(réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 4. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1994)


Iris Murdoch and the sea

Peter Conradi (Kingston University)

Iris Murdoch is a novelist of rare distinction. This year will see the publication of her twenty-fifth novel, as last saw that of her major work of philosophy, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. She has also written a book on Sartre, another book of her own moral philosophy, The Sovereignty of Good, a monograph on Plato's theory of art, The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists, and has published poetry and a number of plays. She is a writer of international reputation, who during the current year alone is to receive four honorary Doctorates - from the Universities of Cambridge, of Coleraine in Northern Ireland, from my own University of Kingston, and from the ancient University of Alcala de Henares near Madrid.

I want in this paper to discuss Iris Murdoch's work in relation to water: to start briefly and - in honour of the theme of the conference - with the Mediterranean and with Paul Valéry, to move, after a 'potted' account of her philosophy and moral psychology, towards water in general; and to return finally (as in the endings of a number of her fictions) once more, to the sea.

"To sketch the history of the British imaginative intercourse with the Mediterranean in modern times is virtually to present a survey of modern British literature."(1) Paul Fussell's masterful and highly readable study locates the Great Good Place in British literature during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries within Britain: Dickens's household idylls; George Eliot's Midlands; Trollopc's Barsetshire cathedral town pastoral; Henry James's eponymous English Hours; Housman's Shropshire; Forster's Wiltshire. By the time of Forster and Lawrence, however, there is a greater equivocation about the condition of England and a renaissance of that great move towards the Mediterranean which is one of


1. FUSSELL, Paul. Abroad: British Literary Travelling between the Wars. Oxford: OUP, 1980, p. 130.


Fussell's themes. Both Forster and Lawrence view Italy as a corrective for what has gone wrong with suburban Britain (Forster) or with industrialised Britain (Lawrence). Between the wars, this great good place moves Abroad decisively, and to the Mediterranean in particular.

Spender takes a yet wider view: "the Mediterranean represents the nostalgia of the West" while "Nostalgia and hatred are two aspects of the same medal. . . . Someone should write a history of nostalgia, comparing the nostalgic feelings of the post-industrial revolution literature, with that gilding of previous eras, golden ages, which in the past produced rebirths and revivals, but since the beginning of the nineteenth century produced only hatred and despair (2).

In the work of Iris Murdoch the Mediterranean figures as one only among a number of seascapes that populate her work from the start. In The Sandcastle the partly French painter Rain Carter has been brought up by the Mediterranean and criticises its tidelessness: "a melancholy sea with a dirty dry beach. The tides never wash the sand or make it firm. When I tried to make a sandcastle, the sand would just run away between my fingers. It was too dry to hold together. And even if I poured seawater over it, the sun would dry it up at once (3)."

Here the Mediterranean is neither, as elsewhere, Homer's epic sea, nor, for that matter, Goethe's dream of the South, let alone Durrell's etemally picturesque Elsewhere, but a sea defined almost metaphysically by its incapacity to honour form, an inability Murdoch, herself a notable philosopher, views equivocally. Art confers significance; the sea especially the Northern seas of her many other novels - mocks significance, or rather, seems to present the realm of contingency, a key term in Iris Murdoch's moral universe, betokening our seemingly random subjection to chance and mortality; against which and out of which realm the significance of art is to be drawn. In this we might say that her seas resemble von Aschenbach's within Thomas Mann's Death in Venice; or possibly that of Valéry in Le Cimetière Marin.

Valéry's Cimetière Marin is cited or referred to at least four times within Murdoch's oeuvre. In The Unicorn (an Agrégation set-text around 1983), Marian uses it to teach Hannah French; in The Time of the Angeis Muriel writes a pastiche of it; in The Nice and the Good, and again in The Sea, the Sea, the poem is actualised as a cemetery by the sea in, respectively, Dorset and the North country, and in The Sea, the Sea the title also owes something to Valéry ["La mer, la rner, toujours recommencée"] as well as to Xenophon. Iris Murdoch's husband, the distinguished critic John Bayley, with whom she shares many ideas,


2. SPENDER, Stephen. The Struggle of the ModeriL London: H. Hamilton, 1963, p. 209-12.
3. MURDOCH, Iris. The Sandcastle. Hannondsworth: Penguin, 1960, p. 72.



writes about the Valéry poem in his Romantic Survival (4). Escape from and return to the world are themes in Valéry's great poem, which she has termed "this great beautiful magnificent memorable poem - so many memorable lines, so many mysteries." (5) The poem concerns the necessary artifice of poetry; and is also, in Murdoch's view, a work about the need for justice, where justice always invokes some sense of a just apprehension of reality.

For Iris Murdoch the Great Good Place is not to be found within another geographical location, which is to say, not through escape. The Mediterranean is described surreally in The Flight from the Enchanter - a very poor landscape" (6) - where the enchanter Mischa Fox holds a secondary court in Southern Italy; referred to with gentle irony in An Accidental Man as the place to which rich English folk adjourn in the summer; and with a much more savage irony in The Good Apprentice as the dream-location - probably a Greek island of the immature and selfish materialist Harry, who may incidentally be influenced by Derrida, or by Murdoch's vision of Derrida: here the Mediterranean is associated with hedonism, adultery, escapism and a deathly inability to grow up; and is opposed to the here-and-now differently perceived which only Stuart in this novel can embody. It is clear from her work that she loves both England, and also France. The intensely lyrical descriptions of Paris in her first novel Under the Net, or of the Spenders' house and surrounding landscape near les Alpilles in Nuns and Soldiers here come to mind. Her work, moreover, is firmly and triumphantly located in the twentieth century that we share - Golding has gone on record as admiring her unique ability to inhabit her own place and time (7).

The quest to inhabit the present moment and place is, in her view, a difficult and essential task. A pocket-book or cartoon account of her thinking on such matters now follows. She takes the Buddhist view that human consciousness is, generally speaking, in escape from the present moment. Ordinary mind inhabits "a more or less fantastic cloud of reverie designed to protect the psyche from pain. It constantly seeks consolation, either through imagined inflation of self or through fictions of a theological nature. Even its loving is more often than not an assertion of self" (8). The devil Julius in A Fairly Honourable Defeat describes life in the Platonic Cave, the land of everyday illusion and the ordinary self-serving fantasy which make up moment-to-moment consciousness: "human beings are roughly constructed entities full of indeterminacies and vaguenesses and empty spaces.

4. BAYLFY,John. Rotwntic Survival. London: Constable, 1957, passim.
5. Letter to author from Iris Murdoch, April 1993.
6. MURDOCH, Iris. The Flight from the Enchanter. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960, p. 273.
7. HAFFENDEN, J. Interviews with Novelists. London: Methuen, 1985, p. 119.
8. MURDOCH, Iris. The Sovereignty of Good. London: Routledge, 1970, p. 79.


Driven along by their private needs they latch blindly onto each other, then pull away, then clutch again. Their little sadisms and their little masochisms are surface phenomena. Anyone will do to play the roles. They never really see each other at all. There is no relationship. . . which cannot easily be broken and there is none the breaking of which is a matter of any genuine seriousness. Human beings are essentially finders of substitutes" (9). It may in passing be noted how well Julius's description fits the workings of Iris Murdoch plots, especially early ones: in them human beings are indeed the ignorant victims of their own blind needs, and subject to a law or convention of busy erotic substitution.

The only means we have to cut through our normal state of narcissistic and self-aggrandising escapist fantasy is the long, indeed endless, path towards learning goodness. Goodness, in some Platonic sense, is the only access we have to the real. Though love and art point the way, they act as essential and enlivening substitutes. Substitutes because only a religious discipline gets all the way to that ascesis or unselfing through which reality is perceived; essential because few are capable of the hard and narrow path, and we occupy a realm of the second-best in which ordinary selfish love which has yet to be purified is a source of consolation as well as affliction; and art, however much it belongs necessarily to the mixed, the second-best, the impure, is also our most radiant and glorious possession, our best pointer towards the spiritual.

One of the enemies of goodness lies in our deep fear and puritan horror at the contingent - a key-term in Murdoch's world-view - meaning random chance and mortality, all that the self cannot tame or make immediate sense of; and therefore, also, all that threatens our sense of our supremacy within the scheme of things, our desire to belong permanently at the centre of the universe and to control its workings. We see what we desire; and our selfishness stupefies our perception, and solidifies our habitual patterns ("fife-myths"). Our desire to perceive reality as subject to our wish causes us to coerce the world according to the patterns of our particular - and usually unconscious - life-myths, which can of course involve the seeking of power through masochism as well as through conventional domination. In such a manner does Murdoch marry Freud to Plato, or a mechanistic and pessimistic vision of the psyche to one hospitable to idealism.

Iris Murdoch's first published book was her study of Sartre, a work still in print forty years later. In an excellent article comparing Murdoch to Sartre, Diogenes Allen well shows how Murdoch and Sartre differ in their attitude to all that the self cannot tame or make immediate sense of (10). Roquentin's experience in La Nausée when looking at the roots of the


9. MURDOCH, Iris. A Fairly Honourable Defeat. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970, p. 233.
10. ALLEN, D. 'Two Experiences of Existence: J-P Sartre and Iris Murdoch', International Philosophical Quarterly, June 1974, p. 181-7.


chestnut tone is exemplary. He sees everything as obscene and threatening, apprehends the "brute and nameless" character of that world which is always more and other than any description we chose to give of it. Roquentin's moment of negative sublimity is opposed to the dulled consciousness of those bourgeois fools who experience the world as solid and are shown as thus living inauthentically. Sartre elevates such moments into a revelation of truth about the 'absurdity' of existence, and such 'absurdity' has become itself a platitude in its own right, as conventional and anodyne as any bourgeois propriety. To Sartre the defeat of reason is an affront.

Murdoch, citing Gabriel Marcel, has asked why Sartre finds the contingent overabundance of the world nauseating rather than glorious (11). Sartre's horror seems to be based on a defensive egocentricity which sees everything as orbiting around us and as possessing value only to the precise degree that it will permit us to assign it. (We could, incidentally, call this extreme anthropocentrism in political terms distinctly un-Green: why should the universe declare its aim uniquely to homo sapiens?!) The super-abundance of the world can be apprehended differently, however. Its othemess and separateness can also be experienced joyously, and as object-lessons in the insignificance of the observer. Allen points out that the scene in the The Unicorn where Effingham Cooper nearly drowns in the bog is an anti-type to Roquentin confronting the tree roots. After his gibbering panic, Cooper experiences a moment of calm in which he comes to see that his coming subtraction from the scene will nonetheless leave something behind.

What was left was everything else, all that was not himself, that object which he had never before seen and upon which he now gazed with the passion of a lover. And indeed he could always have known this, for the fact of death stretches the length of life. Since he was mortal he was nothing, and since he was nothing all that was not him was filled to the brim with being, and it was from this that the light streamed. This then was love, to look and look until one exists no more, this was the love which was the same as death. He looked and knew, with a clarity which was one with the increasing light, that with the death of the self the world becomes quite automatically the object of a perfect love. . . (12)

Both Murdoch and Sartre hold water dear as a central image: for Sartre and Roquentin, the viscous - solidity polluted by the state of liquefaction - figures prominently as a picture of that indeterminacy by which the author experiences some form of metaphysical affront. In Murdoch's The Unicorn, the bog seems to represent viscosity itself, a state neither solid nor liquid, and hence potentially fatal to the careless traveller; and


11. MURDOCH, Iris. Sartre, Romantic Rationalist. London, 1953, p. 17.
12. MURDOCH, Iris. The Unicorn. London: Triad/Panther, 1977, p. 166.


yet also a place of redemption. Water in Murdoch may kill, but can also save. And in this begins one of her many differences from Sartre, from whom at one early stage it might have seemed she was to learn. For her the practice of philosophy is the study of dying, as in the Phaedo by her later and truer mentor Plato, since it is only in realising one's own mortality and relative helplessness that the alternative reality of other people can begin to be apprehended for the first time. And, like Plato, Murdoch is an ironist: Cooper is a conceited and immature public-school ass, an unlikely candidate for enlightenment. Indeed his moment of insight casts a lasting glimmer of light only for his readers, while for him it merely, and believably, fades.

If the 'viscous,' as Murdoch reminds us, is the fundamental key or image by which Sartre suggests that we understand our situation, an image of consciousness, of the form of our appropriation of the world, then water and swimming and drowning are for her counter-images. For Sartre the viscous images forth the world's messiness and the indeterminacy of consciousness. For Murdoch, who is less of an aesthetic puritan, swimming seems to act as the unofficial counter-image of a healing surrender to the mysterious supportive properties of the world, as well as its mysterious destructive properties. A recent (and increasingly rare) article - review by Iris Murdoch in the New York Times Review of Books, entitled 'Taking the Plunge,' and introducing Charles Sprawson's The Swimmer as Hero makes the point in a number of different and discursive ways (13). Starting by proclaiming both John Bayley and herself devoted swimmers, among the last of the English river swimmers, who slip into the Thames above Oxford on hot summer days, she goes on to explore the fascinations of water and swimming in life and literature. The swimmer may feel himself cured of all ailments and dissatisfactions, as of all other longings, she asserts. . . . Swimming cultivates the imagination; the man with the most is he who can swim his solitary course night or day and forget a black earth full of people that push. . . . Books and bathing have a close affinity, for the imagination transforms both... The novel is often drawn to swimming. . . . The very thought of water - this mysterious and wonderful new element can be inspirational to the novelist: the imagination of dipping into it can set him free from writer's block... And she ends by quoting Wittgenstein who often swam, as Rupert Brooke had done, in Byron's pool, and in one his notebooks made the 'homely but profound' observation that 'just as one's body has a natural tendency towards the surface and one has to make an exertion to get to the bottom - so it is with thinking'. To this Murdoch adds that it may equally be true that the ease with which we move in the water is an index of the simplicity which great thinkers have always demonstrated and mastered. 'I suspect that


13. New York Times Review of Books, March 4, 1993, p. 3-4.


Plato was a great swimmer. About Aristotle I am not so sure.' Indeed many thinkers within her fiction proclaim that European philosophy went wrong after Aristotle; while in The Sea, the Sea, to which I shall return, a legend is referred to according to which Plato is said to have been descended from Poseidon himself.

To be able to swim, for Murdoch, is within her fiction almost to possess moral competence. 'My people live by the river,' she once remarked indignantly to Malcolm Bradbury (14), when charged with writing 'Hampstead novels,' and the point seems a metaphysical as much as a sociological one. In A Fairly Honourable Defeat the devil Julius cannot swim; while, when Dora learns to swim at the end of The Bell, she is simultaneously trying belatedly to grow up. There are few Murdoch novels during which no one swims - sometimes in the Thames - and drowning is the commonest death - in a swimming-pool (A Fairly Honourable Defeat), a bath (An Accidental Man), the sea (The Sea, the Sea), a flashflood (The Unicorn), the Thames (A Word Child), a Public Baths (The Philosopher's Pupil). Ordeals by water also abound. I have noted Cooper in the bog in The Unicorn; there are ordeals in a canal in the Midi in Nuns and Soldiers, and in the sea in The Nice and the Good, and in The Philosopher's Pupil, and in the forthcoming The Green Knight. This is not an exhaustive list. The descriptions of such events are always superbly imagined and evoked. They also embody the wisdom, in which her books abound, that a brave immersion in the detail of the world, and of other lives, is both necessary but can carry with it no indemnity against mischance. The sea, in which Murdoch has recounted she herself once nearly drowned, is also a 'vast image of power and danger" (15), an image of uncreated form itself, or of 'infinite' multiplicity and contingency.

Water and swimming, in other words, play a significant but hard-to-pin-down emblematic role in the dangerous process by which we come to get a more accurate picture of the present moment and space: by which we learn a transfiguration of the ordinary.

To return to the original topic of this paper: the sea partly figures the realm of images, the great mother from which all form comes, and returns. Some of the most brilliant evocations of the sea come in her 1978 novel The Sea, the Sea, which won the Booker prize. Murdoch is fascinated by the sea and would love to have had a chance of living beside it

14. 'Iris Murdoch in Conversation', 27 Feb. 1976, British Council, tape no. RS 2001.
15. See my study Iris Mardoch: The Saint and the Artist (Macmillan, 1989), p. 109 et seq.
for further discussion of this and other points. I have plundered this earlier work at a number of stages in the present discussion.


 herself (16): "My imagination lives near the sea and under the sea," she said in 1978. (17) Before exploring further complexity, it as well to invoke this simple truth. For the uses to which the sea is put, in The Sea, the Sea, feel more achieved here than in any other novel. In The Philosopher's Pupil water is explored throughout with great ingenuity as an explicitly public symbol in an imaginary spa town. It becomes something like a figure for Eros itself, the "natural" spring of all desire, and an object of ambiguous worship. The very publicity of the theme in that novel can produce an uncomfortably knowing effect that is wholly lacking in The Sea, the Sea.

The novel concerns the obsessive love of Charles Arrowby, a now ageing theatrical director, for his childhood sweetheart Hartley. She rejected him when they were both adolescent, and the pain of this rejection has travelled with him for forty years throughout his adult life. It has become a central life-myth. He feels licensed by it to treat the women he encounters with considerable callousness and carelessness, a treatment to which they on the whole respond with a generous degree of masochism and little desire for revenge. He retires to live a secluded half-hermetic life by the sea, to think about his life and make his peace with his past - always a dangerous move in the Murdochian world, since the past is not so easily jettisoned or levitated out of, and those who most wish to escape it have, on the whole, yet to understand its meanings or undergo the "karma" they have been hitherto complicit in creating. Charles imagines he can now step outside experience to contemplate it peacefully; in fact he is only now about to start paying for what he is. In exactly this way many of the women and some of the men with whom he has been involved, and whom he has variously enchanted and dominated, return to haunt him; there are quasi-supematural happenings which haunt him also. Most importantly Hartley herself, the obsessive and unconsummated love of his life, turns out to be living within the neighbouring village, in a marriage that looks harsh to the outsider, but whose secret satisfactions are not on view. He kidnaps her; death and suffering happen, though not quite as we expect, and the tone of the book, like that of all good Murdoch novels, is also comic. Charles comes to the sea wishing to play-act at renunciation, but the plot forces him through a series of savagely painful renunciations that make his early desire for repentance look a posturing nonsense. In all of this he is taught by his ex-Army cousin James, who plays saint to Charles's artist, in an opposition (saint-versus-artist) that recurs throughout Iris Murdoch's work over four decades. James is an adept of Tibetan Buddhism, attempting to liberate himself and distracted by magic, which is to say, in Murdoch's view, one of the corruptions of the


16. Letter, see footnote 5.
17. "Crest of a Wave," Daily Mail, 23 Nov. 1978.

 spiritual path. He probably saves Charles's life, and certainly tries to educate Charles's about the nature and necessity of renunciation and equally possibly curtails his own life through an act of will.

In all this there are echoes of The Tempest, from which the plot of the novel borrows, though very loosely. And, like that great play, The Sea, the Sea combines humour and pathos in a structure which struggles with and never quite embraces "allegory". Both works take place in a zone weirdly pitched between what Charles calls (borrowing from Schiller), the naive and ironic. Both concern the nature of power and magic, and the requirement to give up both, and both explore the idea of redemption. Both Charles and James are figures of power: spiritual power in James's case; and power in a more direct and personal sense in Charles's case: he manipulates subordinate characters who stand in respectively for Caliban - a painted gay actor in his sixties called Gilbert - and for Ariel - his touching and devoted ex-mistress Lizzie. Like Prospero, Charles and James struggle differently, both in the exercise of power, and in the renunciation of it. Finally both The Tempest and The Sea, the Sea are set by the sea and make use of their setting.

The way the sea works in this novel to oppose ordinary fixated or monistic consciousness is implicit in a remark Dame Iris made to the philosopher Brian Magee when she suggested that "ideas in art must suffer a sea-change" (18) this was a way of putting her hostility to ideology within art, and of emphasising her commitment to the liberal and empirical, that proposed for the sea the powers of transmutation, indeterminacy and flux: everything, in fact, that Charles's obsession is opposed to.

In this context the critic must feel something awkward about the critical exercise of trying to "totalise" Murdoch's image of that which has value precisely to the degree that it defeats the attempt to totalise, or to contain meaning. Given the variety and eloquence of the description of the sea's many states and mood and colours within the novel, it seems tactless to colonise it as a "literary device". Its point, in fact, seems to be its resistance to human devices, its miscellaneous nature, its hugeness and unpredictability. Here the concept of the "sublime" - on which Murdoch has written two essays (19) offers itself, since the sublime has at its heart precisely such a disharmony between reason and the world reason tries to accommodate, and addresses the futility on the part of the imagination of the effort to grasp and represent the formless.


18. MAGEE, Brian. Men of ldeas: Some Creators of Contemporary Philosophy. London, 1978, p. 264-84.
19. "The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited', Yale Review XLIX (Winter 1959), p. 247-71; " The Sublime and the Good", Chicago Review, XIII (Aug 1959), p. 42-55.



"It's sublime, yes, in the strict sense sublime," says James (20) on seeing the sea to which Charles has retired. The starry firmament above, which Charles also most memorably watches on two occasions, and which reminds him of the cinemas of his youth, reminded Kant of the moral law within: two wonders. Both sea-scape and star-scape are conventional triggers of the sublime, and the sublime here might be defined by its opposition to the box of obsession. Dwarfing both Charles's one-pointed maundering pain about Hartley, and his pain about his life, are the multiplicity and disorder of the natural world. Charles has given Hartley the status of absolute in his life. Sea and stars decree that such incarnate absolutes must be delusive. Charles has made Hartley the source of all significance in his private religion. The sea, in changing from second-to-second while he watches it, mocks such transcendence, declares it premature.

Like so many other Murdoch pilgrims, Charles fights off, but eventually learns to begin to embrace, a healing surrender to the particulars of the world he inhabits. Here the sea early undoes the knots in the various ropes Charles tries to attach to his rocks to ease his bathing and can thus felicitously be used, much later, as a figure for impermanence: "Time, like the sea, undoes all knots. Judgements on people are never final, they emerge from summings up which at once suggest the need of a reconsideration. Human arrangements are nothing but loose ends and hazy reckoning, whatever art may otherwise pretend in order to console US" (21). And there is something apt about the part of London he finally chooses to retire to, in a perfectly judged ending which points to the inability of art to compel life, of consciousness to contain experience, mocking the idea of endings themselves: avoiding his Shepherd's Bush flat with its unhappy memories, he chooses James's flat in Pimlico "with the wind beating down the Thames at the end of the street" (22). Cheated of the sea itself, a great river offers him its own promise instead. And the book ends with Charles trying to wither into the truth and to grow up at about the age of sixty. He reflects that:

When the poor ghosts have gone, what remains are ordinary obligations and ordinary interests. One can live quiedy and try to do tiny good things and harm no one.' And then he comically and ruefully adds: 'I cannot think of any good thing to do at the moment, but perhaps I shall think of one tomorrow. (23)

Charles's tragicomic journey happens by the sea. The sea, moreover, is an ingredient in the plot, in his spiritual pilgrimage, and in the idea-play that the novel abounds in. 'All


20. Ibid., p. 330.
21. ibid., P. 477.
22. ibid., p. 477.
23. ibid., p. 501.


human beings are symbolic animals - one's always got certain obsessive symbols which seem to represent deep metaphysical ideas or moral ideas (24)." The sea is the ideal concrete metaphor for Murdoch's own Ozeanisches Gefühl, the zone of contingency, the mother of forms, a figure for the sublime, pointing alike to the changeability and to the beauty of the world which we share, but which we do not, in her view, in our confusion and anxiety, always accurately apprehend.


24. "Novels up to Now", Radio 4, broadcast 1 Aug. 1981.

 (réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 4. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1994)