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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