I am struggling to read John Fowles‘ “The Magus” – and I may not finish it. Despite its place in popular literature as a significant postmodern work, it may join a small set of its literary fellows: books I’ve only begun and dropped through lack of interest.
It’s not the writing; the writing, while fairly archaic for modern readers, is fine. On a technical level, even a literary level, it’s executed well. Plus, bad writing isn’t that much of a deterrent for me; as an editor, I’ve … seen a lot of it. And I respect content over form: I’ve read Puzo’s “The Godfather,” and enjoyed it, despite Puzo writing like Mario Puzo. Same for Ayn Rand: I appreciated what she was trying to say, even though I don’t agree with it the way I think she wanted me to, and even though it’s written childishly.
It’s not the impotence of its characters. After all, I’ve read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant – a story in which the author purposefully set out to create a protagonist as an impotent anti-hero. And that’s not the only such story I have read; there have been other post-war writings in which the protagonists are leaves upon a stream far beyond their reckoning. (“One Hundred Years of Solitude,” for example.)
It’s not the post-modernism; as mentioned, One Hundred Years of Solitude, as well as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas… I don’t think I fear postmodern literature, despite my personal distaste for postmodern philosophy.
It’s not the anti-war sentiment. I don’t think I’m as anti-war as they come, I guess, but I despise war and those who would choose it willingly. But this is where I break with the characters of The Magus.
Their attitude is that war is only relevant on a personal level. Death is pointless, they say, and there is no meaning to tribe that can justify it. While I respect the intellectual decision here – much war is incredibly stupid – I find it impossible to respect.
The Final Cut
It was dark all around There was frost in the ground When the tigers broke free And no one survived From the Royal Fusiliers Company C They were all left behind Most of them dead The rest of them dying And that's how the High Command Took my daddy from me
They’re stirring lyrics, no doubt. I appreciate the emotion and intent, and respect the artistry… but it ignored a core aspect of the action being documented:
High Command didn’t order the Tigers’ advance.
Yet they’re given agency here: High Command took Waters’ father. He was killed by their choice, not the enemy’s action. The enemy is irrelevant here; only High Command gets the blame.
What did Waters’ want? On a personal level, of course, it’s entirely understandable; he wanted his father! And if I had a way to grant that, myself, I would. War is stupid.
Yet the Nazis – the ones pushing the Tigers forward in the song – were and are evil. They’re our modern-day Babylonians, our Assyrians, our hobgoblins. In fact, when describing the Assyrians, one can easily imagine them being described in terms of the Nazis to modern audiences, rather than the other way around.
The Assyrians were bad. Like, really bad. So bad that after they were utterly destroyed, other civilizations – including our own – doubted their existence, assuming they were made up to frighten other cultures or their children – or provide points of reference. (“At least we’re not as bad as the Assyrians” or “We’ll treat you like the Assyrians would have!”) Modern historians who doubted the Bible’s records of Nineveh were surprised when it was actually found to have existed, and its destruction seems to match the Biblical record pretty well. It’s like they’re history’s version of the Nazis. Thus… my point.
So why is Waters railing at the High Command, those who have a responsibility not only to each man under their command, but to the larger strategic vision as well? I understand the bitterness, but at the same time, High Command probably had to make a choice, a choice with the best information at their disposal – and at some point, someone had to stand the ground to protect the larger interests.
I don’t know the specifics of Fusiliers Company C – maybe they were left in place through idiocy or incompetence or evil. I recognize that; I acknowledge it. I also recognize that the commanders are themselves flawed men. Mistakes are made, with the cost of such mistakes being beyond repair within our mortal ken.
But everyone dies. Just because this one died now, and that one will die in a decade… while every life is to be treasured, no life will be spared. Expecting otherwise is stupid and unkind.
The body count never changes. The number of people born will always equal the number of people who will die; nothing we do will ever add to or subtract from the body count, except within a specific timeframe, a mere blink in the life of the universe.
Again, this is not to diminish the value of every life… but then again, maybe I’m affected by my own Jewishness. Waters’ father died, yes. So did most of my family, in the Holocaust, and if not for the willingness of some to fight evil, more of them might have died.
And Waters’ unwillingness to accept his father’s death says that he’d rather countenance the loss of mine than the loss of his. Meanwhile, I’d rather sacrifice mine and myself for the sake of the higher concept of the defense and advance of Good. I will always try to defy evil, because to not defy it is to accept it. That defiance has a potential cost, and for me to count it is to make myself a mercenary.
Again, I fully understand – personal loss compared to the conceptual loss of others… but if mankind was unwilling to die for the concept of good, well, Waters’ would have been speaking German after a while, because there’s no reason America should have bothered helping England at great sacrifice to itself and its citizens. Americans died to preserve Europe from the Nazis… and Waters seems to spit on their deaths, all because he wanted his father back.
Back to The Magus
In The Magus, there are two characters who share that kind of personal nihilism: it’s all for one… and that’s it. They demand recognition and contribution, while granting nothing beyond manipulation. They negate themselves. They fear, certainly, and fear is normal… and they run from the fear, and defy it by not being willing to encounter that which inspires the fear.
That’s not actually defiance of fear. That’s avoidance of responsibility. That’s abandonment of the human tribe.
As a result, every time I read their thoughts and portrayals, I see pure venality. I see worthlessness, chosen. I see enlightenment rejected as being unworthy of respect, as one who values gold but rejects its power by declaring it has no value. Loving, the characters betray the love, not as an act of will or power, but through impotence they associate their impotence with love, negating it and avoiding it, even while suffering and benefiting from it.
I am not enjoying the book. I may not finish it.