Iris Murdoch on the Myth of Closure and the Beautiful, Maddening Blind Spots of Our Self-Knowledge

“Judgements on people are never final, they emerge from summings up which at once suggest the need of a reconsideration. Human arrangements are nothing but loose ends and hazy reckoning.”

Iris Murdoch on the Myth of Closure and the Beautiful, Maddening Blind Spots of Our Self-Knowledge

A drama is when the storyline has both a victim or persecutor. The self-victimization and drama of most aggressions or complaints in life are often the result of a person who is prone to drama. Dramatic people are not just victims, they also implicitly admit that the plotter is them. It is a plot, which presupposes a playwright — some external entity scripting the story in which they feel done unto. The person self-cast into a drama is resigned to being a character, insentient to Joan Didion’s fundamental law of having character: “Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.” Wherever there is drama, there is a deficiency of self-respect and too shallow a well of self-knowledge.

How we can all drown ourselves in drama. What it takes to be free from the drama trap? Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) explores in her subtle, splendid 1978 novel The Sea, the Sea (public library) — the story of a talented but complacent playwright approaching the overlook of life, who is ultimately overcome by his tragic flaw: Despite his obsessive self-reflection (or perhaps precisely because of it), his egotism ultimately eclipses his creative spirit — that brightest and most generous part of us, the part rightly called our gift, the part that extends the outstretched hand of sympathy and wonder we call art and invites, in Iris Murdoch’s lovely phrase, “an occasion for unselfing.”

Dame Iris Murdoch, by Ida Kar. (National Portrait Gallery).

The playwright, who is now 83 years old, reflects back on his entire life and the relationship between art and life.

At the bottom and at the top, emotions exist. They are performed in the middle. All of the world, therefore, is a stage.

Murdoch’s entire body of work, from philosophy to fiction, can be thought of as one cohesive inquiry into the meaning of goodness and the meaning of love, lensed through the meaning-machinery of art. Because emotion is complex and contradictory in nature, it can be difficult for us to understand what we really feel. Our innermost feelings are often half-seen. We pretend to be confident and secure in our reasonings. Unwilling to fully live into what we are — anxious and uncertain creatures, tender and terrified throughout so much of life — we act ourselves into being, taking the stage costumed in false certitudes.

One of teenage artist Virginia Frances Sterrett’s 1920 illustrations for old French fairy tales. This image is also available as a printed copy.

As Murdoch’s protagonist sets out to write his memoirs — those sad shallows of literature, where art drifts to die as vain self-obsession — his cousin and boyhood playmate, now an old men himself, urges him to allot ample room for the eternal subject of human vanity, which renders us blinder to reality and more opaque to ourselves than any of our other confusions:

Inwardly, we are so secret, and that makes our inwardness even more remarkable than our reason. We cannot simply walk in the cavern to look around. The majority of the information we believe we have about our minds, is pseudo-knowledge. All of us are such shocking posers, so skilled at exaggerating the value we place on what we believe we know. The heroes at Troy fought for a phantom Helen… Vain wars for phantom goods… People lie so… though in a way, if there is art enough it doesn’t matter, since there is another kind of truth in the art.

Our lies to ourselves are more important than any other thing. Peeled back far enough, even the most layered self-delusion springs from the same source — our illusion of free will amid a world in which, at the most basic level of reality, we control none of the fundamental forces and therefore have extremely limited agency in events. As the precocious teenage Sylvia Plath understood, our latitude of free movement in life is paralyzingly limited “from birth by environment, heredity, time and event and local convention”. In such a reality, choice is only a narrative, and a retroactive one at that — it is the story we tell ourselves, in the vanity-light of hindsight, about why our lives went one way and not another.

Echoing James Baldwin’s exquisite lament about the illusion of choice, Murdoch writes:

Our existence is a strange gamble. The two paths diverge and can lead us to either heaven or hell. It is only later that one realizes just how different the fates are. What were their reasons? You might have forgotten about them. Was it possible to know the choice one made? No.

A subset of the illusion of choice is the illusion of closure — the alluring but ultimately vain idea that, as life lives itself through us in ways far beyond our control, in a complex and by definition ever-fraying tapestry of story-lines, we can tease out any one narrative thread neatly enough to tie it into a complete and permanently valid conclusion. Murdoch dispels vanity.

It is impossible to tie loose ends properly, as one produces new knots all the time. Like the ocean, time unties all knots. The final judgments on individuals aren’t made. Instead, they come from summaries which immediately suggest that there is a need to reconsider. No matter how much art might try to console us, human arrangements are nothing more than loose ends and fuzzy reckoning.

Spring Moon at Ninomiya Beach, 1931 — one of Hasui Kawase’s stunning vintage Japanese woodblocks. This image is also available as a printed version.

But here is where we do have choice: In accepting a hazy and uncertain reality beyond our control, we can also refuse to resign ourselves to being victims of it — the sort of adaptation Octavia Butler held up as the highest measure of intelligence and integrity. We can recognize that life is much more interesting as a process of continual presence than as an acted drama; that the world is much more interesting as a shoreline than as a stage — for it is at the living shore that we witness, as Richard Feynman did, “ages upon ages” unfolding into the wonder of life; at the shore that we are humbled, as Rachel Carson was, by “our place in the stream of time and in the long rhythms of the sea… in which there is no finality, no ultimate and fixed reality”; at the shore that we finally accept the most elemental fact of our lives: There is no final act — only shoreless seeds and stardust.

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