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  • Value Realism and Moral Psychology: A Comparative Analysis of Iris Murdoch and Fyodor Dostoevsky
Abstract

How can metaphysics be a guide to morals? For twentieth-century philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, this was the central question of philosophy, and I argue that her answers to it converge with those of nineteenth-century writer Fyodor Dostoevsky. For both thinkers, a transcendent evaluative reality places moral demands on their characters, defines the general terms of their moral consciousness, and influences their experience of the presence or absence of moral coherence in a way that shatters self-consoling myths and opens their imaginations toward the possibility of goodness. Ultimately, both connect transcendent value realism to immanent evaluative consciousness in surprisingly congruent ways.

In his book Iris Murdoch: The Saint and the Artist, Peter J. Conradi suggests that “a task for critics today would seem to be to understand the indebtedness of her demonic, tormented sinners and saints and of the curious coexistence in her work of malevolence and goodness, to the dark tragi-comedies of Dostoevski.”1 In his 1986 essay “Iris Murdoch and Dostoevskii,” Conradi goes even further to argue that Fyodor Dostoevsky has been “unnoticed by commentators, a hovering or brooding presence for at least two decades.”2 Both here and in his book Fyodor Dostoevsky, Conradi demonstrates “convergence” (as opposed to direct influence) through a number of remarkable similarities: the parallels between Dostoevsky’s holy fools and Murdoch’s saints, the writers’ mutual obsession over the dreaded “all is permitted” problem in the absence of a [End Page 287] theistic grounding for ethics, Dostoevsky’s “doubleness” of character and motive (à la Mikhail Bakhtin) in Murdoch, the role of the unconscious and critique of sadomasochism in both, the mutual use of skandal scenes or “holidays from morality,” the use of fantastic or Gothic realism, their tragicomic play with detail and contingency that drives the reader against the “intractable detail” of the world, and the way both writers specialize in depicting the maddening, pernicious character of low Eros.3 Thus does Conradi add, in his biography of Murdoch, “She was not the heir—as she early and wrongly imagined—to George Eliot, but to Dostoevsky, with his fantastic realism, his hectically compressed time-schemes, his obsessions with sadomasochism and with incipient moral anarchy. Her best novels combine Dostoevsky with Shakespearian romance and love-comedy: combining myth with realism, these will last.”4

It is crucial to note that very early on in her career, Murdoch grasped the ethical importance of Dostoevsky’s treatment of demonic characters. In March 1945 Murdoch called Dostoevsky’s The Possessed “the greatest novel in the world,” going on to praise the way it “battered its way through one’s spirit & effects a Copernican revolution in one’s thought. . . . One has to go down into the pit with the man—It’s no use standing on the brink & peering. . . . If ever I taught ethics to students I’d make them read that sort of thing” (A Life, p. 208). Somehow the importance of these characters for ethics was evident to Murdoch. More than thirty years later, Murdoch muses that “one would like to be influenced by [Dostoevsky], but I think he’s also a dangerous model because these demonic men are difficult characters; one can just have fun with them without really clarifying them or understanding them, and they have a kind of charm which is illegitimate.”5

Whatever her hesitations, Murdoch understood these characters and the gravity of the moral issues surrounding them. In her Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, she offers a profound insight into Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov: “The hero of Crime and Punishment was animated by a myth, so were Hitler’s followers. History and literature are full of stories of men destroyed by myths. The long knife of morality prises the concept apart. Our relation to myth is subject to moral judgment.”6 In Raskolnikov as well as other pathology-ridden characters, Murdoch recognized, and was perhaps drawn to, the way they were undone by their own myths and obsessions, including the implied ethical demand placed upon them by “the long knife of morality” (MGM, p. 136). She did indeed “understand” these characters. [End Page 288]

These and other examples suggest that when Murdoch affirmed that Dostoevsky “fed my imagination very deeply” (Tiny Corner, pp. 202–3), she surely had some of her most fundamental questions on morality in mind, trying to grasp how these might be embodied in her fiction. Indeed, her repeated denials of being a “philosophical novelist” are qualified by her suggestion that “if I am, it’s in the same sense in which Dostoevsky is . . . a highly reflective novelist” whose metaphysics and morals inform the fiction.7 What did she see in these characters that was both so attractive for moral inquiry and yet in some way possessive of “illegitimate” charm? And how is Murdoch a philosophical novelist “in the same sense” as Dostoevsky? These are questions I hope to explore in this article.

While some new avenues beyond Conradi have been explored, no one has yet examined what seems to be a major point of congruence between Dostoevsky and Murdoch—one that goes right to the core of their respective projects. Strikingly, both writers posit a view of reality that includes some type of objective, evaluative, metaphysical reality directly influencing and intersecting with subjective, evaluative, moral-psychological experience of sensible reality. That is, both employ what I label an intersecting “transcendent immanence,” hovering around that crucial question of Murdoch’s: “How can metaphysics be a guide to morals?” (MGM, p. 146). Dostoevsky would say, without God, are all things permitted? The same concern is in view. In other words, both writers allow their philosophical and metaphysical presuppositions to seep into their novels in such a way that immanence—contingent, sensible reality and human evaluative experience within it—is never divorced from a transcendent reality beyond the sensible, which morally supervenes upon and inheres within the immanent.

Is the term “transcendent immanence” either nonsensical or even contradictory? For is it not the case that immanence is quite literally defined as nontranscendence? While the label is admittedly odd and incongruous, potential contradictions likely exist only at a very high level of generality. Once the paired terms are specified with determinate content, no contradiction need be implied. For example, if by “immanence” I mean (quite specifically) the experience of particular, contingent, and often chaotic realities that are frequently of moral significance, in which the universal “idea” of the good is always present but never fully grasped, there is no contradiction in suggesting that a transcendent, ideal reality can be psychologically present as a possibility, while failing to be fully ontologically actualized, or epistemologically [End Page 289] captured. It is therefore initially plausible to suggest that these terms can coherently cooperate and be defined in terms of a variety of well-known oppositional, but intersecting, philosophical polarities such as particularity vs. universality, actuality vs. possibility, and unifying form vs. disparate instantiated contingencies.

In what follows, then, I selectively examine the comparative shape of transcendent immanence in the thought and fiction of both Dostoevsky and Murdoch. After examining their thought in general, I will move to their fiction to show the similar impact of transcendent immanence on their respective characters, who become “puppets of their own emotions” and myths, are steeped in a value-ridden consciousness, and are subject to the incisions of that “long knife of morality” (MGM, p. 136). I will also give special emphasis to the role and character of guilt in each thinker’s fiction. For Dostoevsky, I will focus on Dmitri Karamazov, largely in book 8 of The Brothers Karamazov, while also drawing connections to Raskolnikov of Crime and Punishment. Turning to Murdoch, I will move through her moral philosophy followed by (in partial dialogue with Dostoevsky) an interpretive reading of The Sea, the Sea. Along the way I hope to demonstrate that, while there are substantial differences between Dostoevsky and Murdoch, their similar attempts to connect transcendence to immanence and metaphysics and morals yield rich interpretive results, and provide fruitful moral reflection on the human struggle to become good.

I

Dostoevsky’s conception of a transcendent order of reality was wholly aesthetic in that he saw beauty as the primary transcendental, as that which was most “real,” also taking up into itself the true and the good.8 Although Dostoevsky was partial to the German idealist aesthetics of Friedrich Schiller and F. W. J. von Schelling, he was also profoundly influenced by Plato’s understanding of ideal beauty and the Neoplatonic philosophy of his close friend Vladimir Solovyov.9 For her part, Murdoch rejects German idealist aesthetics as an illegitimately consoling and deterministic metaphysics, yet her well-known intellectual debt to Neoplatonism provides fruitful, overlapping grounds for comparative analysis with Dostoevsky’s metaphysical aesthetics and its Neoplatonic influence through Solovyov.10

Dostoevsky views the need for art, as well as the ideal of beauty to which it points, as embodying the unifying ideals of humanity. In his [End Page 290] famous “Mr. –bov and the Question of Art,” widely considered the centerpiece of his aesthetics, Dostoevsky says that when a man is at the point of greatest dissonance, disharmony, or struggle with reality, “he feels within himself the most natural desire for everything harmonious, for tranquility, and in beauty there is both harmony and tranquility. . . . And therefore beauty is immanent in everything healthy, that is, to that which is most alive, and is a necessary need of the human organism. It is harmony; in it lies the guarantee of tranquility; it embodies the ideals of man and mankind.”11 This aesthetic suggests an interpretive register for grasping how and why it is that many of Dostoevsky’s most pathological characters are stretched out, as it were; they are men living in contradiction, since, precisely at the point of greatest pathology, a “natural desire” for beauty and transcendent order is most poignantly felt. What is more, their dissonance with the transcendent order also puts them at odds with the immanent one, since humanity’s best ideals, morality included, are embodied in that higher order.12

Dmitri Karamazov provides a telling example. Throughout the first several books of The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri is embroiled in obsessive conflict with his father Fyodor, and his desperately disordered “Karamazov nature” tosses him about in a frenzy of trying to secure, against his rival father, Grushenka’s favor. In a crucial moment of insight he admits to his brother Alyosha that he persistently inhabits existential contradiction, pulled between what he sees as two opposed forms of beauty, which leaves him longing for order:13

Here the shores converge, here all contradictions live together. . . . Beauty. Besides I can’t bear it that some man, even with a lofty heart and the highest mind, should start from the ideal of the Madonna and end with the ideal of Sodom. It’s even more fearful when someone who already has the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not deny the ideal of the Madonna either, and his heart burns with it, verily, verily burns, as in his young blameless years. No, man is broad, even too broad, I would narrow him down.14

Elsewhere Dmitri equates the “beauty” that he finds in “Sodom” with his “insect-sensuality” of the Karamazov nature (Karamazov, p. 107), a beautiful “storm” (p. 108) tossing him about in the fury of his unbridled passions, making him an “evil insect” who “loved vice” as well as “cruelty” (p. 109). From ferocious anger and beating down his father to his frittering away of Katerina’s money and dragging a captain by the beard, Dmitri is a puppet, a slave of his passions. Thus does he experience [End Page 291] profound inward contradiction, because while he embodies the “insect” life in which there is “no order, no higher order,” he also longs for “a higher order” (p. 405), which is somehow already implicit within him as the “ideal of the Madonna” (p. 108).

When Dmitri commits a crime against his father’s servant Grigory in book 8, however, he becomes an even greater puppet of his own emotions, utterly encased in a catatonic and obsessive world. He appears to Pyotr Ilyich to be in a daze, speaking carelessly while wholly oblivious to either the blood covering his hands or the three thousand rubles he holds (Karamazov, p. 403). His trancelike state is juxtaposed with an intense emotional guilt, as he suggests the need to “punish himself” for his “whole life” and kill off the “insect” (p. 406).15 At the same time, however, his need for a transcendent order of harmony, in which he somehow already participates, intensifies as well. This is the thrust of his crucial comment to Pyotr Ilyich that “I’ve never liked all this disorder. . . . There is no order in me, no higher order. . . . My whole life has been disorder” (p. 405). Then, quite unexpectedly, Dmitri bursts out with a verse that, in direct tension with his disordered state, captures his turmoil as a man in contradiction: “Glory to the highest in the world, glory to the highest in me!” (p. 405).

Dmitri’s crime, and indeed his entire life of “insect sensuality,” is so disordered and in ugly dissonance with the ideal beauty of the Madonna that he concurrently grasps for “higher order” and desires to “punish” himself. By allowing his passions to smother that beauty, which is “a necessary need” of humanity, Dmitri is subjected to a painful, and indeed moral, judgment vis-à-vis the divine order of aesthetic harmony (“QA,” pp. 41–42). Notably, however, this judgment is not imposed “from above,” as it were, but is rather achieved simply by letting his Sodomite nature be what is already is, in wholly unnatural dissonance with transcendent beauty, and thus also with immanent human aesthetic and moral ideals, which are formally and metaphysically embodied in this beauty. This uncovers the radically ethical nature of Dostoevsky’s ideal beauty, in which is found not only “harmony and tranquility” (pp. 41–42) but also truth and goodness that define ideal human morality and demand moral rectitude simply by virtue of its own reality.16 Here we see the connection in Dostoevsky between metaphysics and ethics, clarified as we look more closely at the results of crime itself.

The unraveling of Dmitri in the wake of his crime against Grigory finds many parallels with that of Raskolnikov, the main character of Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov is a cool-headed rationalist, enamored of the [End Page 292] aesthetic myth of Napoleon, seeing the latter as the heroic achiever of triumphant and remorseless violence, and for whom “all is permitted.”17 Murdoch, we may recall, mentions the myth that holds Raskolnikov captive, saying that such human myths are cut open by the “long knife of morality” and “subject to moral judgment” (MGM, p. 136). Notably, having committed a brutal double murder, Raskolnikov’s “punishment” is neither legal nor juridical; it is rather moral and psychological, as “unexpected and unanticipated feelings” begin to “torment his heart.”18 While the sensualist Dmitri is not like this rationalist murderer, parallels do exist. After committing the crime, Raskolnikov’s rational faculties are increasingly suspended, he is utterly isolated from and oblivious to others, he bears an enormous burden of guilt and mental agony, and his storming emotions fling him around like a puppet. Finally, like Dmitri, he is drawn “like a moth to a flame,” under such duress that he is utterly compelled to confess his guilt.19

In Dmitri’s case, his long-sought confession happens after numerous thoughts of suicide, a roiling skandal scene in Mokroye, and repeated longings to know about “the blood, that blood!” (Karamazov, p. 437). So great is the moral burden bearing down upon and welling up within Dmitri that when he is finally confronted by the authorities (for the wrong crime) the pressure within him explodes in cathartic confession: “He exclaimed loudly, at the top of his lungs: ‘I un-der-stand!’ . . . ‘The old man!’ Mitya cried in a frenzy, ‘the old man and his blood . . . ! I under-stand!’ And as if cut down, he fell more than sat on a chair standing by” (p. 443). In Dostoevsky’s 1865 letter to M. N. Katkov, editor of The Russian Messenger, he explains the main idea for an upcoming book, Crime and Punishment. Here he explicitly reveals the magnetic relation between immanent moral choices—indeed human nature itself—and the moral demand of a transcendent order that impinges upon and irrupts within the criminal:

This is the psychological account of a crime. . . . Insoluble questions confront the murderer; unsuspected and unanticipated feelings torment his heart. Divine truth and justice, the earthly law, claim their rights, and he ends by being compelled to give himself up. . . . The feeling that he is separated and cut off from mankind, which he experienced immediately upon the completion of the crime, has tortured him. The law of justice and human nature have taken their hold. . . . In my story there is, moreover, a hint of the idea that the criminal is much less daunted by the established legal punishment for a crime than lawgivers think, partly because he himself experiences a moral need for it.

(“LK,” pp. 272–73; emphasis in the original) [End Page 293]

How, for Dostoevsky, can metaphysics be a guide to morals? In light of his view of a transcendent yet immanent order of divine beauty, Dostoevsky’s answer is embodied in his myth-mongering, fantasy-ridden sensualists and criminals who become, to quote Murdoch, “puppets of their own emotions” (Tiny Corner, p. 74). In either the embrace of pseudo-beauty or the construction of Napoleonic myths, Dmitri and Raskolnikov are subject to moral judgment. They are undone simply by virtue of their immanent deviation from a transcendent order of beauty and truth that makes a moral claim upon them, itself embodying the fullness of human nature. In a very tangible way, then, one could say that, as in Murdoch’s novels, the fantasy, myths, and madness are the moral judgment experienced by these characters.

But Dostoevsky parts with Murdoch by adding moral culpability. Although guilt and remorse are “natural” consequences of moral failure, they also operate in the characters under a burden of culpable sin. Thus does guilt also play a constructive role in driving Dmitri and Raskolnikov out of madness and toward a restoration of their humanness through confession and expiatory suffering. Dostoevsky’s answer to the question of how metaphysics guides morals is a robust transcendent immanence, in which all of these pieces (and more) come into play. With these in hand, and before turning to Murdoch’s fiction, I now examine Murdoch’s philosophical account of transcendent immanence, while looking for points of congruence with and divergence from Dostoevsky.

II

In a crucial comment regarding the heart of her philosophical project, Murdoch evidences immediate connections to Dostoevsky’s transcendent immanence: “One of the greatest problems of metaphysics is to explain the idea of goodness in terms which combine its peculiar purity and separateness (its transcendence) with details of its omnipresent effectiveness in human life. This problem (as Kierkegaard contended) ‘gets lost’ inside Hegel’s system, where it is . . . dissolved” (MGM, p. 408). This comment captures what is for Murdoch the intractable difficulty of relating universals to particulars, the one to the many, the transcendent to the immanent, and of course, metaphysics to morals. Contending for an utterly transcendent reality beyond metaphysics that is magnetically linked to immanence, Murdoch’s vision of the Good is neither reduced to immanence nor cut loose from it as a metaphysical totality.20 Murdoch sees the Good as “the certain unfailing pure source and perfect object [End Page 294] of love” which “is not and cannot be an existing thing (or person) and is separate from, though magnetically connected with, contingent ‘stuff’” (p. 479).21 However, in the same breath Murdoch can say that reality isn’t “located elsewhere,” it is rather “all here” (pp. 182, 297). The transcendent Good is both beyond being and, through Eros, an immanent magnetism within ordinary human experience and consciousness, the latter of which is never neutral and perennially “soaked in value” (pp. 167, 479–80, 496–97).

What is now coming clear is that for Murdoch, a reciprocal relationship exists between transcendence and immanence. The ceaseless moral activity of “ordinary” human consciousness and a commonsense discerning between “good” and “bad” simply compels a “larger picture” and demands moral progress; thus the transcendent moral requirement is “proved by the world” and by human experience itself (MGM, p. 297). But reciprocally, this demand is rooted in the magnetic pull of that reality of the transcendent Good, which is beyond the contingent and the sensible (p. 301). Murdoch draws this vision together on one of the closing pages of Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals: “We experience both the reality of perfection and its distance away, and this leads us to place our idea of it outside the world of existent being as something of a different unique and special sort. Such experience of the reality of good is not like an arbitrary and assertive resort to our own will; it is a discovery of something independent of us, where that independence is essential” (p. 508).22 For Murdoch, it seems, neither transcendence nor immanence is dispensable, as both are integral parts of her vision of the moral life. Nonetheless, it is quite clear that the transcendent reality of the Good cannot be seen as wholly collapsible into the immanent; it remains sovereign, pure, separate.

Having stated this, it is quite evident that, owing partly to Murdoch’s own comments on the matter, much criticism on Murdoch (especially postmodern criticism) explicates her novels as celebrations of immanent contingency. For instance, commenting on Murdoch’s own assertion that “form in art is properly the simulation of the self-contained aimlessness of the universe,” Barbara Stevens Heusel adds, “If this statement describes the kind of reality she conveys in the novels, then Murdoch is obliged to discover forms for displaying and depicting such aimlessness in the universe and in human personality. Perhaps she is comfortable remaining in a condition of ambiguous suspension, creating temporary forms out of the chaos around her. . . . That some of her characters insist on the sovereignty of good over other concepts—and do good [End Page 295] while having so little power and prestige—points toward a horrific reality: the ubiquitous powerlessness of good in the universe.”23 In the same vein are critics like Stanley Hauerwas and Sante Maletta, who argue that Murdoch leaves us bereft of the means for being good in a chaotic universe without God, or Alasdair MacIntyre, who suggests that the “magnetic” aspect of Murdoch’s Good wholly disappears within the ubiquity of her contingency.24

While Murdoch’s emphasis on chance, chaos, and the unpredictable vicissitudes of contingent reality can hardly be contested, especially in her novels, what are we to make of her repeated claim that our experience of contingency and the “fact” of value-saturated consciousness forces “a larger picture” (MGM, p. 297)? How can we account for her assertion that “the unique and special and all-important knowledge of good and evil is learnt in every kind of human activity,” and that “the question of truth, which we are indeed forced to attend to in all our doings, appears here as an aspect of the unavoidable nature of morality”? (MGM, p. 418; emphasis in the original). How are we to understand that metaphysics is a guide to morals if the transcendent Good amounts, as Heusel argues, to “ubiquitous powerlessness”? What are we to make of the role of beauty, its connection with high Eros making this Good partly visible?

Evident in much of the aforementioned criticism is an errant collapsing of Murdoch’s transcendent conception into her immanent one, or a sharp divide placed between the two. However, if both are upheld as interpenetrating realities, as Murdoch clearly intends, we may see the connections between her own account and Dostoevsky’s, wherein a metaphysical reality of goodness not only remains “pure,” mysterious, and transcendent, but also magnetically places a moral demand upon her characters, indeed defining the very terms of their conscious moral distinctions.

In recent criticism, some do seek to make sense, in Murdoch’s fiction, of both aspects of her philosophy. Positing a “two-way movement” in Murdoch’s philosophical prose between metaphysics and empiricism, between unifying form and particularizing contingency, Maria Antonaccio rightly applies this movement to Murdoch’s novels as well.25 However, while initially showing how these two elements relate to individual persons in Murdoch’s philosophy, Antonaccio later imposes a false dichotomy on the novels, relegating the unifying impulse to the novels’ form—plot, structure, setting—while consigning the particularizing impulse to the characters themselves. This mistakenly pairs the metaphysical aspect of Murdoch’s thinking—the transcendent, unifying [End Page 296] element—solely with the structural form of the novel, and the empirical or particularizing aspect with the actual characters and their experience of reality.26

Against this is a sense in which, as I will demonstrate shortly, Murdoch’s characters are subjected to participation—through high Eros and the reality of a value-saturated consciousness—in both the unifying impulse that is the Good and the particularizing element of exposure to the contingent reality of others, to chaos and to chance. As Murdoch herself affirms, a true understanding of reality, whether in art, philosophy, or ordinary life itself, involves a “double revelation of both random detail and intuited unity.”27 She does indeed work this twofold revelation into the content of her characters’ lives, specifically in their experience of the negative and positive sublime, as well as, I will argue, in the experience of guilt and remorse that cuts into their encased myths and opens imagination toward perfection and the Good.28

I was initially surprised that Murdoch—only moments after positing the need for a godless theology—concludes her Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals with Paul Tillich’s quotation of Psalm 139, which of course underscores the inescapable omnipresence of Yahweh: “whither shall I flee from thy presence?” (MGM, pp. 511, 512). Later on, her ironic use of the sacred text becomes clear. For Murdoch, the “omnipresent effectiveness” of the transcendent Good replaces God; it is indeed as utterly inescapable as it is for Dostoevsky’s characters. As we turn to Charles Arrowby in Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea, I take her own words as an interpretive gateway: “With or without avatars, we are perpetually reminded of our natural selfishness and led to see our thoughts and acts as under a judgment which is not a natural part of ourselves. Can we think away the idea of ‘the moral,’ the idea of the authority of good, from human life?” (p. 509).

III

In considering the moral state of protagonist Charles Arrowby in The Sea, the Sea, we must recall yet again Murdoch’s commentary on Raskolnikov, about how people are “destroyed” by myths like his, which are subject to the incisive “long knife of morality” that “prises the concept apart” (MGM, p. 136).29 Among the countless aspects of Charles’s mythic fantasy world that are subjected to such moral incisions, I will focus first on his view of Hartley. In a discussion over A Fairly Honourable Defeat, Murdoch mentions her interest in the concept of arene, “in which human [End Page 297] beings can be seen as puppets of their own emotions.” Elaborating on this, she adds that “people very often elect a god in their lives, they elect somebody whose puppet they want to be,” and in A Fairly Honourable Defeat several characters elect the manipulative, Machiavellian Julius King as the god to whom they will submit (Tiny Corner, p. 74). In the context, however, Murdoch is speaking off the cuff, eliding the concept of being a puppet of one’s own emotions with that of being the puppet of another’s manipulation. If these two ideas are kept distinct, she seems to indicate that people, without being manipulated by a demonic King, can and do create mythological gods in such a way that they become puppets of their own emotions in the context of these myths.

In the story of Charles and Hartley, then, Murdoch’s use of arene can be applied in several ways. Charles is certainly a puppet of his own emotions as a direct result of constructing the totalizing myth of Hartley as a god.30 He conceives of Hartley as “evidence” of “some pure uncracked unfissured confidence in the good” that has eluded him ever since (The Sea, p. 84), suggesting Murdoch’s own account of the great temptations of both art and metaphysics to become a consoling “false unity.”31 In a parody of Murdoch’s well-known account of “unselfing” attention, Charles determines that he and Hartley must find a way to “be absolutes to each other” (p. 121). Elsewhere, he puts his idea of Hartley through a process of mythic deification whereby she becomes in his imagination the surety of his virtue (p. 138), his Beatrice (pp. 52, 85), the Jesus of his youth and a eucharistic “real presence” (p. 245) as well as his god, an “alpha and omega” (p. 186). His love for Hartley becomes an exclusive “supreme value” in the light of which all other loves are measured and found wanting (p. 334).32

So strong is this myth that even after Titus’s death and immediately following Charles’s own admission of fabricating the “image” of Hartley himself (The Sea, p. 428), he persists in seeing her as a “source of light” and his love for her “an end in itself” (p. 430). At times his construction of the myth is very difficult work, calling upon all his deepest passions to solidify his own encasement in fantasy, until the myth seems complete, and perhaps unassailable:

Ever since the recognition scene, physical passion, roused, disturbed, confused, had twisted and turned in me, my senses in dialogue with my thoughts, because, as I worked and worked to join together her youth and her age, I so much desired to desire her. . . . Now, I realized, it was done; and my desire was like a river which has forced its channel to the [End Page 298] sea. She made me whole as I had never been since she left me. She summoned up my whole being, and I wanted to hold her and overwhelm her and to lie with her forever, jusqu’ a la fin du monde; and, yes, to humble myself and to let her, in the end, console me and give me back my own best self. For she held my virtue in her keeping, she held it and kept it all these years, she was my alpha and my omega. It was not an illusion.

(The Sea, p. 186)

If we take the psychology implicit in this quotation at face value, it may seem that my analysis of Charles is quite univocal; he is certainly anything but a man in contradiction, whose errant passions and mythic constructs are prised apart either by immanent experience or the transcendent demand of the Good. However, although the narrative voice and the retrospective form of the novel set his conflicts at a greater distance than the emotional immediacy of Dostoevsky’s narrative, Charles is indeed a man in contradiction: he is torn between puppet-like slavery to his subjective passions and mythological constructs, while also being indicted by an external reality of truth that wells up within his own mind and heart.

Indeed, a close reading of the novel demonstrates the “long knife of morality” persistently at work in Charles’s consciousness, eventually making his myth crack under the pressure of its own self-evident distance from the evaluative truth of reality. He is indeed “led to see” his “thoughts and acts as under a judgment which is not a natural part” of his enclosed egoism (MGM, p. 509). Early in the novel, when Charles meets Hartley in the church, he refuses to believe her own account of a happy marriage to Ben. Then, however, he says that “something black seemed to threaten me from a little way above my head” and he begins to think that perhaps she had been happy after all (The Sea, p. 117). The blackness then dissipates when Charles willfully repeats to himself his refusal to believe she had been happy, followed by his internal determination to be “ingenious” and avoid suffering at all costs. Immediately after this moment he is desperate to see her again and records that “vistas of madness opened beyond these words” (p. 118). In a similar way, Charles’s desire to envision Ben as a jealous tyrant brings “lurid vistas and fiery hollows,” and this time he momentarily sees the need to resist such a caricature of Ben (p. 136). Later, however, after Charles’s eavesdropping at Nibletts, his resistance dissolves into a disordered mass of passions: “Hatred, jealousy, fear and fierce yearning love raged together in my mind” (p. 157). While these moments clearly depict Murdoch’s [End Page 299] typical tension between high and low Eros, the narrative also expresses a sense that the buoyancy of high Eros, its excess in the ordinary, its truthfulness unfolding ever upward in relation to the Good, is being deliberately suppressed by Charles.

Further intimations of truth continue to carve away at Charles’s self-delusion, many of them involving his own “ordinary” grasp of what is good and what is not. After convincing Titus to lure Hartley to Shruff End, Charles has one of many thoughts. He asks himself whether, by intruding upon the mystery of Ben and Hartley’s marriage, “was I not perhaps meddling with something dreadful?” (The Sea, p. 263). Here his optimism over the dream of him, Titus, and Hartley together in the south of France holds his resolve. When Hartley arrives, her initial encounter with Titus makes Charles realize how naïve his vision of the future had been, as he is “jerked back into the present” with “an alarmed confused sense of what I had brought about” (p. 267).33 Later, Hartley’s statement to Charles—“You can only make things worse. And you have done so tonight”—sounded “terrible” to him, “like a calm judge pronouncing a fatal sentence” (p. 277). The intuition is only momentary, however, as Charles interprets her calmness as a hidden desire to stay.

Bran Nicol’s insight is helpful here, as he notes Charles’s twofold strategy for suppressing one pole of the tension between two inner voices. On the one hand, he externalizes his own faults and imposes them on other characters, such as Ben’s (alleged) jealous self-deception (The Sea, p. 223), Hartley’s fear of leaving her cage, or James and Lizzie’s conspiracy of lies, devaluing of speech, and spoiling of the past (p. 410). On the other hand, Charles deliberately suppresses (as in his intuition of the “fatal sentence” above) one voice in the inner moral dialogue and reduces it to a strict and fantasy-ridden monologue. To make any moral progress, Nicol observes, Charles must begin to acknowledge the competing voice instead of shutting the dialogue down.34 In agreement with but extending beyond Nicol, as the story progresses it is not clear whether Charles can restrict things to a monologue, and here the invoking of Murdoch’s “magnetism” and moral “demand” seems appropriate. While recognizing the dominant place Murdoch gives to accident, chance, and the “unselfing” negative sublime—a vision or experience of overwhelming contingency (of which the sea is a metaphor)—the reinstating of the mental dialogue owes a great deal to Murdoch’s view of the Good which, through the ministrations of high Eros, somehow places a moral demand upon and inheres within ordinary human consciousness.35 [End Page 300]

Can Charles restrict things to a monologue? As the story progresses, he seems less able to do so, as the role of both shame and remorse exponentially increase. When Hartley hears of Charles’s nefarious eavesdropping, her utterly painful and hysterical invective—equating his actions with murder—leaves Charles horrified and ashamed:

How can you—you don’t know what you’ve done—how could you push in, spy on us like that—it was nothing to do with you—how could you intrude into secret things which you couldn’t possibly understand—it’s the wickedest vilest most hurtful thing anybody’s ever done to me. . . . I’ll never forgive you, never, it’s like, it’s like a murder, a killing—you don’t understand—Oh, it hurts so much, so much—.

(The Sea, p. 302)

Unlike his easy passing off of her words of silent “judgment” before, Charles has nowhere to hide:

I felt that the most violent assault was being made on my spirit, on my sanity. I had witnessed hysterical screaming before, but nothing like this. . . . To touch her had become terrible. She was shuddering rigidly with a dreadful damaging electricity. . . . I felt horror, fear, a sort of disgusted shame, shame for myself, shame for her. . . . I shall never forget the awful image of that face, that mask, and the relentless cruel rhythmic quality of that sound. . .

(p. 302)

What we see here is that the dialogue, or rather the demand of morality, is no longer simply prising Charles’s myth apart; it is splitting it wide open. Nonetheless, true to Murdoch’s defense of the gravitational strength of the relentless egoistic capacity for moral regress, Charles is able to “recover” and seek new means of preserving his fantasy world (MGM, p. 331). His new strategies involve the continued attempt to pass off his faults and remorse onto others in order to avoid facing the horror and pain of what he’s done.

Thus we see that even after Titus’s death (at the hands of that horrifically sublime sea), Charles has fresh intimations of remorse and guilt, which he either converts into a new fantasy or simply suppresses. Nonetheless, this remorse and guilt—along with his horrified shame at the incident with Hartley—subsist as new and ineradicable elements of self-awareness in his mental landscape; the magnetism of the Good is at work. Thus, while he is stewing over his plan to kill Ben, the dialogue is far more pronounced: “I was in a state which I knew well was close to a sort of madness, and yet I was not mad” (The Sea, p. 391). What [End Page 301] is more, Charles seems to have, even in his fury, a clearer intimation of his proclivities for self-deception than he previously did: “I was sane enough to know that I was in a state of total obsession and that I could only think, over and over again, certain agonizing thoughts, could only run continually along the same rat-paths of fantasy and intent. But I was not sane enough to interrupt this mechanical movement or even desire to do so. I wanted to kill Ben” (p. 391). The irony of this comment is that while Charles restricts both his intellect (“could only think”) and will (“could only run”) to his obsession, a seemingly complete puppet of its “mechanical movement,” he does inhabit a metacritical understanding of himself as obsessed.36 Shortly after this comment he even admits that “in truth the basis of my madness was sheer grief” over Titus’s death (p. 391).

A similar passage comes soon after this one, in which Charles again tries to collapse the dialectical inner conflict into a monological stasis. Here he fully realizes that he, like his former depiction of Hartley, is trapped in a mental cage in which freedom has no attractive power.37 He adds, “I knew, in the midst of it all, that some unexamined guilt of my own was driving me into further hatred; but this was no moment to be confused by guilt” (The Sea, p. 394). Like Dmitri Karamazov’s struggle between Sodom and the Madonna, Charles is increasingly aware of, and unable to extract himself from, the two competing internal forces of high and low Eros. While he attempts to embrace the disorder of his obsession and consolation, the “higher order” that is the truth of his required moral task continues to assert itself and lodge within him ever more stubbornly. While Charles deftly resists this moral task in these passages, one might hope that over time, the cognitive and volitional dissonance will take deeper root in a way that leads to moral transformation of the sort experienced by Dmitri.

Here, then, I return to several of Dostoevsky’s insights. First, recall that for Dostoevsky, as was evident in both Dmitri and Raskolnikov, it is precisely at the point of greatest tension and roiling disorder that a “natural desire” for beauty and transcendent order is most urgently felt (“QA,” pp. 41–42). Second is the reminder that for Dostoevsky, a transcendent order of divine truth, justice, and earthly law wells up within the criminal so that “he himself feels the need” for the punishment (“LK,” pp. 272–73; emphasis in the original). And, while Murdoch sharply diverges from Dostoevsky’s strident themes of both the need for punishment and the primacy of expiatory redemptive suffering, the parallels [End Page 302] between the two on transcendent immanence at the threshold of the consciousness of moral failure are striking.

After James exonerates Ben, no one is left (for the moment!) for Charles to blame (The Sea, p. 397). He realizes that his “burden of sin” had been shifted to Ben, who “had carried my guilt” and provided consolation (p. 402). The same is true of Charles’s thoughts that perhaps Titus, through his death, had redeemed or taken away the guilt of Ben and Hartley, though he quickly adds, “I knew that I was surreptitiously attempting to ease my own remorse and guilt” (p. 429). Having recognized the role of his own vanity in Titus’s death, Charles sees himself as a murderous criminal, foreshadowed in Hartley’s accusation but concretized in his admission of guilt and experience of clear-sighted remorse over Titus (p. 402). Notably missing, however, is Dostoevsky’s emphasis on the moral need for a punishment that harbors the possibility of redemption. In a moment of profoundly truthful awareness of and remorse over his own moral failures, Charles does not long for absolution or cry, like Dmitri, that he must “punish” himself for his “insect” life. Rather, he quietly comes to acknowledge that “remorse contains guilt,” but it is a “helpless hopeless guilt which knows of no cure for the painful bite” (p. 447).38 As Murdoch suggests in The Good Apprentice, “remorse must kill the self, not teach it new lies.”39 In this Charles echoes James’s remorse over the death of his Tibetan sherpa (p. 447): “He died because he trusted me. My vanity destroyed him. It is a matter of causality. The payment for faults is axiomatic. I relaxed my hold and he lay dead” (p. 457). Later Charles would see this “causality of sin” connecting with the sins of his whole life, all the way back to his taking of Rosina from Peregrine (p. 471).40

Here we can see how for Murdoch, much like the immanent demand of a transcendent reality in Dostoevsky, the reality of guilt and remorse are functions of the transcendent magnetism of the Good, established by the mere fact of relentless causality, and connected subjectively to Charles’s own awareness of failure. The “long knife of morality” is still at work here, revealing to Charles his sheer distance from the Good. In other words, both guilt and remorse, though not tied to culpability, do not simply issue from the exposure of Murdoch’s characters to intractable contingency; guilt and remorse are connected to her insights regarding the Ontological Proof. In Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, Murdoch notes how the mere “consciousness of failure” (MGM, p. 430) sets up in our minds the idea of perfection by means of the sheer recognizable “distance” between our failures and the good itself (p. 507). [End Page 303]

In this way we can see that for Murdoch, the mere fact of guilt and remorse, like the encounter with art, can “kill the self” and function as a form of knowledge that may open the imagination to the reality of the Good:41 “The proof of the necessity or unique status of good runs through our grasp of an idea of perfection which comes to us in innumerable situations, where we are trying to do something well or are conscious of failure. What is perfect must exist . . . not as contingent accidental reality but as something fundamental, essential and necessary. . . . Our consciousness of failure is a source of knowledge” (MGM, p. 430).42 Existing as both a transcendent demand through sin’s causality and an immanent insight into the Good, guilt, remorse, and awareness of failure can indeed interrupt the puppetry, cut into the myth, and open a space for moral progress.43

Like Dmitri and Raskolnikov, Charles’s own consciousness is indeed “soaked in value,” full of both his myth-mongering illusion and intimations of the Good. The very fact that two opposing impulses of Eros are at work in his consciousness is suggestive of Murdoch’s transcendent immanence; the Good is magnetically connected with and working within ordinary consciousness and moral distinctions. And, while Charles’s quick and consistent relapses into his myth suggest Murdoch’s resistance to Dostoevsky’s deterministic undertones—it is almost necessary and unavoidable that Raskolnikov and Dmitri should unravel and “pay”—Charles is indeed utterly unable to escape the ubiquitous claim of moral judgment; if he goes down to the depths, the Good is apparently there.

IV

I have argued for a new approach to reading Dostoevsky’s deep influence on Murdoch from the bird’s-eye view of their respective metaphysics of transcendent immanence. Why did Murdoch see Dostoevsky’s The Possessed as indispensable reading for philosophical ethics? What was it about Dostoevsky’s account of human darkness, amoral impulses, and rampant wallowing in disordered passions that most attracted Murdoch? At the outset I mentioned that she saw the ethical importance of going “down to the depths” with a person, exploring how personal fantasies and myths were “prised apart by the long knife of morality.” Indeed, in “feeding” Murdoch’s imagination “very deeply,” as she herself claims, Dostoevsky may also have offered a novelistic language of contingency whereby Murdoch could depict the value-ridden aspects of consciousness (Tiny Corner, pp. 202–3). Dostoevsky’s characters, such as Dmitri [End Page 304] and Raskolnikov, are never neutral, ever subject to the tensions of moral contradictions, their minds utterly “soaked in value,” as Murdoch puts it (MGM, p. 167). What is more, Dostoevsky’s connection of aesthetic-moral failure—from sensuality to murder—to the moral judgment of a transcendent order and a violation of human nature itself is something with which Murdoch would certainly resonate.

If nothing else, however, I hope to have demonstrated, without ignoring their differences, the substantial continuity between these two thinkers whose depictions of contingency and immanence, of the dark human depths of evaluative and mythic subjectivity, is never divorced from a transcendent evaluative reality that impinges from without. Both offer a deep fictional depiction of the human proclivity for constructing totalizing myths that enslave them. Both created characters with an inescapably value-saturated consciousness, women and men in contradiction for whom every moment becomes an entrance into good or evil. Finally, both are masters at depicting the way in which the “long knife of morality” relentlessly undermines these fantasies, without wholly eclipsing the role of human resistance or agency. And on the function and shape of guilt and remorse, I have only touched upon the surface of a far deeper issue. There is indeed remarkable congruence between Dostoevsky and Murdoch on the constructive moral importance of remorse, guilt, and especially the simple awareness of failure. For both thinkers, a transcendent reality demands such an awareness by immanent means. From here their roads diverge between attention and redemptive expiation, and a comparison between the two on this matter is a rich avenue for further exploration, most notably between Dmitri Karamazov and Edward Baltram of The Good Apprentice. That, however, is another project altogether.

Nathan P. Carson
Fresno Pacific University

Footnotes

1. Peter J. Conradi, Iris Murdoch: The Saint and the Artist (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), p. 22.

2. Peter J. Conradi, “Iris Murdoch and Dostoevskii,” in Dostoevskii and Britain (Anglo-Russian Affinities), ed. W. J. Leatherbarrow (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1995), p. 277. Conradi’s paper was originally read at a symposium on Murdoch on October 21–22, 1986, at Free University in Amsterdam.

3. Conradi, “Iris Murdoch and Dostoevskii,” pp. 277–82. See also Peter J. Conradi, Fyodor Dostoevsky (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), pp. 129–33.

4. Peter J. Conradi, Iris Murdoch: A Life (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), p. 596; hereafter abbreviated A Life. Taking Conradi’s lead, other critics (especially Heusel) have drawn out Bakhtinian carnivalesque—the sensational breakdown of order—in Murdoch. Heusel in particular expands also on the similarities between Murdoch and Dostoevsky on density of characters and emphasis on the contingent. See Barbara Stevens Heusel, Patterned Aimlessness: Iris Murdoch’s Novels of the 1970s and 1980s (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995).

5. Michael O. Bellamy, “An Interview with Iris Murdoch,” June 23, 1976, in From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction: Conversations with Iris Murdoch, ed. Gillian Dooley (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003), p. 51; hereafter abbreviated Tiny Corner.

6. Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (London: Penguin Books, 1992), p. 136; hereafter abbreviated MGM.

7. Tiny Corner, p. 58. To say this of course presupposes, as will the whole of this article, a great deal of cross-pollination between Murdoch’s moral philosophy and her fiction. This is by no means a novelty in current Murdoch criticism. See, for example, articles by Michael Levenson, Bran Nichol, and Alison Denham in the Murdoch special issue of Modern Fiction Studies 47, no. 3 (Fall 2001). In part, my justification for not only examining the cross-pollination patterns but also probing the moral and metaphysical similarities between Murdoch and Dostoevsky in particular arises from the larger context of the quotation in view. While Murdoch denies being a “philosophical novelist” like Jean-Paul Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir, she does say that, like Dostoevsky, she is a “highly reflective novelist” whose philosophy informs but doesn’t dominate her fiction: “Of course, any seriously told story may have metaphysical aspects and will certainly have moral aspects. And morality does connect with metaphysics; so, in this sense, any novelist has got a kind of metaphysic” (Tiny Corner, p. 58).

8. While I cannot develop this here, Dostoevsky would eventually see this divine order of beauty embodied and made visible in Christ himself, who is both the beauty of God and the beauty of man, the singular “figure of absolute beauty” in the world. Cited in Marlene Chambers, “Some Notes on the Aesthetics of Dostoevsky,” Comparative Literature 13, no. 2 (Spring 1961): 119.

9. For a helpful intellectual genealogy of Dostoevsky’s aesthetics, see Robert Louis Jackson, Dostoevsky’s Quest for Form: A Study of His Philosophy of Art (Bloomington: Physsandt, 1978). For Murdoch’s critique of metaphysical determinism, see MGM, pp. 479–80.

10. In “The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited,” Murdoch mentions Dostoevsky as one of the great nineteenth-century novelists who seem to overly capitulate to Romanticism. The potential result, for Murdoch, is that they “give the impression of externalizing a personal conflict in a tightly conceived self-contained myth” (Iris Murdoch, “The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited,” in Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature, ed. Peter Conradi and George Steiner [London: Penguin, 1999], p. 272; hereafter abbreviated EM). This is generally her critique of “crystalline” novels as well. However, in her late interviews she lauds Dostoevsky’s ability to create diverse, dense, and “real” characters, which indicates a shift, as Conradi suggests, from reservations to admiration. I still find in Murdoch’s overall work, however, an affinity between her critique of Schopenhauer’s latent determinism and Dostoevsky’s debt to German idealism, which may have led to the same. Notably, however, Murdoch is indebted to Schopenhauer’s insight that all consciousness is “soaked in value” (MGM, p. 167), an affinity she also shares, I argue, with Dostoevsky.

11. Fyodor Dostoevsky, “Mr. –bov and the Question of Art,” quoted in Jackson, Dostoevsky’s Quest for Form, pp. 41–42; hereafter abbreviated “QA.” Strikingly similar to Murdoch, though perhaps suggesting the “false unity” she saw as a temptation in art, Dostoevsky also states in this passage that “the need for beauty and the [artistic] creation which embodies it is inseparable from man.”

12. W. J. Leatherbarrow, Fyodor Dostoyevsky: The Brothers Karamazov (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 43. For a full analysis of the tense contradiction between higher and lower modes of being in Dostoevsky’s characters, see Nicolas Zernov, Three Russian Prophets: Khomiakov, Dostoevsky, Soloviev (Gulf Breeze: Academic International Press, 1973).

13. Jackson rightly argues in Dostoevsky’s Quest for Form that Dmitri’s suggestion of the ambiguous character of beauty is his own, and not Dostoevsky’s. Jackson claims that “it is not beauty which is ambivalent, but man who experiences two kinds of beauty” (p. 41, emphasis in the original). Dmitri’s words immediately preceding this quotation prove this point: “And whenever I happened to sink into the deepest, the very deepest shame of depravity (and that’s all I ever happened to do), I always read that poem about Ceres and man. Did it set me right? Never! Because I’m a Karamazov. Because when I fall into the abyss, I go straight into it, head down and heels up, and I’m even pleased that I’m falling in just such a humiliating fashion, and for me I find it beautiful” (p. 107, emphasis added). I could add here the strong affinities between Dmitri’s Sodom and Murdoch’s Black Eros.

14. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov: A Novel in Four Parts with Epilogue, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, First Vintage Classics (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), p. 108. For this section of the article, all parenthetical citations by page number refer to this translation, hereafter abbreviated Karamazov.

15. Here, all the way up to Dmitri’s initial confession at the end of book 8, are uncanny similarities between him and Edward Baltram in Iris Murdoch, The Good Apprentice (New York: Penguin Books, 1986); hereafter abbreviated GA. Edward also comments on the need to “punish” himself (GA, p. 46), seeing himself as a “stinking corpse” (p. 44) that is also “full of spiders” (p. 382) and “crawling with cockroaches,” stinking of “misery and evil” and a “raw rotting wound” (p. 511). Like Dmitri, Edward desperately seeks absolution and longs for “a pain of purgatory by which in time he could work it all away, as a stain which could be patiently worked upon and cleansed and made to vanish” (p. 12). While he does not share Dmitri’s love of beauty and of God amid his torment, Edward’s “lacerations of the soul” (p. 49) and obsession with “the shame, the loss of honour that can never come back” (p. 68) recall Dmitri’s similar obsessions, though the latter holds out hope for the restoration of his honor.

16. At the level of the transcendentals, here is where Dostoevsky and Murdoch fundamentally diverge, as of course Murdoch gives primacy to the separate and utterly transcendent reality of the Good, while allowing Beauty a kind of intermediary status as the Good made visible to us and the object of high Eros. For Dostoevsky, as I have suggested above, transcendental Beauty is made visible in the person of Christ.

17. W. J. Leatherbarrow, “The Aesthetic Louse: Ethics and Aesthetics in Dostoevsky’s ‘Prestupleniye i nakazaniye,’” The Modern Language Review 71, no. 4 (October 1976): 861–62.

18. Fyodor Dostoevsky, “Letter to Katkov” (September 1865), quoted in Konstantin Mochulsky, Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, trans. Michael A. Minihan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), p. 273; hereafter abbreviated “LK.”

19. I am indebted to Conradi (Fyodor Dostoevsky, pp. 44–47) for this list of Raskolnikov’s maladies. See also Nicholas M. Chirkov, “A Great Philosophical Novel,” in Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Crime and Punishment,” ed. Robert Louis Jackson (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1974), pp. 56–57.

20. In what may be a “magic bullet” argument, Murdoch seems to posit a meta-metaphysical place for the Good, which is “above” metaphysical totalities in the position of their judge, remaining “free and untainted beyond them.” Thus does Murdoch seek to avoid the tempting determinism that “haunts” metaphysics, when “an alien material” is posited “which we cannot transcend and where morality and personal responsibility, as it were, stop” (MGM, pp. 479–80).

21. Although in context here Murdoch is arguing against metaphysical pictures that detach a “higher reality” from its rootedness in the contingent, her argument that the Good is not limited to the sensible or the contingent is equally clear, and evident elsewhere in her work.

22. Here I note that A. S. Byatt’s well-known characterization of Murdoch’s “transcendent” to mean “comprehensiveness and ubiquity” is insufficient (quoted in Barbara Stevens Heusel, Iris Murdoch’s Paradoxical Novels: Thirty Years of Critical Reception [New York: Camden House, 2001], p. 22). Murdoch’s transcendence includes, but is not limited to, self-transcendence, and indeed not even limited to the sensible world. In several places she vehemently insists that not only is the Good an utterly separate reality, it is somehow beyond the metaphysical totalities that she critiques so heavily in MGM (see, for example, pp. 479–80). However, for Murdoch we can only know of our “supersensible destiny” (Kant’s words, but seemingly endorsed by Murdoch) in and through loving attention to sensible particulars, primarily to other individuals but also to the particularity of nature (EM, p. 282). It appears that for Murdoch, the Good is beyond being, while magnetically connected to contingent, sensible reality, right down to the particular judgments of individual experience and consciousness.

23. Murdoch’s provoking comment is in Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good (London: Ark Paperbacks, 1985), p. 86. Responding quotation is in Heusel, Patterned Aimlessness, p. 225.

24. Sante Maletta, “Moral Life and the Experience of Beauty: Iris Murdoch’s Pilgrimage from Fantasy to Reality,” in Neoplatonic Aesthetics: Music, Literature, and the Visual Arts, ed. Liana de Girolami Cheney and John Hendrix (New York: Peter Lang, 2004), pp. 103–11. Stanley Hauerwas, “Murdochian Muddles: Can We Get Through Them If God Does Not Exist?” in Iris Murdoch and the Search for Human Goodness, ed. Maria Antonaccio and William Schweiker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 190–208. MacIntyre’s critique is cited in Heusel, Paradoxical, p. 59.

25. Maria Antonaccio, “Form and Contingency in Iris Murdoch’s Ethics,” in Antonaccio and Schweiker, Search for Human Goodness, p. 112.

26. In her otherwise excellent treatment of Murdoch, Antonaccio moves from a false dichotomy to a false unity, saying that ultimately “it is not a matter of doing away with one or another pole of the tension, but rather finding a way to encompass both elements in a certain kind of unity” (Antonaccio and Schweiker, Search for Human Goodness, p. 125). It is difficult to see here how Antonaccio avoids making Murdoch’s whole project Hegelian, which Hegel certainly would have abhorred. Oddly enough, Antonaccio concludes her article by giving the final victory to the particularizing element, that is, to the individual. In her defense, it may be that this constant vacillation between the universalizing impulse of Hegel and individuation of Kierkegaard is built into Murdoch’s whole project.

27. Murdoch, Sovereignty of Good, p. 96.

28. For Murdoch, an experience of the sublime can be either positive or negative and is both special and ordinary (Heusel, Paradoxical, p. 87). The positive-negative distinctions can be seen in swimming versus drowning, or unselfish versus selfish loving. On the sometimes ordinary character of Murdoch’s sublime, Conradi says it is not “elevated into a despotic metaphysical truth” as it is in Sartre. In connection with my emphasis on the way morality “prises” personal myths apart, Conradi characterizes Murdoch’s negative sublime as “exposure to the world’s particulars . . . in which the box-like enclosure of the self is attenuated and opened out” (Conradi, Saint and Artist, pp. 107, 109). One such exposure, I will argue, is the phenomenon of guilt or remorse, which is meant to “kill the self” (see Murdoch, The Good Apprentice, p. 511).

29. Iris Murdoch, The Sea, the Sea (London: Penguin Books, 1987); hereafter abbreviated The Sea.

30. Charles fits beautifully into Murdoch’s depiction of Sartre’s “Totalitarian Man”: “Sartre’s man is like a neurotic who seeks to cure himself by unfolding a myth about himself” (EM, p. 268). As we will see, however, Charles is not, like Sartre’s man, utterly alone.

31. See MGM, chap. 1.

32. Spear nicely summarizes Charles’s utter self-delusion: “The Hartley of his imagination represents the only purely unselfish love he has known, a spiritual love without carnal possession. Through his memory of this love, Charles is striving to return to innocence, to wipe out the evil and corruption that has intervened and to become morally ‘Good’ again” (Hilda D. Spear, Iris Murdoch [New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007], p. 98).

33. Charles’s erratic and usually self-deceived relation to time is an extended theme in this book. Spear notes that the shifting of tenses corresponds to Charles’s utter inability to distinguish the past from the present. She notes the irony of Charles’s question to Hartley: “Have you no sense of the present tense . . . ?” (Spear, p. 95; The Sea, p. 329). I would add to this observation that Charles also has an aberrant relation to the future, which becomes for him as much an object of falsified unity as does his idealized past with Hartley.

34. Bran Nicol, Iris Murdoch: The Retrospective Fiction, 2nd ed. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), p. 72.

35. Conradi, Saint and Artist, p. 107.

36. We must keep in mind here that for Murdoch, true freedom means “love of good which enables a unity of thought and desire” (MGM, p. 457). Charles does not love good, and thus his thoughts and desires remain dichotomized. While Murdoch considers a distinction between intellect and will “misleading” (MGM, pp. 300–301), she still sees moral progress as a slow purification of desire (pp. 330–31). In a fascinating connection between this novel and her moral philosophy, at nearly every moment in which Charles’s egocentric fantasy is monologically dominant, both his thoughts and desires seem unified and mutually operative, his myth a calcified whole. However, whenever he has an insight into goodness, however temporary, it remains an intellectual insight, and thus short-circuits. We are reminded of Murdoch’s well-known insight that “will cannot run very far ahead of knowledge, and attention is our daily bread” (“The Idea of Perfection,” EM, p. 335).

37. Murdoch’s treatment of the imagination, of the slow development of new moral horizons, is informative here: “we cannot see the point of being moral beyond a certain level, we cannot imagine it except in terms of pure damaging disadvantage” (MGM, p. 331).

38. In what seems to me an explicit allusion to Dmitri Karamazov (of which The Good Apprentice seems full), Edward Baltram asks Stuart if he should “punish myself” (GA, p. 46). In Murdochian fashion, Stuart tells him to attend to the needs of Mark’s mother, who might suddenly need him. While we do see the need for this movement from inward remorse to outward, other-focused goodness in Dostoevsky, his account of guilt involves not just recognition of causality but the burden of culpability, which for him needs purgation through redemptive suffering.

39. GA, p. 510. The connection between the truthful function of guilt, interestingly, ties in with Murdoch’s understanding of art when it consoles in the right way: “Oh, I think art consoles, I don’t see why not. The thing is to console without telling lies. One tries to be truthful—I think the word truth is very important here—art must be connected with truth in some sense a truthful picture” (Tiny Corner, pp. 118–19). The same, it seems, can be said of guilt and remorse.

40. This admission is in marked contrast to Charles’s feeling on the matter early in the book. There he notes how Peregrine’s kindness to him keeps him from feeling any guilt, with the result that “although I saw objectively that I had behaved badly, I felt practically no guilt.” He then adds, in what is a substantial reversal of Dostoevsky’s view, “Guilt feelings so often arise from accusations rather than from crimes” (The Sea, p. 74).

41. Murdoch’s The Good Apprentice, in its emphasis on guilt and pathological responses to it, is full of insights that suggest this. For example, when Edward asks Thomas if he should “specialize in feeling guilty,” Thomas responds: “Your feeling of guilt, if you can isolate it, can provide the place, and the ‘style’ if I may put it so, by which you can get it into your mind and heart that it [Mark’s death] has happened—and start from there” (GA, p. 69).

42. Antonaccio puts this well: “Murdoch’s claim is that perception is not only carried out against a transcendental background of value, but also is progressive in its attempt to make discriminations of value in relation to an implicit ideal of perfection. . . . In this respect, the whole of our cognitive experience furnishes us with evidence of the idea of perfection” (Search for Human Goodness, p. 133). This largely captures what I am trying here to argue. However, I would change Antonaccio’s final clause and render it thusly: “the whole of our cognitive experience furnishes us with evidence of the reality of perfection.”

43. Here I hope to have begun to show that the phenomenon of guilt cannot be reduced to the accidents of contingency, though these may be its catalyst. I would contend that guilt is not a disposable concept in Murdoch. Guilt or remorse is a function of the magnetic connection of the sensible world with the transcendent Good. Remorse brings recognition of failure; failure then opens up the idea of perfection by way of distance, and the possibility of knowing the Good.

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
287-311
Launched on MUSE
2019-10-29
Open Access
No
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