Posted tagged ‘Iris Murdoch’

delicious ambiguity

October 26, 2018

“Nothing is better than love,” says Dr. James Darke in the novel Darke by Rick Gekoski.

I picked this up at the used book store last weekend because the synopsis on the flap appealed to my curmudgeonly, misanthropic soul, the book being about a curmudgeonly, misanthropic soul. Due to a series of unfortunate life events, the protagonist has essentially walled himself into his London house, seeing no one, having his groceries and such delivered, and even sealing the mail slot in his front door so he won’t receive any missives. It’s over the top, of course, but it’s nicely done, and it’s a first-person narration so you can’t be sure just how much is true.

But on to that quote.

On face value it seems true and honorable, even if spoken by a curmudgeon. Love is the greatest thing. Yet if you think of the sentence as an equation, with two components, A (nothing) and B (love), you can reach a different conclusion. “A is better than B.” Love may be dandy, but Nothing is better.

The sentence is ambiguous; we live in the ambiguity!

I can tell you from the context of the statement that curmudgeonly Darke does mean that having nothing in his life is better than having love in his life. (“Nothing” being no personal entanglements or dealings with others. As close as he has come, so far, is the limited dealings with the workman who sealed the letter slot on his door and a char woman of foreign extraction who comes once a week and upsets his equilibrium. He pretends to be partly deaf with both of them to limit interaction even more, but the char sees through this early on.)

I’m only a third of the way through the novel, and I suspect that the equation in that statement will be reversed by the end, but in the meantime I’m enjoying the writing and the character.

Curiously, so far this novel bears a strong resemblance to Iris Murdoch’s novel The Time of the Angels. It too has a man who has removed himself from society, seeing no one and throwing away all of the mail he gets. As well, he has an adult daughter and a housekeeper who is foreign and who has developed a relationship with him. I don’t know yet how far Darke will hold to this course, but I hope not too far since the Murdoch novel does not end well.

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subtle jolts

December 26, 2017

Profound shifts in my life often come in subtle, unexpected ways. And, I’ve found, sometimes the most obvious thoughts or understandings just don’t come to me in the fundamental ways they should (though perhaps they do come to others) until I am jolted into “receiving” them.

For example, and tangentially related to the point of this self-indulgent post, Iris Murdoch has a statement in one of her philosophical works* that goes like this: “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” My understanding of this is that other people actually exist and are whole human beings with lives and dreams and frustrations just as valid — and apart from — my own. They are no more “walk-on” characters in the story of my life than I am a “walk-on” character in their lives.** (And that we can’t truly love another person until we acknowledge that they exist apart from us. And until we do, we only love our fabrication of this other person and not the actual other person.) Doesn’t this seem like the most obvious thing in the world? That other people really exist? And yet it is not my first thought when I see someone walking down the street, that this person I glance at briefly has a life beyond me, a life that doesn’t include me at all. Maybe I’m more self contained (or selfish) than other people who grasp this understanding — and live it — readily.

But onto*** the point of this self-indulgent post. I recently had one of these subtle jolts. It was about something that should have been the most obvious thing in the world to me, especially since I’ve written so many stories about fathers and sons, but the point had never occurred to me. I was in Seattle for the Thanksgiving holiday with my son, his wife, and their daughter, Ela. Ela is fussy. She is willful (which I think is a good quality for a future woman in our culture!) and often won’t willingly do what is requested/required of her. One example is bath time. My son must cajole her into taking her nightly bath if she is not in the mood for it. I first observed this when he began walking about the house singing “It’s bath time for Dad and Ela. It’s bath time for Dad and Ela” (to the Popeye tune).

My first thought when I heard this was that I was not going to take a bath with my granddaughter. And here is the big revelation: He was using the name “Dad” in reference to himself! I, who defined myself as “Dad,” was not “Dad” any longer; I was now Grandpa. And the jolt wasn’t that he was “stealing” my identity from me but that it has passed to him. I had to stop seeing myself as this person and start seeing him as this person.

And, of course, I had known all along — intellectually — that my son was a dad in the lower case. But seeing this fundamental yet profound quality in another person — as another person — was something I had not grasped, had not given myself motivation to see and accept or even consider.

I’m not sure that I’m making my point very well. It isn’t that my son is a Dad in the upper case. It’s my realization of it in more than just an intellectual, abstracted way. The world has shifted and it took a jolt for me to see/accept/understand/be at peace with it.

And, further of course, I’m going to incorporate this into one of my stories. My father character David will be a grandfather and will hear his son use the word “Dad.” David will automatically think it’s a reference to himself and then have his own jolt when he realizes it’s a reference to his son, his boy, his child who is now a parent. As it should be. Right on time. Part of the natural, wholesome order of things. Yet hard to internalize for him.

__________

At this point you might be saying to yourself, “But I thought One-Match Fire was finished.” And you’d be right. I’m now working on stories for the inevitable sequel, which I’m calling Nature Always Wins.

__________

*”The Sublime and the Good” – I don’t profess to grasp her philosophical writings very well.

**The recently coined word “sonder” seems to be just what I’m attempting to define here.

*** or should that be “on to”?

the reality of the other

April 6, 2017

“Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.”

Iris Murdoch
“The Sublime and the Good”

I’ve long fixated on this quote from Iris Murdoch. It is, on the face of it, so very obvious. Of course other things exist outside of our life and influence! But it’s always seemed harder for me to realize this, to make it real in my head, to see with this vision.

Consider the man in the car next to you or the woman wandering the mall with a bag of things or the person sitting in the toll booth or any random individual you see in the background of a newscast. Each of these people has a life as valid as yours, as full as yours is with hopes and dreams and frustrations and kindness and cruelties. Each of these people is more than just a walk-on character in your life story, just as you are more than a walk-on character in their life stories. And there are billions of these people. Billions of realities as real as you.

At least, that’s how I interpret Murdoch’s famous quotation.

I recently finished reading Murdoch’s novel An Unofficial Rose (in my quest to read through her entire fiction canon a second time). In it there are two young characters: Penn, a boy of 15 who is visiting from Australia, and Miranda, a girl of 14 who is his cousin and budding love interest. (He thinks he loves her, not the other way around.) So of course he broods about her constantly. And among his broodings is this little passage:

But what one loves is, after all, another human being, a person with other interests, other pains, in whose world one is oneself an object among others.

I think that distills Murdoch’s precept into a realization in her young character (even if it is perhaps more deep and thoughtful than one could expect from a 15-year-old boy). Too bad he doesn’t follow through, but like many of us, he has a hard time seeing with that vision.

Penn is a foolish boy, and Miranda is a clever-beyond-her-years girl. He presses his suit, physically and futilely, and is rebuffed handily.

Read into this, if you wish, some parallels to The Tempest. Penn as Caliban and Miranda as, well, Miranda.

“doing nothing”

June 15, 2016

“You’re an artist,” I said, “and for you doing nothing is doing something.”

Spoken by the narrator and central character of Iris Murdoch’s novel A Severed Head to his brother, who is a sculptor. I have now finished reading the fifth novel in the canon, just getting started on re-reading them all.

what I’m reading now

February 29, 2016

Happy Leap Day to you and yours!

I know most of you have been anxious about whether or not I finished The Village. I did. It pulled itself together somewhat at the end, but I think I’ll scratch David Mamet off my list of novelists to read going forward. (There are so many books, and a fellow can’t read them all in a single lifetime.)

So, you’re asking, what is he reading now?

Well, I have an anthology of Victorian-era detective stories on my nightstand that I’ve been dipping into off and on for months. It’s called The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (which, I should add is only one of many anthologies with that title, most of which I own and have read), and I’m nearly finished with it. So I decided that after I finished The Village, I would pick up Rivals and make my sprint to the finish arch.

Except I picked up a book on my to-be-read shelf to have just a quick look at the introduction. Pretty soon I had read the whole introduction and was started on the first chapter. And so the Rivals have a rival.

The book I am now reading is Roth Unbound: A writer and his books by Claudia Roth Pierpont. It is a literary biography of Philip Roth, which is to say it is about the influences, creation, and consequences of Roth’s writings more than it is about his life. I’m only just a short way into the book, but already it’s clear that much of his life has influenced his fiction, thus there is a good deal of biography included. That’s fine. Much of it I already knew, but every page offers some nugget of insight, which makes me appreciate his fiction more. (I suppose I’ve already told you that I’ve read his novel The Ghost Writer more than thirty times. Do you have one go-to book that never lets you down?)

Philip Roth is my favorite writer. I get the sense that every word, every bit of punctuation, is thought through and exactly right. Let me hasten to add, though, that Iris Murdoch is my favorite novelist, if you appreciate the distinction.

So I expect to make quick work of Roth Unbound, and then I’ll be on to the next book. Maybe Rivals. Maybe the next Murdoch novel in the series I’m re-reading from start to finish. Maybe something else altogether.

have I read this book?

September 2, 2015

So I completed re-reading The Flight from the Enchanter the other night, and I enjoyed my second trip through it, confirming that Iris Murdoch is worth reading and re-reading. But I must confess that I only remembered one scene and only a few of the characters from my first reading. It was as though I had never read the novel once before.

Granted, I had read it originally many years ago — as much as a decade ago. (I could look it up because, like everyone else in the world, I keep a list of the books I’ve read and the date I completed them.) But can I say I’ve actually read a book, gave it a serious and thoughtful reading, if I can’t remember it years later?

Certainly there have been many books I’ve read that are not worth remembering, and there have been many that are intentionally light weight — “beach reading” is a common term for these — that are meant to be enjoyed at the time and then left behind. But what can I say about myself and my “serious” reading if I can’t remember a novel years after I’ve read it? Did I really read it with the seriousness it deserved? Did I pause and reflect on elegant passages, humorous scenes, unexpected insights? Did I give the novel the attention it deserved?

I suppose that parts of the novel have entered the matrix of thoughts that make up what passes for my consciousness in ways I don’t recognize. (In fact, generally when I have a sudden insight about something, I question whether the thought is one of my own or something I’ve recycled from another but don’t recognize.) I suppose the first reading left impressions I’m not aware of but use in the ceaseless conversation of ideas that goes on in my head. At least, I’m going to tell myself that.

I’ve read Philip Roth’s novel The Ghost Writer more than thirty times. I know that story well. I know the characters. The scenes. The humor. The pathos. And yet, each time I read it, I find something new in it, something I hadn’t seen in my other visits. I’ve often said that I don’t think you can begin to know a novel until you’ve read it a second time. It just bugs me with Enchanter that it is as though my second time is my first time.

Flight from the Enchanter

August 24, 2015

So as you know since you read this humble blog so avidly, I have embarked on re-reading the entire canon of Iris Murdoch fiction. (Her nonfiction, mostly discussing moral philosophy, is so deep that it is over my head, which is a mixed metaphor if ever there was one, right?) I’m now on her second novel, The Flight from the Enchanter, which was originally published in 1956 (and which makes it even older than I am).

In addition to re-reading the novels, I am hoping to rebuild my collection of them (don’t ask me why — I don’t know), having donated most of my first set to a small town library, which actually added them to their collection. Alas, it appears that hardback copies of Murdoch novels are being collected; they are hard to find, and when I do come across them in a store or online, they are expensive. So I settled for a broken-spined paperback edition of Enchanter when I came across it at Powell’s Books on my last visit to Portland. Tattered cover. Tiny print. Brown, brittle pages. Spine barely holding it all together.

And a surprise inside.

The edition I found was printed in 1973. When I reached page 50, still sorting out all of the characters and their relationships and trying to keep the pages from falling onto the floor, I came across a small cash register receipt from the original purchase, back in July of 1973. The receipt was from the Honolulu Book Store. What a find! Someone bought this paperback when it was newly issued, perhaps hoping for some light beach reading during a summer vacation to Hawai’i. And found out that Iris Murdoch ain’t light reading. Apparently the person got as far as page 50 and gave it up.

And had no one opened this particular copy of the novel since that time? Had the receipt lay in wait for my discovery forty years later? It’s tempting to think so; little surprises/mysteries like this hold a fascination for me. (See my guerilla marketing post for something like this.) More likely, this copy has passed through many hands over the decades, in some cases never having been begun and so traded away, or in others started and given up. Or, I like to think, treated as I have. The receipt found during a reading and lovingly preserved in situ for the next reader.

I suspect I will be the last reader of this copy. I intend to keep it on my shelf indefinitely. And should it ever be taken to a bookstore or donated to a small-town library, I think it will probably be rejected as too broken down. It may be that this particular copy never falls into another reader’s hands again, and so the little surprise inside won’t delight anyone else.

Life is full of these little mysteries, I think, and the trick is to be open and on the watch for them.