In an attempt to protect his ego against this dehumanizing and terrifying nihilism, Nicholas responds to the godgame in a defensive if not logical way: he adopts a self-absorbed and self-directed narcissism. These nihilistic and narcissistic themes are major elements of a pervasive logic of despair that is part of the work's general cultural significance.
This pervasive logic, the dimension of the novel responsible for its unsettling impact, is composed of three major elements. First of all, Conchis' protean guises, especially his function as a god figure, contribute [End Page 72] to the confusion and perturbation both Nicholas and the reader experience. In whatever role Conchis assumes—physician, teacher, or divinity—his manipulative, deceptive...