The Magus by John Fowles is a peculiar novel. It is not like anything I’d read previously – a kind of mix between the TV show Lost and the Michael Douglass movie, The Game, with a bit of Eyes Wide Shut thrown in for good measure: Imagine Aristotle Onassis with a penchant for psychological warfare. Its protagonist is a young Oxford graduate named Nicholas Urfe who, having become bored of philandering and partying, undergoes an existential crisis and embarks for a teaching position on the Greek island of Phraxos. Before leaving England, however, Nicholas breaks the heart of a beautiful Australian girl named Alison, as he quickly adopts an atheistic, nihilist worldview.
As he arrives, he finds that the island is not exactly what it appears to be. Nicholas wanders into the company of a wealthy Greek billionaire Named Maurice Conchis who seems to toy with Nicholas at every turn, befriending him, yet in a distant, disingenuous way. Nicholas begins to experience strange events that even make him question his own anti-supernatual presuppositions. He sees what he thinks are Greek gods, as well as playlets that seem to match up to the Marquis de Sade. Nicholas realizes that these masques become increasingly real, encompassing his entire existence on the island. Eventually, having partaken of a hallucinogenic drug, and falling in love with one of a pair of twins that appears to be in the employ of Maurice, Nicholas experiences another kind of breakdown, resulting in an initiation of sorts similar to the process one sees in Eyes Wide Shut, as I argued.
The novel is thus not a story of mere intrigue, but of induction into the mysteries. However, this novel presents the mysteries in a different fashion. In Fowles’ mind, the initiation is not one wherein Nicholas’ world status changes, adjoining him to the elite, but rather operates as a kind of grand “fuck you,” where Nicholas is forced to come to grips with the fact that there is an entire strata of individuals for whom generations of enormous wealth has occasioned a godlike status on earth. As such, in Flowles’ construal, the world becomes a kind of grand, global masque and stage. In fact, the novel is quite explicit that the controllers are the Illuminati.
They are an Illuminati who are guided solely by science, reason and pragmatism – not some ethereal magickal mysticism. In fact, the magickal, mystery tour which Nicholas is enveloped in is merely part of the journey. While at first Nicholas is led to believe that Conchis and his associates think they have experienced metempsychosis and are reincarnated, eventually these facts become irrelevant. Nicholas is led into a massive psychological game, where it is he who is the subject of all the events. In this, Jungian psychoanalysis comes to the fore, as well as Sartrean elements of existential crisis. Meanwhile, Conchis, and his round table of occult gods and deities have engineered all the events of Nicholas’ life after Oxford, including the time spent with Alison, to bring him to the island as the test subject.
The book is spiced throughout with references to Tarot cards, greek deities, Baphomet, gnosticism, ritual initiation, the Eleutherian mysteries, etc. Conchis eventually reveals to Nicholas, when he’s drugged, captured and placed in the judgment role that the real secret is science. While Nicholas is supposed to “judge” the rest of the Illuminists present under the sign of the Pentagram and Baphomet, Nicholas ends up confounded as the group of doctors and PhDs present dissect his entire life with psychoanalysis. Nicholas is then forced to watch a pornographic film with the girl he loves that has been intertwined with his own time spent on the island, recorded by numerous secret cameras. Here Bentham/Foucault-style Panopticism emerges, as the prisoner is subjected to the all-pervading gaze of the eye of the elite. Nicholas not only cannot escape their influence and power, he is also held captive to the narrative they may construct about himself and his life. In short, he is helpless, though he thinks he is “free” in his atheism and nihilism.
Maurice, then, turns out to be a combination of the trickster/magus, as well as the prince/ruler, with his unlimited wealth. He can hire any actors, recreate any scenes, arrange any events he so desires. No matter where Nicholas goes, or what he does, he cannot escape Maurice’s designs. Every time Nicholas tries to construct a “mask” or excuse or identity for himself, he is reminded of the existential dictum that he is “condemned to be free.” He continues to operate in Sartrean “bad faith” and “inauthenticity” to the end, until he appears to concede that he is helpless.
Overall, the book is worth reading, and ends on an open note, where the reader is invited to interpret Nicholas’ final interaction with Alison as he or she wants. This fits well with the meta-narrative theme of the work, where the reader is also in a sense, playing a game, as well as part of the grand masque that is reality. Fowles wants the reader to realize that his or her reality is also part of this play that we call reality, that includes a heavy dose of fiction. And that fiction is largely manipulated by the Illuminati – namely, those billionaires and world-controllers who have an entirely different code of ethics. A code whereby the manipulation of reality and world events is not seen as something inherently evil, but instead a kind of game or labyrinth. As such, the novel becomes one of the top “Illuminist” novels ever written, akin to Atlas Shrugged.
The movie is no good, but it gives a decent visual idea of what is going on: