Tuesday, 12 July 2011

John Fowles, The Magus

This is an easy book to bounce off: the first-person main character, Nicholas Urfe, is intensely dislikable, and there's a lot of portentous speechifying about freedom, love, and truth. But it's compellingly written, I kept coming back to it, and I'm glad I stuck it out. In defence: first, Fowles makes Urfe a self-absorbed little shit on purpose; the point is that he is a self-absorbed little shit, and that we need to understand how and why, and to recognise a bit of ourselves in him. Second, The Magus is an attempt at an ethics of self-development, and that needs an ethically-backward character to start with. The game played on Urfe, as I read it, is an attempt to make him better: both to heal what's wrong with him, and to remake him as less selfish, cowardly, and ignorant about people, especially himself. The means used in that remaking bring up a problem I've also written about*: what if the best way to cultivate free people is violation of their freedom? What if the childhood which reliably makes self-motivated and self-commanding adults is one of parental tyranny, as for John Stuart Mill or Edmund Gosse?

Shorter me: I can see why lots of people find this and other Fowles novels annoying, but it might have been written specially for me.

* Samuel Clark, 'Kicking Against the Pricks: Anarchist Perfectionism & the Conditions of Independence' in Benjamin Franks & Matthew Wilson eds, Anarchism & Moral Philosophy (Palgrave 2010).


  1. No on ecan impose a "better" moral on anyone, but i will check out J.S. Mill

  2. Hi - thanks for the comment, and I hope you will read some Mill. But to be honest I'm not quite sure what you mean. Some possibilities, with quick responses:

    1) You think no one ought to impose a way of life on anyone else. That sounds appealingly tolerant, but I don't think you could really mean it. Is there anything wrong with imposing a different way of life on serial murderers, for example? Or on people who habitually drive drunk? Or more generally: you apparently want to impose your own, tolerant way of life on intolerant people.

    2) You think that no one way of life is better than any other. But that's just as implausible as (1): not being a Nazi is obviously a morally, psychologically, and practically better way of life than being one, and I don't believe that you really believe otherwise.

    3) You meant 'can' literally, not as a claim about what people ought to do. That is, you think that change can only come from within, that it's not possible to impose a way of life on someone. That's what my paper 'Kicking Against the Pricks' argues against: actually, it is possible to do that, and it might even be to the benefit of the person imposed on. I'm not suggesting that we make a habit of it, though!

    Thanks again for commenting... further replies welcome.