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Lacan and Fowles on human knowledge

When I first read John Fowles’ wonderful counter-Bildung novel, The Magus, years ago, I had not read Jacques Lacan. When I finally did try to make sense of Lacan, after reading Freud, something Lacan says made me think back to The Magus. In The Other side of Psychoanalysis (2007: 23), Lacan makes this observation: “The desire for knowledge bears no relationship to knowledge” — a puzzling statement that seems counter-intuitive, to say the least.

It resonates with something he wrote at a much earlier stage in his career, in “The mirror stage” (1977: 3) and in “Aggressivity in psychoanalysis” (1977: 17) to the effect that human knowledge is structured “as paranoiac”. In “Aggressivity” he puts it this way: “What I have called paranoiac knowledge is shown, therefore, to correspond in its more or less archaic forms to certain critical moments that mark the history of man’s mental genesis, each representing a stage in objectifying identification.”

He is obviously using the term “paranoiac” metaphorically here, and not in the sense of a full-blown psychosis, which is marked by such pervasive delusions on the part of a “psychotic” person that non-psychotic people cannot really communicate sensibly with him or her — the psychotic is caught in the circle of his or her delusional ideas in such a way that they mediate all their experience, including attempts by others to communicate with them.

So what does Lacan mean by claiming that human knowledge is “structured” in a “paranoiac” manner? Anyone familiar with philosophy’s history will know of the difference between the pre-Socratics, Parmenides and Heraclitus, on the nature of reality, or being. While Parmenides claimed that “being is, and it is impossible that it is not”, relegating experience of change and movement to the level of illusion (“being” not admitting of any change, but remaining unchangingly permanent instead), Heraclitus begged to differ: only becoming is, and permanence is illusory. Hence his statement: “All is flux.”

Several thinkers after Heraclitus similarly stressed becoming as the dominant cosmic process, including Henri Bergson, for whom “élan vital” or life-flow was the true reality, although the human intellect reduces such becoming to distinct, supposedly “permanent” entities for merely pragmatic reasons. By saying that knowledge has a paranoiac structure, Lacan is saying the same sort of thing — we act as if “reality” remains stable, the same, throughout time, but it is really only a function of “objectifying identification”, which we need in order to interact with the world. Nietzsche and Deleuze could be added to this list of thinkers who stress the perpetual “becoming” of the world. And, of course, novelist Fowles, who has one of his characters, Lily de Seitas, in The Magus observe: “The basic principle of life is hazard … if one goes deep enough in atomic physics one ends with a situation of pure chance. Of course we all share the illusion that this can’t be so.” (1983: 627-628).

I described The Magus as a “counter-Bildung” novel earlier — that is, one where the hero or heroine does not, as in a Bildung-novel proper, learn from his or her mistakes the painful lesson that wisdom is only attained through trials and tribulations (recall Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations). The anti-hero in Fowles’ novel, Nicholas Urfe, never seems to learn from his experiences on the Greek island of Phraxos, where he goes in search of “a new mystery” when he tires of his girlfriend, Alison. There he meets an enigmatic but fascinating man, Maurice Conchis, in whose villa he spends weekends as a guest and by whom he is exposed to a series of “mysteries” that resonate with beliefs that were widespread in ancient Greece.

He is impressed by the extensive knowledge and psychic power displayed by Conchis (the “Magus”), at whose villa he meets a mysterious young woman, Lily, who appears to be acting out the role of Conchis’ deceased beloved, and whose “real” identity he later discovers to be “Julie Holmes”, one of twin sisters who were supposedly employed by Conchis to star in a film. Despite the puzzling series of events, involving what he believes to be “actors” employed by Conchis for his benefit, Nicholas is driven by the conviction that he will decipher their true meaning.

Nevertheless, given the pattern of apparently deciphering a mystifying experience and subsequently being mystified and frustrated anew by Conchis’ “masque”, Nicholas admits to himself at one point: (Fowles 1983: 294): “Every truth in his world was a sort of lie; and every lie a sort of truth.” The amazing thing is that he never seems to learn — every time he believes that he has finally cracked the “code”, the carpet is pulled from under his feet again.

In this respect one might say that the fictional Nicholas represents the human condition. This is counter-Bildung of the most tantalising kind.

I should mention that this “refusal to learn” is also connected to Nicholas meeting his erstwhile girlfriend, Alison, in Athens, from where they embark on a simultaneously wonderful and disastrous journey to Mount Parnassus, ending with Nicholas breaking off the relationship with her. He later receives the devastating “news” from a friend that Alison has committed suicide — only to learn, much later in the narrative, that she is alive and complicit in the masque to which he has been subjected.

The story culminates in a series of events — a “trial” of sorts — so startling that it catches the reader, who has unavoidably identified with the protagonist, unawares, subjecting one to some uncomfortable moments of vicarious experience with remarkable intensity. As intimated earlier, the astonishing thing is that he persists in believing he has discovered the true state of affairs, despite new experiences rendering this belief null and void.

Hence the resonance between Lacan’s claim concerning the “paranoiac” form of human “knowledge”, or what he also calls the human “will to illusion” (which “the will to truth”, driven by desire, appears to be) and The Magus. One might say that the narrative involving Nicholas is propelled by the Socratic exhortation, to “know thyself”, a quest that nevertheless proves to be elusive.

Readers interested in a lengthier treatment of this theme, can read my paper, “Negotiating the ‘paranoiac structure’ of human knowledge: Fowles’ The Magus and Lacan”, in Philosophy and Psychoanalytic theory. Collected essays, London and Frankfurt: Peter Lang Academic Publishers, 2009.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Maria Maria 5 February 2013

    Was it Camus who said: “If you want to philosophize, write novels”? Fowles was a very philosophical novelist. In most of his novels, and not only in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, he reflected, in different ways, on the nature of art and literature. There’s even such a famous passage near the end of The Magus, if I remember correctly. When you first encounter it, is is immensely puzzling, until the penny drops, and you realize this musing on time standing still is an allusion to the mode of being of the novel.

  2. Richard Richard 6 February 2013

    This is all most certainly true. I wonder how much of it is as a consequence of our forming our opinions of ourselves based on the utterances of others. Even if we believe something to be true about ourselves (selfishness, say), if others tell us we are generous, we might tend to offset our views by their statements. In this way, our private reality and the outside view diverge, but because others treat us according to their perspectives, we build a complicated double-relationship with ourselves. Over time, it may take a traumatic event to separate out these two beliefs, and for them to “do battle” to allow the “truth” (whatever that might be in this instance) to emerge. If people believe I am generous, but I believe I am selfish, upon what have they based their belief? Presumably acts of generosity. So why do I believe I am not generous? Is it simply an irrational belief I hold? I will take some test ultimately to reveal the truth of the situation, and why I believe what I do. Most people live their lives in a state of half-truth, perhaps believing they are sincere when they aren’t, that they are loving when they aren’t (or the exact opposite) simply because the human sounding-boards are limited in their perspicacity. Perhaps that is reason enough to seek intelligent company! To conclude, a half-remembered quote (I think Bernard Shaw): statues shouldn’t be built to soldiers or men or war, but rather to those who have the courage to delve deeply into their own souls.

  3. Richard Richard 6 February 2013

    Sorry, should read, “It will take some test ultimately to reveal the truth of the situation…”

  4. Brendon Brendon 25 February 2013

    This analysis can prove that ”knowledge” is a coping mechanism for the human mind, which without, we cannot hope to survive. Lacan theorises that knowledge is a form of ”the paranoiac”, which I agree with because, each day we have to go out into the world and attain a ”life” of some sort. Wether your a varsity proffessor or work behind a till, a constant ”need to know” manifests (the mind in a subtle panic), this is what I think Lacan means by his ”paranoiac” theory, we need to know something in order to cope and basically live. One can argue that money seems rather worthless when assessing how much, more, we need knowledge to survive.

  5. Brendon Brendon 25 February 2013

    This analysis can prove that ”knowledge” is a coping mechanism for the human mind, which without, we cannot hope to survive. Lacan theorises that knowledge is a form of ”the paranoiac”, which I agree with because, each day we have to go out into the world and attain a ”life” of some sort. Whether you’re a varsity professor or work behind a till, a constant ”need to know” manifests (the mind in a subtle panic), this is what I think Lacan means by his ”paranoiac” theory, we need to know something in order to cope and basically live. One can argue that money seems rather worthless when assessing how much, more, we need knowledge to survive.

  6. WH Greeff WH Greeff 25 February 2013

    “The desire for knowledge bears no relationship to knowledge” (Lacan: 2007: 23). I disagree with Lacanreasoning, grounds being that in order to have the ‘desire for knowledge’ you have to have some level of knowledge already. Meaning, if you have the desire for knowledge, a relationship is shared with knowledge in the sense that it requires a certain amount of knowledge to desire more.
    This theory, which opposes Lacan by stating that a relationship is shared between the desire of knowledge and knowledge itself, still relates with the second quotation of Lacan. “What I have called paranoiac…identification.” (Lacan: 1977: 3) Knowledge is portrayed and displayed by having the desire for knowledge, this theory relates to the second quote as it is a stage of ‘paranoiac knowledge’, metaphorically speaking of course. The desire for knowledge is a major step in the history of man’s mental origin. The desire for knowledge is one of the first steps humankind have taken when wanting to gain more knowledge or information, or just wanting to broaden the mind with the infinite possibilities and ideas that the world possesses.
    Therefore, in order to attain knowledge, you have to have a desire for knowledge.

  7. WH Greeff WH Greeff 25 February 2013

    Typing error in comment. Should read. “I disagree with Lacans’ reasoning..”

  8. Ted-Allan Ted-Allan 26 February 2013

    John Fowles’ The Magus fascinated me personally due to the resonance I felt with the protagonist Nicholas Urfe (as a student interested in philosophy and it’s enduring effect it has on a young adult about to embark on his or her life) and otherwise, due to the complex nature of the narrative. I’d like to further elaborate on how I feel that the novel is in fact a story of self-cultivation, a counter-Bildung as proposed in your critique by spotlighting Nicholas’ role as a self-proclaimed existentialist. Here I’d like to reference a chapter in David E. Cooper’s Existetialism titled: Philosophy and Alienation – Battling against Bewitchment. He states that “ […] philosophy should not be the task of providing new knowledge […] but rather it should be an activity through which the victim of bewitchment helps himself escape from the fly bottle.” – the bewitchment here refers to is, simply put, “the dualisms like those of inner versus outer, mind versus body, language versus reality […]” .
    Now considering the culmination of events it would seem as if Nick has somewhat failed to appease the reader in the fact that he has not, and almost refuses, to learn from his mistakes. But what the ending proved was that Nick has cultivated a solitary sense of being even prior to the events he experienced with Maurice Conchis; or, as Cooper puts it, escaped from the fly bottle. This can be linked to the distinguishing characteristics the existentialist possesses, that“ he (the existentialist)…

  9. Ashleigh Ashleigh 26 February 2013

    “The desire for knowledge bears no relationship to knowledge” This statement can be applied to the main character in John Fowles’ novel The Magus. Nicholas embodies Lacan’s theory in that he is in constant pursuit of knowledge (more specifically, self knowledge) yet through his refusal to learn/engage with the desire for knowledge he falls subject, rather, to false knowledge and self-delusion..

    Nicholas’s frame of self-reference is flawed due to the fact that he doesn’t understand that the human identity is in a constant state of flux. Lacan’s statement, “All is flux”, supports this. The protagonist seeks a fixed identity or, put another way, fixed knowledge i.e. fixed knowledge of the self. Sadly he fails to conceptualize the true nature of both knowledge and identity because his attitude towards knowledge is paranoiac. Human knowledge is paranoiac because we are able to engage in a process of objectifying identification. When you objectify something you prescribe and fix it. Self knowledge by its own nature is not fixed, cannot be totalised by prescription. Henceforth, in Nicholas aiming to attain a fixed identity rather than an understanding of the true transient nature of self knowledge (and therefore identity) he cannot attain what he seeks making the novel an counter- Bildungsroman.

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