I hear, I see, I learn

Nicholas Spice

  • The Green Knight by Iris Murdoch
    Chatto, 472 pp, £15.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 7011 6030 6

The question of how we are to take Iris Murdoch’s characters (indeed, whether we can take them at all) is raised, even before we get to know them, by their names. In The Green Knight we have to contend with Lucas and Clement Graffe, Harvey Blacket, Bellamy James and his dog Anax, the Anderson women – Louise and her daughters Alethea (Aleph), Sophia (Sefton) and Moira (Moy) – Emil and Clive and the Adwardens. A reader alert to social differences will find such names far from neutral. An odour of class hangs about them. As emphatically as Tracy or Darren, Sharon or Keith, Bellamy, Alethea, Lucas and Clement map out a distinct social territory. It lies in pockets of Hampstead and Barnes, in Oxford north of St Giles or on Boar’s Hill, where large families live in rambling old houses full of innocent laughter and fun, and favourite aunts and uncles and friends of the family come for lunch on Sunday, and amiable dogs bound about answering to clever names. Mama and Papa are perhaps academics (although Mama can be just lovable), and everyone is frightfully well educated and intelligent. By the age of six the children enjoy Beowulf and Greek myths. At eight they devour Dickens. By 12 they have read most of Shakespeare. Television is anathema to them; audio, video and disco just Latin verbs.

‘I hear, I see, I learn.’ It would make the ideal motto for the Anderson family. Painted by Moy (in Latin, of course) on a colourful escutcheon depicting three enigmatic maidens against a storm-threatened background, it should be fixed over the door of ‘The Aviary’, the first-floor room which Aleph (19), Sefton (18) and Moy (going on 15) have made their ‘common room’. The Aviary was once the drawing room at ‘Clifton’, the four-storey terraced house ‘in a modest street in Hammersmith’ to which (from their larger house in Hampstead) the girls and their mother, Louise, moved when Teddy, their father, died.

Life at Clifton is a charming charade. When the girls are not quietly occupied in their rooms – Aleph reading Scott, Sefton deep in Thucydides, and Moy painting fey pictures or shifting her stones around by telekinesis or shepherding an insect to the safety of the outdoors – they are mostly to be found in the Aviary singing madrigals or old-fashioned sentimental love songs. The lack of a man in the house is partly made up for by the visits of Teddy’s old university friends: Clement (very fond of Louise) and Bellamy, although Bellamy is trying to ‘give up the world’, which has meant him giving Anax to Moy, so for the time being he doesn’t visit Clifton (out of respect for the dog’s feelings). Then there’s Harvey, the sort of honorary son of the household, who has broken his foot jumping off a viaduct in Italy and mopes about the place calling himself a failure or sits in Aleph’s room deep in conversations like the following:

‘What did you dream about last night?’
‘A tiger.’
‘Burning bright?’
‘No. What did you dream about, Harvey?’
The tower of Siena Cathedral.’
Tiens!
Tiens nothing. It was made of marzipan. Then it turned to a picture by Mondrian.’
‘Marzipan, Mondrian. I envy you your aesthetic dreams.’

There’s gentle satire in this, but it is moral not social satire, the comedy of human nature not the comedy of manners. In Aleph’s duetting with Harvey we are to hear a song of foolish innocence, sung by two young people about to trip over the threshold of life, not an idiom resonant with social and educational privilege. The ‘king-size sheet from Liberty’s sale’ which serves as the best table-cloth at Clifton is just a prop on a stage set.

Far from wishing to satirise the society which her characters may be thought of as representing, Murdoch scarcely acknowledges its existence. Her attentive gaze is fixed on deeper realities: the fundamentals of the human condition, which she thinks of as cutting across and below the contingent map of wealth and class. The concept of society obstructs her contemplation of the meaning of life, so she does her best to ignore it. In The Green Knight Lucas and Bellamy, Clement, Louise and the girls appear dressed in their social regalia speaking the language of their class, but they do so against a background that has no social (socio-economic) or historical depth. Much of the action of the novel takes place indoors: at Clifton or at Lucas’s house. The characters move between these settings through a vacuum, like astronauts transferring from one space laboratory to another. When they cross London, they cross a city without people. How they earn their money is only theoretically known: we never see them working. And although scattered references tell us that the action is set in the present decade (a reunited Germany, student loans, the ubiquitous fax machine), the world of The Green Knight bears about as much relation to contemporary Britain as the ‘lanthorn’ to the moon in Pyramus and Thisbe.

Of course, if we were foreign or lived at the end of the next century, the peculiar status of the characters in The Green Knight – their wearing the badges of a class in a world without a social dimension – would worry us less, because we wouldn’t pick up the social signals so strongly. Instead, we would read the novel as the product of an imagination heavily inclined towards the emblematic, as the work of an allegorist who, for example, chooses the names for her characters not for their social connotations but for what they mean: Alethea – ‘truth’, Sophia – ‘wisdom’, Moira – ‘fate’, Clement – ‘merciful’, Lucas – an amalgam of Lucifer and Judas, Bellamy – bel ami, Anax – presumably short for Anaxagoras (or is it Anaximander, even Anaximenes?), and Peter Mir – part ‘rock’, part ‘world’, part ‘peace’ (the last two Russian derivations, as Mir himself is quick to tell us). Could it be that Moy and Mir are to echo personal pronouns: as ‘me’, in French, and ‘to me’, in German?

The characters in The Green Knight have ancestors in Renaissance allegorical poems, but they are quick to see that the plot they have got mixed up in takes as its model the medieval Arthurian fairy-tale, Gawain and the Green Knight. Aleph is the first to point this out, but Clement is more interested in the resemblance, though he can’t really make head or tail of it. ‘Pieces of the story are there,’ he ruminates, ‘but aren’t they somehow jumbled up and all the wrong way round?’ I think the answer is yes. Murdoch has used the Gawain poem freely as a source of motif and theme, as the broad inspiration for a ‘contemporary’ moral fairy-tale which need not obey the rules of realistic plotting. At any rate, the story of The Green Knight has a faintly dreamlike atmosphere, a magical imprecision to it and a rather delightful disregard for plausibility as a restraint on imagination.

It takes its energy from an event which Murdoch does little to ground in reality: the clubbing to ‘death’ by Lucas of the Russian Jew and self-styled psychoanalyst, Peter Mir. Lucas has lured his brother Clement to ‘a small park in North London’ under the pretext of showing him some glow-worms. As Clement (Abel) peers under a bush for these evanescent beasties, Lucas (Cain) makes to beat him over the head with a weighted baseball bat, but is stopped by Peter Mir (just passing) who receives the blow intended for Clement. In court, Lucas claims that Mir tried to rob him and that he struck him with an umbrella in self-defence. The court accepts this, somewhat supinely as we may think, and acquits Lucas of murder, while being at the same time inexplicably unaware of the fact that Mir has recovered, though with a large part of his memory gone. The Green Knight is about the consequences of Peter Mir’s resurrection and return.

Mir seeks justice from Lucas, demanding that he tell his friends what really happened, above all that he tell Louise and her daughters, whom Mir wishes to adopt as his own family. When Lucas refuses to do this, Mir turns more threatening, roughing up Clement (who, out of masochistic loyalty, tries to protect Lucas) and telling Bellamy that he wants Lucas’s death. Mir then suggests a re-enactment of the murder, with the idea that this may help him recover his memory and, in particular, one big memory that he is aware of having forgotten. Lucas goes along with the plan, ignoring the risk that Mir may take the opportunity of the re-enactment to kill him. In the event, a burst of light and a ‘devastating crash’ signal the return of Mir’s memory and the recovery of the one big idea he had lost: God. It remains for Mir to subject Lucas to symbolic death, which he does, in the book’s climactic scene, by appearing to stab Lucas in the ribs with a knife concealed in his umbrella, while in fact only grazing his side. Everything seems set to resolve itself as the characters (bar Lucas) gather to celebrate at Peter Mir’s sumptuous (North London) mansion. But, in the midst of the festivities, the doorbell rings, and there in the snow stands Sir Edward Fonsett, a distinguished psychiatrist, who has come to retrieve Mir (whom he reveals to be not a psychoanalyst, but an immensely rich butcher) and take him back to the mental hospital from which he has discharged himself. The next thing we hear about Peter Mir is that he’s dead.

This exuberant and improbable plot grows from a single seed: Lucas Graffe’s unassuageable envy of his brother, Clement. Lucas hates Clement simply for being alive, for being the favoured younger son, for being a natural son while Lucas is adopted and unnatural. Lucas’s decision in middle age to be true to his accumulated hatred of Clement is an expression, the book makes clear, of unalloyed evil. The consequence of Lucas’s attempt to kill Clement, however, is to set everything else in motion, unblocking the flow in the life streams of the other characters. That a cold, dark, evil act should open up a gap through which warmth and light can flood into the world is a paradox characteristic of Iris Murdoch’s deeply meditated insight into the nature of the good. The Green Knight elaborates this insight, which is otherwise set out in Murdoch’s philosophical testament Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. Scarcely a page of The Green Knight could not aptly be footnoted with quotations from the philosophical work, and anyone wishing to encounter the plenitude of Murdoch’s ideas on justice and mercy, the blessings of compassion, the role of asceticism in the moral life, the ambiguity of sex as a destructive and creative force, goodness as a proper attention to the world, the healing power of ‘good ordinary life’ and so on, should read both books together.

If The Green Knight succeeds in being more than an animation of abstract points in moral philosophy, this is because points in moral philosophy are not abstract for Iris Murdoch. She arrives at her conception of the good by attending to the way good and evil are distributed through the variety of the world. Moral qualities, in varying degrees pure or compromised, take shape in her mind as human qualities. And when she sees people, she sees moral agents. When Murdoch created Aleph, Sefton and Moy, she did not, I am convinced, first imagine three suitably different girls and then allot symbolic functions to them, neither did she start from abstract ideas of truth, wisdom and fate, and then construct personalities to house them in. In an act of genuine allegorical imagination, she saw truth, wisdom and fate as three young girls: the first tall, beautiful, calm and somewhat remote, the second compact, studious, practical and courageous, the third artistic – a sort of Emily Dickinson with a long blonde plait, sensitive to the phenomenal world to an exquisite and almost unsustainable degree.

Iris Murdoch creates her characters in sets corresponding to subtly shaded patterns of moral and human qualities. In The Green Knight the three girls come as a unit, an especially coherent section of the wider pattern which, in the absence of any social ground, holds the cast of 13 major characters together. The pattern discloses itself through movement and may be thought of as a kind of dance. The energy for this dance comes from the plot.

In a semi-allegorical narrative like The Green Knight plot is itself emblematic, functioning as an image of the agency of time and chance in human destiny. The contrivance of the story, with its ritual shocks and revelations, setbacks and resolutions, speaks to us of life as an intricate structure in which we are trapped, a maze with movable walls operated by a hidden randomising mechanism. We can get closer to the centre of this maze, although how the path suddenly becomes clear (‘is cleared for us’) is obscure, and seems to have something to do with the state of our moral being.

Plot embodies an important part of Murdoch’s meaning in The Green Knight, but it is also her chief vehicle for carrying the whole of her meaning into the minds of her readers. At the simplest level, the story of The Green Knight is meant to keep us reading, to hold our attention for a journey which, lacking views of the passing social scenery, we might otherwise be disinclined to make. Once Murdoch has got our attention, she uses the unpredictability of the plot to make us suffer the story alongside her characters. In this respect, reading The Green Knight is like watching a football match on television when the result is known, though not to us and not to the players. The pleasure and the instruction lie in the catharsis, in experiencing the game as open, while knowing that it is, in a sense, already closed. (Another image of life, perhaps.)

In The Green Knight the game we participate in is a game of discernment. Our chances of success depend on our ability to distinguish what is false from what is true, an exercise of moral judgment which is chiefly engaged in determining the true nature of Lucas Graffe and Peter Mir. Mir and Lucas create two opposing zones of charisma, two powerful concentrations of differently constituted moral force: one dark, cold and clear, the other light, warm and clear. The rest of the characters in the book expend much of their mental energy trying to decide whether the power that emanates from Lucas and Mir is good or bad. No certainty in this regard is allowed to settle for long. By the end of the book, most of the characters recognise Mir as some sort of incarnation of the godhead. But the memory of his brutality to Clement lingers. Meanwhile, Lucas gets some of the best (that is to say, most clear-headed) lines in the book, including a speech about the discipline of true historical learning, which comes straight from Murdoch’s heart.

The Green Knight bites off a lot. As Joe says to Pip in Great Expectations (thinking Pip has polished off his bread and butter in a single mouthful), it is ‘a most oncommon bolt’, and, if we are at all in sympathy with Murdoch’s project we may feel a certain anxiety for her, an impulse to say, adapting Joe’s remonstrance to Pip: ‘You’ll do yourself a mischief. It’ll stick somewhere.’ Certainly, Murdoch is an exhaustingly active writer. She has no talent for indolence, for deftly diverting the stream of life into her own imaginative channels and letting it flow there for a while. Her later fiction expends its prodigious energy and intelligence in a heroic attempt, it almost seems, to find a middle way between realism and allegory, a genre which will allow her to show the enduring predicament of the human condition embodied in the lives of real-seeming people, but people living in a social limbo. No such middle way exists, or if it does it leads through no-man’s land, and the world of The Green Knight seems either too generalised (for a sense of continuity with our own life) or too specific (for the eternal truths it is meant to allegorise). Murdoch may indeed see truth, wisdom and fate as three young women, but she sees them as three young women destined for Magdalen, Balliol and Chelsea Art College, three young women, moreover, who eat their dinners off a king-size sheet from Liberty’s sale.

Isolated from a context that could explain them, the socially contingent aspects of Murdoch’s characters – their names, their way of thinking and expressing themselves, the things they value, their culture – get charged up, no doubt unintentionally, with general significance. This partly accounts for the slight but nagging tendency of Murdoch’s fiction to suggest that the educated might have better instruments for moral navigation than the uneducated. Murdoch’s philosophical writings share this tendency. Her fervent belief in works of ‘good art’ as icons of truth, and in the pursuit of knowledge as an exercise of virtue, leave her with the problem of how those cut off from such opportunities are to advance towards the light. In Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals she confronts the problem head on, and, quoting George Herbert’s poem ‘The Elixir’ (‘Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws/Makes that and th’action fine’) seems to resolve it by saying that all human occupations undertaken in the right spirit may and should become exercises in the discipline of virtuous attention. In The Green Knight, a similar accommodation is reached through the figure of an Australian, Kenneth Rathbone, landlord of the pub, The Castle, where Bellamy sometimes meets Peter Mir. Rathbone has no trouble seeing Mir for what he is (‘I say he’s the best chap I’ve ever met and also the wisest’). In contrast to the sophisticated doubts of the better-educated characters, Rathbone’s directness is exemplary. While everyone else is defeated by the problem of getting into the mental hospital to see Mir, Rathbone has the nous to dress up as a workman and climb through a back window, so that he alone manages to talk to Mir before his death. Rathbone is a recognisable descendant of Zacchaeus, the publican who, being too small to see Jesus in the crowd, climbs a sycamore tree and so gets noticed. The point is obvious: access to God, or the Good, is often easier for the simple soul, while education may prove a disadvantage.

The danger of the Herbert/Rathbone answer is that it can be abused as a justification for political inertia (‘no need to help the underprivileged, since they’re nearer to God anyway’ or ‘housework can be every bit as rewarding as running a merchant bank, so I don’t know why women complain’). Moreover, if doing the washing up is as good a route to wisdom as meditating on The Flaying of Marsyas or reading Thucydides’ account of the sufferings of the Athenians on the Sicilian expedition, then the specialness of these activities rather fades. Any idea of a hierarchy in the types of spiritual exercise must lead us, if we accept it, to call for urgent political and social change. But programmes of political and social change run roughshod over the individual and are motivated by base energies like envy and, anyway, they distract us from contemplating the fundamentals of the human condition, which alone are truly democratically distributed.

Murdoch’s awareness of these puzzles could not be more sensitive or refined, but whatever her head may tell her, her heart is naturally inclined towards non-utilitarian philosophies. Her hostility to social or political activism or anything (science, technology) which lays claim to progress, is hard for her to hide. In The Green Knight the one really chilling character is the psychiatrist Sir Edward Fonsett, who breaks up the party and takes Mir off into the cold, dark night. Fonsett has been led to Mir by Tessa Millen, a social worker, (note the name: a combination perhaps of Mother Teresa and John Stuart Mill). Murdoch is scrupulous to present the positive sides to Millen and Fonsett, but the net impression is of Tessa as meddlesome and not ‘one of us’ and of Fonsett as a close relative of Death itself.

Meanwhile, for all the lucidity of barman Ken, he’s an entirely token character, which is just as well since his simplicity is potentially a deadly solvent of the luxuriant complexity and intellectual refinement of The Green Knight. Rathbone’s terminology threatens to blow the whistle on the super-sophisticated game of naming that the other characters are absorbed in. That, of course, might be part of the point, except that the chief player in this game is Iris Murdoch herself. The book fairly groans with the weight of allusion. The myth of Cain, Gawain and the Green Knight, The Merchant of Venice, the life of Christ, Meister Eckhart, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Simone Weil ... It’s hard to imagine that Murdoch wishes us to understand all this as so much obfuscation. But perhaps I am being naive.

Beyond the philosophical conundrums that knit the brow of The Green Knight there is always nature. Murdoch’s descriptions of the natural world are wonderfully lucid and remain for me the one unmixed virtue of her art. Perhaps this explains why the characters in The Green Knight who are closest to nature, Anax the dog and Moy, are the only ones I can take to heart with unequivocal enthusiasm.