Review of Iris Murdoch’s A Fairly Honorable Defeat

January 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

Full spoilers ahead!

Murdoch has such an amazing way of talking about gender relations without over- or underestimating the extent to which they are organized around obnoxious stereotypes, and this cover captures that perfectly. The whole book is, after all, about the puppet show that is two people suffering from absolute delusion, trying to form a loving relationship anyway. It’s about how our romantic and other love relationships are always founded on abstractions or lies, and usually both, but also how we can come to live with this fact without succumbing to cynicism.

That’s pretty awesome. Murdoch’s characters are so incredible, and she’s rare among authors of fiction in having the confidence to judge their negative tendencies as harshly as the narrative requires, without discrediting the engaged reader’s attraction to them. One reason I think that she can do this so easily is that, equal parts philosopher and novelist, she is never unreasonably driven by the propositional or narrative components of her books. Further, she can distinguish between them in ways most authors cannot; even George Eliot, who comes close, gets swept away by her characters’ desire for certain kinds of reconciliation, and then foolishly allows it. (I’m thinking here of Daniel Deronda and not Middlemarch, but I think that, in both, the author suffers from an excess love of her protagonist.)

One way in which Murdoch animates the distinction between the propositional and the event-driven in A Fairly Honorable Defeat is her smart distinction between love, associated with innocence, and sex, associated with drama. I believe that it is a true revelation for the man-chasing little sister, Morgan, when she decides not to have sex with the youthful, antagonistic Peter, realizing that sex would turn their affection for one another into a drama, a series of events that would inevitably connect in some way untrue to the spirit of that affection. Of course, I’m just as sympathetic to Morgan’s earlier revelation that she should be able to love freely, and that everyone else in her life, including her husband, Tallis, should simply catch up to her emotional maturity on this count, and so obviously, I don’t possess Murdoch’s judgment.

In fact, I was quite shocked how well Tallis ended up coming off by the end. Everyone in the book had consistently said that he was a fine, upstanding man, but they’d also always qualified this statement with the equally agreed-upon fact that he was spineless, and in no way Morgan’s intellectual equal. Both of these traits prove, in the end, to be unrelated to moral capacity or positive action, and indeed seem in a way to provide mental space for compassion, hindered in other characters by their vanity, intellectual and otherwise.

I’ve still not gotten to the real antagonist of the story, who at first seems like the most compelling character. Perhaps this is because, at the end of the novel, we’re asked no longer even to think if Julius, the puppet master within the storyworld, who has torn apart Morgan and Tallis’s social circle, starting with their marriage, piece by piece for 412 pages. Then as now, he seems unfazed by the emotional turmoil he’s wrought. It’s not simply a lack of compassion, either, although it is a form of vanity impossible to pin to intellectual or moral self-satisfaction. More than anything, it’s a willingness to be alone, to disentangle himself from the social web, which traps everyone else into social locations the subject is doomed to find limiting and inadequate to his desires.

It’s not complete, of course — although I believe Julius, that he didn’t do what he did for any particular sadistic pleasure more significant than that which dictates all social activity, I also refuse to play the role of masochistic reader of his character embodied by Morgan. The book systematically outlines the extent to which every single thing that went wrong was his fault, a shockingly simple manipulation of the other characters’ desire for validation in any form, and yet, the other characters so convincingly punish themselves that it’s impossible to want to confirm this reading for them. I guess this is where Murdoch’s empathy comes in, and it is an overflowing empathy for the wretched social beings she so confuses throughout her work.

I’m not sure what to make of the role played by letters in the explanation of Julius’ treachery, anyway. Certainly, it’s nice in light of the reading-as-masochism / acting-as-sadism dichotomy explored in the novel. And certainly, I believe that, when we receive love letters, unless we’re deeply jaded, we assume that they are about us, rather than simply random, scripted, rambling. Particularly when Julius insists that women writers are especially prone to predictable, identical love ramblings at various relationship moments, one wishes to disagree. After all, even if it is the case, perhaps that’s because language really is such a peripheral obsession to figuring out the actual nature of social intercourse, as Julius himself argued to to Morgan, well after she’d abandoned her academic work in Linguistics in order to carry on their affair more intensely.

But Lingusitics is about something much more properly scientific than the orthographic games Julius played in order to re-purpose Morgan and Rupert’s letters. Still, it is about an abstraction that we are wrong to romanticize, just like the statue that helped Simon and Axel to fall in love. The abstraction is not an origin, but rather a signpost. It is worth acknowledging its presence, but it’s not good to develop any kind of ritualistic devotion — such devotion leaves important connections vulnerable to manipulation. But there’s not exactly a solution — at the end of the novel, order is restored to the social world, and Julius is once again alone, but the love the various characters feel for one another is not changed for better or worse by their enforced acknowledgment of its tenuousness.

Julius has learned the lesson not to become enamored of his own letters, abstractions, or objects. However, it is precisely that silly, unnecessary attachment that enables the other characters to function with one another, and form a social cosmos together. Julius is alone, the sun on his back, and an aperitif in his hand, with no illusions, I suppose. But his puppet show did not serve its function — it illustrated that love connections are tenuous, but it did not demonstrate it in a way that changed his masochistic readers. Rather, they extracted his influence again from their world, and continued on. It’s this kind of ending that makes Murdoch’s novels analogous to a kind of spell — the reader enters a trance, but can’t bring anything back. The sensible response is to continue on as before, at most newly reassured that people might know what they’re doing after all.

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