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Thank you Iris Murdoch for telling me that my time has been frittered. Thank you also for being so terse.
In the subject of moral philosophy, Murdoch clearly comes down on the side of what many might feel to be a kind of Anglican conservatism, though a careful reading will, I think, reveal the deep sense of connectedness and love which inform her thinking. In particular, the book offers a fertile critique of central concepts in existential thought, and of the moral relativism which postmodern philosophy can sometimes engender.
Readers of her novels in particular will appreciate this glimpse of Murdoch's philosophical thought, and will notice how it informs her craft as an artist.
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It has an acute sense of place and the portrayal of the shabby and little known area of Chelsea, London near the Lots Road power station is powerful. It is one of the first times that I have felt a need to search out the actual physical location of a novel (not much changed actually).
This story of a dying man is a gentle and unfashionable book. I will never forget it.
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It is only in the second act when Dora joins her husband in the religious community of Imber that it becomes clear the author is building to what will ultimatly become one of the most remarkable examinations of faith I've ever read. The novel achieves critical mass with the introduction of Michael Meade, the founder of the community. He has always struggled with his homosexuality, and deep down we sense that in a bizzare way he enjoys the struggle "like the souls in Dante who deliberately remained within the purifying fire". He believes that the struggle is faith, where he gets to define his own morality. By contrast the community's other figure head, the large affable James believes in clear black and white terms "Sodomy is not disgusting its just forbidden", unlike Michael he believes that innoccense and authority are the measure of faith. While this unacknowledged philosophical debate wages on, Imber's cast of characters get into such a tangled web of flirtations, jealousy and mis-understanding so brilliantly weaved by Murdoch that we only upon reflection do we question the character's motivations.
Right across from Imber is the Abbey where a faceless, nameless order of Nuns go about their business. We meet three of these nuns, the powerful Abbess who seems to know everything and is always bearing a smile. Sister Ursula who is her attache, and who also is constantly smiling. Finally there is Sister Clare, and as she saves a woman from drowning, Murdoch takes the time to point out that she too is smiling. The nuns are ever present, watching, mocking these mortals who can not give up the world but sill seek the Hereafter. As Murdoch observes "Violence is born out of the desire to escape oneself". And all these characters are desperatly trying to escape. This is coupled by the much darker suggestion that although God exists and is just, he can also be uncaring. Why would he create homosexuality only to condemn it? Late in the game Michael observes that there is God but he may not believe in Him.
It is clear from The Bell that Murdoch is not only a novelist but a philosopher(and indeed this is confirmed in the sleeve notes). The ideas, reflections and themes are far too complex to discuss here. But there are sequences so perfectly and soulbearingly written that they warrant reading the book more then once. What starts as a gentle satire grows a heart without ever losing its sense of humour or even a sense of whimsy. Although sometimes distant, the novel is never tedious. And if there is a lesson, then its the lesson Michael learns "Love ought to be given without fear of its imperfection".
The theme of the book is the nature of human goodness, and the impossibility of human perfection. Murdoch was an Oxford Reader in Moral Philosophy at the time, and was well capable of producing a very dry account of this subject, but instead the book is a masterpiece of subtle comedy which gets its serious ideas across with great subtlety. The first two chapters, in particular, draw the reader into the life of the heroine with a piece of sustained artistry that is quite unparalleled, at least in my experience. It's a gorgeous piece of prose that I never tire of reading.
Dora, the heroine (and I use the term deliberately), is presented as a totally amoral being (and therefore, like the dog, without sin). She is incapable of deciding to "do the right thing", but also incapable of real wrong-doing. All the other characters are in some way struggling with their own moral turpitude, and in trying to intellectualize their struggle, accellerate their approaching doom. Dora meanwhile, guided only by her animal instincts, emerges as a Saint, cheered on at every stage by the reader (well, this reader at least). Furthermore, Dora's redemption occurs in spite of, rather than because of, the moral and intellectual strictures of Organised Religion. You cheer for Dora as she leaves the Chapel in disgust, just as you cheer for Austen's Elizabeth Bennet when she faces down Lady Catherine. It's that good!
The Bell of the title is a symbol of untrammelled female sexuality that resounds throughout the book. This theme is explored, ironically, in a plot which takes place around the grounds of a convent. There's a disturbing painting by Millais called "The Vale of Rest" that I think must have inspired Murdoch. The picture of nuns digging a grave is a wonderful image of Victorian male sexual terror (conceived, incidentally, by Millais on his honeymoon). In the backgound swings the bell. When moved, it must sound.
Apart from Dora, most of the other characters emerge from the events of the plot with their lives in ruins. Dora, in contrast, learns to value herself by finally detaching herself from the awful man she had married.
I'm very conscious of the fact that not all readers would share my interpretation of the book, and in all probability Murdoch didn't mean it that way. She was on record as saying that if she'd known how readers would feel about Dora's awful husband, she would have treated him more sympathetically. But the book is as it is, and as a description of the triumph of the Human Spirit over priests and pedants, it's just fine for me.
Incidentally, it was made into a very good television version by the BBC about 20 years ago. I hope they repeat it one day.
A sort of psychological detective novel, the story is told through the eyes a leader of a lay religious community who is haunted by secrets from his past and also from the perspective of two visitors: a carefree woman returning to her boorish husband who is studying at a nearby convent and an innocent youth hoping to be inspired by the community's spiritual atmosphere before he goes to Oxford. The plot revolves around a bell missing for centuries and the community's plans to replace it with a new one, but I will say nothing else that might give it away.
The first half of the book is a very British comedy of manners (and it is at times very funny), but then things get out of hand when the two visitors, both knowingly and unwittingly, set into motion a series of tragic events that shatter the faith and foundations of the group. Although I was constantly surprised by the book's twists and turns, when I finished the novel I felt that all the events were very nearly pre-ordained by the actions and ethics of its characters.
Murdoch's genius is her ability to pose many complicated questions and provide just enough for readers to decide for themselves. Are the visitors responsible for destroying the community's equanimity or were they simply the catalyst that exposed the hypocrisies and self-centeredness of the commune's members? Must a person transcend selfishness in order to influence others for the better? Does it take tragedy to bring out the best in people? Is it ever really possible to wall oneself away from the rest of the world?
It seems almost incidental in this day and age to acknowledge that the novel portrays two gay men in a sympathetic manner astonishing for a book published in 1958--yet another aspect that displays the power and forwardness of Murdoch's thinking.
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I wondered, in my ignorance, who the heck was Iris Murdoch, and why all the fuss and feathers.
Then I bought this gem of a book by Nicol. I am transported. The text, with telling quotes and illustrations, tells me what I have overlooked, pre-ALZ. Do I feel guilty as an Emeritus Professor in resorting to the Classic Comics of the 21st Century?
Not in the slightest: Nicol puts forth one idea in serial fashion and for the first time I understand rational humanism, existentialism, selfism & Simone Weill.
Murdoch defines my AA Higher power as "A single perfect transcendent non-representational and necessarily real object of attention." I can live with that in preference to the Ontology of Neo-Scholasticism of my own undergraduate daze.
I am indebted to Nicol for pointing out Murdoch's notion of love as the ideal of attention: "When we really love someone (rather than just lusting after them or seeing them as someone who can improve our self-image)--we are really seeing them. . . We become so immersed in them that we actually forget ourselves for a moment. We obliterate our self by attempting to empathize with another." [And CODA be damned.]
Therefore, I am truly grateful for this "trot." It gives me what I can no longer do for myself, due to my own data overload ALZ deterioration. Thank you, Nicol.
Memory Impaired "Reverse Mike."
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One of the characters in this book asks where ordinary morality is, when what is called for in the world is the courage of a saint. Once again, Murdoch visits the question of the Good and how it applies to human life. This time the question centers around Marcus, who anchors the novel as a character from myth-- sometimes a saint, sometimes Prospero, sometimes a lunatic. Each of the other characters in the book have to find their way (through eccentric marriages, chaste romances, resurrections, and mysticism) in a world where all the familiar rules no longer apply. All the solutions (where there are solutions) are complicated and costly.
As usual, the writing is crisp and incisive, the characters well-formed and very complete. One of the great Murdoch novels.
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In The Sea, The Sea, we meet arrogant, snobbish Charles Arrowby, a retired London theatre director. Charles has recently bought a house by the sea where he hopes to finish his pretentious autobiography. Many things happen, however, to disrupt this enterprise.
First, Charles discovers that one of the small town's inhabitants is his very first love, a love who disappeared from his life in his teens. Believing her to symbolize his lost youth and innocence, Charles becomes obsessed with her almost to the point of madness.
Iris Murdoch's books are all excellent studies of relationships and The Sea, The Sea is certainly one of her best. In it, the character of Charles lies at the center of a vast network of complex relationships and interpersonal interactions. Much of the novel is an exploration of how we, ourselves, influence what others eventually come to see about people and how they relate to them.
Although relationships take center stage in this novel, there is much symbolism and even a little of the supernatural. The sea is so ever-present in this book that it almost seems to be a character in and of itself. Charles reacts to the sea in many ways, some benign, some not so benign. The sea, itself, is portrayed as something that is untimately not able to be understood or controlled, much as is life.
Although this book is passionately moral, it is definitely not a treatise on how to behave in a moral fashion. In fact, many of Murdoch's characters could be said to be anything but "moral." The values and consequences portrayed in this book are done with such a skillful hand, that The Sea, The Sea sits head and shoulders above Murdoch's other books, good as they are.
Just like the theatrical world it explores, The Sea, The Sea, is a showy, dramatic and powerfully effective book. It is Iris Murdoch's masterpiece and a huge reward for any reader.
This really is one of those books that just swallows you up. The sheer tangibility of the details, the observation, and above all the immensely impressive way that the "fabulous" or "occult" is woven into the tale make this impossible to resist. It's long haul, but you don't begrudge a page. The character of the cousin, James, seems to me one of the most tantalising and fascinating characters in modern literature. The narrator's own egotism and ignorance prevent him from seeing this too late. Some remarkable, perhaps impossible things are never fully explained, and that, my friends, is life. I've read this book three times in the last five years and I still get surprised by it. I still wonder that anyone can write this well. It's not the turns of phrase or any inbuilt sense of "importance", it's the magnetism of the story and the completeness of it. How many writers can REALLY fuse people, landscape, narrative, the elements and religious philosophy together like this. Precious few. Read this book!