Tag Archives: philosophy

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.

Let’s Get Metaphysical

Ooh, I wanna hear your philosophy talk…

Right, that’s enough of that. Despite being one of those people who if asked “If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no-one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” would reply, “Yes, of course it bloody does! What a ridiculous question!” I have found my mind wandering in a vaguely philosophical direction in recent weeks.

Tree in forest The culprit was a blog post by a playwright who was talking about her first experience of having a play staged.  To her shock, she found the finished product didn’t bear that close a resemblance to what she’d had in mind when she wrote it. “That’s the thing with writing plays,” she said, “It’s a collaborative effort.”

To start with, I breathed a big sigh of relief that I’d never tried my hand at any kind of script.  I wasn’t sure I’d like that, I thought to myself, handing over my work to someone else –  a whole bunch of someone elses, in fact – and then holding my breath to see what emerged at the other end.  I liked the feeling that, in writing a book, I was in control: my characters would say and do only what I told them to. Ok, sometimes they developed minds of their own and tried nudging me in different directions to the ones I’d planned, but when it came down to it, I was the person who decided what words went on the paper; the product began and ended with me.

Until I thought about it a bit more and realised that was rubbish.

For the last month or so, I’ve been sweating away over a re-write of my first novel.  After much excitement and getting to acquisitions stage with six UK publishers, sadly no-one got as far as making an offer to publish.  I did, though, get lots of feedback.  It’s that feedback, together with the wise suggestions of my agent, that I’ve been soldiering away with for the last month, desperately hoping that the next version will have dealt with enough of the issues for someone to say “Yes.”

So the most recent incarnation of my book is already, to a considerable extent, the product of a whole range of people: my brilliant beta readers, who took so much time to give me their comments and encouragement; a whole pile of editors, who distilled their reasons for rejecting me (hmph!) with varying degrees of clarity; and my agent, who helped me work through it all and come up with some ideas to respond.

But of course, it’s not just those people who are helping decide what my book will be – ultimately, it’ll be the creature of whatever handful of people I can bribe, cajole or threaten into actually reading it.  I might think I’m the god of my own little literary world, setting out my story, deciding who does what to whom and why; but just because I think I’ve explained something, it doesn’t mean my readers will agree (there’s a life lesson lurking here somewhere…). They might interpret the words I think of as being only mine in any number of different ways. They might see all kinds of different motivations for the way my characters behave.  They might – whisper it – not like the characters I like.

I remember in one GCSE English class the teacher reading a passage from To Kill A Mockingbird.  As I recall, there’s a bit where Scout is in fancy dress, oddly enough as a ham (can that really be right? Sounds unlikely, but it’s what I remember). The costume was held in shape by a frame of wire mesh, and the teacher said that if we were studying the novel at A’-level, we’d be talking about the way that this mesh represented the cage of expectations and social convention in which Scout found herself. There was a good deal of snorting at this, with one boy making the point that perhaps the author meant nothing of the sort; perhaps he was simply describing her costume.  “Well, perhaps,” said the teacher, “But if that’s the case, why is it there?”

Fast forward a couple of decades, and Lionel Shriver is being interviewed about the creepily brilliant We Need To Talk About Kevin.  There were deep divisions, apparently, amongst the readership: was Kevin the way he was because his career-focussed mother starved him of love and affection as he grew up? Or was it just that he was born an evil little so and so? Infuriatingly, Ms Shriver said she wasn’t going to tell us. “If I haven’t told you after 300 pages,” she said (a little sniffily, I thought), “There’s no point in telling you now.”

At the time, I found this rather annoying: couldn’t she just put all those irritating people who obviously thought a woman should sacrifice her whole personal identity the minute she reproduced back in their boxes, and tell them that Kevin was a nasty piece of work?  But now I think: maybe it doesn’t matter.  After all, I’m bringing my own ethical framework – alright, my prejudices – to my interpretation of this book, just as much as anyone else; and the author is doing exactly the same thing.  Maybe that means that Kevin has his own life now, independent of Lionel Shriver, existing in the imaginations of all those different readers? Maybe it doesn’t matter what the author thinks is the truth – perhaps each of those interpretations, each one of those different Kevins, is just as valid as hers?

Recognising that we don’t really own or control our story may be frightening – but it’s also fascinating.  Sending your characters out into the world for people to like or loathe, to decide what they think about their behaviour and motives – well, it’s a pretty exciting business, isn’t it? And while writing may be a solitary pursuit, I think that means that telling a story really isn’t.