Murdoch’ s Magic: The Consolations of Fiction

by Roger Lundin

Dr. Lundin is associate professor of English at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 18-25, 1988, p. 499. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Book review of Iris Murdoch’s The Book and the Brotherhood, which seeks to salvage the aesthetic riches of the Christian tradition and to do so through the glorious ambiguities of art. Only art, with its spell of magic, can conjure up a world to shelter the good we desperately seek to hold on to.

Murdoch’s books are not modest either, in scope or in size. The Book and the Brotherhood, for instance runs to more than 600 pages; it has at least eight major characters; and its themes include love and the failures of love, death, belief and disbelief in God, friendship, Marxism, and the social condition of contemporary Britain. Murdoch is an exuberant storyteller. At a time when many writers of fiction appear content to spin out tales concocted by marketing firms, or else lose themselves in worlds of arch and arcane wordplay, Murdoch is extravagant, enthusiastic and earnest. While reading The Book, I had an experience like those referred to in histories of Victorian culture: I had to set the novel aside for several days because of how audaciously Murdoch had treated one of her characters.

For a number of reasons, Murdoch’s fiction is of particular interest to the Christian observer of culture. Consider, for example, the issues at stake in her understanding of the place of art in post-Christian culture. At the conclusion of one of her books of philosophy, The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists, Murdoch summarizes her view of the artist’s role in modern life: "To present the idea of God at all, even as a myth, is a consolation." For centuries the Christian church provided compelling consolation through its stories, images and rituals. The modern world, however, has seen the collapse of the power of Christian belief to order the lives of individuals and societies. Because of the inability of Christian theology to provide consolation in a believable and convincing way, the work of the modern artist has become both more difficult and more important.

Art will mediate and adorn, and develop magical structures to conceal the absence of God or his distance. We live now amid the collapse of many such structures, and as religion and metaphysics in the West withdraw from the embraces, we are it might seem being forced to become mystics through the lack of any imagery which could satisfy the mind Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 881.

Murdoch’s religious concerns are deeply rooted in the theology, philosophy and fiction of the 19th century. Her work as an academic philosopher has dealt extensively with the figures and issues of that period, and in her discussions of fiction she has expressed particular admiration for the great novelists of that century, including Jane Austen, George Eliot and Leo Tolstoy. In addition to these stated interests, we can detect the pervasive presence of 19th-century themes in the content of her novels and in the manner in which she tells them.

Like many of the writers she admires, Murdoch seeks to salvage the aesthetic riches of the Christian tradition and to do so through the glorious ambiguities of art. Her concern to sustain certain benefits of Christian belief without preserving the foundational commitments of that belief links Murdoch to that great tradition of Romantic theologians and poets -- figures such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, William Blake and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In choosing fiction as her means to that end, Murdoch shows her allegiance to some of the great novelists of the late 19th century. And in her expansive and ambitious storytelling and in her preoccupation with grand themes, Murdoch joins herself to a tradition of fiction that regards the writing and reading of novels as an irreplaceable means of clarifying moral choices and sustaining spiritual life.

We may gain an idea of the moral and spiritual dilemmas of Murdoch’s fiction by considering the opening passages of her three most recent novels, The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983) , The Good Apprentice (1985) and The Book and the Brotherhood. In the opening pages of The Philosopher’s Pupil we come upon a middle-aged man who is attempting to kill his wife by pushing her car into a canal. The Good Apprentice opens with Edward Baltram feeding a hallucinogenic drug in a sandwich to his unsuspecting friend. While the friend sleeps, Edward slips out to visit a young woman in a neighboring apartment. He makes love to her and returns to his apartment in little more than half an hour, only to discover that his hallucinating friend has leaped to his death through an open window. The Book and the Brotherhood opens with a character exclaiming, "David Crimond is here in a kilt!" The "here" of this sentence is a midsummer ball at an Oxford college. Before the evening is over, Crimond, a tempestuous Marxist working on a grand intellectual synthesis, will have thrown into the river the man with whose wife he has had a well-known affair.

Why do so many of Murdoch’s novels begin in such a jarring manner -- a manner so unlike the stately and measured openings of her 19th-century predecessors? The key to these abrupt beginnings, and to the handling of conflict throughout her fiction, is to be found in Murdoch’s apprehension of evil. In 1961 she wrote:

We live in [an] age in which the dogmas, images, and precepts of religion have lost much of their power. We are also heirs of the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and the Liberal tradition. These are the elements of our dilemma: whose chief feature, in my view, is that we have been left with far too shallow and flimsy an idea of human personality ["Against Dryness," Encounter, January 1961, p. 16].

Standing between Murdoch and the world of most 19th-century fiction, then, are the brutal realities of 20th-century history and the sobering accounts of human nature offered by the great thinkers of the late 19th century. The confidence that Matthew Arnold or George Eliot had in human nature is not available to Murdoch. The work of thinkers such as Marx, Nietzsche and Freud -- whom Paul Ricoeur calls the great "masters of suspicion’ ‘ -- has made that optimism untenable. According to Murdoch, the thoughtful modern person can no longer conceive of men and women as rational creatures who are slowly expunging evil from their midst; instead, it is necessary to think of human beings as "benighted creatures sunk in a reality whose nature we are constantly and overwhelmingly tempted to deform by fantasy."

A minor character in The Book and the Brotherhood, Professor Levquist, puts this matter succinctly at the beginning of the novel. "You are rotted by Christianity," he tells his former student Gerard Hernshaw. "Your ‘moral ambition’ or whatever you call your selfish optimism, is just the old life of Christian salvation, that you can shed your old self and become good simply by thinking about it . . . and so you are happy in your lie" (p. 27)

Many of the characters in The Book and the Brotherhood are torn between their attraction to the moral legacy of Christianity and their guilty sense that they have no right to cling to that heritage. They wonder whether by renouncing the theological commitments of Christian belief they have destroyed the foundations of Christian moral practice. Nevertheless, Murdoch and her central characters wish to see if it is possible to resuscitate the moral heritage of the classical and Christian West. The size and number of Murdoch’s novels point to the difficulty of this project and to her earnest willingness to undertake it.

Crimond is a Marxist, a bruising and condescending one. When his friends become restless about the views to be espoused in the book they have commissioned, he becomes indignant about their meddling and their petit-bourgeois values. The members of the committee -- Gerard Hernshaw, Jenkin Riderhood, Rose Curtland and Gulliver Ashe -- have all tried to find a middle ground on the contemporary moral battlefield. They want to affirm more than does the cynical Professor Levquist, and less than does the utopian Crimond. Much like Murdoch herself, they wish to retain the liberal tradition’s belief in the worth of individual moral action, yet find it difficult to do so in an age in which the enlightened individual is threatened on one side by cynical despair and on the other by the totalitarian excesses of political hope.

The members of Crimond’s committee have learned that he condones terrorism and might welcome the demise of parliamentary democracy. When Gerard probes him on these matters, Crimond admits that "of course I think

this society, our so-called free society, is rotten to the core -- it’s oppressive and corrupt and unjust, it’s materialistic and ruthless and immoral and soft, rotted with pornography and kitsch." According to Crimond, the only hope for humanity is in the revolutionary destruction of the capitalist world of bourgeois individualism. Gerard and his friends in the "Brotherhood" respond to these charges by reaffirming the value of individual moral struggle and the need for tolerance and sympathy in a fragmented, pluralistic world. "All right," Gerard tells Crimond, "the present is imperfect and the future looks grim, but we must just hold onto what’s good, hold onto our values and try to weather the storm."

To weather the storm, however, individuals must have roofs to put over their heads or ships to sail in over troubled seas. Murdoch realizes that until recently, ethical values in the West have been grounded in religious beliefs. The now-common wisdom of intellectual life is that such beliefs are unavailable to the heirs of the Enlightenment. For the enlightened seeker of shelter, Murdoch argues, Christian faith and practice cannot provide security in the storm.

Only art, with its spell of magic, can conjure up a world to shelter the good we desperately seek to hold on to. Mystery and magic abound in Murdoch’s fiction, and their presence is especially to be felt in her three most recent novels. It is as though characters who have slipped over the brink of ruin need a web of words, a net of stunning illusions, to break their fall. Murdoch is very willing to spin such webs.

One of the many subplots in The Book and the Brotherhood involves the trials of Tamar Hernshaw, Gerard’s niece. Tamar is a highly intelligent young woman whose childhood has been one of torment and confusion. One night she goes to console Duncan Cambus, after Cambus’s wife has once again left him for Crimond. Tamar goes to bed with Duncan, becomes pregnant by him, and eventually aborts the child. In addition to feeling a crushing guilt over the abortion, Tamar also comes to believe that she is mysteriously responsible for the sudden death of Jenkin Riderhood. Seeking peace, forgiveness and reassurance, Tamar submits to the care of Father McAlister, an Anglican priest.

"Father McAlister specialized in desperate cases, Murdoch writes. "He had by now ceased to believe in God or in the divinity of Christ, but he believed in prayer." Probing for every discernible weak spot in Tamar, McAlister is able to lead -- or perhaps drive -- her to Christ. But though McAlister speaks of an "irreversible change" in Tamar after she has been baptized and confirmed, she herself is "not so sure." Is "this religious magic or merely psychological magic?" she wants to know. The answer seems to come only after the bliss of her conversion wears off. Tamar is left with nothing more, and nothing less, than the evidence of a decisive change in her psychological makeup. ‘She had been permanently changed, but what had happened? Was it simply that she had broken free from her mother, was that what her cunning psyche had, under the guise of other things, always been after?"

Considering Murdoch’s explicit denials of Christian belief and the presence of many lapsed Christians in her fiction, it is perhaps not surprising that she depicts psychological magic as the only plausible enchantment for modern women and men. We can only conjure up consolation and transformation, her stories argue. Such things are not realities of the world we live in; they are what we want to be the case, not what is the case. However, the task of psychology, the task of conjuring consolation, is made difficult by the fact that psychology does not itself possess the. resources needed to "cast the spell." Religion and art -- the great purveyors of magic -- must do this work.

Through the mysterious resources of language, that is, religion, and art acquire a special power to cast enchanting spells over disenchanted persons. But once the magical, religious symbols have done their work, Murdoch’s stories suggest, they may be discarded. In fact, the enlightened person must discard them as an act of intellectual honesty. Father McAlister is one who has not been able to bring himself to this point. "I don’t believe in God or the Divinity of Christ or the Life Everlasting, but I continually say so, I have to. Why? In order to carry on with the life which I have chosen and which I love."

"To carry on with the life which I have chosen and which I love" -- as an apology for a confession of faith, such a statement reduces religious belief to a form of therapy. And this is precisely what fiction and belief are to Murdoch. Fiction is to her the most respectable contemporary means we have of maintaining the motivating energies and integrating powers of historic Christianity. Religion provides the symbols and rituals, but fiction brings these things to life. "Art will mediate and adorn, and develop magical structures to conceal the absence of God or his distance." This is art in the service of the soul.

Intriguing similarities exist between Murdoch’s fictional use of religious symbols and Reinhold Niebuhr’s understanding of the Christian faith. For example, in several of his works Niebuhr accords a central place to the doctrine of the resurrection. The wisdom of the resurrection, he wrote to Scottish philosopher Norman Kemp Smith in 1940, was "the idea that the fulfillment of life does not mean the negation and destruction of historical reality (which is a unity of body-soul, freedom-necessity, time-eternity) but the completion of this unity." But fearing that Kemp Smith might take him to be a supernaturalist, Niebuhr added: "I have not the slightest interest in the empty tomb or physical resurrection." In other words, the word "resurrection" is a potent symbol for Niebuhr, but the word points to nothing more than the human desire to believe in the meaningfulness of life.

Both Niebuhr and Murdoch are the intellectual descendants of Schleiermacher, seeking to defend religion before its "cultured despisers." Their desire to accommodate Christian symbols to the reigning paradigms of knowledge is so great that questions about the descriptive power of those symbols are often dismissed as fruitless or irrelevant. If naturalism makes the possibility of a resurrected Christ seem an absurdity, then one must reinterpret the symbol -- -season it, so to speak, to make it appeal to the tastes of the modern intellectual palate. If we must abandon belief in the empty tomb in order to maintain the magical power of all that the word "resurrection" conjures up, so be it.

Murdoch made a similar point in a speech to a group of French academicians more than a decade ago:

It is equally interesting that after a period of irreligion or relative atheism there have been signs of a kind of perceptible religious renewal in certain changes in theology.. . . In England one is experiencing a demythologization. . . of theology which recognizes that many things normally or originally taken as dogmas must now be considered as myths. In this there is something which might have a profound impact on the future which, for the ordinary person, might return religion to the realm of the believable.

T. S. Eliot said that Christianity has always adapted itself in order to be believable. Thus, if one defines art in religious terms, I believe its vocabulary is not outmoded and that one might even be able to establish a connection between the work of theology and that of art in their actual form [quoted in Peter S. Hawkins, The Language of Grace (Cowley, 1983) , pp. 134-35].

Granted, there is always in the Christian life a tension between the Scriptures in themselves and the need to apply them to the demands and patterns of present reality. But for Niebuhr to a large extent, and for Murdoch almost completely, all is application. The Bible and Christian tradition, in this line of thought, may console our spirits and help to organize the categories of our thought, but they have lost the power to reveal, to speak to us with a binding address. When all dogmas become myths, it is only a matter of time before all myths become fictions. And when all knowledge becomes application, eventually there is nothing left to apply.

In Murdoch’s world, women and men need spiritual solace, but solace is grounded in nothing more than fantasy and desire. According to Murdoch, we have no evidence that there is any ultimate consoling truth about human experience. Indeed, all we know for sure, according to her fiction, is that language and ritual have a magic of their own and that the enchantment they provide may be a source of healing for desperate people.

But the goal of that enchantment, and the balance struck when its spell wears off, is not clear. What is the good for which we strive through all our cycles of enchantment and disenchantment? At the very end of The Good Apprentice, three of the central characters gather for a toast. One of them, Edward Baltram, has carried through the novel the guilt of his best friend’s death. He has also undergone a bizarre reunion with his father, from whom he has been estranged for years, and an unnerving stay at his father’s home. With his stepbrother Stuart and his stepfather Harry, Edward seeks to celebrate the good that has emerged from the experience of suffering and evil:

‘Oh well, there are good things in the world,’ said Edward. ‘Are there? Let’s drink to them, Edward, Stuart -- ’ ‘But which things are they?’ said Edward. ‘We might all mean different ones. ‘Never mind, drink to them. Come.’ They raised their glasses.

As captivating as this image of celebration may be, it is difficult not to hear in the toast a note of great sadness. The characters sense that somewhere, in the lost past or the unknowable future, live compelling conceptions of a redemptive and glorious good. In their poverty, however, they can do nothing at present but salute the absent good. It might be too much to say that they are awaiting the coming of this good, for they do not know its definition. They do not even know its name.