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Sacred and Profane Iris Murdoch

by Joyce Carol Oates

Originally published in the New Republic, Novermber 18, 1978; reprinted in The Profane Art

Though Iris Murdoch has defined the highest art as that which reveals and honors the minute, "random" detail of the world, and reveals it together with a sense of its integrity, its unity and form, her own ambitious, disturbing, and eerily eccentric novels are stichomythic structures in which ideas, not things, and certainly not human beings, flourish. In the beginning is the Word.

There are many novels—The Sea, The Sea is the nineteenth—and many characters, and many wildly, at times frantically, inventive plots. There are perhaps hundreds of interiors, meticulously described; and hundreds of costumes; and a small galaxy of observations about the quality of the air, the sun's setting or the sun's rising, the condition of London in the summer, or in the fall, or in the rainy winter, or the bright misleading spring. There are innumerable loves—usually one dominant love to a novel, and satellite, subplot loves that mock or confirm the central love-obsession. There are characters who are "enchanters" (often self-deceived) and characters who are enchanted, often disastrously. There are convoluted plots reminiscent of the worst of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, and the most cheerfully muddled of Restoration comedies, in which the author operates, at times almost visibly, as a puppet-mistress alternately contemptuous of and moved by her characters' fates. There are defiantly tidy endings, as in The Time of the Angels and The Italian Girl, inferior works; and unresolved, troubling, provocative endings, as in A Word Child, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, Henry and Cato and The Sea, The Sea—loose, freer, more ribald, even rather buffoonish works that, while never experimental in a literary sense, are nevertheless not contained by the rigid theatrical structures and unexpected disclosures of a more conventional novelistic vision. There is a dizzying profusion, then, of characters, incidents, settings, endings, so much so that even admirers of Murdoch's fiction often complain that they cannot remember a novel only a few days after having read it. (Indeed, the protagonist of The Sea, The Sea, a retired playwright and director who has achieved great fame in England, but who sees himself, correctly, as an egotist and a rapacious magician, is charged by a former admirer with having created nothing genuine, nothing of permanent value: Charles Arrowby is a master of dazzling ephemera, nothing more, and now that his power is fading he will soon be forgotten. Like Hilary Burde of A Word Child and, to some extent, the overly prolific, death-haunted novelist Montague Small of The Sacred and Profane Lore Machine, Arrowby must be speaking of matters with which Murdoch is personally concerned.)

Despite this multiplicity, this richness, however, the novels are not really difficult, so long as one reads them as structures in which ideas compete, as in a debate, or, when they are most successful, as in Greek tragedy, in which near-symmetrical, balanced forces war with one another. The question is never, Which vision of the cosmos is most reasonable, most deserving of victory? but, rather, Which vision of the cosmos coincides with that of the gods? (By gods is meant simply the objective, impersonal, ineluctable pattern of the universe, in which human subjectivity, and all the wishful stains of self, are dissolved.)

Self as blinding, crippling, paralyzing, ludicrous: this seems to be Murdoch's position. She has said that the greatest art, like that of Shakespeare, is impersonal; it contemplates and delineates nature with a "clear eye," untainted by fantasy. Why subjectivity and even the private self's fantasies should be so abhorred by Murdoch, and denied a place, a weight, in the cosmos (for surely it is as "real" as the material world, or the collective fantasies we call culture), is never altogether clear in her philosophical writings or in her fiction. In an elegiac poem, "Agamemnon Class 1939"* Murdoch states in serene, stately language, addressed to a dead classmate, that the "demons" that traveled with them in their youth were still, in 1939, "smiling in their sleep. Terrible violence will come in the Agamemnon, terrible violence will come in the world:

No one can rebuild that town
And the soldier who came home
Has entered the machine of a continued doom.
Only the sky and the sea
Are unpolluted and old
And godless with innocence.
And twilight comes to the chasm
And to the sea's expanse
And the terrible bright Greek air fades away.

Murdoch's implicit philosophical position is austere, classical, rigorous: unromantic, and pessimistic. Not that pessimism precludes comedy: on the contrary, it is probably the basis of the comic spirit.

Life after all is comic, not tragic, in Murdoch's cosmology. It is comic because it is not tragic—merely terrible. (As Charles Arrowby says at the start of The Sea, The Sea, ironically, since he will soon be caught up in an absurd delusion of his own: "The theatre apes the profound truth that we are extended beings who yet can only exist in the present. It is a factitious present because it lacks the free aura of personal reflection and contains its own secret limits and conclusions.) Nothing is so fascinating, so enigmatic, as the nature of the Good, and of Love, and Freedom: yet nothing is so elusive, and brings us to such muddles (to use a word that Murdoch employs often). There are even amusing Murdoch characters who realize that they are doomed to happiness and to the mediocrity that seems to imply, since the circumstances of their lives prevent them from continuing the quest for the nature of truth (Henry Marshalson, Bruno's son Miles). But suffering itself, in the context of pitiless self-examination, can masquerade as purification, and we are back where we've begun—no more enlightened than before. There is a marvelous moment at the end of Murdoch's essay "On 'God' and 'Good'" (in The Sovereignty of Good, 1970) when the author, after many pages of abstract, rather tortuous theorizing, changes tone suddenly: "At this point someone might say, all this is very well, the only difficulty is that none of it is true." And, consequently: "Perhaps indeed all is vanity, all is vanity, and there is no respectable intellectual way of protecting people from despair."

There is something noble about a philosopher's quixotic assumption that he or she is the person to protect others from despair; or, indeed, that others require protection from despair. But Murdoch's sense of her mission is noble, and in an era when some of our most articulate spokesmen routinely denigrate their own efforts it is good to be told, I think plausibly, that literature provides a very real education in how to picture and comprehend the human situation, and that for both the collective and individual salvation of the race, art is more important than anything else, and literature most important of all. (See The Sovereignty of Good.)

To a Platonist ideas are real. Iris Murdoch is, perhaps, not a Platonist—not quite. And yet in her novels ideas are far more "real" than they are in other contemporary novels, and there are not very many of them, and they are clearly, almost too clearly, set forth. The basic idea seems to be that centuries of humanism have nourished an unrealistic conception of the powers of the will: we have gradually lost the vision of a reality separate from ourselves, and we have no adequate conception of original sin. Twentieth-century obsessions with the authority of the individual, the "existential" significance of subjectivity, are surely misguided, for the individual cannot be (as he thinks himself, proudly) a detached observer, free to invent or reimagine his life. The Time of the Angels is one of Murdoch's least plausible novels, but its mock existential Death-of-God concerns are illuminating. If there is no God, as Dostoyevsky said, is it possible that everything is permitted?—nothing is not permitted? Carl Fisher, the suicidal fallen priest of The Time of the Angels, once began a sermon by saying, "And what if I tell you there is no God?" and spends most of his time, and the reader's, in a quite literal fog, toying with ideas of freedom, nihilism, crime, and death. He is Murdoch's quite serious embodiment of the necessary consequences of fashionable godless Existentialism, and there are times when his thoughts, and even his language, echo those of Dostoyevsky's formidable Svidrigalov. The "death" of God has set His thoughts (or angels) free, and these thoughts are beyond our conception in their power. As Christianity dissolves, might it be that a great curtain will be raised at last, and, if so, what might be revealed behind . . . ? Carl Fisher commits suicide because his "black philosophy" is simply lifeless, and the ordinary world resumes its power: the London fog lifts. In The Nice and the Good it is observed that there are mysterious agencies of the mind, gaseous tentacles that can cause pain and mutilation: the ordinary person is naturally endowed with them, "just as he is endowed with the ghostly power of appearing in other people's dreams." These eidola projected from the mind can become autonomous, wandering freely in search of victims, unless, of course, they are stopped by the sacrificial act of one who is both good and at the same time disinterested. But since our original sin is, quite probably, our infatuation with self, so this expulsion of random, brute evil is extremely difficult: how does one transcend one's own self, without delusion?

In The Sea, The Sea Charles Arrowby's escape from London and his attempt to purge himself of egoism by writing his autobiography—near the appropriately named village of Narrowdean—is a gesture that might seem laudable; yet it is fraught with risk, and eventually brings disaster upon himself and others, precisely because it is an artificial, and even subtly satanic, act. For Arrowby cannot help revising his life, even as he recounts it. Murdoch believes that the "inner" world is, in a sense, parasitic upon the "outer" world, and that love, far from being the redemptive, all-consuming force that sentimentalists consider it, is in fact the most dangerous of all delusions. It is bound up helplessly with egoism and personal fantasy, the "tissue of self-aggrandizing and consoling wishes and dreams which prevent one from seeing what there is outside one," and it is, fairly normally, too myopic, possessive, and "mechanical" to aid one in a realistic interpretation of the universe. Mankind is not free. There are few choices, few options, though daydreams and fantasies urge us to believe that there are many, and that the small, distorting window through which we view the world is not a fiction. It has been charged that Murdoch's characters are puppets and that they are jerked about from one improbable crisis to another, and perhaps in response to this Murdoch has had one of her most important spokesmen, Brendan, Cato's mentor in Henry and Cato, say that people are puppets—puppets in the hands of God. And what is God.? "God is unimaginable and incomprehensible and nameless. Dysphrastos and thaumastos." Perhaps God is simply another fiction, however, and the various metaphysical substitutes—Reason, Science, History, Society, "Progress"—are false deities. One is left, then, with ...

One is left with silly inconsequential but deeply absorbing plots. Emotions that feel "genuine" and "existential" enough but are, of course, illusions, sheer phantasmagoria. One is left with other people who are, whether they acknowledge it or not, involved in the same fruitless, albeit highly engrossing, quest. Their "ideas" make war upon one another; their "visions" are always in conflict. Charles Arrowby imagines himself the most rigorous of thinkers, shrewd, analytic, unsparing of self, yet he is seduced by a grotesquely sentimental—and, alas, not always convincing—notion of destiny: he meets the woman who was his first love, more than forty years ago, and, though she is of course much changed, is in fact unattractive and not very bright, and terribly boring, he becomes obsessed with her, imagines that he is madly in love with her, and that it is his duty to rescue her from her dull, routinely unhappy marriage. (A device that Murdoch has used in the past, often more successfully: the imposing of the lover's vision of his love onto a real, unfortunate, rather bewildered victim. So Henry Marshalson of Henry and Cato, in a futile attempt to postpone his own ineludible destiny, talks himself into "failing in love" with and "wanting to marry" a very ordinary woman whom he imagined his dead brother loved; so Hilary Burde and Lady Kitty of A Word Child enter passionately into a folie a deux that is fatal to Lady Kitty and comes near to destroying the self-important, imperious Hilary, the "word child," himself.) The Sea, The Sea is intermittently brilliant, given life by those off-hand, gnomic, always provocative remarks—essays in miniature, really— that characterize Murdoch's novels, and give them their intelligence, their gravity, while the machinations of the plot threaten to dissipate all seriousness; but Charles Arrowby's obsessive, fantasizing concern with his old love Hartley, who rejected him at the age of twenty and married someone else, and who has become a comically inappropriate image of Young Love and Lost Innocence, is not made very convincing. Scene follows scene, the movement of Charles's mind is maddeningly sluggish, one comes to feel that Murdoch is not going to budge, and that the strategy of a first-person narrator (so effective in A Word Child) was simply an error in The Sea, The Sea. Curiously, the novel is not very dramatic. There are a few awkward gestures toward gothic melodrama: Charles is terrified when a mirror is broken in his house, and a vase smashed; he believes he has seen a sea-serpent and a dim "ghost"—but the "supernatural" is set aside for hundreds of pages, and some of the acts rather perfunctorily explained, so that Charles can concentrate upon his quixotic, doomed love" for poor Hartley, the "Bearded Lady." There is a genuine accident—Hartley's adopted son Titus drowns in the sea; there is an attempted murder—Charles himself is pushed into the sea, not by Hartley's jealous husband, as he thinks, but by one of his "admirers" who, he comes to learn, has secretly detested him for years. But much of the novel is static, and Charles becomes unforgivably garrulous. He is a vain, self-important fool, yet one resents being trapped inside his consciousness, however authentic it seems. And it is difficult not to think that the novel's conclusion, which involves the "supernatural" powers of Charles's envied cousin James, who has disciplined himself in Buddhist practices, and is evidently capable of committing a painless, bloodless suicide by exerting "just a little pressure of his mind upon his body" so that his consciousness is extinguished forever, is not part of another novel, another extended vision.

There are too many sketchy characters in The Sea, The Sea, the "fable" is not adequately linked to the "theme," and Murdoch is coming to depend upon a certain category of personage—Brendan of Henry and Cato, Willy Kost of The Nice and the Good, Arthur of A Word Child, Edgar of The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, Max Lejour of The Unicorn, Matthew of An Accidental Man, Carl Fisher of The Time of the Angels, Nigel of Bruno's Dream, etc.—far too often, too glibly, in order to make her primary ideas explicit. The employment of highly articulate characters is of course not an inevitable sign of a novel's failure: Dostoyevsky uses such characters frequently, and among them are some of his most brilliant creations (Father Zossima, Porfiry, the dying Stepan Verkhovensky), and nearly all of Lawrence's major figures are used as vehicles, sometimes shamelessly so, for Lawrence's ideas.

But in Murdoch these characters are used repeatedly; they are self-conscious gods-from-the-machine who confront the protagonist with certain gnomic observations that might be applicable to any human dilemma. The wise, gentle Arthur of A Word Child says, in defense of Buddhism, which Hilary has attacked, "I don't think we all exist that much. I think we should just be kind to one another.... I mean one's mind is just an accidental jumble of stuff. There's nothing behind ordinary life. There isn't anything complete. Life isn't a play. It isn't even a pantomime." But Hilary, who is almost literally an underground man (he loves to ride the Underground beneath the city of London, seeing it as his natural home; the Inner Circle is his favorite) cannot absorb his wisdom. In The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, one of Murdoch's most energetically muddled novels, the peculiar Edgar Demarnay tells David, a young victim, that he must forgive and forget those who have injured him: he must not judge. "One mustn't worry too much. All human solutions are temporary. . . . One's ordinary tasks are usually immediate and simple and one's own truth lives in these tasks. Not to deceive oneself, not to protect one's pride with false ideas, never to be pretentious or bogus, always to try to be lucid and quiet. There's a kind of pure speech of the mind which one must try to attain. To attain it is to be in the truth, one's own truth, which needn't mean any big apparatus of belief. And when one is there one will be truthful and kind and able to see other people and what they need!"

Murdoch makes an attempt to give such characters weight, to sketch in backgrounds for them—they usually have "tragic" memories—but they remain unconvincing because they are so dangerously close to the authorial voice itself. All is illusion—in art, in the pages of a novel; but fictional characters, at least in conventionally imagined novels like Murdoch's, are not supposed to know that they are part of an illusion or that it is, in an ultimate sense, not very significant. These spokesmen strike the reader as unreal because they are no more than ideas, the embodiment of ideas, and constitute, in a sense, the novelist's failure to communicate her theme on a deeper, less self-consciously verbal level; or perhaps it is an impatience with the formality of the novel itself. One has the typically dense Murdochian plot with its cast of highly idiosyncratic characters, and one has a kind of ongoing choral commentary on the plot and characters. When the story, the people, are convincingly imagined—as in Henry and Cato, Murdoch's finest novel to date, and surely one of the major achievements in fiction in recent years—one is not distracted by the commentary; when the story and its people are sketchily imagined, too obviously arbitrary and clownish to be worthy of our serious attention, the thematic statements, the Olympian utterances, fail to work entirely. We are told in novel after novel that people are "mechanical," that erotic love is a sort of "machine," that Goodness is "giving up power and acting upon the world negatively," that lusts and attachments compose the ordinary person's god, and that it is only by giving up such illusions that one can achieve freedom, but such remarks are only significant in terms of the specific images, the specific people (or illusions, perhaps) they seek to illuminate. Where ideas float about, inadequately embodied in narrative, they are often fascinating in themselves—and surely Murdoch is one of our most consistently intelligent, and rewarding, writers—but the danger is, of course, that they will come to seem increasingly perfunctory. One does not read The Brothers Karamazov to be told that "God is love," though Dostoyevsky might have imagined that that was his primary reason for writing It.

In The Nice and the Good a character who wants, like Charles Arrowby, to be good, states: u In order to become good it may be necessary to imagine oneself good, and yet such imagining may also be the very thing which renders improvement impossible, either because of surreptitious complacency or because of ... blasphemous infection ... when goodness is thought about in the wrong way." A succinct commentary on the would-be Prospero, Charles, who resorts to bullying, trickery, deception, and finally kidnapping in order to make his "love" realize that the two of them are bound together in an eternal bond. By his meddling Charles awakens a demon of some sort, sets into action the "deadly machine" that will lead to the drowning of Hartley's son, and brings about his loss of Hartley; but it is one of the more ingenious elements of the novel that, like the insufferable "accidental man" of the novel of that title, Charles Arrowby is himself unharmed. He hurts others, experiences pain and suffering, imagines himself "blessed," but returns to busy, superficial London and his old life; for life, Charles says, unlike art, "has an irritating way of bumping and limping on, undoing conversions, casting doubt on solutions, and generally illustrating the impossibility of living happily or virtuously ever after." At the novel's very end Charles has made a luncheon date with a seventeen-year-old virgin who wants to have his son; she is obviously deranged, but charmingly so, like the exasperating Kiki St. Loy of The Sacred and Profane Love Machine. Charles notes that a Buddhist "demon casket" belonging to his late cousin James has fallen over, and its lid come off, and in all innocence he inquires: "Upon the demon-ridden pilgrimage of human life, what next I wonder?"

A witty conclusion to an uneven but provocative novel, and one that might appropriately conclude any of Murdoch's works. We are offered unanticipated moments of terrible, even tragic lucidity; we are purified by suffering; but our powerful revelations fade, our insights dissolve, and we are back in the world of appearances, of strife and desire and illusion. Given the opportunity to experience freedom we prefer to be, in the end, puppets of God. The work that is central to an understanding of Murdoch's oeuvre is Plato's allegory of the cave: I suggest that all of Murdoch's novels are commentaries on it.

*Boston University Journal, Vol XXV, no.2, p.57.