The Sea, The Sea
The good, Plato says, is what “every soul pursues and for the sake of which it does all that it does, with some intuition of its nature, and yet also baffled.” Iris Murdoch has quoted this elsewhere in a discussion of art, how it may transcend illusion and fantasy and participate in the detachment of pure goodness. In The Sea, The Sea she tells us that there were once two cousins who grew up each in his own way to pursue the good—baffled, but with some intuition of its nature: a saint and a sinner, one to pursue it through religion and the other through art. Both became to some degree enlightened, to some degree fell into the error of confusing their chosen good with power—magically strong, fatally corrupting. One of them died, the other lived on. The story, though rich in typically Murdochian devices, is a passionately moral one, and it gains from this, becomes more than the heartless tinkling of some of her other novels. Its metaphor is the stage, that most showy, illusive, and traditionally dangerous form of art, the narrator is a successful producer and play-wright. His stage is set against the background of the sea, the morally indifferent force that can kill or caress, be ugly or beautiful, the great uncaring reservoir of natural energy.
Charles Arrowby has retired early, at a youthful sixty-odd, from theater life to a sinister isolated Edwardian villa on the extreme edge of a rocky coast: a cold, greedy, and complacent man, doting on goodness. Admiring himself in his diary, he records a successful retirement from the vanities of the stage in order to contemplate, repent, piece his life together in blissful solitude; grandly, he casts himself as Prospero, abjuring the rough magic of his stagy days, renouncing power. Never in fact, he is to discover, has he been more rapacious. He swims, basks in the sun and his own self-approval, cooks himself exquisite little snacks, puts out a patronizing feeler toward a visit from one of his mistresses in London. And within no time at all he is at the center of a vortex of emotion and drama, of a cast of tormented characters that come on and off stage as briskly as the players in a farce; his hubris has been noticed, and he is indeed forced an inch or two on the way toward amendment of life, with much pain and in a way very different from the one he had anticipated.
Charles’s habit has been to separate his quest for the good from the rest of his life, which has been a casually ruthless exercise in power. He worships Shakespeare, on the one hand, as the only dramatist who matters or has ever mattered; on the other, it is just the disreputability and tricksterism of theater life that he has enjoyed, and his own plays have been deliberately ephemeral.
The theater is an attack on mankind carried on by magic: to victimize an …