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."

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