Before the stroll of my reasoning began to wander the maze of this strange, dreamlike tale, I conducted some cursory research since I had little acquaintance of John Fowles and was curious as to what literary surprise the pages had in store for me. The Internet, marvelous resource that it is, provided some biographical information on him and a brief synopsis of the novel; however, nothing could have prepared me for the roller coaster ride I was about to strap myself into and embark upon. What I discovered was a fantastic, singularly exotic world created by a ingenious, visionary mind, a mind I only wish I had been gifted.
The magical realm Fowles created within this masterpiece was beyond incredible for me, mere words will never do it justice. Teeming through every page, the currents of esoteric mysticism and orphic mythological conceptualizations collided as one river swirling around an eddy of what I would ultimately come to believe was both a love story and a coming of age story, an evolutionary tale centered around the main character, Nicholas Urfe. And as Nicholas traveled from place to place throughout his odyssey, the imagery of London, Greece, Phraxos, even the school where he taught, was so vivid, so enticing both with its danger and enchanted, yet vaguely diabolical, tranquility that quite literally I have taken it upon myself to envision it as I close my eyes at night and slide down through the dream land of my mind. Seriously. I wish I could be a resident of Bourani.
I quickly discovered that Nicholas was a lost soul, a man without the slightest direction not only in life, but also within himself. I found him, within my heart, to be a selfish man and truthfully, I grimaced at his treatment of Alison (an ever fascinating and ravishing imp) throughout the story. As I became more and more acquainted with Nicholas, I began to feel that, in many ways, he felt the world owed him something and that this consuming self-righteousness undoubtedly stemmed from anger about his upbringing and an intense frustration at failing to find something to professionally distinguish himself. Consequently, he seemed to feel that life was a long, never ending web of lie upon lie, scheme upon scheme with the ultimate goal of nothing else than to satiate and gratify his ego… and his loins.
Candidly, he repulsed me with the way he conducted his life, but as I traveled further into my reading, I was forced to acknowledge and admit within myself why I felt such disdain. Slowly but surely I became cognizant that it was because he exemplified an earlier, younger version of myself; a self I have often been reluctant to speak of. It is only now that I begin to realize that I must (if only in the form of Shadow Self, that ugly, honest treatise concerning my homecoming from Iraq) in order to fully come to terms with that part, that past, of which I so regret.
Alison, on the other hand, I was immediately taken with. She was an enchantress, an authentic, yet Delphic woman. She reminded me of women who flutter within my own past, women I might have had celebrated and remarkable relationships with, if only my sight had not been brutishly obscured by my selfish, superficial motivations. I wonder, if I am lucky, consumed now by middle age, if I will yet again stumble across such a woman… and should I do, this time I have made up my mind not to succumb to the same mistakes. Strange, that almost sounds like Nicholas in the end. Be that as it may, I am not at all convinced, given his conduct in the final meeting between them, within the final pages of the story, that he fully learned what was supposed to be an ultimate lesson in his life and I teeter within the cringe worthy notion that he was still woefully unprepared for what a woman like Alison would have to offer.
Anyway, let’s talk about some reality and what that might mean in our lives.
Shortly after his arrival upon the curious, secretive earth of Bourani and meeting its inhabitant, Nicholas’ reality is shaken by the stories, lies, and tricks that Maurice Conchis imposes on each visit. After a time, he doesn’t know what to believe, not only visually (arcane and allegorical gestures on Conchis’ game playing part), but from what is being told to him by all the players in the game that has now fully commenced with Conchis at the helm. Confusing at first as to its purpose and intention, I began to feel that it was designed with the ultimate aim of guiding Nicholas through a lesson, an evolution, a personal growth with which he was to become a better human being, a human being who delves beyond the superficial, of perceiving women merely as objects of conquest, and to understand and embrace the vast depths of love.
It is my personal opinion that Alison was in on this “lesson” since the beginning. From the opening chapters of the story, I came to believe she loved him so much, so very deeply, that the entire charade was arranged to eventually propel Nicholas into her arms. And I wasn’t sure at first, but I instinctively guessed correctly that her suicide was a falsity, the supporting evidence being an obscure note and a handful of vague phone calls from a friend. My speculation that she was involved from the very outset was confirmed (at least in my mind) when I read the following passage near the end: Mrs. de Seitas (a long time friend of Conchis’) says during a conversation she had with Nicholas, “Alison and I are good friends.”
But I digress.
As human beings, we form our reality based on the information we receive from our senses in a variety of ways–our physical surroundings or input from others verbally or otherwise, just to name a couple–and we base our daily decisions upon that often frail, faulty data that is colored with our often tainted perception. But that can be a tricky, slippery slope. It is slippery because it is difficult to ascertain what exactly is truth, or what is reality, at any given time and truth cannot help but be sifted through the filters of our minds, filters that have been deeply ingrained within us, generated through life and experience. Often, our reality is formed from perspective, which in turn has been derived from perception, both of which are colored by our experience in life as an overall, and finally blended with our surface feelings at the time of any particular event.
Because of this, nothing may constitute absolute, real truth. Instead, if there is truth to be had, the only truth that authentically exists, lays within our own psyche. In other words, truth and reality are subjective. This concept, of which I have often puzzled over, has allowed me to finally conclude in my later years, that I’ve never believed in objectivity because I don’t believe true objectivity exists. It seems to me that no matter what we do, it is inevitable, whether we are making a life endangering military decision, or we are writing a novel, or ordering a sandwich, or deciding to ask a person out on a date, or whether to engage in an argument or fight, or even reporting the news, that our own subjectivity will always be injected into the situation. We can’t help it, it has to happen. It happens because we invent our own reality on a daily basis, on an hourly basis, even on the basis of a minute or a moment. Every single day, we have choices from moment to moment as to how we perceive the world around us, how we interact with our surroundings, with the people we encounter, the people in our lives. And those choices are never made with objectivity, they are made based on how we feel in that moment and are always colored by the impression our experiences have engraved upon us.
The most prominent example of this in Fowles’ novel is that Nicholas always had a choice with how he conducted his life and how he chose to treat the people in it. It was choice, propelled by the filters of his life, by the influence of his father and mother, by his upbringing, his perception of his social class, his self-created reality, that propelled him to shove Alison from his life. It was choice that propelled him to pursue Julie/Lily. It was a willing choice that seduced him into playing the games Conchis had set up for him. And it’s interesting to note that Nicholas was frequently angry, frustrated with the game playing, the chess match between them, often feeling it was unfair and stacked against him but, he was every bit the schemer that Conchis was.
He was a game player, perhaps not in Conchis’ world, but certainly in the world he had with Alison, his previous relationships with women, and any other person he encountered. I often felt obliged to wonder as I was reading: who was he really angry with, Conchis or himself? And if one concludes that he was angry with himself, one has to question whether it was merely because he couldn’t outwit or slither his way through Conchis’ will, as he had with so many others in his life, or whether, on an unconscious level, he knew he was only looking at another schemer, a mirror of himself.
So much of life is based on hazard, or chance, a word littered throughout Fowles’ novel. But is it? Is there really chance in life? Do random events appear out of the ether and we are mere victims of them, innocent beings in the face of a random, chaotic world? Or could it be that because of the filters of our minds (the ways in which we approach the world and our surroundings) that what we perceive as hazards are not really chance meetings or events after all? Could it be that, on a subconscious level, we actually invent what we call chance? Would many people liken that to divine intervention, providence, destiny, or fate? Perhaps. Or could it be that we create our reality as we move through the liquid of time and because of this we generate, then actualize what we call chance events? Why would we do that? I don’t think anyone really knows and it leads one down the path to perhaps one of the greatest questions humans have been asking since we could form the first conscious thought: is this life fate… or is it hazard?
There is no way of knowing and I’m not sure I would want to answer simply because I’m aware that my answer would never be objective and therefore would likely not be truth. There is no way of knowing that the reality of what I have created in my own life, the reality that Nicholas created, was fate or a roll of the dice. Reality and truth are as abstract and difficult to fathom as oceans are wide and deep. But I do know that we have a choice. We have a choice to create a new reality every day for ourselves. We have a choice to change the filters of our mind’s eye and reconstruct how we want to approach the world and those we love. And I think that is why Fowles left the ending as it was:
Cras amet qui nunquam amavit; quique amavit cras amet.
“Let him love tomorrow who has never loved, and let him who has loved love tomorrow.”
The novel had a profound impact on me as I was forced to view a reflection of my former self, the self I embodied before I went to war, before my eyes were opened to the folly of my vanities, the song and dance I had conducted throughout the younger years of my life, the pain I caused, the hurt I infliced on innocent, well-meaning people in my life. It forced me to see the reality I had constructed and the reality I am constructing now, hopefully anyway, with better eyes. It reinforced the notion that I have only one choice in this matter: to write Shadow Self gratefully tucked within that knowledge.
Among many other things, tarot suggests this as a meaning for the Magus card: “The Magician card typically appears at a time in your life when you have the power and energy to create a new life cycle for yourself.”
We are all, The Magus.