FORM AND MYTH IN THREE NOVELS BY IRIS MURDOCH:
THE FLIGHT FROM THE ENCHANTER,
THE BELL, AND A SEVERED HEAD
Ellen Abernethy Ashdown
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE COUNCIL OF
THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE
DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
I would like to thank the members of my committee, Professors
Alistair Duckworth and Richard Hiers, for their aid and advice
in the preparation of this study. In addition, I am grateful to
Dr. Gene Thursby and Dr. Richard Kershner for reading the
manuscript and offering helpful suggestions. Most of all, I
owe thanks to my chairman, Professor William R. Robinson
who, over several years' time, has inspired my thinking and then
led me to create my own, individual work.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS. .................. ii
ABSTRACT ................... ...... iv
INTRODUCTION ................ ........ 1
Notes.................... ....... 5
CHAPTER I: THE ETHICS ................. 6
Notes ...... .......................21
CHAPTER II: THE AESTHETICS. . . . ... .... 22
Notes . . . . . . . . . .... .. .. 42
CHAPTER III: MYTH AS AESTHETIC FORM ...... .44
Notes . . . . . . . . . . . . . 69
CHAPTER IV: THE FLIGHT FROM THE ENCHANTER. 71
N otes . . . . . . . . . . . . . .101
CHAPTER V: THE BELL ................ .102
SNotes . . . . . . . ... .. ... . . .138
CHAPTER VI: A SEVERED HEAD . . . . . .139
Notes . . . . . . . . . . . . . .169
LIST OF REFERENCES. . . . . . . .. . .170
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH. . . . . . . . . .177
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate Council
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements
for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
FORM AND MYTH IN THREE NOVELS BY IRIS MURDOCH:
THE FLIGHT FROM THE ENCHANTER, THE BELL, AND
A SEVERED HEAD
Ellen Abernethy Ashdown
Chairman: William R. Robinson
Major Department: English
This study examines three novels by Iris Murdoch -- The Flight
from the Enchanter, The Bell, and A Severed Head -- in terms of
the connection between form and mythology. In Murdoch's moral
and aesthetic theory, she maintains that myth is antagonistic to the
literature of life she.wishes to create. But an investigation of myth
theory, primarily Joseph Campbell's Creative Mythology, reveals that
myth, as an aesthetic expression of a particular experience of life,
is consonant with Murdoch's vision of modern narrative form. While
ancient myth sought to control and simplify life's terrors, modern myth
can be an open, liberating form which fully embraces life. Her own
novels in fact pervasively employ myth and thus reveal its possibilities
for the modern artist. Mythology and Iris Murdoch's conception of
form are not incompatible, as her theories claim, but complementary,
as her art proclaims.
Both Murdoch's moral and aesthetic theories are structured by the
split between language philosophers and existentialists, for she
feels neither group adequately accounts for the complexity of human
life. One group diminishes man by denying the reality of inner
experience, and the other ignores the solidity of the external world
by over-emphasizing inner experience and inviting solipsism. Murdoch
believes man's morality requires an imaginative apprehension of the
world as mysteriously creative, individually valuable, and endlessly
fluid. Thus the artist, because dedicated to imaginative vision, is
always involved in morality and may suffer the same bifurcation:
he may put too little emphasis on the mind's creative powers and
produce "journalistic" novels which lack form, or he may deify the
ego and produce "crystalline" novels with intellectual structures which
tidy up life's messiness. The latter novel Murdoch believes is
more prevalent now,
Since Murdoch sees life as ceaseless process, she fears too much
form will still the movement. This fear is mitigated if form is re-
garded not as static, orderly arrangement but as that very process-
rhythm of creation and destruction which is life's basis. Her injunction
to avoid myth's powerfully seductive forms, by which crystalline
art simplifies life and controls threatening experience, can be
similarly modified. The work of Ernst Cassirer, Mircea Eliade, and
Joseph Campbell shows that mythology is not antagonistic to her
realistic art of life. Cassirer and Eliade describe myth-as a
dynamic, intuitive realm in which the spirit is always incarnate.
This, too, is Murdoch's vision of life. Further, Campbell's dis-
tinction between older mythologies, which controlled human experience,
and creative mythology, which is an expression of individual experience,
makes the mythopoeic zone life itself: the unique individual in contact
with the world's ever-mysterious energy. Mythology is a fertile
resource for fiction because with it man can rediscover what modern
life has diluted: an immediate contact with incomprehensible, awe-
some spiritual energy. Moreover, mythology is an aesthetic mode
and consequently its center is creation itself, the ultimate focal point
for Murdoch's theories.and art.
The three novels show the progress of Iris Murdoch's mythic
form. The Flight from the Enchanter makes mythic power a reality,
but since the power is seen as destructive, the form is rift by
conflicts which eventually explode only to begin again unchanged.
The Bell goes beyond this. Its form actually is a growth in which
change occurs; however, its focus is a Christian myth acted out
in a setting very much removed from ordinary life. Finally,
A Severed Head achieves "the connection between myth and the
ordinary stuff of human life" as its form sends Martin Lynch-Gibbon
by means of a devastating encounter with concrete spiritual energy
to a joyful engagement with the creative process of life.
Iris Murdoch is a novelist trained as a philosopher, and as such
she believes in the importance of both art and abstraction. Besides
her prolific flow of novels, she continues to publish essays dealing
with ethical, political, and aesthetic theory. Critics evaluating
her novels have naturally used the extensive theoretical background
which she provides. One aspect of her aesthetic, however, has had
only slight attention. Murdoch associates, and sometimes equates,
the concepts of novelistic form and myth. And while critics have
explored both form and myth in Murdoch's fiction, only A. S. Byatt
has attempted to deal with their connection. 1 Even she interchanges
and confuses "symbolic" and "mythic." Some writers, like Peter
Wolfe, have analyzed Murdoch's ideas of artistic form but have
dealt with myth mostly in terms of specific allusions within the fic-
tion. 2 Malcolm Bradbury and Alice Kenney do approach the form
of A Severed Head as itself an expression of myth, but they do not
consider Murdoch's comments about the nature of myth. 3 Yet it
is exactly her continual association of form and myth, and her dis-
trust of both, which are interesting and richly suggestive.
Iris Murdoch shares her concern for form with many twentieth
century artists; however, contrary to her century's aesthetic trend,
she distrusts form, believing that it can be inimical to the best art:
"Form itself can be a temptation, making the work of art into a
small myth which is a self-contained and indeed self-satisfied indi-
vidual." She suggests that "since reality is incomplete, art must
not be too much afraid of incompleteness."4 The form which Murdoch
identifies, here and elsewhere, as mythic is associated with plot,
excessive patterning, and a preoccupation with the personal. At
times her attitude resembles a commonplace definition of man's
myths as "universally recognized expressions of man's yearning for
a dream world. "5
Related to this, but more important critically, is Murdoch's
dislike of form which attempts to constrain the rampant energies of
life. The ritualization and thus control of experience has long
been believed to be one purpose of myth for ancient men. In the
face of life's terrifying unpredictableness, men's imaginations
created ways to make sense of and to tame life's power. And for
some artists in the twentieth century, this is still myth's function.
T.S. Eliot's influential note on James Joyce's Ulysses praises his
myth-making for just this ability to control and make intelligible
the seeming chaos of man's life. Eliot says myth
is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving
a shape and a significance to the immense panorama
of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history. . .
It is, I seriously believe, a step toward making the
modern world possible for art, toward that order and
form which Mr. Aldington [another critic of Joyce]
so earnestly desires. 6
Eliot's response, while an accepted one, is not the only response
to myth. In their avid reinspection of myth, twentieth century
scholars have produced "schools" of myth theory which are various
and often contradictory. Historians, philosophers, archeaologists,
social scientists and artists are exploring ancient man's mythic
consciousness, as well as asking what place the ancient myths have
in the lives of men today. Most important for artists is the question
of the possibility of myth-creation now. If myth-making is open to
modern man, what sort of myths will he create, what will be his
sources, what will be myth's function, how will the new myths
resemble or diverge from our mythic heritage?
These are the questions which Joseph Campbell addresses him-
self to in Creative Mythology, the final volume of The Masks of God.
Generally he makes this distinction between traditional and creative
mythologies: "Traditional mythologies, that is to say, whether of
the primitive or of the higher cultures, antecede and control experi-
ence; whereas what I am here calling Creative Mythology is an
effect and expression of experience. "7 According to Campbell the
mythologies which have been emerging in the West since the twelfth
or thirteenth century are expressions of individual experience and
are "not derived from dogma, learning, politics, or any current
concepts of the general social good. "8 He believes that myth now
is in some ways radically different from myth in the past. Rather
than control of experience, the form of current myths is liberating.
In terms of this perspective, Murdoch's objections tomyth neces-
sarily undergo a change. In fact, the aesthetic of form which
Murdoch advances has essentially the same qualities as Campbell's
"creative mythology. For him and many others, there is no con-
flict between myth and the open, liberating form which Iris Murdoch
believes in and creates in her own novels. This open form is indeed
the special characteristic of modern myth.
An understanding of this alternative theory of myth dispells the
uneasy distance between Murdoch's belief in form and her distrust
of it, between her constant use of myth and her disparagement of it.
Once the limits of her aesthetic terminology are understood, it
becomes clear that Iris Murdoch's theory and practice as a novelist
offer important literary insights. Her creation of myth and her use
of ancient myth are in fact a very important achievement in the
twentieth century literature of life which her theories promulgate.
In order to demonstrate the mythic form which I believe Iris
Murdoch to be moving toward, I will first examine thoroughly her
aesthetic as it is expressed in essays and interviews. Then, with
a brief review of myth theories and particular attention to the ideas
of Joseph Campbell, it will be possible to more fully appreciate
the conjunction of form and myth in three novels, The Flight from
the Enchanter, The Bell, and A Severed Head, each of which reveals
a different stage in Murdoch's own "mythic" development.
1. Degrees of Freedom (London, 1965), pp. 184-185.
2. The Disciplined Heart: Iris Murdoch and Her Novels
(Columbia, Missouri, 1966), pp. 22-27.
3. Bradbury, "Iris Murdoch's Under the Net, Critical Quarterly,
IV (Spring 1962), 47-54; and Kenney, "The Mythic History of
A Severed Head, Modern Fiction Studies, XV (Autumn 1969), 387-
4. "Against Dryness, Encounter, XVI (January 1961), 20.
5. Howard German, "Allusions in the Early Novels of Iris
Murdoch," Modern Fiction Studies, XV (Autumn 1969), 368.
6. "Ulysses, Order, and Myth," The Dial, LXXV (November
7. The Masks of God, IV (New York, 1968), 65.
8. Ibid., p. 64.
Iris Murdoch's theoretical writings can be divided into three
successive, interrelated stages. In the first stage, beginning
in 1952 with "Nostalgia for the Particular, her essays deal mainly
with moral theory. 1 Gradually her focus shifts more solidly to
art, and in a series of articles published from 1959 to 1961 she has
translated her moral theory into a full aesthetic. 2The ideas
developed in these essays are continued, strengthened, and also
begin to exhibit an increased affinity with Platonic thought. The
fruit of this period is contained in her collection The Sovereignty
of Good. 3 As the title indicates, moral concerns have much weight,
although by this time aesthetics and morality are thoroughly inter-
twined for Murdoch. These stages, while recognizable, are not
disjunctive. Murdoch's theories, however judged or valued, are
essentially all of a piece. As she has said, "My own temperament
inclines to monism," and her writings reveal a particularly synthe-
tic world vision. 4 Her ethical theory and her ideas about the art
of fiction coalesce; one of her main tenets is that morality and
aesthetics are not separable, but "two aspects of a single struggle."5
Her aesthetics, then, with which I am mainly concerned, is more
fully understood in the light of her philosophical writings. Since
attention to Iris Murdoch's philosophical views has dominated the
writings about her work, this will be a broad and brief review of
Generally the course of Murdoch's thought runs somewhere
between the extremities of the analytic and existential canons.
Trained at Oxford, her teachers and famous contemporaries were
the language philosophers. But she also spent time on the continent
and her first book published dealt with Jean-Paul Sartre's philosophy.
Taking from each school what she wishes, she uses these two
philosophical attitudes as the poles against which she works out
both her ethics and her aesthetics. Murdoch places her emphasis
neither on the world nor the will, but on her pivotal concept of "love."
Murdoch's interest in morality and ethics is not a preoccupation
with a narrow, dogmatic set of moral precepts. As she points
out in an early article, "The Novelist as Metaphysician, the
twentieth century has discarded its inherited moral bases, so that
an interest in morality becomes simply an interest in how man
lives his life. 7The "area of Morals" covers "the whole of our
mode of living and the quality of our relations with the world. "8
Murdoch's imagination is concerned with how men handle their
lives, how they live out their relationships with others, how they
resolve conflicts, how they conceive their choices, how they
respond to those choices. She is fascinated by the moving of will
through the world -- the moments of passage and of impasse. The
sterile systems provided by the language philosophers for describ-
ing man's moral behavior cannot encompass the richness and com-
plexity which Murdoch sees in man's impact with his world. She
positive and radical moral conceptions which
are unconnected with the view that morality is
essentially universal rules. I have in mind
moral attitudes which emphasize the inex-
haustible detail of the world, the endlessness
of the task of understanding, the importance
of not assuming that one has got individuals
and situations "taped, the connection of know-
ledge with love and of spiritual insight with
apprehension of the unique. 9
This conception of morality is central to Murdoch's thought and in
her later writings does double duty as the basis of her ideas about
the novel's form.
From her first writings it is evident that Murdoch's focus is
on people rather than theories or institutions, although she has an
English intellectual's respect for both. She emphatically rejects
the linguistic, analytic view that "a moral concept will be roughly
an objective definition of a certain area of activity plus a recommen-
dation or prohibition.10 Yet she is wary of the individual's
prodigious gifts for turning in on himself. For Murdoch there is
a serious contradiction between a concern for people and a concern
with the personal. She strongly believes in the necessity of
"unselfing" both in life and in art, and for this reason her endorse-
ment of existentialist thought is guarded. Since, for Murdoch, the
most difficult and important part of a man's life is the relationship
between himself and other people, she distrusts a solipsism which
encourages a man to believe that he makes choices as an isolated
will unaffected by social structures or people. This is one focal
point for any critical evaluation of her theory: attention to the
self works against attention to the outside. This, she feels, is
the danger of extreme existentialism, which makes sincerity --
being true to oneself -- the highest virtue. Not denying that man
must keep his integrity and keep out of bad faith, she argues that
he must recognize the reality and opacity of those people and things
outside himself. Too little attention to others is a failure of
imagination and iay result in fantasy, a degraded use of the imagi-
This repudiation of solipsism is Murdoch's response to one
particular brand of twentieth century philosophy, the existential.
Naturally she is well aware that to call any one attitude "existential"
is a simplified summation of an extremely various body of thought.
Her admittedly narrow definition of both philosophic positions, the
analytic and the existential, is a specialized, but valid, use of
them in order to define by contrast her own position. Murdoch
feels that the theories of language philosophers such as Stuart
Hampshire and John Austin tend to falsely fragment man's moral
being by concentrating attention on pressures applied from without
the man -- by language or social convention -- rather than on inner
experience. On the other hand, Murdoch feels some existentialist
philosophy, for instance that of Sartre and Richard Hare, errs in
its tendency to glorify the individual mental processes and to
attribute to them the source of all value. The split, then, has
another dimension; it leads to question of free will and determinism.
Steering a path between the forces of determinism and the powers
of free will is also a continuing pattern in Murdoch's thought.
However, the latter model of human life is Murdoch's main
area of engagement in her philosophical essays because she feels
it is the most wide-spread and tempting in our time. This is so
in the collection of essays, The Sovereignty of Good, which provides
the best overall introduction to Murdoch's thought since it expands
upon and refines the earlier expressions of both her moral philo-
sophy and her aesthetic. In these essays she makes rather quick
work of the claims of logic to the supreme position in man's
morality, but with all the power of her persuasive prose condemns
modern man's tendency to shrink from the overwhelming barrage
of irrational life. She rejects existentialism's emphasis on the
lonely will and its tendency to dispense of the world's contingency
as absurd, indifferent, and sometimes (as for Sartre) frightening.
She calls instead for an approach to life which embraces every-
thing -- the repulsive and the beautiful, the creative and the
destructive. For Murdoch a man's relationship with other people
and his environment is perpetually shifting, significant, and valuable.
She frequently suggests that man must cultivate a "respect for
contingency" -- not just recognition, but respect. Sartre's hero
in Nausea is obsessed with contingency, but his response is horror.
Beyond an objective awareness, Murdoch affirms life's contingency
and incomprehensible variety and expresses this affirmation as love.
She exhorts one not merely to "see" as much as possible, but to say
"yes" to it. Murdoch's writings never have the detached tone of a
philosopher attempting to create a "true model" of man's nature.
She is quite vehemently "Against Dryness" and detachment. Her
transition from philosopher to novelist is one sure indication that
Iris Murdoch is a woman who must give flesh to her beliefs.
And appropriately it is from Simone Weil -- a woman who died
as a consequence .of her conviction -- that Murdoch borrows two
terms, "attention" and "obedience, to describe her own vision. The
example of Wells' life as well as her writing has persisted as a
large influence in Murdoch's work, but it is in "The Idea of Per-
fection" that the debt is most explicit. Weil's notebooks show her
to be a woman of extreme discipline who believed in the value of
controlling and channeling the intelligence, will, and emotions. For
her, attention was the disciplined will accomplishing a task un-
hampered by distraction or dreaming. Weil's strong religious
temperament deified this concept: "God is attention without dis-
traction. "11 Since vision, not rule or willed-movement is the
fulcrum of Murdoch's moral perception, a turning outward is
essential; thus Well's "attention" is suited to describe for Murdoch
the effort a man must make to truly see the world around him.
For her attention is also a moral discipline resulting from her
conception of life; it is an effort of consciousness and can be per-
fected. But what is more, it is a matter of imagination. Not
adherence to rigid categories, man's morality is an effort to
apprehend the world and others in a particular way. "I can only
choose within the world I can see, in the moral sense of 'see'
which implies that clear vision is a result of moral imagination and
moral effort. "12 Thus attention is an inner quality -- a gathering
of consciousness' forces to focus honesty on outside circumstances.
It is an attempt to open the spirit to receive justly the impingements
of other people and situations. This is will performing its most basic
function: the bringing of spirit's powers to bear productively on the
course of life. Attention strives to be "a refined and honest per-
ception of what is really the case, a patient and just discernment
and exploration of what confronts one. It is "the result not simply
of opening one's eyes but of a certainly perfectly familiar kind of
moral discipline" (38).
"What is really the case" and "what confronts one" are difficult
indeed to decide. Murdoch's most specific account of what one should
attempt to see are the "inexhaustible detail" and "unique" already
quoted. As a moral endeavor attention is not, of course, "objectivity, "
for the object of knowledge is not "quasi-scientific" fact but change-
able, ambiguous people. To see or to understand must always involve
the imagination for we move in a world in which complete "data"
are never available. But the condition toward which such a faculty
strives is one in which knowledge will indicate direction. While never
in this world attainable, the ideal situation is one in which "If I
attend properly I will have no choices" (40). For this sort of
necessity Murdoch can only point to the experience of saints and
artists. But she holds that with this loving regard, the will is
pictured not so much as unrestricted movement but as obedience.
While Murdoch can feel such a strong bond with a woman whose
piety bordered on fanaticism, and while she prefers the term
obedience to choice, she underscores the value in morality of the
ceaseless process itself. There is no attainable end: "moral tasks
are characteristically endless" for "morality is essentially con-
cerned with change" (28, 29). And she highlights the constant
mysteriousness of life.
But on the view which I suggest, which connects
morality with attention to individuals, human individ-
uals or individual realities of other kinds, the struggle
and the progress is something more obscure, more
historically conditioned, and usually less clearly
Finally at the article's end Murdoch tempers her defense of con-
templation versus action: "I would not be understood, either, as
suggesting that insight or pureness of heart are more important
than action. . I have suggested that we have to accept a darker,
less fully conscious, less steadily rational image of the dynamics
of the human personality" (43-44).
This essay tries to take into account and to balance both the
indeterminacy of the world and people and the possibility for
approaching the real through concentrated attention to individuals.
These recurring words constitute Murdoch's moral vocabulary:
selfless, attention, imagination -- individual, real -- love,
knowledge, freedom. Moral endeavor involves a willed selflessness,
an imaginative attention, which aims at knowledge of individual
realities as much as possible free of the distortions of our com-
forting fantasies. This ability to direct attention is love; its object
is knowledge and is inseparable from freedom. Freedom is "itself
a moral concept and not just a prerequisite of morality" (38).
The ensuing extension of this thought, however, shifts attention
from the individual to a transcendent Good. This is a puzzling and
complicated phase in Murdoch's thought; the shadow of Simone Well's
religiosity hovers near even as Murdoch eloquently describes the
utter purposelessness of human life. The contradictions and
dilemmas in this aspect of her moral theory need to be enunciated
because they provide insight into the tensions in her imagination
which have dictated her pronouncements about myth. A conflict
between a love for and a distrust of the individual is one aspect of
Murdoch's feelings about myth which is clarified by Joseph Campbell's
work. Partially it is the attitude toward the self which occasions
Murdoch's excursion into a realm of transcendent value -- a
journey easy for the theologian but laced with dangers for the
Generally Murdoch in these essays is seeking a technique, based
in something outside the self, to orient moral energy. She feels,
too, that moral philosophy must account for natural psychology's
ability to be altered by conceptions beyond its range. Murdoch
sees an idea of Good as a powerful source of moral energy (like
prayer), although not simply a utilitarian substitute for God.
Generally the Good is all the moral qualities she has previously
proposed, but under the aspect of necessity. "Good seems to us
something necessary because the realism (ability to perceive reality)
required for goodness is a kind of intellectual ability to perceive
what is true, which is automatically at the same time a suppression
of self" (66). This rather muddled, circular statement still has
the familiar moral tenets: suppression of self enables one to see
more of the truth. But Murdoch has uttered as a received wisdom
that the "technique for exhibiting fact" must be self-denial and has
then elevated that wisdom to a universal realm. While perfectly
able to recognize man's brutish qualities, she nevertheless becomes
impatient at times with his flawed nature.
With a strident note she proclaims, "In the moral life the enemy
is the fat relentless ego" (52). And with like extremity she argues
that moral philosophy should include the idea of "a single perfect
transcendent non-representable and necessarily real object of
I share Rubin Rabinovitz's criticism that Iris Murdoch's pre-
occupation with the dangers of solipsism is a "weak point" in her
moral theory which results in her rather narrow criteria for
novelistic excellence. 1Since she frankly admits that her arguments
for the attributes of Good can never be conclusive, this theory is a
clue to those life-questions which most fundamentally obsess her.
Murdoch admits that philosophy never escapes the personal. She
It is frequently difficult in philosophy to tell whether
one is saying something reasonably public and objective,
or whether one is merely erecting a barrier, special
to one's own temperament, against one's own personal
fears. (It is always a significant question to ask about
any philosopher: what is he afraid of?). (72)
This is not simple to answer in Iris Murdoch's case, but
partially the answer is that she fears the frightening power of what
Thoreau called the "glut and suck of living. Incongruously she
couples a cold-eyed look at the human condition with such a
fervid belief in man's valuable creative capacities that she is
herself sometimes neglectful of contingency, preferring to leap
by selfishness lest it deter her upward course. Thus, for example,
there is a fundamental contradiction between her premise that
"human beings are naturally selfish" and her belief that the self is
quite naturally attracted to the Good as to a magnet: "The image
of the Good as a transcendent magnetic centre seems to me the
least corruptible and most realistic picture for us to use in our
reflections upon the moral life" (75. See also 38, 40, 42, 43).
Given her picture of'the self as a virtually blind mechanism ful-
filling basic drives and proliferating comforting fantasies, she,
with some urgency, tries to find another realm which is the source
of moral action.
Thus the dark side of the individual seems at times capable of
overwhelming those instincts for respecting others' lives which
Murdoch believes are "good. Apprehensive, she creates a
theoretical Good which satisfies her as a model but which is not
conceptually defensible. And then, of course, she is thrown back
on art. In her philosophical writings, it is impossible for Iris
Murdoch to overcome the contradiction which she sets up. She
never claims to succeed. However, in her fiction it is possible to
imaginatively bridge the gap between this Good and the world's
evil, between the self as a sensuous mechanism and as a lover
of life. Consequently, Murdoch continually ends her theoretical
arguments with the insistence that art is the only "proof" of her
theory. When, at the same time, she is not quite willing to discard
her abstract structure, she opens herself to a crucial question:
if art is the ultimate moral realm, why do men still need "a
single perfect transcendent non-representable and necessarily
real object of attention?" Murdoch's own reluctance to let go of
metaphysical structures is her own tendency to "reduce all to a
false unity" (66).
Even though there is no conceptual resolution in these essays,
they are extremely valuable because Iris Murdoch, through her
ultimate dedication to life, eloquently tells of a conflict recognizable
to manymodern men. Her dream of unity may sometimes lure her
close to a dangerously prescriptive moral view, but she is, after
all, braving a confusing realm. And it is to her credit that,
believing as she does in the utter randomness of life, her search
for some active means of connection is by and large carried out
with relentless honesty. The supposition of the reality of virtue,
self-sacrifice, and the good would be in another a kind of religious
yearning, an adroit side-stepping of ignorance and cruelty in favor
of anything which softens the rough blows of experience. It is
precisely Murdoch's refusal to ignore the inexplicable in life which
directs her philosophy. While Sartre and others see lucidly man's
non-connection with the universe, they exhort him to draw all
inward and with force of will to rise above contingency by repudiating
An authentic mode of existence is presented as
attainable by intelligence and force of will. The
atmosphere is invigorating and tends to pro-
duce self-satisfaction in the reader, who feels
himself to be a member of the elite, addressed
by another one. Contempt for the ordinary human
condition, together with a conviction of personal
salvation, saves the writer from real pessimism.
His gloom is superficial and conceals elation. (50)
Murdoch is treading a much more difficult path; she wants to be
able to bear that naked glance at the world for the sake of life
itself and not in spite of its seeming threat to life.
She recognizes that her espousal of good as a viable concept
may be as much a defense as Sartre's overblown will. Near the
end of "On 'God' and 'Good'" she attacks herself on the grounds
that Good is merely a faked-up God and a poor one at that since
it hasn't even a personal attraction. Good is not only imaginary
but ineffective. She answers, "I am often more than half persuaded
to think in these terms myself" (72). Of course she does not, and
her response, quoted here extensively, is important not for its
argument in defense of her concepts (she offers none), but for its
lucid statement of the dilemma which she sees her art and her
Of course one is afraid that the attempt to be
good may turn out to be meaningless, or at
best something vague and not very important,
or turn out to be as Nietzsche described it, or
that the greatness of great art may be an ephe-
meral illusion. . That a glance at the
scene prompts despair is certainly the case.
The difficulty indeed.is to look at all. If one does
not believe in a personal God there is no "pro-
blem" of evil, but there is the almost insuperable
difficulty of looking properly at evil and human
suffering. It is very difficult to concentrate
attention upon suffering and sin, in others or in
oneself, without falsifying the picture in some way
by making it bearable. . Only the very
greatest art can manage it, and that is the
only public evidence that it can be done at
all. Kant's notion of the sublime, though
extremely interesting, possibly even more
interesting than Kant realized, is a kind of
romanticism. The spectacle of huge and
appalling things can indeed exhilarate, but
usually in a way that is less than excellent.
. There is, however, something in the
serious attempt to look compassionately at
human things which automatically suggests
that "there is more than this. The "there
is more than this, if it is not to be corrupted
by some sort of quasi-theological finality,
must remain a very tiny spark of insight,
something with,. as it were, a metaphysical
position but no metaphysical form. (72, 73)
But Murdoch does not abandon morality to this elusive abstraction;
as always, she directs attention to the concreteness of art: "But
it seems to me that the spark is real, and that great art is evidence
of its reality. Art indeed, so far from being a playful diversion
of the human race, is the place of its most fundamental insight,
and the centre to which the more uncertain steps of metaphysics
must return" (73). With her moral sense established, it is time to
go to her center, although to suggest that her moral theory exists
apart from her aesthetic is false; they are vitally connected.
1. "Nostalgia for the Particular," Proceedings of the Aristo-
telian Society, LII (1952), 243-260.
2. "The Sublime and the Good, Chicago Review, XIII (Autumn
1959), 42-55; "The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited," Yale
Review, XLIX (December 1959), 247-71; and "Against Dryness."
3. The Sovereignty of Good (New,York, 1971).
4. Ibid., p. 50.
5. Ibid., p. 41.
6. Peter Wolfe's book, The Disciplined Heart: Iris Murdoch
and Her Novels, concentrates on her philosophy.
7. "The Novelist as Metaphysician," The Listener, 16 March
1950, pp. 473, 476.
8. The Sovereignty of Good, p. 97.
9. "Vision and Choice in Morality," Aristotelian Society:
Dreams and Self-Knowledge, Supplement to vol. XXX (1956), 46.
10. Ibid., p. 35.
11. First and Last Notebooks, trans. Richard Rees (London,
1970), p. 141.
12. The Sovereignty of Good, p. 37. Subsequent references to
The Sovereignty of Good in this chapter will be given in parentheses
following the quotation.
13 Iris Murdoch, Columbia Essays on Modern Writers, No. 34
(New York, 1968), p. 45.
The movement from ethics to aesthetics is easily accomplished
since imaginative vision, for Murdoch, is the basis of both. As
a man dedicated to the life of the imagination, the artist becomes
a "good" man, for he is engaged in creating ways to picture human
situations. In order to exercise his imagination fully and to
create an art of life, the artist must open himself fearlessly to
Murdoch's aesthetic, which occasions her feelings about myth,
is again structured by the extremes of free will and determinism.
The conflict has several different manifestations, but her basic
terms for the two opposing trends in narrative form are the "crys-
talline" and the journalistic, which in turn are identified respec-
tively with models of humanity she designates "Neurotic Man" and
"Conventional Man. As before, the crystalline or neurotic is the
more pernicious trend, and this type of fiction, which tends toward
the mythic in Murdoch's definition, is a victim of too much form
and is allied with personal preoccupation, fantasy, and control of
experience. This aesthetic is immediately vulnerable, however
(quite aside from questions of its "truth"), because Iris Murdoch
admits that by and large the best novels of the twentieth century
have been of the crystalline variety and because she herself has
a propensity for employing and creating myth in her own novels.
This indicates, at the least, a misguided terminology and, at the
most, a misunderstanding of aesthetic form. Generally, Iris
Murdoch provides a brilliant, invigorating, and important concep-
tion of a novelistic form which embraces and itself creates the
surprising mystery of life. However, her own aesthetic dictums
can become constricting. An exploration of an expanded notion of
form corrects some of the discrepancy between her theory and her
practice. It will be seen that the narrowness of Murdoch's concep-
tion of form and her continuing over-reaction to the evils of solip-
sism lead her to intellectually discard some varieties of aesthetic
expression which do match her own feelings about life and art.
There are more avenues open to the novelist than those which she
allows him and, in fact, myth can open the energies of life rather
than crystallizing them. But first it is necessary to more completely
understand Murdoch's aesthetic categories.
Kant's theory of the sublime, with which the discussion of her
ethics ended, is one vehicle she uses to connect her moral and
aesthetic conceptions in three articles, "The Sublime and the Good, "
"The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited, and "Against Dryness. "
Here she equates the imaginative vision which she has postulated
as the essence of the moral life with the vision of the artist,
Murdoch sees Kant as the precursor of the dominant twentieth cen-
tury attitude which conceives of art as self-contained. In Kant's
thought, she explains, the beautiful is an experience of a conception-
less harmony between the imagination and the understanding. He
conceives of art as the production of a kind of quasi-thing which is
whole, self-contained, and unrelated to emotion or desire. Reason
is not involved in the creation of art. The sublime, on the other
hand, is a conflict between reason and the imagination. And since
reason is involved, the experience of the sublime is not an
aesthetic experience: it is an exhilaration of the spirit as the mind
contemplates that which surpasses it. But Murdoch believes this
perception is in fact analogous to the experience of the artist, for
he creates out of."the realization of a vast and varied reality out-
side [himself] which brings about a sense initially of terror and
when properly understood of exhilaration and spiritual power. "
The impetus to Murdoch's imagination is the "sight of our sur-
roundings as consisting of other individual men. "2 What Murdoch
believes is essential for the best art, but also exceedingly difficult
to obtain in spite of its obviousness, is the knowledge, deemed
necessary in her moral theory, that other people exist.
But just as Murdoch qualifies her use of Kant's sublime in
"On 'God' and 'Good', she fully knows that a mere looking at
other is not automatically uplifting. While she defines "love" as
the perception of individuals, she is under no illusion that other
individuals always please. Love, for Murdoch, rarely carries the
notion of personal gratification; it is more an attitude with a dif-
ferent sort of reward, e. g. "Balzac did not love these people
because he knew them, he knew them because he loved them. "3
To return to one of her purely moral statements (and one of her
most pregnant because it really does deal with common sense
reality and is not trifling with transcendence), "the more the
separateness and differentness of other people is realized, and
the fact seen that another man has needs and wishes as demanding
as one's own, the harder it becomes to treat a person as a thing."
The respect for contingency, then, is fundamental and the great
artist must, like the good man, look at the world with a glance as
panoramic and as honest as possible:
It is not simply that suppression of self is required
before accurate vision can be obtained. The great
artist sees his objects (and this is true whether
they are sad, absurd, repulsive or even evil) in a
light of justice and mercy. The direction of atten-
tion is, contrary to nature, outward, away from
self which reduces all to a false unity, towards
the great surprising variety of the world, and the
ability so to direct attention is love. 5
The artist must deal with his art in the same way that men deal
with their lives, for art is about life. The artist creates and
reacts to the problems and experiences of men in the world, so
that "aesthetic situations are not so much analogies of morals as
cases of morals. 6
The importance of selflessly opening oneself is central to
Murdoch's aesthetic, and she unhesitatingly prescribes criteria
for good novels. The fictive form which her attitude dictates
emphasizes character acting within a contingent world. Her models
are those nineteenth century novels which house a number of charac-
ters and which, when most successful, have an effect of teeming
life. The best show "a plurality of real persons . representing
mutually independent centers of significance. . the individuals
portrayed in the novels are free, independent of their author, and
not merely puppets in the exteriorization of some closely locked
psychological conflict of his own. "
This novel is positioned between the extremities of language
philosophy and existentialism and their corresponding models of
man, "Conventional Man" and "Neurotic Man.'' The former is an
individual whose initiative is too much bound by convention, and the
latter is a naked will too little influenced by the world's demands. 8
Neither gives "a standpoint for considering the variety of individuals."9
Most twentieth century novels, then, are either journalistic or
crystalline. The crystalline novel is a highly patterned, self-
contained story, and the journalistic novel is too much like unstruc-
tured and unedited reportage. In a later elaboration of these
"rather inexact . epigrammatic distinctions" she says,
There is a tendency, I think, on the one hand, and
especially now, to produce a closely-coiled, care-
fully constructed object wherein the story rather
than the people is the important thing, and wherein
the story perhaps suggests a particular, fairly
clear moral. On the other hand, there is and al-
ways has been in fiction a desire to describe the
world around one in a fairly loose and cheerful
way. And it seemed to me at present in the novel
that there was a flying apart of these two different
aims. Some ideal state of affairs would combine
the merits of both. 10
The crystalline novel, identified with the image of neurotic man,
is also linked to an attitude which separates art and life, the French
symbolist's l'art pour 1'art. These artists, most conspicuously
Mallarme, desired to produce poems which were self-contained;
they desired to built structures of words, not to use them refer-
entially. Thus the "symbolic" novel is "Kant's theory of the
beautiful served up in fresh form." It demonstrates a "yearning
to pierce through the messy phenomenal world to some perfect
and necessary form and order. And the alternatives which some
supply to this turning-inward are also unsatisfactory to Murdoch.
T. S. Eliot, opposed to the solipsistic creation of art, suggests
that there must be some focus outside the self. But what he names
are "things and institutions. Murdoch would suggest "other people."
She feels that in the twentieth century these two strains of thought
have failed to strike a balance between man's will and those things
which determine him; the modern novel is either "a tight meta-
physical object or loose journalistic epic. . things or truths."11
This impasse, seen another way, is between too little form
(looseness) and too much (tightness). Unquestionably, form is the
issue for Murdoch. The novelist does not simply report, but he
shapes and builds with words in time; the discursive nature of the
novel should not obscure that its art is, as much a matter of "how"
as of '"what'':
But it will clearly not be enough for us to know
that the novelist has a mature and interesting
viewpoint on human affairs and to know from
reading his novel what the viewpoint is; our
judgment of him as a novelist will also depend
on how he incarnates his viewpoint in his literary
medium, although to put it thus is misleading
if it suggests that the particular viewpoint exists
apart from its incarnation.12
A novelist can really "say" nothing apart from the form of his
work. The form is the art. And for Murdoch the form of a novel
must be the form of life. She sees the world as multifarious and
always surprising; it is unlimited, continually unfolding, constantly
changing. For this reason she distrusts a novelist whose pre-
occupation with structure leads him to pattern a novel too narrowly,
to tie up loose ends, to make all events "fit" somehow in a neat
vision. And she finds equally false the novel which neglects the
creation of form and offers instead reportage. Her'ideal is a
novel which presents a "plurality of real persons" moving in an
uncertain and chancy world. 13
Form which blocks the creative imagination Murdoch associates
with the personal, with fantasy, with myth, with plot. In her own
experience she feels she has succumbed to structure in order to
avoid grappling with the life of her novels: "But there can be a
tendency too readily to pull a form or a structure out of something
one's thinking about and to rest upon that."14 The writer should
not rest, neither should he turn aside from the painful or horrible.
Literature must have a form which mirrors the complexity of the
world. The form which she rejects is, she feels, an attempt to
palliate the pain and incomprehensibility of the world -- part of
its sublime aspect in Kant's sense. Today nothing is simple. "The
modern writer, frightened of technology and . abandoned by
philosophy and . presented with simplified dramatic theories,
attempts to console us by myths or by stories. She fears that
form can be used as a shield against chance, rather than as an
exploration which liberates:
Form itself can be a temptation, making the
work of art into a small myth which is a self-
contained and indeed self-satisfied individual.
We need to turn our attention away from the
consoling dream necessity of Romanticism,
away from the dry symbol, the bogus indivi-
dual, the false whole, towards the real im-
penetrable human person. . this person
is substantial, impenetrable, individual, in-
definable, and valuable.
Form should not falsify life by making it neater, clearer, or more
symmetrical than we experience it: "since reality is incomplete,
art must not be too much afraid of incompleteness. 15
Here is Murdoch's identification of "self-contained" and "self-
satisfied" art with a "small myth. The "dream necessity" hints
as well at the connection she makes between myth and fantasy, the
effort to obscure and lessen painful experience. Also myth is con-
sistently a term which she uses to describe the crystalline novel.16
Not surprisingly, sometimes myth is not only too-restrictive form,
but a giving in to the personal. Her definition of a Romantic writer,
for example, is "one who gives the impression of externalizing a
personal conflict in a tightly conceived self-contained myth. 17
And again, she fears that a novel which is too mythic has "a kind
of form which ultimately is the form of one's own mind. In her
interview with Kermode, she associates myth with "structure" and
with "plot. She feels that twentieth century writers too easily
"give in" to myth, i. e. to the patterns they create, and "rest" on
them: "The satisfaction of the form is such that it can stop one
from going more deeply into the contradictions or paradoxes or
more painful aspects of the subject matter. One may rest or
stop on myth; it is, as she presents it, an inhibiting force. Since
her desire is to create and examine "real people, she pits charac-
ter against myth or plot: "I think [my novels ] oscillate rather
between attempts to portray a lot of people and giving in to a
powerful plot or story. 18 Myth is antagonistic both to the "incom-
pleteness" which she feels art should have and to the self-extinction
which is necessary for the creation of real characters:
Against the consolations of form, the clean
crystalline work, the simplified fantasy-
myth, we must pit the destructive power of
the now so unfashionable naturalistic idea
of character. Real people are destructive
of myth, contingency is destructive of fan-
tasy and opens the way for imagination. 19
The assumption behind such an attitude is that myth has been an
attempt to falsify or ignore the realities of life. The same belief
-underlies the current use of the word "myth" as a synonym for
"untrue." Such an evasion of the more painful or sordid aspects
of life is, of course, unacceptable to many modern writers, but
mythology is much more than a collection of pleasing tales of amorous,
ambrosia-eating deities. Not only is mythology a profound and
enduring expression of human experience, it is an aesthetic expres-
sion and, hence, a celebration of the imagination's powers. Murdoch
is herself guilty of simplifying, and at any rate she can only do so
by ignoring the use of myth by artists whom she would not likely
accuse of having inferior imaginations, e.g. James Joyce and Yeats.
But before suggesting more concrete ways in which myth nourishes
rather than defeats Iris Murdoch's aesthetic criteria, her general
conception of form needs to be considered.
Her aesthetic of form is questionable on two counts. First, her
conception of form is both too narrow and too ambiguous. She
tends to equate form and order, with form consequently becoming
an enclosure or framework. Second, she too readily connects the
individual point of view (in narrative, the first-person) with the
creation of selfish fantasy which tries to put on leash the unruly
energies of life.
Murdoch's thoughts about form are contradictory, as she is
aware. She both believes in form as the essence of art and distrusts
it. When asked how one decides which sort of form is valuable
and which is dangerous she replies, with an obvious awareness of
easy confusion, "This is a delicate question. It's almost absurd
to say that form in art is in any sense a menace, because form is
the absolute essence of art. Yet she does make this distinction.
There are other criteria too.
Besides representing a chancy universe filled with real, independ-
ent people, the novel's form must be generated from inside out.
This is a common aesthetic tenet of our time: the art work has a
form peculiar to itself and an artist must not at any point impose
an alien form. He cannot rest on a structure he has extracted
from the intellect. Murdoch believes the art work is a growth with
its own life rather than an inert object -- the "things" of the
crystalline novelist. But she stops short of identifying form in art
and form in nature. In "The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited"
she says, "Art has got to have form, whereas life need not," and
this pronouncement is a revealing clue to her attraction/aversion
attitude toward form. 21 Here Murdoch is, I think, confusing
telos and form. Her clear-eyed acceptance of a random, irrational
universe leads her to assert the utter formlessness of life. But
this is a false tautology. Indeed one of the scholarly phenomena
of this century has been the burst of inter-disciplinary studies
occasioned by the belief that form itself is the unifying principle
of the universe. To many scientists, educators, philosophers, and
artists, Murdoch's implicit definition of form would be perplexing.
Lancelot Law Whyte is a physicist whose studies of form led
him to investigate and relate such disparate branches of human
endeavor as sculpture and biological theory. In Whyte's anthology
of essays, Aspects of Form, Herbert Read's preface takes implicit
issue with Murdoch's declaration that life need not have form:
But now the revelation that perception itself is
essentially a pattern-selecting and pattern-
making function (a Gestalt formation); that pat-
tern, is inherent in the physical structure or in
the functioning of the nervous system; that mat-
ter itself analyses into coherent patterns or ar-
rangements of molecules; and the gradual reali-
sation that all these patterns:are effective and
ontologically significant by virtue of an organi-
sation of their paits which can only be charac-
terized as aesthetic -- all this development has
brought works of art and natural phenomena on
to an identical plane of enquiry. 22
The study of form is still an embryonic discipline, and Whyte's
collection of essays exhibits one pervasive difficulty -- the incon-
sistency of the terminology. "Form, "structure," "pattern, "
"shape," "configuration," "system" connote different things and
values to the different writers. Some of this vocabulary difficulty
seems unavoidable. However, the confusion noted between Murdoch's
"form" and what I will call "order" is not purely a word quibble;
there is a conceptual misunderstanding involved.
Murdoch recognizes life as ceaseless process; too much form
stills the movement. But this process-rhythm is itself what informs
life; it is a constant. From this perspective, form does not appear
as a two-headed monster, indispensable to artistic achievement
yet antagonistic to life. The static, stultifying, rational organization
which Murdoch denigrates is more accurately referred to as "order,"
for this suggests the marshalling of experience into a contrived
wholeness. However, a new definition does not fully resolve Mur-
doch's quandary about form as essence and form as menace. It
is the apparent purposelessness of nature which Murdoch struggles
to align somehow with man's inborn ability and desire to create
purpose in his own life. Another contributor to Whyte's anthology,
C. H. Waddington, puts his finger very accurately on the problem
Murdoch faces, just as she might conceptualize it:
Man, it seems, when he begins to create, is usually
more single-purposed than living Nature. The
inner logic of his constructions is simpler; or
he is concerned more with an externally imposed
logic, of representation or symbolism. There is,
in a human work of sculpture, no actual multi-
tude of internal growth-forces which are balanced
so as to issue in a near-equilibrium of a rhythmic
character. We should therefore not expect that
works of art will often arrive at the same type of
form as we commonly find in the structures of living
matter. Much more can we anticipate an influence
of man's intellectualising, pattern-making habit of
simplification, diluted perhaps by an intrusion of
unresolved detail. Only the extremely simple, or
the extremely sophisticated, are likely to stray
into the realm of form which is the proper outcome
of the blind but complex forces of life. 23
The "blindness" is the stone over which both Murdoch and
Waddington stumble. Nothing is planned in nature as man would
plan with his intelligence. Yet this faculty in man is certainly not
automatically a death-instinct unless it predominates over man's
other faculties which do flow with the process-rhythm -- his emo-
tions, his senses, his imagination.
Whyte's important book The Next Development in Man has as a
main premise that man's inability to recognize the connection
between himself and all organic life occasioned the twentieth
century's well-known anxiety. Whyte maintains that "the primary
duality from which all others spring: is the separation of this
system here [man's] and the rest of nature. 24 Man must recog-
nize that he is an organic being and that as such he is ruled by
the principle of nature that change is universal:
Man is one with nature as an expression of the
universal formative process, and one with or-
ganic nature as an expression of a formative
process continually developing its own process
forms but never attaining static perfection. 25
In his attempt to create a precise vocabulary, Whyte's terms have
distinctions so subtle that they merely confuse. But when he says
that "the form common to all processes is that of a formative
tendency, it seems clear enough that the unity of the world
(or nature) lies in its ceaseless development through form. More-
over, it is the peculiar nature of organic life (as opposed to, e.g.
crystal formation) to develop in a diastolic-systolic rhythm. "Form
is developed, in the symmetry not of static form but of process
in equilibrium. Organic development is not teleological, but
is a process of continuing adjustment. "26 In addition to the pul-
stations of assimilation and disintegration within each organism,
there is the always unpredictable encounter with the environment.
Life is a wild confusion of events. Whyte cautions that "man . .
must accept his personal life for what it is, a transient develop-
ment through changes which cannot be foreseen. While nature is
"a unity in its form of process," it "is not a coherent unity."27
Thus the life of an individual is a constant development through
creation of form, but within the development there is an everlasting
tension between conflicting forces. The ultimate conflict is
between permanence and change. Permanence, in the sense of a
static unchanging order, would be death to the organism. The
relation is a complex balance. As Susanne Langer expresses
it in Feeling and Form,
In the phenomenon we call "life, both continuous
change and permanent form really exist; but the
form is made and maintained by complicated dispo-
sition of mutual influences among the physical
units. . Permanence of form, then, is the
constant aim of living matter; not the final goal
(for it is what finally fails), but the thing that is
perpetually being achieved, and that is always,
at every moment, an achievement, because it
depends entirely on the activity of "living. But
"living" itself is a process, a continuous change;
if it stands still the form disintegrates -- for the
permanence is a pattern of changes.28
This permanence is precisely what Murdoch wishes to accom-
plish in her fiction; she wants to create a novel which is more than
an individual pattern plus a few unresolved details. The struggle
which she perceives between the integrating, liberating imagination
and the classifying, controlling intellect is real. But since she
conceives of life's blindness as a formlessness, her aesthetic
categories only make for more confusion. In order to escape
rigidity of structure, she exhorts the novelist to return to a
naturalistic representation of character. But this division into
plot versus character is "rather inexact and epigrammatic" as
she admits. There are other options: Joyce Cary was both a
bold experimenter with form and a brilliant creator of character.
And as A. S. Byatt has observed, Murdoch's distrust of the highly
patterned novel shows her working against herself, for one of her
remarkable talents is precisely the invention of plot or story. 29
Her theoretical distinctions lead her to conceive of form in quan-
titative, rather than qualitative terms: "Of course, too, artists
are pattern-makers. The claims of form and the question of
'how much form' to elicit constitutes one of the chief problems
of art. "30 While there are certainly differences in the ways in
which art works are "formal, form is not a mass to be measured.
It is more a way, a direction, a movement. There is probably
nothing in life, from molecules to men, which does not have form.
But even with Whyte's "unitary" understanding that man is not
separate from the rest of organic nature, there are differences
between aesthetic form and natural form. In fact, Whyte's dis-
cussion of the organism-environment relationship is strained pre-
cisely because he at first tries to include all organisms, without
emphasizing man's special differences. These differences -- for
example, the purposive, ordering thrust of his consciousness. --
must be resolved with the likenesses. Murdoch herself expresses
very well some of the differences between art and life in an inter-
view with Stephanie Nettell, "'But of course, art is art; one is
drawing artificial lines around something, and one is offering it
up in a heightened form.'"31 A work of art does have artificial
lines about it in the sense that the artist marks the beginning and
the end. His words begin and they cease. He limits the experience
with which he will deal as we cannot in our lives often do. The
artist is a shaper and a controller under the force of his invention.
But her phrase "heightened form" is even better at indicating
the special differences and the ultimate purpose of an art which is
dedicated to life. Art is, finally, more stable, less chaotic, than
actual organic life. The artist is able, by the selective powers of
imagination, to heighten and to make clearer, more comprehensible,
more available to the mind and spirit the complexities of life.
In the articles which most thoroughly connect morality and art
Murdoch best grasps and expresses the significance of artistic
form as opposed to the uncontrolled forms of life. There she says
that "form in art is properly the simulation of the self-contained
aimlessness of the universe," and yet art heightens even aimlessness.
The artist chooses and isolates in order to make his vision more
effective. He presents life "with a clarity which does not belong
to the self-centred rush of ordinary life. Finally, "it is when
form is used to isolate, to explore, to display something which is
true that we are most highly moved and enlightened. 32 Artistic
form is not something other than the form of life. It isolates and
heightens, but it does not falsify.
Yet even here Murdoch is insisting that the self is the nemesis.
Even with the modification of her theoretical approach to form,
there remains the question of the individual's contribution. While
she talks of heightening, she does seem to suggest that art should
create something different -- not ordinary life but something
better. "Self-centred" is clearly a pejorative judgment. She
passionately upholds the person as "substantial, impenetrable,
individual, indefinable, and valuable"; at the same time he is
(always) a mean and selfish glut. Her "bogus individual" is still
another self. The definitions are tangled.
Murdoch has evident difficulty reconciling the value of the
individual with what could be loosely called a social consciousness.
With the disappearance of absolute values and a transcendent order,
each man is left as the center of the universe; how can these
separate centers of energy be connected so that they do not simply
destroy each other? Murdoch feels that the self is not only naturally
inclined to reduce life to a smaller, safer unit but is encouraged
to do so by popular modern philosophies. And in art the same is
true; the writer turns personal conflicts into neat stories with
beginnings, middles, and ends. The intensity and consistency of
Murdoch's moral outlook leads her to a rather dogmatic insistence
on the value of one type of narrative form. She sees life as explo-
sive and feels that the novel should be explosive as well. And yet
the individual (who is also responsible for this volatile energy) is
to efface himself in favor of other individual's outbursts. Her
dangerously prescriptive moral and aesthetic theories hamper
her own feelings, for she admits that by and large the best novels
of the twentieth century have been of the crystalline variety. Here
she violates her theory by making an aesthetic judgment untouched
by her dislike of the "fat relentless ego. "
Murdoch's. description of the self is extremely restricted. She
looks for an individual willing to face the mysterious and arduous
reality of other people and things, but she does not conceive that
this ability or power can originate within the individual. Within
all is dark, greedy, and cowardly; only by extinguishing this monster
and giving attention to his ideal opposite does man develop a moral
sense and great art.
As has been seen, too much dwelling on the personal supposedly
produces form which is simplified, fantastic, and energy-inhibiting,
the realm of myth in Murdoch's opinion. Yet not all agree that
myth is a static form. The altered notion of form already discussed
is one which others, notably Joseph Campbell, have also advanced
for the character of myth in the modern world. Moreover, this
view of myth speaks to Murdoch's other large problem -- the
individual perspective. Myth now, according to Campbell, while
retaining its function of illuminating the individual's relation to
the group, is necessarily an expression of individual experience.
That is, myth does open up and accept life's enigma precisely
because it is an individual creation for other individuals. The
self is not necessarily a monster with a rage for order.
The next chapter will discuss the particular character of myth
which does correspond to the open form which Murdoch's theories
postulate, and it will relate the importance of the individual self
to the creation of myth.
1. "The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited," p. 248.
2. Ibid., p. 268.
3. Ibid., p. 271.
4. The Sovereignty of Good, p. 66.
6. Ibid., p. 41.
7. "The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited, p. 257.
8. Ibid., p. 254.
10. Frank Kermode, "A House of Fiction: Interviews with
Seven English Novelists, Partisan Review, XXX (Spring 1963), 63.
11. "The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited, pp. 259-260, 264.
12. Kermode, p. 70.
13. "The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited, p. 257.
14. Kermode, p. 70.
15. "Against Dryness," pp. 19, 20.
16. See "The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited, pp. 258,
271; Kermode, p. 63; "Against Dryness, p. 20.
17. "The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited, p. 258.
18. Kermode, pp. 63, 64.
19. "Against Dryness," p. 20.
20. Kermode, p. 63.
21. "The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited, p. 271.
22. Aspects of Form (Bloomington, Indiana, 1951), no page
23. Ibid., pp. 51-52.
24. The Next Development in Man (New York, 1948), p. 30.
25. Ibid., p. 38.
26. Ibid., p. 18.
27. Ibid., pp. 211, 29.
28. Feeling and Form (New York, 1953), p. 66.
29. Byatt, p. 190.
30. The Sovereignty of Good, p. 65.
31. "An Exclusive Interview," Books and Bookmen, XI (Septem-
ber 1966), 14.
32. The Sovereignty of Good, pp. 86, 65.
MYTH AS AESTHETIC FORM
It is necessary to make plain from the outset of this discussion
that I intend no definitive statement about the nature of myth.
There continues heated debate among'scholars about the proper
understanding of myth and even about the questions to be asked.
Some investigations pursue myth's functions, some its meanings,
and some the structure of the mythical consciousness. A once
powerful theory placed myth's origins in ritual; another viewed
myth as mainly aetiological. The structural approach emphasizes
the speculative purpose of myth, and some anthropologists view
myth as the validation of social institutions. This discussion
will attempt to illuminate those qualities of myth, viewed as an
aesthetic expression of a particular experience of life, which are
in accord with Iris Murdoch's significant vision of the form of
modern narrative literature.
Murdoch is undeniably correct that myth has become exceptionally
popular in this century, both with writers and with critics. How-
ever, its attractions are by no means limited to simplified fantasy,
Romanticism, containment, and selfishness. Myth obviously offers
to some an avenue for reinstating just those qualities of life which
Murdoch feels have been submerged in our culture beneath the
powerful tide of man's reason. Myth is man's response to the
mystery, power, and energy he feels immediately present in the
world. It is a complex aesthetic expression which has indeed
been used as a regulator of experience, but which springs from
feeling and from a recognition of and identification with the meta-
morphic process of life. And it is a moral creation which illu-
minates the relation between one individual and a group. Certainly
ancient man's response to life cannot be modern man's response.
But what myth can mean now and the forms it may embody are
important to Murdoch's vision of this chancy, explosive world.
There is at least one indication that Murdoch has ambivalent
feelings about myth. She reviewed Elias Canetti's Crowds and
Power (later dedicating The Flight from the Enchanter to him)
and praised the book for showing "the interaction of 'the mythical'
with the ordinary stuff of human life." She claimed that "The
mythical is not something 'extra'; we live in myth and symbol all
the time." Murdoch does not continue this speculation, but those
subsequent novels which extensively use myth are certainly attempts
to imaginatively integrate myth and "ordinary" life.
Two deceptively simple attributes of myth are, I think, primarily
important and must begin this investigation of myth's properties.
First, a myth is verbal; it is a narrative or story. For the Greeks
muthos meant a tale, a statement, a story, or the plot of a play.
Plato is the first known user of the term muthologia, and he meant
the telling of stories. 2 While some scholars find this etymology
unhelpful, it is quite significant, for it indicates that myth must
be considered an aesthetic creation -- a too easily forgotten fact.
Ernst Cassirer even claims that myth "represents the earliest
and most universal product of the aesthetic fantasy"; it is not a
mere reflection of reality but "a characteristic creative elaboration3
Second, myth is always about mystery. Scholars quibble whether
myth must always involve gods, but though it does not always
include a pantheon, myth does explore the spiritual life. It
regards the unknowable energies, power, and mysteries -- whether
or not called sacred -- which surround and permeate man. Myth
is the narrative expression of the entrance of the spiritual into
the world; in myth the spirit is incarnate.
These general criteria, to yield their full value, must be aug-
mented with a discussion of specific attributes of the mythical
mind and then with a discussion of myth's functions. The philosopher
Ernst Cassirer has made a full and pregnant postulate of the workings
of the mythical consciousness, and his hypotheses and observations
have a singular correspondence with the feeling for life expressed
in Iris Murdoch's thought and art.
Cassirer's sweeping concern is the evolution of the symbolic
process, with the mythical consciousness as a beginning stage.
The qualities of mythical thought are posited within this framework
and are categorized most generally by the opposition of the sacred
(the mysterious, powerful, extraordinary) and the profane (the
common and accessible). The modes of thought are further
described as dynamic, intuitive, based on feeling, steeped in
immediacy and the concrete. Also of importance is the mythical
relation to time. Once a cosmic sense of time has been established,
the mythical mind conceives of a sacred, immutable past to which
the present is continually juxtaposed.
Cassirer's mythical age is essentially the "whole-natured"
age which Lancelot Law Whyte sees antedating the split into the
two incompatible systems of sense and intellect. In this ancient
stage man was closely identified with the processes of nature, and
Whyte's visionary hope is that modern man can regain this unitive
experience in the form appropriate to his stage in history. 4 The
attributes -- fluidity, spontaneity, sensuality -- to be regained
and integrated with man's more rational and time-conscious nature
correspond to Cassirer's recreation of mythical life. Rather
than the intellect, the intuition was primary. The processes of
abstraction and analyzation were secondary to a state of awareness
which the world impinged upon as power: "Long before the world
appeared to consciousness as a totality of empirical things and a
complex of empirical attributes it was manifested as an aggregate
of mythical powers and effects. 5 The world's constant flux was
the given, and its unending metamorphosis was both a source of
fear and power. Elias Canetti also discusses men-animal totems
as particularly significant because they are "representations of the
process of transformation. From the unending flux of innumerable
possible transformations, one is picked out and given permanent
In Cassirer's theory of symbolic process, the important thing
about mythical metamorphosis was the hypostatization of the
flowing elements. Science approaches reality through relations;
myth reduces all to material substances. Thus while myth is
a first attempt to go.beyond the given and to deal with spiritual
powers, it does so by rendering them in concrete form. It is
"a kind of materialization of spiritual contents. What differen-
tiates this process from the symbolic process is that the creators
of myth did not distinguish between object and image. This solidity
of the spirit is important for this discussion of art and energy in
the modern world. In myth the spiritual world is a concrete reality.
The impulse in ancient man Which led him to put his spiritual
perceptions into story is still operative in the imagination's life
today. A consciousness which believes in the identity of matter
and spirit has been increasingly supplanted by a conception of the
symbol as device. But aesthetic expression is the making solid
of the imagination, and no matter how altered, art today shares
that basic character with ancient myth. It is this century's special
position, and one Iris Murdoch recognizes, that a change has
again occurred which calls for participation in those mythic modes
which integrate the spiritual and the concrete.
The qualities thus far outlined -- the play of passion and feeling,
the immersion in sensual and immediate life, the ability of man
and nature to transform themselves, and the concrete reality
of the spiritual world -- all have an affinity with Murdoch's forms
of life. Ancient man's confrontation of this world, however, espe-
cially provokes her interest. Her attention is to form, and in
myth she sees not a flowing with process but control. And so do
many others. Cassirer's treatment of time is a natural approach
to this facet of myth.
Again he differentiates between two stages. In the first, time
is apprehended biologically; that is, the alternation of day and
night or of the seasons underlies the primary intuition of time.
Man feels the rhythmic periodicity of life. "The primary mythical
'sense of phases' can apprehend time only in the image of life. "
Then within this time a cosmic time appears in which true myth
is born; time changes from the felt rhythm in all life to a vision
of a temporal order allied with destiny and governing reality.
In this time the ongoing life and action of both men and gods are
possible. Here is Cassirer's description of this evolution:
True myth does not begin when the intuition of the
universe and its parts and forces is merely formed
into definite images, into the figures of demons and
gods; it begins only when a genesis, a becoming,
a life in time, is attributed to these figures. Only
where man ceases to content himself with a static
contemplation of the divine, where the divine ex-
plicates its existence and nature in time, where
the human consciousness takes the step forward
from the figure of the gods to the history, the nar-
rative, of the gods -- only then have we to do with
"myths" in the restricted, specific meaning of the
Cassirer further distinguishes this mythic time from our historical
time in its treatment of the past. In myth thereis a sacred,
immutable, infinitely distant past "which neither requires nor is
susceptible of any further explanation."10
This concept of a fixed past against which the present is judged
and through which it is stabilized has been given its fullest expres-
sion by Mircea Eliade. His phrase in illo tempore designates that
mysterious source of all life whose irruptions in the present are
the subject of myth This past is a separate, fully divine sphere
of being. It functions as a definition and confinement of power
whose sources can be tapped by living men. Thus in myth the
absolute past is the constant arbiter of value in the present. "All
the sanctity of mythical being goes back ultimately to the sanctity
of the origin."11 Eliade, more specifically concerned with ritual
than with myth, contends that the repetition of an act supposedly
originated by a god is an implicit abolition of "profane" time and
transports the actor into the sacred, mythical epoch. 12 Whether
through ritual or not, he believes that ancient man felt he could
participate in the remote, sacred, immutable "time" just as that
time could break into the shifting, changing present. This belief
was one response to the feared unpredictableness of life. Ancient
man's very immersion in transformation as the pulse of life led
to an escape through an uncorrupted order of being:
Archaic man's rejection of history, his refusal
to situate himself in a concrete historical time,
would, then, be the symptoms of a precocious
weariness, a fear of movement and spontaneity;
in short, placed between accepting the historical
condition and its risks on the one hand, and his
reidentification with the modes of nature on the
other, he would choose such a reidentification.13
T. S. Eliot's previously quoted dictum about myth's function in
literature arises, then, from a firm scholarly tradition. Besides
Cassirer and Eliade, Elias Canetti, G. S. Kirk and Joseph Campbell
support this hypothesis about ancient myth. Campbell, as we have
seen, believes traditional myths antecedee and control experience."
Kirk says concisely that part of myth's function is "binding the
volatile present to the traditionally and divinely sanctioned regularity
of the past.,14 Canetti gives a more specific, imaginative picture:
It seems as though early man was made uneasy-by
the increasing fluidity of his nature, by his very
gift for transformation in fact, and that this was
what made him seek for some fixed and immovable
barriers. There were so many sensations which
he experienced as something alien operating within
his body . that he felt as though he had been
given over to it and forced to become it . He
felt as though there was nothing but movement
everywhere and that his own being was in a state
of continual flux; and this inevitably aroused in him
a desire for solidity and permanence."15
While without doubt men still often desire that solidity and
permanence, it cannot be achieved, as it once was, through living
participation in myth. There are always other alternatives -- the
church, a social order, a belief in rationality or even in the past --
but there are also those who wish not to shun our volatile life but
to embrace it. They do not wish to anchor themselves outside
of time or history (history in the sense of a process in time, not
as 'the past'), but "to accept the risks entailed by every creative
act.16 As Eliade recognizes, modern man's creativity must arise
from his life in time, from his own freedom, and cannot be merely
a collaboration.in some archetypal, distant gesture of the gods.
The gap between the mythic consciousness and the modern con-
sciousness can seem vast and unbridgeable in this light, and indeed
many scoff at the suggestion that our age can be in any sense mytho-
poeic. Yet myth's terrain -- its fluidity, its intuitive apprehension
of the world, its belief in the constant unpredictable infusion of
spiritual power in this life -- is also that our unsettled age. While
myth can no longer supply boundaries to experience, it can now turn
its forms to the liberation of energy. This is the creative mythology
which Joseph Campbell celebrates.
Campbell outlines four functions of myth which are, skeletally,
the mystical, cosmological, sociological, and psychological.
The first function involves the original, shocking impact between
man and the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of this universe.
Mythology both elicits and supports this sense of awe. Then myth
renders an image of the mystery, an invention of a cosmology
which interprets the mystery to consciousness. The third function,
the sociological, integrates the individual with the group and enforces
a social and/or moral order. Campbell feels the importance of
mythology in the progress of civilizations is of inestimable impor-
tance, for its basis in aspiration is more powerful than arbitrary
authority. On the fourth function Campbell centers his energies.
In Occidental Mythology he describes this function as "initiating
the individual into the order of realities of his own psyche, guiding
him toward his own spiritual enrichment and realization.1 In
Creative Mythology the description is fuller and the intensity of
the rhetoric bares Campbell's passion for the new mythology:
The fourth and most vital, most critical function of
a mythology, then, is to foster, the centering and
unfolding of the individual in integrity, in accord
with d) himself (the microcosm), c) his culture (the meso-
cosm), b) the universe (the macrocosm), and a)
that awesome ultimate mystery which is both beyond
and within himself and all things.
Defining the most vital and critical functions of a mythology in
terms of the individual seems a shameless example of what Murdoch
feels is existentialism's most pernicious tendency. But Campbell's
expanding system of relationships removes any charge of solipsism.
In truth, all does originate with the individual for Campbell, but
this individual never works, creates, or exists in a blind vacuum.
The fourth volume of The Masks of God is the elucidation of the
fourth function and of the revolution which brought it into being.
Through philosophy, science, art, and theology, Campbell traces
the changes which have broughtmen to see the mysterium tremendum
of the universe visibly expressed in the miracle of individual lives.
The first three functions of myth are not obviated in the twentieth
century, but the same forces which have increased the significance
of individuation have altered the forms of the mystical, cosmological,
and sociological apprehensions of being. The universe's multiplicity
cannot.be contained in absolute systems. Communities increasingly
cannot be isolated or enclosed. A mythology cannot inhibit the
range of possibilities but must actually provide for the unexpected.
Campbell believes the creative mythology witnessed in the
western world today had its beginnings in the middle of the twelfth
century. Before that time, the dicta of authority and tradition
still presided over life; mythologies were immured in a respect
for inherited forms. The individual was meant to share in the
communal expression of a mythology and thus bind himself to the
past and inherited meanings. Instead, in creative mythology the
individual takes his own experience here and now, expressing it
for others if they wish to receive it. Attention to immediate, worldly
life supercedes the otherworldly structures which dictated value
and prescribed action. The wane of religious mythology in modern
life is undisputed; Campbell, using primarily Gottfried von Strass-
burg's Tristan und Isold and Wolfram von Eschenback's Parsival,
demonstrates the secularization of myth (after the Christianizing
of myth in the West) occurring as early as the thirteenth century.
Here is Campbell's own ebullient paean to this revolutionary change:
Creative mythology . springs not, like theology,
from the dicta of authority, but from the insights,
sentiments, thoughts, and vision of an adequate indi-
vidual, loyal to his own experience of value. Thus
it corrects the authority holding to the shells of forms
produced and left behind by lives once lived. Renew-
ing the act of experience itself, it restores to exist-
ence the quality of adventure, at once shattering and
reintegrating the fixed, already known, in the sacri-
ficial creative fire of the becoming thing that is no
thing at all but life, not as it will be or as it should
be, as it was or as it never will be, but as it is, in
depth, iniprocess, here and now, inside and out. (6-7)
The last catalogue without question complements Murdoch's own
admonition that art must deal with the given and not with fantastic
distortion. The subject and the form of art is life. On this Joseph
Campbell and Iris Murdoch indisputably agree. Yet myth to Murdoch
is the antithesis of the acceptance of life's reality. If Campbell has
not merely redefined a word, negating the never-never-land quality
of myth, what in the mythic mode can apply to this perilous, sceptical,
One of the most obvious attraction of the mythic mode is that it
is a possible means of preserving the largest dimensions of man's
experience. This is clear in Campbell's four functions and in
Cassirer's and Eliade's work, but it needs to be stated. Both
Joseph Campbell and Iris Murdoch are temperamentally inclined
toward monism in this sense: they are profoundly concerned with
the spiritual unity of the human race. But this concern works in
concert with a secular belief (sometimes shaky for Murdoch) in
the world of individuals as the arena of any spiritual activity. Myth
is a way to probe the existence of mystery without wallowing in
a mystical realm or subscribing to institutionalized religion's
dogma of sin and salvation. And science, while stripping away the
theological explanations of the world's being, leaves at last only
other mysteries, other unanalyzable systems of energy bursting
about us. So Joseph Campbell's creative mythology can be viewed
as an alternative effort to embrace the spiritual life and the heroic
dimension in the modern age. Myth is "the revelatory factor by
which the incidents of the daylight world are linked to that ground
which is the ground of all and gives to everything its life" (373).
Like Iris Murdoch, he cannot abandon life to empirical .scientists,
to behavioral psychologists, to philosophers of ordinary language,
or to cynical deniers of human worth. Neither can he accept the
faiths of Scripture, Reason, Science or History whose members
"have as yet no idea of how mysterious,, really, is the mystery
even of themselves" (609). He has, as Murdoch puts it, some
dream of unity too; he at least desires that the human experience
not disperse into fragments.
But there are great differences in Campbell's concept of the
mythic and Murdoch's concept of the Good. Campbell does not
need to postulate a transcendent perfection in order to deal with
man's morality or spiritual life. For Campbell, myth is the
mode in our time which can approach our enigmatic existence and
still not violate the unpredictable individuality which is the world's
character: "However, myth cannot be thought of as fixed, once-and
for all, dogmatically defined. Rather it is to be rediscovered by
the artist's eye, fresh and alive, as the form of this event and
that: as a pattern that is no pattern, but in each thing uniquely
present as never" (373).
Another aspect of the inclusive nature of myth is its universality
or, at least, the durability of its life in time. Campbell's cele-
bration of the unique present should not obscure his belief in the
continuity of mythic experience. He rejects the past as dictator
of experience but does not reject the body of the world's myths.
Because myth has sought to still the moment in an approximation
of an ideal, timeless state, and because myth has such power to
captivate men's imaginations and beliefs, Campbell must adamantly
warn against succumbing to the lure of the past: "And in this
life-creative adventure the criterion of achievement will be, as in
every one of the tales here reviewed, the courage to let go the past,
with its truths, ;its goals, its dogmas of 'meaning,' and its gifts:
to die to the world and to come to birth from within" (678). But
this is not Campbell's complete perspective. In his enthusiasm
for the revolution in attitudes toward the past and tradition, it is
often easy to miss his insistence on the unity of the human race
and the need to use its mythic heritage. In much the same way,
Campbell sometimes seems vague about the more specific criteria
of myth: if individual experience is primary, could not all literature
be mythic? At one point he explains that an artistic achievement
will be mythic if the individual's realization has been "of a certain
depth and import" (4). While these lapses do occur, as a result
partially of the book's size.and its excited rather than rational
approach, Creative Mythology examines particular works of
literature and demonstrates their place in the body of the world's
myths. His method is comparative. He begins with the arrested
spirit before the universe's mystery, proceeds to examine the
vehicles of communication open to the Western artist, and then
follows the productions of some of these "towering individuals" (40).
The relation between myth-creation today and the world's mythic
heritage must be considered.
In his preface to Creative Mythology, Campbell indicates that
he does believe in the unity of the race of man -- biologically and
spiritually -- in spite of the multitude of differences he himself
has gathered. To this point, one of the techniques of his fourth
.volume is a heady amassing of allusions from the most disparate
sources. Nietzsche, Jesus, and Bodhisattva are likely to appear
in the same paragraph. Campbell believes in a theory of arche-
types. He recognizes and catalogues motifs, images, and symbols
which are constants in human experience, but which also appear
continually in changed relationships with distortions, amplifications,
and developments appropriate to the men and the times. The mythic
achievements in our time (his examples are James Joyce and Thomas
Mann) necessarily make use of the mythic past. The imagination
is unifying, and the artist a man capable of recognizing and creating
in his work correspondences between his individual age and the
mythological figures and events of the past. Campbell uses
Schopenhauer's image of anamorphoses (pictures which appear
broken to the naked eye but which show recognizable forms when
reflected in a conic mirror) for the artist's ability to give form
to disconnected experience. Myth is comprehensive; it is inclusive,
not exclusive. What Campbell insists upon is that the past must
not stifle the present; it must be evocative, not coercive. In fact,
Campbell interprets our age's famous Wasteland as a result of
the attempt to live by a mythology which no longer corresponds to
experience (388). The fount of creation is the individual's singular
experience here and now; then this may be added the time and
space depth of other mythologies. Tradition is important, but
it has nothing to do with creative life and less than
nothing with what I am here calling creative myth,
which springs from the.unpredictable, unprecedented
experience-in-illumination.of an object by a sub-
ject, and the labor, then, of achieving communi-
cation of the effect. It is in this second, altogether
secondary, technical phase of creative art, commu-
nication, that the general treasury, the dictionary,
so to say, of the world's infinitely rich.heritage of
symbols, images, myth motives, and hero deeds,
may be called upon -- either consciously, as by
Joyce and Mann, or unconsciously, as in dream --
to render the message. (40)
This is a very extreme statement, not the least in the suggestion
that communication is a secondary phase of art. I feel that Campbell
did not seriously examine here the words which his zeal led him to
use, for later he softens this view. Elsewhere he is perfectly
aware that old forms excite the imagination to produce new forms.
It is not as though the artist can shut out the memory of inherited
forms. But Campbell is correct to insist that the past should not
be the arbiter of experience:
The norms of myth, understood in the way rather
of the "elementary idea" (Marga) than of the "ethnic"
(desi), recognized, as in the Domitilla Ceiling
through an intelligent "making use" not of one
mythology only but of all of the dead and set-fast
symbologies of the past, will enable the indivi-
dual to anticipate and activate in himself the
centers of his own creative imagination, out of
which his own myth and life-building "yes be-
cause" may then unfold. (677)
These aspects of myth -- its wide scope and its ability to
create characters and situations which are elementary -- joined
with those culled from Cassirer and others are all part of myth's
appeal for the modern man. But myth must undergo a radical
redefinition in order to accommodate a changed consciousness.
There are new qualities which Campbell deems mythic; the spiritual
has a new environment, "the root and seed potentials, structuring
laws and forces, interior to the earthly being that is man" (326).
In fact Campbell suggests that rather than reason, theology or
literary criticism, the most promising approach to myth studies
may be biological psychology. Out of his description of the new
mythology I think two new qualities can be distilled: 1) the indivi-
dual embodiment of mystery is a value in itself (not participation
in an archetype) and 2) the process of myth is the process of
creation and is in turn its meaning (and this again through indivi-
duals). Since the mystery of existence is first known by us through
particulars, these must be eminently valuable. No longer reflect-
ing definition from a transcendent concept or a cosmological scheme
or a Golden Age, the individual radiates his own worth. As a
corollary of the painful knowledge of individuation, man accepts
himself as miracle. Worth "is not in transcendence, 'out there,'
beyond thought, beyond personality, but here in this life, in its
immanence, in the faces, personalities, loves and lives all around
us, in our friends, our enemies, and ourselves" (578). Murdoch
can sound the same note when she urges us to give attention to
individuals. And yet, as a guide to moral action and an insurance
that we truly recognize value, she abstracts from these particulars
a transcendent Good. Of course Campbell does this also -- he
talks of beauty and "the radiance of divinity" as outside guides,
but he does not elevate these to an abstract realm from which they
exercise authority. He leaves the judgments of good ultimately
within the individual heart -- where they have muchless chance
of being influenced by an external criterion which is falsified by
its static nature.
Perhaps, then, Campbell is merely more optimistic about human
nature than Murdoch. Nowhere does he baldly state that men are
intrinsically low characters. In its fervor and its lush rhetoric,
Campbell's book is a more joyful celebration of life than Murdoch's
more restrained, cool appraisals. But this is not the telling
distinction, for Joseph Campbell is hardly naive. His injunction to
man to love all does not skirt Murdoch's hard "knowledge of reality":
"[we] should view with equal eye and loving heart both the noble
and the base, the wicked and the just . However, if we may be
honest here for a moment . this transmutation [accomplished
by loving all], to be realized, must include all those whom we fear
and hate, as well as those whom we merely despise: the monsters,
sadists, beasts, and degenerates of our kind" (331).
In general Campbell does have a firmer trust than Murdoch in
man's ability to build more life than he destroys. Campbell under-
stands that a belief in the individual as a source of value does not
insulate man from man. The principle of individuation entails
a respect for the intrinsic significance of each man's experience.
Judgments concerning conflicts between one man's experience and
another's will always be necessary, usually ambiguous, often
painful. Murdoch's transcendent Good cannot arm man to avoid
such confrontations. But an active belief in a man's worth as an
individual must be extended to all others. This is easy to write
and hard to live. Such a maxim is not a facile key to any moral
dilemma. But it is a start, and something of the sort must inform
the lives of those good men who (even if few and far between)
Murdoch admits do exists. Relying on inner sources and experi-
ences is not equivalent to selfishness. Nowhere in Creative
Mythology does Campbell suggest that man moves in a moral vacuum
free from the claims of other individuals or of society. Of Parsival's
attainment of the Grail ("the symbol of supreme spiritual value"),
It is attained, however, not by renouncing the
world or even current social custom, but, on
the contrary, by participating with every ounce
of one's force in the century's order of life in
the way or ways dictated by one's own uncorrupted
With Murdoch's obviously deep-felt belief in the significance of
the individual life, she does not escape a moral prescriptiveness
which Campbell lacks. A moralizing tone, never sounded in
Creative Mythology, reverberates in her essays. As forcefully
as she defends the radical particularity of each life, as much as
she tries to purge the Good of any theological imperatives, she
constantly exercises her conviction that man ought to be better
than he is. Her reluctance to let man fall back on himself even
after the "death of the gods" is related to this. Murdoch has said
that it is significant to ask of a philosopher, "What does he fear?";
her own moral philosophy demonstrates her hesitancy to let go of
abstract moral guides and to "fall" completely into the world of
men equally capable of murder and of love. She still creates a
spirituality existing, pure and motionless, outside the knowable
world. Joseph Campbell identifies the spirit with the person. That
is the possible mythic realm today. But far from assuming that
man now is of mythic proportion, she sees him as usually capable
only of producing the "small myths" which shield him from chance.
Murdoch, to be fully consistent to her important, difficult vision
of life -- a risky, explosive, undirected world full of real,
impenetrable, unique, valuable people -- can take one more step
and allow man, for better or worse, to celebrate his own mystery.
This celebration is accomplished through art; about this Joseph
Campbell is clear enough. Myth is an aesthetic product, and the
artists will be the giants lof this age, the creators and purveyors
of the myths which can connect men's centers of consciousness --
not through information or reason, but through a spiritual message
passed to the brain by way of the heart. The artist is the anamor-
phoscope which unites the fragments of existence in concrete forms.
Because he lives in imagination, the artist is the man today who
can most readily approach participation in the mythical realm.
The community, no longer enclosed nor a sanctuary of shared
experience, cannot be a mythogenetic zone. Nor can the priesthood
or science. Individual artists remain.
What Campbell does not emphasize sufficiently is the identity of
the creative process and the mythical way of life he proposes --
an understanding implicit on every page of Creative Mythology
but never quite articulated completely. He does not say.that the
life of "adventure" held out to any who wish to set out is necessarily
aesthetic. This has more than one dimension.
It is not only that life's power must be particularized. This
important aspect of myth has already been mentioned. Ancient
man lived in intimate contact with the spirit. Today again power
or energy is the substance of life. The mysterious dynamo of the
atom is the building block of the most solid skyscraper. And art
is the making solid of the mysterious. But in this age when it
has become increasingly clear that time cannot be stilled, that
there is no other ideal sphere through which the world's movement
can be controlled, that there is no authority whose dictates explain
and ease the horrors of this life, the mythic realm can be nothing
other than the realm of creation itself: the neverending renewal
of life, the pulse of disintegration and rebirth, the mystery of
mysteries, the imagination. One of the divisions used to classify
ancient mythologies is the "creation myth. Today that is not a
separable class, but the whole of mythology. Art, man's supreme
creative achievement, reproduces the creative process of life.
The imagination is myth's realm of transformation never stilled.
Such a mythology will not necessarily provide creeds to live
by; it will not necessarily offer comfort. Its forms are "a pattern
that is no pattern, but in each thing uniquely present as never before."
Its forms "come to birth from within" and are not, as Murdoch fears,
imposed from the outside. The myths of the past, a living part
of the artist's consciousness, are transformed in the creative
heat of the immediate. For Joseph Campbell myth deals with what
is -- an "is" never fixed, but in process. Mythic form, far from
being an enclosure or inhibitor of experience, fosters more life.
Murdoch's criteria for the novel's form, then, are not opposed
by myth. 19 The essence of both is change; myth is not a "crystalline"
form but an organic one. A myth unfolds as from a seed and grows.
Moreover, the aesthetic elements of myths cannot be reduced to
the label "fantastic, for this suggests that myths distort life's
realities. Such a notion ignores a number of myths whose enduring
quality has been not the fantastic but the intricate, undecipherable
qualities of human experience. Not Zeus' amorous adventures
but Medea's awful blood-letting. Not Perseus' birth from a shower
of gold, but the grisly stories in The Golden Bough. These examples
are horrible, but the point is that myth does not ignore the more
terrible aspects of life; neither is its rendering of them artistically
If anything is apparent in myth studies it is the ligh seriousness
and artistic value of the myths of most peoples. G. S. Kirk, attempt-
ing to articulate the differences between myths and folktales,
provides a revealing list of characteristics for myths: specificity
of characters and family relationships, complicated action, un-
predictable reactions of individuals, free-ranging and paradoxical
imagination (as opposed to the "neat logic" of folktales) which
can produce drastic changes in the action, seriousness, often
divine or semi-divine characters or culture heros, a setting in
the timeless past. The emphasis on thoroughly realized characters
and on unpredictable, complicated experience prevents myth from
being too easily categorized as fantastic and consoling. Drastic
changes in action are, in fact, one of Murdoch's special techniques
and meanings. If myths can no longer be set in the timeless
past in order to tame the dangerous present, the complete mythical
mode is not invalidated. Further, Iris Murdoch's imagination is
much committed to the means by which men experience the adum-
brations between the waking world and that dark expanse of mystery
which wells up in all times, all places, all peoples. Myth is not
simply self-satisfied fantasy nor is it necessarily true that the
individual, filled with his own importance, will be a fount of selfish
energy producing just this sort of art.
The discussion of Joseph Campbell's Creative Mythology reveals
an alternate view: recognizing individuation as the world's character
unleashes the powers of the individual to an end which is the fostering
of more individuated life. Modern myth is transformation without
end; its forms are those of life; it reaches into the past but stands
squarely in the present. This delineation of the means and meanings
of myth has prepared the way for an examination of Iris Murdoch's
work where the specific form of a mythic imagination may be traced.
1. "Mass, Might, and Myth, The Spectator, 7 September 1962,
2. G. S. Kirk, Myth: Its Meanings and Functions in Ancient and
Other Cultures (Berkeley, 1970), p. 8.
3. The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, II (New Haven, Connec-
ticutt, 1955), p. 23.
4. The Next Development in Man, p. 199.
5. Cassirer, II, p. 1.
6. Crowds and Power! trans. Carol Stewart (New York, 1962),
7. Cassirer, II, p. 55.
8. Ibid., p. 110.
9. Ibid., p. 104.
10. Ibid., p. 106.
11. Ibid., p. 105.
12. Cosmos and History, trans. Willard R. Trask, rev. ed.
(New York, 1959), p. 35.
13. Ibid., p. 155.
14. Kirk, p. 258.
15. Canetti, p. 382.
16. Eliade, p. 56.
17. Campbell, II, p. 519.
18. Campbell, IV, p. 6. Subsequent references to this volume
in this chapter will be given in parentheses following the quotation.
19. It is also evident that Iris Murdoch has uppermost in her
mind the classical Greek myths which have come to us in quite
sophisticated versions and which, in comparison with more ancient
myths of other peoples, do evidence a more civilized, rational,
20. Kirk, pp. 39-40.
THE FLIGHT FROM THE ENCHANTER
The Flight from the Enchanter is a novel which immediately
suggests to any reader mythic elements -- there is a magazine
called The Artemis, an opening allusion to the Minotaur, a dark
god figure, and two terrible demons -- but finally this novel's
form is not that of mythic life. In its scope, its emphasis on
individual character, its uncompromising presentation of the
spirit's turbulent power, and its use of ancient myths, The Flight
from the Enchanter is a fine introduction to Murdoch's involvement
in the mythic mode. However, that involvement is "enchantment":
the characters' destructive tendencies to submit to a binding spell
rather than encounter the pain and pleasure of freedom. As Murdoch
has herself said, the novel's form is, ultimately, "closed-up and
Previous critical work on this novel has emphasized the illusory
nature of the enchantment; James Gindin and Bernard Dick point
out that the trance-spells are mostly self-imposed. 2And while
this is partially true, such an attitude obscures this important
aspect of the novel: the power and mystery which draw the characters
are neither illusory nor escapable. Therefore, rather than fleeing
from the mythic power, the individuals in the novel must learn
to meet, to use, and to move with life's energy. Neither Iris
Murdoch nor any of her characters is able to accomplish this.
The novel's form is a dichotomy which sets civilization-reason-light
against nature-emotion-darkness. The life energies which could
leap the gap between person and person, between the fixed and the
creative, are either restrained by the intellect's rage for order
or centered in malevolent personalities. The spirit's powers thus
find an outlet only in violence; the release of energy prompts
no growth of life and the novel ends as it began.
The alternating rather than spiraling form is also evident in
the novel's mixture of social realism and fantasy, in the static
nature of certain images, in the use of mythical allusions as anchors
rather than seeds of meaning, in the reliance on deus-ex-machina
escapes, in Murdoch's inability to make her power-figures also
solid in-the-world people. Yet this novel is not a failure, and it
is not simple. If, finally, its form is not the modern mythic
creative present, it clearly recognizes life's complexity and the
dangers which lie in attempts to reduce that complexity to a simple
pattern. It does focus on the individual life. Its opening chapter
with the young girl Annette has a tremendous feeling of full life,
even if that promise is unfulfilled. And finally, The Flight from the
Enchanter is a comic novel. For all its darkness, there is the
light and life of laughter.
The world of The Flight from the Enchanter is Murdoch's most
comprehensive vision of man and society; in scale alone, it is a
very ambitious book. Its action touches on politics (the financial
relationship between England and America; Mischa Fox's power in
Parliament); bureaucracy (SELIB and the Civil Service); social
equality (the refugees, the Artemis, Rosa's factory, the rich versus
the poor); academics (Peter Saward, the scholar-historian); econo-
mics (Mischa's journalism monopoly); personal relationships (lovers,
parent-child, siblings, servant-master); time (the past haunting the
present, e. g. the memory of Rosa's mother).
While the novel touches upon these broad realms, its most
obvious organization, the chapter division, corresponds to the
actions of individual characters. There are numerous characters,
but six -- Rosa, Annette, Hunter, Rainborough, Peter, and Nina --
are primary; we see the workings of their minds. Of these six,
Annette and Rosa receive most space in the novel, for they begin
six and seven of the chapters respectively. The action is pretty
well distributed over all the other characters, and only twice does
the same individual initiate the action in two succeeding chapters.
In addition, the novel's thirty chapters are of approximately equal
length. All this is only to indicate that The Flight from the Enchanter
makes a conscientious attempt to pay "attention" to its many characters.
This novel pointedly avoids the one-character focus and first
person narration of Under the Net. The Flight from the Enchanter
starts out very literally to prevent a single character from getting
a grip on this story and making it "the form of his own mind. "3
Whether this results in a more life-like form than does a personal
narration remains to be seen.
The Flight from the Enchanter, then, presents its social panorama
through the unique personalities which constitute it. Whatever
failures of characterization exist, and there are some, Murdoch's
people do not degenerate into types. Generally this work does
create a "plurality of real people. And the one character, Mischa
Fox, who is obviously a hub around which the others revolve,
neatly unites in his person the social-economic and spiritual worlds.
Mischa is the character in this novel who most boldly approximates
the stature of a mythic hero. He has the natural grace and vicious-
ness of an animal, he has a miraculous physiognomy (one blue eye
and one brown), he lives and works in mysterious secrecy, he
awes and subdues others as a primitive priest might do. He is
also an incredibly wealthy, worldly businessman! In this novel
mystery is not cloistered; it is active in the everyday world of
London business. Further, Mischa activates in the other characters
those energies of the spirit of which he seems the center. While
he has an aura of moving in a separate world, the characters con-
tinually find that their beings are touched by the same formidable
forces within which Mischa so effortlessly dwells. The Flight from
the Enchanter's mythic strain, easily located in the character
of Mischa Fox, is inseparable from the workings of the modern
world and from the individual lives which are the generators of
In these ways, The Flight from the Enchanter possesses some
elements of a creative mythology, but the deciding element is
missing. A particular examination of form must determine whether
or not the imagination has made of these elements a living whole.
Is the form a process of continual creative-change whose outcome
is growth? It is necessary to begin at the beginning.
The previous review of Murdoch's essays revealed her belief
in growth as a property of aesthetic form, and it revealed that
this is not a metaphoric description, but a real property. Like
any organic being, the novel generates itself from a cell which
'multiplies and passes through creative and destructive cycles in
order to build a changed form of much complexity which yet does
not violate its beginnings. The living novel announces its elements
and then allows them growth, and, as in nature, the flowerings of
the artist's imagination are infinite in variety. A close reading of
The Flight from the Enchanter's opening is important in this aspect
of a "seed" chapter, for here is the initial impression of the book's
life. From this beginning the novel's course reveals what sort of
form is generated and, in fact, whether there is a generation at all.
The action and character of Annette begin the novel. She is a
girl of some independence and intelligence who is bursting with
life; she skips, jumps, and runs everywhere, rocks "tasteful"
vases on their pedestals, swings on chandeliers, takes stairs
three at a time, and is insatiably curious. She has.decided, amid
April's spring stirring, to leave an institution and enter the
School of Life. Sedately packing up her books and walking out,
Annette exits from the classroom forever: "As Annette pondered,
almost with awe, upon the ease with which she had done it, she
felt that Ringenhall had taught her its most important lesson.
The lesson, not named, is apparently the ease of freeing oneself
from another's rule. Annette has already pondered, in the case
of the Minotaur, a related problem of personal freedom versus
"accidental" injustice. She has a rather petulant dislike for cruelties
of fate which she feels are unjustly delivered on people, and it is
obvious that she has some rather muddled idea that such cruelties
can be avoided and may simply be a trick of the world's institutions
played in order to keep people from doing as they please. And
while Annette has a considerable amount of immediate success in
her personal liberation, the limitations in her glorious discovery
of Ringenhall's most important lesson are everywhere noticeable.
The reader sees, if Annette does not, that her solipsistic fix
distorts her situation. To her, even the rooms of the school appear
changed after her decision to leave. The library begins to look
as if it is in a "sacked city, and she feels that no one will ever
again enter it (9). Also Annette soon discovers that there are a
few obstacles to perfect freedom. Her irreverent desire to swing
onthe chandelier is accomplished (she even hears, as she expected,
a noise like a "mixture of sound and light"), but she is unable to
make a "flying leap" to the chandelier, as she has imagined. It
turns out to be "not a very practical idea, and she instead climbs
onto a chair. In addition, Annette prefers to picture her personal
initiative in terms of an enchantment; she feels under "a delicious
spell" (10). This notion of a spell or power which relieves one of
personal responsibility is, of course, fundamental to the novel's
So far it is evident that the novel creates a conflict between the
unrestrained energies of life and the controlling rules of an insti-
tution, and between the individual's powers of self-creation and the
world's contingencies. Besides these divisions in the character
of the world, the opening image of the novel puts a cleavage
directly in man himself. The Minotaur is half man, half bull, a
monster who exhibits how the dark greed of Minos stained the
beauty and purity of his wife. The precarious balance of the
civilized "light" world upon the edges of a darker world is thus
illustrated. Annette doesn't like Dante's treatment of the Minotaur
for she feels he is unjustly punished. But there is another passage
which indicates that Annette is also a bit fearful of her own dark
resources. She has developed a technique of dropping into a
"coma of stupidity" to irritate her teachers and avoid responding
in class. However, she discovers that she can make herself fall
asleep this way -- eyes still opened -- and "this frightened her
very much indeed" (9). Annette perhaps expects that her lessons
in the School of Life can exclude the tortures of a grotesque half-
breed such as the Minotaur.
Thus Murdoch establishes in this chapter obvious dichotomies.
She uses action and images to oppose Annette's zest to the dreary
conformity of Ringenhall as well as to oppose the individual's
energetic power to the world's frustrating demands. These oppo-
sitions are not resolved, but the weight of Murdoch's values are
clearly on the side of her zestful character. She presents Annette's
vitality with an art which is brisk, comic, and visual. Murdoch's
intelligence does clearly shape -- through her realistic technique,
her distance in point of view, and her controlled prose -- the
solidity of the.obstacles to Annette's casual rebellion. But Murdoch's
humorous vision and her obvious delight in youth's brashness serve
to make Annette's portrait a sympathetic one. Annette does, in
this first chapter, have a triumph over the institution's restraining
It isn't a clear triumph, as we have seen (Miss Walpole catches
Annette with a stolen book), and neither is the character of Annette
a clear vessel of the life force. Though her swing on the chandelier
gives a tremendous promise of life, at the same time her very
youthfulness vitiates the promise because of her distinct qualities
of childish selfishness and ignorance.' A child as a focus of a novel
has a certain limitation: the dichotomies under this condition cannot
be resolved. The weight of the art is on the side of the individual's
energies, and yet there is no indication of the ways in which the
real treacheries of life will be met and transcended. The form
reveals not a unitary process, but a see-sawing of conflicts.
And while the novel is not solely about Annette, and while other
more mature characters have a greater potentiality for growing
amid life's threats, this seed chapter sets the novel's continuing
form.. The issue is not whether Annette will be stifled by the
world's institutions, whether energy will be killed. Instead it is
how Annette will negotiate her new adventure in education, how she
will shape her power. Explosive energy is a given in this novel's
life; that energy resists almost all attempts by individuals or in-
stitutions to deaden it. But that energy lacks the imaginative
means to channel itself and become a creative rather than a destruc-
tive force. Annette's father puts the dilemma very well: will
Annette grow through the School of Life or "one day . just
explode into little pieces?:" (14).
In order to ward off any explosion, most of the characters in
the novel have fitted themselves into the order of enchantment;
they allow themselves to be mesmerized in the face of the world's
difficulties. This pattern is not only, in Murdoch's terms, immoral
(it attempts to falsify life's complex demands), but it doesn't work.
And while these are the charges which she levels against myth, it
will become clear that in this novel the value of myth and mythic
heroes is not so simply rejected.
The particular enchantments are numerous and have been thor-
oughly compiled before: Rosa (the victim)/ Mischa (the enchanter),
and in like manner, Rosa/the Poles, Rainborough/ Miss Casement,
Annette/ Mischa, Nina/ Mischa, Hunter/ Calvin and Stefan, the
refugees/ the line. There are probably others. Several critics
feel that a prime thing to recognize about The Flight from the
Enchanter is that the characters themselves create the enchantment.
Nina is not "really" enchanted. Rosa is not "really" under a spell
cast by Jan and Stefan. Certainly this is born out in several in-
stances when it becomes apparent that a character abstractly
views his situation as an enchantment in order to feel powerless
in the face of a certain course of action. And, too, the mysterious
power of Mischa Fox and the sinister machinations of Calvin Blick
are shown to be easily foiled by a hilarious group of old women.
However, to hold too exclusively to the insight that people are their
own enchanters is to ignore part of the book's form as, I think,
Howard German egregiously does when he says:
It is this preoccupation with individual illusion in
the novel that provides the essential justification
for the wealth of material drawn from fairy tale
and myth -- universally recognized expressions
of man's yearning for a dream world. 5
What this attitude misses is that the power and magic in the novel
are only too real; Mischa Fox, Calvin Blick, the Lusiewicz's,
the Olympians, and Annette's mermaid charm are not mere
metaphors. Part of the problem comes from a confusion of the
powerful enchanters with the characters' general rages for order.
The failures of the orders they impose and the break-up of the
enchantments are, of course, the same process; but it is not a
necessary conclusion that, -e. g., Mischa Fox's power is illusory.
The first process is well described by James Gindin:
Each novel gives a symbolic identity to the characters'
desire to manufacture form and direction out of their
disparate existence. And, in each novel, this attempt,
on the part of the characters, to manufacture form and
direction is unsuccessful, the general structure
suggested by the title cannot meaningfully operate
in the fragmented, relative world. 6
This is so, but it does not explain away The Flight from the En-
chanter's use of mythic material. But it will be easier to begin
with the rage for order of which enchantment is a part and then to
show the reality of the powerful forces the characters futilely
try to tame.
In The Flight from the Enchanter almost all the characters
attempt to confine in false patterns their vital participation in the
mysterious, creative, and mythic center of life. They attempt to
order their experience so that all is accounted for and growth is
stilled. The forms of their lives cease to be organic and become
static. In the same way, they are ruled by a scrupulous attempt
not to touch or be touched, yet they are always impulsively doing
the opposite. Rainborough perhaps tries harder than anyone for
a settled, regulated life. His attachments are to an ancestral
home and garden and to a traditional bureaucracy. Even SELIB
displeases him because it has disorderly files and a "mysterious"
system of promotion. He recalls with longing his position in the
Civil Service not only because of its orderliness, but because
there "ancient values and hallowed modes of procedure reduced to
a minimum the naked conflict of personalities" (94). Rainborough
wants neither contact nor action. He has convinced himself that
fearless self-analysis is equivalent to virtue; he has not the ambition
to change. And because Rainborough's actions are rarely self-
initiated, he structures his life as if he were someone else looking
in and judging. His curious relationship with Mischa Fox is a
good example. -Obviously Rainborough does not even like Mischa
but is flattered that he is thought of as Mischa's close friend.
Thus he is so worried that this reputation might falter that he will
burden himself both with the friendship and the constant fear that
it will end.
Rainborough finds that he cannot forestall "naked conflict"; he
cannot, as he so desires, "combine the joys of contemplation and
possession" (136). People are the problem. Even when Rainborough
comes to the sudden realization of the unfathomable diversity of
the world -- "Then he felt, how little I know, and how little it is
possible to know; and with this thought he experienced a moment
of joy" -- he is looking at ants, snails, and flowers. Annette
appears,. and he loses his wisdom. As the vision fades with her
interfering visit, the ants seem "very tiny and very remote" (132).
Rosa too has tried not to let "other human beings . come too
near" (48). So she maintains her potentially explosive relationship
with the Lusiewicz brothers by picturing herself in a fairy tale.
This is Murdoch's most transparent instance of the simple tale
which falsifies life. Rosa sees herself as a princess freeing a
prince imprisoned in the form of a beast. And while this analogy
holds, Rosa is happy. But the metamorphosis at the center of the
fairy tale cannot be controlled. Rosa wishes that she could have back
some moments in the metamorphosis, but the change must take its
course (54). As the brothers change, they move themselves out of
the fairy tale and into a flesh and blood world in which they seduce
Rosa. Here Rosa feels no power. She is most content with stories.
When the brothers cannot pinpoint their village on a map, she is
content with the image called up in their tales. Here the places are
"very remote yet crystal clear, like a vision procured in a fairy-tale,"
and Rosa "never wished to ask herself whether it was true" (69-70).
Rosa's involvement with the brothers is not the only instance of
her search for order. She works in a factory in an attempt to put
herself outside other work which had become "something nauseating
and contaminated, stained by surreptitious ambitions, frustrated
wishes, and the competition and opinions of other people" (47).
While in the factory Rosa tries to make sense of her boring, meaning-
less task by personifying her machine as "Kitty" and attempting,
fruitlessly, to find her face. Moreover, she tries to find an
embracing sound-pattern for the whole factory:
An alternative way of distracting herself from Kitty's
well-known diction was to try to listen instead to the din
which the whole factory was making and try to understand
its rhythm. But out of this deafening chaos of sounds
Rosa was never able to draw any harmonious or repetitive
pattern, although she felt sure that it was there, and that
if only she could remember long enough and listen in
the right way she would find out what it was. But it
never emerged, and the only result of this entertainment
was that she began to make mistakes with Kitty. (44)
Even though Rosa tells herself she is resigned to a life of "inter-
ludes, she has a nostalgia for grand designs (47).
Peter Saward has a foot in both worlds, the open and the closed.
He, in fact, seems to be in process, for with his project of deciphering
a script he is moving away from his historical studies. He has
embarked on an enterprise which suggested itself to him by two
"accidents, he proceeds on the basis of intuition, and he persists
even with the evidence of others' folly: history doesn't help.
However, his task is the attempt to make a whole out of fragments,
and the quality of the life in which he pursues his puzzles is strangely
regulated and remote from the outside world. His day is artificially
divided into four sections, and from this routine he does not deviate.
He is deeply susceptible to Rosa, but he even reserves a dull task
(cutting book pages) to fill the agitated time before her visits. Not
a moment is wasted.
There are other instances of this sort of structuring, not the
least in the enchanters themselves, but that is reserved for later.
What each of these instances finally reveals is that the passion and
chaos of life cannot be neatly tied up. Perhaps the single, most
pregnant image for this is Rosa's beautiful, thick, extraordinarily
long black hair: it continually frees itself from confining pins and
flows down her body. Not one of the characters, no matter how
isolated or regulated, can escape the very adventure which Annette
sets forth upon with such an excess of enthusiasm. Life's surprises
keep scattering the regulations. Rainborough's comfortable garden
is usurped by the state. His bureaucratic security comes to an
end. Rosa's dull work in the factory precipitates an episode of
terror. And the personal walls are crumbled as surely as Rain-
borough's garden wall. Annette, who will stroke Rosa's hair because
"it [is] not quite like touching, eventually attacks her "like a young
tiger" (67, 212). And Rosa, who never wanted others to come too
near, pins Annette to the floor with "a profound satisfaction of anger
and hatred" (212). Rainborough, who thinks courtly love the best
possible sexual relationship, suddenly finds himself with his hand
inside Annette's blouse. Hunter Keepe, Rosa's brother, "an animal
whose protection was not teeth but flight and camouflage, "
physically attacks Calvin Blick "with a cry like an animal" (251, 175).
Indeed none of the characters, whatever their subterfuges, are
able to eliminate life's unpredictable encounters. When this aspect
of life is avoided, as it is by Rosa and by Rainborough, its appearance
is correspondingly violent. The Flight from the Enchanter shows
that contact with the world cannot be prevented, and if a person
continually shrinks from that life, it will burst into his world with
a power which is often destructive. Part of this novel's form is
a continual restraint of energy which subsequently breaks out with
extreme violence. The Flight from the Enchanter, then, is about
not only the process of freeing oneself from false servility, but
about the process of coming to terms with the mysterious life
forces erupting unforeseeably in each individual. What the form
reveals is that flight is not the answer at all. It is the dilemma.
Seen in this way, the spell becomes a safe system from which the
entrapped spirit can declare, "I have no power to change myself or
others or the world. Rosa and the rest cannot flee; they must meet
the energy head-on and rely on their own strengths.
The violent outbursts in this novel demonstrate that forces
capable of enchanting -- or liberating -- are only too real. In
an interview with W. K. Rose, Murdoch makes quite clear that
people not only play the roles of demons for others but are demons.
Such force is not solely malevolent; it is a matter of energy: "I
think. .. that there is a great deal of spare energy racing around
which very often suddenly focuses a situation and makes a person
play a commanding role. "7 She further states that the people
themselves possess this energy and generate the situations. In
The Flight from the Enchanter this spare energy races around in
almost everyone, not only in Mischa Fox and the more obvious
enchanters. And while it is quite true that some of the characters
are almost eager to submit to the power of others rather than make
choices in their lives, it is not true that the magnetic powers of
those enchanters are illusory. The Poles do have a special
magnetism which draws others to them, and their actions show them
to be devils, not simply "devil-images" for others. In the same
way, Annette's parents, nicknamed "the Oympians, do in fact
exercise authority from the heights. And Annette, from one-view-
point a silly spoiled brat, does seem to lead a charmed life,
"the female equivalent of Pan" who is eternally innocent and
eternally unscarred (144).
The bewilderment experienced by many readers of this book
seems to me to be caused by the double weight placed on the title's
enchanters. A close examination of Mischa Fox and the Lusiewicz
brothers reveals both their life-giving and death-dealing aspects
and reveals yet another instance of the novel's unresolved dichotomous
Mischa Fox has been described as "the hollow center of the
novel, and there is good reason for this judgement.8 The contra-
dictions in the aesthetic conception of this character and hence in
his personality are confusing and do seem to cancel each other.
Mischa's power is felt both as invigorating and dangerous, and
since these two aspects remain in conflict, Mischa's characteriza-
tion is incomplete. On the side of life, Mischa is a compelling
personality. He elicits great love effortlessly. He has the extra-
ordinary physical grace of an animal. He solves muddled pre-
dicaments swiftly and efficiently. And he "makes people mad" (222).
This facet of Mischa is the strongest endorsement of his value: he
creates disruptions which send others head-on into life. In the
process of this novel, such power is certainly not to be considered
On the other hand, all believe in his sinister nature. People
fear him because he is capable of anything; particularly he is
characterized by a desire to achieve indiscriminate control. Rosa
speculates that Mischa wants the Artemis because "the sight of a
little independent thing annoys [him]" (36). Yet even this mythological
parallel can be seen as another instance of the way Mischa initiates
movement in the world. The Artemis is a periodical floundering
because it has not changed; it is trying to be a perpetual virgin,
like Artemis and her nymphs, in a world where such constant
chasteness is impossible. As Peter Wolfe has pointed out, the
ironic reversal of a man, "Hunter, as the editor of the Artemis is
a further instance of lifelessness through the inversion of the male
and the female. 9
In the same way that Mischa's power has a split value, his
mythical aura is both full and empty. His mythical associations all
provide information about him, but they do not become alive in the
book's immediate present. When he is linked with Janus, the
Minotaur, or an Egyptian god (Howard German suggests Re) these
mythical figures serve as signs; they point to the past but do not
live in the present. 10 These links do serve to establish Mischa's
mysterious aloofness, but finally there is a blank in the apprehension
of his character which is unlike the irreducible blankness at the
center of a mystical experience.
He does appear remote and untouchable. His manner is grave
and the operations of his life elaborate, sophisticated rituals. His
aura is more consistently that of an Egyptian god, as Peter Saward
suggests, than that of the brutish Minotaur -- although the dark
intent of the latter association is obvious. Yet Mischa's mythic
stature never becomes believably felt because both his thoughts and
his actions are kept hidden. He is a wooden presence, rather than
a feeling and thinking human being. And this mythic vacuum cannot
be interpreted as an ironic device-used to disparage simple fantasy
because the novel's events do ask us to believe that Mischa is,
like Janus, an omniscient observer of all beginnings and ending and
that he does, like the Minotaur, terribly combine the bestial and
Since in the novel myth's mystery is basic to life, Mischa must
exist as a solid person. Only as a real man, with feeling and
fallibilities, can a creative mythic figure have life. Mischa does
not. His passion for Rosa, for example, is never believable and
neither is his distress in Chapter Sixteen's pretentious scene by
the sea. There Mischa, apparently under extreme duress, is
trying to take strength from the sea's rage. But this is a recognition
of Murdoch's intent; it is not a felt response to Mischa's unrest.
These are failures in Murdoch's artistry which arise, primarily,
from her failure to envision power in its creative aspect. The
hints of Mischa's life-giving abilities are overwhelmed by his
sinister nature: such great power, in Murdoch's imagination, is
obviously more intensely felt as dangerous.
And the danger is power as control. The one scene which pro-
vides a look at Mischa's inner life undercuts his participation in the
spirit's turbulence by showing that he, too, like his prosaic
London friends, hates messiness. Mischa comes to life, laughing,
crying, exclaiming, only when he is reminiscing and trying to
reconstruct the past. The life in him is centered in what is already
over, and "the pursuit of exactness and completeness was for him
a terrible necessity" (224). The medium for this exact reconstruction
is the photograph; with it Mischa tries to capture before him,
stilled and forever changeless, the world of his childhood. That
the attempt is impossible, even in "representational" photography,
is apparent because the photographs do not include the particular
events of his life (the fair) and because the village itself has changed
While with Peter, Mischa recalls the baby chickens which he
won at the village fair, and this remembrance illustrates his
difficulty to accept the process of life. This results in a patho-
logical pity which would rather kill animals (and people?) than
watch them die from the world's accidents. His mixture of pity
and cruelty is "strange" as Peter feels, but underlying it is, again,
Mischa's attempt to control life, to take responsibility for wielding
life and death. He has a mania for efficient systems, and this is
the real horror for both Rosa and Nina: they feel their individuality
is being cancelled as they become cogs in Mischa's machine. Rosa
has "a sense of being, after all that had passed between them, a
pawn in Mischa's game, and Nina is convinced "that she was
playing, in the strange economy of Mischa Fox's existence, some
quite precise part" (152, 263).
Finally, Mischa's power is indisputably real. He does propel
his fearful acquaintances into surprising actions and emotions.
He does destroy their insulations. But he does so out of an impulse
to control, to exercise power over others, not to draw out their
If Mischa is a forbidding figure from the sophisticated mythologies
of the Far East, the Lusiewicz brothers are his primitive counter-
parts. They too were born in Eastern Europe (I share Linda
Kuehl's and others' disappointment in Murdoch's continual attribution
of "dark mystery" to Eastern Europeans or Jews).11 And they too
provoke ambivalent feelings. They are attractive and repulsive.
First, they are beautiful, intelligent, and charming. They are
full of exuberance. They make Rosa laugh in a way which breaks
down all the barriers of untouchability which she has erected
between herself and others:
Sometimes they would make Rosa laugh so much that the
tears would stream down her face; and then suddenly
she would find that these tears were not to be checked,
and they would flow and flow until she was sobbing to
relieve a pain that lay too deep for any ordinary solace.
The brothers had opened in her some profound seam of
vulnerability and grief. Iri their presence she was always
breathless, as one in a new and beautiful country, full
of an inexplicable rapture and never very far from
Rosa's introduction into this emotional country reflects the
autochthonous mythic being of the Poles. They are the "savage"
sons living in intimate contact with the sensual life; they feel the