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In the Dark Continent

Not Iris Murdoch. When an interview appeared about three years ago revealing that she was mentally degenerating (“I’m in a bad place, a very quiet place” was, I think, what she said), there must have been others besides myself who reacted with that thought. True, she was in her seventies, her mother had had Alzheimer’s, obituaries for her generation were appearing daily. But it seemed that that particular mind and imagination could not be struck down: dulled perhaps, but not cruelly reduced. But the brain scan, her husband John Bayley was told, showed “an area of atrophy” at the top of the brain. Just a piece of tissue that no longer worked.

She herself had touched on the dread we have of losing our mind and identity. In An Accidental Man, written twenty-eight years ago, her character Ludwig says,

I would give my life, I think, more willingly than I would give my mind.”

Yes,” said Matthew. “‘For who would lose, though full of pain, this intellectual being…’ One can face suffering and one cannot imagine death. But the destruction or perversion of one’s personality, could one face that?”

Of course when we look ahead with this dread, we forget that when the personality is lost, there is nothing left to “face” the loss with. The present-day Iris Murdoch as described in John Bayley’s memoir does not know what she has lost—only that there is something frighteningly missing.

The reason for that reaction of protest—that Murdoch, of all people, should be afflicted—is not just that hers was a mind that invented a wildly fertile and fantastic world in her twenty-six novels. These are adored by some (count me in), belittled by others who feel they may eventually be sidelined into a minor category along with those of, say, Lawrence Durrell and Ouida. The protest is also on behalf of Murdoch’s philosophical writings, and the extraordinary fact that she wove into them the imagination and intuition that went into the novels. In Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, or The Sovereignty of Good, you might find sentences to think about for a long time afterward: “It is difficult to suffer well, without resentment, false consolation, untruthful flight”; or, “True morality is a sort of unesoteric mysticism, having its source in an austere and unconsoled love of the Good.” Then, on the other hand, she equally weaves these moral perceptions into the very structure of the novels. “Jealousy is a dreadful thing, Jessica,” says Willy in The Nice and the Good:

It is the most natural to us of the really wicked passions and it goes deep and envenoms the soul. It must be resisted with every honest cunning and with the deliberate thinking of generous thoughts, however abstract and empty these may seem in comparison with that wicked strength….

(After that they go to bed, and when Jessica asks, “What are we doing?” he says, “This is sacrilege, my Jessica. A very important human activity.”)

Murdoch did not just write philosophy as a philosopher and fiction as a novelist. It is all part of one oeuvre, which annoys purists, and makes her something of a prophetess—a very quiet, a very unassuming one. Nowadays, we learn from Elegy for Iris, what she does in the mornings is watch with Professor Bayley the Teletubbies (characters in a children’s TV program considered by some parents as too silly for children):

There are the rabbits!” I say quite excitedly…. The Teletubbies have their underground house, neatly roofed with grass. A periscope sticks out of it. A real baby’s face appears in the sky, at which I make a face myself, but Iris always returns its beaming smile…. Twiggy or something, Winky, Poo… They trot about, not doing anything much, but while they are there, Iris looks happy, even concentrated.

Bayley’s utterly courageous book is in a different literary class from the many well-meaning accounts of personal tragedies that exist mainly as therapy for their authors. For one thing, in describing how his wife is, and is not, the same person he has been married to for over forty years, and how the marriage is, and is not, the same, he touches on profound questions about identity. And as a writer himself he sets a stage here, reveals character, tells a story. It may not be the whole story of his wife, as he indicates himself, but it is his story of how he experienced her and his marriage. It is seemingly artless, and extremely subtle.

The Iris he describes is also both simple and very complex. He first saw—and, he says, fell in love with—a philosophy don toiling in true Oxford fashion down the Woodstock Road on an old bicycle. It was 1954: he was a young arrival in the English Literature department. What was especially lovely about her, he thought, was that, in spite of a pleasant mien, she would be quite unattractive to anyone but himself. “I was heartened by her general appearance, and its total absence of anything that for me in those days constituted sex appeal…. Since she had no obvious female charms, she was not likely to appeal to other men.” He had, of course, a surprise coming (he plays the gentle buffoon, here and elsewhere in the book). Not only were most of the lady dons at her college apparently in love with her, but also there came a day that reminded him of his headmaster’s interview on the facts of life. The facts of Iris’s life that she recounted were a long list of past and present male lovers—some of them, to his chagrin, acquaintances of his, others mysterious foreign eminences living in Hampstead. “I was really very cast down,” he concludes.

Nevertheless she showed him, he says, how to make love; and things went on drifting toward marriage in an Oxford registrar’s office three years later. Bayley wore his demob suit.* His account of his own sexual nature indicates that it was about as stylish as the suit. He was not “ambitious” or “demanding” in this field, and their marital relations were “cosy and quietistic.” As for those acute descriptions in Murdoch’s novels of jealousy, suffering, and sexual obsession, he knew, he says, that she had experienced them, but he never saw them.

The naive lover, who so many years later was to watch the Teletubbies with her, was clearly bewildered by her contradictions at the time. And he was not always happy that the grave philosophy don turned into a childlike playmate when they were together. No longer naive but extremely shrewd, he believes now that their relationship gave Iris Murdoch the chance to be released from academic gravity and be as playful as she wished, and needed, to be. How heavy her novels would be without their element of playfulness!

Bayley says that in a way he feels that his wife has always been as she now is, and he can hardly remember the “real” Iris. To fully remember that would, I imagine, be dreadfully painful. This overlaying of the past by the present may be what biases his account of their marriage rather too much in the direction of two happy children romping together. Sometimes in this account Murdoch comes across as improbably simple and unacquainted with the ways of the world—can this be the whole picture? All writers admittedly must have some naiveté, or else sophistication would wither creativity—but not too much. In any case she did not, Bayley says, discuss what she was writing with him, though he mentions that discussions they shared seeped into the books. This is not where the stress is laid, though.

The marriage, as he describes it, was delightfully far from conventional. The Bayleys’ method of housekeeping, for one thing—dust, “if undisturbed, seems to fade easily into the general background. Like the clothes, books, old newspapers, letters, and cardboard boxes”—has become celebrated beyond the bounds of Oxford. Their garden was described by a jocular friend as a concentration camp for roses—which caused a temporary froideur in his generally unruffled wife. What he celebrates most in the relationship is its wonderful solitude:

The solitude I have enjoyed in marriage, and, I think, Iris, too, is a little like having a walk by oneself and knowing that tomorrow, or soon, one will be sharing it with the other, or, equally perhaps, again having it alone. It is also a solitude that precludes nothing outside the marriage, and sharpens the sense of possible intimacy with things or people in the outside world.

This is reminiscent of Rilke’s saying in a letter that he does not want to lose his solitude, but to put it into good hands—so that “I could achieve at least some kind of continuity in it, instead of being chivvied amid the din of shouting from pillar to post with it like a dog with a stolen bone.”

Communication” is the nostrum always prescribed for marriage by counselors and such. In a sense all of Professor Bayley’s book is about kinds of communication, conventional and otherwise, both before and after his wife’s illness set in. Much of it seems to have been in the form of jokes and games and catchwords. And they looked at pictures together: Bayley intuited that her writing, about which he has no reservations, could be sparked off by something visual. Of Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection, which they saw in Tuscany, he writes,

The picture fascinated Iris. We talked of it a lot, but however much we talked of it, I knew the real impression it had made on her lay below the level of speech, like the iceberg below the water. The god whose own physical strength and dark force of being seemed to be impelling him out of the tomb would inspire in the future many visions and creations of her own.

As she says in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, the artist’s deep mind must be “stirred and fed…. We are fed or damaged spiritually by what we attend to.”

Elsewhere in that book she expands on the idea of attention—a concept central in Buddhism, which was such an influence on her. She praises Schopenhauer, for instance, for an “omnivorous interest in the world,” an “innocent love of it.” Concerned attention, she says there,

effects a removal from the usual egoistic fuzz of self-protective anxiety. One may not be sure that those who observe stones and snails lovingly will also thus observe human beings, but such observation is a way, an act of respect for individuals, which is itself a virtue, and an image of virtue.

She is nowadays deeply involved, Bayley reports, in picking up small things from the street—stones, leaves, even cigarette ends—and bringing them home to arrange them and touch them. If this concern for small things is in its way a kind of virtue, it is one that links her to her former self.

Bayley says that having been a good person—humble, unpretentious, generous—Iris Murdoch remains good even in her damaged state. Unlike some patients, she shows little violence or anger (though there is a rather cross face, he says, that concerns having to undress before going to bed). Patiently she signs books for fans, without having any idea what they are, and her handwriting is more or less the same. She likes jokes, though without understanding them. In some ways their communication seems not unlike what it used to be, when she talks in a kind of happy babble which he does not listen to but apprehends “in a matrimonial way.” At parties she politely asks people what they do for a living. Over and over again.

So people say to him, “Isn’t Iris wonderful?” What he thinks, but does not say, is, “You should see how things are at home.” For he makes no bones about the fact that, goodness or not, the day is still an ordeal to be got through. The best part of it, for him, is when she is still asleep beside him and he is sitting up tapping on his typewriter. It has something in it of all the swimming they have done in inky English rivers:

Half-asleep again myself, I have a feeling of floating down the river, and watching all the rubbish from the house and from our lives—the good as well as the bad—sinking slowly down through the dark water until it is lost in the depths. Iris is floating or swimming quietly beside me. Weeds and larger leaves sway and stretch themselves beneath the surface. Blue dragonflies dart and hover to and fro by the riverbank. And suddenly, a kingfisher flashes past.

But she has to wake up; and, with waking, anxiety begins—not just his, but hers. He knows that, as someone with no clue to who or where she is, she is constantly on the edge of fearfulness, especially if he is out of sight. He must always be there. In his diary he records a wild wish to shout in her ear: “It’s worse for me. It’s much worse!

Exactly how bad is it for her, Bayley wonders, troubled by the question of how much insight might still be available to her. What one might hope for her and other sufferers, in their times of blankness, is what a character in The Unicorn experiences when he is sinking, he thinks, to his death:

Something had been withdrawn, had slipped away from him in the moment of his attention and that something was simply himself…. What was left was everything else, all that was not himself…. Since he was mortal he was nothing and since he was nothing all that was not himself was filled to the brim with being and it was from this that the light streamed. This then was love, to look and look until one exists no more, this was the love which was the same as death.

Perhaps sometimes this does happen: Bayley describes, when Iris smiles, a transfiguration of her face. Sometimes, perhaps.

Bayley says that he had always thought of her extraordinary inner world as some great land mass, a South America, for instance, with hidden cities and rivers. Nowadays, if she says something unexpected, he has the fear that the continent is still there but in darkness, that she is hiding suffering from him in order to spare him. He is reminded of the grandmother in A la recherche du temps perdu turning her face away from the child Marcel to conceal the fact that she has had a stroke. On the other hand, Bayley reassures himself by remembering her once saying that she was not sure she had an identity (influenced by her Buddhist beliefs, or by Hume?), and believes she may have slipped into the Alzheimer state of “preoccupied emptiness” the more easily for that.

So what one would wish for this book’s author at times when he despairs is, again, an experience described by his wife:

And now, she thought, I have done the most foolish thing of all, in becoming so attached to someone who is dying. Is this not the most pointless of all loves? Like loving death itself. The tending of Bruno had had at first simply a kind of consoling inevitability. It was something compulsory, a task, a duty….

Then she began to notice that everything was looking different. The smarting bitterness was gone. Instead there was a more august and terrible pain than she had ever known before. As she sat day after day holding Bruno’s gaunt blotched hand in her own she puzzled over the pain and what it was and where it was, whether in her or in Bruno. And she saw the ivy leaves and the puckered door knob, and the tear in the pocket of Bruno’s old dressing gown with a clarity and a closeness which she had never experienced before. The familiar roads between Kempsford Gardens and Stadium Street seemed like those of an unknown city, so many were the new things which she now began to notice in them: potted plants in windows, irregular stains upon walls, moist green moss between paving stones. Even little piles of dust and screwed up paper drifted into corners seemed to claim and deserve her attention. And the faces of passersby glowed with an uncanny clarity, as if her specious present had been lengthened out to allow of contemplation within the space of a second. Diana wondered what it meant. She wondered if Bruno was experiencing it too. She would have liked to ask him, only he seemed so far away now, wrapped in a puzzlement and a contemplation of his own. So they sat together hand in hand and thought their own thoughts.

  1. *

    Issued at the end of World War II to all servicemen on quitting the Forces. Cheap and nasty.

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