Knocking Over Idols: Gods and Women in ‘The Magus’ and ‘Black Silk’

Noah Berlatsky / November 5, 2019

Killing God is easy; it’s keeping him in the grave that’s the hard part. It’s no real surprise, then, that when John Fowles’ 1965 novel The Magus puts a stake through its all-knowing father, He just comes back as an equally wise-ass zombie. The novel is a tour de force of iconoclasm, the very excessive omnipotence of which reminds the reader that the Puritans who smashed stained glass windows were at least as reverent as their targets. Fowles wants to destroy master narratives, but he’s too fascinated with mastery to do it.

Though The Magus is largely forgotten now, in the mid-twentieth century it was a best-seller beloved by the intelligentsia as a thumping (if very long) good read, and a postmodern puzzle box. The novel centers on Nicholas Urfe, a callow Oxford graduate who falls in love with and then leaves an Australian woman named Alison Kelly. Seeking freedom, self-respect, and possibly someone else to sleep with, he goes to teach at a Greek school on the island of Phraxos, where he meets a mysterious and wealthy old man named Maurice Conchis. Conchis enmeshes Nicholas in a kind of game in which life and fiction merge. He stages a series of dramatic scenes for Nicholas, some of which feature two twins, named either Lily and Rose or Julie and Judy. Nicholas falls in love with Julie, only to discover that her sexual relationship with him is part of Conchis’ tricks. Conchis also collaborates with Alison to deceive Nicholas into thinking his ex-girlfriend has killed herself. The bamboozled and chastened Nicholas is finally returned to England and Alison. The two are shuffled off to a somewhat ambiguous happy ending, the better to contemplate freedom and love and the improbable meaningfulness of it all.

One important source of this meaningfulness is political. Conchis’ past is uncertain given his webs of lies and fictions. But he says consistently that he was a leader on the island during the Nazi occupation, and ended up as a collaborator. Conchis’ connection to the fascists is also Fowles’ connection to the fascists, since Conchis, the fabulist, is a stand-in or metaphor for Fowles the fabulist. As in much post-modern post-war fiction, the master narrative of totalitarianism is also the master narrative of the novel. The storyteller is implicated in oppression. The evil of the Nazis is a crime of determining people’s stories for them—which Conchis himself does by literally dropping Nicholas into a stagey reenactment of a Nazi capture of dissidents.

The point of the postmodern metafiction is to expose the hollowness of that fascist dramatist named God. The book is meant, Fowles says in a 1971 preface, to destroy illusions and open the way to freedom. Conchis punctures Nicholas’ egotism and his conventional, staid notions about sexuality and women’s purity; the Magus is a kind of aging hippie, ushering Nicholas into Burning Man where he can pull out his genitals and say, “Whoa.” (Nicholas is, in fact, inevitably, drugged for portions of the book.) Fowles adds with some satisfaction that “The destruction of such illusions [about God] seems to me still an eminently humanist aim; and I wish there were some super-Conchis who could put the Arabs and the Israelis, or the Ulster Catholics and the Protestants, through the same heuristic mill as Nicholas.”

Conchis, then, is a kind of superpowered anti-God—which is to say, he is a metaphor for an (American?) superpower, or for God himself. To fantasize about an All-Father who breaks the cult of the All-Father is not actually breaking the cult of the All-Father; it’s simply redirecting worship from reverence to iconoclasm. Fowles’ proliferation of pages, like Conchis’ shifting fictions, are meant to overawe Nicholas and the reader respectively. There is no God but literary ambition, and his prophets are pithy aphorisms like: “Why everything is, including you, including me, and all the gods, is a matter of hazard.”

Radical freedom, though, cannot be left to chance. It must be reproduced. We learn that Conchis plays his godgame with each new English teacher on Phraxis—teachers who are all, not coincidentally, white men. Nicholas is a victim and an experiment, but he’s also a pupil, and a potential double. Conchis puts Nicholas into scenes from his own past. He is Nicholas, or what Nicholas might become—a master of his own freedom.

Eve Sedgwick, in Between Men: English Literature and Male Social Desire (1985), argues that fraught relationships between men in 19th century novels illustrate and perpetuate patriarchy—a term that Sedgwick defines in part as “relationships between men.” Men compete with each other, harm each other, and love each other because they are conspiring together to be each other, in the sense that they are reproducing power, man to man. Sedwick explains that “there is a special relationship between male homosocial (including homosexual) desire and the structure for maintaining and transmitting patriarchal power.” From this viewpoint, The Magus is not about questioning or puncturing God, but about perpetuating patriarchy, whether it goes under the name of God or not. Initially, Nicholas thinks Conchis is interested in him sexually, but that idea is quickly and somewhat nervously dismissed (as is the norm under patriarchy, per Sedgwick). Instead, the bonds between Conchis and Nicholas are those of identification, jealousy, education, punishment. He is teaching Nicholas to be a man like himself. Sedgwick explains that patriarchal bonds—of love, hate, or solidarity—are generally triangulated through a woman. And so it is in The Magus. The main conflict and passion of the book is between Conchis and Nicholas. But lest that love affair be taken too seriously, women are, more or less literally, directed to troop on from the wings.

Lily/Julie is a transparent phantasm; Conchis introduces her to seduce Nicholas, with whom she plays both innocent virgin and hardened betraying whore. In theory, Julie’s betrayal, and her refusal to be defined by Nicholas’ expectations, are supposed to teach him about his own self-centeredness and make him treat Alison more respectfully. The problem is that Fowles goes out of his way to show that Julie and Alison exist solely for Nicholas’ personal growth, satisfaction, and entertainment. Alison is described early on as “one of those rare, even among already pretty, women that are born with a natural aura of sexuality; always in their lives it will be the relationships with men, it will be how men react, that matters.” Nicholas is not a reliable narrator, but his description of Alison is cosigned towards the end of the book, when one of Conchis’ wise female confederates confirms that she has a “very rare capacity for attachment and devotion”—the “one great quality our sex has to contribute to life…” The lesson Nicholas needs to learn from the novel’s perspective is not that women are human. Rather, he is taught that Alison is here expressly to aggrandize him, and therefore he should be more grateful.

Perhaps the biggest question raised by The Magus, then, is not “is there a God?” or “how should we live?” or even “how’d he do that?,” but rather, “why are these women bothering with these two assholes?” Fowles recognizes that he has not explained this point adequately. Nicholas wonders aloud, “Why the colossal performance just to tell one miserable moral bankrupt what he is?” The author answers with a third party providing vague evocations of metaphysics—but never by actually letting you inside the head of the women in question. You never even learn Julie’s name. Why does a young, talented, sophisticated woman spend her summers in pretend romances with men she despises at the behest of an aging manipulator? For that matter, why does Alison agree to let Conchis tell Nicholas she’s killed herself? What would that conversation even be like?

We don’t know, because at bottom Alison and Julie’s stories are, for Fowles, unimportant. The male/male story is what matters, and the women are just there to add drama and excitement. Nicholas seeks radical freedom, but the women are bound to the plot, even when (or perhaps most when) they declare their utter liberty from silly conventions like choosing for themselves who they want to have sex with.

The Magus is a bid to upend calcified thinking and belief; it means to unravel fictional narratives in order to point its protagonist and its readers towards a world with less cant, more honesty, and more liberty. But the new hero looks suspiciously like the old one, not least in that he’s got the same phallus. You can’t, it turns out, upend men’s dazzling fictions with more of men’s dazzling fictions. Knocking over the idol isn’t much use if you just get up on the pedestal in its place.


Judith Ivory’s 1991 Victorian category romance Black Silk is much less concerned with knocking idols over than The Magus, which is why it does it so much better. Like Fowles’ book, Ivory’s is a metafiction in which the proliferation and unspooling of transparent narrative devices reveal to the protagonists their own contingency. In Black Silk, though, there is no one author of freedom—no one author, period. The old narratives are thrown off, not through a single act of heroically rebellious Beat poetry rewriting, but by everyone getting their own story on the genre fiction shelf.

Black Silk is set in England in the latter half of the 1800s. Henry Channing-Downs, a wealthy elderly Marquis, has just died, leaving behind him a much younger widow named Submit. In addition to his entire fortune, Henry’s bequest gives Submit a mysterious box, which he asks her in his will to deliver personally to his estranged nephew and ward, Graham Wessit. When Submit looks in the box, she discovers that it contains explicit pornographic drawings. Graham at first refuses the box, but he’s attracted to Submit, and the book moves, with leisurely grace, towards the resolution of the romance that Henry, with his bequest, may or may not have intended.

Henry’s motivations in asking Submit to deliver the box are the subject of much discussion in the novel. “Henry never did anything without purpose,” Submit muses. But though she loved her decades-older husband, and though he cared for her, she can’t figure out what that purpose is. Henry is in this sense something like Conchis in The Magus; an older, inscrutable patriarch, using his money and power to stage edifying scenes and move the plot along. But where Conchis and Fowles are clearly in cahoots, Henry’s relationship to Judith Ivory is a lot more uncertain.

Fowles and Conchis both write a narrative in which Nicholas is chastised and taught important life lessons. In contrast, we don’t really know what Henry wants, or whether his motivations and Judith Ivory’s are the same. Ivory, as a romance novelist, wants to bring her two protagonists together to live happily ever after—and to write some salacious, arousing sex scenes along the way. Henry may have intended the box to serve as an erotic introduction between Graham and Submit. But he also may have been trying to punish or reprimand Graham: the illustrations are of Graham himself, and posing for them led to his expulsion from university and the final estrangement from his guardian. “I am constantly aware of an intentionality on Henry’s part, as if he were standing here laughing,” Graham insists. He could be talking about Conchis—except that Henry isn’t that Magus. “He was a man, not a devil,” Submit says. “Nor was he a God.”

Submit is in a good position to know that Henry isn’t God because she does what Nicholas never manages to—she takes over the authorship of the world. Before he died, Henry had started writing a serial, The Rake of Ronmoor. It is a pulpy, lascivious tale based on the life of Graham himself, which vacillates between moralistic reprimands and prurient enthusiasm. Submit only discovers the serial when the publisher, running out of material, asks her to continue and finish it following Henry’s death. Submit is in financial straits because Henry’s illegitimate son, William, is contesting the will. And so she embarks, like Judith Ivory, on writing, not just any romance, but the story of Graham, which is Black Silk itself.

Writing, or meta-writing, is serious work in The Magus; it is imitating or challenging the gods, defying the Nazis, showing the way to radical freedom. But in Black Silk, the stakes are lower. Submit doesn’t write to overthrow Henry’s oppressive master narrative. She writes because she needs the money, and because creation is a joy.

The very first scene was incredible fun. It was play! Great play! She discovered she loved moving the wonderful blackguard around. Clever, clever Henry! She could make fictional creatures do all the things she might like but never have the courage—or stupidity—to try. She could lambaste the rake for his cheek, reward him, rebuke him, lay him out flat, then draw him up, back to life again, like a puppet on a string. Only it was much more fun than a puppet: The only limiting aspect was the thread of her own imagination.

I love that sudden exclamation, “Clever, clever Henry!” It’s like she’s patting God on the head for making the world, and for letting her make it too.

In short, a different approach to genre allows a different approach to God. Literary fiction is marketed on the strength of its own isolation; Fowles, and Conchis, must present themselves as creating the world out of nothing. They are supposed to imitate God both in all-knowingness and in self-sufficiency; each new book is a new narrative, defying the accretion of dead ideas and dead deities. The Magus is so nervous about its conventional conclusion that it switches to Latin at the very end, as if trying to hide from its own happily-ever-after.

cras amet qui numquam amavit

quique amavit cras amet

Or, loosely translated, “Let those who have never loved, love now; let those who have always loved, love more.” And let those who are highbrow readers not consider my ending too trite.

Romance novels aren’t subject to that kind of anxiety. Black Silk doesn’t have to struggle heroically like Fowles to free itself from the romance plot. Instead, it cheerfully acknowledges creation as a collaborative social venture. Henry, Submit, and Graham are all both writers and written; they are God, author, and subject of the silly pulp story that they’re dancing in. Instead of one genius unwriting received wisdom, everybody takes the formula and goes scurrying around with it, here, there, and into bed. The proliferation of serial authors is reflected in the proliferation of perspectives in Black Silk itself. The Magus is told in first person by Nicholas—the novel insists it’s a moral duty to get out of his head, but it never does. Black Silk, though, provides a third person shifting subjectivity.

As in most romance novels, you spend time in the consciousness of both Graham and Submit, seeing them both through each other’s eyes, so that you know them from inside and out, and experience each to each as a beauty, a mystery, and a puzzle. “I like that you’re wandering through my house… Trying to figure me out,” Graham tells Submit. To want to know can be an imposition, but it can also be a compliment and a revelation. If there’s no magus ushering you into untold truths, then opening a closet doesn’t have to be a shock or a rebuke. It can just be getting to know someone.

You don’t get to know Graham and Submit alone, though. Ivory is generous with her attention to supporting characters. The most striking of these is Rosalyn Shild, a married American woman who has an affair with Graham through most of the book. This is fairly unusual in romance novels; the main protagonists are generally unattached, with exes safely, and often unsympathetically, relegated to the past. But Rosalyn is wonderful: “Large-boned, buxom, beautiful in an exuberant, unwithholding manner, she was as radiant and full-blown as a blood red rose with every petal bent back.” Her love for Graham is sincere, and his growing indifference is more of a reflection on him than her. One of the most deftly jarring notes in the book is when Graham has finally rejected Rosalyn for Submit, and Submit, to Graham’s confusion, goes immediately to comfort the other woman. “They liked one another,” Graham thinks, bewildered. “How had he missed that?” He adds, with some indignation, “Women had a right to competition, resignation, even friendship and compassion. But none of these should run concurrently.”

Graham is caught in a triangle, but it’s a different kind than the one Eve Sedgwick identified as central to patriarchy in Between Men. The two women in Ivory’s book don’t route their jealousy, anger, or rivalry through Graham. Rather they have a relationship of their own, which is affected by, but isn’t subsumed within, their relationship to him. So too the triangle of Henry/Submit/Graham isn’t just a way to use Submit as a patriarchal chit for the animosity and power between the two men. It’s true, as Henry admits, that he likes Submit in part because she was Henry’s wife first. But then, as Submit admits, she likes Graham in part because he’s the final inheritor of Henry’s estates, which means she can go back to live in her own house.

Patriarchal power doesn’t disappear, but it’s a lot easier to renegotiate and reimagine when women are treated as players in the game, rather than as convenient marks for keeping score. It’s not a coincidence that Graham, through the byzantine British royalty rules, ends up inheriting the estate through his mother’s line. Authority, money, the stories we tell—none of them are set in stone. We can organize them differently, if we want to. Doing this, though, doesn’t mean just handing a different magus the wand. There is no great man who can save us from great men, and the master narrative—“no master narratives!”—is still a master narrative. The genius of Black Silk is that it offers no genius—just a craftsperson, sewing her life together from the thread she’s got handy. The mourning garment she makes isn’t a shroud for God, or new clothes for the emperor. It’s simply a reminder that our world is not just the narratives we overthrow, but the people we love.

Noah Berlatsky is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics.Patreon Button

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