According to ancient Greek mythology, the Muses were a group of nine sisters, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory), who inspired those proficient in the arts. From Homer forward, the Muses served as a source of appeal for creative and artistic genius. The great epic poets always began their works with invocations of their heavenly muse to supply them with both the substance of their tale and the artistic skill to get it told. Because of this dependency, the muse-figure could serve as both an object of praise for artistic success and an object of blame for artistic failure. Because the Muses were female, courtship of them by male writers could take on aspects of male/female relationships among humans.
John Fowles’s Mantissa derives its dramatic situation and its narrative from the writer/muse relationship. The action of this work consists of the interactions and conversations between an author and a series of women, all of whom finally appear to be his muse in different guises and roles. Fowles reminds the reader at one point of the meaning of the word “mantissa”: “an addition of comparatively small importance, especially to a literary effort or discourse.” In light of his other novels and writings, this book may appear to have just that character, for it is deliberately playful and lighthearted, in contrast to Fowles’s serious novels, such as The Magus (1966) and Daniel Martin (1977). Here, the relationship between writer and muse is depicted as a play of wits, a drama of sexual combat coquettishly engaged in, a constantly shifting array of roles and relationships, none of which is taken too seriously by either participant.
Yet, one suspects, Fowles has larger issues in mind. One subtheme in this work is a series of references to Structuralist and post-Structuralist literary theorists who would seem to deny the connection between art and life and the authority of the author in relationship to his work. Such critics suggest that art is self-enclosed and self-referential; Fowles’s Mantissa is a book about its own writing which makes constant reference to other writers and their work. Recent critical theory also suggests that authorial intention and control in a work are false issues, for a writer is not really in control of the language he employs nor is he able to manipulate the reader toward desired ends; here, Fowles raises, through the convention of the muse, the question of the sources and the purposes of art. If, for example, the writer is a mouthpiece for his muse, then he cannot be said to be in control of the workings and ends of his writing.
More central, however, is the issue of humanity itself; is one’s conception of the importance and dignity of human beings undercut by the kinds of issues raised by the Structuralist and post-Structuralist critics? Michel Foucault, for example, has written that the concept of “man” is a recent invention and one that will soon pass away. One may suspect that Fowles’s Mantissa is a kind of answer to that claim, an answer which poses a different concept of “man” from the one Foucault is rejecting, while seeking to hold onto the central affirmation of the human self-image.
The stage for the action of Mantissa is a small room, apparently in a hospital, although the walls of the room have a strange habit of changing shape and,...
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