Archive for October, 2012


In the yard at my house in downtown Phoenix there are two sets of sunflowers. Nearest the street there are two in particular that are growing so fast that visitors frequently marvel. Closer to the house there is a second set of sunflowers that are relatively puny. The reason why one set of sunflowers is strong and vibrant and the other is puny in comparison is obvious: one set of plants gets roughly seven more hours of sunlight every day. Plants with more hours of sunshine will outgrow those with much less sunlight. The sunflowers nearest the house haven’t the opportunity to exercise their nutritive photosynthesis powers.

While the image is simple, and silly, and true, it bears some association to what happens to the protagonist of a novel I’ve just finished reading._40993806_fowles_pa203

Published in 1965, John Fowles’ The Magus is an epic tale set on the island of Phraxos in the Aegean Sea. The protagonist, Nickolas, finds himself absorbing the kind of  island sunlight that ancient philosophers like Plato might have alluded to: a strange, mystical, fraternal sort of light. The light of Truth, so to speak. Through Nickolas, a lucid Oxford student, and Maurice Conchis, a modern Mage with abundant access to capital, the novel weaves a tale about the radical, experimental development of Nickolas’ soul.

As I will describe below, John Fowles demonstrates monumental ambitions in this his first novel.

Fowles cherished no location on earth more than the island of Crete in late March to early April. In the Aegean, writes Fowles, “one does not create; one enjoys.” He first visited the island at age 25, and immediately set about writing The Magus. He finished fifteen years later, but as he later wrote, was never quite happy with how the novel turned out. If one reads the book, one can easily see why the author would be disappointed. Fowles tries to weave a story that conveys the immense transformative power of the Arts. He obviously wants to instigate the emergence of a societal transformation, too. But let me explain!

The plotline of The Magus involves a complicated masquerade. Nickolas goes to Phraxos to teach at a boys school and winds up meeting a mysterious, self-possessed, elite magician named Maurice Conchis. Conchis’ house is the sort of place where one-of-a-kind sculptures and paintings dwell. The man plays the piano with virtuosic intensity. What Nickolas soon finds out is that Maurice has deep beliefs about the history of performance theatre, and the future of performance theatre as a tool for developing new kinds of human personalities. As the novel rolls on — with beautiful passages, and vexing turns — the magician Maurice offers Nickolas a theory about the evolution of theatrical performance from Bertold Brecht and Antonin Artaud, which entails rupturing the traditional relationships and expectations separating the audience from the performance. Maurice’s big idea is to explode these boundaries and take theater into “the 21st century.” Curiously, this entails combining theater with experimental psychology, elaborate deceptions, exotic rituals, and much else besides. Nickolas finds himself embroiled in a labyrinth-like set of relationships to exotically beautiful women, and at every turn, Maurice seems to be pulling everyone’s strings. The Mage has apparently hired dozens of Julliard-quality actors to weave an elaborate emotional psychodrama for Nickolas, who Maurice describes as “one of the elect.”  Maurice’s idyllic island property, known as Bourani, becomes something like a neo-classical mystery school.

Fowles is attempting something mighty in this book. But, to be honest, getting into too many details of my analysis would spoil the plot twists! You should read it yourself!!!!

I will say this:

Fowles creates a world in which performance has overcome the boundaries set by theater and art, transcended politics, and set about rejuvenating the fallen spirit of mankind.

At the novel’s conclusion, when Nickolas muses that he has uncovered the “twenty-second century” response to the “twenty-first century” experimental performance aesthetic of Maurice Conchis, Fowles baldly exposes his epic ambitions.

The Magus presents a vision of the inevitable  freedom  of mankind through a re-convening of the Arts and Sciences. An epic renewal of the mystical-ethical heart of the Western tradition.

Call it Shakespearean techno-humanism if you like. A bright Oxford student from a military family, “Nicko” is goaded toward an isolated venue and embroiled in a completely immersive experiential theater, dominated by capital, but driven by the ethical imagination of the Mage.

Fowles points hundreds of years into the future, to the transmutation of literature and theater, where the wealthiest people on the planet spend their money on the experimental education of a sorcerer elect of civilization. [The problematic Heideggerian/Eurocentric implications are palpable.] Fowles presents an alternative view of the hierarchy of knowledge, more akin to the age of Giordano Bruno and Shakespeare than to the world of the 1960s. Clearly, however, Fowles views the future of human knowledge as a recapitulation of the flowering of the dramatic arts during the Renaissance. The “twenty-second century” solution Nickolas develops hinges precisely on the future of the individual experience of truth and freedom-oriented choice: eleutheria.

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I simply must w…

I simply must write, at least to document some books worth reading, to offer quotations and short digressions.

Science Fiction: Charles Stross, Singularity Sky.

What a strange book! From a “hard sci-fi” angle I applaud Stross for his literary treatment of warp drive. As a technology of civilization, warp drive is a cornucopia for the authorial imagination, freeing writers to imagine any place and time, in any combination, at any scale, in any style. Basically, the concept of warp drive is that Einstein’s Special theory of Relativity — which presupposes a solid-state universe — allows a fleet of military starships to travel into the future and past, relative to their own reference point, with “relative” ease. Stross uses this technology, which relies on tightly controlled black holes in the ship’s core to bend and shape spacetime, to tell a story about the inadequacy of traditional organizational paradigms for dealing with the disruptive impacts of emerging technologies.

In Stross’ future there are “cornucopia machines,” i.e. nanoassemblers that can make anything, including new nanoassemblers. The Eschaton (superintelligent A.I.) is traveling throughout the universe making sure that nobody uses Einstein’s theory to intervene in the historical events that led up to the development of the Eschaton, which could jeopardize its continued existence. The idea that artificial intelligence might be embroiled in its own existential crisis at an intergalactic scale is a nice twist on the typical AI narrative.

There are lots of great things about Stross’ novel.

1.) Future tech allows the author to expose the inadequacy of revolutionary socialist ideology in a world of accelerating technological change. Burya Rubenstein, the exiled revolutionary character, is a delight to observe: at first, his dreams are about to be realized (an intergalactic intelligence is about to give him a cornucopia machine); then, he’s organizing a democratic soviet (complete with military trials and executions); and finally, he’s a hybrid cyborg oddity settling in to the realization that complete transcendence through ownership of the means of production is not so easy for the masses to activate.   

2.) Dramatic demonstrations of the unintended consequences of future technologies.

  • Weather modification as an artform and protest medium. The Fringe, as they are called in the novel, shoot electrical discharges across the sky, producing “auroral displays” and other phenomena that frequently kill bystanders. No mention of effects on earth systems is provided, but the notion itself is intriguing. Weather modification could be something like biotechnology, in the sense that PhD students could perform acts of civil disobedience (as happened in 1986 with biotech) if weather modification is strictly regulated in the future. Weather modification to spite civilization.
  • Self-modification to the hilt. In Stross’ world, some civilizations choose to restrict access to advanced technologies. When these restrictions are subverted, bringing forbidden tech to the masses, the ambition toward self-modification, implants, enhancements, and prostheses becomes more interesting than the opportunity to upload one’s consciousness to a digital intergalactic communications network. For me, this rings true. I would want to explore self-modification with fleshy and mechanical features before taking the plunge into complete digitization. In Stross’ world, a great mass of peasants and workers, faced with the disruptive implications of cornucopia tech, pine for the return of restricted technological access and brutal monarchy.

Et cetera.

I’ve also been reading John Fowles’ The Magus, a novel I should have read years ago when a chap I conversed with at university recommended it in 2004. Fowles started writing the book at age 25 and spent 15 years working at it, his first novel. The protagonist is 25 years old and travels to the Greek island of Phraxos, where he meets a remarkable gentleman. Luckily, I’ve been reading The Magus alongside a limited edition volume Fowles wrote about the novel, how it came to be, his opinion of how it turned out, etc. One observation Fowles makes has stuck with me. He says that the Greek islands give the impression of such abundance to the observer that, in this land, “one does not create; one enjoys.” I find that sentiment so lucid; as if the act of enjoying went beyond the urge to create art. Of course, the statement comes from a novelist, which should indicate that enjoying cannot last, and will not satisfy the restless envy of poets.

According to Fowles, The Magus never quite captures what the author wanted it to portray, despite 15 years of complete servitude to writing the novel. How horrible!

I’ve also been reading Emile Zola’s first novel Therese Raquin, written when he was 27. The beginning of the novel is tremendous, but the plot drags on like you wouldn’t believe. The author hovers over the emotions of his characters like a cumbersome ghost, unwittingly torturing his readers through endless repititions. Zola believed he was producing a scientific analysis of human emotional automata, as evidenced by the frequently explicit statement from the narrator that his descriptions are scientific descriptions of actual emotional phenomena. The limitation of Zola’s early work is precisely this: his science is ill-formed shit.

What is the nature of the shit science in Zola’s novel?

Take this example:  “Therese’s dry, nervous character had reacted in an odd way with the stolid, sanguine character of Laurent. Previously, in the days of their passion, this contrast in temperament had made this man and woman into a powerfully linked couple by establishing a sort of balance between them and, so to speak, complementing their organisms. The lover contributed his blood and the mistress her nerves, and so they lived in one another, each needing the other’s kisses to regulate the mechanism of their being. But the equilibrium had been disturbed and Therese’s over-excited nerves had taken control. Suddenly, Laurent himself plunged into a state of nervous erethism; under the influence of her fervent nature, his own temperament had gradually become that of a girl suffering from an acute neurosis. It would be interesting to study the changes that are sometimes produced in certain organisms as a result of particular circumstances. These changes, which derive from the flesh, are rapidly communicated to the brain and to the entire being.”

Now, this passage is remarkable from a literary history perspective, but not from a perspective of analyzing “the religion of the heart” with scientific rigor in our own day. From a literary history perspective, Zola’s novel should be considered an icon of 19th century portrayals of the nervous system. George S. Rousseau’s book Nervous Acts gets into the details of the literary diffusion of ideas about the nervous system, brain, imagination and memory, from ancient Greece through modern neuroscience. Zola seems to operate with a Galenic, Paracelsian view, where “dry nerves” and “sanguine characters” are technical descriptive terms. Laudably, Zola seems to know that his best descriptive terms are inadequate, which is why he adds the final line: “It would be nice to study this,” i.e. from a more Newtonian, scientific perspective, identifying physical pathways of communication between the nerves and blood of two distinct organisms.

Today, of course, authors have their own ideas about how to describe such emotional interactions in precise literary detail. My question becomes, “Who are today’s great Naturalist writers?”  I’m not sure about this, either because I don’t read very much, or because knowledge of nervous system function is so common that these things go without saying.

I’m reading Zola because I had a dream in which someone asked me to read him.