John Fowles, Alexander the Great, and finding your fulcrum moment

“There comes a time in each life like a point of fulcrum. At that time you must accept yourself. It is not any more what you will become. It is what you are and always will be.”

John Fowles, The Magus

I planned to start this blog anew today in the kind of spirit that comes over many, even most of us at this time of year – a dollop of optimism, a dash of cod philosophy, the pinchiest pinch of the confessional. I had a quote in mind, something I half-recalled about how we are free and how that freedom is terrifying. I thought it was John Fowles.

I took down my copy of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the first of Fowles’ novels that I read and the one I love the most. I flicked through it but couldn’t find the quote. I did what anyone would do in such circumstances – I turned to Google.

I still didn’t find the quote. If anyone reading this knows the one I’m talking about, please let me know – otherwise I’m going to have to read the whole book again, and I have a horrible feeling that I’ll discover it isn’t there at all. And then I’ll have to re-read The Magus – which feels like hard going for January; and then The Collector, which is too creepy for winter reading. And then I’ll feel guilty about that copy of Daniel Martin that’s been sitting on my bookshelf for years and which I’ve never got around to. And there are so many other things I wanted to read this year and frankly, after the last few days spent stuffing myself with chocolate, and cuddling the cats, and dozing through the second half of yet another Miss Marple on DVD, it all seems just a little bit exhausting.

So for once, Google did not provide. It did, though, lead me to a whole pile of other Fowles quotes, courtesy of Goodreads. After a quarter of an hour or so looking through them – and feeling that familiar mixture of admiration and despair that comes with reading work you can’t fail to acknowledge is about three million times better than anything you could hope to produce yourself – I came across the little beauty reproduced at the top of this page.

It’s a tricky one, isn’t it?

Because I’d been thinking about whether, in considering a fairly big change in my life (never fear – I’ll bore you with the details of that some other time) I was being true to myself or delusional, honest or selfish, brave or foolish. And here, it seemed to me, was someone saying – when you truly know yourself, it doesn’t matter. When you truly know yourself, there are no choices left to make.

Fowles is too sophisticated to suggest that this fulcrum, the point at which, finally, one understands oneself, comes at a particular time in life. Well, he’s either too sophisticated or he knows and isn’t telling.

I’d like to reassure myself that it comes with the wisdom of old(er) age. But somehow I can’t see a 30 year-old Alexander the Great twiddling his sword while he surveyed the greatest empire of the ancient world, wondering whether he was fully expressing his creative side.

Surely some people must just get it.

But whilst part of me would love that certainty, that clarity of purpose, another part can’t help feeling that this is all just a little bit deterministic. It suggests that, at your core, there’s something fundamental and unchanging. A “real you” that you can find if you pull back the layers, like onion skin, and that when you’ve reached it there’s no choice but to live with it, make use of it – chop it up and make a Bolognese sauce. Or something. onion skin

Perhaps this is my problem: making choices. Because choosing one option inevitably means discarding others. Alexander the Great couldn’t have been history’s most successful military commander and, say, Wimbledon Champion. Even if he was really, really good at tennis. I mean, what if the Siege of Halicarnassus had clashed with the qualifiers? Or if his coach had told him that flinging around a spear would be detrimental to his back swing?

Perhaps sometimes you just have to choose. And maybe making the wrong choices now and again is okay. Maybe it’s doing that very thing, and recognising when your choices haven’t been for the best, that brings you to your own fulcrum moment.

Good luck for all your choices in 2016.

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