The Magus by John Fowles

There is a phenomenal scene early on in this book. The protagonist, Nicholas, is listening to the antagonist, Conchis, describe his experiences in war, and suggests to him an alternative. Instead of nations constantly warring with each other, every single person would, on their 18th birthday, be asked to roll a dice. If the dice rolls a certain number, they must kill themselves. Conchis then retrieves a die, and a poisonous pill. He tells Nicholas to roll the die, and that if he rolls the six, to commit himself to taking the pill and killing himself.

I will spoil the result of this challenge next, I do not think it detracts much from the book as a whole, but still, I give you this warning.

Nicholas agrees, then rolls the six, and then shakes his head at Conchis, stating that he will not fulfill the bargain, and does refuse to take the poison. Conchis says that this is correct. We agree! Of course it is correct, but what’s the point?

The point is that often in life one makes commitments, and then feels obligated to honor those commitments strictly on the basis of having made it. That is a stupid reason to do something, suggests Conchis, and again, I agree.

You might be young, in which case you have no idea what life is about, or how long it will actually be, or how it works. Millions of 18 year olds are asked to promise with all their hearts to pay back massive amounts of money, given to anyone with essentially no counseling or information attached, when they go to college. Of course they should refuse to pay back those loans! The government knows it’s a terrible deal, a trick pulled on children in order for billionaires to make even more money, which is why they make the consequences for not paying them back so onerous. If you fail to pay back credit debt, car loans, mortgages, you declare bankruptcy and walk away from everything. College loans? they will come for your paycheck, your house, anything then can get their grubby little mitts on. Because it would be entirely permissible, in regards to your conscience, to simply not fulfill your commitment, they make the legal punishments quite severe.

The experiment Conchis plays on Nicholas, just a small aspect of a much greater experiment played on Nicholas that is the scope and sequence of this book, is meant to reveal the same point about military service. You sign up, realize it is terrible, regret your decision immensely, and so you could just leave. It would be entirely permissible! Especially if the information given to you about the experience turns out to be entirely false. However, because this is so, the legal ramifications for walking away from a commitment to military service is quite severe. Eddie Slovik was the last United States military man to be executed for desertion, during WWII, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an option.

Similarly, in both the case of military service and defaulting on debts, there is a significant social stigma. You are a loser! A coward! An infidel! A bum!

Who cares? Everyone, it would seem. Why?

It isn’t an accident, imagine if people celebrated breaking commitments that didn’t make sense! The entire structure of the world would fall apart, which would be terrible for those people who are profiting from that structure. A question to consider, are you one of those people? If not, why are you defending it?

Again, I have focused exclusively on a few paragraphs in a novel of 700 pages, it’s almost not even relevant. But despite the incredible intrigue of this novel, the way in which it frames the world in terms of being observed and observing, the incredible descriptive language of John Fowles, it is those few paragraphs I’ll be thinking about in the years to come. Sometimes small things come in very big packages, too.