Fowles and the Squid
A man in crisis struggling to change his life meets another man, the one with the guru complex, who wants to control and arguably transform others.
This is, deliberately stripped down, the main conflict in Squid Game, a Netflix series that has recently caused quite a stir.
I’m sure a lot has been — and will be — written about the other aspects of the series: sociopolitical criticism (debt problem, wealth inequality, social injustice, abuse of power, tradeoffs of democracy, corruption), group psychology (group formation and development, roles within a group, intra- and intergroup relations), unmasking the dark side of human nature (egoism, surviving by any means). A philosophically-minded observer could even speculate about an allegory of virtual reality or a Huizinga-esque ubiquitous game motive.
However, in this piece, I would like to dissect another theme. Since the storyline is focused on the protagonist, Seong Gi-hun, we may consider it from the point of view of the central character’s existential situation, internal and external conflicts, and transformation.
Before we proceed, we need a wider context. Squid Game is not the first survival game-based film. Saw comes to mind as one of the best-known predecessors. There were many more, but I believe we can trace the whole existential game theme to The Magus, a 1965 novel by John Fowles. As of writing this article, I haven’t seen any mentions of the parallels, but that is probably because most people who watch Squid Game don’t read books (this is the harsh reality of modern pop culture), and the only film adaptation of The Magus wasn’t particularly successful.
Here, too, a young man undergoes trials arranged by a rich senior with a penchant for sadism on a remote island.
The details, of course, are different. Nicholas Urfe doesn’t have to compete with hundreds of other aspirants and deals only with Maurice Conchis and his assistants. He is an intelligent and well-educated representative of the middle class, while Seong Gi-hun is rather an average lower class member. On the Greek island, there is no cash prize, and the trials are more sophisticated and not based on children’s games.
Still, the central theme is the same: an aspirant has to grapple with transformative challenges laden with symbolism and engineered by a patronizing figure who in some cases also seems to help to overcome them.
This has obvious initiatory vibes. By initiation we mean a guided entrance into some new mode of existence. This could be something as simple as introduction into adulthood in early societies or something more complicated like exposure to advanced states of consciousness in mystical orders.
Initiatory trials are meant to emulate certain liminal situations, often with ample use of symbolism. In theory, these situations can be encountered in real life, and one can even say that life is the best initiator. However, one never knows when this may happen, and in modern comfortable life some situations may happen less frequent. As a result, we see, for example, infantile people well into their thirties, even despite having their own children. Besides, there’s no guarantee a person would efficiently react to and reflect on a situation.
It should be noted that there’s also no guarantee an initiation would be efficient as is illustrated by many self-professed initiates. There are a number of possible reasons: novel initiatory rites created without real understanding of subject matter; traditional rites that failed to adapt to modern circumstances or simply lost certain crucial elements; incompetent initiators; or inept and unfit initiates.
Nevertheless, initiation, when properly designed and conducted, provides an opportunity of change, growth, maturing and discovering new dimensions of thinking and experience. Note the words “properly designed and conducted”. When analyzing Squid Game and The Magus, we do not claim the trials depicted therein meet these criteria. They are just works of fiction, and we are only looking at symbols, references and parallels, so there’s no point in trying to recreate those games and hoping to achieve initiation.
Anyway, let’s consider them as if they were initiatory rites. Situations represented in Squid Game emulate, in a highly hyperbolized and intensified way, brutal realities of life. The theme of death is the central one: from being frighteningly close to death through death of strangers and then those dear to you to being the cause of someone else’s death and finally realizing the inevitability of your life’s end. The theme of choice and of its absence can be noted as well.
Generally speaking, all this can be attributed to the first stage or degree of initiation, usually represented in initiatory systems by several subdegrees. Reference to children’s games also underlines the necessity to deal with one’s childhood traumas, problems and beliefs before proceeding to more advanced stages of initiation. This is initiation into life as it is, or, if we try to dig deeper into, so to speak, metaphysical roots of life and death dynamics (and look into other themes reflected in the opening degrees of various initiatory systems), we may also call it initiation into time.
As has been already mentioned, the trials in The Magus are more elaborate. Here, Nicholas Urfe is forced to direct his attention to his own psyche, to his drives, desires, beliefs and values, while external reality often strikes as tricky, unreliable and illusory. He is led to doubt and reevaluate everything including his picture of the world. He has to transgress against himself, or rather against his internalized concepts and morals that he believed to be his own self.
Remembering that we’re dealing with a work of fiction depicting an isolated situation the author wished to focus on, and thus not expecting from Nicholas Urfe any previous initiatory experience, we may view what is described here as the second degree of initiation (again, usually represented by several degrees in initiatory systems). We can describe it as initiation into life in more depth, details and colors, or, alternatively, initiation into the world.
What comes next? Is this the final stage of initiation? Not necessarily.
But let us for a moment switch to another pole in the conflict we mentioned in the beginning: the initiator.
Both Maurice Conchis and Oh Il-nam are obvious trickster characters. Although traditionally the figure of a spiritual master or an initiator is associated with — using Jungian terms — the wise old man archetype, popular culture is replete with examples of trickster gurus be it Zen rōshis or eccentrics like Aleister Crowley, George Gurdjieff or Osho.
In fact, one must not be old to initiate others, but certain wisdom and experience are mandatory. You cannot properly initiate anyone if you have never encountered the situation reproduced in an initiatory rite and reacted to it in a way that promotes growth and transformation, just as a 25-year old psychoanalyst can’t help you cope with a midlife crisis. One should also be able to estimate an initiate’s psychology and to adequately guide them through the trials, thus demonstrating certain pedagogical skills.
As to the trickster part, some may say that life itself is tricky, uncertain and unpredictable, and so an initiator should embody these qualities. However, ideally, an initiatory rite already captures them, and besides, no matter how romantic and attractive the trickster archetype seems, tricksters in flesh and blood are often sadistic, egoistic, attention-seeking, megalomaniac and/or narcissistic personalities who wish to control, dominate, manipulate and be worshipped as gurus. This is what I meant by the guru complex in the beginning of the article.
I am sure there are people who admire Conchis, Oh Il-nam and the likes, but if you put yourself in Nicholas Urfe and Seong Gi-hun’s shoes, chances are you would realize they fit the above portrait of an asshole quasi-trickster guru, unless you’re a masochist and feel the need to be violently controlled and taught the lessons of life.
Seong Gi-hun, at the end of what seems to be the first season of Squid Game, gets an opportunity to kill Oh Il-nam. And although the latter dies on his own, this is symbolic of the situation encountered by someone who completes an initiation.
Upon completing the two degrees described above, there are several options. Of course, one can simply stop here and dedicate the remainder of their life to deepening and expanding the understanding and experience attained up to now. Or one can initiate others within the same system. One can also, symbolically speaking, “kill” the guru (once again, we should keep in mind that the works of fiction considered here are only used as illustrations and neither of them describes a real or complete initiation), and start their own, slightly modified game. In both cases one would not move beyond the second degree.
Finally, one can transcend the existential level and venture into ontological waters, figuratively speaking, where no human guide is needed or possible. We may call this degree initiation into being. If successful, one would make the whole world play their game. And this would be neither squid nor magus game. Einstein or Heidegger would be two good examples of the 20th century masters who achieved this degree. And what about modern occult and mystical systems and their initiates? They are nothing but shadows (at best) or rather parodies of truly worthwhile achievements of human mind.
When analyzing a work of fiction, we never know an author’s intentions or implications unless they explain them somewhere. However, critics look for resonating themes, notions, patterns and archetypal situations which they then use to expand on their own views and ideas. This article is no exception.
“But”, one may ask, “should I view Squid Game if I had already read and enjoyed The Magus?” No, unless you want to know what all the hype is about (or wish to understand the references in this article). There’s nothing really new, and there’s little cinematographic value. “And should I read The Magus if I have watched Squid Game?” If the question really occurs to you, then yes, and probably you should start reading more instead of wasting your time for Netflix.
P. S. The article’s title is a nod to Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf.