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Mysticism in the novels of Iris Murdoch

This dissertation argues that Iris Murdoch’s entire novelistic corpus should be read as a mystical attempt to portray the Good in an increasingly secularised world. Scholars of Murdoch’s work have tended to view her later novels as representing a turn towards more mystical ideas; while I do not wish to deny the prevalence of such ideas here, this dissertation will reveal how mysticism can be traced back to Murdoch’s earliest novels, a claim underpinned by archival work conducted at the Iris Murdoch Archives at Kingston University. Through considering four of Murdoch’s novels – Under the Net (1954), The Bell (1958), The Time of the Angels (1966), and The Sea, The Sea (1978) – I highlight how Murdoch’s engagement with mysticism is often more complex than usually assumed. Whereas her earlier fiction tends to adopt a more comic, optimistic tone in its handling of mysticism, Murdoch’s later novels become increasingly pessimistic about their protagonists’ ability to apprehend the Good. What I show is that even these later novels maintain a cheerful pessimism in the light of such barriers to the Good; ultimately, Murdoch remains faithful to the Good as a magnetic centre which is revealed to us through fleeting moments of mystical illumination.


‘Mystics […] have attempted by extremities of language to portray the nakedness and aloneness of Good’ wrote Iris Murdoch in her landmark 1970 work, The Sovereignty of Good. Taking this quotation as a starting point, this dissertation will argue that Murdoch’s entire literary career represents a similarly mystical attempt to portray the Good in language, specifically through the novel form. In her 1995 study, Hilda D. Spear groups the novels from The Sea, The Sea (1978) to The Message to the Planet (1989) as ‘Mystic Novels’ which are ‘deeply philosophical [and] deeply religious’ and sees ‘Myth, Magic and Mystery’ as the central themes of Murdoch’s final two novels. Whilst it is undeniable that Murdoch’s later novels become increasingly preoccupied with such mystical ideas, critics have often ignored the presence of these themes in Murdoch’s earlier fiction in favour of analysing her interest in philosophy more widely. This dissertation will address this critical neglect through a focus on four novels – Under the Net (1954), The Bell (1958), The Time of the Angels (1966), and The Sea, The Sea (1978) – along with archival research into Murdoch’s journals, letters, reviews, and her personal library at Kingston University, thereby showing how Murdoch’s engagements with mysticism are more complex and various than critics usually allow. By ending with The Sea, The Sea, which I take to be the pinnacle of Murdoch’s engagement with mysticism (and a high point of her fiction in general), this dissertation concludes where Spear’s begins, thus revealing a prehistory of mysticism in Murdoch’s thought which has hitherto been ignored.

Numerous critics have commented upon Murdoch’s engagement with mysticism: Miles Leeson has argued that ‘mystics [are] always […] held in high esteem by Murdoch’, while James Clements views mysticism as the ‘foundation’ of ‘Murdoch’s moral philosophy’. However, such references to mysticism in Murdoch’s work remain marginal, being part of a wider discussion about Murdoch’s philosophical thought, or contemporary novelists more generally. At a glance, it may seem that Murdoch’s fiction and her philosophy as a whole stands at odds with conventional understandings of mysticism. In her late philosophical opus, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, Murdoch refers the reader to the standard Oxford English Dictionary definition of ‘the mystical’ as ‘having a certain spiritual character or import by virtue of a connection or union with God transcending human comprehension’, deriving from the Latin mysticus and originating in the Greek μύστης (mústēs, meaning ‘one who has been initiated’). This etymology conjures up images of religious contemplatives fleeing from the physical world to discover spiritual truths beyond the senses, in what Plotinus called a ‘flight of the alone to the alone’. Yet, how can we square this with Murdoch’s lifelong insistence on the need to physically inhabit and accurately attend to the ‘contingent, messy, boundless, [and] infinitely particular’ nature of the world (EM, 274)? Here, Murdoch’s moral philosophy is instructive, being founded upon the assumption that to ‘make ourselves morally better’ (EM, 342), we must first overcome our ego, that ‘tissue of self-aggrandizing and consoling wishes and dreams which prevents one from seeing what is there outside one’ (EM, 348). As an inheritor of Freud’s theory of the psyche as an ‘egocentric system of quasi-mechanical energy’ (EM, 341) which is fundamentally oriented towards selfishness, Murdoch recognises that a retreat into the ‘dazzling’ (EM, 324) self will inevitably lead the mystic to become ‘consoled by [their] discoveries […] not realising that the real world is somewhere else’ (EM, 423) – namely, outside of the self. Thus, the ‘unesoteric mysticism’ (EM, 376) for which Murdoch advocates is not to be found in some ‘Platonic [or] Christian “elsewhere”’ (MGM, 399), available only to a small ‘élite of mystics’ (EM, 360); rather, it is ‘experienced in all our most minute relations with our surrounding world’ (MGM, 474).

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Writing to her friend, Peter J. Conradi, Murdoch cautions against critics who ‘love to think’ they have found the ‘key’ to her novels – for example, viewing them all as ‘a cipher for Simone Weil’ or some other central concept. Moreover, Murdoch admitted that she felt ‘an absolute horror of putting theories as such into a [novel]’ (EM, 19) since to do so would impose an artificial form onto a reality which is ultimately contingent and formless. Both comments highlight Murdoch’s aversion to over-interpretation, and on the surface this dissertation may appear to run the risk of reducing Murdoch’s novels to a mere ‘cipher’ for mysticism, thereby ignoring the other ‘heterogeneous stuff’ within her fiction. Nonetheless, we should view Murdoch’s novels as providing us with a fresh perspective on the mystical aspects of her thought, since her understanding of mysticism as a spiritual pilgrimage towards the Good is one that unfolds interestingly through the novel form. Central to this understanding is Plato’s allegory of the cave, which Murdoch returns to throughout her life, albeit with some notable caveats. As we have seen, Murdoch refuses any form of mysticism which ‘lead[s] us to some attenuated elsewhere’, and thus her reading of Plato is characteristically this-worldly: the ascent out of the cave towards the sun/Good ‘show[s] us the real world’, leaving the ‘dreamer in the cave […] astray and elsewhere’ (EM, 427). This is, of course, a highly selective reading of Plato, which conveniently ignores his aversion to the particulars of the phenomenal world, and Murdoch remains ‘aware of the danger of inventing [her] own Plato’ (MGM, 510–11) to suit her philosophical ends. Nonetheless, Murdoch’s reading of Plato is instructive insofar as it reveals her conception of ‘the centre and essence of morality’ (MGM, 367) to be a life-long journey towards a more just and accurate perception of the world.


As Plato’s cave became a central preoccupation in Murdoch’s thought, she moved away from her early philosophical training in the 1940s towards the novel as the primary medium through which to depict the Platonic ascent towards the Good. This is no surprise, given that she viewed ‘the subject of every good […] novel’ as ‘the pilgrimage from appearance to reality’ (EM, 456). Murdoch’s turn towards the novel as the primary vehicle for expressing her views on mysticism provides a unique contribution to contemporary understandings of the term; instead of viewing mysticism as an abstract, self-contained concept adopted only by hermits who have retreated from the world, Murdoch’s novels, with their sustained emphasis on messiness, contingency, and our intricate relations to the world provide a compelling means by which to delineate her brand of ‘unesoteric mysticism’ (EM, 376). Murdoch envisages the Platonic ascent as a journey that mirrors the conventional narrative arc of the novel, depicting characters at the lowest levels of the cave (such as Jake Donoghue in Under the Net, Michael Meade in The Bell, Marcus Fisher in The Time of the Angels, and Charles Arrowby in The Sea, The Sea) who then engage, either consciously or unconsciously, in a quest to slowly overcome their egocentric desires and refine their perceptions following brief intimations of the Good. Set against these ‘artist[ic]’ figures are ‘religious figure[s]’ such as Hugo Belfounder, the Abbess, Eugene Peshkov, and James Arrowby, who represent a more advanced position on the journey towards the Good, whilst occupying a peripheral position in the narrative. This contrast between questing artists and self-effacing saints will provide the primary method for analysing Murdoch’s novels, and by exploring how each characters’ egotistical behaviours signify a deeper metaphysical failure to move towards the Good, I will show how Murdoch narrativizes the intense ‘difficulty of the [Platonic] ascent’ (EM, 446).


We can connect the marginal status of saint-like figures in the novels with a wider tension between the immanent and transcendent nature of the Good in Murdoch’s thought. Following G. E. Moore’s non-naturalism, Murdoch claims that the Good is ‘fundamentally incoherent and unimaginable’ (EM, 229), transcending human comprehension. It is therefore not to be pictured as immanent, a ‘particular thing among other things’ (MGM, 38), since to do so would be to ‘transform [the Good] into [an] idol’ (MGM, 56) which can then be deformed by egotistical fantasies. Here, Murdoch signals her affinities with two central concepts within mysticism: cataphatic (from the Greek kataphasis, originally derived from kataphemi (καταφημι), meaning “to affirm”) and apophatic (from the Greek apophemi (αποφημ), meaning “to deny”) theology. Whilst we ‘yearn for the transcendent [Good]’, holding out a cataphatic hope in language’s ability to adequately capture its reality, we also recognise that, since no human concept can wholly capture it, the Good must be approached apophatically and thus be ‘render[ed] […] ineffable’ (MGM, 56). As such a prolific writer, Murdoch clearly favours a more cataphatic approach, with each of her novels constituting a renewed attempt to describe the Good by ‘extend[ing] […] the limits of […] language’, thereby ‘illuminat[ing] regions of reality which were formerly dark’ (EM, 90). And yet, I believe Murdoch is continually haunted by a fear that the Good remains ‘indefinable’ (EM, 301), meaning that it may ultimately be ‘judged non-existent’ (MGM, 56) – or, at least, only intelligible to a small mystical elite.


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This apophatic fear that the Good remains both ineffable and non-existent represents a larger strand of pessimism in Murdoch’s thought, which takes as its starting point the Freudian ‘climate of opinion’ that ‘human beings are naturally selfish’ (EM, 364), and, as a result, ‘[m]oral change and moral achievement are slow’ (EM, 331). This attack on the self leaves a lasting impact on Murdoch’s novelistic structure, especially in its emphasis on the numerous ‘false sun[s]’ (EM, 382) which lead their protagonists away from the Good, given that they are much ‘easier to gaze upon and far more comforting than the true one’ (EM, 382). Broadly speaking, Murdoch’s earlier fiction tends to adopt a more comic tone in its handling of mysticism, representing an optimistic belief in the power of mystical experiences to transform both consciousness and behaviour. By contrast, the later novels become increasingly pessimistic about their protagonists’ ability to apprehend the Good through mystical means, since ‘anything that consoles us is a fake’ (EM, 348), and so consoling forms of mysticism (such as magic) are far more likely to lead protagonists astray. Such a commitment to moral gradualism has prompted some critics to read Murdoch’s fiction as wholly pessimistic; for example, Christopher J. Insole argues that despite her work being ‘concerned with ways to salvation’, these ‘ultimately turn out to be closed’, giving rise to an ‘intensely tragic’ fictional output which lacks any hope of redemption. Similarly, Elizabeth Dipple contrasts Plato’s belief in the ‘attainability of the absolute by the wise few’ with Murdoch’s characters, all of whom are ‘not allowed transcendence’ due to their all-powerful egos, meaning that their ‘seeking of an ideal […] is always brutally smashed’ in the end. While I would not dispute the claim that Murdoch’s fiction consistently exposes false means of transcendence, her novels ultimately view the Good as a ‘magnetic centre’ (EM, 382) to which all her characters are mystically, ineluctably drawn towards, even as our ‘fat relentless ego[s]’ provide us with only shadowy intimations of its reality (EM, 342). Thus, I maintain that Murdoch’s fiction remains cheerfully pessimistic in the light of her protagonists’ mystical struggle towards the Good, underlined by a ‘hopeful idealism which always returns to human beings’ in the end. Such a cheerful pessimism, which can retain the mystical ideal of the Good even as it is threatened by the sheer messiness and contingency of the outside world, constitutes an important part of Murdoch’s contribution to moral philosophy.


Taking Under the Net as this dissertation’s starting point, Part I argues that Murdoch’s first novel establishes many of the mystical concepts which come to define her novelistic output as a whole, most notably Jake’s spiritual pilgrimage towards the Good, through which he achieves a truer perception of the real world beyond his egotistical fantasies. Despite the novel’s ostensibly comic tone, I highlight a deeper apophatic fear within the novel regarding the limits of language itself, mediated through the haunting presence of Ludwig Wittgenstein. However, rather than retreating into saint-like silence, both Jake and Murdoch accept language as a necessary evil, albeit with a renewed awareness of its limits. In Part II, the focus shifts to Murdoch’s ambivalent relationship towards Christianity. Through an analysis of both The Bell and The Time of the Angels, I show how Murdoch’s sympathies for traditional religious practices leave her characters susceptible to false mystical insights. I argue that Murdoch simultaneously desires and rejects these religious consolations, thereby complicating her mystical belief in the need for an iconoclastic destruction of false images. Concluding with The Sea, The Sea, I reveal how many of Murdoch’s mystical preoccupations in the novel were already present in Under the Net, such as the male protagonists’ quasi-mystical quest for a self-constructed woman, whilst mediating these concepts through a Buddhist lens. I conclude by reaffirming Murdoch’s tempered yet resilient optimism in our capacity to mystically transcend our egos and attend to the world outside of ourselves.

Part I: Philosophical Anxieties in Under the Net

In her first novel, Under the Net, Murdoch confronts many of the mystical ideas which would come to define her novels as a whole. Jake Donaghue, the novel’s protagonist, is the first in a long series of questing figures who embark upon a mystical pilgrimage towards a more accurate perception of reality. Jake begins the novel at a familiar starting point for Murdoch’s male protagonists, appraising other people and the world through the projections of his ego, thus positioning himself in the shadowy realm of Plato’s cave, disconnected from the Good. Throughout the novel, Murdoch shows how Jake’s egotistical mode of being (which she links to traditional mysticism’s retreat into the self) is prone to be deceived by false forms of mysticism, wherein the subject mistakes their self-constructed fantasies for real intimations of the Good. Following his interactions with the quasi-Wittgensteinian figure Hugo Belfounder, Jake slowly learns to transcend his narrow perceptions by both attending to the particulars of the world and accepting a more apophatic relationship between language and the truth. Due to this clearly defined novelistic arc, which concludes with Jake attaining a more accurate perception of the world, the novel remains fundamentally optimistic, holding out hope for the achievement of real moral progress through a continued effort to perceive others with love, rather than through the distorting lens of personal fantasy.


At the novel’s opening, Jake’s immediate relationships highlight the extent of his egotism: he ‘cannot conceive’ that his friend Finn possesses ‘many ideas of his own’, or even his own subjective ‘universe’. It becomes clear that this inability to correctly perceive other people is part of a larger philosophical need for theories and order; Jake declares that he ‘hate[s] contingency’ (UN, 26) to the point of ‘nausea’ (UN, 156), and wishes for ‘everything in [his] life to have sufficient reason’ (UN, 26). Here, Murdoch nods towards Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée, which features a male protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, who is similarly ‘afflicted with a dreadful sense of the contingency of the world, the brute nameless there-ness of material existence’ (EM, 135). Through perceiving the world through the constraints of theories, which lead him to ‘assum[e] that [he] has got individuals and situations “taped”’, Jake thereby neglects the ‘inexhaustible detail of the world’ and fundamentally underestimates ‘the endlessness of the task of understanding’ (EM, 87) a reality outside himself. Since Murdoch’s form of mysticism connects ‘spiritual insight with [an] apprehension of the unique’ (EM, 87), it becomes clear that Jake’s inability to direct his gaze outwards towards the ‘background of values, of realities, which transcend him’ (EM, 290) leaves him dangerously susceptible to bad forms of mysticism, even as he declares to ‘not [be] a mystic’ about many things in his life, most notably his relationships with women.


As in the case of Charles Arrowby, another example of a monstrously egotistical first-person male narrator, Murdoch shows how the mystical impulse to worship can easily become degraded into possessive, often violent, forms of desire for another. Early in the novel, we learn that the women whom Jake admires are based on fictional abstractions, specifically those constructed by male writers such as ‘[Henry] James and [Joseph] Conrad’. Jake finds consolation in these ‘flower-like’ women because they are divorced from the real world of imperfection and contingency, leading him to reject the ‘women that [he] know[s]’ as ‘inexperienced, inarticulate, credulous, and simple’ (UN, 31). When Jake becomes reacquainted with his former lover Anna, he immediately begins constructing a myth of her as a ‘mysterious […] unfathomable being’ (UN, 31), representing something that his consciousness cannot easily assimilate. On the surface, it appears that Jake is being presented with ‘the extremely difficult’ opportunity to recognise that ‘something other than [himself] is real’ (EM, 215) by directing a just and loving gaze towards Anna’s mysterious ‘opacity’ (EM, 293). Indeed, Murdoch views ‘falling in love’ as ‘for many people the most extraordinary and most revealing experience of their lives’, since the ‘centre of significance is suddenly ripped out of the self’ (EM, 417), suggesting that this form of ‘unselfing’ (MGM, 17) can provide an opportunity to convert lowly eros into agape, thereby furthering one’s mystical ascent towards the Good. And yet, following Plato’s tripartite model of the soul which is partially governed by ‘the bad horse’, Murdoch remains acutely aware of the ‘sturdy ego[’s]’ need to reassert itself by either ‘subject[ing] [the beloved] to the mechanism of [one’s] own fantasy’ (EM, 417) or through ‘possessive violence’ (MGM, 17). In Under the Net, Jake’s demand for Anna to ‘spare [him] a little time’ (UN, 46) during their first meeting quickly descends into a need to dominate her physically, keeping her body ‘pinioned’ and ‘twist[ing]’ her wrist until she ‘gasp[s]’ (UN, 26), graphically depicting his inability to accept Anna as a free agent existing beyond his ego’s control.


In the novel, we see Jake continually mythologising his relationship with Anna in terms that mirror his immature fantasies, envisaging himself as a ‘prince’ UN, 56) and Anna as a ‘fairy-tale princess’ (UN, 47). As readers, we come to recognise that beneath Jake’s playful, self-mocking fantasies lies a deeper inability to truly confront the world beyond his imagination. Given that Murdoch generally holds the faculty of imagination in high esteem, since it can provide ‘a renewed ability to perceive and express the truth’ (EM, 225), it would follow that Jake’s ability to imagine various scenarios between himself and Anna provides a means by which to further his mystical ascent. However, it becomes clear that Jake is instead indulging in ‘[f]antasy’, the ‘enemy of true imagination’ (EM, 216) since it is constituted by the ego’s selfish projections, thereby forming a ‘barrier to our seeing “what is really there”’ (EM, 199). Jake’s tendency to fantasise leads him to falsely interpret his interactions with Anna as having ‘a quasi-religious certainty’ (MGM, 16) in an effort to transform his erotic longings into spiritual agape. Indeed, Jake’s attempts to apply the traditional mystical practice of ‘meditating’ to his mental image of ‘the curve of [Anna’s] thigh’, in the hope of ‘lift[ing] contemplation and desire […] to the highest point of awareness’ are revealed to be the product of an erotically charged mind, comically stalled at the lowest level of the Platonic ascent. Jake’s flights of fancy take on new levels of delusion as he pursues Anna to Paris, constructing phantasmagorical visions of himself ‘walking with Anna along the Champs-Élysées, while the warm breeze of an eternal Parisian spring blew into [their] faces like drifting flowers the promise of a coming felicity’ (UN, 183). Such visions of ‘drifting flowers’ recall Jake’s earlier desire for ‘flower-like’ (UN, 31) women whom he can easily shape according to his desires. Later, when pursuing Anna to Paris, he describes how his ‘heart leapt up’ as he glimpses her, much as ‘the heart of Aeneas must have done when he saw Dido making for the cave’ (UN, 216). Murdoch surely expects her reader to recognise the irony implicit in this classical comparison; indeed, much of the novels’ comedy lies in this ironic contrast between Jake’s delusions of grandeur and the pathetic reality he cannot see. Despite Murdoch later referring to Under the Net as merely ‘childish’ in tone, such comic irony highlights the wider importance of humour in her novels as a means of ‘mock[ing]’ quasi-mystical theories of ‘totality’ (MGM, 419) which cannot accept mess and contingency into their worldview.

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Despite repeatedly dramatising Jake’s failures, Under the Net remains optimistic in the face of its protagonist’s struggles, holding out hope for the possibility of Jake continuing his spiritual pilgrimage by directing his gaze outwards towards other people. Upon discovering that Finn has ‘gone back to Ireland’ (UN, 278), Jake recalls how he ‘didn’t believe [Finn]’ when he told him that ‘he wanted to go back’, prompting the realisation that he is a ‘fool’ (a fact which Mrs Tinckham comically doesn’t ‘dispute’ (UN, 279)). Conradi usefully identifies Finn as ‘the first of a series of Murdoch characters who disappear from the narrative’, suggesting that this disappearance is a ‘direct result […] of the failure of the other characters to imagine their needs or see them as other than “subsidiary” characters’. In this case, Finn’s real-world existence outside of the novel destroys Jake’s ego-ridden images of him, leading Jake to admit that he had ‘conceived things as [he] pleased and not as they were’ (UN, 279). Throughout the novel, Murdoch displays an acute awareness of the mystical need to destroy false images as a means of furthering one’s ascent towards the Good. Despite such an iconoclastic pilgrimage often being associated with Murdoch’s later turn towards the ‘imageless austerity’ (MGM, 247) of Zen Buddhism, in Under the Net we can see this concept being enacted literally, as when Jake witnesses the collapse of an ‘artificial city’ (UN, 160) at the ‘Bounty Belfounder studio’ (UN, 165). Just as ‘[a]ll was changed’ following the city’s reduction to ‘ruins’ (UN, 168–69), so too Jake learns to destroy his false mental images of others to continue his spiritual pilgrimage. Indeed, upon learning that Anna loves Hugo (rather than Jake), he accepts that he should ‘no longer [hold] any picture of Anna’, since ‘every picture [he] had ever had of Anna [is now] contaminated’ (UN, 268) by his fantasies, thereby beginning the ‘extremely painful’ journey towards truer perception. Jake thus recognises that in order to ‘know [another] human being’ (UN, 268), one must first adopt humility, the ‘virtue of the mystical hero’ (EM, 227). Since humility is predicated on a renunciation of one’s epistemological hubris, Jake learns to accept the ‘impossibility of knowledge’ and thereby ‘renounce […] the desire for it’, having ‘finally ceased to feel even the need for it’ (UN, 268, emphasis mine), suggesting a mind cleansed of false perceptions and the illusory ‘need’ to possess another. Following this revelation, Murdoch ends the novel on an optimistic note, revealing Jake as a character who can (we hope) dwell mystically in ‘the wonders of [this] world’ (UN, 286), rather than some fantastical dream constructed by his own ego.


Despite Under the Net’s optimistic ending and overall picaresque tone, a profound uneasiness regarding the limits of language, as well as its apophatic relationship to the Good, pervades the novel. Murdoch was continually haunted by the apophatic fear that language may constitute a barrier to a more accurate perception of the world, meaning that one can only approach the Good through a traditionally mystical retreat into silence. Whilst at Oxford, Murdoch saw that developments in ‘mathematical logic and science’ had resulted in a ‘general loss of […] moral […] vocabulary’, since any meaningful ‘discourse’ must directly relate to a materialist conception of reality, narrowly defined as ‘a quantity of material atoms’. Following this genealogy ‘[f]rom Hume through [to] Bertrand Russell’, Murdoch sees Wittgenstein’s seminal work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, as perfectly ‘summ[ing] up’ (EM, 287–88) such a worldview. Indeed, one of Wittgenstein’s central purposes in the Tractatus is to ‘limit the thinkable and thereby the unthinkable’, by restricting speech to ‘propositions of natural science’. Such prohibitions on what ‘one cannot speak’ of troubled Murdoch intensely, and her early career can be read as a struggle to avoid remaining ‘silent’ on her characters’ intensely subjective struggles towards the Good. Murdoch’s Bloomian anxiety about Wittgenstein’s influence can be traced throughout her life; she recounts growing up under the ‘shadow’ (EM, 243) of Wittgenstein as a student, and later admits to ‘dream[ing] of him all her life’, seeing him as both ‘numinous’ and ‘demonic’. Through investigating Murdoch’s letters, written from Newnham College, Cambridge to her friend Raymond Queneau (housed at the Iris Murdoch Archives at Kingston University), we can see how Murdoch became ‘more [and] more astonished at the Tractatus’, chiefly for its ‘terribly disturbing transparent quality’. For a writer such as Murdoch who sought to stress the ‘opacity of persons’ (EM, 293) and the ‘incomprehensibility’ (EM, 90) of the wider world, it is clear that Wittgenstein’s lucid, self-contained system outlined in the Tractatus posed a substantial apophatic challenge to her more cataphatic approach to mysticism.


In Under the Net, Hugo Belfounder reveals ‘how hopelessly [Jake’s] vision of the world [has been] blurred by generality’ (UN, 68), specifically through his preference for abstract, fantastical theories. Here, Hugo comes to embody Murdoch’s this-worldly mysticism, which emphasises that Jake’s ‘theorising’ is, in fact, a ‘flight’ (UN, 91) from the contingency of the real world, and Hugo’s final decision to ‘become a watch-maker’ at the novel’s close epitomises his commitment to the arduous mystical ‘task’ of paying close attention to what ‘lies close to [one’s] hand’ (UN, 258). Thus, for Jake to continue his mystical ascent towards the Good, he must similarly ‘crawl under the net’ (UN, 91, emphasis mine) of abstract theories, concepts, and language to inhabit a world that remains forever beyond his conceptual grasp. As Byatt notes, this repetition of the novel’s title is an allusion to Wittgenstein’s notion of language acting as a “net” which is metaphorically thrown over reality by our minds to bring some semblance of unity to the world. Byatt correctly sees this “net” as an obstacle which Jake must ‘creep […] underneath’ to ‘get at the precise situation’ of reality. Whereas the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus would reject the possibility of our ever escaping such a net, Murdoch holds out an optimistic hope that we can ‘see a little beyond those transcendental barriers’, giving us ‘intimations […] of another scene’ (MGM, 36) beyond our verbal understanding.

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If we can only perceive the Good beyond the net of language, it follows that ‘for almost all of us, truth can be attained […] only in silence’ (UN, emphasis mine), since ‘[o]nly the greatest men can speak and still be truthful’ (UN, 91–92). It should be noted, however, that this ideal of silence is continually ironized; after Jake suggests that ‘one oughtn’t to talk’, both Hugo and Jake proceed to ‘laugh […] enormously’ upon realising that they had ‘been doing nothing else [but talk] for days on end’ (UN, 67). Indeed, as the author of twenty-six novels, each featuring long dialogues between characters, Murdoch can hardly be said to be an ardent supporter of silence over speech. Thus, such comedic interjections reveal Murdoch’s cheerful pessimism in the face of our inability to ever achieve the mystical ideal of silence, suggesting instead that we should continue to use language – albeit with a renewed awareness of its limits. In the novel, Hugo and Finn’s honesty is paralleled with their lack of writing; Finn is described as a ‘humble and self-effacing person’, thereby placing him in a more accurate relationship with the truth, since he ‘never exaggerates’ and ‘never tells lies’ (UN, 8), thus resisting the urge to embellish his experiences in writing. Similarly, Hugo is described by Jake as ‘an almost completely truthful man’ (UN, 69), yet he ‘finds it very hard to express himself on paper at all’ (UN, 75), unlike Jake and Anna, who can ‘both create things’ (UN, 250) with words, thus establishing a dichotomy between verbose artists and silent saints. Hugo and Finn ultimately escape the net of language by recognising that ‘some situations can’t be unravelled’ (UN, 257), thus evading Plato’s condemnation of art as operating at ‘two removes’ from reality. We can connect this with Murdoch’s more general unease about art as the creator of falsehoods par excellence. Indeed, the novel possesses only a tentative relationship to the truth; its narrator, Jake, is a self-professed ‘literary hack’ (UN, 12) and an ‘incorrigible artist’ (UN, 27), who refers to the narrative as a ‘tale’ on multiple occasions (UN, 23; 38). Within the novel, Jake operates at one further remove from the truth (much like Plato’s view of artists) by fictionalising his conversations with Hugo into a philosophical dialogue entitled The Silencer. Since the ‘most illuminating moments’ of their discussions were those which ‘would have sounded the flattest’ if accurately depicted, Jake feels the need to ‘constantly supply […] that bit of shape […] which the original [conversations] had lacked’ (UN, 70). Ultimately, it becomes clear that such falsifications lead Jake further away from the Good, since his ‘broken-down caricature’ is nothing more than a ‘shadowy expression of Hugo’s point of view’ (UN, 92), conjuring images of the shadowy objects viewed by the prisoners in the lowest part of Plato’s cave. Here, Murdoch makes clear that the desire to ‘impress’ by writing ‘for effect’ is far more appealing to Jake’s ego than the painful acknowledgement that his actions constitute a ‘betrayal of everything which [he] imagined [himself] to have learnt from Hugo’ (UN, 70), emphasising the intense difficulty of both apprehending and speaking the truth.


Despite Hugo being held up as a mystical ideal throughout the novel, there are some key limitations to his philosophy which Murdoch cannot readily endorse. Like Wittgenstein, whom Murdoch presents as someone who ‘detested muddled emotional talk’ and ‘high-minded generalising’ (MGM, 51), Hugo also believes there is ‘something fishy about describing people’s feelings’ (UN, 66). We can connect Hugo’s aversion to discussing human emotions with his later ascetic ‘need to strip [him]self’ (much like how Wittgenstein gave up his share of his family’s fortune) in an attempt to escape from the ‘ghastly mess’ (UN, 251–52) of his personal life. Thus, there remains an implicit tension in Hugo’s philosophy, which both advocates for an immersion in the particulars of the real world, whilst also requiring one to detach oneself from those messier aspects of experience which cannot accurately be described. Here, Hugo seems to represent a more pessimistic, saintly disavowal of a life lived amidst contingency, an apophatic sentiment echoed by Brendan Craddock in Henry and Cato: ‘one will never get to the end of it, never get to the bottom of it, never, never, never’. Jake’s decision to remain in the real world, rather than following Hugo in his apophatic retreat into the monastery of watch-making, thus comes to symbolise Murdoch’s refusal to retreat not only from the world of language and imperfection, but also from the messy inner lives of her characters, which she will not only ‘tolera[te]’ (EM, 271), but love. As a writer, Murdoch accepts language (and, by extension, all her written work) as a ‘necessary evil’ (EM, 413) when attempting to present the Good. Given the ‘sense of distance’ Murdoch feels between herself and the sheer complexity of the world around her, she must therefore adopt the mystical discipline of ‘humility’, which simultaneously acknowledges that the world is ‘far more detailed and wonderful and amazing than anything which [she] can express’ (EM, 26), whilst continuing to gesture towards this reality through the imperfect medium of language.  

Part II: Ambivalent Christianity in The Bell and The Time of the Angels

Murdoch maintained an ambivalent relationship towards Christianity in her early years as a novelist. We can follow her changing relationship to Christianity through her letters written to Queneau at the time: in November 1947, Murdoch admits that ‘[a]ll [her] thought drives’ in the direction of ‘becom[ing] a Christian sooner or later’. In January 1948, Murdoch writes that she has ‘become a Christian (of the English Church)’ and that she is ‘most glad of this move, which [she] should have made long ago’. Crucially, this is a move which she feels she cannot ‘“explain” […] nor expect it to be “understood”’ by outsiders, revealing Murdoch’s early preoccupation with the ineffability of certain religious experiences such as conversion. Within this letter, we can see Murdoch attempting to yoke Wittgenstein’s quasi-mystical apophaticism (embodied in the concluding line of the Tractatus: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’) with a wider understanding that it is ‘impossible […] to explain’ her ultimate reasons for moving towards religion. By the beginning of 1953, Murdoch had ‘in effect drifted out of the Christian church’, yet, she admits to feeling ‘distress’ at this loss of faith, remaining adamant that she has not even ‘begun’ with religion, let alone having ‘“finished” with [it]’. As we shall see in this chapter, The Bell and The Time of the Angels reveal Murdoch’s ambivalent relationship to Christianity through depicting various characters’ perspectives on religion in an increasingly secularised world. In The Bell, her ‘first directly religious novel’, Murdoch explores the dangers of a false mystical retreat from the world through an enclosed Anglican lay community yearning for traditional forms of Christianity, which is revealed to be fundamentally at odds with Murdoch’s this-worldly mysticism. Later, in The Time of the Angels, Murdoch questions the implications of a demythologised form of Christianity; while advocating for the iconoclastic destruction of rigid Christian dogma and metaphysical commitments, Murdoch also fears that the removal of consoling religious iconography will leave a ‘void into which human reason can[not] move’, being filled instead by evil (as embodied in the demonic figure of Carel Fisher).


As early as 1943, Murdoch recognised that ‘the problem of the “return to the Cave” remains a very real one for Christianity’, since one may be inclined to retreat ‘from this world […] of unrelieved filth and corruption’ to a safely enclosed monastic space. Murdoch not only repudiated this retreat from the real world in her writings but also in her actions; in 1944, she volunteered for the UNRRA, eventually being stationed as an aid worker at a refugee camp in Graz, Austria. Her fourth published novel, The Bell, takes up these concerns through exploring the appeal of ‘living and working […] with a group of holy people who ha[ve] given up the world’. Focalised through the naïve lens of the schoolboy Toby Gashe, it quickly becomes clear that his ‘dramatic idea[s]’ about ‘the monastic life’ are founded upon his childlike fantasies rather than any lived ‘ecclesiastical experience’ (TB, 42–43). Yet, despite her best attempts to criticise this form of detachment from the world, Murdoch remains sympathetic towards its ability to initiate a ‘renewal of [Toby’s] faith’ through a Christianised form of unselfing, specifically a kenosis (self-emptying) embodied in Toby’s mystical pronouncement: ‘Not I, but Christ in me’. Indeed, as Toby directs his attention towards the lake at Imber, his ego is momentarily suppressed as he becomes ‘overpowered’ by ‘the almost impersonal power’ of God’s ‘grace’, instilling in him a ‘sense of joy which seemed both physical and spiritual at the same time and almost lifted him off the ground’ (TB, 145). Crucially, this religious experience is not purely cerebral; unlike the traditional mystical temptation to discipline one’s body in an attempt to purify the mind, Toby’s form of mysticism prioritises instead a thoroughly embodied connection to the outside world.

* * *

In such a description of being lifted by grace, we can see the influence of Simone Weil; Weil similarly viewed ‘[g]race [as] the only exception’ to the natural movements of the soul’ which are ‘controlled by laws analogous to those of physical gravity’. Weil’s mystical philosophy places a special emphasis on kenosis since any intrusion of the ego must necessarily bar the way to ‘possess[ing] the truth of the world’, meaning we must ‘reduce ourselves […] to nothing’. Murdoch was profoundly influenced by Weil’s work from an early stage in her career; she heavily annotated both of her volumes of Weil’s Notebooks, and in her review of the Notebooks she spoke of Weil’s work with awe: ‘[t]o read her is to be reminded of a standard’ (EM, 157). Despite this, in the endnotes to her annotated edition of the Notebooks, Murdoch recognises that Weil is ‘not always an attractive personality’, highlighting her early aversion to what she described as the ‘self-destructive quality in her austerity’ (EM, 160). In her later philosophical writings, Murdoch would come to acknowledge that ‘[t]here can no doubt be a mysticism of the extreme ascetic’, however, she makes it clear that her preference remains in favour of a ‘natural way of mysticism […] which involves a deepened and purified apprehension of our surroundings’ (MGM, 301), much like how Toby apprehends the natural surroundings of Imber.


Murdoch depicts this Weilian form of ascesis in Catherine Fawley, who has a desire to ‘work […] till she was ready to drop’, being ‘consumed by a wish to efface herself, to make herself very small and unheeded’ (TB, 112), echoing Weil’s assertion that we must ‘reduce ourselves […] to nothing’ to come closer to God. Despite being presented as ‘an inspiration to all’ at the Imber community, it becomes clear that Catherine’s desire to efface herself is a sign of an ‘obscure emotional tension’ (TB, 86), as revealed at the novel’s climax when she tries to drown herself in the lake and is later admitted to a ‘clinic’ (TB, 301) in London. Yet, Murdoch cannot wholly dismiss the appeal of such an ascetic impulse; in a letter to Queneau, she describes the ‘remarkable experience’ of ‘spen[ding] a week with an enclosed community of Benedictine nuns in Kent’, through which she came to understand that ‘[d]iscipline and control […] can be very healing and strengthening’. Moreover, in her recent study of Murdoch, Anne Rowe identifies in Murdoch’s letters to her fellow Oxford undergraduate Lucy Klatschko an ‘envy of the reclusive life’, arguing that Murdoch came to consider her ‘as an alter ego, living out the life that something inside Murdoch wanted for herself’. Writing in 1954, as Klatschko was to enter as a novitiate nun at Stanbrook Abbey, Murdoch asks Klatschko to ‘[t]ake me with you as much as you can’, testifying to her vicarious desire to live out an ascetic life. Thus, when Murdoch depicts the ‘unhappy souls’ at Imber ‘who can live neither in the world nor out of it’ since they are ‘disturbed and hunted by God’ (TB, 80–81), she can view with the compassion of a spiritual fellow-traveller who also took comfort in the retreating structures of traditional Christianity.


As in Under the Net, The Bell depicts the mystical journey towards a truer perception of reality and the Good through its central male protagonist, Michael Meade. Despite making clear that she does not put explicit philosophical theories in her novels, Murdoch admits in a 1962 interview that there is an ‘obvious and fairly explicit theoretical background to the different moral attitudes of the main characters’ in The Bell. The two primary ‘moral attitudes’ expressed in the novel are embodied in the contrasting figures of James Tayper Pace (the would-be saint) and Michael Meade (the would-be artist), which can be glossed as a larger conflict between ‘convention and neurosis’ (EM, 217). Whereas James’s ‘more orthodox and rigid moral conceptions’ (TB, 86) lead him to preach the strict maxim, taken from Matthew 5. 48: ‘[b]e ye therefore perfect’ (TB, 133), Michael embodies a more artistic conception of the mystical pilgrimage towards the Good, which can be summarised by Murdoch’s quip: ‘Be ye therefore slightly improved’ (EM, 350). This stems from Michael’s belief that ‘[a]s spiritual beings […] we differ profoundly one from another’, meaning that ‘[e]ach of us has his own way of apprehending God’ (TB, 209–10) and moving towards the Good. In such a view we can see Murdoch’s emphasis on the various gradations of moral progress, and the dangers of ‘arrogat[ing] to ourselves actions which belong to those whose spiritual vision is higher or other than ours’ (TB, 210). Yet, in losing sight of the idea of perfection (which remains ‘remote and hard to interpret [for him]’ (TB, 85)) Michael represents a potentially dangerous retreat into the ‘dazzling’ (EM, 324) self, thereby neglecting the reality which lies outside himself.


Much of The Bell is devoted to a sympathetic exploration of this tension between Michael’s lowly eros (embodied in the ‘great love’ (TB, 106) he feels towards both Nick Fawley and Toby) and an idealised agape, explicitly envisaged as a mystical ‘road’ or journey consisting of the ‘day-to-day attempt to be impersonal and just’ (TB, 85). As readers, we learn that Michael’s fault lies in his inability to follow his own sermon’s advice; in order to accurately ‘estimate […] his own spiritual level’, he must ‘perform the lower act which one can manage and sustain’, rather than ‘the higher act which one bungles’ (TB, 207). Indeed, in his earlier ‘love affair’ (TB, 99) with Nick, Michael constructs fantastical ‘visions of himself as the boy’s spiritual guardian’, imagining his ‘passion’ being converted ‘into a lofty and more selfless attachment […] with a self-effacement which would be the highest expression of love’ (TB, 106), when in reality he is motivated by an erotic need to possess Nick. Having arrived at Imber, Michael ‘pride[s] himself on having lost at least certain illusions’ (TB, 121, emphasis mine), boldly asserting that he has ‘passed through a spiritual crisis and emerged triumphant […] confident of a Love which lay deeper than the contortions of his egoistic and unenlightened guilt’ (TB, 100). Given that Michael can possess such an acute form of self-knowledge regarding the means by which to discipline his ego, it is all the more surprising that his erotic longings resurface when he encounters Toby. Even as Michael engages in the practice of prayer to ‘calm’ (TB, 79) his mind by directing his attention outside of himself and towards something higher, he cannot prevent his prayers from ‘drift[ing] into fantasies’ – specifically his ‘vague physical desires’ (TB, 208) for Toby. Thus, even as he attempts to justify his desire for Toby as a ‘fund of love and goodwill’, which can be ‘made a power for good’, he ultimately cannot prevent his ‘impulse’ (TB, pp. 158–59) to kiss Toby, leading him to accept that he is ‘too tarnished an instrument to do the work [of love] that needed doing’ (TB, 243).

* * *


Surprisingly, it is the Abbess, ‘with whom Murdoch […] admitted a little to identifying’ with, who provides a third way between Michael and James’s opposing means of approaching the Good. Rather than conceding that only ‘those who ha[ve] given up the world ha[ve] the right’ to speak about love, the Abbess emphasises the importance of ‘[i]mperfect love’ (TB, 243) as central to the mystical ascent towards the Good. In a synthesis of Michael and James’s worldviews, the Abbess stresses the importance of both ‘our effort’ to progress towards the Good, whilst also accepting that our efforts are made possible by a larger ‘faith in God’, who ‘will in His own way and in His own time complete what we so poorly attempt’, ensuring that the Good ‘overflow[s]’ (TB, 242–43) from our imperfect attempts at love. Read through this lens, it is clear that Michael has become too preoccupied with ‘the excitement of [his] spiritual drama for its own sake’ (TB, 212), rather than directing his attention towards something outside himself. Such an outward-facing form of attention would show him ‘a higher and a better way’ on his mystical ascent, in which his lowly eros is not ‘condemned and rejected’, but rather ‘made perfect’ (TB, 243). Through neurotically worrying about whether his particular form of love for Nick is justified in the eyes of God, Michael fails to properly attend to Nick, who had ‘needed love […] without fears about its imperfection (TB, 319), thereby contributing to his suicide. As an antidote to the dangers of Michael’s spiritual pride, Murdoch succeeds in salvaging the Christian virtue of humility (which Weil called ‘the queen of virtues’) as centrally important for Michael’s pilgrimage towards the Good. In The Bell, Michael’s spiritual pride in his own ability to transcend his nature prevents him from finally ‘open[ing] his heart’ (EM, 319) and humbly accepting his imperfections, thereby highlighting Weil’s contention that ‘[t]here is great harm in thinking ourselves more [spiritually] advanced’ than we are. Through such an acceptance of our inherent limitations, the Abbess comes to embody Murdoch’s cheerful pessimism, which, despite accepting that we will continually fall short of the mystical demands of the Good, ultimately emphasises that ‘[t]he way is always forward, never back’ (TB, 243). We can now see why Murdoch cites the mystic Julian of Norwich with such approval in the novel; despite seeming ‘impossible’ (much like Murdoch’s ideal of the Good) Julian declares that ‘all things shall be well’ (TB, 163) through an unwavering faith in God – or, in Murdoch’s case, the Good.


Dora Greenfield, an outsider figure within Imber, represents the real world of mess and contingency encroaching into the community. As such, she is identified as a dangerous presence which must be neutralised to retain a false mystical order; indeed, she often feels as if the community ‘were easily, casually even, judging her, placing her’ (TB, 135), by making her ‘play their role’ (TB, 202). The implication here is that a dogmatically Christian reading of the world forces the community to appraise each other through unobtainable ideals, which lead to harsh judgements when people fail to embody them, as when James Tayper Pace shockingly refers to Dora as a ‘bitch’ (TB, 235), and Nick as a ‘pansy’ (TB, 117). In the case of Catherine, the Imber community fails to recognise her uncertainty about becoming a nun by constructing an ambivalent mythology around her, envisaging her as both a ‘little saint’ (TB, 34) and also an embodiment of their grander mystical ideals – ‘lovely, gentle, modest, and chaste’ (TB, 141). Only Dora, the outsider figure at ease with inhabiting the contingency of the wider world, can accurately perceive Catherine’s aversion to ‘shut[ting] [herself] up’ (TB, 140) in the monastery, thereby reaffirming Murdoch’s form of mysticism as founded upon the ability to truly perceive the reality of other people, rather than viewing them through the distorting lens of mythological fantasies.


Yet, even a character as worldly-wise as Dora (in comparison to the rest of the community at Imber) is shown to be susceptible to false mystical insights. Midway through the novel, Dora becomes consumed by a ‘fit of solipsistic melancholy’, as if ‘her consciousness had eaten up its surroundings’ (TB, 187–88). Such metaphors of devouring are also employed in The Sea, The Sea to convey Charles’s rapacious need to digest external experiences and represent them to his ego in a consoling way. Upon visiting the National Gallery, Dora beholds paintings that cannot be ‘wretchedly devour[ed]’ (TB, 196) by her ego. Throughout her career, Murdoch consistently emphasises ‘good art’ as providing a form of mystical unselfing, in which ‘the walls of the ego fall, the noisy ego is silenced, we are freed from possessive selfish desires and anxieties and are one with what we contemplate’ (MGM, 59). In making such extravagant claims for art, Murdoch departs from Plato; whereas ‘Plato mistrusted art because it imitated what was various and unreal’ (EM, 274), Murdoch adopts a more Plotinian/Schopenhauerian view of art, arguing that it can ‘pierce […] the veil’ of our egotistical desires and reveal a ‘reality which lies beyond appearance[s]’ (EM, 372). Indeed, as Dora becomes consumed by the paintings, she recognises ‘something real outside herself […] something superior and good whose presence destroy[s] the dreary trance-like solipsism of her earlier mood’ (TB, 196). Here I depart from Dipple’s more pessimistic reading of The Bell, which argues that ‘anxious characters’ such as Michael and Dora are ultimately unable to ‘give up their struggle with self or subdue their hyper-kinetic egos under God’, leaving them ‘trapped in a world where their undisciplined spiritual energy has no object of attention’. As I have shown, characters such as Dora, Toby, and even Michael can momentarily silence their incessant egos through attending to people and objects wholly outside of themselves, thereby allowing them to glimpse the transcendent and slowly continue their pilgrimage towards the Good.


Whereas experiences of the sublime have traditionally been confined to an apprehension of God (or God in nature), Murdoch secularises this concept by situating Dora’s experience in the ‘temple’ (TB, 197) of the National Gallery, highlighting how such quasi-religious experiences can continue to provide glimpses of the Good in an increasingly secular age. Indeed, when looking at the painting Dora testifies to a ‘mystical experience’ (TB, 314) akin to a religious ‘revelation’, with her face looking ‘unusually ecstatic’ as she ‘prostrate[s] herself’ (TB, 196) in front of her shrine. Through this experience, Dora recognises that she ‘must go back to Imber at once’, having been assured of some mystical ‘connexion’ (TB, 197) between herself and the bell submerged in the lake. However, it quickly becomes clear that this is a bad form of mysticism which has degenerated into mere ‘trick[s]’ (TB, 205) and magic; whilst believing herself to be enacting a ‘real miracle’ (TB, 205) for the Imber community by replacing the new bell with the older submerged bell, Dora’s ‘vatic role’ (TB, 249) as an ‘enchanter’ (TB, 199) of the ‘witch-like’ (TB, 274) bell emphasises the ‘magical’ (TB, 218) (as opposed to mystical) nature of the task. In this quasi-Paganistic ‘rite of power’ (TB, 218), Dora becomes ‘under [the bell’s] spell […] annihilated at the wonder of it’ (TB, 277) a form of unselfing which recalls her earlier experience at the National Gallery. Yet, this experience is revealed to be founded upon a more egotistical desire to ‘shake everybody up a bit’ (TB, 205), no doubt in response to the judgements Dora has endured from the Imber community. In these contrasting moments of unselfing, Murdoch makes clear that mystical experiences are, more often than not, false suns that flatter our desire for consolation and lead us away from the true Good – a sun which is infinitely harder to apprehend and move towards. As we shall see, this preoccupation with the dangerous consequences of false religious consolations becomes the central concern in The Time of the Angels.  



At a talk given at a 1966 meeting of the Study Group on Foundations of Cultural Unity at Bowdoin College in Maine (which would later become published as ‘On ‘God’ and ‘Good’), Murdoch considered the following suggestion:  


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?) (EM, 359)

The same year, Murdoch published The Time of the Angels, her bleakest novel yet. We can read this novel as one of Murdoch’s most sustained investigations into her ‘own personal fears’, namely that the idea of the Good, which Murdoch so cherished throughout her life, may ultimately ‘turn out to be [a] meaningless’ (EM, 359) consolation. Whereas in Under the Net, the fear of a Wittgensteinian apophaticism is confronted through its comic, picaresque tone, The Time of the Angels is unrelentingly dark in its confrontation of evil, signalling a more general shift towards pessimism in Murdoch’s later novels. In The Time of the Angels, Murdoch explores the moral implications of her early desire for a mystical, demythologised version of Christianity which is increasingly devoid of many of the consolatory myths which previous generations had taken for granted. Thus, the primary question posed by the novel is: who or what fills the void left after the death of God?


Marcus Fisher, a ‘Christian fellow-traveller’ (TA, 15) comes to resemble Murdoch’s philosophy in many ways, not least in his desire to publish a book on ‘Morality in a World without God’ (TA, 67). Despite not ‘believ[ing] in the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost’, Marcus still ‘want[s] other people to believe’ (TA, 91). Here, it appears that Marcus wants to both have his cake and eat it, desiring the ‘old structure to continue […] [as] something he could occasionally reach out and touch with his hand’ (TA, 91), when he needs consolation, without ever fully committing to the Christian faith. Similarly, despite calling for the mystical demythologisation of Christianity, Murdoch’s letters betray her wider fear that ‘if organised Christianity suddenly collapses people will think there is no longer any reason to love each other’, registering her sympathy with the ‘fright the ordinary […] believer may feel’ following this religious collapse. Stanley Hauerwas usefully identifies this tension in Murdoch’s thought between an awareness of ‘the need for consolation’ and a rejection of ‘that which consoles’ us as untrue, ultimately ‘suspect[ing]’ Murdoch, as a Platonist, of ‘assum[ing] that some must bear the philosophical burden of refusing to be consoled in order that most people can be contented with stories that are less true’. Such a reading resonates with the Bishop’s conception of the mystical ideal as one in which ‘[m]any are called but few are chosen’ (TA, 91), thereby establishing an ‘élite of mystics’ (EM, 360) which Murdoch so passionately rejected in her philosophical writings. Given the psychological fortitude required to truly accept a life without illusions, it is no surprise that Marcus looks towards the consolations of ‘milk-and-water theology’ (TA, 172) as a means of staving off his fear of the ‘black scene […] seething with matter, riddled with void, and without any intelligible principle of organisation’ (TA, 117) which lurks behind a demythologised form of Christianity. Marcus’s fate therefore becomes a cautionary tale for Murdoch, in which a psychological inability to sustain the ‘optimism of all philosophy up to the present’ (TA, 193) results in an unforgivable capitulation to Carel’s seductive pessimism.

* * *

Later in her writing career, Murdoch admitted that it is ‘not easy to picture […] great evil […] in literature without sentimentality or caricature’ (MGM, 101). In The Time of the Angels, Murdoch comes close to depicting a truly evil figure in Carel Fisher, who represents the absolute antithesis of her moral outlook, a mirror image of her mystical ascent which ends with a descent into evil. Carel’s most disturbing assertion is that ‘the truth [is] awful’, just a ‘black pit’ that ‘cannot be endured’, and which the ‘facile optimism’ taught by all philosophy since Plato cannot ‘face’ (TA, 170). The implication here is that the true mystic, who has transcended the ‘old delusion[s]’ inherent in the ‘whole history of philosophy [and] […] theology’, is thereby forced to recognise Murdoch’s greatest fear – namely that the Good is a mystical ‘ideal so far beyond our reach that we could not even significantly name it’ (TA, 194), thereby linking its ineffability with its ultimate non-existence. In the face of this, Marcus’s (and perhaps even Murdoch’s) attempt to assert their ‘milk-and-water theology’, embodied in the facile plea: ‘there is goodness, whatever you say, there is morality, it’s just there’, is reduced to ‘raucous gabble’ (TA, 171–72) – or the mere ‘prattling of a child’ (TA, 170), as Carel would have it. And yet, as Tony Milligan argues, we can see in Carel a refusal to accept what Weil terms the ‘void’, a period of ‘spiritual crisis’ he must endure following the death of his wife. Whereas for Christian mystics such as St John of the Cross, who accepted his ‘dark night of the soul’ as an opportunity to ‘empty [himself] of [his] accumulated egocentric self-regard’, thereby coming closer to God through adopting a saintly humility, Carel instead fills his void with delusional, egotistical fantasies of himself as God. As Weil notes, given that ‘[t]he good seems to us as a nothingness’, there will always be a temptation for mystics to take this nothingness as a sign of its ‘unreal[ity]’, as in the case of Carel, who mistakes his personal void as the basis for rejecting ‘the single Good […] [as] an illusion and a fake’ (TA, 170), thereby producing ‘hatred, sourness, bitterness, spite’. Thus, Carel’s suicide at the novel’s close constitutes the final stage of his anti-mystical descent, representing a final inability to accept the spiritual affliction of his void which all mystics must endure before their final enlightenment.


Murdoch continues to explore her ambivalent relationship to religious consolations through the character of Eugene Peshkov, whose religious icon represents the only spiritual bulwark against ‘the knowledge that he ha[s] lost everything’ (TA, 108). Like Pattie O’ O’Driscoll, Eugene naively conceives of God in his youth as a traditional father figure who ‘forgive[s] his trespasses [and] love[s] him’; yet, as he is forced to flee his country following the Russian Revolution, Eugene enacts the painful iconoclastic pilgrimage through accepting a Godless void which leaves ‘nothing but the darkness’ (TA, 53). However, despite rationalising his mother’s religious icon as ‘only a bit of wood’ (TA, 107) and recognising his attachment to it as a ‘sentimental [and] superstitious’, Eugene cannot help but ‘love the icon’ as ‘more than a [mere] symbol’ (TA, 53). Given the clear psychological benefits one can derive from traditional religious structures, are we, as readers, really to desire that Eugene ‘let [his icon] go’, that ‘object [which] had seemed to concentrate, to keep with him somehow symbolically, all that he had lost, his dear ones, the years of his life, Russia’? I suspect that here Murdoch is being forced to confront the true limitations of her mystical ideals through recognising that Eugene is no ‘better’ for being ‘a stripped man’ (TA, 108); rather, it is his capacity to love this specific icon which renders him a ‘necessary presence, an essential counterweight to Carel’ (TA, 177), a figure moving slowly towards the Good, rather than a monstrously detached quasi-mystic. 

Part III: Buddhist Mysticism in The Sea, The Sea

In many ways, Charles Arrowby begins The Sea, The Sea from the same starting position as Murdoch’s first male first-person narrator, Jake Donoghue. Yet, there are some key differences between the two novels – most notably the contrast between Under the Net’s bustling London landscape and Charles’s mystical attempt to ‘become a hermit’ through a prolonged ‘period of meditation’ by the sea – highlighting Murdoch’s desire to explore how her mystical ideals are affected by the various pressures of the outside world. Like Jake, Charles ‘hate[s] mess’ (TS, 38, original emphasis), and his retreat from the ‘babble’ of the London theatre scene to the ‘solitude and the quiet’ (TS, 34) of the sea represents a psychological inability to mystically inhabit the real world. As we saw in the introduction, Murdoch cautions against this traditional mystical retreat into solitude as a means of ‘repent[ing] of a life of egoism’ (TS, 3) since it encourages a neurotic focus on the ego, the very object which the mystic must transcend to reach true enlightenment. As in Under the Net, we quickly discern the stark, often comedic contrast between Charles’s mystical ideals and the reality of his unrelenting egotism, most memorably conveyed through his ‘gastronomic mysticism’ (TS, 56), which metaphorically signals his desire to consume others to satiate his voracious ego. Indeed, when describing his past lover Clement Makin, he makes it clear that his ‘cruel[ness] to her’ is predicated upon his fear ‘of being “swallowed”’ (TS, 53, emphasis mine), and later confesses to ‘want[ing] all [of Lizzie Scherer’s] attention’, since he is unable to ‘share [her] with someone else’ (TS, 98).


Like Jake, who claims not to be a ‘mystic about women’ (UN, 31) whilst revealing his latent misogyny through his possessive desires for Anna, Charles claims not to ‘despise women’ (TS, 163), despite merely using the women in his life as a ‘refuge’ (TS, 170) to shield him from the contingency of the wider world. Thus, when fantasising about his future life with his childhood lover Mary Hartley Fitch, Charles emphasises that they will ‘live alone, secretly, incognito, somewhere in England, in the country, in a little house by the sea’, suggesting a falsely mystical ideal of an ‘old early innocent world’ (TS, 371) which is predicated on a childlike detachment from the real world. For Charles, Harley is ‘the most important thing in [his] life’, an all-encompassing ‘alpha and omega’, meaning that to try to put her ineffable importance into words would amount to a ‘sacrilege’ (TS, 77), much like apophatic theology’s injunction against describing God. Charles later makes explicit the religious connotations of his quest, describing Hartley as ‘something holy which almost any speech would profane’, preferring instead the ‘austere sterility of silence’ (TS, 129, emphasis mine). This is, of course, a highly ironic statement, given the fact that Charles will continue to dedicate hundreds of pages to her, revealing the sharp disjunction between his mystical ideals and the reality of his desires. Indeed, upon encountering Hartley at Shruff End, Charles co-opts the traditional religious practice of prayer for his own possessive ends, praying in a childlike litany: ‘let me find Hartley and let her be alone and let her love me and be made happy by me forever’ (TS, 113), with the repetition of ‘me’ revealing the extent to which Charles’s prayers have degenerated into a self-serving form of consolation. Like Jake, Charles continually mythologises their relationship, envisaging Hartley as his ‘Beatrice’, and later viewing himself as a ‘king’ who will ‘gladly […] become a beggar’ to ‘wed his beggar maid’, highlighting not only his ludicrously grand image of himself but also his misguided faith in his ability to strip himself of his delusions through such a ‘vision of […] healing humility’ (TS, 373).


Like many of Murdoch’s delusional male protagonists, Charles envisages Hartley as ‘evidence […] of some pure uncracked unfissured confidence in the [Platonic] good’ (TS, 84), highlighting the propensity for these questing protagonists to construct a ‘false sun’ (EM, 382) which they then mistake for true mystical illumination. As Deborah Johnson has argued, The Sea, The Sea represents Murdoch’s ‘most sustained fictional re-working of the parable of the Cave’, with Charles making explicit references to the myth throughout. Early in the novel, Charles describes his internal experience of ‘walking about in a dark cavern where there are various “lights”, made perhaps by shafts or apertures which reach the outside world’ (TS, 77), showing his awareness of the many illusory forms of mystical illumination which can masquerade as ‘the only true light in my life, the light that reveals the truth’ (TS, 79). We may initially feel hopeful for Charles to intuit the true Good ‘which [he has] been half consciously wending his way [towards]’ (TS, 77), which lies, as with Jake in Under the Net, ‘beneath the level of [his] attention and without [his] aid’ (UN, 267). However, it quickly becomes apparent that Charles is mistaking the true Good for his egotistical projection of Hartley, revealing how his misguided application of the Platonic myth to his own life has led him astray from his mystical ascent. Murdoch stresses how all of Charles’s perceptions are tainted by such inaccuracies of vision, as when he considers the possibility that his interactions with Hartley are ‘destined to make [him] a saint’ through ‘repent[ing] of [his] egoism’ (TS, 138), thereby leading him to interpret his ‘retir[ement]’ to the sea as a means by which to ‘giv[e] up the world just for her’ (TS, 362). This is, of course, a laughable post-hoc justification of his narrowly egocentric desires to escape from the mess of the theatrical world, and his later abusive behaviour towards Hartley can hardly be said to resemble a selfless saint.


Much like Michael Meade, Charles fails to accurately ‘estimate […] his own spiritual level’ (TB, 207), holding out the false hope for a ‘love purged of possessive madness, purged of self’, an impossibly perfect union with Hartley in which they would ‘never […] lose each other’ or ‘put […] [a] foot wrong’ (TS, 121). However, beneath his lofty ambitions to ‘make [Hartley] eternally happy’, there lies an egotistical desire to ‘console her as a god consoles’, which manifests itself in a ‘violen[t]’ need ‘to own her, to possess her body and soul’ (TS, 186, emphasis mine). Such a ‘Plato[nic] dream’ to transmute possessive love into a ‘vision of selflessness’ to continue ‘on the road to the Good’ reappears in Murdoch’s other novels written in the 1970s, most notably in The Black Prince. Here, the first-person male narrator Bradley Pearson, whose verbal self-reflexivity resembles Charles’s to a remarkable degree, interprets his erotic love for Julian Baffin as a chance to ‘will another rather than oneself’, thus providing him with a ‘lever [with] which to lift the world’. Yet, such a dream is shown to be ‘impossible’ for both Bradley and Charles so long as their rapacious egos desire to possess their beloveds, rather than being truly attentive to them as free agents beyond their control. In this vision of egotistical, possessive love, we can see the influence of Buddhism on Murdoch’s thought. In the endnotes to her edition of Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D. T. Suzuki, Murdoch writes ‘no clinging’, in reference to Suzuki’s contention that ‘clinging [onto a beloved] degrades the value of [the] cherished object because it is thereby brought down to the same order of being as themselves’. Thus, in The Sea, The Sea, it is clear that Charles’s inability to relinquish his egotistical hold on Hartley degrades her, leaving him in a perpetual state of avidyā (ignorance), unable to finally attain vidya (knowledge) and mystical enlightenment.


* * *

As in Under the Net, Charles is led to transcend his narrowly egotistical worldview through his interactions with other characters, chiefly his Buddhist cousin, James Arrowby. Given Hartley’s repeated assertions that their ‘love wasn’t real’, but merely ‘childish’ (TS, 302), an unreal ‘dream’ (TS, 329) which is not to be considered a ‘part of the real world’ (TS, 280), the reader surely expects Charles to recognise that his love for her has been comprised of mere fantasies. However, Charles’s false mental image of Hartley is so strong that he cannot accept any aspect of her which does not wholly align with his ideal. Instead, it is his cousin James, one of Murdoch’s most fully realised mystical heroes, who prompts Charles to finally recognise his delusions for what they are. Much like how Jake perceives Hugo as ‘a sign, a portent, a miracle’ (UN, 268), James similarly becomes an ‘unnerving portent’ (TS, 320) for Charles, a figure who will ultimately lead him closer to the Good. Like Hugo, James embodies a mysticism that is closely attentive to the physical world, remarking on the natural beauty of ‘gannets’ (TS, 175) and the ‘sublime […] force’ (TS, 330) of the sea at Shruff’s End, emphasising Murdoch’s belief that Buddhism ‘teaches respect and love for all things’, particularly the ‘small contingent details of ordinary life and the natural world’ (MGM, 244) which may be ignored by the inattentive mind. Given that James recognises the need to direct one’s attention away from the self, he similarly advises Charles that he ‘cannot just walk into the [Platonic] cavern and look around’, since almost all of what we find in ourselves is ‘pseudo-knowledge’, emphasising the Buddhist notion of the ego as merely a ‘bundle […] of illusions’ (TS, 175). Unlike the traditional mystical retreat from the world into the self (thereby engaging in the ‘ultimate deification of egoism’ (MGM, 70)), Murdoch’s personal journal at the time makes clear that her ideal conception of the ‘Bodisattva’ [sic] is one who ‘will only enter Nirvana when all others have’; thus, James’s role as the enlightened Buddhist mystic becomes a need to show Charles and others the true path towards Nirvana. For Murdoch, Buddhism represents a ‘wholly mystical religion’ which does not necessitate belief in metaphysical concepts such as God or the supernatural, but is instead focused on the ‘purification of consciousness’ (MGM, 243), leading her to claim that it is ‘perhaps […] the only religion which can save the world’. However, we may question how far Murdoch understood the more nuanced tenets of the Buddhist faith; upon consulting her personal library at Kingston University, it became clear that her understanding of Buddhism is filtered through highly Westernised perspectives. Thus, Murdoch is led to interpret Buddhist mysticism as representing another means of achieving the Good; however, as Clements shows, this is inconsistent with the ‘Buddhist ideal state of Nirvana [as] not a state of goodness, but of nothingness’, lying ‘beyond good and evil’. Moreover, despite Murdoch claiming that Buddhism does not require any of the metaphysical beliefs which she found untenable in Christianity, she fails to account for the metaphysical commitments which are necessary for a belief in the illusory nature of the self, or the concept of reincarnation. Regardless of how accurately Murdoch understands Buddhism as a whole, for the purposes of The Sea, The Sea she employs Buddhist modes of thought as a means of adding a religious structure to James’s mystical task, which is ostensibly to help Charles remove his ‘egoistic fuzz of self-protective anxiety’ (TS, 244) and thereby look upon his life and the world around him with a newfound lucidity.


With a gad-fly-like intensity, James constantly questions Charles’s ‘guiding idea[s]’ regarding Hartley, which he recognises as being based on ‘very insubstantial evidence’ – namely Charles’s ‘memory of some idyllic times at school’ (TS, 335) – thereby subjecting Charles’s ‘dream figure’ (TS, 353) to the litmus test of the external world. Here, Murdoch makes clear that the true mystic must recognise that they have been ‘obsessed [and] hypnotized’ (TS, 353) by their self-constructed images, and therefore cleanse their mind of false perceptions and attachments as they continue on their journey towards the Good. This notion of an iconoclastic pilgrimage, so central to Murdoch’s conception of mysticism, is evident through Charles and James’s extensive discussions regarding Buddhism; indeed, James repeatedly cautions against Charles’s tendency to conceive of Buddhist principles such as ‘reincarnation’ in images, arguing instead that ‘[t]he truth lies beyond’ (TS, 384), highlighting the inadequacy of Western modes of thought when attempting to describe such concepts. Characteristically, it is Charles’s egotism that prevents him from initially accepting James’s sound advice, interpreting it instead as ‘pompous speculations’ intended to ‘insult’ (TS, 335) his ego. As readers, we learn that Charles was more ‘intent [on] outshin[ing] James’ and ‘impress[ing] him’ (TS, 62) when they were both children, rather than attending to him with the love of a cousin. As in the case of Hartley’s son Titus, it is only following James’s death that Charles can recognise ‘how little [he] knew about his life’ (TS, 470). It is significant that Charles fails to understand James’s life, given that Murdoch repeatedly emphasises that ‘“higher” spiritual states tend to be invisible, to appear empty or pointless from lower positions’ (MGM, 244). This poses a novelistic problem of depicting ‘the completely selfless person’ who ‘seems to us as a stripped-down nothing’ (MGM, 62), given their lack of egotistical concerns. Like Hugo, James occupies a peripheral position in the narrative by ‘acting upon the world negatively’ in stark contrast to Charles’s central role; such differences in representation can be glossed as a contrast between Charles’s intensely verbose egotism and James’s quiet desire to ‘giv[e] up power’ altogether. Ultimately, James’s self-effacing qualities render him ‘unimaginable’ (TS, 445) within both Charles’s mind and the novel itself; however, beneath Murdoch’s understated depiction of James lies a deeper optimism founded upon his embodied sense of Goodness, which Charles cannot help but be drawn towards.

* * *

One of the most important means by which Charles learns to transcend his narrow egotism is through a mystical process of unselfing, in which his ego recedes and the conventional subject/object distinction disappears. Throughout the novel, Charles projects his subconscious visions onto the external world, as when he describes ‘a monster rising from the waves’ (TS, 19), which he later recognises as ‘the sea serpent of [his] jealousy’ (TS, 492). Such visions do not qualify as being “mystical” in Murdoch’s definition, since they are fundamentally directed inwards, towards the self and its contents, rather than outwards towards the external world. However, Charles later undergoes a true mystical experience when lying under the night sky, describing his vision of ‘[s]tars behind stars and stars behind stars behind stars until there was nothing between them, nothing beyond them, but dusty dim gold of stars and no space and no light but stars’. Charles attempts to gesture towards that ‘which human senses could [not] grasp or even conceive of’ (TS, 146) by employing language cataphatically – stretching words to their limit by repeating phrases in an incantatory style, thereby inviting his readers to experience a similar cognitive bafflement. In this moment, Charles testifies to many of the hallmarks of the mystical experience identified by William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience: it is clearly an ‘[i]neffable’ experience given Charles’s struggle to describe it, and in declaring that he ‘was no longer I’, but rather ‘an atom of an atom, a necessary captive spectator’, the experience is shown to be [p]assiv[e]’, continuing without any conscious effort, and characterised by ‘[t]ransiency’, given that when Charles comes to his senses the vision ‘had all gone’. Crucially, this experience has some ‘[n]oetic quality’, with Charles entertaining the notion that he had ‘heard the music of the spheres’ (TS, 146), thereby glimpsing an underlying cosmic unity which had been obscured by his own ego. Just as Weil wished to ‘disappear’ so that ‘there would be a perfect union of love between God and […] the sea’, Charles’s temporary loss of his ego allows him to momentarily feel a sense of union with the world, thereby continuing his mystical ascent towards the Good. However, it becomes clear that even an experience as destabilising as this cannot prevent Charles’s ego from reasserting itself; in this case, Charles can only make sense of the experience by linking his vision of the stars to ‘the changing lights of the Odeon cinema where [he] used to go with Hartley as a child’ (TS, 170), revealing that any such intimation of a reality outside one’s ego will remain fundamentally partial, illusory, and transitory.


Towards the end of the novel, Charles experiences another mystical experience under the stars, and awakes to a vision of ‘four seals’, with ‘wet doggy faces looking curiously upward’ (TS, 476). During the novel, Charles admits to ‘sometimes look[ing] for seals’ (TS, 426), yet his failure to see any is revealed to be a product of his egotistical inability to pay close attention to the natural world. Despite this, following a temporary respite from his ‘sad and strange thoughts’ occasioned by an egoless vision ‘into the vast soft interior of the universe’ (TS, 475), Charles can truly apprehend the world around him, rather than viewing it through the prism of his egotistical anxiety. Instead of witnessing a ‘sea monster’ (TS, 21) projected from his subconscious among the waves, Charles instead beholds four innocent seals, prompting a vision of love and reconciliation: ‘as I watched their play I could not doubt that they were beneficent beings come to visit me and bless me’ (TS, 476). As Julia Jordan points out, animals inspire ‘a kind of unknowing wonder’ due to their lack of ‘self-reflexiv[ity]’, meaning ‘they do not seek to control the world in the way that humans, with their all-conquering egos, do’. For Charles, this vision provides an insight into a way of being which is founded upon an unselfconscious immersion in the real world, rather than a self-conscious, egotistical detachment from it. And yet, as Clements has shown, Charles’s description suggests that his mystical unselfing may not be as transformative as he hopes; given that the words ‘I’ and ‘me’ are ‘used eleven times in […] eight lines’, it becomes clear that Charles’s self remains at the centre of this experience. Moreover, Charles’s final revelation that the seals have come to ‘visit [him] and bless [him]’ (TS, 476, emphasis mine) does not reveal a character who has become mystically attentive to the external world, but rather an egotist who interprets the world as being fundamentally ‘adjusted itself to him’.


Such a pessimistic reading of Charles’s moral progress is made explicit in the novel’s postscript, which playfully concedes that this scene is ‘how the story ought to end, with the seals and the stars, explanation, resignation, reconciliation, everything picked up into some radiant bland ambiguous higher significance’ (TS, 477). Yet, as with Hugo’s assertion that the ‘[t]ruth lies in blundering on’ (UN, 257), Charles makes clear that ‘life […] has an irritating way of bumping and limping on, undoing conversions, casting doubt on solutions’ (TS, 477), specifically those solutions which he believed to have intuited from his mystical conversions. Thus, despite appearing to have gained some important lessons about his life by the novel’s close, the postscript reveals that Charles remains ‘an egoist’ since he ‘must live by the light of [his] own self-satisfaction’, as opposed to the unobtainable ideal of a ‘saint’ (TS, 482). We can link this emphasis on moral gradualism to the contemporary influence of Buddhism, specifically Zen, on Murdoch’s thought. In the endnotes to her copy of Reginald Horace Blyth’s Zen and Zen Classics, Murdoch writes that the ‘[f]inal acceptance of one’s temperament’ lies in the ability ‘to live even in its perversions’. Is Murdoch suggesting that we should curtail our mystical ascent in favour of merely accepting our temperament? Not quite. Instead, I would argue that Murdoch’s pessimistic turn in her later novels leads her to advocate for characters such as Charles to fully recognise how their desires and inclinations bar them from mystical enlightenment, and then work with such tendencies to achieve transcendence, rather than ignoring them in the pursuit of some unobtainable ideal which will reliably cause them to over-estimate their spiritual level and lead them away from the Good.    




By reading Murdoch’s earlier novels through the lens of mysticism, we come to see that mysticism remains a perennial influence throughout her life, mediated through the structures of Wittgensteinian philosophy, Christianity, and Buddhism. Literary critics have often failed to recognise her early engagement with mysticism due to focusing instead on other contemporaneous influences (such as existentialism) which are more explicitly referenced in the novels. Yet, through my analysis of Murdoch’s novels, as well as my research carried out at the Iris Murdoch Archives at Kingston University, I have shown that mysticism deserves to be considered as a central strand of Murdoch’s thought. Murdoch’s form of ‘unesoteric mysticism’ (EM, 376) may stand at odds with traditional understandings of mysticism, yet the label ‘mysticism’ remains applicable, and her novels provide us with a new way of understanding the term. Most importantly, Murdoch shows how a self-contained, abstract concept such as mysticism can become integrated into the messy, contingent worlds of her novels through presenting questing figures who engage on a spiritual journey towards a truer perception of this world, rather than some otherworldly beyond. By closely following her protagonists’ pilgrimage towards the Good, Murdoch dramatises the intense difficulty of the Platonic ascent; however, rather than merely lapsing into pessimism, Murdoch remains cheerful at the prospect of true mystical progress, albeit in a slow, piecemeal way. This cheerful pessimism in the face of barriers to the Good remains an important contribution to Murdoch’s moral philosophy, which encourages us to empathise with humanity’s common struggle to see others more justly, rather than appraising each other through unrealisable ideals.


While some may continue to criticise Murdoch for being a Weltanschauung magpie who constructs a worldview based on whatever appeals most strongly to her, I believe that Murdoch represents a more general cultural movement towards both perennialism, in which larger patterns of thought are synthesised, and a personal form of spirituality which rejects orthodox religion in favour of a more idiosyncratic perspective. Through her novels, we see how the religious desire for transcendence can continue to find its expression in an increasingly secular world, specifically through mystical experiences of great art and the sublimity of the natural world. Thus, unlike Norah Shadow-Brown in The Time of the Angels, Murdoch recognises that the ‘cleancut rational world’ devoid of religion and superstition ‘ha[s] not materialised’ (TA, 14), meaning that we must continue to find suitable outlets for these religious impulses, rather than allowing them to become easily degraded into bad forms of mysticism.


Given the post-metaphysical stance of much of our contemporary literary and philosophical culture, it is no surprise that many scholars of Murdoch’s work have failed to confront those mystical and magical elements of her novels which our current paradigms cannot easily explain. However, by neglecting the non-rational aspects of her novels, critics fail to recognise Murdoch’s lifelong interest in the magical aspects of religion; indeed she ‘consulted a tarot pack in the 1950s and 1960s’, and owned multiple books on the subject such as Alexandra David-Néel’s With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet. In her novels, magic represents a degenerated form of mysticism, as in the case of Dora Greenfield’s worship of the bell and James Arrowby’s ‘trick’ of ‘generating bodily heat by mental concentration’ (TS, 447) to save his sherpa, Milerpa. Critical studies should be undertaken to explore this ambivalent relationship between magic and mysticism further. Since these ‘mysteries will yield truths only to a religious attention’ (EM, 160), future readers of Murdoch’s works must remain attuned to those magical and supernatural resonances which may be ignored through an overly rationalistic approach. With the gradual transcription of Murdoch’s poems and journals, along with hundreds of annotated books and other resources at the Murdoch Archives, there is a promising opportunity in the coming years to consider her perspectives on mysticism and magic in a fresh, hitherto unseen light.


Through encouraging us to direct our attention outwards, towards the ‘inexhaustible variety of the world’ (EM, 381), Murdoch’s this-worldly mysticism provides an important means by which to purify our subjective viewpoint which has been distorted by the fantasies of our ‘fat relentless ego[s]’ (EM, 342), and thereby see the world anew.


Primary Works

Murdoch, Iris, Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature, ed. by Peter Conradi (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997)

—— Henry and Cato (London: Chatto & Windus, 1976)

—— Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (London: Vintage, 2003)

—— Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (London: Chatto & Windus, 1987)

—— The Bell (London: Vintage, 2004)

—— The Black Prince (London: Vintage, 2006)

—— The Philosopher’s Pupil (London: Vintage, 2000)

—— The Sea, The Sea (London: Vintage, 1999)

—— The Sovereignty of Good (London: Routledge Classics, 2001)

—— The Time of the Angels (London: Vintage, 2002)

—— Under the Net (London: Vintage, 2002)          


Secondary Reading

Altorf, Marije, Iris Murdoch and the Art of Imagining (London: Continuum, 2008)

Antonaccio, Maria, A Philosophy to Live By: Engaging Iris Murdoch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)

—— ‘Imagining the Good: Iris Murdoch’s Godless Theology’, The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics, 16 (1996), 223-242

—— ‘Iris Murdoch’s Secular Theology of Culture’, Literature and Theology, 18 (2004), 271–91

—— Picturing the Human: The Moral Thought of Iris Murdoch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)

Auden, W. H., Collected Poems, ed. by Edward Mendelson (London: Faber and Faber, 2004)

Baker, J. Robert., ‘Christian Sensibility in our Un-Christian Age: Two Approaches to Iris Murdoch’s Moral Depth’, Christianity and Literature, 57 (2008), 281–94

Bayley, John, Elegy for Iris (New York: Picador, 1999)

Beams, David W., ‘The Fortunate Fall: Three Actions in The Bell’, Twentieth Century Literature, 34 (1988), 416–33

Bellamy, Michael O., ‘An Interview with Iris Murdoch’, Contemporary Literature, 18 (1977), 129–40

Blyth, Reginald Horace, Zen and Zen Classics: Volume One: From the Upanishads to Huineng (Tokyo: The Hokuseido Press, 1960)

Bove, Cheryl K., Understanding Iris Murdoch (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993)

Broackes, Justin, ed., Iris Murdoch, Philosopher: A Collection of Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)

Browning, Gary, Why Iris Murdoch Matters: Making Sense of Experience in Modern Times (London: Bloomsbury, 2018)

Burns, Elizabeth, ‘Images of Reality: Iris Murdoch’s Five Ways from Art to Religion’, Religions, 6 (2015), 875–90

Byatt, A. S., Degrees of Freedom: The Early Novels of Iris Murdoch (London: Vintage, 1994)

Capitani, Diane N., ‘Ideas of the Good: Iris Murdoch’s “The Sea, The Sea”’, Christianity and Literature, 53 (2003), 99–108

Clements, James, Mysticism and the Mid-Century Novel (London: Palgrave, 2011)

Clifton, W. Scott, ‘Schopenhauer and Murdoch on the Ethical Value of the Loss of Self in Aesthetic Experience’, The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 51 (2017), 5–25

Conradi, Peter J., Iris Murdoch: A Life (London: Harper Collins, 2001)

—— Iris Murdoch: The Saint and the Artist (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986)

D’Amato, Mario, Jay Garfield and Tom J. F. Tillemans, eds., Pointing at the Moon: Buddhism, Logic, Analytic Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)

David-Néel, Alexandra, With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet (London: Penguin Books, 1938)

De Maeseneer, Yves and Julia Meszaros, ‘Mirrors of the Human: Angels in Iris Murdoch and Karl Ove Knausgård’, Literature and Theology, 29 (2015), 450–64

Denham, A. E., ‘Envisioning the Good: Iris Murdoch’s Moral Psychology’, Modern Fiction Studies, 47 (2001), 602–29

Diamond, Cora, The Realistic Spirit: Wittgenstein, Philosophy and the Mind (Cambridge, M. A.: MIT Press, 1991)

Dipple, Elizabeth, Iris Murdoch: Work for the Spirit (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982)

Dooley, Gillian, ed., From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction: Conversations with Iris Murdoch (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003)

Felheim, Marvin, ‘Symbolic Characterization in the Novels Of Iris Murdoch’, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 2 (1960), 189–97

Fiddes, Paul S., Iris Murdoch and the Others: A Writer in Dialogue with Theology (London: Bloomsbury, 2021)

Forsberg, Niklas. Language Lost and Found: On Iris Murdoch and the Limits of Philosophical Discourse (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013)

Gordon, David J., ‘Iris Murdoch’s Comedies of Unselfing’, Twentieth Century Literature, 36 (1990), 115–36

—— Iris Murdoch’s Fables of Unselfing (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995)

Griffin, Gabriele, The Influence of the Writings of Simone Weil on the Fiction of Iris Murdoch (San Francisco: Mellen Research University Press, 1993)

Hall, William F., ‘“Bruno’s Dream”: Technique and Meaning in the Novels of Iris Murdoch’, Modern Fiction Studies, 15 (1969), 429–43

Hämäläinen, Nora, ‘What is a Wittgensteinian Neo-Platonist? Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics and Metaphor’, Philosophical Papers 43 (2014), 191–225

Hämäläinen, Nora and Gillian Dooley, eds., Reading Iris Murdoch’s Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017)

Hardy, Robert, Psychological and Religious Narratives in Iris Murdoch’s Fiction (Lewiston, N.Y.; Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000)

Hauerwas, Stanley, ‘Murdochian Muddles: Can We Get Through Them If God Does Not Exist?’, in Iris Murdoch and the Search for Human Goodness, ed. by Maria Antonaccio and William Schweiker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 190–208

Hopwood, Mark, ‘“The Extremely Difficult Realization That Something Other Than Oneself Is Real”: Iris Murdoch on Love and Moral Agency’, European Journal of Philosophy, 26 (2017), 477–501

Insole, Christopher J., ‘“Beyond glass doors… the sun no longer shining”: English Platonism and the problem of self-love in the literary and philosophical work of Iris Murdoch’, Modern Theology, 22 (2006), 111–43

James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Penguin Books, 1982)

Johnson, Deborah, Iris Murdoch (Brighton: Harvester, 1987)

Jordan, Julia, ‘“A Thingy World”: Iris Murdoch’s Stuff’, Modern Language Review, 107 (2012), 364–78

Kaehele, Sharon, and Howard German, ‘The Discovery of Reality in Iris Murdoch’s The Bell’, PMLA, 82 (1967), 554–63

Lamarque, Peter, ‘Truth and Art in Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince’, Philosophy and Literature, 2 (1978), 209–22

Lazenby, Donna J., A Mystical Philosophy: Transcendence and Immanence in the Works of Virginia Woolf and Iris Murdoch (London: Bloomsbury, 2014)

Leeson, Miles, Iris Murdoch: Philosophical Novelist (London: Continuum, 2010)

Lesser, Wendy, ‘The Sacred and Profane Iris Murdoch’, The Threepenny Review, 3 (1980), 9–10

Levenson, Michael, ‘Iris Murdoch: The Philosophical Fifties and “The Bell”’, Modern Fiction Studies, 47 (2001), 558–79

Louth, Andrew, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition from Plato to Denys (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981)

Luprecht, Mark, ed., Iris Murdoch Connected: Critical Essays on Her Fiction and Philosophy (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2014)

Majdiak, Daniel, ‘Romanticism in the Aesthetics of Iris Murdoch’, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 14 (1972), 359–75

McLellan, David, Simone Weil: Utopian Pessimist (London: Macmillan, 1989)

Meszaros, Julia T, Selfless Love and Human Flourishing in Paul Tillich and Iris Murdoch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016)

Midgley, Mary, The Owl of Minerva: A Memoir (London: Routledge, 2005)

Milligan, Tony, ‘Love in dark times: Iris Murdoch on openness and the void’, Religious Studies, 50 (2014), 87–100

—— ‘Murdochian Humility’, Religious Studies, 43 (2007), 217–28

Monk, Ray, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (London: Vintage, 1991)

Nicol, Bran, ‘Anticipating Retrospection: The First-Person Retrospective Novel and Iris Murdoch’s “The Sea, the Sea”’, The Journal of Narrative Technique, 26 (1996), 187–208

—— ‘Iris Murdoch’s Aesthetics of Masochism’, Journal of Modern Literature, 29 (2006), 148–65

Nussbaum, Martha C, ‘When She Was Good’, in Philosophical interventions: Reviews, 1986–2011 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 259–73

Plato, Republic, trans. by Robin Waterfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Plotinus, The Enneads, trans. by Stephen Mackenna, 2nd edn., rev. by B. S. Page (London: Faber and Faber, 1956)

Porter, Raymond J., ‘“Leitmotiv” in Iris Murdoch’s “Under the Net”, Modern Fiction Studies, 15 (1969), 379–85

Ramanathan, Suguna, Iris Murdoch: Figures of Good (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990)

Roberts, Peter, ‘Dystopia and the Struggle for Redemption: Iris Murdoch and Educative Attention’, The Journal of Educational Thought, 49 (2016), 5–32

Rowe, Anne, Iris Murdoch (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2019)

Rowe, Anne and Avril Horner, eds., Iris Murdoch and Morality (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2010)

—— Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934–1995 (London: Chatto & Windus, 2015)

Rieff, Philip, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979)

Sagare, S. B., ‘An Interview with Iris Murdoch’, Modern Fiction Studies, 47 (2001), 696–714

Sartre, Jean-Paul, Nausea, trans. by Robert Baldick (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965)

Schneiderman, Leo, ‘Iris Murdoch: Fantasy vs. Imagination’, Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 16 (1996-1997), 379–97

Shakespeare, William, King Lear, ed. by R.A. Foakes (London: Arden Shakespeare, 1997)

Spear, Hilda D., Iris Murdoch (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006)

Sullivan, Zohreh T., ‘The Contracting Universe of Iris Murdoch’s Gothic Novels’, Modern Fiction Studies, 23 (1977-78), 557–69

Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro, Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D. T. Suzuki, ed. by William Barrett (New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc, 1956)

Todd, Richard, Iris Murdoch (London: Methuen, 1984)

Tucker, Lindsey, ‘Released from Bands: Iris Murdoch’s Two Prosperos in “The Sea, The Sea”, Contemporary Literature, 27 (1986), 378–95

Vickery, John B., ‘The Dilemmas of Language: Sartre’s “La Nausée” and Iris Murdoch’s “Under the Net,”’ The Journal of Narrative Technique, 1 (1971), 69–76

Watts, Alan, The Way of Zen (London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1957)

Weil, Simone, Gravity and Grace, trans. by Emma Crawford and Mario von der Ruhr (London: Routledge, 2002)

—— The Needs for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties towards Mankind, trans. by Arthur Wills (New York: Routledge, 2002)

—— The Notebooks of Simone Weil, trans. by Arthur Wills, 2 vols (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1956)

Widdows, Heather, The Moral Vision of Iris Murdoch (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005)

Wiseman, Rachael, ‘What if the private linguist were a poet? Iris Murdoch on privacy and ethics’, European Journal of Philosophy, 28 (2020), 224–34

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Philosophical Investigations, trans. by G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1953)

—— Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. by C. K. Ogden (London; New York: Routledge, 1922)

Wood, James, How Fiction Works (London: Vintage, 2009)

—— ‘Iris Murdoch’s Philosophy of Fiction’, in The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (London: Jonathan Cape, 1999), pp. 174–85

Yore, Susan Elizabeth, The Mystic Way in Postmodernity: Transcending Theological Boundaries in the Writings of Iris Murdoch, Denise Levertov and Annie Dillard (New York: Peter Lang, 2009)

Zhang, Dora, ‘Naming the Indescribable: James, Russell, Woolf and the Limits of Description’, New Literary History, 45 (2014), 51–70

Zuba, Sonja, Iris Murdoch’s Contemporary Retrieval of Plato: The Influence of an Ancient Philosopher on a Modern Novelist (Lewiston, N.Y: Edwin Mellen Press, 2010)

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