A whole year ago now, I got the bright idea of re-reading all Iris Murdoch’s 26 novels in the order they were written so as to write about them. I published a Glob on The Italian Girl @ https://wp.me/p1QjJc-O7; that seems a long time ago. I aimed to finish the project by Christmas Day 2017. I didn’t manage it: I have four long novels yet to re-read and six to write about. However, here’s my write-up on
THE SEA, THE SEA
I attempt to hold the entire novel in the palm of my hand: it has a wholeness, an integrity as an artefact. In what way, specifically? The real time story is a first person narrative; Charles Arrowby’s extreme egotism, the excessive concern for self and the significance of self, holds it together; the sea is an all-pervasive presence; in spite of Arrowby’s express desire, having escaped from his theatrical directorship, for solitude, he seems intent on creating out of his supposed new life another doomed theatrical performance, with all its contrivances and bizarre characters. He says that ‘…drama must create a factitious spell-binding present moment and imprison the spectator in it…’ which is precisely what the novel does – the reader is locked up in the muddle; further, ‘…we are extended beings who yet can only exist in the present. It is a factitious present because it lacks the free aura of personal reflection and contains its own secret limits and conclusions…’ We can pretend to be free agents but the present firmly contains us in its thoughtlessness. The theatre, aping this, is ‘a place of obsession… in the cyclical life [of the theatre] one lives the cyclical patterns of the ordinary world… there is perpetual construction followed by perpetual destruction… endings and partings… packings up and dismantling… theatre people are nomads… a theatre director is a dictator…’ Charles Arrowby is a crazy dictator who has us in thrall.
I again attempt to hold the entire novel in the palm of my hand: the peace attaching to Shruff End, Charles Arrowby’s retirement haven, constructed theatrical events in spite of the comfortable idyll, many people shouting DON’T DO IT! Don’t contaminate the idyll. The rescue by a kind of magic, a fragmentary resolution…
You open the novel at the first page. Immediately, as you might expect from the title, the sea drifts before you. It’s cold; we are presented with a detailed panorama; the writing pans us from sky to the rocks in the foreground, multi-coloured and glowing. The first paragraph is intended to be the opening of memoirs intended, ‘…now the main events of my life are over…’ (are they?) to enable the writer perhaps to ‘repent of a life of egoism…’ He wishes he’d kept a diary which would have shown just what a life he’d had, how brilliant he’d been, what exploits – ‘absolutely vanished pantomimes…’ He’d considered writing a journal ‘not of happenings for there will be none’ (so he imagines) but of philosophical meditation and word pictures of his new surroundings, a ramble.
When he was in the theatre he had written a few plays which were ‘magical delusions’, ‘fireworks’. After a hundred pages or so, in spite of all Charles Arrowby’s deluded initial intentions, that’s what The Sea, the Sea turns into – mess and fireworks and outside invasions. He cannot forego theatrical involvement!
Something extraordinary and ‘horrible’ has already happened to cause him to pause his process of writing and interrupt our settling into the pleasures to be derived from ‘word-pictures of the sea’ which we are assured he could ‘fill a volume with…’ His apparent desire is simply to relax into his environment as an antidote to all the mess and palaver of theatre life – he says he hates mess: ‘I have been watching the clouds and it occurs to me that I have never done this in my life before, simply sit and watch clouds…’ So, days pass with a bit of writing, two or three paragraphs at a time; he wants to become the Gilbert White of the place. He says ‘…my father would have loved this place – I still think of him and miss him…’ which sends me off into a private reverie of my own: after forty-six years I know that my father would have loved this place where I live now, the lawns, the rockery, the shrubbery; I think of him at least once a day… If only I could show him round…
But strange things, temporarily inexplicable, haunting, happen to interrupt his thinking & writing. A mirror in the house is mysteriously broken. And there’s a face at the window at night.
He says he ‘must make no attempt at fine writing’ – it would spoil his enterprise which is just to make a record, memoir, diary or philosophical journal, the kind of meditation that ought to accompany the end of life. (Is that what it is?)
The intention to avoid ‘fine writing’ reminds me of Gurdjieff’s statement that, in writing Beelzebub, he would avoid ‘bon ton literary language’, which of course he was capable of but says he wishes to eschew lest he fall into the trap of indulging in ‘literary manipulations or grammatical wiseacrings’ which would in turn trap the reader into false assumptions & empty mental constructions; he does not want the reader to have to spend time ‘wrangling with pigs about the quality of oranges’, as Mullah Nasruddin says. Deep in his egotism, Charles Arrowby no doubt, at this point, imagines he’s writing the perfect text in the style of Gilbert White but as with Gurdjieff it turns out to be full of ‘literary manipulations’ and ‘grammatical wiseacrings’…
I wonder if Iris Murdoch knew Beelzebub’s Tales…
Charles Arrowby is 60+, described variously by the press as tyrant, tartar, power-crazed monster; he’s never driven a car, retired from the theatre, wifeless, childless, relationless; he has so ‘little sense of identity’ that he needs to introduce himself to himself: he is a skilful fearless swimmer so we know that the sea and the churning waves in the hole known as Minn’s Cauldron will figure in the novel; he has profound ‘gastronomic intelligence which cause the flow of his writing to be regularly interrupted with recipes that have an ‘inspired simplicity’ about them. ‘…One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats and if some of these can be inexpensive and quickly procured so much the better…’ Corrupt people, he says, have mistaken his ‘intelligent hedonism’ for ‘affected eccentricity’ or even mere gimmickry. Are we corrupt? At any rate it’s possible to feel quite hungry reading his memoirs!
One lunchtime on my own deep in The Sea, the Sea, under the influence of Charles Arrowby, I made a meal out of a few potatoes par-boiled in the microwave and then made into chips fried in coconut oil, with spicy red-cabbage and tinned sardines heated up… Thus I identify with Charles Arrowby!
Shruff End, his recently acquired old house, is isolated on a clifftop, without electricity, damp and many-roomed; the nearest village, Narrowdean, from which one may hear distant church bells is ‘not infected with intellectuals, a hazard everywhere nowadays…’ One wonders what Charles Arrowby has to fear from intellectuals – a bit of true emotional intelligence, maybe, if their Centres are properly balanced. He says he’s ‘shy of emotions’ and ‘the terrible strength of certain memories…’
He says that Shruff End and environs is a ‘great space for which I have been longing all my life’ so why would he want to bugger it up, as bugger it up he does? Before effectively managing this, the ‘horrible thing that happened’ has already tainted things, maybe for the reader too: now he feels he can mention it, though we are cautioned that he once had a bad trip with LSD, it is the vision of a sea monster rising from the waves with ‘crested snake’s head, green-eyed, the mouth opening to show teeth and a pink interior…’ The apparition serves as an objective correlative for the monstrous destruction of his idyll that he is about to embark upon.
He says he’s ‘not a womaniser… always been a dedicated professional… silly messy love affairs… interfere with serious work…’ He wonders if, like Prospero, he has abjured his magic, drowned his book. Every so often he seems able to step into Meta-I to consider what he’s written objectively: the writing so far has been a ‘jumble’, more like a ‘set of rough notes’. And then there’s the mystery of the broken vase to distract him as well as what he’s going to have for dinner!
But he has not been honest with us, concealing the fact that, in spite of his desire to remain isolated, he has sent Lizzie, an actress whom he had loved ‘in a quiet dreamy way’, a letter as a ‘game or gamble’. We wonder what else he has not been honest about – can we trust him at all as story-teller? For Lizzie he had been ‘it’ – ‘I would have married you if you had crooked your finger…’ she says. But she’s now escaped the messy life of the theatre and living in a curious but happy & creative relationship with Gilbert Opian. Charles’ letter had made her ‘faint with fear and joy’. Charles conveniently takes Gilbert to be ‘a man of twigs’ whom he can’t take seriously. Lizzie (her reply suggests she’s hooked, as intended) wants to know what he wants, a short love affair, an experiment of some kind? She doesn’t want to be driven mad a second time; she needs some time to recover from his letter. The curtain rises on an Arrowby ‘magical delusion’ with fireworks – a kind of elaborate & gripping farce.
Not a womaniser? He had wanted a wife when he was young but now wonders why people ever marry. The actress Clement was too irritable and possessive; he’d felt at ease with Lizzie’s selflessness (‘she went like a shadow’ when he went on to other things – he didn’t have to bother about her…); he’d stolen Peregrine’s wife Rosina whose kisses were those of a tigress while Lizzie’s were dry & chaste; in any case Peregrine was just a ‘noisy bear… blundering along; Rosina was ‘gorgeously adorably artificial… stylish… brittle, electric… clinging & screaming, greatly jealous’, liked a good row, once threw herself downstairs in a fit of rage… Peregrine has written to him. His past is catching him up but, of course, he was never a womaniser.
He reminisces warmly about his cousin James, who will play a very significant, if muted, part in this memoir, and ‘who had a sort of uncanny instinct about things and places. When the ball got lost it was always James who found it; he once instantly recovered an old toy aeroplane of mine simply on the basis of my having told him I had lost it…’ Charles felt a failure as compared with James who had a ferocious ambition to succeed and had become an army general and a Buddhist, going on secret missions to Tibet.
We are taken out of ourselves and our firm imaginative construction of characters & events when Charles goes into Meta-I to reflect on his ‘story’. It’s a ploy that Iris Murdoch frequently resorts to here, as elsewhere: we are constantly reminded that we can catch ourselves in the act of reading, of doing the very thing that her characters find themselves locked into – building pictures based on mere words and slipping into false constructions and assumptions based on pure imagination; Charles’ Meta-I (which is not necessarily reliable) does help us to contain our roving imagination, our constant desire to resolve the ambiguities.
I reread my pieces about James and Peregrine and was quite moved by them. Of course they are just sketches and need to be written in more detail before they become really truthful and ‘lifelike’. It has only just now occurred to me that really I could write all sorts of fantastic nonsense about my life in these memoirs and everybody would believe it! Such is human credulity, the power of the printed word, and of any well-known ‘name’ or ‘show business personality’. Even if readers claim that they ‘take it all with a grain of salt’, they do not really. They yearn to believe, and they believe, because believing is easier than disbelieving, and because anything which is written down is likely to be ‘true in a way’.
If Charles developed the ‘sketches’ by using even more words would we get anywhere near ‘the truth’ of things? Of course not! (Later on Cousin James points this out to him…) Just more bits & pieces on which to feast our imagination… It would still all seem like ‘fantastic nonsense’. Then in a subtle twist Charles asserts that what he is writing is all true anyway! It’s all true!
I trust this passing reflection will not lead anyone to doubt the truth of any part of this story! When I come to describe my life [if ever he does] with Clement Makin credulity will be strained but will I hope not fail!
More important is the story of Hartley and when it comes to its development as the central theme of the novel credulity is certainly strained.
Since I started writing this ‘book’ or whatever it is I have felt as if I were walking about in a dark cavern where there are various ‘lights’, made perhaps by shafts or apertures which reach the outside world. (What a gloomy image of my mind, but I do not mean it in a gloomy sense.) There is among those lights one great light towards which I have been half consciously wending my way. It may be a great ‘mouth’ opening to the daylight, or it may be a hole through which fires emerge from the centre of the earth. And am I still unsure which it is, and must I now approach in order to find out? This image has come to me so suddenly, I am not sure what to make of it.
The writing of this ‘book’ (or whatever it is) has therefore to be seen as an attempt to discover what the journey has all been about, a self-conscious tentative reconstruction of events which the reader is beginning to wonder about in relation to the notion of a ‘true record’, as if such a thing ever existed.
When I decided to write about myself of course the question arose: am I then to write about Hartley? Of course, I thought, I must write about Hartley, since that is the most important thing in my life. And yet how can I, what style can I adopt or master worthy of such a sacred tale, and would not the attempt to relive those events upset me to some intolerable degree? Or would it be simply a sacrilege? Or suppose I were to get the wrong tone, making the marvellous merely grotesque? It might be better to tell my life without mentioning Hartley, even though this omission would amount to a gross lie. Can one, in such a self-portrait, omit something which affected one’s whole being and which one has thought of every day of one’s life? ‘Every day’ exaggerates, but not much. I do not need to ‘recall’ Hartley, she is here. She is my end and my beginning, she is alpha and omega.
In the famous Bryan Magee interview, Iris Murdoch suggested that ‘the literary writer deliberately leaves a space for the reader to play in. The philosopher must not leave any space…’ The contrivance of Charles’ Meta-I creates a considerable space for the reader to play in, especially to contemplate the nature of an alpha & omega love. Iris Murdoch said that ‘art may extend [ordinary] knowledge but it is also tested by it, sometimes of course wrongly as when we dismiss a story as implausible when we have not really understood what sort of story it is…’ It is important to ask what sort of story The Sea, the Sea is: how can one use it to extend ordinary knowledge? What does it do for ordinary knowledge? In this novel as of course with all the 26, we are invited to regard characters caught up in Internal Considering, bamboozling themselves and others with the result, the muddle that ensues; to think about the impossibility of retrieving the past but yearning somehow to do so; we are invited to think about what it is to be at home with oneself…
On n’aime qu’une fois, la première. Hartley and Charles were going to get married when they were 18; she was the ‘one true light in his life’.
I see her clearly, jumping over a rope, higher and higher it was raised, Hartley still flew over, the watchers sighing each time with sympathetic relief; and I hugging my heart in secret pride. She was the champion jumper of the school, of many schools, the champion runner, Hartley always first, and I cheering with the rest and laughing with secret joy. Hartley, in a breathless stillness, crouched upon a parallel bar, her bare thighs gleaming. The games master spoke of the Olympics.
And she had a marvelous laugh and a secret beauty. ‘Her body was passive to my embraces, but her spirit glowed to me with a cold fire…’ The passivity of her body should have given Charles at least an inkling of a certain incompatibility; any suggestion of a ‘glowing spirit’ has to come from his overworking imagination; even he recognises that it was a ‘cold fire’… It ought not really to have come as a surprise to him to find that
Hartley decided, when the time came, that she did not want to marry me. It was impossible to find out exactly why. I was too smashed by misery to think clearly, to question intelligently. She was confused, evasive, perhaps out of some desire to spare me pain, perhaps simply because of her own misery, perhaps because of some indecision which I stupidly failed to discern.
The likelihood of her being an athlete of potential Olympic status suggests that her being is out of harmony with itself: she is too much in Moving Centre; Emotional Centre is a dead cold fire; she doesn’t wish to discuss the matter in Intellectual Centre. The actual moment of separation is desperate.
We had bicycled down to the canal, a way we often went. Our bicycles lay embraced together, as they always did, in the long grass beside the towing path. We walked on, looking at familiar things, dear things which we had made our own. It was autumn time. There were a lot of butterflies. Butterflies still remind me of those terrible minutes. She started to cry. ‘I can’t go on, I can’t go on, I can’t marry you.’ ‘We wouldn’t make each other happy.’ ‘You wouldn’t stay with me, you’d go away, you wouldn’t be faithful.’ ‘Yes, I love you but I can’t trust, I can’t see.’ We were both demented with grief, and we cried out to each other in our grief. In despair, in death-fear, I raved, ‘At least we’ll be friends, forever, we can’t leave each other, we can’t lose each other, it’s impossible, I should die.’ She shook her head, weeping, ‘You know we can’t be friends now.’ I can see her eyes glaring, her mouth, wet with her tears, jerking. I never understood how she was able to be so strong.
Her mother wrote to say she was married.’She was a part, an evidence of some pure uncracked, unfissured confidence, in the good which was never there for me again…’ Clement Makin nursed him through his misery and jealousy. He hoped that her life would be dull. ‘The whole of my life has been a tissue of memories of Hartley…’
I find that, though my own adolescent experience of a loving relationship was so different – chocabloc with jealousies from the word go – the end product is roughly the same. At the time I was relieved to be shot of the 21 year-old girl in 1958, ‘much of my innocence and gentleness… destroyed’, but at this stage Charles Arrowby’s response resonates! His general conclusion comes over, I suppose, as a bit of cheap Arrowby philosophising but true nevertheless.
What a queer gamble our existence is. We decide to do A instead of B and then the two roads diverge utterly and may lead in the end to heaven and to hell. Only later one sees how much and how awfully the fates differ. Yet what were the reasons for the choice? They may have been forgotten. Did one know what one was choosing? Certainly not. There are such chasms of might-have-beens in any human life. …in a way I did keep on searching for her, only it was a different and quite involuntary kind of search, a sort of dream-search.
He addresses the ghost: ‘My love for you is unaware that I am old and you perhaps are dead…’ As so often, Charles breaks from his quasi-serious writing with ‘What I Had for Lunch’ – from the sublime to the gorblimey… ‘…fish cakes with hot Indian pickle and a salad of grated carrot, radishes, watercress and bean shoots… Then cherry cake with ice cream [which]… must always be eaten with cake, never with fruit alone…’
Lizzie would like some sort of ménage à trois. Rosina turns out to be the face at the window, the Shruff End vase-breaker and mirror-shatterer. She’s taken up residence out of black hatred at the local hotel in order to make Charles’ life a misery if he goes with Lizzie or anybody else come to that; when he stole her from Peregrine she says he’d promised to marry her. He says he was drunk when he said that, if he said it. Her face became a hole inside which he glimpsed the sea monster’s open mouth.
Leaving Shruff End, Rosina almost runs down a pedestrian. It was an old village woman who looked like Hartley. In the headlights Charles realises that it is Hartley! He goes back to London to recover from the shock. Extraordinary! After all the theatrical story-telling, the complex love relationships, (he’s not a womaniser), the desire for isolation, the care over stones & flowers in the garden, the organising of muddle & mess, which of course he hates, comes the shock of Hartley. Having told Rosina she’s living in a dream-world, he drifts blithely into one all by himself.
Lizzie’s making up her mind about ditching Gilbert; Rosina is going to ruin Charles’ life if he marries anybody but her; and then the love of his life turns up, an ‘old lady’ of over sixty, not at all Olympic potential. All he wanted, he had assured the reader, was isolation & freedom, to experience the perfection of Shruff End.
When he eventually speaks to Hartley, she says she’s had a ‘good life’; Charles says he’d ‘spent the years’ looking for her… ‘never stopped loving her…’ (What about all the women in the interval!) He tells himself that he mustn’t interfere in her marriage which, of course means he will. Internal Considering takes off; the dream-world is sketched in.
What I must now concentrate upon was the possibility of love in the form of a pure deep affectionate mutual respect, a steady constant binding awareness. Of course it would be, it would have to be, love between us, but love purged of possessive madness, purged of self, disciplined by time and the irrevocability of our fates. We must find out how at last to be absolutes to each other, never to lose each other, without putting any foot wrong or spilling one drop of some brimming vessel of truth and history which was held up austerely between us. I will respect her, I will respect her, I kept saying to myself. I felt a tenderness for her that was deep and pure, a miracle of love preserved. How clear it flowed, that fountain from the far past.
He has a sense of ‘absolute belongingness… in the teeth of all the evidence we belonged to each other…’ He imagines he can get rid of Lizzie, an ‘insane fancy’, by letter. The reader wants to scream!
It’s like one of CA’s failed plays:-
• Hartley is unhappy – she has to be…
• Maybe because of her absent son
• Why does she not let me into her life
• Maybe it’s naive to expect confidences from a woman I haven’t seen for forty years
• I might simply be just a shadow to her – can’t believe that…
• Perhaps she’s so in love with me that she can’t trust herself to let go…
• Could I just wait without hope?
• The husband has to be jealous, a tyrant, a bully [holding a mirror up to himself]
• I am free to detest him
• I see lurid vistas and fiery hollows
• My faithfulness to Hartley must be kept untainted
• Why had the son, Titus, left home?
• I have not even kissed her yet…
Charles – Rendered Soliloquy 1
the sky was no longer dark
but bright golden – gold-dust golden
as if curtain after curtain
had been removed behind the stars I had seen before;
now I was looking into the vast interior of the universe
as if it were quietly turning itself inside out
stars behind stars and stars behind stars behind stars
until there was nothing between them –
nothing beyond them but the dusty dim gold of stars
and no space and no light but stars
the moon was gone; the water lapped higher
touching the rock so lightly it was audible
only as a kind of vibration; the sea had fallen dark
in submission to the stars which seemed to move
as if one could see the rotation of the heavens
as a kind of vast crepitation; there were no more events –
no shooting stars which human senses could grasp
or even conceive of – all was movement
all was change which somehow was visible
and yet unimaginable – and I was no longer I
but something pinned down as an atom –
an atom of an atom; a necessary captive spectator;
a tiny mirror into which it was all indifferently beamed
as it motionlessly seethed and boiled
gold behind gold behind gold
Charles – Rendered Soliloquy 2
I dream that Hartley is a ballet dancer
circling a huge stage sur les points
dressed in a black tutu
with a head-dress of sparkling diamonds
and black feathers
now and then she leaps
and I say to myself
she stays in the air –
it’s uncanny – like levitation
she just stays there
as I watch I say to myself
in a complacent sort of way
isn’t it wonderful that we’re both so young
and we have all our lives before us
how can old people be happy?
After this we come back to earth. When he visits their bungalow her husband Ben is the first of several people to tell Charles exactly how it is:-
Ben threw the invitation [to a party at Shruff End] and the crumpled envelope on to the bed. The brusque movement put an end to my chatter. He stood for a moment opening his mouth and showing his uneven teeth in some kind of indecision. He ruffled up his short thick mousy hair. He said, ‘Listen.’ There was a pause, he gulped breathlessly and my own breath was suspended. We stood together bulkily in the little room, I leaning a little over him. ‘Listen, it’s not on, sorry, we don’t want to know you. Sorry to put it like that but you won’t seem to take a hint. I mean, there’s no point, is there. All right, you knew Mary a long time ago, but a long time ago is a long time ago. She doesn’t want to know you now, and I don’t want to start, see. You don’t have to see people now because you saw them once or went to school with them or what. Things change and people have their own worlds and their own places. We aren’t your sort, well, that’s obvious isn’t it. We don’t want to come to your parties and meet your friends and drink your drinks, it’s not on. And we don’t want you barging in here at all hours of the day either, sorry if this sounds rude, but it’s better to get it understood once and for all.
Feeling free now to detest Ben, Charles determines to rescue Hartley/Mary from the clutches of an obvious tyrant! But he returns to London to put some distance between the shock and a more Capable-of-reflecting-I. He explains that the last 50 pages have been written in his ‘peculiar miserable derelict new flat’ in London.
It has even occurred to me that if I wanted to live as a hermit retired from the world this would be a far better habitat! … So much has been happening, I thought I would write it as a continuous narrative without too many reversions to the present tense. So I am writing my life, after all, as a novel! Why not? It was a matter of finding a form, and somehow history, my history, has found the form for me. There will be plenty of time to reflect and remember as I go along, to digress and philosophize, to inhabit the far past or depict the scarcely formulated present; so my novel can still be a sort of memoir and a sort of diary. The past and the present are after all so close, so almost one, as if time were an artificial teasing out of a material which longs to join, to interpenetrate, and to become heavy and very small like some of those heavenly bodies scientists tell us of.
The whole business of Charles & Hartley seems absurd, unbelievable even, unreal which raises the issue of what the point of the novel might be, what sort of a novel is The Sea, the Sea? For Charles it is a bit of theatricality, he the director with a cast that he invents. On the other hand, I completely understand the way that past and present interpenetrate. I know that literally walking back down a time-line on the living-room carpet it’s possible to relive experience as though it were NOW by deliberately seeing what you see, hearing what you hear and feeling what you feel wherever you find yourself in time & space – in that way it’s possible to associate back into the past. Charles associates into the young Hartley, identifies thoroughly with a past Loving-Hartley-I and brings it into the present. This will seem absurd to anybody who can’t do this; I know that there are such people: most disassociate from the past apparently. I invariably associate so that the past is as real now as it was then. One can carry all the events of the past as though they were present now, as thought they were some great whole. What prevents me from going crazy is the possible shift into Meta-I which can lay events out for disidentified contemplation. Charles Arrowby has an important Meta-I which he uses, as here, only to stand apart from writing his memoirs and contemplate the process.
I arrived here two days ago and have spent most of the time writing. On the second evening, as I shall shortly recount, I visited Peregrine. Today I shall continue to write; it is oddly enough easier to write here, amid all this cramped chaos, than in the open spaces at Shruff End. I have been able to concentrate; and my God there is plenty to concentrate on. This evening I shall take the train back home…
To make sense of this I practise the time-lining process in relation to my own adolescent enthusiasm:-
what if she were to come now
after 60 years
and knock at my door –
she whose image I had constructed
so methodically and have kept with me
down all the years?
was it all a fiction
(a story I told myself)?
something I simply left behind?
all those times we made long kissing-journeys
round the recreation grounds at Motspur Park
after an evening out in London;
those times we came to the turn
of the narrow ginel where we knew we’d kiss
till a night-cat surprised us coming over the fence;
the kissing in the fog on Newlands Corner
one long November afternoon;
the bicycle ride to the Silent Pool;
all the gentle caressing; the brave attempts
to teach me how to do the waltz?
or was it a special sort of truth –
touchstone – as if a thought of mine –
all those thoughts all down the years –
could amount to a complete & utter Truth
transcending all others?
it feels like that – the problem is
that I have only to wander back in time
across this carpet to recreate all our moments
with deliberate sight & sound & touch;
they come alive and the stupid brain can’t tell
the difference – it’s as though she really could
just walk along the river-road and knock at my door
though it also feels as if the world
is now quite empty of her
I could have rambled on about how she obviously pined for me all these years, that she greatly regretted my loss but I am, of course, well aware that, while it has a certain ring of truth just by being put into words which tend to set things in stone, this is a complete fantasy; but my Meta-I can override my stupid brain in a way that Charles Arrowby’s cannot; here’s how he puts his fantasy into words which utterly convince him and result in action:-
I reviewed the evidence [what evidence?] and I had very little doubt about what it pointed to. Hartley loved me and had long regretted losing me. How could she not? She did not love her husband. How could she? He was mentally undistinguished; there was no wit or spiritual sweetness in that man. He was physically unattractive, with his big unshapely sensual mouth and his look of a cropped schoolboy. And he was, it seemed, a barbarian and a bully. He was a tyrant, probably a chronically jealous man, a dull resentful dog, a limited shut-in fellow with no sense of the joy of life. Hartley had been a captive all these years. She may, in the earlier times, have thought of escape; but gradually she fell, as so many bullied isolated women do, into a gradual despair. Better not to fight, not to hope. The shock of seeing me again must have been enormous. Of course she had digested some of it by the time I discovered her. Her frightened negative behaviour was easy to explain. She was probably afraid of her husband; but she was much more afraid of her old love for me, still alive, blazing away there like an underground oil fire: a love which, at the very least, could now utterly destroy her small despairing peace of mind.
False imagination built out of unfettered Internal Considering… Is this what The Sea, the Sea is designed to illustrate in a concentrated way? It’s a significant theme in most of Iris Murdoch’s novels but it’s starkly presented here.
While in London, Charles visits Peregrine from whom he acquired Rosina; he wishes Charles would take his new wife off his hands too! He accuses him of despising women.
“I don’t despise women. I was in love with all Shakespeare’s heroines before I was twelve.”
“But they don’t exist, dear man, that’s the point. They live in the never-never land of art, all tricked out in Shakespeare’s wit and wisdom, and mock us from there, filling us with false hopes and empty dreams. The real thing is spite and lies and arguments about money.”
That is, of course, exactly where Charles’ version of Hartley lives – in the ‘never-never land of art’ but he chooses to ignore Peregrine’s wise comment. Perry continues:-
…almost all art is lies. Hell itself it turns to favour and to prettiness… If we could only keep our mouths shut. Drama, tragedy, belong to the stage, not to life, that’s the trouble. It’s the soul that’s missing. All art disfigures life, misrepresents it, theatre most of all because it seems so like, you see real walking and talking people. God! How is it when you turn on the radio you can always tell if it’s an actor talking? It’s the vulgarity, the vulgarity, the theatre is the temple of vulgarity. It’s a living proof that we don’t want to talk about serious things and probably can’t. Everything, everything, the saddest, the most sacred, even the funniest, is turned into a vulgar trick.
Because Charles makes life into theatre he turns it into a vulgar trick; he chooses to trick himself. A visit to the Wallace Collection in Marylebone finds him cataloguing all his past women as depicted by famous painters, even his mother is there, and Hartley as the chained Andromeda about to be rescued by Perseus-Charles from the sea monster.
The gallery was empty. Then I noticed something that seemed odd, a sort of resonant coincidence. I was gazing in a dazed way at Titian’s picture of Perseus and Andromeda, and I had been admiring the graceful naked figure of the girl, whose almost dancing pose as she struggles with her chains makes her seem as airborne as her rescuer, when I seemed to notice suddenly, though I had seen it many times before, the terrible fanged open mouth of the sea dragon, upon which Perseus was flying down head first. The sea dragon did not quite resemble my sea monster, but the mouth was very like, and the memory of that hallucination, or whatever it was, was suddenly more disquieting than it had ever been since the first shock of its appearance. I turned quickly away and found myself face to face with, directly opposite, Rembrandt’s picture of his son Titus. So Titus was here too. Titus and the sea monster and the stars and holding Hartley’s hand in the cinema over forty years ago.
A man had come into the room by the other door at the far end and was standing looking at me through the curiously brownish murky air. I reached out and put one hand on the wall. Of course I recognized him at once. He was my cousin James.
A real person! Way outside Charles’ dream of life…
We often know all we need to about Iris Murdoch’s characters from the rooms they inhabit. The description of James’ flat in Pimlico reminds me of that of a great composer friend of mine in that it resembles ‘some chaotic oriental emporium’… Charles, being Charles, has no idea how James can have accumulated such a mélange unless by reference to its money-worth. This highlights the difference between them: the one focussed on self; the other on externality, on the specificity of the ordinary. Charles is of the opinion that James ‘…seems to have no conception of how to sort or arrange his possessions, they are dumped and piled rather than arranged, and elegant objets d’art are juxtaposed with the merest oddments of the bazaar…’ For the uncomprehending Charles this has to be the result of some internal lack – ‘Sentimentality, unworldliness, despair?’ he wonders.
The scene is such that it must be listed rather than described. James’s rooms are full of what I can only call, though I daresay he would dislike the word, fetishes: oddly shaped stones, sticks, shells, to which other things such as feathers have been (why, by whom?) tied or stuck, uneven bits of wood carved with crude faces, large teeth and even bones with strange marks (writing?) upon them. The walls are entirely covered either with books or with embroideries, or rather brilliant blue hangings, upon which have been fixed various far from reassuring masks. A lot of necklaces (rosaries?) lie about, tangled in bowls or hanging down in front of scrolls or mandala-pictures or photos of a place picturesquely called Kumbum. There are also a number of very exquisite have-worthy jade animals which I used to feel tempted to pocket, and plates and bowls of that heavenly Chinese grey sea-green colour wherein, beneath the deep glaze, when you have mopped the dust off with your handkerchief, you can descry lurking lotuses and chrysanthemums. On little lacquer altars, as I presume they are, stand, or sit, the buddhas, what I take to be prayer wheels, and also miniature pagodas and curious boxes with complicated towers on top of them, some studded with coral and turquoise and other semi-precious stones. There is also, perched upon a bracket, an ornate pagoda-shaped wooden casket which James says is like the ones in which lamas are accustomed to keep demons prisoner. (When I asked if there was a demon in that one James just laughed.)
Charles tells James that he’s writing his memoirs. Certainly not ‘Theatre chat’ or ‘anecdotes about actresses’ but ‘the deep thing, real analysis, real autobiography…’ “Difficult!” says James. He continues and Charles accepts the words but not the meaning:-
We are such inward secret creatures, that inwardness is the most amazing thing about us, even more amazing than our reason. But we cannot just walk into the cavern and look around. Most of what we think we know about our minds is pseudo-knowledge. We are all such shocking poseurs, so good at inflating the importance of what we think we value. The heroes at Troy fought for a phantom Helen, according to Stesichorus. Vain wars for phantom goods. I hope you will allow yourself plenty of reflections on human vanity. People lie so, even we old men do.
James present a view of art opposite to that presented by Peregrine: “Though in a way, if there is art enough it doesn’t matter, since there is another kind of truth in the art. Proust is our authority on French aristocrats. Who cares what they were really like? What does it mean even?”
What is the truth anyway…? As we know ourselves we are fake objects, fakes, bundles of illusions. Can you determine exactly what you felt or thought or did? We have to pretend in law courts that such things can be done, but that is just a matter of convenience. Well, well, it doesn’t signify. I must come and see your seaside house and your birds. Are there gannets?’
When Charles says he doesn’t know what a gannet looks like, James is appalled: the one internally focussed; the other externally considering.
For Iris Murdoch, the novelist is the greatest truth-teller. A novelist who gets the complexities right, successfully sets up a subtle representation of life’s multiple ambiguities in a mesmerising metaphorical kind of way, posing the essential moral issues gets closer to the Real than any amount of prose psychological/philosophical analysis. The great novel offers the reader space to play around in, to note how ‘we make pictures of ourselves and then come to resemble the picture…’ which is precisely Gurdjieff’s position. Maurice Nicoll (Commentaries page 1338) explains thus:-
Our average state is that we think we are what we are not and thinks we are not what we are… We may have a picture of self being good and nice and helpful but we are not what we think… The picture itself prevents us from seeing that we do not correspond to the picture. Pictures are formed by imagination and they are composed of imagination. What is the result? The result is that we are imaginary people, and it is only perhaps in some terrible crisis… that we are stripped of these pictures and can become real and simple people… Every trouble in life can be helped if your trouble is not due to False Personality, such as an uproar of false things in yourself, false ‘I’s, false pictures, false imagination, false pity, false pride, and so on, which arises when we are faced with ordinary difficulties so that our lives are infinitely more complicated than they need be… Strong mechanical pictures lead you into constant turmoil which is quite unnecessary… Now pictures of oneself form a strong influence that prevents one’s being from developing…
Ignoring what he calls spectators’ attempts to demoralise him, Charles Arrowby considers that he has a duty to wait for Hartley; he says it is ‘…my task and my privilege to teach her the desire to live… I only could revive her; I was the destined prince…’ His picture of himself, via False Personality, is as Saviour. Such an absurd mechanical vision of himself prevents any kind of development – some crisis is required. Lizzie tries to tell him he is absurd: “…either this is very fine, very noble or else you’re mad…” but another false picture he has is that of total rectitude so her comment cuts no ice with him.
You say you’ve kept this image of a pure first love beside you all these years. You may even have come to think of it as a supreme value, a standard by which all other loves have failed… I won’t call it a fiction. Let us call it a dream. Of course we live in dreams and by dreams, and even in a disciplined spiritual life, in some ways especially there, it is hard to distinguish dream from reality. In ordinary human affairs humble common sense comes to one’s aid. For most people common sense is moral sense. But you seem to have deliberately excluded this modest source of light. Ask yourself, what really happened between whom all those years ago? You’ve made it into a story, and stories are false.
For daring to tell Charles that his picture of himself is false he is dismissed as a ‘cloistered soldier’ (the obscene contradiction makes James smile) and told to, “…stop insulting me with your pompous speculations… your abstract commentary… You’re the one who’s telling a story…” Tit for tat, Making accounts…
We have to scrub out the conceptual pictures. We make fictions of ourselves and then come to believe that they are a species of Truth; so fiction, when done between the covers of a book as the richest of pictures parallels the fictions we are and is as much truth as anything else, all the more so if it contains the depiction of a Meta-I which is the way out of a fiction.
The concept ‘Hartley’ is a complete invention, the object of desire imagined/imaginary. Charles Arrowby abandons the ‘Good Life’ to pursue an imaginary picture of ‘reality. Setting the Self aside and immersion in the particular (Pure Impressions) is the way to Love; it has nothing whatsoever to do with the self.
Charles dismisses James as one who can simply be labelled ‘eccentric pedant’. But he’s just one more person of many, from different points of view, indicating to Charles that he’s living a fantasy: Peregrine, Ben, Rosina (“She’s an old-aged pensioner… she wants to put her feet up…) and Hartley herself (“I’m a different person… you care about old times, but that’s not me…”) and eventually Titus, the absent son (“You want me to persuade my mother to leave my father. You’ve got to be joking! That’s a lot to expect in return for lunch and dinner… you want me to be a lure or hostage… Nothing could make her happy. Nothing…”) When Charles, out of his imagination, tells James that ‘she’s had such an unhappy life, it’s as if she has prayed for me and I have come… I shall rescue her…’ the reader too wants to add to the chorus of DON’T DO IT! James points out what the reader feels is all too obvious, though it’s certainly not to somebody caught up in their own bit of theatre:-
…you may be deluding yourself in thinking that you have really loved this woman all these years. What’s the proof? And what is love anyway? Love’s all over the mountains where the beautiful go to die no doubt, but I cannot attach much meaning to your idea of such a long-lasting love for someone you lost sight of so long ago. Perhaps it’s something you’ve invented now. Though of course what follows from that is another matter. Another thought I have is that your rescue idea is pure imagination, pure fiction. I feel you cannot be serious. Do you really know what her marriage is like? You say she’s unhappy, most people are. A long marriage is very unifying, even if it’s not ideal, and those old structures must be respected. You may not think much of her husband, but he may suit her, however impressed she is by meeting you again. Has she said she wants to be rescued?
Charles seeks a way to ignore the sense of James’ explanation by putting what he constructs as James’ lack of empathy down to the fact that he has always been suspicious of marriage anyway and so cannot contribute usefully to Charles’ plight.
He incarcerates Hartley. She has hysterics. Charles has a dream.
I awoke suddenly. The moon was shining into my bedroom where I had omitted to pull down the blind. I could hear the splash of the sea and a very faint rattle of the stones which the waves were gently clawing as they withdrew from the Cauldron. It must be low tide. I could hear also, or sense, a vast void, a dome of silence, within which my heart was beating exceedingly fast. I felt suffocated and had to sit up abruptly and gasp for breath. I remembered, as I now did whenever I awoke, with a pang of anguish and love and fear, that Hartley was in the house. At the same time I felt the most terrible dread, a premonition of some catastrophe, some horror, or indeed the certainty that it had already occurred. I began to get out of bed, trembling violently, and fumbled for my candle. I lit it and then stood up and listened. The void dark house was ominously quiet. I very quickly opened my bedroom door and looked down the landing. There seemed to be a dim light coming from the alcove, but perhaps it was a trick of the moon. I listened and seemed to hear a beating sound, a heavy noise, deep and accelerating, very very far away. I moved slowly forward, putting each foot down carefully so as not to make the boards creak. I could now see quite clearly Hartley’s door and the key in the lock. I wanted to reach it, to put my hand onto the key, but I was afraid to hurry, afraid to enter that terrible room. I got the key into my hand and turned it and stepped in through the doorway holding my candle. The mattress on the floor, at which I always looked on entering, was empty, the bedclothes disordered. Hartley was gone. I stared about, ready to cry out with panic fear. And then I saw her – she was standing in the corner. I thought, how odd I had forgotten how tall she is. Then I thought she is standing on something, how odd, she must be up on the chair or the table. Then I saw that she was suspended from the lamp bracket. She had hanged herself.
Then he did wake up – it really was a dream! ‘I had awakened some sleeping demon, set going some deadly machine…’
Gilbert & Titus agree with Rosina that Shruff End is “…the nastiest, meanest, most unpleasant house I’ve ever entered…” She leaves, threatening to go to console Ben. James arrives… Peregrine arrives. It’s a general hoot: “Hospitality Hall!” says Peregrine. Hartley appears on the stairs.
The guests combine to suggest that Hartley should be returned to her husband! As they take Hartley home in Peregrine’s expensive car, Rosina stages a hilarious ambush.
Then the windscreen suddenly shattered. A sizable rock, pushed over the edge from above, had fallen directly upon it. With a sizzling report the glass became white crackled and opaque. The rock rebounded on the radiator, dinting it, and scudded onto the road. Peregrine uttered a cry of rage. Titus had jumped out of the car and I followed him. Gilbert stayed where he was. James moved into the driver’s seat and, with a handkerchief wrapped around his hand, punched a hole in the glass. Then he too got out.
‘There! There!’ Peregrine was shouting and pointing upward.
A stone flew past my head. I looked up and outlined against the blue sky I saw Rosina. She was kneeling on one knee on top of one of the highest rocks and had evidently provided herself beforehand with an arsenal of missiles. She was black, a black witch, wearing something that looked like a peasant woman’s shawl. I saw her snarling mouth and her teeth. It soon too became apparent that her main target was Peregrine. A stone struck him on the chest, another on the shoulder.
Such outrageous behaviour eventually causes Peregrine & Rosina to come together again! Their violence curiously cements the relationship.
James, the wise, tries to console Charles:-
“Time can divorce us from the reality of people, it can separate us from people and turn them into ghosts. Or rather it is we who turn them into ghosts or demons. Some kinds of fruitless preoccupations with the past can create such simulacra, and they can exercise power, like those heroes at Troy fighting for a phantom Helen… I’m not calling [Hartley] a ghost. She is real, as human creatures are, but what reality she has is elsewhere. She does not coincide with your dream figure. You were not able to transform her… So having tried, can you not now set your mind at rest? Don’t torment yourself any more with this business. All right, you had to try, but now it’s over and I’m sure you’ve done her no lasting harm. Think of other things now. There’s a crime in the Army called deliberately making oneself unfit for duty. Don’t do that… Your love for this girl, when she was a girl, was put by shock into a state of suspended animation.. Now the shock of meeting her again has led you to re-enact all your old feelings for her. It’s a mental charade, a necessary one perhaps, it has its own necessity, but not like what you think. Of course you can’t get over it at once. But in a few weeks or a few months you’ll have run through it all, looked at it all again and felt it all again and got rid of it. It’s not an eternal thing, nothing human is eternal. For us, eternity is an illusion. It’s like in a fairy tale. When the clock strikes twelve it will all crumble to pieces and vanish. And you’ll find you are free of her, free of her forever, and you can let the poor ghost go. What will remain will be ordinary obligations and ordinary interests. And you’ll feel relief, you’ll feel free. At present you’re just obsessed, hypnotized.”
One evening, there’s a party atmosphere at Shruff End, people singing duets & solos, old time favourites & opera extracts.
After that, and until the terrible thing happened, the evening seemed quietly to break up, or to become diffused and gently chaotic like the later stages of a good party. Or perhaps it is all just confused in my memory. There was some light over the rocks, though I do not recall where it came from. Perhaps the clouds were still giving off light. A moon had made its appearance, randomly shaped and spotty, large-and pale as a cloud itself. The fierce foam at the edge of the sea seemed luminous. I wandered looking for Lizzie, who had vanished. Everyone seemed to be walking about on the rocks, precariously holding glasses in their hands. An owl was hooting somewhere inland and the intermittent voices of my guests sounded equally distant, equally frail and hollow… I was still fairly near the house and I set off through what was now a somewhat darker scene. The luminous clouds had been quenched, the moon was smaller and a little brighter, not yet quite radiant, in a near-midsummer sky which still had inklings of light. I could hear Lizzie’s voice singing, calling me, over and over again. Ding dong ding dong hell, ding dong ding dong bell… I stumbled along through the rocks, making the little detours which I now knew so well. I reached the bridge over Minn’s Cauldron and paused there, as I always did, to look down into the smooth pit where, the waves of the incoming tide were lashing themselves in a foaming self-destructive fury. A light seemed to rise here in the spray out of the sea itself. I looked down and it was like looking into a deep dark green glass. And then – suddenly – somebody came up behind me and pushed me in.
Since he lives to tell the tale, the tantalising question is HOW DID HE GET OUT? And things will keep on happening…
Titus is found drowned with a wound on his head. Charles leaps to the conclusion that Ben tried to murder him by pushing him into the Cauldron and certainly did murder Titus; he conceives a plan to kill Ben. He wants James to go because he delivers too much truth and Lizzie to go because he feels her tentacles; both to go because they’ll get in the way of his plan.
Lizzie refuses to go and they spend time walking about the countryside he’d failed to explore, noticing things he’d failed to notice and continuing to fantasise: ‘I could see Lizzie looking at me now and then and she was thinking to herself: it is a relief to him to walk with me thus in silence. My presence, my silence is healing him. With no one else could he quietly walk and walk like this…’ which is, of course what Charles himself is thinking except that he gives the words to his actor friend who had, not long before, suddenly asked him to marry her.
Charles is invited to have tea with Ben & Mary. They announce that they’re off to Australia!
James & Lizzie explain how they’d kept in touch for years so that Lizzie could continue to be updated on Charles’ existence who, choosing to ignore this gift of a simple solution, doubts their integrity.
James suggests that ‘…goodness is giving up power and acting upon the world negatively. The good are unimaginable…’ Charles thinks he must be drunk. James says he’s going on a long journey.
Left on his own, Charles’ thoughts return to the question of how he got out of Minn’s Cauldron alive.
My eyelids drooped a little and then I very clearly saw something concerning which I was not afterwards able to say whether it was a hallucination or a memory image. It certainly presented itself to me, quite suddenly, as a memory. I had been vaguely, driftingly, thinking of that awful fall, into the churning pit of water, my ‘knowledge’ of my death, the way the water showed green above me even in the dim light. Then I remembered that, just before my head cracked against the rock and the blackness came upon me, I had seen something else. I had seen a strange small head near to mine, terrible teeth, a black arched neck. The monstrous sea serpent had actually been in the Cauldron with me.
When Charles finds a piece of paper on which he had scribbled something down while he was in his recovering delirium, we might be quick enough to recall that James had said to Charles that ‘…a less than perfect meddling in the spiritual world can breed monsters for other people…’ This is what he reads:-Charles realises that James had rescued him by the exercise of some mystical power which he had referred to as a ‘trick’. At the same time, now, James is willing himself to death, the long journey outwards or upwards…
Midsummer night and Charles has made a couch out on the rocks. He gazes.
a scattering of stars
the faint smudgy arch of the Milky Way;
the horizon marked by a dark & silver line;
the soft slap of the sea; sad & strange thoughts;
more & more stars gather obliterating
the separateness of the Milky Way
filling the whole sky and far far away
in that ocean of gold
stars were silently shooting & falling
& finding their fates among those billions
and billions of merging golden lights
curtain after curtain of gauze
was quietly removed and I saw stars behind stars
behind stars as in the magical Odeons of my youth
and I saw into the vast soft interior of the universe
which was slowly and gently turning itself inside out;
in my sleep I seemed to hear a sound of singing
Charles has at last managed, at least for the moment, to get outside the prison of self. Waking at dawn after this epiphany Charles remembers that James is dead: ‘Who is one’s first love? Who indeed?’ James has been hovering around to protect Charles with great loving care for years; satisfied that he is no longer needed, having pushed Charles towards Lizzie, he has willed himself to what the Indian doctor describes as a pleasant death.
Charles is the beneficiary of James’ will; he chooses to live in James’ flat with all its contents more or less preserved and appreciated for what they are; he is becoming James… thoughtfully analytical… Maybe…
What an egoist I must seem in the preceding pages. But am I so exceptional? We must live by the light of our own self-satisfaction, through that secret vital busy inwardness which is even more remarkable than our reason.
Charles appears to recognise the nature of ‘…the psychological game I have been playing with myself… I was the dreamer, I the magician… reading my own dream text and not looking at the reality…’
As the memoir/diary/novel collapses pleasingly into random comments we ourselves are left in Charles Arrowby’s own state of Internal Considering: we have to imagine how Ben & Mary’s transformation took place; how and why they decided to go to Australia when to escape his constant pursuit they might just as well have gone to Lytham St Anne’s remains a complete mystery; having never been privy to their day to day conversation, we know nothing about their attitude to Charles Arrowby and little or nothing about their marriage, as we know nothing about any marriage.
Things happen, as Gurdjieff points out. The Sea, the Sea offers us something about a caricature of the ‘good’ as being about minding your own business, just being, appreciating the Specificity of the Ordinary and obtaining the Food of Pure Impressions and perhaps taking the following notion seriously:-
Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real…
Amusingly, though Charles does have quiet conversations with Lizzie, a new posse of women-folk with various designs & intentions are already collecting around him. (He is collecting them – but he’s never been a womaniser…) Hammering from next door has sent James’ demon-casket crashing to the floor and whatever was inside has now been let loose upon the world. It’s difficult to imagine that Charles has finally abandoned theatricality to itself. James’ loving task is incomplete after all.
‘…pictures of oneself form a strong influence that prevents one’s being from developing…’