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A Rare Novel of Worth

The Philosopher’s Pupil

By Iris Murdoch

Publisher: Viking

Pages: 576

Price: $17.75

Review Author: James J. Thompson Jr.

James J. Thompson Jr. is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tennessee, and a Contributing Editor of the NOR.

To read much current fiction requires a strong mind, a brave heart, and a firm resolve. Leon Bloy said it best: “God keep you safe from fire and steel and contemporary literature.”

The typical protagonist of today’s novel has no soul, only a body with orifices waiting to be penetrated and appendages with which to pene­trate; the meaning of his life may be found by add­ing the volume of his glandular secretions to the number of stimulations received by his nerve end­ings. Proclaiming his liberation from the benighted strictures of Western civilization, he jettisons his heritage and embraces the latest nostrum that promises to save him from nothingness. Eating, drinking, fornicating, and (especially if the author is a woman) whining over the unfairness of life, the inhabitants of the contemporary novel pursue paltry and pathetic lives, eliciting from the unjaded reader the respect and compassion one accords a slug.

Why bother with these dreary testimonies to the decadence of the West when the classic novels wait to be read and pondered? Isn’t one Dostoevsky worth a hundred Kurt Vonneguts? The answer is self-evident.

But the contemporary novel contributes to the stream of ideas and attitudes that circulates through our society. For good or ill, literature shapes people’s moral imagination, influences the way they view themselves and their world, and of­ten compels them to action. Consider Mrs. Stowe’s lugubrious tale and the passions it unleashed in the America of the 1850s. Think too of how Scott Fitzgerald tutored the youth of the 1920s in the manners and mores of the Jazz Age. And hasn’t The Grapes of Wrath (rather than the recondite treatises of the economists) established the endur­ing image of the Great Depression? People do read novels, and fiction does matter.

So, one has no choice but to descend into the dragon’s cave of contemporary fiction and do bat­tle with the beast. This demands first of all that one identify and condemn the shoddy, the meretricious, and the nihilistic, all the while keeping in mind Flaubert’s cautionary words that “by dint of railing at idiots one runs the risk of becoming idiot­ic oneself.” The most important task is positive: to rake through the rubbish and to rescue the rare novel of worth, that odd and lonely work of the imagination that advances our understanding of man and of his feeble but valiant efforts to live with decency, courage, and meaning.

Patience and tenacity pay off: occasionally one finds a writer such as Iris Murdoch. From her first novel, Under the Net (1954), a witty and clev­er look at the philosophical problem of how theorizing impedes one’s attempt to grasp reality, to her current book, The Philosopher’s Pupil, Mur­doch, who teaches philosophy at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, has infused her fiction with a metaphysical seriousness that induces a spirited play of ideas among her characters.

Although she has been condemned at times as “crypto-Catholic,” she is apparently not a Chris­tian of any sort. Her characters tend to fall into categories: intransigent unbelievers who scorn the “fairytale of constructive suffering” and lukewarm Christians who are edging toward the exits of the Church. Yet Christianity remains of compelling concern in Murdoch’s fictional world; as the narra­tor of The Philosopher’s Pupil remarks, “the particular religion one doesn’t believe in” marks one as surely as does a faith professed. Even in spurning God a note of ambiguity frequently appears: Cato, the ex-priest of Henry and Cato, cherishes his cru­cifix. George McCaffrey, the half-baked Nietzschean and soi-disant Dostoevskian of Murdoch’s cur­rent novel, says that “Caliban must be saved too.” Murdoch’s atheists often want others to remain Christians, sometimes for reasons of social utility (as in the play The Servants and the Snow where a woman of “scientific” views contends that “simple people” need religion), more often because they derive a perverse comfort from knowing that oth­ers continue to hold dear what they have repudi­ated.

Although Murdoch’s characters have banished God, they have yet to rid themselves of sin, guilt, and evil; God is dead but Satan thrives. Murdoch knows that evil mars the very nature of man, and in an article published in 1961 in Encounter she chided those who cling to the “facile” and “opti­mistic” view of man that has bedeviled the West since the Enlightenment.

In The Philosopher’s Pupil, her 21st novel, Murdoch continues to explore the varieties of un­belief. The residents of Ennistone, an imaginary town south of London, run the gamut of post-Christian society. Disposing of the Christian God of wrath and majesty has not brought unmitigated joy and tranquility to the Ennistonians; they re­main tormented by the problems of old: the clash between good and evil (even worse: the difficulty in distinguishing between the two); the harsh and painful passage from innocence to knowledge; guilt and expiation; and the quest for salvation. The God-abandoned Fr. Jacoby’s confession that “I am a fish not a fisher, a fish in search of a net” furnishes the central theme, for Ennistone is filled with fish, fishers, would-be fishers, and a profusion of nets (mostly false).

Murdoch hasn’t many answers, but unlike most contemporary novelists she at least knows the right questions.

 

©1984 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

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