Sunday, January 29, 2017

Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea (Part 2--Review)

I finished reading The Sea, The Sea last night. My first observation is that Murdoch deliberately avoids isolating a center or central theme for the book. The character James does become a focal point near the end, but in such an exaggerated way that we almost question his centrality. James is portrayed as being beyond saintly and is almost a transcendent magical being, like the Buddha's that line his London apartment. He is a sharp contrast to his cousin Charles. Charles is very much of this world. Is it safe to say that James is the character in this novel who most approaches Murdoch's Platonic ideal of "the Good?"

What is Murdoch's Platonism? At the risk of oversimplifying Plato, in trying to understand Murdoch's philosophy it may be best to start with Plato's allegory of the cave. Plato compared our earthly existence to a person living in a cave. There is a transcendent reality outside the cave, but we can only perceive this reality obliquely. The transcendent reality shines its light inside the cave. This light casts shadows against the cave's wall of the outside reality. All we know of reality then is composed of those shadows. Murdoch's theater group, lead by Charles, live entirely in this world of shadows. James has discovered the means by which to separate himself from this world and so perceive the eternal world beyond.

What is the "transcendent reality?" Well, Plato called it the world of ideal forms. Every worldly object for Plato had an ideal form. We all know what a dog is because despite the diversity of dogs in our minds we have a vision of a perfect dog that represents all others. This is an ideal form.

Murdoch's novels, for all of their narrative excitement, are rooted in some very difficult philosophical arguments. One position Murdoch holds is that the idea of love is not adequately addressed in most of contemporary philosophy. Her work then seeks to address this omission. I remember once describing to a friend a Thomas Hardy novel I was reading. My friend responded, I thought you read only serious books, when did you start reading romance novels? Well, of course, Thomas Hardy is a serious author and romance is actually a serious subject, if done right.

Historical Romanticism (capital R) came shortly after the two great democratic revolutions in America and France. Romanticism is therefore historically intertwined with the history of democracy. One central concern of Romanticism was to explore our desires and see if they could not be brought into harmony with the betterment of society. Rousseau famously believed all human desires were good and that it was society that corrupted them. This tension though between desire and society was at the core of Romantic argument.

One thing this novel does is to illustrate how a person such as Charles can so deceive himself that he is almost incapable of seeing the good. The novel is rich in the various ways in which Charles deceives himself, to the point that the book is almost a lexicon of self-deception. One purpose of the Pre-History is to give Charles a fair chance to present himself as fully and accurately as he can. This sets the stage for the unmasking that will occur in the History section. Charles is not a deceiving character, he wishes to be honest, however self-deceived he may be. He believes himself to be egotistical and at times dictatorial, but is personally convinced that, at heart, he is generous and humane. One example is how throughout the novel Charles continuously reflects on his depictions of other characters, usually feeling that he has not presented them as fully or as accurately as he would like. His desire to see the world truthfully and honestly is what made him the famous director that he was. Yet, nonetheless, even a well intentioned and driven man such as himself is capable of extreme self-deception.

Another theme is the futility of trying to escape the world. Charles runs away to his seaside home, expecting to leave behind his theater world entirely, but of course, he lasts little more than a few weeks before he is once again engaged in it. Charles never escapes the world. Late in the novel he refers to himself as being impotent, to have lost his sex drive. This is as close as he gets to removing himself from the world. He does not take himself out, but is rather taken out.

There is much that could be said about the novel, but I am tempted to digress from a direct confrontation and instead travel further along Bloom's direction of reading Murdoch's novels as romances. In romances characters represent not real people but states of mind. What states of mind do the characters in The Sea, The Sea represent? Let's look at some of the key figures:
  • Charles Arrowy: the elderly, self-deceived, ego-maniac. He is Prospero, orchestrating his closest friends like players on a stage.
  • James: the mystical, saint figure.
  • Hartley (Mary Finch): the idealized object of love.
  • Lizzie and George: Servants and slaves to Charles.
  • Perry and Rosina: Violent lovers; extreme versions of Charles.
  • Charles's father, Clement, and Titus: absent figures

Bloom has generated his own patterning of romances in a schema that he borrowed from Freud and then applied to Blake, Shelley, Yeats, and later David Lindsay. In the Freudian pattern the states of being are Narcissistic Libido, Achieved Ego, Id, Super-Ego, and Imago.

Freud                Narcissistic Libido            Id                           Super-Ego                Achieved-Ego                  Imago
Blake                Orc                                    Tharmas                 Urizen                      Los                                   Emanation
Shelley             Prometheus Bound            Demogorgon         Jupiter                      Prometheus Unbound       Asia
Yeats                Mask                                  Body of Fate         Will                          Creative Mind                   Daimon
Lindsay            Maskul                               Krag (Surtur)        Crystal-Man             Nightspore                       ...

Murdoch          Charles and Friends          Sea Monster           The House               James                                Hartley

Freud's unconscious is usually depicted as an iceberg. The ego is the visible tip of the iceberg. The ego is how we view ourselves. I've listed Charles and his entire circle of theater friends under narcissistic libido because I see all of them as being stuck in variations of the ego cycle. They are all tied to the vicious wheel of desire (something Blake very powerfully depicted in his poem The Mental Traveler). The Romantics extended desire to apply to political aspirations, such as a desire for freedom. Blake divided the psyche into what he called his "Giant Forms." Freud's narcissistic libido is roughly equivalent with Blake's Orc. A revolutionary figure, Orc is someone who wishes to change the world through force. Likewise, Shelley's Prometheus wished to forcefully overthrow Jupiter. Blake has a phrase that is equally applicable to Shelley, "All Orcs age into Urizen." That is, all would be revolutionaries turn into the tyrants that had sought to overthrow.

For Freud the id composed our most basic drives and desires. Bloom argued that all the Romantics were united in their shared striving for unity with their id. Perhaps the figure that most clearly represents the id is Blake's Tharmas. As Bloom says, "Tharmas being the Zoa or Giant Form in Blake's mythology who was the unfilled human potential for realizing instinctual desires, and so was the regent of Innocence. Tharmas is a shepherd-figure."

In all of these patterns the ego as narcissistic libido is forced to mediate between id and super-ego. The imago is a vision of ideal love for the ego. The work of the Romantics and Freud was to show how one can cease this endless see-saw between the id and super-ego and achieved a renewed innocence as one had in childhood where one's desires were good and pure. Except this is not the naive innocence of a child, but a knowing innocence.

I hope to write one more post on The Sea, The Sea after I have further thought out how and to what degree Murdoch's characters fit into a Romantic or Freudian map of the unconscious. On a closing note, I should add that Murdoch herself was critical of Romanticism. In fact, she hoped that her work would function as a kind of antidote to Romanticism. As she said:

"Through literature we can rediscover a sense of the density of our lives. Literature can arm us against consolation and fantasy and can help us recover from the ailments of Romanticism. If it can be said to have a task, that surely is its task. But if it is to perform it, prose must recover its former glory, eloquence and discourse must return."

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea (Part 1--Introduction)

I started reading Iris Murdoch's, The Sea, the Sea yesterday. I'm about 50 pages in and so have nearly finished the first section, "Pre-history." This is the third Iris Murdoch book I've read. My first encounter with her was when I borrowed The Black Prince from a friend while serving as a volunteer in the Peace Corps. I had just heard of Murdoch after having read about her in Harold Bloom's book Genius. She was one of the 100 figures Bloom chose to represent literary genius. Bloom's description of her as a romance writer in the mode of Spenser's Faerie Queene and the High Romantic poems captivated me and made me very eager to pick her up. While in the Peace Corps good books were somewhat hard to come by. All of us were constantly sharing and exchanging books. The friend I borrowed The Black Prince from had just finished it and found it somewhat disappointing. He felt the combination of narrative and philosophical asides were jarring and preferred authors who showed their point rather than explained it. He said Kafka's short story, The Hunger Artist, was a perfect example of how to show it and not tell it. He had also just read Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim which he loved and felt to be another exemplary case of showing it.

I loved it though. The first books I had been truly obsessed by had been philosophical novels though, Dostoyevsky's novels and Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain foremost amongst them. Many scenes from The Black Prince have stayed in my memory. The protagonist himself is memorable as as the perfectionist author who, if memory serves me correctly, only finished one novel and has been laboring for years to complete a second. His friend and rival is a successful author who has consistently publish well-received books. I have always been of the opinion that great artists are always outsiders and generally unpopular with rare exceptions like Shakespeare, Byron, Austen, and Dickens. My Peace Corps friend pointed out the irony in Murdoch herself being a prolific author of popular books. The protagonist also has an aversion to music. There is a vivid scene of him running from the theater, tormented by what sounded to him like screeching and screaming. This is, oddly enough, repeated in The Sea, the Sea, when Charles Arrowby confesses to hating the sound of the human voice. And then there is his infatuation with his rival's teenage daughter, whom he imagines as a kind of surrogate for Hamlet.

I didn’t read another Murdoch novel until at least 6 years later. I had met a doctor who was passionate about her. Out of the blue he approached me while at a Christmas party and said, “You have to watch this video.” I was surprised to see it was Iris Murdoch being interviewed on the BBC. It was an old video, I think from the 70s, but still popular. If you search for Iris Murdoch on Google it is one of the first videos to come up. Murdoch was discussing her role as a professional philosopher and novelist and what she saw as the relation between philosophy and art. The doctor friend and I talked a bit about what we each knew of Iris Murdoch. I confessed to having only read one novel and decided it was high time to start another. 

Shortly after I picked up The Good Apprentice. Like The Black Prince, my second Murdoch book did not fail to disappoint. It was immediately gripping and sustained its intensity throughout. The image of the two brothers, both struggling to attain goodness--one through sin and the other through discipline--has stayed with me. I remember the household of the brothers' father as seeming something out of the Faery Queene. The father, I cannot remember his name now, was a great artist, reveered by the women of the house (his wife and daughters?). The women had an orderly way of keeping everything together, leaving items at the bottom of the stairs and only bring them up when they were already heading that way. I remember the mother discussing the father's art phases, especially his heroic phase. The whole seen was very magical and supports Bloom's argument that Murdoch is more of a fantasist than the realist she claimed to be. Lastly, I seem to remember a character having a nightmare that was very vivid to me. Somewhere in the middle of the novel. I should look up the scene, as it has left a deep impact on me. 

So, what do I make of this third book? So far it is very intriguing. Murdoch has done a wonderful job of patterning images of the sea. The environment is very vivid and varied enough to easily sustain my interest.  Charles as a Shakespeare's Prospero retiring to his craggy cliffside home. He expresses an interest in permanence, but I think it is fair to question his sincerity. He seems thoroughly content to live a life "writ on water." His mistress, Lizzie is in part the kind of directness and permanence that his nature is both drawn to and also repelled by. 

I am thoroughly enjoying the book. Iris Murdoch is the kind of author I would like to be. I enjoy an author who deals so directly and clearly with ideas. There is both narrative drama as well as rich complexity of thought. I will admit that I do feel aware of the effort involved in her creation. It does not distract me from appreciating the book though. With an ambition as large as hers it is forgivable to fall short of perfection. When I say I am aware of her effort, what I mean is that in striving for a Shakespearean resonance she is almost doomed to fail. There are also allusions to Wordsworth and a general atmosphere of Romanticism in the opening. These are all very general reflections and I will be sure to be more systematic in my next post. I'll conclude with Bloom's reading of Murdoch as a writer of romance: