'Virtuoso chapters' draw readers back again
The Nice and the Good
Iris Murdoch, 1969
When I was in my 20's and 30's I read most of Iris Murdoch's 26 novels and some of her books on philosophy as well, especially The Sovereignty of Good which to this day contains the most insightful analysis I've found of how daily acts of attention, or inattention, form character.
Like any author who has written more than 20 novels, Murdoch's fiction varies greatly in quality from a few outstanding novels to some that are forgettable, or just plain bad. She is unusual in that some of her novels such as The Nice and the Good (which I reread every few years) contain virtuoso chapters of character analysis and danger, along with silly elements such as a chapter on magic that includes bird sacrifice. Murdoch is also given to standard plot devices by which she dispenses with characters or to complete novels that have run out of steam.
However, what all of her novels do is to steadily widen and deepen her understanding of love and goodness, virtually a platonic form in Murdoch's philosophy which takes the place of the Christian God. The aspiration for goodness has a magnetic compelling power for many of Murdoch's characters, even the ones who are far from virtuous, often because they are in an ethical muddle due to the vagaries of romantic love. Her novels as a whole are intellectually interesting in a way few novelists are, as she is always deepening her understanding of love and goodness with her exceptional intellect and empathetic powers in each novel.
I have read The Nice and the Good several times due to one paragraph at the end of Chapter 12:
"But that love can be so strong and yet so entirely powerless is what breaks the heart. Love did not move toward life, it moved toward death, toward the roaring sea caves of annihilation."
This last sentence has more than one meaning, but in The Nice and the Good, the reference to "annihilation" refers to a death wish, an impulse to die when romantic love is not reciprocated. In this novel, Murdoch's characters experience searing physical and emotional pain when the person with whom they are romantically obsessed is indifferent or cruel toward them. There is another more extreme meaning in which love is so powerful that awareness of self is merged with another being or with a desire for the beloved to thrive. This version of love takes on a religious coloration in which a divine being is dismembered and scattered in creation, a heterodox interpretation of "For God so loved the world ..." that appears in various mythologies much older than Christianity. Murdoch is peerless in her grasp of such distinctions.
In The Nice and the Good, characters in love with someone who view them as little more than an irritant suffer:
Jessica, a young woman is in love with John Duncane, a older man who is an exemplary civil servant. They were once sexually involved but no more as John has fallen in love with Kate, a happily married woman who reciprocates his love, but without destroying her marriage or even hiding her affection for Duncane from her husband. When Duncane tells Jessica of his intent to end their relationship, "Jessica was thinking. I can't bear this pain. He must take this pain from me. It must be all a nightmare, just a bad dream, it can't be true. ... He can't go away from me now. it's impossible, it's a fantastic mistake." ... Duncane had been silent for some time, looking out of the window. 'Promise you'll come again,' said Jessica, 'Promise it or I shall die.' Duncane turned.. "It's no good," he said in a low toneless voice. It's better for me to go away now. ... (Jessica) 'Are you saying that you are going to go now and not come back?' (Duncane) 'Oh God, Yes, I'm saying that.' Jessica began to scream."
Re Jessica and her predicament, the all-seeing novelist comments: "There are mysterious agencies of the human mind which, like roving gases, travel the world causing pain and mutilation, without their owners having any full awareness, or even any awareness at all, of the strength and the whereabouts of these exhalations. Possibly a saint might be known by the utter absence of such gaseous tentacles, but the ordinary person is naturally endowed with them ... So it is we can be terrors to each other, and people in lonely rooms suffer humiliation and even damage because of others in whose consciousness perhaps they scarcely figure at all. ... Jessica felt so powerless and so harmless in her relation to John that she could not conceive that she was rapidly becoming as hateful to him as a boa constrictor clutching him about the neck."
Pierce, an adolescent in love with Barbara, a lovely girl his own age who treats him with disdain or silence, fantasizes about dying in sea caves near his home that fill up at high tide with the potential to trap anyone in the cave, with little chance of escape. Absorbed in his misery, he swims into the caves a few minutes before they fill up only to discover his dog, Mingo, has followed him and will surely die with him. Duncane discovers what Pierce has done and seeks to rescue him, and by doing so endangers his own life. This chapter of perilous rescue is a tour de force of novelistic talent that achieves almost intolerable tension even after multiple readings. Close to death, Pierce discovers his will to live.
One of Murdoch's main themes is that fantasies of all types cloud the mind until one is brought into contact with bedrock feelings.
In The Nice and the Good, characters fall in love easily with an unattainable other and then in hopeless despair suffer searing pain, until their romantic fantasy is pierced by seeing the beloved as they really are, or more precisely, as they are in relation to the person in love, at which point, love can take a dangerous ugly turn. Upon learning from a letter of Duncane's love for Kate, "Jessica sat down of the floor and concentrated her attention on not dying. She felt no impulse to weep or scream, but it was as if her skin were being dragged apart. ... She was perhaps, and this thought made Jessica pause for a moment ... a positive danger to him, a danger to his new found happiness, a nasty relic ..." Still quiet and immobile, "she paused again to watch herself. .. There was a line of hardness in her, a rigid steely upright as thin as a wire but very strong. She was not going to die after all for John Duncane."
Murdoch's characters fall out of love, sometimes after unbearable pain, other times quickly after an unpleasant revelation regarding the person whom they have obsessed about for months or years. It seems that Murdoch's characters have more agency regarding their romantic feelings than they believe they have, but is not a conscious agency. Consciousness is a witness to falling in and out of love, but not, to use George Bush's famous term, "the decider," which is deeper than consciousness and draws on implicit oedipal memories of perfect unity with a maternal figure. In other novels, Murdoch explores the possessiveness of romantic love, its selfish need to own and monopolize the beloved, However, in The Nice and the Good, it is the searing pain of unreciprocated romantic love that takes center stage.
When Murdoch is done with characters, she makes them happy and fulfilled in love, at which point the novel must end as prolonged happiness is not a subject that can sustain dramatic art for more than a page or two. As a young woman and after her marriage in her 30's, Iris Murdoch ( no beauty) had an extraordinary ability to draw people to her. In affairs of the heart, she know whereof she spoke. In Metaphysical Animals, the authors describe a conversation between the less than 30 Iris Murdoch and her friend, Philippa Foote, also a philosopher of about the same age. The two young women exchanged lists of men who had proposed to them. At one point, Philippa Foot exclaimed, "It would be easier for you (Iris) to list who has not proposed to you."
-- Dee Wilson