Page 1 of 2

“Daniel Martin” and the story of existence

PostPosted: Sun Jan 02, 2011 1:25 pm
by drkellyindc
Does Daniel Martin tell the story of existence?

I'm intrigued and apprehensive about this topic in almost equal measure. I've found a lot of evidence to support such a reading, but before making the case, I first need to weigh in about some of my apprehensions. (This may look like backing up at the starting gate!)

Preliminary issues.
A number of basic issues make the question above challenging even to ask. Some of these include:

  • Can a “story of existence” even be told? Are humans capable of perceiving or conceptualizing it? Would any individual or group be qualified to tell it?

  • How do you crystallize millennia of knowledge, history, and experience? How do you encapsulate all (or even most) of the world’s species and tribes, all the facets at the micro and macro level? Could there ever just be “one” story of existence--containable in one volume, written by one author, anchored in one place and time? How could it avoid favoring one perspective or location or period over another?

  • If there were such a story, would the focus be scientific and rational, or cultural and artistic, or perhaps psychological, sociopolitical, philosophical, spiritual . . .? If you tell the story of planet Earth only, is that the same as telling the story of existence in a more general sense?

  • If you did manage to bring all the elements together, what form would it take, and what function would it serve? Would it be any fun to read, or instead ponderous, like an officially required textbook? Would it be a form that only trained specialists, advanced practitioners, gurus, or Ph.D.s could understand?

  • What kind of power would it wield? If it came to be regarded as a statement of ultimate truth or a “master narrative,” would it crowd out other contenders? Could it be used as a form of “power over,” by one group of people against another, in a coercive or exploitive way?
Questions like these could go on for days.

I think some people might say it’s best not even to ask the question I began with: it leads down too many impossible paths.


However, in my view, John Fowles was an impossibility expert. He thrived on asking the most challenging questions one can ask--first of himself, and then of everything around him. He also had the gift of putting what he thought and felt into words—first in his journals, and then, beginning in his late 30s, in published works, many of which became critically acclaimed bestsellers.

Fowles ascribed special significance to the term “impossible” in Daniel Martin. In the novel’s last six words, for instance, “impossible” is used twice, and becomes inextricably linked with the project of “whole sight.” This link is also expressed in a passage where Fowles hyphenates the words “impossibility” and “actuality.” Here, it’s used to describe Dan’s amazement as he recalls the fact that he made love to Jane, whom he reveres, and who is his best friend’s intended wife:

I remember those minutes far more for their profound and delicious wickedness, their betrayal, their impossibility-actuality, their inextricable association with the woman in the reeds. (94)

To Dan’s mind, the event can’t have happened, and yet it did happen. Moments, days, perhaps even years later, he's still on the threshold of taking it in. It's both unfathomable and undeniable.

I think “impossibility-actuality” is a profound concept, encapsulating a basic conundrum about existence. Philosophers such as Leibniz have asked, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Scientists can describe but not fully explain the process by which “something” emerged from “nothing.” They believe that 13.7 billion years ago, the universe was condensed into an extremely small space, and then erupted in a gigantic explosion. Gradually it developed the conditions—astronomical, gravitational, atmospheric, and biological--favorable to cell-based life-forms, at least on our planet. To grasp such ideas, or to ask what preceded the big bang, takes mental discipline and imagination. One could argue that the entire cosmos is steeped in “impossibility-actuality.” It can’t have happened, and it happened.


Obsession and megalomania.
Even for the most gifted writer, intellect, or “impossibility expert,” though, wouldn’t the project of creating the story of existence be a recipe for madness? By its very nature, wouldn’t it turn someone into an obsessive or a megalomaniac? A few novels have pointed out the dangers of such an enterprise:

  • Mr. Casaubon, in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, is obsessed in his pursuit of an all-encompassing Key to All Mythologies, though he’s unable to bring it into publishable shape. He’s also unable to see how his singular pursuit turns him into an isolated eccentric--unapproachable even by those, like his wife Dorothea, who want to assist him in the project.

  • Mr. Ramsay, in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, thinks of the world’s entire knowledge as stretching from A to Z, and congratulates himself on having made it as far as “Q.”
These depictions serve as warnings against the traits of arrogance, sophistry, humorlessness, and male hubris. They also point out the flaw of assuming that totalizing or “Big Picture” issues must necessarily conform to human ways of perceiving them—that they must be chronologically ordered, utilitarian, causally determined, empirically rational, and so on.

Eileen Warburton’s biography gives an effective description of Fowles’s working life while he wrote Daniel Martin. Despite the sequestered nature of the work, and the new rift that grew between him and his wife Elizabeth during this period, he doesn’t come across as a mere obsessive or megalomaniac, a Mr. Casaubon or Mr. Ramsay. Warburton’s title, John Fowles: A Life in Two Worlds, speaks to the dexterity Fowles had in shuttling between the physically concrete external world and the pliable internal world of his imagination. Fowles's ability to create the character Anthony Mallory, and to give him as much dimension and humanity as he does, suggests that he was alert to the problems of sophistry and intellectual hubris.

Fowles also specifically addresses issues such as megalomania (507-9), know-it-all-ism (91, 284), and male chauvinism (66, 468, 612, 662) in Daniel Martin, in ways that no true megalomaniac, know-it-all, or male chauvinist would do. Such references involve something more than just supporting Dan's or Fowles's artistic credibility, though. They also serve as guides to any reader who wants to join Fowles in his pursuit of “whole sight.” The guides carry an implied injunction: “This pursuit is not for innocents. You may mistake it for megalomania, know-it-all-ism, or male chauvinism, but these are forms of partial sight. Contend with them, and rise above them.”


Cultural distillation.
This leads me back to my original question, with a firmer sense that Fowles was wise to the problems involved in creating a “story of existence,” and that he took the issue seriously. More evidence that he had such a project in mind is found in the various lists and critical testimony I’ve gathered on this site—the novel’s encyclopedic treatment of cultural and artistic heritages, spirituality and religion, myths and counter-myths, geographies and nationalities, zoological and botanical species, biographical and literary figures, psychological and emotional states, human pursuits, aspects of ordinary life, fields of knowledge, etc., combined with the many polarities that other scholars have described as being integrated in the novel.

Fowles brought these elements together through a process that Malcolm Bradbury refers to as “cultural distillation.” Even before Daniel Martin was published, Bradbury used this term about Fowles’s gifts as a novelist:

In one sense, the theme of Fowles’s work is precisely cultural distillation, the task of rendering the way in which consciousness or structural coherence underlies all the parts of a society and produces a cultural unity between inner and outer worlds. That is why his novels are so broadly accumulative, so wide-ranging, so socially mobile or picaresque, so substantially populated and explored. Their task involves the interpenetration of many different levels of awareness or perception—requires, that is, social, emotional, and psychological exploration.
    (from Possibilities: Essays on the State of the Novel, 1973, p. 260)

Fowles’s gift for “interpenetration of many different levels of awareness or perception” permitted him in Daniel Martin to tell a story that works simultaneously as an individual biography, a generational portrait, a portrait of Britain in the post-war era, and an analysis both of the 20th century and of the legacy preceding the 20th century. As I wrote in my essay about Daniel Martin and Ken Wilber’s integral theories,

Fowles’s novel concerns the growth of an individual and artist, of a generation, of a century, and of a civilization. We see the main character aging from 15 to 47, developing from a precocious teenager into a writer authoritative enough to comment on the growth of his peers, his nation, and history itself.

(The link to this essay is

“Cultural distillation” applied to “history itself”—these ideas continue to resonate for me, and this new discussion thread about “the story of existence” provides a place for developing them. Although I list a lot of apprehensions in this initial posting, what I'm really feeling is “a faith dissembling behind skepticism”--a trait that Dan attributes at one point to Jane (319). I think this phrase would have summed up Fowles's sense of this issue as he wrote Daniel Martin.


Re: “Daniel Martin” and the story of existence

PostPosted: Tue Jan 04, 2011 9:25 pm
by drkellyindc
I left a lot of unanswered skeptics’ questions in the first posting, under the “Preliminary issues” section. No doubt most of them could sprout whole dissertations! However, I’m eager to proceed with the main argument, and I’ll let these other concerns sort themselves out in subsequent postings.

In this entry, I want to lay a different foundation, by investigating how the notion of a “story of existence” took shape in Fowles’s imagination prior to his writing Daniel Martin.


A “truly synoptic view of human existence.”

If Fowles did in fact conceive Daniel Martin in story-of-existence terms, what would have prepared him for such a mammoth undertaking?

A number of clues suggest that an ambition on this order of magnitude was developing in Fowles for a long time before he began writing Daniel Martin:

  • In The Aristos (1964, rev. 1968, 1970) he declares his interest in a “truly synoptic view of human existence” (chap. 9, no. 146). His vision of education includes teaching “the richness of existence . . . and comprehending the purpose (and ultimately, the justice) of existence in human form” (chap. 9, no. 3). Be careful what you wish for! I’d say Fowles came closer to realizing these aims in Daniel Martin than he did anywhere else; and I know of no other author who has realized these goals as well as he has.

  • Fowles’s early journals record his efforts to transcend his British citizenry and achieve a more truly cosmopolitan perspective (see also his 1964 essay “On being English but not British”). Such a desire lies behind both his stints abroad and his voracious reading habits. On November 29, 1954, he writes, “The writer wants to include the whole world; all the whole world expects of a writer is some new flavour.”

  • Connected with his ambition, Fowles nourishes the belief that the best writers not only want to “include the whole world” but to change it for the better. In a journal entry about the Zeitgeist (spirit of an age), on December 20, 1956, he writes, “How much, in the cases of genius, it modifies the Zeitgeist.” Even to make such a pronouncement was an effort to modify the Zeitgeist, for it challenged the climate of post-existential artistic pessimism that Fowles inherited.

  • Fowles’s first two mid-career novels both deal with major historical epochs, and serve as precedents for the even more wide-angle historical approach he employs in Daniel Martin:

    • In The Magus (1965, rev. 1978) Fowles offers a compressed treatment of the growth of consciousness in the 20th century. Here’s the critic Malcolm Bradbury’s take on Fowles’s ambitions as a writer, and his achievements in The Magus:
      . . . there was always that in Fowles’s work which might have attracted attention: a large intellectual and imaginative aspiration. The very scale of the enterprises he has undertaken as a novelist might well have stood out in any critical climate alive to such things. The Magus, for example, runs to 617 pages, and among other things it fairly clearly attempts a kind of history of the consciousness of the West in our present century, an act of recreation and invention carried out with remarkable range and deployment of intellect.
        (from Possibilities: Essays on the State of the Novel, 1973, p. 260)

    • In The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), Fowles examines the Victorian age not just in a descriptive but a definitive way. At the end of chapter 10, the narrator describes a moment at Ware Commons in which “the whole Victorian Age was lost.” Carrying this aspect further, chapter 35 begins, “What are we faced with in the nineteenth century?,” and proceeds to analyze basic contradictions of the age. The ambition and scope declared by these statements is interwoven with the rest of the novel. Malcolm Bradbury writes that Fowles not only treats Victorianism in the novel but our complex modern relation to it as well:
      The French Lieutenant’s Woman, though somewhat shorter [than The Magus], is fairly clearly both a formal imitation of a Victorian novel and a very elegant endeavour at assessing the mental distance that must lie between a modern reader and a fiction of that sort—the result being a complex contrast between the psycho-social set of consciousness in the England of a hundred years ago, threaded through all the major areas of social, commercial, intellectual, and sexual life, and that of the present time in which the novelist consciously and articulately stands along with his reader.
        (Possibilities, p. 260)

    Granted, it’s possible for any writer to have ambitions similar to those that Fowles had; however, actually fulfilling them is another matter. As Bradbury and others attest, Fowles animates The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman with enough authenticating detail, variety, and intrigue to make his lofty “century-wide” historical goals achievable, and not a matter of overreach.

    These novels are not mere “apprentice” efforts on the path to Daniel Martin. They’re complete and magnificent in themselves. However, they do reveal an author gradually expanding his historical scope, and asking questions not only of individual tribes and nations but increasingly at the level of civilization.


Re: “Daniel Martin” and the story of existence

PostPosted: Fri Feb 11, 2011 12:51 pm
by drkellyindc
Following up on the last posting—

Further evidence about the nature of Fowles’s ambitions in Daniel Martin is seen in how he surpassed his previous writing efforts. Here are some ways he broke new ground in Daniel Martin:

  • Extending the range of his psychological portraits in two directions, going more fully into middle-age complexities than he had before, and providing his first portraits of adolescence;

  • Extending the range of his social portraits to include the history of a generation, using as his model Gustave Flaubert’s novel A Sentimental Education;

  • Writing a contemporary novel more thoroughly steeped in the history of England than his previous novels, and more fully committed to examining England’s place in the contexts of Europe and north America, and of the collective traditions comprising western civilization;

  • Widening his narrative scope from one or two centuries, as in his previous two novels, so as to examine history and civilization writ large;

  • Expanding his intellectual outlook from a mostly Jung-based approach to one incorporating other outlooks and guiding philosophies (see the Randy Svoboda entry in the Sept. 7, 2008, posting at the “What is ‘whole sight’?” thread);

  • Creating a literary setting capacious enough to encompass virtually all facets of life, either directly or through metaphor, in a novel whose cornerstone affirms “whole sight” (see “What is ‘whole sight’?” thread).

Fiction writers don’t just wake up one morning with these goals on their to-do list. Nor can they pursue such goals without a great deal of intellectual authority, emotional maturity, and intestinal fortitude--which are also not developed overnight. Fowles achieved what he did in Daniel Martin not through mere technical virtuosity or massive, James Michener-style assisted research, but as a result of long years of inward meditation and scrutiny, informed by his voracious reading habits. This extended apprenticeship led him toward authorship in his late thirties, and permitted him to scale new heights in his mid-to-late forties as his Daniel Martin project came to fruition. I believe he was spurred on during this period by a sense that he was breaking new ground not just for himself as a writer but, beyond this, for literature and its capacity to encapsulate the history of consciousness.

If through some arduous and mysterious, decades-long process life qualified you to write the story of existence . . . would you do it? Before answering, consider the almost unmanageable anxiety and fear involved. This is captured in a moment where Daniel Martin inwardly flinches at the prospect of writing a novel:

He suddenly saw the proposed novel as a pipe dream, one more yearning for the impossible.

The terror of the task: that making of a world, alone, unguided, now mocked, like some distant mountain peak, mediocrity in his dressing-gown. He could never do it. Never mind that what he felt was felt by all novelists, all artists, at the beginning of creation—that indeed not feeling the terror was the worst possible augury for the enterprise; never mind that he held one very good guide-book in his hand . . . he could not do it. (590)


Re: “Daniel Martin” and the story of existence

PostPosted: Sat Feb 12, 2011 4:52 pm
by Locutus7
I read DM when it first came out and did not care for it (it reminded me of other contemporaneous works about middle aged men and their angst). However, based on your prolific analyses, I will give it another read.

Re: “Daniel Martin” and the story of existence

PostPosted: Wed Feb 16, 2011 10:00 am
by drkellyindc
Thanks for your reply--and for your willingness to give the book another try!

I've been trying to account for how my response to the novel differs from that of other readers. Here are two analogies:

  • Daniel Martin is like a Rubik’s Cube--its color configuration may appear random at first, but the patterns become newly arranged with each turn, and the colors gradually link up if a player keeps tinkering with it. For those who persist, each “solution” to the puzzle will emerge differently.

  • Alternatively, Daniel Martin could be likened to an enchanted map that appears two-dimensional at first, but on closer examination gains dimensions, textures, and shades. Because of the holistic nature of the terrain it covers, the map turns topographic and even holographic as one studies it. Its coordinates expand and become part of an immersive reality larger than any individual can encompass.

That’s been my experience, anyway. Perhaps The Magus has been like this for you over the years you’ve returned to it? I'm interested to know how Daniel Martin may change for you the second time through (esp. after a distance of 30+ years).


Re: “Daniel Martin” and the story of existence

PostPosted: Thu Feb 17, 2011 2:32 pm
by Locutus7
Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I plan on reading DM after my ritual re-reading of The Magus, this time the unrevised version, once I receive my copy (it is probably in the mail as we speak :) ).

Re: “Daniel Martin” and the story of existence

PostPosted: Fri Feb 18, 2011 7:37 am
by drkellyindc
What was it like for Fowles to write Daniel Martin?

Two excellent places to look for answers are his journals (especially Volume 2, between June 1970 and September 1977), and chapters 16 and 17 in Eileen Warburton’s distinguished biography, John Fowles: A Life in Two Worlds.

Another source is the novel itself. Speaking through Dan’s narration, Fowles addresses aspects of his Daniel Martin writing experience in the chapters “The Sacred Combe,” “Tsankawi,” “In the Orchard of the Blessed,” and “In the Silence of Other Voices.” From the “Silence of Other Voices” quotation in my February 11 posting above, this line continues to resonate for me:

The terror of the task: that making of a world, alone, unguided, now mocked, like some distant mountain peak . . .

The “distant mountain peak” metaphor he uses here carries forward a theme about novel-writing that begins much earlier in his career. It provides a significant clue about how his experience of writing Daniel Martin differed from that of his earlier novels. It also takes me a step closer to the story-of-existence theme I’m exploring in this discussion thread.



I. “I know it’s a Himalayan.”

Mountain imagery recurs in Fowles’s journal entry of June 22, 1970, as his imagination increasingly turns to the material that will become Daniel Martin:

. . . the novel about the mid-Atlantic Englishman . . . begins to loom over everything else, so that all other work seems to stand in its shadow. It has to be tackled next; and I know it’s a Himalayan—no little bit of English cliff.

This cultural-geological reference is worth exploring. The highest point in England is Scafell Pike in Cumbria, at 3209 feet; however, “English cliff” for most people will bring to mind the legendary cliffs of Dover, a physical and symbolic gateway from England to the rest of Europe and beyond. These cliffs reach a height of 351 feet. As Fowles searches for the right metaphor to describe his experience of writing Daniel Martin, it’s clear he’s looking past Dover, just as his imagination is looking past England to a more truly cosmopolitan landscape and scope. However, he’s no longer looking in his mind’s eye across the channel and continent to Mt. Parnassus, in central Greece, the mountain that served as his cultural-geological summit in his twenties and thirties.


II. Fowles and Mt. Parnassus, Greece.

In his journals (Vol. 1, Parts 3 and 9), in The Aristos (chap. 9, no. 60), and in The Magus (ch. 40), Fowles indicated that the heights of Mt. Parnassus were to him both a physical and metaphysical challenge. His travel-journals of July 1952 record, “I had entered the paradise of the upper Parnassus.” During this momentous solo visit to Parnassus he feels himself “rise out of time . . . absorbed into nature . . . completely existing among existence, as godlike as mortality can imagine.” (See Warburton’s biography, p. 104) What an incredible rush for the 26-year-old future author!

The word “Parnassus,” of course, refers to a specific mountain, regarded as sacred by Apollo and the Muses in ancient Greece; it has also come to mean any center of poetic or artistic activity. More important to him than scaling the heights as a hiker was his ambition to scale the heights as a writer. Even as the physical experience of climbing Mt. Parnassus remains a potent memory for Fowles, the other meaning attributed to Parnassus is also present to his mind. On April 6, 1962, he writes,

The idea that the poetic world (Parnassus) is remote from the ordinary, quite wrong. It is simply a step sideways, a second away. Because one goes weeks without a poem, one forgets it.


III. From Dover and Parnassus to the Himalayas.

Given Fowles’s personal history and association with Parnassus, I find it striking that in the 1970 journal entry quoted above, the Daniel Martin project “begins to loom over everything else,” and makes “all other work” seem “to stand in its shadow.” He looks past both Dover and Parnassus to the world’s highest mountain range, the Himalayas. He has an anticipatory shiver of vertigo, like a mountaineer accustomed to mid-grade altitudes below 15,000 feet preparing for an ascent past 20,000 feet. (Mt. Parnassus’s summit elevation is 8,061 feet; with Mt. Everest, the Himalayan range reaches the unparalleled height of 29,028 feet.)

Also notable is the continental shift: Fowles as an Englander shared the same continent as Mt. Parnassus; the Himalayas in Asia lay farther away, geographically as well as politically. The physical distance from England to Greece is 1486 miles; from England to Nepal is over three times that distance, to say nothing of the political, social, and cultural distances the Himalayas present to someone steeped in Anglo-European traditions.

Of course, Fowles’s Himalayan reference is subjective, and can’t be empirically confirmed. Also, it might be said that any novelist feels a unique sense of vertigo at the start of a new project. Still, I hope the argument I’m developing here in support of Daniel Martin helps readers appreciate the enormity of the task Fowles set for himself. I’m convinced that the vertigo he felt with this project came as its parameters expanded from personal biography to generational portrait, to an examination of national and international issues, and finally to concerns about the history of civilization, or what I’m calling the story of existence.

We’ll never have a complete understanding of what his writing experience was like with this project—and it may be better for us that we won’t. As I suggested earlier, reckoning with the “terror of the task” he faced is no minor undertaking. Given his guidance, though, we can take steps closer to this terrain, and experience some of the unfathomable joys he experienced as well. At times when I open Daniel Martin, I feel my entire cerebral cortex lighting up—or as if I’m looking, awestruck, lengthwise across the Milky Way galaxy.


Re: “Daniel Martin” and the story of existence

PostPosted: Wed Feb 23, 2011 7:15 pm
by drkellyindc
After a few false starts with the Daniel Martin project, in October 1971 Fowles drafted the first five chapters, and records the experience in his journal:

20 October
About ten days ago, I started writing The Englishman (also called Futility), which I have had in mind for so long. I began in Los Angeles, but then suddenly switched back to Ipplepen in the war. I don’t know why; where these unexplained intuitions have come from. And how I could re-evoke a wartime harvest in one day’s writing. I would have sworn twenty-four hours before that I could remember nothing of all that. The ‘here’ (Dan) takes shape; and two women (Jenny and Jane). It’s two years now since I wrote seriously. The experience is divine, there’s no other word for it; exactly like the first week or two of a plant’s growth—nothing in the future can ever equal these days. The intense reality, and malleability of reality . . ..

The last three words of this quotation, “malleability of reality,” are echoed in a passage from Daniel Martin. In the final moments of the chapter “Solid Daughter,” Dan turns his attention from Caro to problems about the artistic project looming ahead of him. We glimpse his novel beginning to take imaginative shape, becoming

a thing in the mind that might once more make reality the metaphor and itself the reality . . . (286).

As Dan steps closer to writing his novel, “reality” is being transformed in his mind from an external and concrete phenomenon to an internal and artistically pliable one. In other words, “existence” is reshaping itself into a “story.” Presumably this process happens in the mind of every writer—every person, as a passage about self-fictionalization from The French Lieutenant’s Woman, chapter 13, suggests. But when that “reality” is as multi-layered as it was in Fowles’s mind, and has been nourished by a long-held desire to envision “a truly synoptic view of human existence” (to repeat the phrase from The Aristos), the notion of his preparing to write a “story of existence” becomes more tangible and compelling.

The closing moments of “Solid Daughter” serve as the lead-in to the next chapter, “The Sacred Combe,” where these artistic matters come front and center. “The Sacred Combe” begins with Daniel as a boy being dissatisfied by the traditional Christian response to the problem of evil and the purpose of history (287). The “budding scenarist” and “embryo cynic” sides of Dan have been developing ever since—one side is busy imagining new scenarios, and the other side is busy appraising their value. Now that he’s in middle age, he’s ready to write an alternative creation myth or “story of existence”—one that will satisfy him, as the Christian one did not. The Christian mythos has the widest possible historical scope—the Bible, from “Genesis” to “Revelations,” encompasses all of history, from “In the beginning” to prophecies about the fulfillment of history. Dan has been steeped in this tradition from even before he was able to speak. When he’s old enough to question it, he begins to notice its flaws. The idea of improving on it, while carrying forward its panoramic historical scope, fires his imagination and spurs him onward.


Re: “Daniel Martin” and the story of existence

PostPosted: Sun Mar 06, 2011 7:20 am
by drkellyindc

Further evidence of the nature of Fowles’s ambition in Daniel Martin is found in the opening sentence: “Whole sight; or all the rest is desolation.” From this starting point, the novel goes on to tell an epic story about one creative man; his story is interwoven with the history of his 1940s Oxford generation, and widens to include examination of England and the 20th century. These are tall orders in themselves; but what if these aspects of the book are layers supporting an even more expansive inquiry into time and the nature of existence? Throughout its length Daniel Martin remains rooted in biography—the epigraph line prior to “Whole sight” is from George Seferis: “Then he told me the story of his life”--but by degrees it becomes a great deal more than that.

During the novel’s Egypt section, the Nile is described as “the river of existence” (526), and the passengers as a “polyglot microcosm” (527). By the Palmyra sequence, the novel’s hero and heroine arrive at a place described as “the end of the world” (634). There, they discover amid the ancient ruins a pair of young animals, whose sound is described as “a whimpering, an unhappiness from the very beginning of existence” (650).

It’s one thing merely to use language and symbolism like this; it’s quite another to create a novel that supports the weight of their implications—a novel such as Daniel Martin, which is thoroughly saturated in cultural history; which incorporates references to more than 300 historical figures, from ancient Egypt to the 20th century (see my list on the “What is ‘whole sight’?” thread); and which is conceived on this and so many other levels as a tribute to the richness of existence.


Re: “Daniel Martin” and the story of existence

PostPosted: Sat Mar 12, 2011 12:10 pm
by drkellyindc
Instead of asking whether humans are capable of perceiving the story of existence, one might ask instead, What more important function is the human mind fitted for, or striving toward? What could be more intellectually stimulating, more deeply moving, more nourishing to the imagination and the soul?

The longing to grasp the story of our macrocosmic existence is archetypal, and is witnessed in other volumes that treat time or history in a synoptic way. Some examples that come to mind:


  • The Bible, which begins with a universal creation myth and ends in eschatological writing about the culmination of history

  • Friedrich Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit—concerning the evolution of consciousness from sense-perception to “absolute knowledge”

  • Martin Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (Being and Time)

  • Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man

  • Isaac Asimov’s Beginnings: The Story of Origins, of Mankind, Life, the Earth, the Universe

  • Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which traces the rise and fall of the fictional South American civilization Macondo

  • Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time

  • Ken Wilber’s A Brief History of Everything

  • Fred Spier’s The Structure of Big History: From the Big Bang until Today

  • David Christian’s Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History

  • Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything


Re: “Daniel Martin” and the story of existence

PostPosted: Sun Mar 20, 2011 8:09 am
by drkellyindc
I admire many of the works listed above; a few of them have stayed in close reach on my bookshelves over many years. However, if I were pressed into admitting it, I’d say that humor—and especially self-humor--is in short supply in most of them.

Some comedians have seen this oversight as a place rich with opportunity. They've shown that no epic form is without its mock-epic potential. A few examples:


  • Mel Brooks’s History of the World, Part I

  • Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

  • Douglas Adams’s Life, the Universe, and Everything, and other titles in his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series

Works like these attack pretensions about the “story of existence”—some may say they demolish the premise as well. However, they might also be seen as a protest against the way that humor has been ostracized from treatments in the past, and a way of asking what part humor plays in the story.

Fortunately, humor, wit, and moments of self-mockery are found in good supply in Daniel Martin.


Daniel Martin not only includes both facets—philosophical seriousness and the ability to laugh at such matters—it promotes a system in which these facets are held in dynamic tension. An example is found in Dan’s experience of the Hungarian theorist Georg Lukács. On the flight to Cairo, Jane gives Dan a travel gift--an anthology of writings by Lukács. Though he thanks her for it (487), he assumes privately that reading it will put him straight to sleep (505). It doesn’t, though. Later, we find Dan unexpectedly praising Lukács’s vision as “the emotional attempt to see life totally, in its essence and its phenomena; the force, the thought, the seriousness.” Reading Lukács, Dan reports feeling “both his world-view and his own being as a writer enlarged and redefined” (534). Despite this, later Dan looks back on his earlier encounter from a wry distance, remarking on “the sheer silliness of taking anything in life (such as Lukács and theorists of total consciousness and authorial responsibility) very seriously” (550).

As readers we witness Dan’s experience of Lukács sequentially, as a progression from future to present to past:

  • Future: Dan regards the Lukács book dismissively, before he’s actually read it (505)

  • Present: Dan immerses himself in the theorist’s writings and finds it personally and professionally thrilling (534)

  • Past: Dan regards Lukács’s ideas from a place of distancing recollection. (550)

This is a model for how the mind absorbs new information, and for how it integrates both the serious and mocking sides of the psyche.


Re: “Daniel Martin” and the story of existence

PostPosted: Fri Apr 22, 2011 7:34 am
by drkellyindc
“. . . And he gives the whole of existence a reason.”

In The Magus, chap. 15, while giving a tour of the Bourani estate to Nick, Conchis describes two of his prize possessions: works by the French painter Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947). The way Fowles introduces the paintings comes as further evidence of the “existence-wide” nature of his imagination:

[The bedroom’s] tone was really set by its two paintings: both nudes, girls in sunlit interiors; pinks, reds, greens, honeys, ambers; all light, warmth, glowing like yellow fires with life, humanity, domesticity, sexuality, Mediterraneity.

“You know him?” I shook my head. “Bonnard. He painted them both five or six years before he died.” I stood in front of them. He said, behind me, “These, I paid for.”

“They were worth it.”

“Sunlight. A naked girl. A chair. A towel, a bidet. A tiled floor. A little dog. And he gives the whole of existence a reason.”


Re: “Daniel Martin” and the story of existence

PostPosted: Mon May 02, 2011 2:57 pm
by drkellyindc
Challenges from the French author Alain Robbe-Grillet

Recently I’ve found surprising overlap between the views of Fowles and the avant-garde French novelist and theorist Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008). I’d long thought of them as being in separate camps, but looking at Robbe-Grillet’s work more closely, I see that his and Fowles’s novels have at least some common ground: postmodern elements (for instance, hall-of-mirrors moments, a playful approach to ambiguity and enigma, a conscious blending of highbrow and lowbrow taste); also, both authors forged new ways for fiction to express subconscious content and psychological paradox.

However, Robbe-Grillet would have been adamantly opposed to the “story of existence” idea I’m developing in this thread. I’ll engage some of his key concerns here, and also show how Fowles anticipated and even invited such concerns in Daniel Martin.


In Pour un nouveau roman (For a New Novel), Robbe-Grillet points up the danger inherent when one artist’s vision or sentiments are writ large and “considered as the profound reality of the material universe, the sole reality . . ..”

Robbe-Grillet warned against literary writers’ deceptive use of words to convey “the entire hidden soul of things.” He writes,
Thus the word functioned as a trap in which the writer captured the universe in order to hand it over to society.

Inherent in these “writ large” and “hidden soul of things” dynamics, for Robbe-Grillet, is the use of metaphor and simile. For instance, in the simile “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” from the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, Robbe-Grillet would object to various forms of anthropomorphism:

  • attributing a human trait (“lonely”) to a nonhuman entity (“cloud”);
  • positing a one-to-one correspondence between human (“I”) and nonhuman (“cloud”) worlds;
  • implying a second-order link between a nonhuman entity (“cloud”) and a human activity (“wandering”)—that is, suggesting that our knowledge of why humans wander helps us understand the movement of clouds as well.

In this way, according to Robbe-Grillet, metaphors falsely reassure the reader by suggesting that all nonhuman entities are explainable in terms of human concerns, values, codes, and feelings. This underscores an idea from Protagoras that became a guiding concept for Renaissance humanism, and was literalized in the “Vitruvian Man” drawing by Leonardo da Vinci: “Man is the measure of all things.” By such reasoning, everything comes to be regarded as a mere extension of the human sphere, without an independent reality of its own.

On this topic, Fowles found a Robbe-Grillet “spokesman” in Daniel Martin. Anthony Mallory, Dan’s best friend in his Oxford student days, is fond of this epigram: “The metaphor is the curse of Western civilization” (361). Dan challenges this view, asserting that “all language, even the most logical and philosophical, is metaphorical in origin”; further, he says, metaphor itself isn’t evil but only the rhetorical use of metaphor (361). Fowles indicated that he believed the diametric opposite of Anthony’s epigram; in interview he said, “The metaphor is the miracle of higher civilization.” He also gives the Herr Professor this line: “The greatest tool of knowing is the symbol that allows you to represent what is not present before your eyes” (549).

In line with this view, Daniel Martin includes thousands of metaphors, similes, analogies, and likenesses; they serve a critical function in the novel’s “whole sight” project. However, along with the novel’s profusion of metaphors is an entire cautionary discourse on the limitations and failures of metaphor. This discourse acknowledges that metaphors can inflict psychological and social damage; that they can be mental traps, ways of evading the truth; and that they can be used aggressively or dismissively toward others, and can cheapen discourse and ideas. Such downsides of metaphor are found in these examples from the novel:

  • When Dan tells Jenny that his return to Oxford can serve as a “breather” in their relationship, she retorts, “I didn’t know it was a race” (49).
  • In the same conversation, Jenny objects to Dan’s referring to the age difference between them as a “chasm”; she changes the metaphor: “It’s not a chasm, Dan. It’s a deliberate barricade you erect” (51).
  • Talking with Jane, Dan likens media men in England to “Bantams on a midden” (i.e., miniature fowl combating on a dunghill); Jane takes offense, saying “Your midden happens to be my country” (202).
  • Speaking with Jane about his deserting their close group of Oxford friends, Dan suggests that he chose “amputation” over “gangrene”; he notes an adverse effect on Jane: “. . . as if my metaphor had frozen something in her” (324).
  • On the Nile cruise, Dan notes the banality of American Mitch Hooper’s fondness for baseball metaphors; Mitch uses them whether he’s talking about the Vietnam War or his and Marcia’s infertility as a couple (538, 540-1).
  • In a self-dramatizing moment, Dan singles out the main reason he feels he cannot become a novelist: “Above all he could not do it because his thoughts were metaphors . . .” (590)

Thus, instead of merely offering a universe built of metaphors, Fowles engages readers in considering when and how metaphors are useful, and when they’re not. He shows their potential for being either a miracle or a curse.


In Robbe-Grillet’s view the artistic form of tragedy subsumes all things human and non-human into a falsely reassuring metaphysical whole. He warns of how elements of tragedy seep into our consciousness, creating an “entirely tragedified universe” involving “the final recuperation of all distances, of all failures, of all solitudes, of all contradictions.”

At first glance one might see Fowles as a prime offender in this practice. Witness how he describes Tsankawi in Daniel Martin:
. . . the mesa transcended all place and frontier . . . It validated, that was it; it was enough to explain all the rest, the blindness of evolution, its appalling wastage, indifference, cruelty, futility . . . Tsankawi defeated time, all deaths. Its deserted silence was like a sustained high note, unconquerable.” (346)

Many of us would read this as a beautiful tribute. By contrast, I think Robbe-Grillet would object to how Dan endows Tsankawi with the power to redeem “all failures” in the evolutionary scheme of things.

However, Fowles insists that readers should perceive not only Dan’s idealized perception of Tsankawi, but also how that very perception drives a wedge between him and every visitor he takes there (i.e., Abe, Mildred, and Jenny). It also awakens in him a sense of artistic frustration (352-3), making him feel “like a man in prison” (353). As much as he regards it as a cherished muse, Tsankawi also serves as an irritating reminder of beauty he cannot capture, and as a barrier between him and the people who cannot see it as he does.

A further outcome from the chapter: Dan’s idealizing of Tsankawi is an archetypal human feeling. Skeptics might say that it belongs only in the realm of feeling rather than in more objective and empirical forms of reality; but this is to discount the part Tsankawi has played in inspiring Dan’s novel, which is an objective and empirical reality. It seems to me that Robbe-Grillet, with his bias against metaphysics, systematically denies that such idealized feelings exist. To me this makes his world less rich and layered than that of Fowles.


An artist facing his inner private symbolisms.
What to make of the Robbe-Grillet view that Daniel Martin may be Fowles’s effort to “capture the universe and hand it over to society”?

One response: as I see it, the universe Fowles presents in Daniel Martin has too much complexity and subtlety to be “captured” or “handed over.” Perceiving it seems to take more investment of time and discipline than most people are willing or able to give. Further, Fowles incorporates doubt—about his project and his authority to pursue it--as an active ingredient within the narrative. Think, for instance, of passages voicing concern about issues such as megalomania (507-9), perfectionism (16, 64, 413), and chauvinism (612, 662); about meditations on imperialism via the Kitchener script project; and so on. In such passages Fowles tacitly invites readers to question the novel along these lines, as he himself did. The invitations themselves don’t give him an automatic pass, but they should leave the impression that, as Dan says about his projected novel, this is “a fiction whose inner private symbolisms he must face” (431).


Re: “Daniel Martin” and the story of existence

PostPosted: Mon May 30, 2011 5:25 pm
by drkellyindc

How can Daniel Martin qualify as a “story of existence,” given that it’s so disproportionally invested in the history and culture of one country, England?

To its credit, the novel does range far in its geographic and cultural diversity (see my Nov. 16, 2008, posting on the “What is ‘whole sight’?” thread). However, this diversity isn’t evenly distributed. For instance, of the more than 300 biographical figures alluded to in the novel, nearly a third are British. How can Daniel Martin, and the argument I’m making here, avoid charges of bias, ethnocentricity, nationalism, or cultural imperialism?

One possible rationale for Fowles’s focus on England (other than that he’s from there) is found in Michael Cook’s A Brief History of the Human Race (2003). After exploring developments from the Paleolithic era to European expansion, Cook begins his final chapter, “The Modern World,” with this assessment:

Like the human race itself, many of the really important developments in history have more or less singular origins. The emergence of the modern world in the last two or three centuries is in some ways close to being one of them. If we want to identify the key forces that have shaped the history of the globe over this period, we have to start by concentrating on a single island: Britain. This island was not, of course, a closed country like Japan, and it is unlikely to be an accident that it had been playing an increasingly prominent role in the European expansion overseas, quite apart from its commercial links within Europe. But Britain is where the world we now live in began to take shape.
(p. 325)

Where in the past people have made such cases based on notions of chauvinism, essentialism, predestination, or divine right, Cook instead uses verifiable material factors (see pp. 325-9). By Cook’s logic, Fowles’s being from England gives him a special advantage in a “story of existence” project—an advantage he wouldn’t have if he was from Portugal, say, or was writing about a hero from the Philippines. Of course, Fowles can’t help being English, and his national identity is no special achievement in itself. The decisive factor is his response to being English.

My own judgment, confirmed by numerous critical sources, is that Fowles has his country in perspective. Daniel Martin, far from being a bombastic or jingoistic account of England’s place in the modern world, is remarkably evenhanded, and presents ample evidence of the nation’s civic strengths as well as liabilities. The two central characters, Dan and Jane, have both lived abroad, and have a complicated relation to their country of origin. Jane feels that the British Empire “had dissipated a potentially good moral energy,” and “lost all hope of becoming an arbiter among nations” (530). She fears its becoming “tied like an old boot behind American and EEC capitalism,” but she retains a belief in “Our moral tradition. Belief in personal conscience” (417). Dan finds himself professionally invested, through his Kitchener film project, in parsing England’s imperialist past; and by returning to England after voluntary exile, he has to confront the complex private side of his connection to England as well.

Other characters provide additional perspectives on the nature and state of England. Jenny, who is Anglo-Scottish, expresses ambivalence about England, at one point likening it to “a thing in a museum, a dying animal in a zoo” (250). Still, her exposure to the American ethos restores her gratitude about how things are done back home (250); she finds herself missing things about England she had taken for granted, or thought she despised (662).

By the Nile section of the novel, Jane and Dan, as the only Britons aboard the cruise, serve an ambassadorial function, with the attendant privileges and burdens this carries (see 520-1, 538). One evening they discuss possible future roles for England; Dan drily asserts he could do without Britain becoming “the Switzerland of the twenty-first century” (530). Nonetheless, he and Jane do possess the wisdom and objectivity needed for effectively arbitrating among the representative Western “tribes” assembled for the cruise. Their advanced position among their fellow passengers parallels the advanced position Cook grants to England in the modern world.

Instead of merely basking in most-favored-nation status, however, Fowles scrutinizes England all the more severely, and employs the country’s added cachet toward forging an international path forward. In “The River Between,” for instance, while the rest of the cruise passengers are dancing and reveling at the gala cabaret, Jane and Dan engage the Herr Professor in serious conversation. The German scholar and tour-guide subjects the English couple’s national heritage to stringent critique (557-9). By undergoing this test—as no one else aboard the Nile cruise does—Jane and Dan are sufficiently vetted for a voyage to “the end of the world,” as the climactic visit to Syria and Palmyra is termed. They make this journey more as world citizens than as British ones. They can no longer take refuge in British tribal affiliation or play “Little British,” as they did with the American couple (520). Any cultural privilege they take with them to Syria is earned rather than arrogated.


Cook’s and Fowles’s arguments are risky, prone to charges of elitism and imperialism. As I see it, they both stand up to such charges, and make their high-stakes case intellectually compelling; Fowles goes a step further, using the tools of great fiction to make his case dramatically vivid as well.


A closing thought: if England permits Fowles to treat the modern world in an emblematic way, so do Egypt and Syria allow him to treat the ancient world in an emblematic way. Such choices were necessary if the project as a whole was to treat the story of existence in an emblematic way.


Re: “Daniel Martin” and the story of existence

PostPosted: Sat Sep 03, 2011 1:33 pm
by drkellyindc

In various ways this thread considers how Daniel Martin forges a link between Dan the individual and the wider world of which he is a part. By “wider world” I mean not only his immediate surroundings and the geopolitical world of 1942-1974 but also the vast evolutionary and civilizational history that precedes Dan’s life and era, and that extends into his and our future. I continue thinking about how Fowles brings the micro and macro narratives together, making this novel both a biographical portrait of one man and a synoptic view of human existence. Biographical, generational, national, international, and cosmic aspects all coexist in this novel--the combination could so easily have led to a colossal mash-up, or a series of level and scale confusions.

In this posting I use words by U.S. poet and educator William Meredith (1919-2007) to explore another way of looking at Daniel Martin’s micro and macro scales together.


In the following quotation William Meredith pays tribute to the work of fellow American poet and educator Theodore Roethke (1908-1963). In my view, what Meredith attributes to Roethke and his poetry can be attributed even more to Fowles and Daniel Martin:

Affirmations of any size are the great challenge of the artist. It is easier to achieve an identity, to see a unique vision, through misgivings, grievances, despair, on the one hand, or through utopias, sentimental optimisms, on the other. Only a very large and assured artist can retain his sense of self while deferring to created order. But created order, revealed order, is the source of the great visions of art. The artist looks at the world to affirm what is there, to affirm he knows not what, until his work is done. He risks this homelessness.

I see elements of Meredith’s statement embedded in Fowles’s novel:

    I. “. . . misgivings, grievances, despair, on the one hand . . .”

    In Daniel Martin Fowles shows us not only the preferred path taken but the temptation of other, lesser paths. The easier path through “misgivings, grievances, and despair” is witnessed in numerous representatives:
    • the cynical media idol Barney Dillon (see “Hollow Men”);
    • Member of Parliament Miles Fenwick, with his egotism and his bleak prognosis for England’s future (333-37);
    • Jane, in whom Dan detects “a potency of self-disappointment, self-slander, self-distrust” (430);
    • Daniel himself also falls prey to the grievance-based approach at times. As a young artist, he writes a play that airs grievances against his once-admired circle of Oxford friends. When we meet up with him in middle age, left to his own devices, he gives voice to fashionable despair, quoting “The Waste Land” to Jenny (13), and mimicking cultural pessimism during his hospital visit with Anthony (192). However, Anthony challenges him on this, and contributes to a shift in Dan’s attitude (192-95, 231). A week or so after his exchange with Anthony, Dan’s late-night walk in “In the Orchard of the Blessed” (427-432) reveals that he has acquired the insight and the tools not only to resist cultural pessimism but to confront it: “To hell with cultural fashion . . . to hell with existentialist nausea . . .” (432).

    II. “. . . or through utopias, sentimental optimisms, on the other.”

    Separate from the path of misgivings and despair is another too-easy path: the one leading through utopias and sentimental optimism. Witness these examples in the novel:
    • Parson Martin’s faith in the existing order and his privileged place in it (80); and his faith in a Platonic notion of the human soul, in which all manifestations of “demonstration” are totally controlled (80);
    • Anthony’s Oxford-bred habit of prizing his own sophistries, and of using intellect to justify “even the most ridiculous decisions” (185);
    • Jane’s penchant at Oxford for the “do-what-you-will” permissiveness espoused by French author Rabelais (“. . . the Rabelaisian dreamland where everything goes,” 325); and her subsequent attraction to systems of absolutes—first Catholicism, as she prepares to marry Anthony, and then Marxism.

    Included under the heading of “sentimental optimisms” are Aunt Millie’s “Perhaps it’s for the best” approach (88-9); and the U.S. couple Mitch and Marcia Hooper’s frame of values, exemplified in Mitch’s faith in technology to solve his and Marcia’s infertility issue (540-41).

    III. “Only a large and assured artist can retain his sense of self . . .”

    We witness Dan at critical stages of personal and artistic self-development, from adolescence through the narcissism of his young-adult years into the maturity of middle age. He has periods of going down the easy paths toward pessimism and utopia (see above); yet among the core group of characters he is the novel’s leading edge in terms of self-development and maturity. By degrees, as an artist and as a person, he acquires an amazing confidence. At one point he has the audacity to affirm, “I create, I am: all the rest is dream, though concrete and executed” (221).

    Taken alone, that could be seen as a recipe for god-defying hubris. However, the novel reveals that such a position actually requires tremendous fortitude, humility, and grace. Even as Dan presents his life-story in an artistic form, he also leaves traces of the issues he wrestled with--technical and otherwise--as he faced the task of doing so. For instance, the question of memory is foregrounded in George Seferis’s poetry, at the start of “The Umbrella.” Between the extremes of remembering too little and too much, the lines assert, a memoirist must find a balance:
    What can a flame remember? If it remembers a little less than is necessary, it goes out. If it remembers a little more than is necessary, it goes out. If only it could teach us, while it burns, to remember correctly. (77)

    A further balancing act explored in the novel: the one between artistic self-confidence and self-doubt. In a moment of beginner’s self-doubt about his proposed novel, Dan finds himself envying Lord Kitchener, who represents “driving ambition . . . Daimon: choosing oneself . . . the ability to assert the primacy of one’s own genius” (590). On the one hand, Dan gives voice to “the terror of the task,” and states outright, regarding the novel he wants to write, “He could never do it” (590); on the other hand, as readers we realize that he did manage to overcome his doubts and write a novel that abundantly reveals his primacy as an artist. In this regard “the terror of the task,” as well as the disorientation Dan feels during his visit to Kobbet el Hawa (570-72), parallel the condition of “homelessness” that Meredith describes as an artist’s testing ground.

    A significant final clue about artistic selfhood occurs in Dan’s encounter with the Rembrandt self-portrait at the novel’s conclusion (672-73). The Rembrandt painting is a “formidable sentinel” suggesting that artistic self-portrait can be purged of egotism. We may remember that Dan as an Oxford student had filled his room with specialty mirrors; thus his setting out to write a literary self-portrait might raise concerns about motive. Could it be just an advanced form of vanity? But the Rembrandt painting offers a different path forward, toward altruism and compassion. As I see it, the painting confirms what Dan had sensed earlier, on the night of Anthony’s death: “Perhaps what Dan always wanted of his looking-glasses was not his own face, but the way through them” (221).

    IV. “. . . while deferring to created order.”

    “Created order,” as I see it, is the world inhabited by Dan and his acquaintances: all the countries, eras, cultures, landscapes, climates, individuals, ideas, and forces that they experience. Taken together—as I’ve developed on this thread and others—the novel presents a synoptic treatment of our civilization’s past and present, an artistically condensed version of the earth’s geological, botanical, zoological, anthropological, cultural, political, psychological, and spiritual diversity.

“Affirmations of any size are the great challenge of the artist,” Meredith wrote. This is one of the great challenges Daniel Martin represents. Through the mature will that Dan develops, and his ability to intermesh his own story with that of the cosmos, he is able to achieve in his novel a mighty affirmation indeed.