Review of Iris Murdoch’s Jackson’s Dilemma

Why all that about Jackson? I asked myself.  To establish him, of course, after a late entry, but would dinner guests spend all that time talking of a servant?  The host character is working on Heidegger who quotes from Heraclitus, ‘How can one hide from that which never sets?” and the wannabe philosopher wonders what it all means.  The question evokes a sun, one which doesn’t set, but what might Heraclitus think such a sun might be symbol of?  A god of light?  Of truth?  Of life?  Not Christ anyway.  More than by Heidegger, the host is perturbed by his servant.  What!

The relationship is gone into from the start.  The host’s resistant, Jackson persistent.  Why persist? I asked myself, in the margin, and also how he knew the new address, a question the resister also asks himself.  Anyway, the relationship does begin.  But why! I asked.  The author does eventually answer that question.

The characters are prone to think they are at fault and blame themselves for what hardly is their fault even if they may have to take some responsibility.  There’s a lot of presumptuous guilt going on.  A female character has found somebody other than the one she’s committed to, whom she betrays therefore, and that is bad but she reverts.  I thought she was pregnant.

‘The Last Ride Together’ is by Browning.

The suggestion is the female character was drugged but that’s just to excuse her.  Maybe by love.

I didn’t expect the author to monitor Jackson’s mind because usually she doesn’t, to maintain mystery in the male character focussed upon, but she does.  It’s a distinctive characterisation but no more different from the others as the others from each other, I’d’ve thought.  I may have to read it again.  He lies effortlessly.  Somebody good wouldn’t.  When mum realised I told the truth she was inclined to teach me to lie, as mothers do to give their children every advantage in the world, but further realised I’d ways round it, one of which was conveniently forgetting.  I’ve noticed recently other people share this attribute.  After all, if you analyse remembering, there’s no direct connection between one bit of consciousness and the next.  The connection is within.  The unconscious may choose not to prompt but block.  That may be hard to convey in art by an author who extends consciousness into the unconscious without any intervening realisation as if that’s how it could be.

Jackson is likened to many things, including a horse.  Asked his age he wonders which of his ages he should offer.  What is the implication of that?  He’s instrumental in resolving things satisfactorily if not necessarily, certainly not explicitly, the executor of fate as my man was for Denise.

Another female character parallels Jackson’s persistence while a male character resists.

This novel is sparer than previous ones, a lot less description of clothing.

I’m like Jackson; like him I think I’ve lost my powers, his wasted on the rich.  A like example of mine to his might be on my finishing Isobil’s horoscope taking it out with me shopping and on coming across her handing it over as somehow arranged.  How did Jackson have his ex-employer come to him?  There is only one possible explanation the author doesn’t give because she doesn’t know what it is and doesn’t have to.

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The snow’s gone, as has John,

not that I’m likening him

to the evanescent whitening.

He’s not that.  His visiting

would incur diminishing

in the nature of things – snow too,

which lacks the effort of love.

I’ve thought of going to him –

I have several hours to spare –

but inertia, present warmth take over

and… he might think what propels

is a want of forgiveness when

I didn’t do him wrong, so leave it;

he may visit again, or not, as he pleases,

and our love sublime away, yes, like snow.

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Review of Iris Murdoch’s The Green Knight

‘Glastonbury Romance’ by Powys is being read by a character.

One of the characters wants to become a monk and writes letters to a confessor in which he discusses Christ who didn’t himself megalomaniacally claim to be god, he avers, though the lying gospellers retroactively do claim he does. There’s no evidence for a resurrection, he says, and hardly could be; the Jews and Romans would’ve laughed at the preposterous idea. Paul invented the whole thing, he goes on. Faith in Christ doesn’t depend on historical evidence but on the living Christ whose reality we experience. Speak for yourself. The author has a thing about Christ and the ontological proof of god and this febrile character expresses it, ‘there is no god but what I am feeling now is what god is.’ Okay, at one point I did myself consult a Jesuit priest. It’s an aspect of searching for who you are when young, shopping around to see what suits. This one takes too much on himself, taking the blame for another’s accident, as if he were god.

Murdoch doesn’t believe in accidents. His mother says of the character who had it that he smashed himself up accidentally on purpose, much to his regret, though he does eventually think there was purpose behind it and no accident. If his purpose, unconscious. If not, unconscious anyway. Murdoch believes in the unconscious though she can’t figure it out. She has her erroneous theories, one of which is exemplified by a character thinking another has consciously switched off consciousness as if it had control of manifesting unconsciousness.

With ‘you don’t want to explain the world, you want to change it’, Murdoch invokes Marx.

‘No sexuality, no spirit.’ It’s the other way about: no spirit, no sexuality.

‘Ça revient au meme de s’enivrer solitairement ou de conduire les peuples’ is by Sartre

Who the green knight is is evident from his wearing green. Even a green girdle is involved. I didn’t twig he was involved in the fracas between two ‘brother’ characters. Eventually it bore in upon me the title referred to an old poem. If the green knight is the character whose name means world peace, and rooms in a pub called The Castle, then one of the ‘brothers’ has to be Sir Gawain, neither a likely candidate. She does have the poem’s plot fairly closely followed eg ‘He doesn’t want my money, he wants my head,’ and through a brother character analyses how close and where divergent.

The false god punishes, the true god slays is from Elijah.

As the hart panteth over the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee is from Psalm 42.

The author doesn’t put a foot wrong until the sex scene where the two characters involved are both pompous, I thought, if that’s the exact word, and the whole thing psychologically implausible. I couldn’t help but summon up a like experience when Billy Macbrayne appeared in my room saying he’d just had a bath; he’d come for sex, and I set obligingly about it only for him to wince and say he might have a broken leg. I ran through the scenario, considering It was possible to go ahead if intricately to avoid hurting the leg, a challenge I could meet, to give what he wanted, but he was making it unnecessarily difficulty, so I desisted, advising he see a doctor to determine what he’d been walking on was broken. Right enough, there might’ve been something like pomposity in the way I said that but the scene was real because unconsciously directed in life whereas… the scene in the novel was imagined by an unconscious filtered through the one consciousness. From a subsequent scene I think the author was deliberately and to her artistic credit making this first one false-seeming, and mine, in life, isn’t directly comparable since I, being male, could’ve proceeded regardless of Billy’s capability whereas the female character in the novel couldn’t. Like the scene in the book, however, that in life wasn’t meant to succeed.

Murdoch believes in chance, exemplifying its ‘vast play …in human life’ by a character’s not sighting a dog whose capture by another character alters ‘the fates of a number of people in this story’ or maybe she doesn’t since she’s the author of her characters’ ‘fates’. She certainly seems to be using ‘dog’ as a mirroring of ‘god’, at least to readers of English, because the wonderfully well characterised dog proves to have a most responsive soul, acting along Augustine’s line of ‘ama et fac quod vis’, love and do what you want. She believes in love. A whole section is devoted to Eros.

She has a page of duologue without any need to say who’s talking. When she says, ‘Cora covered her face,’ she doesn’t need to say any more.

Everything deep loves a mask is from Nietzsche.

“Numeros memini si verba tenerent” is from Virgil.

‘Unlucky love should last, when answered passions thin to air’ is from Housman.

Not to have been born is best from Sophocles and from me, in a school magazine.

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Review of Iris Murdoch’s poems, A Year of Birds

I’m not sure of ‘Behind the plough their kite tail’ of seagulls in January unless its heaviness is to add lift to the next line, ‘Or ride transparent in the sky.’  The repeated ‘in the sky’ is perhaps one too many even if ‘ai’ and ‘cry’ are also repeated, so probably deliberately, but more closely.

February is preferable with ‘Chat-chat they cry and stay,/ They to work fly away,’ to convey the sudden unanimous change of decision rooks make, in appropriately shorter lines.

In March, ‘does the spring/ Now in your thoughtless blood so soon declare/ That love is pain?’ is just a tad too anthropomorphic for me though led to by the complain of collared doves, a fair enough description of their sound, and preceded by the stain of violets.  ‘Oh pretty lovers,’ directed at the pigeons, might in any case indicate poetic tongue in cheek.

More anthropomorphism in the next poem where ‘swallows’ is shoved in to give a rhyme for ‘follows’.  ‘Rosy and yellow the April willow’, with its internal rhyme, is also shoved in with seeming distraction while providing a description of the background to the moorhen’s ‘peer about and start’ to divert the reader’s eye and add to the effect of ‘Pain in the heart’.

Cricketers and cuckoo are combined by their calls.  She adds buds of May concealing the rose perhaps, that the last line ‘Hollow as a flute that cry across the field’ may not just be men and bird but flower too.

The magpie is from a picture flying on a sculpted entablature from which likeness to art she turns to make a general observation on the length of a midsummer day before most specifically settling her vision on the nearer roses and inquisitive intellect on their arch of ‘clambering bees.’

The blackbird looks mechanical in its agitated digging and glancing until ‘Quiet now yellow beak motionlessly listening’, she captures its soul in July.

‘A portent perched in air’ is the kestrel, arresting the August traveller with its ‘moveless flutter’ and fragility, recalling his to him perhaps on a highway to death, and I don’t think.

The skies less blue, the nights colder, the days still long but less warm in the evening, but somehow it’s the wren moving like a mouse that reminds us autumn has already come.

I’m trying to work out if the red tree beside which the swan spreads a wing is or can be a rosebush whose hips are also reflected in the scarcely moving October water when I’m presented with ‘Where the bird’s sudden movement has made no sound.’  Of course the swan’s movement has made no sound in the stream, reflected by it.  Oh, the swan’s on it, beside the …tree, which does then have to be a rosebush, so the ‘where’ is correct.  You’d have no problem with it.  The poem doesn’t rhyme.  It dances along on trisyllabic feet.

‘When flies the stooping owl over’ makes me shudder at ‘owl over’, never mind the paws of shrewmice when the stooping owl flies over.  She’s using assonance when ‘shud’ and ‘o’ aren’t that close and depend on the following schwas, ‘der’ and ‘ver’, closer but of course unstressed and of a weak, any old vowel sound.  ‘Stir’ at the end of the next line is stressed, doesn’t, can’t rhyme with the ‘er’s but with the vowel and the consonant does carry on something of the assonance, and ‘stir’ does make assonance with the last word of the last line, ‘In feathers sleeps the fur.’  What, however, does that mean!  It’s double metonymy, for owl and mouse respectively while the alliteration provides additional connection but the shrew the owl hopes to stir into telltale motion is already awake if its paws are shuddering.  The dormouse sleeps in the owl until pounced awake, the idea realised.

She has a thing about Christ, though not as god, and for December has the hawberries ‘drip like blood’, eye-rhyming that with ‘wood’ in the next line.  It is no accident then the bracken’s broken and ‘Christ has come again to heal and pardon.’  What presumption!  She femininely rhymes ‘pardon’ with the next line’s ‘garden’ where a robin follows her, his breast of course ‘like a rose’ to rhyme with an earlier ‘snows’ but also to evoke Christ’s bleeding I’ll be bound.

The poems are to a dead friend’s engravings.

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Review of Iris Murdoch’s An Accidental Man

I didn’t know what to make of it.  There was no emotional effect from what had been most interesting throughout.  I realised I had yet to read the introduction to An Accidental Man.  I hadn’t wanted to read it beforehand, to avoid corrupting my innocent eye.  I must’ve known which character failed the moral test on watching two strangers knife another when I was reading but by the time I’d finished I was attributing the failure to another character.  I’ve done that before, conflating two characters, but Murdoch was very good at distinguishing each of her host of characters so the fault is mine, except the better character wasn’t that good either or I wasn’t sure the dilemma he faced was fairly posed and could’ve been motivated by what I was falsely attributing to him.  I scanned through the book to make sure the introducer was right and I wrong.

I wasn’t sure how I’d behave on seeing two men knifing a third.  One doesn’t know how one might instinctively respond and it is an instinctive response in the first instance.  I’ve said, “stop that!” on seeing somebody brain somebody else, thinking I’d then have to act as I didn’t want if he didn’t, so I’m guessing I might have done the like in an American city street.  I’m much less likely on seeing protesters in a Soviet society to go over and shake their hands and become involved and be needlessly arrested myself.  The better character had committed himself to another and has second thoughts.  So?  He’s entitled to.  I find it less convincing he should therefore do what he does decide on because it’s good.  Is it?  He himself doesn’t think he’s all that great a man.  He’s not.  I found myself anticipating what the author would have the character do next and not just that character but what others would do next or have done to them from the exigency of the plot it took me a while to work out.

There’s an intricate philosophical discussion which clarifies things for him that I’m not sure I followed successfully, something to do with a link where god would be if he existed but doesn’t, yet the link still holds good.  Seems a shaky argument to me unless you take it a step farther, which Murdoch doesn’t, and conclude the god that doesn’t exist was a projection of that good in the first place, reversing grandma’s dictum that good is god with nothing added to god is good with nothing taken away and now surplus to moral requirements.

Murdoch is putting herself in the position of god, which makes sense of the rationale of the book, that of the omniscient author monitoring her characters, distancing them a little from the reader and herself almost coming through the text transparently.

I was just thinking she doesn’t do working class characters when she did, quite effectively, though I doubted she’d ever have one as a hero or anti-hero.  The introducer says she was responding to criticism that she never did.

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We had trout fillet and went to Balletboyz who were so sinuous and feline a cat could do no better.  Coming out, waiting for John to buy a burger, I saw the R70, a bus we could take to where he lived but I’d’ve needed to have his house present with me and it was at home.  By the time we went back for it that bus would’ve long gone.  In fact even if John came out of Uncle Jimmy’s promptly and we ran for it by the time we reached the stop, that bus would be gone.  There would be others.  When John did come out, I suggested instead of his staying mine I stayed his.

My usual house present is a cactus so back home as we were about to leave I suggested that as well.  He agreed and I lifted up the closed curtain to take from the sill the pot he chose.  John tried to help by shifting other pots along to fill the gap.  The curtain bulged and there was a crash of the biggest pot of cacti upside down on the new red chair, inevitably dropping wet compost on chair and carpet below.  I stopped him applying soap and water to the chair I brushed the compost off, also off the carpet, but, while I was attending to the mess in the kitchen his gloveless efforts to repot had made, he was vigorously applying soapy water to evenly spread the ensuing mud over a larger area.  On returning to the room and seeing this, I may have emitted a scream or a “Stop!”  He did not immediately comply but completed the task he’d set himself.  This reparation all took time and I thought to abandon going on as having done enough for one evening.

John thought otherwise and we went to the station, catching a train to Teddington.  There we changed platforms where the last train to Hampton wasn’t due for another fifty minutes.  We thought of walking or taking a bus but in trying to put more money on his oyster to take the latter, John found he was minus £5.40.  A bus was out.  Walking would take an hour.  He fulminated, not understanding how after putting £12 on he could be £5.40 short.  The likeliest explanation then occurred: the night before he had omitted to tap on his way out of Hampton station which has no barriers, thus not ending his journey there but it must be electronically presumed where the train terminated, at Shepperton.  While we waited for the train, a girl was taking a phone photo of the time on the overhead arrival board because her birthday started at midnight.


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Review of Iris Murdoch’s The Fire and the Sun

‘Words lead to deeds and we ought not to brutalize our minds by abusing and mocking other people.’ I don’t like making a fool of other people nor their being made fools of but I do use irony a lot and have found people amusing while keeping a straight face. “Are you laughing at me?” Mum asked. “I’m not laughing, Mum.” I certainly don’t abuse other people but one has to be able to defend oneself against abuse or others’ absurdity. A laugh can clear their minds because it makes them see from another perspective. ‘There is something anti-authoritarian about violent laughter,’ and Plato is nothing if not authoritarian and po-faced.

Plato has Socrates say that fields and trees have nothing to teach him. I exclaim at that. Fields maybe but trees?

Okay, a little bit of abuse here. ‘Philosophy is a training for death, when the soul will exist without the body.’ ‘Balls’ I’ve commented. Since the soul is what is life, when the body dies it dies with it. To think otherwise is the wishful thinking of a deflated ego wanting in importance; it’s its form of self-importance. Plato’s excuse is he’s trying to bring the stability of the eternal into the flux of life, so is making out the soul comes from wherever the eternal resides and goes back there on death. That also gives rise to the idea the body is at odds with the soul, corrupting it, when the two are in fact one in the here and now.

‘Writing spoils the direct relationship to truth in the present.’ Okay. When my man composed art from my life then, with my, Mum’s and everybody’s collaboration, it wasn’t written but in duologue form that when decades later it was realised intact from unconscious memory where it was stored and as it was being written, the writing did not spoil the direct relationship to truth in that past present and wasn’t being untrue to the present it was being realised in either. That ‘world rediscovered in anamnesis is the world of, she says Plato says, ‘the Forms’.

The soul, psyche, is equated with mind. Maybe, but not just conscious mind.

Sex or Eros is a …universal energy …which may be destructive or can be used for good. It’s the most common manifestation of the spirit, made matter so to speak, and an indication of the unity of souls with body.

Truth in art is …hard to estimate critically. This is gone into in ‘the book’ and ultimately it’s a matter for the reader to decide whether it’s true or not though any decision it’s not reflects on the reader’s inability to realise truth from writing. It’s a matter ultimately of faith.

‘There is only one true artist …and only one true work of art, the cosmos,’ which evoked from me ‘oh for god’s sake.’ That fabricator is the demiurge, who ‘is active nous, best translated as mind,’ evoking ‘oh god’. Iris Murdoch believes, ‘The image of a morally perfect but not all-powerful Goodness seems …better to express some ultimate …truth about our condition.’ She suggests the demiurge ‘realized his limitations at the start whereas Jehovah realized his later and was correspondingly bad-tempered.’ Her favourite word, ‘muddle’, makes its appearance. Either she can’t spell ‘harass’ or the OUP can’t; the misspelling occurs twice. She sells the pass, as do the religious and – god help them! – scientists by regarding us as created beings. ‘Form in art is for illusion and hides the true cosmic’ ie ordered ‘beauty and the …real forms of necessity and causality, and blurs with fantasy.’

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