Friday, April 20, 2018

Monsters in the Sea and Angels in Heaven

I finished The Sea, The Sea. I'm now about halfway through Conradi's biography of Iris Murdoch, plodding through a particularly shapeless part, detailing a love life that is various and interesting but somehow, in Conradi's hands, never quite comes into focus. I'll learn more I suspect by reading more novels. (I like Conradi, by the way, but I think he might not be ruthless enough to be a really good biographer.)

Everything that comes from fifties and sixties feels icky and ungainly to me: our species lost some crucial sense of proportion, some instinct for beauty, during that time. We never recovered it, I guess, but the absence hurts most in those early years, when it comes along with some sense of what we had lost. Murdoch comes from those decades, essentially: that's where she came of age. But she stayed slant to it, which is as much as anyone can ask.

(It's the intellectual world that I inherited, twenty years later, as an undergraduate in the backwater of Washington State: it was Sartre who proved your virility back then. Remember? I owned a fat paperback copy of Being and Nothingness. I probably even read it: I read everything, back then. How lost that world is now!)


Anyway. Murdoch. One way to take The Sea, The Sea is as a mordant joke: the narrator in fact does precisely what one is supposed to do -- fall in love once and for all, with a passion that never wavers -- and the result is somewhat grotesque, forty years down the road, when all the tokens of status and influence have shifted. The narrator is quixotic, or maybe just demented: it's hard to say. One way to read the novel is as a sort of romantic dystopia: okay, so this is what perfect love is supposed to be? Let's play it out, then.


In each of the three novels I've read now -- The Bell, An Accidental Man, and The Sea, The Sea -- there is at least one supernatural event that remains unexplained: something that pleases me, even in my current violently anti-superstitious mood. It is necessary to be reminded, repeatedly, that we do not understand how this thing -- human life -- works. That we are almost certainly horribly deceived, and that under the influence of that deception we are probably committing crimes and cruelties that we do not comprehend. 

It is reassuring to read someone from my own withered time who has the conviction that the intimations, as Wordsworth would call them, have to be attended to. There are monsters in the sea, and angels in heaven. The fact that we must be mistaken about them does not mean we can ignore them.


alembic said...

I remember liking "The Black Prince" a lot when I read it back in the 1980s. Not sure what I would think of it now, but it also carries the idea of us not understanding how life works and the aftermath of this blindness. Her philosophy work is also "easy" to read; that is, it's accesible, even with the title of "Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals" ( I almost wrote "Mortals" instead of "Morals"...).

Marly Youmans said...

I have not read Murdoch in many years... It is strange to be of a time that has changed so swiftly in its regard for the arts (and much else), beauty, truth, etc. One's unquenchable passion for such things probably looks absurd to later generations.

Anonymous said...

I read -and enjoyed- a lot of Murdoch a while back, including The Sea,the Sea. I remember it mainly for it's recipes and the terrifying portrayal of how someone can be totally convinced that they know what's best for someone else!

She got a mention in Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Café - a great book I enjoyed reading more recently.

Catherine E said...

I read Bruno’s Dream more than once as a young person. I don’t recall reading anything else by Murdoch. I felt obsessed with it, and oddly comforted by the characters and story. Can still remember the opening paragraph with Bruno’s fingers scrabbling on the coverlet. Would like to read it again, to see if it evokes the same sensations now that I’m in my 60’s. Thanks for the reminder!

Dale said...

Yes, I find Murdoch oddly comforting. I think it's that she never gives up on her characters. I've read that the narrator of The Sea, The Sea is "a monster," and of course he's kind of dreadful, but he's also wonderful in a weird way -- with Murdoch you end up feeling like the human race is a total mess but also totally redeemable.