To Scorn the Stars
Tree of Life or Blazing Tree, Hannah Cohoon, 1845
by Eric D. Lehman
by John Fowles,
Vintage Classics, 484 pp.
It’s not an easy thing to watch one of your favorite authors slide out of favor and into obscurity. But just this has been quickly happening with John Fowles, once hailed as the greatest living English novelist, now slipping off syllabi and into scholarly records. Though his novels remain in print, and critics still occasionally delve into his work, only a little more than a decade after his death, his accomplishments as a novelist sadly seem to dim and fade. Why? Well, one reason may be that Fowles disdained the literary life, particularly in his last years. An unhappy marriage in the 1980s, followed by a mild stroke and his first wife’s death a few years later had much to do with that. A writer is mostly remembered by other writers, unfortunately. And because his novels during the 1960s and 1970s were “popular,” he never quite won the literary critic set over in the first place.
Another reason for his fall from renown may have had something to do with his last novel, A Maggot, a confusing and troubling work of “postmodern fiction,” difficult to read and seemingly treading over the same ground as previous novels like The Magus, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and Daniel Martin. Fowles lived another twenty years, but even before A Maggot hit the shelves he had already started to shed most of his considerable readership. Because he never published another novel, many fans did not come back. In the literary world, you are often damned by readers if you don’t sell books, and damned by critics if you do.
It is not an exaggeration to say that all John Fowles’s stories deal with the problems of art and reality and their relation to freedom and responsibility. A Maggot is no different, but the conclusion it comes to is fundamentally altered from earlier work. Instead of his characters using their existential freedom responsibly, to walk the fine line between the two and thus giving up the metaphor, the unreal, for reality, the protagonist of A Maggot creates an artifice in response to a lie, and is validated in this endeavor.
In one of the first essays on A Maggot, “History, Fiction, and the Dialogic Imagination,” Frederick Holmes tells us that, “Although all of John Fowles’s works of fiction grapple with common themes, each new volume has seemed to be the fresh creation of an experimental writer determined not to repeat himself. To a degree, however, his latest novel, A Maggot (1985), seems to revert to the narrative method of what is widely regarded as his finest work, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969).” When a reader cracks open A Maggot, he might be forgiven for being a little confused. The “narrative method” looks nothing like any of Fowles’s other books, but instead resembles a collection of 18th century documents revolving around the disappearance of a duke’s son. Indeed, this strange method is one reason A Maggot is the least popular and least read of his novels.
However, Holmes is at least correct in his assertion that Fowles is working with similar themes – enigmas, history, fiction, art, reality. And practically all the succeeding scholarship on A Maggot has compared it to Fowles’s earlier work, The Magus. The reason for this is obvious: the character of Bartholomew acts as master of a “godgame” for the protagonist Rebecca just as the “magus,” Conchis, does for Nicholas Urfe.
The godgame in The Magus consists of a long series of masques, or lies, in which a final truth slowly becomes revealed. The mysterious millionaire Conchis creates an elaborate and life-changing lesson from the young teacher Nicholas’s relationship with his lover Alison, who Nicholas gives up for the “mystery” of the godgame. If “being is endless interaction,” then Nicholas’s shabby treatment of Alison becomes a metaphor for the balance that must be struck between freedom of the self and the responsibility to not use that freedom to hurt others. By the end of the novel Nicholas learns to try to see the “connections” between people. He says to Alison in the last pages, “You’ve always been able to see this…whatever it is…between us. Joining us. I haven’t. That’s all I can offer you. The possibility that I’m beginning to see it.” Nicholas, and maybe the reader, has come to believe that with existential freedom comes responsibility.
In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Fowles also straddles this fine line between freedom and responsibility, locating morality in the space between. Both The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman are grounded in the idea that “good” can possibly be accomplished and there is a definite human morality in this balance, and therefore a truth, even if there is no judgment. This principle stems directly from Fowles’s “existentialist manifesto,” The Aristos, which ends with this telling line: “To accept one’s limited freedom, to accept one’s isolation, to accept this responsibility, to learn one’s particular powers, and then with them to humanize the whole: that is best for the situation.”
A continuation of this philosophical pattern appears at first to be the case in A Maggot; a duke’s son named Bartholomew uses his “freedom” to try to “humanize the whole,” in this case a former prostitute named Rebecca, who in turn exercises her apparent freedom to help found the Shaker movement. However, there are several important differences in the way that this chain of knowledge interrelates, and most importantly in the conclusion that the novel reaches.
Most of the book takes the form of transcripts of a series of interviews by Henry Ayscough, a lawyer hired by Bartholomew’s father to investigate his disappearance. He represents the typical human, wrapped in illusion, “blind to truth,” but also taking an active role as an oppressor. He constantly lets slip his fear of mob rule; what he really fears is the concept of freedom itself. This sets him up as a foil to Bartholomew, who says “I have no liberty, unless I steal it first.” Ayscough distrusts him for that, writing “In truth he would doubt all: birth society, government, justice…” Bartholomew is also called, “The cynosure of nowhere,” and tells the actor Francis Lacy, “Say it were a history that has neither Romeo nor Juliet. But another end, as dark as the darkest night.”
Bartholomew has somehow come to the same conclusion as Conchis and Nicholas Urfe come to, not to mention Charles and Sarah in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. All these characters realize the lack of meaning, of higher morality in life, and the freedom that this implies. However, in The Magus, as explained above, Nicholas also learns the idea of responsibility within this freedom, to choose the real Alison over the unreal godgame, which is the final “lesson” of that novel, of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and of The Aristos. This final revelation does not occur in A Maggot; in fact, something rather contrary to many of Fowles’s earlier ideas takes place.
Bartholomew must let Rebecca know that she has a self, that she has “existential freedom” to do what she wills, just as Conchis does for Nicholas in The Magus. After telling Rebecca to look out the window, Bartholomew asks, “Do you see the redeemer on His throne in the heavens, beside His Father?” She answers no, and he asks what she does see. “Nothing. The night.” “And in that night?” he continues. She answers, “Nothing but the stars.” Bartholomew seems to be trying to explain to Rebecca the fact that there are in fact no “gods” watching over them, that they have complete freedom. He then tells her that the reason that the stars shimmer is that:
They shake with laughter, [Rebecca], for they mock you. They have mocked you since your day of birth. They will mock you to your day of death. You are but a painted shadow to them, and all your world. It matters not to them whether you have faith in Christ or not…You are nothing to them, [Rebecca]. Shall I tell thee why they scorn? Because thou dost not scorn them back.
He is attempting to tell Rebecca that the only way to deal with the mystery of life is to scorn it, to become like he is, to create your own reality in which you have complete freedom.
Until this revelation, the point, if not the structure of the novel is similar to that of The Magus or The French Lieutenant’s Woman. People must be awakened from their existential slumber through whatever means necessary. However, from that moment on Fowles has altered his pattern. Though Rebecca has fallen from a “state of grace,” and Bartholomew must restore, not reaffirm, her faith, she appears eager to believe the lies he tells her. The former prostitute tells Bartholomew, “I would not be what I am.” Thus, Bartholomew constructs an elaborate drama at a cave to trigger Rebecca’s epiphany.
Who or what appears for Rebecca in the cave remains unclear, whether actors or time travelers or aliens, but what seems important is what Rebecca believes them to be, and what she does afterwards. While Conchis tells Nicholas a series of lies to make him realize that they are indeed lies, Bartholomew lies to Rebecca and she believes the lie, that the aliens, and Bartholomew, are the Holy Trinity. Alternatively, Bartholomew may have been trying to show her a truth, and in her limited 17th century way she got the completely wrong idea about it. Not only this, but as the (fictional) mother of the founder of the Shakers, she continues to champion what the skeptical and atheistic Fowles believes is an artifice, the metaphor to reality. In other words, choosing to believe or not believe in God after being shown the world as it is would be a positive step either way. Choosing to believe in God after being shown an illusion would be, at least in Fowles’s earlier work, a deeply negative conclusion.
At the end of The Magus, the protagonist, Nicholas Urfe, is told, “The godgame is over…Because there is no God, and it is not a game.” Belief in the Unreal, in mystery, and even in God, is shown to be contrary to the taking of responsible action within the freedom that Nicholas is given. In the later novel, Fowles addresses the question of Rebecca’s choice in his Epilogue, “If I were asked what the present and future world could best lose or jettison for its own good, I should have no hesitation: all established religion. But its past necessity I do not deny.” This seems like an evasion of the point, and he continues:
Least of all do I deny (what novelist could?) that founding stage or moment in all religions, however blind, stale and hidebound they later become, which saw a superseded skeleton must be destroyed, or at least adapted to a new world…I mourn not the outward form, but the lost spirit, courage and imagination of Mother Ann Lee’s word, her Logos; its almost divine maggot.
Shaker founder Ann Lee, Rebecca’s daughter, is the next in the chain of knowledge. Her imagination, her creation of “Logos,” seems positive in that she is the author of it, yet this is precisely what Fowles avoided in other novels, the acceptance and promotion of the unreal instead of the real.
Fowles continues, saying, “Something in Shaker thought and theology, in its strange rituals and marvelously inventive practical life, in its richly metaphorical language and imaginative use of dancing and music, has always seemed to me to adumbrate the relation of fiction to reality.” In this way he seems to validate his own career as a novelist, but throws out his carefully constructed existential dilemma. We can only speculate the reason for this, but since both the Epilogue to A Maggot and his journals from that period take an extremely pessimistic view of human nature, perhaps at this point in his career Fowles had lost the faith that people can walk that fine line between freedom and responsibility. Perhaps he had come to believe that we needed more illusion.
Though John Fowles was my favorite author at the time, I missed a chance to meet him on his last literary tour supporting his essay collection Wormholes. But maybe it’s better that way. One of the reasons that I still include The Magus, Daniel Martin, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman on a list of my most beloved novels is their profound and complex sense of hope. And though A Maggot seems at first to continue that hopeful tradition, I can’t help but suspect that the author had already turned his back on the real world, with all its marvelous ambiguity and difficulty. Fiction is so much safer.
About the Author:
Eric D. Lehman teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Bridgeport and his work has been published in dozens of journals and magazines. He is the author of twelve books, including Shadows of Paris, Homegrown Terror, and Becoming Tom Thumb. Follow him @afootinconnecticut, and visit his website at www.ericdlehman.org.