"A particular piece of work": love's labors in Murdoch's The Bell.
Iris Murdoch's novel The Bell (1958) considers the nature of "utopian work" not simply the kind of work that provides material support for community but rather the kind of "inner" work that reorients individual ethical and political sensibilities, and moves one toward a spiritual maturity that makes frank community with others possible. Drawing from Murdoch's philosophical work, Wagner-Lawlor examines Murdoch 's promotion of the "work" that art does in educating our moral sensibilities over the kinds of work (work on the land; intellectual work) her Imber Court communitarians engage in. Murdoch suggests that the real work of utopia is the working of the individual spirit toward an imaginative sympathy that lies at the heart of her conception of a utopian sensibility.
Love needs to be expressed, it needs to do work.
--Iris Murdoch, The Nice and the Good
Like many modern narratives interested in utopian communities, Iris Murdoch's 1958 novel The Bell, which traces the last months of the short-lived "Imber Court," is all about work: who works, who doesn't, what constitutes "real work," what work transcends mere "busi-ness" to become "'vocation"--Imber Court being, after all, a secular community adjacent to a religion one, Imber Abbey.' The novel, written during the period of Murdoch's particular interest in Sartrean existentialism, explores the doomed fragility, in an environment of modern skepticism, of any effort to endorse individual salvation through faith and good works. What is odd about this novel, though, is that even given the nearly farcical events leading up to dissolution of community at Imber Court, skeptical anti-utopianism is not where Murdoch leaves us? The Bell proposes that the work of utopia has little to do in the end with "potty communities," as one character mockingly describes them; no one seems to mourn the dissolution of this one much at novel's end. The important work is the continual reworking of individual spirit that such experiments can advance but rarely perfect. Murdoch is, here as in so many of her novels, more interested in tracing the journey toward spiritual horizons, a journey toward a spiritual "maturity" that has little to with any specific form of faith but, rather, with a faculty more fundamental to any moral or ethical framework: human sympathy, or what in fact Murdoch called "love." (3)
Few of my characters don't work. (Dooley 2003, 240)
According to Peter Conradi, Murdoch described the fictional brotherhood of this novel as "the vision of an ideal community in which work would once again be creative and meaningful and human brotherhood [would] be restored" (1997, 146). Over the years Murdoch would occasionally touch on the connection between work and a "meaningful" life. In an interview published in 1985, Murdoch observed that "getting hold of work, which is good, which you want to do... and which you feel does something for yourself and perhaps for other people is important" (Dooley 2003, 159)--important in that "we can learn about truth through any sort of craft or study or work" (Dooley 2003, 161). A certain kind of "'God's work" is the catalyst for forming this community, sitting adjacent to Imber Abbey; the Abbess, who proposed the foundation of a lay community, said that it would be a "buffer state" "between the Abbey and the world, a reflection, a benevolent and useful parasite, an intermediary form of rife" (Murdoch 2001, 71). (4) The proposal was accepted by Michael Meade, owner of the country house and surrounding property at Imber, who agreed that such a "refuge from modernity," "with its hurried pace and its mechanical and technical structure," offered "no home to these unhappy souls" (71). The Abbess argues, "with a kind of realism which surprised Michael at the time," that "work" as it now is "can rarely offer satisfaction to the half-contemplative" and that "'for some of such people, "disturbed and hunted by God,' as she put it, who cannot find a work which satisfies them in the ordinary world, a life half retired, and a work made simple and significant by its dedicated setting, is what is needed" (71).
The focus of this community's work is therefore vocational in more ways than one: the work revolves around farming, "Adam's trade" (80), with the hope that such work will "make our spiritual life most constantly grow and flourish" (;n). The fact that the produce of this labor is actually sold at market clearly indicates the buffer-state status of the community, "between the Abbey and world," between ideals and realities. Individually, each member seeks to understand the "symbolic, and indeed sacramental" nature of not only "their withdrawal from the world" but also, ideally, "the methods of their work" (80). Not surprisingly, community members privately evaluate one another on the perceived commitment of each worker to his or her task; "hard work" is clearly associated with health, both physical and spiritual. The community worries, for instance, about Nick, the twin brother of another young community member soon to answer her own calling to enter the Abbey. Although Nick has mechanical training and is supposed to be fixing what machinery they have, he refuses to do so. Michael thinks to himself that "the present organization at Imber simply had no place for a sick man such as Nick. It was no one's business to look after him" (111). The community also accepts as its guest a young student named Toby, who is preparing to go up to Oxford in the fall to study engineering--"an honest trade" (13), notes Michael approvingly; Michael therefore endorses the plan to room Toby with Nick, not only to look after Nick but also presumably to lure him back into healthy activity.
Of course, this community is far worldlier than Toby, "greatly attracted by the idea of riving and working, for a while at least, with a group of holy people who had given up the world" (38), imagines. There are deceptively deep tensions over those "methods of their work." Michael, the reluctant community leader, advocates buying a portable, mechanical cultivator, the "obvious next step," in his mind, "in the development of the market-garden." But he finds himself opposed by several others on the principle that
the community, having set themselves apart from the world to follow Adam's trade of digging and delving, should equip themselves only with tools of minimal simplicity and should compensate by honest and dedicated effort for what they had chosen to lack in mechanization. Michael regarded this view as an absurd piece of romanticism, and said so. After all they were engaged in a particular piece of work and should do it, to God's glory, as well as the fruitful discoveries of the age would allow.... "Good heavens!" Michael had exclaimed, "we shall be weaving our own clothes next!"--and had thereby mortally offended Margaret Stafford whose cherished plan for a craft centre at Imber did in fact include weaving. (80)
As the narrator archly notes, "'It was certainly a question with wide implications" (80).
More seriously and more obscurely, private tensions gradually surface, changing the course of the community more definitively than any fight over "new-fangled labour-saving devices" (80). The most central is Michael's closeted homosexuality--and the fact of a years-earlier relationship with the downward-spiraling Nick. Michael's dismissal of the "business" of Nick and his subsequent enthusiasm at having Toby in Nick's cottage appear in a different light as we learn this; indeed Michael is aware of his own awkward efforts to avoid seeing or talking to his former lover. While Michael believes that he has made peace with his sexuality, no one else in the community is aware of it except Nick, and Michael remains silent when the other community leader, James Tayper Pace, identifies homosexuality as a violation of God's Law in a weekly Sunday sermon. "Ideals," James posits, are merely dreams, and as such they are "rot." Perfection is to be sought outside the self, "something so external and so remote that we can get only now and then a distant hint of it" (119). Therefore, all this attention to personal perfection is misguided; rather, he argues, we should "work... from outside inwards" and turn to that which is enjoined: "Truthfulness is enjoined, the relief of suffering is enjoined; adultery is forbidden, sodomy is forbidden. And I feel that we ought to think quite simply of these matters, thus: truth is not glorious, it is just enjoined; sodomy is not disgusting, it is just forbidden" (120). More pointed for Michael, who prides himself on his equanimity with regard to his own faults as well as those of others, is this conclusion: "Those who hesitate to judge others are usually those who fear to put themselves under judgement" (120). It is a palpable hit, since Michael struggles not only with his past feelings for Nick but also with similar attractions toward Toby, impetuously acted upon with a sudden kiss on Toby's mouth just days after James's sermon, an "echo," as Michael puts it to himself, of the earlier affair.
A week later, it is Michael's turn to "spout," as Nick says of the weekly sermonizing. Beginning with the parable of the talents, Michael comments:
We must not ... perform an act because abstractly it seems to be a good act if in fact it is so contrary to our instinctive apprehensions of spiritual reality that we cannot carry through, that is, cannot really perform it.... We must work, from inside outwards.... and by understanding and using exactly that energy which we have, acquire more.... This is the struggle, pleasing surely in the sight of God, to become more fully and deeply the person that we are; and by exploring and hallowing every corner of our being, to bring into existence that one and perfect individual which God in creating us entrusted to our care. (189)
Michael's notion of God's work is, he privately recognizes, diametrically opposed to James's; he is honest in his self-assessment that "he was always engaged in performing what James had called the second best act" (190), the exploration of personality. He is aware, too, that he risks, as James warned, that the "excitement of a spiritual drama for its own sake" (190), namely, his emotional struggles over Nick and Toby, had taken over the "proper" work of faith. Indeed, his momentary lapse of judgment with Toby had brought him only self-criticism and "unhealthy excitement": "He worked steadily," the narrator notes, "but his work was bad" (187; emphasis added). The Abbess, recognizing his unrest, gently encourages him that if we are generous with ourselves as well as with others, we are always "'engaged in a work of creation which may be mysterious even to ourselves"--and that even "imperfect love must not be condemned and rejected, but made perfect" (219). She is not condemning homosexual love, which Michael understands; only much later, however, does he realize her real message, that his fear of expressing love is not particular to him but, indeed, a universal human failure: "Remember that all our failures are ultimately failures in love," she had said, and the successful work of faith is one that moves us forward on our way; "'never back" (219). "Try not to overwork, won't you?" concludes the Abbess, but Michael, not yet understanding, continues to punish himself, bitterly thinking that he is "too tarnished an instrument to do the work that needed doing" (219). (5)
All art is the struggle to be, in a particular sort of way, virtuous. (Murdoch 2003, 181)
Intervention, not divine, comes from the most unexpected quarter. Mrs. Dora Greenfield seems the least likely individual to contribute anything whatever to Imber's utopian project. The unfaithful, unhappy wife of a visiting historian named Paul Greenfield, Dora travels to Imber, with Toby and Michael in the same carriage it turns out, to try to reconcile with her bullying, drily intellectual husband. As the two newcomers, Toby and Dora share a certain outsider status and chat with each other on those terms until Toby tells Dora a secret: that he discovered a huge bell half buried in the mud while swimming near the lake's boat landing at Imber. Dora is astounded because her historian husband had recounted to her a centuries-old legend describing the magical and permanent disappearance of the original abbey bell after a secret affair between a nun and a young man was exposed and they were punished. The find appears all the more significant because of its coincidental timing: a new bell is to be brought to the abbey, christened, and installed in the next week. Dora, convinced that this drowned bell must be the original, has an inspiration of her own: to get budding engineer Toby to devise a way to drag the bell out and switch it in place of the new one in time for the bell-christening celebration.
Up until this time Dora has found no role whatever in this community She is basically unskilled, her onetime art studies interrupted to marry the man whose wealth, class, and intellectual gravitas pulled her into his orbit, where she could have no place either socially or professionally. Accustomed to being the outsider, then, she knows instinctively that "the community were easily, casually even, judging her, placing her. The fact that so little was expected of her was itself significant.... The sense that the judgement occurred without their thinking about it, that it happened automatically, simply as it were by juxtaposition, was still more distressing" (121). An unpretentious and not entirely unreflective woman, Dora has no interest whatever in religion; enjoying a healthy attitude toward sex, she regards the impending entry of Nick's sister Catherine into the abbey with a kind of uncomprehending horror. Now, as a way of proving her own worth, Dora assigns herself a peculiar and important role: "In this holy community she would play the witch" (184), working together with her "sorcerer's apprentice" (196), young Toby, toward their own "work of art" (199). Explains the narrator, "It was as if, for her, this was to be a magical act of shattering significance, a sort of rite of power and liberation" (196).
This inspiration is clearly an echo of Dora's own transcendent experience--not of love, as Michael believes he once experienced with Nick, but in the presence of art, at the National Gallery, to which she escapes one day from the oppressiveness of Paul and Imber:
Dora was always moved by the pictures. Today she was moved, but in a new way.... [H]er heart was filled with love for the pictures, their authority;, their marvellous generosity, their splendour. It occurred to her that here at last was something real and something perfect. Who had said that, about perfection and reality being in the same place? Here was something which her consciousness could not wretchedly devour, and by making it part of her fantasy make it worthless.... When the world had seemed to be subjective it had seemed to be without interest or value. But now there was something else in it after all. (175)
Dora intuits that these disagreements at Imber about mechanical methods for scratching at the earth and whether one works from outside in or vice versa are somehow beside the point. The judgmentalism directed casually at her, and more deviously at each other, is, she understands, much more to the point. It is precisely Dora's own relative lack of judgmentalism that makes her best suited to the work of inspiring Imber. Like the bell, whose inscription--Vox ego sum Amoris. Gabriel vocor--literally pronounces its function, Dora feels that she too is an instrument "made to speak out" (213) the truth of the moral evasions to which the lay members at Imber remain blind. She and Toby, through a "magic" of their own, would make it happen.
The so-called resurrection of the bell (248) is successful to a point: It is dragged from the weedy depths, and Dora and Toby get as far as pulling the old one alongside the new one, which the Imber laywomen had absurdly tricked out in white dress and ribbons for the christening the next morning. Dora's projected miracle is short-circuited, though, by Toby's impetuous embrace of her and by their entangled fall into the mouth of the old bell. The clapper of the bell is agitated into giving forth one huge unexpected clang, in a farcical echo of the legendary affair of the nun that made the bell disappear centuries ago. The "magic" thus disturbed, and the embarrassed Toby fled, Dora recognizes the folly of her plan, playing as it does with the communitarians' credulity and faith and to her husband's obsession with Imber's history. Yet the magic she hoped to bring to the community is not gone. Alone with the bell in the dark, she begins to fall "under its spell. She had thought to be its master and make it her plaything, but now it was mastering her and would have its will" (249).
Dora has an epiphany akin to the one at the National Gallery. She recognizes what this work of art, the faith-ful labor of another time, can offer: the re-calling--or calling into presence--of something greater, whether one believes it to be something called "god," which Dora does not, or something else. Exemplifying Murdoch's notion that "there is artistry [in] the sorting, separating and connecting movement of the mind" (1992, 321), Dora responds sympathetically to the bell's ancient decorations, its collar ringed with "squat figures" depicting biblical scenes, as she did to the portraits at the gallery: "The squat figures faced her from the sloping surface of the bronze, solid, simple, beautiful, absurd, full to the brim with something which was to the artist not an object of speculation or imagination. These scenes had been more real to him than his own childhood and more familiar. He had reported them faithfully. They were familiar to Dora too, as in the light of the electric torch she looked at them again" (248). The bell resurrection begins as a kind of clever effort to impress--but what Dora does next is not. Her apprehension of the meaning of the bell's reappearance to this community suddenly reveals the calling to her real task--to create her own annunciation and share an insight she has been incapable of voicing, that there are no people at the community who are not, in some way, lying to each other or to themselves:
Vaguely there came back to her a memory of something that had been said: the truth-telling voice that must not be silenced. If it was necessary to accuse herself, the means were certainly at hand. But her need was deeper than this. She reached her hand out again towards the bell.... Then suddenly with all her might she hurled herself against it.... A tremendous boom arose as the bell, now freely swinging, gave tongue to its utmost.... It was only necessary now to keep it swinging. The thunderous noise continued, bellowing out in a voice that had been silent for centuries that some great thing was newly returned to the world. (249)
Dora is described as "oblivious of everything except her task of keeping the bell ringing," and she stands "dazed and vacant when some twenty minutes later a large number of people came running into the barn and crowded about her" (250; emphasis added).
Despite this witnessing of the resurrected bell, the unraveling of so crafty a vision of virtuous living is not accomplished so quickly, and as the christening ceremony continues, frilly dress, ribbons, and all, at daybreak, we can only look on with irony and a certain pity at the emotional wreckage Murdoch tragicomically piles up by novel's end. Nick sabotages the installation of the new bell so that it falls into the lake during the christening ceremony and then commits suicide by gunshot, leaving Michael bereft of a love that he only now understands he has entirely betrayed. Toby twists the knife by "confessing" Michael's stolen-kiss violation to James, Michael's spiritual opposite; James confronts the already devastated Michael with a disappointment he is incapable of disguising given his earlier sermon labeling sodomy as "not disgusting" but "just forbidden." Catherine, about to enter the convent, tries to drown herself in a hopeless despair of unrevealed love for Michael; Dora wades in to save her--only to become entangled herself in the weedy lake bottom that hid the bell for so long. The intervention of two nuns, who matter-of-factly strip to the waist, wade in, and drag them out, saves them; And it is the Abbess who presides over the rescue and the aftermath of these multiple tragedies.
What accounts for this narratological train wreck of a denouement? Only now does Michael understand the simple truth that Dora intuited: It is simple untruthfulness, or what David Gordon refers to as "a certain moral egoism [that] has promoted them to acts that had unfortunate consequences" (1995, 31). The community breaks up shortly thereafter, with the house and farmland to be absorbed into the abbey enclave, according to Michael's wishes. Michael remains behind as this transition takes place, but not entirely alone. For one thing, both the Abbess and the sisters are there, and throughout the novel--despite Dora's initial view of the place as an "appalling" prison--these contemplative women, though rarely seen, display a gentleness and utter lack of judgmentalism quite absent among the Imberites. The sisters" overheard laughter early in the novel is described, with a significance that is obvious by now, as being "as clear as a bell" (129); even their topless emergence from the weedy lake, drawing Catherine and Dora with them, is presented without irony. And Dora, now irrevocably alienated from Paul, remains behind as well?
The nature of the wisdom embodied in these women, displayed in various ways and worked through various methods, is the crux the novel leaves us with. In the end, two women who could not seem further apart in their natures and aspirations are the ones left to define what I take to be Murdoch's view of the nature of the "real work" of an intentional community such as this one: the pursuit, "always forward," of love in its broadest sense, a sympathy wrought precisely not from selflessness but from a self calling out, clear as a bell, with candor to another human being. What the Abbess knows all along, what Michael learns yet again, and what Dora discovers for the first time is that a maturity of spirit is the utopian task of each of us, separately and together, and with a maturity that knows it need not force itself forward with ambition, for instance--to be progressing. Indeed, the community of the abbey at Imber remains at novel's end and is enhanced, in fact, by Michael's leasing of the lands and house, indefinitely, to the nuns" enclave. This act registers at once his own failure but also his appreciation that such a place, and such a community as the sisterhood, is even possible.
The message of this novel is not a modern skeptic's "utopia can't exist," though often enough one finds oneself smiling at Dora's worldly lover, the reporter Noel Spens, who quips that "potty communities are good for a feature" (171). (7) More soberly, we leave Michael in a state of "unbelief," while listening with a keen awareness of personal irony to the celebration of the Mass next door, "not consoling, not uplifting, but in some way factual" (290). He remarks privately the "egotistical and helpless cry of the Dies Irae" (290)--particularly at the verse "Quaerens me, sedisti lassus; Redemisti, Crucem passus; Tantus labor non sit cassus"--May such great labor be not in vain. And so we might hope for this novel, which closes in a strangely anticlimactic manner: Michael boards a train for London ("His work was done now at the Court" ) and prepares to teach in Norwich; Dora, now permanently alienated from Paul, is to travel to the West Country to resume her long-abandoned art studies and a part-time teaching job herself. The novel's concluding paragraph features one final bell toll from Imber--but "she scarcely heard it. Already it rang from another world. Tonight she would be telling the whole story to Sally" (296).
How we see and describe the world is morals too. (Murdoch 1998, 73)
Murdoch identifies in her philosophical writings ways in which our activities and work move us closer toward moral goodness, namely, "[Plato's] examples from work, politics, intellectual studies, human relations" (1992, 404-5). Among these avenues of activity, all exemplified in The Bell, art succeeds best--but only very selectively, indeed, as we have seen, for Dora alone. The symbolism of the bell has been variously explained by critics; (8) Murdoch herself described the matter quite matter-of-factly--"People with different temperaments take the bell differently as a symbol" (Dooley 2003, 23)--though she also notes that she believes the correct interpretation is clear. Peter Firchow points to the instrumentality of the bell, which "after all ... rings to bring believers into the house of God"--and also to the irony of having the old bell sound for the first time in centuries as a result of the fall of an impetuous embrace: "'an obvious and very "simple' mechanical symbol of the sexual act.... Secular and spiritual love unite in the symbol of the bell" (2007, 179). But it is hardly that simple. Dora is not a believer, and by the novel's end Michael scarcely is either. The notion that the bell celebrates the unity of secular and spiritual love is far too facile, given the fact that Dora and Toby's fall into the bell is a farcical parody of the legendary affair of the nun and her lover.
What this and other readings of the bell's symbolism leave out is Dora's particular recognition of the bell "simply" as a work of art. The success of art-work, a product of human labor, lies not in the embodiment of "personal fantasy" or desire, according to Murdoch, but as she famously tells us in The Sovereignty of Good in the embodiment of "'reality": "Rilke said of Cezanne that he did not paint 'I like it," he painted 'There it is'" (1996, 59). Analogously, the art spectator should respond with similar candor: "The consumer of art has an analogous task to its producer: to be disciplined enough to see as much reality in the work as the artist has succeeded in putting into it, and not to 'use it as magic.'... It is obvious here what is the role, for the artist or spectator, of exactness and good vision: unsentimental, detached, unselfish, objective attention. It is also clear that in moral situations, a similar exactness is called for" (Murdoch 1996, 65-66). Elsewhere, Murdoch argues that "we need to return from the self-centered concept of sincerity to the other-centered concept of truth" (1998, 293).
The absence of any sort of creative work in this community is therefore significant: No doubt this type of imaginative work is deemed too trivial and unproductive to be taken up by the likes of James and the others. Paul Greenfield's attention to manuscripts is similarly unproductive; his interests are pedantic, acquisitive, and limited. Dora, on the other hand, has nothing to do--and disoriented as she is by her entry into this community, as noted earlier, she is attentive to the reality around her. As long as she remains herself self-centered, that attention suffers from the "[temptation] to deform by fantasy" (Murdoch 1998, 293); in front of the works of art, however--the paintings and the bell--her attention is drawn out, "other-centered." As Murdoch argues in The Sovereignty of Good, proper attention "is, contrary to nature, outward, away from the self which reduces all to a false unity, towards the great surprising variety of the world, and the ability so to direct attention is love" (1996, 66).
Edith Brugmans argues that imagination for Murdoch partakes of reason and the senses but "'differs from these faculties because it is essentially a moral consciousness, and is oriented towards concrete things and persons" (2007, 48). As such, "imagination is consciousness as the "fundamental mode or form" of moral being" (Brugmans 2007, 48, quoting Murdoch). As the concrete form of the imagination, the work of art is, however, hardly a static form. What moves Dora as she contemplates the gallery paintings and the bell carvings is simply each artist's commitment to "truth" undistorted by the artist's desire or will. Dora's triumph in this novel is that she--twice in fact--opens herself up enough to those works of art to actually see this and to experience the kind of "real" moral perception that not one of the earnest communitarians does. These are the "magical" moments for Dora: not her fantasy of "witchcraft"--a false vision because a vengeful one--but her imaginative re-cognition of sympathy with the long-dead artist. For her, as for him, "these scenes [carved on the bell] had been more real ... than his own ... too, as in the light of the electric torch she looked at them again" (248). This moment of absorbed attention to art partakes of the "magical nature of art" (Murdoch 1998, 251), the presencing, or re-presenting, of images, emotions, ideas, anew.
Art is thus "the most educational of all human activities and a place in which the nature of morality can be seen," says Murdoch (1996, 87-88). As Maria Antonaccio reminds us, Murdoch is never simplistic in such beliefs; her position is that art "presents the most comprehensible example of the almost irresistible human tendency to seek consolation in fantasy and also of the effort to resist this and the vision of reality which comes with success" (1996, 64). Arguing that artistic activity is a kind of "pilgrimage" for Murdoch, "requir[ing] the same disciplined exercise of attention, the same decentring away from selfish preoccupation," Antonaccio goes on to show us that Murdoch's "characterization of the similarity between art and morality" is critical: "The distinction between art and ethics," argues Antonaccio, "seems to collapse altogether. Good art is not simply like virtuous conduct; it is itself a form or end product of virtuous conduct" (2007a, 92). This is the '"hardness" of truth" that Murdoch believes only art can offer (1998, 88): This is the resonance of art?
The bell, therefore, I take to be not simply a static figure of instrumentality but a dynamic figure of the active and always incomplete work that art does, calling out to its spectator or listener and calling that "consumer of art,'" as Murdoch curiously puts it, out of individual fantasies of selfishness and consolation, deformations, to Murdoch's mind, of reality itself. And like so many figures of and for works of art, the bell image suggests the active radiance or outward movement of art's affect and influence, its "toll" one of invitation: The etymology of this word reveals its connection to pulling (as of a bell rope) and of allurement (Middle English tollen, "'to entice, lure, pull," hence probably "to make [a bell] ring by pulling a rope"; akin to the Old English -tyllan, in fortyllan, "'to attract, allure"). But we cannot escape the force of the other sense of toll, the "toll" of accountancy--or of "telling." This "transmission" of a "real" experience through the perception and reception of art is a core Murdoch motif; as Bran Nicol observes, "One of the most striking features of Murdoch's fiction is the way it implicates the reader in precisely the same dilemma as the characters: we "feel" Murdoch's philosophy, and this makes it all the more effective" (2007, 102). (10) The importance of the novel's final sentence is that it brings together the bell's symbolic function of tolling and telling, drawing in and speaking out. The very inscription on the abbey bell partakes of this double movement: "Vox ego sum Amoris. Gabriel vocor" (205; underline added), the chiasmic structure of the inscription indicating both the active calling out of love (vox Amoris) and the passive "being called" (vocor), presumably by the God who "is," also, Love.
Crucial to this novel, then, is the work of attending to "the work of art," both in the sense of an art object and in the sense of the "work" that art does on us and for us. However incomplete the work, the reverberation of art in and through the spectator and beyond is the labor that matters most. The instrumentality of the bell is not simply to call the faithful; it calls to faithful and faithless alike and is thus a more valuable tool than a plow for achieving the kind of mature sympathy that lies at the foundation of Murdoch's ethical sensibility. (11) What interests Murdoch is not creating a "just market economy" or indeed any kind of political economy but, rather, the cultivation of a more robust moral economy, an "ethical turn," as Anne Rowe puts it (2007, 11), The dissolution of Imber's lay community does not imply that such utopian and intentional communities are naive, wasted efforts. While she admits to "ironical treatment--of the hangers-on of such communities who are often eccentric and far from holy" (Dooley 2003, 205), Murdoch admires the serious efforts of others, the nuns, certainly; of Michael, whose efforts are no less serious but whose motivations are seriously flawed; and of Dora, whose naive but sincere responsiveness to art and to people leaves her moving in a direction more in line with her own hopes, rather than with the expectations of others.
Indeed the most faithful soul at the end is Dora. It is no accident that we leave her resuming her art career as an art teacher, something she realizes she should have done all along. Murdoch's moral economy is based now on an "engagement in a work of creation" (219)--but the work of utopian perfection is more critically directed at the individual than at any single communal vision. Murdoch may have begun this novel as a vision of an ideal community in which human brotherhood is restored; that certainly is not how the novel turned out. Nevertheless, a particular piece of work is accomplished. The reader is offered "the moment of recognition of the separateness of another human being," when she might, potentially, "infinitely extend [her] capacity to imagine the being of others" (Murdoch 1998, 216).
A. S. Byatt shrewdly describes this novel as "essentially incomplete, as its author understood" (2001, xvi). The inconclusiveness of its final sentences, echoed by the already otherworldly toll of the bell, is, I would argue, critical to the novel's own peculiar resonance, which endorses the moral work of art itself, indeed endorses the moral force of Murdoch's own works of art, in the ethical enterprise of storytelling. Murdoch suggests that the real "work" of utopia is a gradual working of the individual spirit, more than the intentional working of a piece of communal land, more even than the "'work of art"--though Art, be it inscriptions on bells or in paint or on the pages of novels, may be one of the tools we use to achieve the kind of maturity she values. This is the horizon of hope for Murdoch: Murdoch's notion of the "work" of utopia is work in progress, and any good life--or better life--is pursued neither from the outside in nor from the inside out but precisely in the in-between realm of human intersubjectivity that is the resonance of "art work," where imaginative sympathy is possible in "the capacity to love, that is to see" (1996, 66).
Antonaccio, Maria. "The Ascetic Impulse in Iris Murdoch's Thought." In Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment, ed. Rowe Anne, 87-99. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007a.
--. "Reconsidering Iris Murdoch's Moral Philosophy and Theology." In Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment, ed. Rowe Anne, 15-22. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007b.
Beams, David W "The Fortunate Fall: Three Actions in The Bell." Twentieth Century Literature 34 (1988): 416-33.
Brugmans, Edith. "Murdoch on the Impossibility of Moral Scepticism.'" In Iris Murdoch:
A Reassessment, ed. Anne Rowe, 47-59. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Byatt, A. S. Degrees of Freedom: The Novels of Iris Murdoch. London: Chatto and Windus, 1965.
--. "Introduction." In Iris Murdoch, The Bell (1958), vii xvi. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.
Conradi, Peter J. Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature. London: Chatto and Windus, 1997.
--. "Preface." In Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment, ed. Anne Rowe, xiv-xix. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Dooley, Gillian, ed. From a Tiny Comer in the House of Fiction: Conversations with Iris Murdoch. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.
Firchow, Peter. Modern Utopian Fictions from H. G. Wells to Iris Murdoch. Washington, D.C.:
Catholic University of America Press, 2007. Gordon, David J. Iris Murdoch's Fables of Unselfing. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995.
Kaehele, Sharon, and Howard German. "The Discovery of Reality in Iris Murdoch's The Bell." PMLA 82 (1967): 554-63.
Martin, Priscilla. "Houses of Fiction: Iris Murdoch and Henry James." In Iris Murdoch:
A Reassessment, ed. Anne Rowe, 124-35. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Masong, Kenneth. "Iris Murdoch's The Bell: Tragedy, Love, and Religion." Kritike 2 (2008): 11-30.
Murdoch, Iris. The Bell. 1958. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.
--. The Black Prince. 1973. London: Penguin Classics, 2003.
--. Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Allen Press/Penguin Press, 1998.
--. Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. London: Chatto and Windus, 1992.
--. The Sovereignty of Good. 1970. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Nicol, Bran. "The Curse of The Bell: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Narrative.'" In Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment, ed. Anne Rowe, 100-111. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
O'Connor, Patricia J. To Love the Good: The Moral Philosophy of Iris Murdoch. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.
Rowe, Anne, ed. Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
(1.) Peter Firchow notes the "very striking pattern of doubling" that begins with the contrast between these two communities, representing "the spiritually 'sick' and the spiritually healthy" communities and "the opposing values of secular love and spiritual love" (see 2007, 170n14).
(2.) See Firchow's introduction to his recent Modern Utopian Fictions from H. G. Wells to Iris Murdoch, where he notes that The Bell has as "one of its aims" "the test[ing of] the extent to which utopia and fiction can be reconciled" (2007, 13).
(3.) For instance, "any story, any traditional novel is about such conflicts, about how to treat other people, about power, about misunderstandings, about authority, about love" (Dooley 2003, 199). Maria Antonaccio describes what I see as Murdoch's utopian sensibility in terms of career-long "consider[ation of] the possibility of a good that drives the idea of human flourishing to a new level of aspiration, indeed toward an ideal of perfection" (2007b, 21). Edith Brugmans describes Murdoch's exploration of a moral life as "a progressive process of imagining the being of the other.... [T]he imagination is singled out as the faculty by which we acquire and develop moral knowledge" (2007, 48).
(4.) Murdoch's The Bell (2001) is hereafter cited parenthetically in the text only by page number.
(5.) As Peter Conradi correctly observes, Murdoch "had the courage not to shirk the question of the place of love in the moral life.... She wishes always to learn ... how love can go beyond power" (2007, xvii).
(6.) In her reading of this novel Patricia O'Connor optimistically speaks of "Dora's qualified success in loving Paul" as being "linked to her capacity for purified imagination" (1996, 249). This reading skates over the fact that what Dora really learns in this novel is that Paul does not deserve her love, as he is incapable of reciprocating with anything except his own continued egoism. The novel makes it clear that she is perfectly right to leave him and given Paul's angry inflexibility, it is difficult to imagine, as O'Connor does, a "future" for the couple.
(7.) The enigmatic but "real" truth of the bell is countered by the skeptical voice and careless actions of the newspaper writer who is also having an affair with Dora. The resonance of the bell's voice is countered by the amused tone and limited vision of Noel Spens's account of the disastrous bell christening.
(8.) See, for instance, Beams 1988, 421ff.; Byatt 1965, 73-104, esp. 76ff:; Firchow 2007, 179, 182-84; Kaehele and German 1967, 557-58; Masong 2008, 25-28.
(9.) Martin mentions Dora's gallery epiphany as "'the most direct and paradigmatic" example of a more general motif in Murdoch's fiction, in which the Platonic "shadow of a shadow" is proved to be not "merely" illusion but "real" (2007, 128).
(10.) This valuable essay, "The Curse of The Bell: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Narrative," one of the few focusing specifically on this novel, does an excellent job of aligning Murdoch's interest in narrative, particularly in the ethics of narrative, to broader postmodern concerns, with which she is rarely associated. Nicol's central interest is in Murdoch's evident answer to the question, "What is the purpose or function or effectiveness of narrative?"--that answer being precisely the ability of narrative, and I would say of art in general, to change our lives, in making the reader attend to the false narratives to which each of us so often, and sometimes so damagingly, invests ourselves and in making each of us attend to the rare moments of epiphany that break through those narratives only when we give up our delusions long enough to see.
(11.) Antonaccio writes: "'Precisely because of its "doubleness," art can teach us more about the difference between appearance and reality, and about the movement from one to the other, if we engage with it in its complexity than if we try to avoid it or banish it from the moral life" (2007a, 97).
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||Iris Murdoch|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2011|
|Previous Article:||Phillip E. Wegner. Life Between Two Deaths, 1989-2001: U.S. Culture in the Long Nineties.|
|Next Article:||Blake's Jerusalem as Perennial utopia.|