“I think it’s terrible to be in danger of writing a philosophical novel”, you said in an interview. And I know you have systematically refused to be called a philosophical novelist. However, may I politely disagree?
Anatole Broyard attributes to you the idea that good art is philosophy swimming, or philosophy drowning. I could not trace back nor confirm his sources, but I like this image of philosophy crossing through water, as something put in action through art. I believe you put yourself in danger of death by water in your books, my dear. So, allow me to say you are a philosophical novelist – but one with a twist. Of course, one can read your books and never quite realize the philosophical ideas in action, but still have very much fun and be drawn into the complexity of your characters’ moral issues.
With regard to philosophy, you seem to have the same “show, not tell” technique writers are told to adopt in fiction: instead of describing philosophical ideas in dialogue or narration, you make use of allegories. It is a dangerous thing; and it is not what we commonly expect from a philosophical novelist. But it is a clever way of representing and putting into action one element of your own theoretical work: the focus on moral vision over moral reasoning. This becomes your plaything in your novel The Bell (1958).
The novel is set at Imber Court, a stately home in the English countryside, situated next to a cloistered Abbey housing an order of Benedictine nuns who are closed off to the outside world. Following his desire to become a priest, the owner of Imber Court, Michael Meade, a former schoolmaster, has set up a small Anglican lay community at his house, as a “buffer state” between the Abbey and the “real world”: a refuge for a ill-assorted group of lost souls, who “can live neither in the world nor out of it”.
When the novel starts, Dora Greenfield, a former middle-class art student, is reluctantly setting out for Imber Court by train. Dora is married to her former professor Paul, an art historian who is staying at Imber to do research on some of the Abbey’s medieval manuscripts. Dora, an enchanting young Bohemian, is returning to her husband for the same reason why she had left him six months earlier: out of guilt and fear.
At Imber, the errant wife will meet an eccentric group of well-meaning but misguided souls. We soon learn that Michael, the leader of the community, lost his teaching job (and, ultimately, his chance of becoming a priest) in a scandal, after being accused of seducing Nick Fawley, one of his students. Over a decade later, random circumstances bring the troublesome, heavily-drinking Nick to Imber Court, when his twin sister, Catherine Fawley, decides to join the Abbey as a cloistered nun. To increase the sexual tension between the group, Michael slowly falls for Toby Gashe, an 18-year-old boy who is about to start university and has joined the group for the Summer.
Here you set the stage for illustrating the role of morality and spirituality in a secular, materialistic world: a group of upper-middle-class characters grappling with moral dilemmas, wrecked marriages, crises of faith, and bursts of sensuality and desire. You are not interested in moralizing, but rather in portraying the complexity of morality, the inner struggles that go with trying to be good and ultimately failing. Your characters are permanently caught in questions like: What is the right choice and why? How should we find meaning in a world of disintegrating certainties? “Our actions are like ships which we may watch set out to sea, and not know when or with what cargo they will return to port.”
As your characters try to balance themselves between good and evil, you imbibe the novel’s atmosphere with a dark, disturbing balance between satire and menace. There is an eerie quality to your writing: you work with a myriad of allegories, symbols and doublings. And, of course, your prose is soaked with irony and sensuality – we almost feel the heat, the lake water on our skin, the scared butterfly trapped in our hands.
Each chapter follows the point of view of a different character, alternating between Dora, Toby and Michael – as if we were presented to several worlds running side by side; irreconcilable, enclosed universes which almost never touch each other. As we get to inhabit your main character’s tortuous minds, you take us for a brief walk through their moral struggles – which, in turn, figure as representations of your idea that morality and goodness are not reducible to rational reasoning, and that morality should not be reduced to a function of rational choice – rather, it encompasses an inner monologue, the inwardness of moral experience.
Thrown into your characters’ inner monologue, we are presented with scenes that illustrate your claim that awareness leads to moral vision (‘seeing the good’), which in turn is prior to moral understanding (‘reasoning’) and choice (‘taking action’). The scene where Dora sits inside a packed train, in the first chapter, is a fitting example: as an elderly woman enters the carriage and starts talking to another old lady seated beside Dora, the Bohemian girl ponders on the moral issue at hand – should she offer her seat? A tumultuous inner monologue takes place: Dora argues with herself that the man seated near them should be the one to offer his seat; Dora, feeling tired, considered that she deserved a rest, and that her seat was a proper reward for having arrived earlier than the old lady; besides, she adds, none of the other characters seemed to be willing to give up their seats, nor were bothered by the issue. “The old lady would be perfectly all right in the corridor. The corridor was full of old ladies anyway, and no one else seemed bothered by this, least of all the old ladies themselves! Dora hated pointless sacrifices. She was tired after her recent emotions and deserved a rest. Besides, it would never do to arrive at her destination exhausted. She regarded her state of distress as completely neurotic. She decided not give up her seat. She got up and said to the standing lady, ‘Do seat down here, please. I’m not going very far, and I’d much rather stand anyway’.” Immediately after having made a reasoned choice, Dora acts against her reasoning, aligning herself to her first moral vision on the issue: she offers her seat to the elderly lady. Bingo: you achieve a humorous effect and, at the same time, disguisedly convey a philosophical idea.
You claim that moral experience is characterized by attention to particularity – one’s ability to be aware, to put one’s attention, and thereby to meet a particular reality by seeing it. The moral demand has an element of factuality: goodness has to be chosen simply because it exists; things have to be done simply because they are. “There are things one doesn’t choose,” Dora says. “I don’t mean they’re forced on one. But one doesn’t choose them. These are often the best things.”
For you, the highest form of attention and moral vision is love: as you wrote in The Sublime and the Good (1959), “Love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.” Attention unfolds the different dimensions of reality and of the other’s irreducible presence: furthermore, through deliberate awareness, moral vision is signified by love. As the Abbess says to Michael: “Remember that all our failures are ultimately failures in love. Imperfect love must not be condemned and rejected but made perfect. The way is always forward, never back.” And after all, she adds, “we can only learn to love by loving”.
Art, as an expression of attention, is a means of attaining moral vision. The appreciation of beauty, as an spiritual exercise, is an entry into the good life, as you claim in The Sovereignty of Good (1970). While visiting the National Gallery and examining a Gainsborough painting, Dora is struck by the sudden discovery of a moral core outside of herself: “somewhere, something good existed.” She immediately changes her mind about leaving Imber and goes back. The rightness of this decision is something she feels rather than something she understands: “There was a connexion; obscurely she felt, without yet understanding it, she must hang onto that idea: there was a connexion.” She comes back to Imber, at whose doors hangs a medallion on which are inscribed the words: “Amor via mea” (Love is my way). In a sense, she comes back to love’s way. However, that does not quite mean the way prescribed by convention: she later learns that she needs to come back to herself, but not necessarily to her husband.
In seeing, through art or love, we grow towards the other, and thereby we are freed from the forces militating against goodness: our inability to see other people correctly, caused either by the neurosis of egotism, or by the automatism of social convention. The homily given by James Tayper Pace, a member of the Imber Court, exemplifies conformity and convention: an idea of morality as a strict set of rules of conduct that are not to be amended by “the standards of this world”: “We should think of our actions and look to God and to His Law. We should consider not what delights us or what disgusts us, morally speaking, but what is enjoined and what is forbidden.” While at Imber, Dora is constantly pressed to surrender her individuality and to fit in the community. Her immediate reaction is to flee, but art keeps bringing her back to an attempt at connecting with people despite their assumptions of moral superiority. On the other hand, Catherine, the character who represents total surrender into the community, ends up losing her mind.
Michael is another conflicted character, always seeking to reconcile his sexuality with his religious faith. Inevitably, he doesn’t fit the picture of what he thinks his faith demands he should be. He seems to be torn between two incompatible goods: body and soul, as his spiritual aspiration and his passions spring “from the same source.” He delivers a homily completely different from James’s demand that everyone do “the best thing”: for Michael, morality is not to be regarded in absolute terms, but as a “commendation of the second best act”. Michael’s homily leaves more room for human frailty and moral complexity. While James speaks of universals, Michael speaks of particularities: “Each one of us has his own way of apprehending God.”
Egotism, on the other hand, as another force militating against goodness, represents the disappearance of the other and of the external world, which are either objectified by or imploded into the solipsistic ego. Nick, the rogue who cannot fit into the community, ends up losing himself in solipsism, and commits suicide. Dora experiences an episode of neurosis one morning, when, looking at the mirror, she “had the odd feeling that all this was inside her head. There was no way of breaking into this scene, for it was all imaginary. Rather startled at this feeling, she began to dress and tried to think about something practical. But the dazed feeling of unreality continued. It was as if her consciousness had eaten up its surroundings. Everything was now subjective.” Once again, she is only freed from this feeling when she goes to the National Gallery and is confronted with art and beauty: something that existed outside of herself, and that connected her to others and to the world.
Love, as art, is an exercise of imagination: an attempt at empathy and communication with something other than ourselves. “God does not and cannot exist,” you wrote in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992), “But what led us to conceive of him does exist and is constantly experienced and pictured. That is, as an Idea, and also incarnate in knowledge and work and love.”
Love, God and the Good are conflated in the image of the bell that gives the novel its title. According to an old legend, the Abbey’s original 12th-century bell flew out of its tower and plunged into the lake, after a nun broke her vows because of a lover and then drowned herself. By the time Dora arrives at Imber, a new bell is scheduled to be installed in the Abbey.
Following a shared plan, Dora and Toby retrieve the old bell from the lake. In it, the following words are inscribed: “Vox ego sum Amoris” (“I am the voice of Love”). Later, when Dora decides to end their plan, we have one of the strangest and most beautiful scenes in the book: Dora hurls herself against the old bell, summoning the community; she at once rejects egotism and convention, and throws her body into the sole purpose of keeping the bell ringing, making it alive, making love ring. “She had communed with it now for too long and was under its spell. She had thought to be its master and make it her plaything, but now it was mastering her and would have its will.”
Furthermore, the submerged presence of the old bell is felt throughout the novel, whose atmosphere has some elements of Michael’s recurrent nightmare about a corpse being retrieved from the lake. We somehow feel that the community will be made to expose something strange or even nasty about itself. The old bell, as subject to the force of gravity as it is to grace (and the reference to Simone Weil is not gratuitous here), embodies your characters’ struggles between spirituality/passion and convention/egotism: it swings up and down, as much as their frail human attempts at attentive love.
Faced with moral dilemmas and with the tragedy of their own inescapable fallibility, your characters either collapse into convention and solipsism, or are pushed by tragedy into moral growth through an exercise of imagination: as you wrote in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992), “tragedy, like religion, must break the ego, destroying the illusory whole of the unified self.” Either your characters become blinded, or they see that they have damaged somebody other than themselves – and this vision sets them free in a very strange, but beautiful way: hard and distorted, like an image made whole when mirrored back to them through a panel of broken, clear-cut glass.
“One day no doubt all this would seem charged again with a vast significance, and he would try once more to find out the truth. One day too he would experience again, responding with his heart, that indefinitely extended requirement that one human being makes upon another. ” – Iris Murdoch, The Bell
“He stood, poised on the brink, looking down. The centre of the lake was glittering, colourlessly brilliant, but along the edge the green banks could be seen reflected and the blue sky, the colours clear yet strangely altered into the colours of a dimmer and more obscure world: the charm of swimming in still waters, that sense of passing through the looking-glass, of disturbing and yet entering that other scene that grows out of the roots of this one. Toby took a step or two and hurled himself in.” – Iris Murdoch, The Bell
“Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason. The absent Paul, haunting her with letters and telephone bells and imagined footsteps on the stairs had begun to be the greater torment. Dora suffered from guilt, and with guilt came fear. She decided at last that the persecution of his presence was to be preferred to the persecution of his absence.” – Iris Murdoch, The Bell