The Magus | Critical Essay by Frank G. Novak, Jr.

This literature criticism consists of approximately 17 pages of analysis & critique of The Magus.
This section contains 5,085 words
(approx. 17 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Frank G. Novak, Jr.

SOURCE: "The Dialectics of Debasement in The Magus," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 31, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 71-82.

In the following essay, Novak analyzes the "disturbing" aspects of The Magus and the novel's cultural significance.

Commentators and readers alike have praised The Magus as a fascinating and powerful novel of great audacity, richness, and intellectual depth. I am sure that many, like myself, have also found it to be an eminently teachable work that rarely fails to intrigue and to challenge those who study it. Yet The Magus profoundly disturbs many college students; it often affects these young readers in unexpected and unsettling ways. Although praising the novel as a compelling and absorbing work, students frequently express an uneasy concern about various problems: the meaning of Nicholas Urfe's bizarre experience, the extent to which he learns and changes, the unresolved ending, the motives and morality of those who conduct the godgame. One detects a sense of desperate urgency as these readers struggle to address such problems and to solve the book's mysteries. At the same time, surprisingly, students resist Fowles's assertion that the individual reader has the right as well as the obligation to decipher the events narrated. They typically view his advice on interpreting The Magus as an evasion, a "cop-out": "Its meaning is whatever reaction it provokes in the reader, and so far as I am concerned there is no given 'right' reaction." Although readily accepting this sort of interpretative principle when studying other literary works, many students, perhaps unaccustomed to experiencing agitation and anxiety as a consequence of reading a literary work, insistently demand an explanation of the book's meaning, a denunciation of the ethics of the godgame, or a scenario of what will transpire after Nicholas and Alison are reunited at the end of the novel.

Rather than advancing what Fowles terms a "right" interpretation, the purpose of this essay is to account for the confusion, uneasiness, and—not infrequently—genuine terror The Magus is likely to evoke in the reader, especially the college student. Although the book is a complex, multilayered work possessing many themes and capable of sustaining numerous interpretations, the elements responsible for this troubling effect compose a particularly important dimension of the novel—an import perhaps not immediately apparent or specifically intended by Fowles. This dimension endows The Magus with relevance and significance as a work of cultural criticism, for the novel serves as a troubling and, I think, profound commentary on contemporary man and civilization.

Several aspects of the novel contribute to the work's unsettling effect; these include the episodes of perverse and wanton cruelty, the apparent amorality of those who conduct the godgame, the unresolved ambiguities and unexplained mysteries. Yet the distressing, haunting impact of The Magus resides in a pervasive logic more fundamental and insidious than these individual scenes and problematic elements: the novel develops a dialectic of debasement whose final synthesis asserts a view of life that is both empty and terrifying. The view the book propounds is a compound of nihilism and narcissism; it is the response of impotent, insignificant man attempting to cope with immense, threatening, and often mysterious forces he can neither understand nor control. As a microcosm of a world beset by these vast forces of negation, the godgame advances the nihilistic doctrine that there is no meaning. Conchis' premise that "an answer is always a form of death" and the assumption of Wimmel and his fellow Nazis that "nothing is true, everything is permitted" are versions of this "meaningless meaning" that resonates throughout the book. In an attempt to protect his ego against this dehumanizing and terrifying nihilism, Nicholas responds to the godgame in a defensive if not logical way: he adopts a self-absorbed and self-directed narcissism. These nihilistic and narcissistic themes are major elements of a pervasive logic of despair that is part of the work's general cultural significance.

This pervasive logic, the dimension of the novel responsible for its unsettling impact, is composed of three major elements. First of all, Conchis' protean guises, especially his function as a god figure, contribute to the confusion and perturbation both Nicholas and the reader experience. In whatever role Conchis assumes—physician, teacher, or divinity—his manipulative, deceptive actions travesty the usual function, for he confuses and demeans Nicholas rather than helping or educating him. A second component of the novel's pervasive logic consists of the selfish, even malign motives of Conchis and the others who stage the godgame. Their willful disregard for traditional moral standards or conventional notions of propriety contributes significantly to the book's disquieting character. Lacking constructive educational value or moral purpose, the godgame promotes a nihilistic "antitheology" of degradation, terror, and chaos. Finally, Nicholas Urfe's personality and his response to the godgame comprise the most significant component of the book's general dialectical pattern. As described in the devastating psychological analysis presented at the trial, Nicholas is selfish, alienated, socially and spiritually "sterile." His failure to respond creatively to the godgame—his inability to learn, to change, to wrest any meaning from the experience—is a fundamental aspect of the novel's overall logic of despair. He becomes the prototypical "antihero" who experiences a desperate masochistic pleasure in his role as "victim." Much of the work's power and relevance lies in the extent to which Nicholas embodies a cultural type, a personality representative of contemporary man. These three aspects combine to produce a dialectic of debasement that accounts for both the novel's disturbing, haunting impact on many readers and its general cultural significance.

Assuming a variety of roles and personae throughout the novel, Conchis never discloses his true identity. Nor does he reveal the intent of the godgame. In fact, one of the best clues to the purpose of the godgame appears not in the novel itself but in Fowles's Foreword to the revised version of the text. Here Fowles states that he occasionally regrets rejecting The Godgame as the book's title because he intends Conchis "to exhibit a series of masks representing human notions of God … that is, a series of human illusions." There is a sense in which each of the various roles Conchis plays, each of the several guises he assumes, embodies a different conception or facet of God—or, at least, a general notion of divine power and purpose. He often functions as the omnipotent divinity whose mysterious ways and supernatural powers control and enthrall Nicholas. Like Prospero in The Tempest, to which the novel several times alludes, Conchis seems to control the spirits of the air as well as the demons of the underworld on his enchanted island. He also plays the artist-producer who employs and directs the strange masque enacted on Phraxos. Other times, he assumes the role of a psychiatrist-god who patronizingly endures the whims of the "deranged" Julie and encourages Nicholas to confess his own neuroses. Although Nicholas soon discounts his initial impression that Conchis is merely a voyeur seeking gratification by clandestinely observing him and Julie (and sometimes June) together, he is never free of the suspicion that Conchis is always near, constantly observing. Although he never discloses his identity or purpose, Conchis most consistently functions as a sadistic god who enjoys watching his victim struggle in the bizarre, often degrading situations he creates for him. Baffled by Conchis' protean and often capricious roles, Nicholas speculates that "perhaps he saw himself as a professor in an impossible faculty of ambiguity, a sort of Empson of the event." In spite of his confusion, Nicholas finds himself enchanted by Conchis and the godgame, but neither Nicholas nor the reader ever discovers Conchis' identity or purpose.

Compounding the confusion created by Conchis' various guises and his refusal to explain his purposes are the arrogance and willfulness with which he and the others conduct the game. There is little evidence that their motives and values are higher than those of unprincipled sadists who wantonly torture and humiliate Nicholas. Although the novel may imply from time to time that Conchis' motive consists of a disinterested concern for Nicholas' therapeutic reeducation, an irresponsible compulsion to debase and to destroy appears to be the dominant impulse shaping the events of the godgame. Attempting to place Nicholas in the same sort of dilemma he faced during the German occupation of Phraxos, Conchis assumes the role and character of Wimmel so completely that he undermines whatever beneficial purposes the godgame might otherwise possess. Although the stakes of the godgame are obviously not so high as those in occupied Phraxos, the experience of deception and torment that Nicholas endures at Conchis' hands exceeds the limits of basic decency; it becomes disturbingly similar to the excruciating ordeal of psychological terror to which Wimmel had subjected Conchis ten years earlier. Moreover, Wimmel and Conchis use essentially the same rationale to justify the methods of both situations. Wimmel had excused the hideous torture and wanton murder perpetrated during his reign of terror on the basis of "one supreme purpose … the German historical purpose." Madame de Seitas uses an identical self-exonerating logic of inevitability to justify the extremes of the godgame: "All that we did was to us a necessity." Conchis argues that the Nazis were successful because "they imposed chaos on order"; the effect of the godgame is similar in that it obliterates what little order had existed in Nicholas' life and substitutes chaos—the confusion of unanswered questions and ambiguous purposes. As he is forced to watch Lily and Joe make love during the final phase of his "disintoxication," Nicholas realizes that the axiom underlying the actions of Wimmel and his fellow Nazis also serves as the only "principle" behind the godgame: "Nothing is true, everything is permitted." The references to de Sade and Nazism throughout the novel echo and reinforce the motiveless malignity of the "meta-theatre."

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of their motives and rationale is the fact that Conchis and the others do not consider themselves obligated to justify or to explain the meaning of what they do to Nicholas. The only justification they offer is that they act according to a different and higher moral standard than that assumed by "ordinary" humans. Madame de Seitas tells Nicholas that "we" are "more moral" and excuses their actions by saying "we are rich and we are intelligent and we mean to live rich, intelligent lives." When Nicholas asks her to explain what they have been attempting to accomplish in the godgame, he receives the same sort of evasive response Conchis had given him some time earlier: "An answer is always a form of death." This reply not only absolves Conchis of any moral responsibility but also compounds the confusion in Nicholas' life. The cruelties of the godgame make one skeptical of Conchis' "higher" moral standards, which, apparently, can be twisted to permit almost any extreme providing selfish or sadistic amusement. Whatever benefits and meaning Nicholas may derive from the godgame, therefore, the motives of Conchis and the others are fundamentally selfish; and they acknowledge few if any strictures on the extent of deception or the type of abuse to which they subject him. This philosophy of negation coupled with a totally egocentric view can vindicate any number of aberrant responses to life: from the "historically mandated" promulgation of terror, sadism, and murder endorsed by Wimmel and his fellow Nazis, on the one hand, to the impotent though no less nihilistic alienation and narcissism of Nicholas, on the other.

Therefore, although in various roles and guises Conchis may embody different versions of divine power and purpose, he is ultimately a figure who represents the opposite, even the absence of God. He does not advance any meaningful, transcendent truths or values; rather, "hazard" (chance) and chaos lie at the heart of his "theology." During the early stages of the godgame, Conchis states a principle that quite accurately describes all that he does to Nicholas: "There is no plan. All is hazard. And the only thing that will preserve us is ourselves." And he later tells Nicholas that man "needs the existence of mysteries. Not their solution." Assuming that religion exists to give life purpose, meaning, and value—to provide what Paul Tillich calls the "dimension of depth"—Conchis' function as a god-figure is a curious one indeed. Conchis' notion of what it means to become "elect" is also unconventional; his definition seems identical to that of Henrik Nygaard for whom "elect" means "especially chosen to be punished and tormented." Upon being informed at the end of the "disintoxication" that he is "now elect," Nicholas is baffled; he is "elect" only insofar as he recognizes Conchis' irony and ruthlessness. In the Christian scheme, the mysterious ways of God, even though they may require the individual to suffer, eventually result in understanding, faith, and ultimately salvation. Yet the godgame fulfills no discernible purpose beyond debasing and confusing Nicholas and providing a perverse sort of gratification for Conchis and his associates. Conchis' role and motives, therefore, advance an "antitheology" consisting of humiliation, ambivalence, and chaos. As the only "god" Nicholas ever knows, Conchis assumes many guises but provides no answers; he is a god as "magus" who creates an illusory world but who deceives and ultimately absconds, leaving his victims in the abyss of chaos.

Whatever misshapen purposes and twisted values motivate Conchis, Nicholas clearly has the opportunity to forge some meaning from his baffling and often degrading experience—just as the previous English master of the Lord Byron School, John Leverrier, apparently acquired something of value as a result of his involvement in an earlier godgame. Unlike Leverrier, however, Nicholas does not possess the intelligence, creativity, or character to derive any enduring lessons from the experience. He never recognizes that life can be more than a mysterious and ambiguous theatrical game. The godgame itself is a patently staged illusion; after perceiving the emptiness of this illusion, the "victims" must create for themselves whatever meaning the strange masque may possess without "divine" assistance. But for Nicholas, order, purpose, and meaning are illusions; selfhood and freedom are mere dreams. Beyond his own dark purposes, Conchis may have been attempting to teach him a lesson in self-awareness, the importance of maintaining larger perspectives beyond the self, or the difference between reality and illusion. Yet Nicholas learns none of this; he is fundamentally the same person at the end of the experience that he was at the beginning: isolated, selfish, indecisive, lacking moral or spiritual commitment. Unlike Charles Smithson, the protagonist of The French Lieutenant's Woman, who acquires something of meaning and value from a similar ordeal of fabulation and mystery, Nicholas' essential nature remains unchanged during the course of the novel. Whereas Fowles may assert that the destruction of such illusions as those contained in the godgame is "an eminently humanist aim," Nicholas clearly fails to perceive, much less to accept, such a challenge. He maintains and even extends his illusions about himself, and Conchis' antitheology becomes his as well.

This response and, more significantly, the personality lying behind it comprise an aspect of the novel even more disturbing than the irresponsibility and cruelty of those who stage the godgame. Not only is Nicholas incapable of forming any enduring values, but he is also superficial, aimless, and thoroughly narcissistic. Although these personal inadequacies are apparent throughout the novel, the devastating psychoanalytic portrait presented during the trial depicts his essential self more vividly and acutely than any other scene. In spite of the contrived situation and the Freudian jargon, this analysis provides the key to understanding Nicholas' personality as well as the novel's unsettling effect on many readers. The analysis describes Nicholas' life as one lacking "social content"; he allegedly exhibits "fear and resentment … revenge and counterbetrayal" in his relationships with others; he is said to exploit women with a "semi-incestuous ruthlessness." He is the failed artist who assumes an alienated and cynical demeanor in order to arouse the interest and sympathy of women; he is the existential poseur who fabricates a mask of ennui and isolation to conceal his personal inadequacies and failure to establish meaningful human relationships. Nicholas is described as being sterile and impotent insofar as his life lacks purpose and commitment. Particularly devastating is "Doctor Maxwell's" deterministic analysis of Nicholas' personality deficiencies, which, she says, deserve pity rather than condemnation; as a person who lacks purpose and vision, his "self-pity is projected so strongly on his environment that one becomes contaminated by it."

Given Nicholas' responses throughout the novel, one can only conclude that this analysis is an accurate one. [In a footnote, Novak adds: "Nicholas' personality is, of course, indicated in many other ways and places beyond the trial analysis. The images of imprisonment, entombment, and estrangement, for example, emphasize his alienation, helplessness, and paranoia. His 'favourite metaphor' for his life is 'the cage of glass' he imagines as existing between him and the rest of the world—yet Alison, with her instinctive perspicuity, observes that he likes such isolation because it gives him the illusion that he is different. Nicholas similarly describes the symbolic 'gabbia' he had constructed 'out of light, solitude, and self-delusions' during his first months on Phraxos. There are also several individual scenes that convey the image and idea of isolation and helpless entrapment; these include the scene in which he regains consciousness immediately before the trial."] Nicholas is an apt "victim," indeed almost a clone specifically engineered to be the subject of Conchis' machinations. He is easily deceived, manipulated, and tyrannized; thoroughly egocentric, he lacks the moral standards and meaningful commitments that would give his life strength and purpose. He is the pseudo-intellectual, the failed poet whose studied pose of alienation and cynicism can neither hide nor mitigate the emptiness, purposelessness, and spiritual sterility that compose his true self. Nicholas fails to respond constructively to the godgame: he does not change significantly, nor does he acquire any enduring values. He can neither understand nor extricate himself from the complex predicament that threatens him. The godgame is meaningful to Nicholas only because he becomes the center of the artificial world it creates. He participates in it and becomes obsessed by it because the experience promotes the illusion that he is significant, that events occur and other people exist merely for his amusement and benefit. Nicholas, in short, not only assumes but also embodies Conchis' nihilistic antitheology.

Much of the novel's relevance and power lies in the extent to which this psychlogical portrait of Nicholas is also an accurate description of contemporary man; moreover, the symbolic relevance of Nicholas Urfe as cultural type, as a representative character, accounts for the disquieting impact of The Magus on many readers. According to the analysis presented at the trial, Nicholas is not a unique personality; his is "the characteristic personality type" of modern man. The analysts compare Nicholas with the representative personality described in Conchis' purported work The Mid-century Predicament: "the rebel with no specific gift for rebellion" who in society becomes a "sterile drone." Alienated and ineffectual in a world whose complexities and dangers are beyond his understanding or control, he is typical of the many who "adopt a mask of cynicism that cannot hide their more or less paranoic sense of having been betrayed by life." Thus the novel presents Nicholas as a representative modern man who fails to respond meaningfully to the challenges, the complexities, and the opportunities life holds.

During the trial, a "Professor Ciardi" argues that Nicholas represents the sort of personality that will become the norm in a world in which men must live under the constant "threat of a nuclear catastrophe." This is, I think, an important and suggestive identification. Like modern man grappling with the menace of nuclear extermination, Nicholas is confused and impotent. His response consists of a self-consuming narcissism and a morbid nihilism. The godgame projects, in miniature, the same sort of predicament that, on a much larger scale, confronts contemporary man; it reflects the ambiguity, chaos, and insensate violence pervading modern life. Nicholas is, in this regard, the "modern Everyman," the impotent clone, the "antihero" of the age. As the Everyman of the nuclear era, Nicholas evinces the pathological symptoms of the psychological and spiritual malaise that infects mankind. His solipsistic nihilism, the analysts argue, is the typical response of the middle-class person possessing an average intellect and living under the constant threat of nuclear obliteration. The anxiety that the book produces in so many readers, particularly college students, attests to the devastating accuracy of the description of Nicholas Urfe as the prototypical nuclear age personality.

The nihilistic and sadistic themes of the novel and the depiction of Nicholas as a nuclear age Everyman concur with the analysis developed by various eminent critics of contemporary culture. Erich Fromm's description [in his The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil, 1971] of the narcissism that infects contemporary man, for example, closely parallels the character of Nicholas Urfe—particularly as he exploits others while assuming a self-protective mask of existential alienation. Fromm describes the fundamental narcissism of modern man as an "incestuous … craving to be freed from the risks of responsibility, of freedom, of awareness" and a "longing for unconditional love, which is offered without any expectation of loving response." Nicholas possesses a personality like that of those, as described by Fromm, "whose whole sense of self-worth is bound up with the relationship to the women who admire them unconditionally and without limits" and who become the type of "'traitor' who cannot be loyal to anybody." Throughout the novel, Nicholas exhibits both the "malignant narcissism" and the "symbiotic-incestuous fixation" Fromm sees as two basic components of the "syndrome of decay" pervading modern life. Nicholas describes how he uses his alienation as a "deadly weapon," making a show of unpredictability, cynicism, and indifference in order to seduce women; he even admits a "narcissistic belief in the importance of the life-style." The novel reveals the pathetic dimensions of such narcissism, as when Nicholas masturbates while lying on the beach, and also indicates its insidious elements, as embodied in the figure of de Deukans, who symbolizes the evil of solitary pleasure. In one of the novel's most intense scenes, Alison accurately identifies Nicholas' empty narcissism: "you're a filthy selfish bastard who can't, can't like being impotent, can't ever think of anything except number one…. You've built your life so nothing can ever reach you." This indictment, of course, adumbrates the later analysis that describes him as the sterile "drone" who assumes a mask of cynicism to conceal and to protect his self-obsessed ego.

Lewis Mumford is another cultural critic whose concerns and warnings are echoed in The Magus. Mumford has written extensively about the fate of man and the deterioration of culture in a world of complex, autonomous forces that dehumanize and threaten to annihilate the individual. The godgame and Nicholas' response to it are generally similar to what Mumford has described [in his The Pentagon of Power, 1970] as "the cult of anti-life." Mumford argues that "disillusion, cynicism, and existential nihilism" comprise the prevailing philosophy of contemporary life and art. Finding himself "at the mercy of forces over which he exercises no effective control, moving to a destination he has not chosen," modern man has adopted a negative philosophy of despair in response to the dangers posed by "his favored technological and institutional automatisms." Beginning as a reaction against the insidious and vastly powerful "pentagons of power" that threaten to destroy humanity, the cult of antilife has evolved into "an attack against civilization itself," against "all organized structures, all objective criteria, all rational direction." Beyond these general parallels, Mumford's description of the "symptoms of regression" bear an uncanny similarity to certain aspects of The Magus. Compare Conchis' antitheology with Mumford's evaluation of contemporary (lack of) faith: "Chance has become the ruling deity and chaos the new Heaven." As indicated earlier, Conchis and the others recognize no humane or moral constraint as they prosecute the godgame; similarly, citing the heroes of this cult of human degradation whose number includes the Marquis de Sade, Mumford says that "there is no limit to the forces of anti-life."

Throughout the novel Nicholas remains what his analysts term "homo solitarius"; he leads a lonely existence suffused with ennui and impotent aimlessness. As the personality "norm" of the nuclear age, he finds identity and purpose only in narcissistic self-indulgence and self-delusion. Although he is tortured and confused by the machinations of the godgame, the experience does provide the opportunity for Nicholas to extend the fundamental fantasy that sustains him: he plays the leading role in a drama staged for his personal benefit, and he perversely enjoys the sadistic torment to which he is subjected. The ordeal verifies his identity and significance; it also confirms his egocentric, thoroughly selfish way of life. Even after the godgame has officially ended, Nicholas refuses to relinquish the patently contrived illusion. When given the opportunity to make a meaningful human commitment—to love Alison unconditionally and, thereby, to transcend himself—he is more concerned to know whether or not he is still the "victim." He remains enmeshed in his narcissistic solipsism. Is Conchis watching when Nicholas is reunited with Alison? Nicholas wants to believe he is; he wants to maintain the illusion that his selfish, purposeless life possesses the aura of mystery.

Herein lie the sources of the novel's troubling significance and haunting effect. The anxiety and terror The Magus may provoke reside in this subtle yet powerful thematic dialectic involving the role of Conchis, the way in which the godgame is conducted, and the personality and response of Nicholas. The godgame represents in microcosm a terrifying world man can neither control nor understand; the amoral, nihilistic qualities of the godgame are an expression of what Mumford has called the cult of antilife so pervasive in contemporary thought and art. The novel's unsettling effect also resides in the extent to which one recognizes, perhaps unconsciously, Nicholas Urfe as a contemporary Everyman. These aspects of the book strike a nerve of reality: the godgame symbolizes the contemporary predicament, and Nicholas Urfe typifies the personality of nuclear age man. Not incidentally do some of the novel's most vivid and memorable scenes contain graphic depictions of the worst sort of horrors the twentieth century has witnessed: the nightmare madness and bestiality of World War One trench warfare; the sadistic torture, barbaric mutilation, and wholesale human extermination perpetrated by the Nazis. Although the book does not describe the ultimate horror of nuclear holocaust, that lurking threat is indicated by the screaming jet fighter that shatters the idyllic placidity of Phraxos and the ominous fleet of warships that pass nearby—"cloud-grey shapes on the world's blue rim. Death machines holding thousands of gum-chewing, contraceptive-carrying men." The sight causes Nicholas to recognize "the fragility … of time itself."

The godgame and Nicholas' reaction to it, therefore, mirror contemporary man's response to the immense and inimical forces that threaten to obliterate him. The novel presents several options by means of which one may desperately attempt to assert the self in the face of such terrors: to assume a mask of alienation and cynicism that both conceals and protects the ego; to participate in insensate rituals of sexual gratification or sadistic amusement; to withdraw into narcissistic fantasies of self-importance and self-indulgence. Living in a world haunted by the specter of nuclear annihilation, contemporary man may feel as if he is caught in a complex web of forces he can neither control nor comprehend; he may find himself attempting to cope with what seems an inexorable dialectic of debasement, a sort of cosmic "godgame"—with, perhaps, a vicious Conchis "at web-center." Consequently, he may seek identity through a self-indulgent narcissism, and he may choose nihilism as the only "logical" doctrine of last resort. Incapable of taking action against the vast forces that threaten him and finding his life empty and impotent, modern man may in desperation accept the axiom of Wimmel that underlies the godgame: "nothing is true, everything is permitted." Like Nicholas and Alison at the end of the novel, mankind precariously stands "trembling, searching, between all our past and all our future." Today's college students must feel intimidated and thwarted by the terrifying question, as posed by William Faulkner [in Essays, Speeches, and Public Letters by William Faulkner, 1965], "When will I be blown up?" Consequently, they may have lost or ignored something of their essential humanity—"the old verities and truths of the heart." Nicholas, of course, lacks and fails to discover such truths and values; and reading The Magus, I believe, makes students acutely and often painfully aware of this loss. For the novel is, to cite Faulkner again, "not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion."

Anthony Burgess on Fowles's View of History:

Fowles's view of our view of the past—and he states it unequivocally [in A Maggot]—is that we get things wrong because we get them from literary geniuses, who are untypical of their age. If we want the eighteenth century, we'd better not go to Pope, Addison and Johnson, who transcend the period that produced them. We'll taste its bitter otherness best by entering the narrow legal mind of Henry Ayscough, whose enquiry into certain strange events of the year 1736 makes up the bulk of the book.

Anthony Burgess, in his "Re-opening a Can of Worms," in The Observer, 22 September 1985.

However, as indicated above, Nicholas does have the opportunity to change for the better, to derive something meaningful and beneficial from the godgame. The novel suggests another option by means of which one may assert the self and conduct one's life. Aside from the objectivity with which Nicholas retrospectively describes himself and his experience, the reader has no evidence that Nicholas ever discovers this option; the novel presents it by implication rather than description. This option involves a self-transcendence and the establishment of a meaningful social identity—both of which Nicholas lacks. It also involves discovering effective means of combating the vast forces of antilife that threaten to destroy the individual, culture, civilization itself. Recognizing something of the challenge and urgency of the problem, one approaches it with courage and resourcefulness rather than with terror, dread, or cynical despair; one seeks enduring values and creative activity rather than retreating into nihilism and narcissism. In this spirit, the reader may choose to view the godgame as the commencement of an "emancipation": "a restoration of the human world and of human relationships to man himself." Only through such an emancipation and restoration can man vanquish those terrors that the contemporary world poses and the novel reflects.

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