Why now

Discussions relating to John Fowles' novel Daniel Martin.

Why now

Postby drkellyindc on Sat Jun 21, 2008 7:38 pm

Why read Daniel Martin today? The novel is more than 30 years old--what’s the urgency?

One answer is that, far from being dated, it tackles increasingly hard-to-ignore questions about the future of civilization, and does so better than any other artifact I know.

Long before today’s headlines about challenges to the world’s supplies of oil, coal, water, food, polar ice-caps, and market stability, John Fowles knew the kinds of tools and sustenance humans would need in order to live with purpose and dignity in the near future. As the ecocritic Thomas Wilson and others have shown, Fowles was especially attuned to the effects of overpopulation, urban sprawl, and social conformism on the human spirit. He was also gifted at creating novels (particularly The French Lieutenant's Woman and Daniel Martin) that are the literary equivalent of wildlife preserves, as well as the best antidote to the effects of overpopulation and conformism on the human spirit.

More than his other works, Daniel Martin allowed Fowles to take on pressing questions about the fate of civilization. Layer by layer, the novel builds a foundation on which to examine ultimate concerns about cultural and spiritual survival. The story is conceived incrementally in terms of personal biography (Daniel the individual), of generational study (1940s Oxford), and of national portrait (England in the 20th century); the incremental expansions allow the final stretch of the narrative, in Egypt and then Palmyra, to move organically to the level of civilization without the novel's overreaching itself.

More recent fate-of-civilization novels, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, P. D. James’s The Children of Men, and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, focus on ultimate concerns at the expense of the other layers; the results are dire, apocalyptic, top-heavy—compelling symbolically but disconnected from how people actually live. In Daniel Martin’s terms, these books attempt to go directly to Palmyra, and leave out Tsankawi, Tarquinia, Thorncombe, Nancy Reed, and a dozen other realities.

Daniel Martin is layered and capacious enough to include a vast range of paradoxical realities about life on planet Earth; and yet it's also cohesive and unified enough to bring them together into one holistic vision. Here are some examples of how the book integrates paradoxical dark and light elements:

In the chapter “Catastasis,” a man dying of cancer says that one of his self-satisfied colleagues has tried to sell him on the idea of ecological disaster. But in spite of his own health prognosis, the cancer patient remains undeterred in his optimism about the fate of humans and the earth. Of the human race he says, ". . . we shall come through. In spite of all our faults . . . After all, the one evil thing in creation is also the one thing that can think."

A later passage deals with the problem of evil by enveloping one reality inside another one. The bleakest of realities about the planet (". . . the world dies of its own greed and stupidity") is incorporated into a passage whose larger focus is the generative power of creation--creation both in the artistic sense and the cosmic or theological sense (“I create, I am: all the rest is dream, though concrete and executed”).

In a much later passage, set on the Nile, Daniel draws a parallel between the beauty along the river's banks (as seen from the cruise ship) and the beauty of the entire planet (as seen from outer space): "And then there came what was almost an envy of the simplicities of life in this green and liquid, eternally fertile and blue-skied world; just as some denizen of an icier, grimmer planet might look on, and envy, Earth."

In the unique alchemy permitted by this novel’s structure, readers can incorporate these passages and envision our planet as green and dying and enviable and generative all at once; and can see the planet's inhabitants as greedy and stupid and yet capable of great faith and idealism and thought.

Because Fowles held these and other paradoxes in tension in Daniel Martin, he creates the possibility for others to do so as well; and this strenuous “holding-in-tension” becomes a spawning ground for new, more complex forms of feeling and knowledge, new spiritual content, and new sources of action.

--Kelly
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Re: Why now

Postby drkellyindc on Sun Aug 31, 2008 6:52 pm

My posting above deals with the polarity of light/dark and how it becomes a source of energetic tension in Daniel Martin.

In his 1977 review of Daniel Martin for Time Magazine, Paul Gray is especially insightful about how Fowles managed to hold one such polarity in tension. He describes how Fowles contended with the deepest sources of despair while still challenging despair as a dominant artistic and intellectual stance. Gray summarizes the novel's attack on fashionable pessimism (“In the Orchard of the Blessed”), and shows that this attack is not built on a foundation of “feel-good” optimism or mere intellectual bias. He writes,

. . . Fowles fills Daniel Martin with plenty of reasons for contemporary despair: war, poverty, tyrannies of the body and mind, mankind’s apparent inability to do anything about problems except augment them. His hero tries ‘to discover what had gone wrong, not only with Daniel Martin, but his generation, age, century; the unique selfishness of it, the futility, the ubiquitous addiction to wrong ends . . . not only a trip to nowhere, but an exorbitant fare for it.’

Fowles illustrates such issues through the intelligent conversations and coherent meditations of his characters—devices once common in good fiction but rare enough now to seem innovative again. Gradually, the pattern of such thoughts forms an antidote to their depressing subjects. Their wit, style, grace and refinement offer not a shelter from the storm (the refuge of the dandy) but a vantage point from which the storm can be most thoroughly observed.

Few novels in recent years have been more thoroughly textured with contemporary history or more rigorously reluctant to offer pat solutions. Near the end, Daniel tells his ex-wife’s sister, a woman he once loved and now loves again: ‘I don’t know how people like us were meant to live this age, Jane. When it gives you only two alternatives . . . feel deprived or feel guilty. Play liberal or play blind. It seems to me that either way we’re barred from living life as it was meant to be.’

This problem hardly bothers the majority of mankind preoccupied with the daily struggle to exist, but its specialness in no way invalidates it. Like Henry James before him, Fowles has created rarefied creatures free enough to take on the toughest question that life offers: How to live? In suggesting that today’s seemingly infinite variety of choices need not produce a catatonic or nauseated anti-hero, Fowles has created both a startlingly provocative novel and a courageous act of willed humanity.


30 years later, instead of an “infinite variety of choices,” we are facing the reverse prospect of diminishing world resources, with the question of how to live looming before us as never before. The responses of catatonia and nausea are no less prevalent, though they are called by other names. Daniel Martin, in my view, is no less startlingly provocative today, and no less courageous an act of willed humanity, than when it was first published. It is one of our best models for how to face the abyss without giving way to despair.

--Kelly
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Re: Why now

Postby drkellyindc on Sun Dec 28, 2008 8:34 am

I continue being absorbed by the issue of how to look directly at the world without giving way to despair. I can’t think of a better guide in this matter than Fowles. Other people get some of the details right, but he’s the writer I trust heart and soul.

In the quotations below, I find significant clues on this issue in the two segments I’ve underlined. The quotations are both by Fowles, and were written 25 years apart.

The first quotation is from the Seidevarre, Norway, section of The Magus (1965), and describes the blind and insane mystic Henrik Nygaard.

“In a short time we saw Henrik walk back into the trees. I could not see his face. But I think the fierceness it wore in daylight was the fierceness that came from his contact with the pillar of fire. Perhaps for him the pillar of fire was no longer enough, and in that sense he was still waiting to meet God. Living is an eternal wanting more, in the coarsest grocer and in the sublimest mystic. But of one thing I am certain. If he still lacked God, he had the Holy Spirit.”
    --The Magus, chapter 44


The second quotation is a July 1989 letter that Fowles sent to the U.K.-based environmental collective Friends of the Earth, and later recorded in his journal. It is not light reading. John’s wife Elizabeth said she thought it was “mad,” but John mailed it anyway. Perhaps it came from a Henrik Nygaard side of the author? But if one looks with open eyes and full intelligence at the world today, madness is a risk one runs.

For Jonathon Porritt, Friends of the Earth.
My unhappiness is not over this Dorset I inhabit, nor indeed over anywhere else in particular; but above all over how blindly and selfishly our species goes on living everywhere, seemingly stuck between suicide and senility. Crystal-clear what is wrong, and equally clear that as a species we cannot face doing anything about it. We are now far too many, beyond restraint, and multiplying like an uncontrolled virus.

My thoughts are of all the animals, plants, birds, insects we poison out of this world; and how they have been a chief consolation and delight of my six decades of life. Such a loss may hardly seem to matter; I grow old, I shall soon be gone. What does matter is that for the majority, the younger, loss now becomes the rule. It is like some insane fiat: ‘Nature will shortly cease to exist. It is henceforth strictly forbidden to mean anything to anyone.’ It won’t quite happen so, of course. Such a situation will creep slowly upon us and our confused intelligences, stuffed with conflicting values and notions. But then one day the death of nature will be unopposably real, irreversible. There will be no more green.

So I felt this burning summer, here in North Europe, of 1989. In form I might belong to humankind; in reality I seemed one of a ravenous self-destroying horde of rats. I am glad there is no god. If there were I cannot imagine that we rampant, myopic and insatiably self-centred creatures should be allowed to survive a single day more.
    --John Fowles’s journals, 26 July 1989


In these quotations, the two segments I’ve underlined provide a way of framing a basic challenge we face today. The noble and spiritual side of “wanting more” competes on a vast stage, and with gigantic stakes, with the blind and selfish side of “wanting more.” Wanting more can be couched both as a deeply human desire for fulfillment, and as a force that currently threatens our planet. Two sides of the same principle, one life-engendering, the other suicidal.

Increasingly we need to make smart decisions with both sides of this principle in mind.

Part of my admiration for Daniel Martin stems from how it suggests ways of living sanely with both sides. It brings the two aspects together into the same coherent world-view.

At the micro level, the novel shows us the expanding universe of Daniel’s consciousness --his psychological growth from adolescence to middle age, and his professional growth from playwright to screenwriter to novelist—as well as the egotism and commitment phobia of which he is also capable. At the macro level, the novel includes rapturous passages about the earth’s beauty and its cultural high-water marks (Tarquinia, Tsankawi, Kitchener’s Island); it also depicts “the real contemporary world” as “consumer-obsessed, Gadarene, ephemeral” (613) . . . “a world where the future gets more horrible to contemplate every day” (596). The novel makes these two opposing tendencies—writ large in the novel’s opening sentence as a divide between “whole sight” and “desolation”—palpable and accessible at the level of lived experience.

It provides straight talk about how to live in a world where the choices get more and more limited “physically. But not morally” (419).

The two tendencies are encapsulated in a passage during the “Hollow Men” chapter:
One feels a pervasive cancer at the heart of one’s world; but still prefers it to the surgical intervention that must extirpate the attacked central organ, freedom, as well as the cancer.


Another way of saying this: everyone wants more freedom, and the collective desire for more freedom is creating a pervasive planetary cancer. Of course, greater freedom means different things to different people: for some, pursuing charitable service or graduate school; for others, pursuing bigger toys and more dedicated forms of consumer hedonism.

Can our planet survive eight billion people “wanting more”? On the other hand, can the human psyche withstand a steady diet of “wanting less”? Can the psyche be trained to want less of the things that are destructive to the planet? Many people are already moving toward voluntary simplicity. The question remains whether enough of us will awaken to this conundrum, and act upon this awareness, and elect leaders who will act upon this awareness.

--Kelly
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Re: Why now

Postby drkellyindc on Mon Aug 26, 2013 9:42 am

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Does Daniel Martin still have political relevance? A post last January on this site said no—the writer, having read the novel many times, found this time that Daniel’s generation and its preoccupations seemed to him “irrelevant,” and the novel sadly “pre-Thatcher.”


On the “disappearance of a national mission.”

However, the novel’s relevance and the “why now” question came up for me again recently when I re-read the opening section of “Crimes and Punishments” (166-68). This section analyzes post-war England; looking at the analysis now, I kept thinking how much it applies to post-millennial America. Here is an excerpt:

It seems to me today that the one abiding drive of all my generation—and I do not mean just my class—was intense selfishness. We watched the imperial and commercial underpinnings of our culture collapse without regret (that came later), mainly because the disappearance of a national mission gave our selfishness more Lebensraum. (166)


Fowles slips that phrase in, “the disappearance of a national mission,” and I feel I’m getting its full impact only now.

Obviously, major differences separate post-war England from post-millennial America. Still, as a lifelong U.S. citizen I found myself translating this passage to my home country circa 2013. My crude translation goes like this: Americans are so preoccupied with nifty new hand-held gadgets and apps, flat-screen HDTV, Netflix membership, 3D Imax blockbusters, and various cults of celebrity, cosmetics, and athletics, among other things, that we’ve failed to notice our national mission has disappeared.

Has the U.S. national mission in fact disappeared? One could point to the election and re-election of our first African-American president, and recent Supreme Court decisions on same-sex couples’ federal benefits and marriage equality, as evidence that we are gaining ground on some civil rights issues. Still, as important as these are, they don’t strike me as having the same national-mission stature or broadly galvanizing effects as mid-20th-century U.S. innovations such as the WPA, the space mission and the Peace Corps, and the sixties-based civil rights movement—despite the huge impact here in DC of this week’s 50-year anniversary celebration of the “Great March on Washington.”

Regardless of one’s position on the national-mission issue in the U.S., England, or elsewhere, Fowles provides a model today for how to respond proactively to historical change. And, his model is not reserved only to left-leaning intellectuals like Dan and Jane. Despite what the blogger wrote last January about the character Andrew Randall coming across as “almost a buffoon,” Fowles makes sure that we see Andrew’s titled-aristocratic privilege as well as the burdens of class, lineage, and property that it entails. Fowles shows Andrew in the contemporary scenes as a hard-working farmer and land-owner, dealing with labor difficulties among his hired hands, and caring for the sheep on his property in the humblest ways (326-27). Whereas Dan finds fault with the outlook of conservative M.P. Miles Fenwick, he defends Andrew: “. . . At least Andrew had turned this surviving a huge historical and social change into a matter of personal challenge” (337).

That last phrase strikes me as a core issue to Fowles: does historical change make someone cling to the past and selfishly perpetuate older forms of entitlement and privilege (as Fenwick does, as well as Daniel’s father, and Jane and Nell’s parents), or instead does it awaken new resources of courage, social concern, and adaptability? Does it make a person more selfish, or more rigorously committed to the best civic good?


Selfish vs. civic-minded debate: the next generation.

I wrestle a lot with the issue of selfishness vs. civic-mindedness, and I see it as more relevant now than ever. Its being more relevant doesn’t make it easier to solve, though. The literary-intellectual generation after Fowles seems to me more selfish and less civic-minded, less socially responsible, on the whole, than his generation was. That has left authors such as David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) in a double bind: self-consciously aware of the problem, and yet seemingly further than ever from solving it. Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest (1996) couches selfishness versus group-mindedness in terms of how to train a competitive team in a Boston tennis academy. Training at the academy falls to its head coach, a European man named Gerhardt Schtitt. According to him, each academy member needs “gratification-delaying skills necessary for being a ‘team player’ in a larger arena . . ..” The issue finds its crux in this passage:

Except Schitt says Ach, but who can imagine this training serving its purpose in an experialist and waste-exporting nation that’s forgotten privation and hardship and the discipline which hardship teaches by requiring? A U.S. of modern A. where the State is not a team or a code, but a sort of sloppy intersection of desires and fears, where the only public consensus a boy must surrender to is the acknowledged primacy of straight-line pursuing this flat and short-sighted idea of personal happiness . . .. (83)



From diagnosis to prescription.

Though he addresses the problem well in this passage, Wallace didn’t make it as far from diagnosis to prescription as Fowles did. Social-change survival skills come out a whole lot better in Daniel Martin than they do in Infinite Jest, even accounting for the wide gap separating the two books’ agendas. Age factors into this agenda gap: Fowles wrote Daniel Martin in his late forties, whereas Wallace wrote Infinite Jest in his early thirties. But to me the big divide between the two novels involves the former’s optimism and the latter’s pessimism. Fowles was writing within a culture (England) that he saw as in decline, whereas Wallace was writing within a culture (the U.S.) that was riding high on nineties’ affluence. I see Fowles’s optimism as being harder earned, and more valuable, than Wallace’s pessimism.

Daniel Martin also presents an effective remedy for selfishness, as the scholars Thomas Docherty (1981), Robert Alter (1984), Carol Barnum (1988), and Gray Kochhar-Lindgren (1993) have argued; the same cannot be said of Infinite Jest, despite its investment in substance-abuse recovery and the AA community.

I feel more resonance with Fowles’s vision than with Wallace’s partly because Fowles sees social and political change in an evolutionary and anthropological context (Dan says, “. . . we then broke up into tribes and classes, finally into private selves,” 167); further, he more clearly assesses the ambiguous nature of the development, as well as his own lack of certainty about the results (writes Dan, “I am not against this, in principle” 167; “This may be good, I no longer know,” 167).

I realize that not all readers of this forum live in, or are citizens of, England or the U.S. This might be the place to add that I’m 53 and I have a Netflix account!

I’d be glad to hear other perspectives on this.

--Kelly
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