Today, July 15, would have been Booker Prize-winning novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch’s 101st birthday. To mark the occasion, here’s a 1979 review of her most famous work: The Sea, The Sea.
As I lay there, listening to the soft slap of the sea, and thinking these sad and strange thoughts, more and more and more stars had gathered, obliterating the separateness of the Milky Way and filling up the whole sky. And far far away in that ocean of gold, stars were silently shooting and falling and finding their fates, among these billions and billions of merging golden lights. And curtain after curtain of gauze was quietly removed, and I saw stars behind stars behind stars, as in the magical Odeons of my youth. And I saw into the vast soft interior of the universe which was slowly and gently turning itself inside out. I went to sleep, and in my sleep I seemed to hear a sound of singing.
“The good, Plato says, is what ‘every soul pursues and for the sake of which it does all that it does, with some intuition of its nature, and yet also baffled.’ Iris Murdoch has quoted this elsewhere in a discussion of art, how it may transcend illusion and fantasy and participate in the detachment of pure goodness. In The Sea, The Sea she tells us that there were once two cousins who grew up each in his own way to pursue the good—baffled, but with some intuition of its nature: a saint and a sinner, one to pursue it through religion and the other through art. Both became to some degree enlightened, to some degree fell into the error of confusing their chosen good with power—magically strong, fatally corrupting. One of them died, the other lived on. The story, though rich in typically Murdochian devices, is a passionately moral one, and it gains from this, becomes more than the heartless tinkling of some of her other novels. Its metaphor is the stage, that most showy, illusive, and traditionally dangerous form of art, the narrator is a successful producer and playwright. His stage is set against the background of the sea, the morally indifferent force that can kill or caress, be ugly or beautiful, the great uncaring reservoir of natural energy.
Charles Arrowby has retired early, at a youthful sixty-odd, from theater life to a sinister isolated Edwardian villa on the extreme edge of a rocky coast: a cold, greedy, and complacent man, doting on goodness. Admiring himself in his diary, he records a successful retirement from the vanities of the stage in order to contemplate, repent, piece his life together in blissful solitude; grandly, he casts himself as Prospero, abjuring the rough magic of his stagy days, renouncing power. Never in fact, he is to discover, has he been more rapacious. He swims, basks in the sun and his own self-approval, cooks himself exquisite little snacks, puts out a patronizing feeler toward a visit from one of his mistresses in London. And within no time at all he is at the center of a vortex of emotion and drama, of a cast of tormented characters that come on and off stage as briskly as the players in a farce; his hubris has been noticed, and he is indeed forced an inch or two on the way toward amendment of life, with much pain and in a way very different from the one he had anticipated.
Charles’s habit has been to separate his quest for the good from the rest of his life, which has been a casually ruthless exercise in power. He worships Shakespeare, on the one hand, as the only dramatist who matters or has ever mattered; on the other, it is just the disreputability and tricksterism of theater life that he has enjoyed, and his own plays have been deliberately ephemeral.
The theater is an attack on mankind carried on by magic: to victimize an audience every night, to make them laugh and cry and suffer and miss their trains. Of course actors regard audiences as enemies, to be deceived, drugged, incarcerated, stupefied.
There is also a kind of love in the actor’s assault on his audience; and Charles, before he learns really to abjure a little magic, is to deceive, incarcerate, and stupefy his one true love in a desperate attempt to make her what she is not. As before, Murdoch has made the corruption of art and love by will and self-deception a dominating theme; indeed, by focusing so strongly on imagination’s power to produce delusion rather than enlightenment, this time she seems to have cast art—theatrical artifice—as pure villain.
“In Charles’s emotional life there is the same sequestration of the good from the rest of life. Somewhat undersexed (he says of himself), he has nevertheless taken wives from his friends casually, and dropped them as casually when he grew bored; his real passion is still totally concentrated on his chaste childhood sweetheart, Hartley, who jilted him suddenly and inexplicably when he was an unknown boy. If she had not rejected him, he is convinced, his restless and ruthless life would have run an entirely different course.
We would have become one, and the holiness of marriage would have been our safety and our home forever. She was a part, an evidence, of some pure uncracked unfissured confidence in the good which was never there for me again.
Much later on it was a little as if the past had recovered. The past can recover. I saw again, far away like a dulled yet glowing painting of Adam and Eve upon an old fresco, two innocent beings bathed in a clear light. She became my Beatrice. As I went on, all the goodness of my life seemed to reside there with her.
It is the reappearance of Hartley—she and her husband have just retired to the very same district themselves—that precipitates the storm of possessiveness and jealousy and its resolution around which the book revolves.
The business of Hartley’s reappearance evokes not only a vein of pity and pathos but some fine dry comedy. If there are, earlier, deliberate hints of The Tempest planted by Charles, the pursuit of Hartley has something in it of Titania and Bottom—with the sexes reversed. Sixtyish Charles is tanned and fit, dressed in sun-bleached jeans. The wild, fey young Hartley has become a stout old lady with a shopping bag, a slight mustache, and a gray permanent wave. She lives in a red brick bungalow called Nibletts with a chiming doorbell and floral carpets, and is inclined to say ‘pardon’ and ‘sit you down.’ But Charles, scorning the lovely theatrical ladies who pursue him to his retreat, looks obstinately through the flesh and sees only his lost sylph, his Beatrice, embodiment of far-off innocence and goodness. Tenderness, comedy, and horror are wonderfully mixed in the central passages of the novel where he has abducted and imprisoned the terrified old lady in his dark castle. By his demonic obsession that he can love her through will rather than through seeing her as she really is, he turns the harmless creature into the kind of sinister secret that the house, with all its spooky portents, has been waiting to contain.
“Around Charles and Hartley caper the theatricals, Charles’s London friends who seem to make the journey down from London to his remote hideaway with remarkable ease, to appear at crucial moments: two ex-mistresses, one sweet and one sour; the ex-husband of one, from whom Charles stole her, and the cozy homosexual friend of the other. And cousin James. ‘Good is dull,’ says the evil Julius in A Fairly Honourable Defeat; ‘What novelist ever succeeded in making a good man interesting?’ Murdoch is indeed inclined to make a mysterious blur of her saintly characters; James is a good man, a mystic, and so suitably stuffy and dull, at least as seen through Charles’s jealous eyes. Two only children, Charles and James grew up like wary twin brothers; but James’s father ‘got on,’ while Charles’s was honest and humble and a failure. James went to Winchester and Sandhurst, Charles to the local grammar school. James grew up in a country mansion, Charles in a housing development. But while James has achieved a certain distinction in life—he is a retired general—Charles is now a household name; and his stubborn climb to power and fame was fueled by his need to outdo James. James, who turned Buddhist during his service in the East, has a certain power of his own, for he is, albeit unwillingly, something of a magician.
All the Murdoch sleight-of-hand is brought into play here: exotic scene-setting, intricate patterns of coincidence and relationship, ambivalent sexual currents, a seemingly unlimited supply of plot that keeps one, even if—in some of the books—unwillingly, prepared to read on for the sake of keeping up with the next move in the game. But while often before the contrivance has been too much for the limited amount of feeling invested in it, so that the story proceeds with all the resonance of a clockwork music box, The Sea, The Sea has a breath of life blowing freshly through it. There is a character in An Accidental Man who talks of the immortal horses in the Iliad weeping over Patroclus’ death: ‘Gods can’t really grieve. Men can’t understand. But animals which are godlike can shed pure tears. I would like to shed pure tears.’ There are moments of real, not factitious, feeling in this latest book and it is when Charles himself has to weep pure, disinterested tears that he gains a kind of redemption.
“The Sea, The Sea is, for one thing, much less stuffy and enclosed than most of Murdoch’s other novels, enriched by a feeling for the natural world. It opens in deliberately leisurely fashion with a minute description of the setting: the headland, the rock-pools, the many-colored pebbles and the driftwood, the sea-coast flowers, thrift and mallow, saxifrage and campion; the cliff path, the ruined tower, the whirlpool; the village and deserted harbor, the graveyard full of headstones carved with whales and anchors; and always the sea, the sea. Charles’s house is in lurid contrast, a damp Gothic villa: in it, stairs creak, mirrors crack, faces appear at the window—B-movie stuff, but well done. We are made sure that between them the house and the cold, lovely sea are going to chill our blood, and we can enjoy the slow build-up. Landscape here is more than painted backdrop, is animated by feeling:
The region just beyond the road was bog, full of outcrops of rock and gorse and little black pools. There was some scrappy heather and a lot of those tiny yellow plants that catch flies, and purple and white flowers that looked like miniature orchids. Two pairs of buzzards inhabited the blue air. After the bog there was ordinary farm land, sheep-scattered hillsides, distant mustard fields catching the sunlight with their huge patches of glowing yellow. There were many ruined stone cottages, roofless and full of willow-herb and wild buddleia and butterflies, and we came on the ruin of a big house, with the box hedges of the formal garden grown into a forest and covered with rambler roses. I record these details, which I recall so clearly, because they are the very image of sorrow; things seen which might have given pleasure, but could not.
Since the story deals with the renunciation of trickery in favor of honest vision, it seems appropriate that the author herself acquires a freedom here from her own temptation to use showy fictional tricks that overpower her philosophical design.
‘In India and Tibet and such places there are tricks people can learn, almost anybody can learn them if they’re well taught and try hard enough,’ James explains to Charles. James’s own siddhis, his magical powers, are benevolent ones, miraculous feats of finding and restoring. But even they are an interference with goodness, because they meddle with what is and because sooner or later they involve vanity. Understanding the parallel between James’s pursuit of goodness and his own, and how they have both been distracted from it by the temptations of power, is part of Charles’s slow and patchy redemption. Through shedding pure tears of grief he comes to see his idealization of Hartley more clearly, to understand her as she is, and guess at why she left him and had no wish to be carried off when they met again; and then his real, imperfect loves are able to return to his mind more clearly. Absence is a dreadful falsifier, and Hartley’s brusque disappearance has led him into a tangle of pain and untruth that in turn has damaged people around him—though his baffled impulse to pursue goodness was real. As he sees these things Charles begins to be released from the bardo which—James has explained to him—is a limbo where the soul meets the monsters it has made when it turned away from truth.
“But there is a postscript: ‘Life Goes On.’
Can one change oneself? I doubt it. Or if there is any change it must be measured as the millionth part of a millimetre. When the poor ghosts have gone, what remains are ordinary obligations and ordinary interests. One can live quietly and try to do tiny good things and harm no one. I cannot think of any tiny good thing to do at the moment, but perhaps I shall think of one tomorrow.
Charles moves back to London, where life is much quieter than in the country. He becomes rather godfatherly. The past revolves in his mind, scraps of enlightenment blow in and out of it. Summer passes into autumn. On a quiz program, someone does not know who he is. Then an impresario arrives from Hollywood, a young girl woos him. And a present from James, a Tibetan box with a demon imprisoned in it, falls off the wall and breaks open. Charles is in for another bit of rough magic, another turn of the Wheel.”
Further Reading: An Object Lesson in Naming Novels: Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea