We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding
(Quoted from The Magus)
I recently reread The Magus by John Fowles. I was introduced to Fowles when I was a young college student by an eclectic English teacher (V. I. Wexner) and I’ve been a fan since. It’s amazing what a good teacher can do, a fact not sufficiently recognized in our uber technologized world.
Reading the book all these years later, I feel strangely like the protagonist, Nicholas Urfe. I’ll leave it to you to read the novel to find out why. There is a movie but the novel is ever so much better that I emphatically recommend you read the book first. Given that a reader can and will make of a novel whatever he wishes I’ll venture to say that this novel seems to me to be especially important today. In recent polls, American voters ranked “threats to democracy” as the most important issue facing the country. At a time of climate collapse, inflation and a pandemic, this is a remarkable statement on the fragility of America’s fundamental rights and freedoms. I propose that The Magus helps us find a way through this impasse.
Three brilliant thinkers came to mind as I read The Magus. I’ll grant these could be meaningless connections dreamt up by a fallible mind. But I’d rather think of such wandering thoughts as deep nonsense, the way David Foster Wallace described Wittgenstein’s Mistress, the subject of our last blog.
Kurt Godel. Werner Heisenberg. Kenneth Arrow. What possible relevance could these three, a mathematician, a physicist, an economist, have to John Fowles’s novel? Or to this toxic political world we live in today? Fowles seldom explained the meaning of his novels. As any true artist would say, art is its own meaning. Make of it what you will. Fowles did however respond to a letter from a young girl where he gives some clues about his novel. Here is the letter and the response.
2972 Morgan Drive
April 24, 1966
Dear Mr Fowles
I am a senior in high school in the process of delving into myself and into ideas for answers to the questions which seem to plague all 17-yr olds on the brink of entity.
I have just finished reading’ The Magus’. It certainly was one or the most extraordinary reading experiences I’ve ever had and I completely enjoyed it.
But, I don’t really understand the book and it keeps digging at me because the book has become something that I just want to understand. I realize that you probably don’t have an excess of spare time but I would deeply appreciate an explanation of the meaning of the book.
I can’t get at the meaning behind the meaning: the climax of reason, and the idea of “éleutheria”. I hope I will hear from you soon.
No, I haven’t much spare time and even if I had I wouldn’t spend it explaining my own creation. What one writes is one’s explanation, you see, and if it’s baffling, then perhaps the explanation is baffling. But two approaches – the Magus is trying to suggest to Nicholas that reality, human existence, is infinitely baffling. One gets one explanation – the Christian, the psychological, the scientific … but always it gets burnt off like summer mist and a new landscape-explanation appears. He suggests that the one valid reality or principle for us lies in eleutheria – freedom. Accept that man has the possibility of a limited freedom and that if this is so, he must be responsible for his actions. To be free (which means rejecting all the gods and political creeds and the rest) leaves one no choice but to act according to reason: that is, humanely to all humans.
The connections I propose between these three thinkers and The Magus may seem strange even if you’ve read book. Still, I think there is something relevant to be gleaned from considering the book and the thinkers together.
Kurt Godel is known for his incompleteness theorems which in layman’s terms say that there are truths within any nontrivial mathematical system that cannot be proved or disproved within the system. This may not seem significant but for anyone who seeks “absolute truth” it is devastating. One heuristic example often given is the simple sentence: This Statement Is Not True. Oddly, if the statement is true it’s not true and if it’s not true it’s true. Think about that. Bertrand Russell whose research was broadsided by Godel, offers another example of a self-referential conundrum: THE BARBER OF SEVILLE CUTS EVERYONE’S HAIR WHO DOESN’T CUT HIS OWN. SO, DOES HE CUT HIS OWN HAIR? Once again, he does if he doesn’t and he doesn’t if he does. We’re in a frustrating maze.
There is an amusing Godel story that is particularly relevant to our current political situation.
Gödel’s reading of the Constitution seems to have led him to an analogous finding about the United States. As the day of his naturalization interview drew near, Gödel horrified Morgenstern by telling him that it would be completely possible within the laws of the Constitution for a dictator to emerge and put a Fascist regime in place. In Gödel’s Incompleteness-primed mind, both democracy and anti-democracy were consistent with the Constitution. Morgenstern and Einstein did their best to steer Gödel away from this line of thought, worrying that it would undermine his citizenship application. As luck would have it, during his exam, the subject came up. Gödel tried to explain this constitutional conundrum to his examiner. The examiner quickly changed topic and Gödel became a U.S. citizen, presumably saved by finding yet another person who didn’t like to talk about math.
Werner Heisenberg is known for his uncertainty principle which states that at the quantum level there is an irresolvable randomness. For example, with a subatomic particle is it possible to know it’s position or it’s velocity but not both at the same time. So, in the physical world as in the theoretical world of mathematics, absolute truth is as Fowles says “infinitely baffling.”
Heisenberg reputedly said: “The world out there is really ugly, but the work is beautiful.” He was referring to the dilemma of doing physics in Hitler’s Nazi Germany but he might just as well have been referring to the difficulty of understanding quantum physics.
Arrow’s theorem doesn’t say that democracy is doomed but it does say that all democratic voting systems have potential defects especially when the voters are widely divided in their views as they are today. This is something our nation’s founders such as James Madison worried about greatly well before Arrow proved his theorem. Despite the impossibility of designing a perfect voting system, Arrow himself was an optimist.
Arrow’s theorem is often casually tossed in at the end of general 100-level college math courses. It’s typically framed in such a way to have the reader believe that all is lost in searching for better voting methods. But Dr. Arrow made no such conclusion. This is what he said in his interview with us:
“I think the answer is you have to ask, in effect, which ones get closest to this combination? And we have to then begin to look at what actual votes are. The real way we do this is to apply some rule and to take elections and apply different methods and see what violates these conditions as little as possible. Remember all we’re saying is there could be a [violation]. We’re not saying you’re always getting a violation of these rules.”
We want the truth. We want to know how things work. We want in the words of Rodney King to just “get along.” But three of our most brilliant thinkers have concluded (proved ?) that achieving such desires is impossible.
I’m filled with a desire for clarity and meaning within a world and condition that offers neither.
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
Is all lost? How can we possibly live in an impossible world? Camus advised us to “imagine Sisyphus happy.” That is, put your head down and carry on. Learn to enjoy the mundane wonders of everyday life. Voltaire’s Candide advised the same. “We must cultivate our garden.”
Godel’s brilliance was accompanied by (led to) a paranoia that sadly brought him to a tragic end. Heisenberg’s accomplishments were tainted because of a complicated relationship with Hitler’s Germany. Even the most brilliant human beings are far from perfect. Kenneth Arrow was an optimist in spite of the failures he found inherent in voting systems. He had faith in human beings to come up with acceptable practical solutions. I think his advice would be to never stop learning and experimenting. Plurality voting, the process we currently use in our national elections, has many downsides. There are other voting mechanisms that might be an improvement–approval voting or ranked choice voting for example. Continue to experiment and evaluate but don’t throw the baby (democracy) out with the bathwater (particular voting systems).
We search for meaning in life. Maybe the meaning is the meaning we each give. There may not be any single answer. We are individuals. We have different skills, interests, goals, needs, and resources. We must live with the uncertainty of our melting pot.
‘I’d enjoy it all more if I knew what it meant.’
‘My dear Nicholas, man has been saying what you have just said for the last ten thousand years. And the one common feature of all the gods he has said it to is that not one of them has ever returned an answer.’
… “An answer is always a form of death”.’
… mystery has energy. It pours energy into whoever seeks an answer to it.
The more we learn the more impossible life seems. Is there is a way through? John Fowles, like Camus, chooses the Hippocratic Oath. Eleutheria. First, do no harm. As Camus said: the world is ugly and cruel, but it is only by adding to that ugliness and cruelty that we sin most gravely.