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GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS ON IRIS MURDOCH_THE BLACK PRINCE
Sâmbătă, 08 Mai 2010 18:04

GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS ON IRIS MURDOCH’S

THE BLACK PRINCE

 

Prof.drd. Alina-Marilena Titirisca

Liceul Teoretic “Al. I. Cuza”, Alexandria

  

Abstract

Murdoch regards her works in terms of their implications for the novelist’s essential task, which is that of “creating character by revealing secret obsessions which real people give away.” In this respect, The Black Prince brings forth complex ideas and concepts such as art, love, sex, sexuality analyzing them from different points of view: Plato’s, Freud’s, Shakespeare’s and obviously hers.

KEYWORDS: art, love, sex, Plato, Freud, sexuality.

 

Murdoch îşi considera operele din perspectiva implicării acestora în misiunea esentială a romancierului, adică aceea de a “da naştere unui personaj prin dezvăluirea pasiunilor sale ascunse pe care oamenii obişnuiţi le trădează.” În acest sens, Printul negru aduce în prim-plan idei şi concepte complexe cum ar fi artă, dragoste, sex şi sexualitate, analizându-le din diverse puncte de vedere: al lui Platon, Freud, Shakespeare şi evident al autoarei.

Cuvinte cheie: artă, dragoste, sex, sexualitate, Platon, Freud.

 

“Art is informative and entertaining, it condenses and clarifies the world, directing attention upon particular things…Art illuminates accident and contingency and the general muddle of life, the limitations of time and the discursive intellect, so as to enable us to survey complex or horrible things which would otherwise appeal us …Its condensed, clarified presentation enables us to look without sin upon a sinful world.”[1]

           

            Even if Murdoch has been seriously debated and over- analyzed, she continues to be one of the most respectful and prolific British writers of the twentieth century. For a visual scrutiny of Murdoch’s work, one must necessarily take into account the statement she made in 1978 “the novel itself, of course, the whole world of the novel is the expression of a world outlook. Any novelist produces a moral world and there’s a kind of world outlook which can be deduced from each of the novels.”[2]

            In Murdoch’s opinion, opaque and steady framework is what a novel really needs and in addition to this, the amount of specificity constitutes the basic element of the writer’s ability in creating the characters of the novel. In her essay “Against Dryness” (1961) she tries to unfold the features of a good novel, meaning its function of creating images of humanity and being “a fit house for the characters to live in”.  From this perspective, Murdoch considered herself totally opposed to D.H. Lawrence who although was a “great writer and genius” was often cited as an example of a writer who failed in the fair treatment of his characters, especially in his portrayal of Clifford Chatterley in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover: “This is not a house of free characters; I mean this is not a novel where these people have any kind of self-determination.”

             In the great and laborious process of writing the novel, an essential celebration of imagination as well as a moral, ethical and apprehensive power is required in order to respond to contradiction and otherness. Murdoch regards her works in terms of their implications for the novelist’s essential task, which is that of “creating character by revealing secret obsessions which real people give away”.

            Even if Murdoch does not write to formula, she does discuss certain immutable themes and techniques. She is mainly preoccupied with love, art and the possibility of doing good and if possible avoiding the evil. Surprise, suspense and other dramatic devices are the ingredients of Murdoch’s writings and Cherryl Bove describes her as a writer of consistently readable novels who fashions gripping narratives and vivid characters. In each of her novels, Murdoch presents readers with a moral problem upon which she allows her audience to pass judgement. Bove summarizes Murdoch’s work not as an effort to advance a cause, expand a philosophy or portray a society but to present human relationships and solve fictional problems of plot and theme.

            As every of her novels, “The Black Prince” presents a new milieu, with new problems and distinct situations shedding light on human consciousness and change. It has been observed that in this novel Iris Murdoch uses a first-person, male narrator when she deals with illusion, self-deception and partial understanding. Just like in other two novels “A World Child” and “A Severe Head” the character in “The Black Prince”, Bradley Pearson makes a lot of mistakes in what concerns the moral and sexual natures of the people around him, but the plot, or better said the author herself, acts as an intervener to correct these mistakes in a more or less painful way. “Murdoch never presents the ideal end but concentrates on a real and stringent depiction of the errors and resultant casualty[3]and her experimentation and ability to surprise underline a development of increased seriousness.

            The plot of “The Black Prince” deals with various issues such as the relationships between love and death, between art and life, between youth and age. In the rendering of events, Murdoch uses in the novel a whole range of symbols, literary allusions, traditional myths and motifs, recurrent psychological themes, language devices and also a timeless story which allow Murdoch to grip the reader with its surprising finale and the talons of her writing, even though cutting down on the amount of philosophizing would have strengthened the story line.

            A. S. Byatt considers “The Black Prince” to be a “fable about the moral values of realism, rather than a realistic novel in itself because it has tragic elements of fantasy, improbable plotting, farcical invention and literary joke”[4] which in what concerns her judgement are partly connected to the fact that the subject –matter is largely associated with the nature of art.

            Art was her major preoccupation in her literary works and she tried to express her visions on art every time he had the possibility no matter who she chose to be her spokesperson  In The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists she describes on of the functions of art saying that “Art can rarely, but with authority, show from pain, swept by the violence of divine grace toward an unwilling wisdom, as described in the first chorus of the Agamemnon in words which somehow remind us of Plato, who remained (it appears) so scandalously indifferent to the merits of Aeschylus” .

            Even though “The Black Prince” does not belong to the works on theoretical writing , the novel is really accessible in understanding what Pearson says and what Murdoch herself appears to believe, regarding the role of art, the consoling tendency of art. In her essay “The Sovereignty of Good, she underlines the role of art and the fact that not many artists really come to achieve this true vision of art: “Art presents the most comprehensive examples of the almost irresistible human tendency to seek consolation in fantasy and also the effort to resist this and the vision of reality which comes with success. Success is in fact rare. Almost all art is a form of fantasy- consolation and few artists achieve the vision of the real. The talent of the artist can be readily and is naturally employed to produce a picture whose purpose is the consolation and aggrandizement of its author and the projection of his personal obsessions and wishes. To silence and express self, to contemplate and decline nature with a clear eye, is not easy and demands a moral discipline.”[5]

            The book is constructed transparently, Hamlet is seen as a prince of words, but in fact he is a black prince that makes Iris Murdoch to see love in a more complex way. Compared to Shakespeare’s work in which love is so frustrated, Murdoch introduces a free sexuality which surpasses both time and age, it is a physical and psychological love just as in the African rituals of life and death, love and war when they paint their faces. In most of the traditional art and craft of Africa, certain themes significant to African culture recur, including a couple, a woman with a child, a male with a weapon or animal and the outsider or a stranger. The couple theme rarely exhibits intimacy of men and women. The mother with the child or children reveals intense desire of the African women to have children. The theme is also representative of mother earth and children are seen as her children. Here in the novel we have couples as well, but they are intellectuals and they are not savages so they come to experience love when related to the theatre ,their writing or their jobs.

            Bradley faces challenges to his sexuality and gender as he interacts with others who cross-dress. Bradley’s ability to perform sexually with Julian Baffin has been the topic of much criticism on this novel. Critics have noted that Bradley is able to perform sexually with Julian only after she cross-dresses in male clothing. Bove notes that Bradley is “able to consummate their affair (described almost as a rape) after she dresses up as Hamlet. Similarly, Peter Wolfe asserts that “the sight of Julian dressed as Hamlet excites him so much that he rapes her.”

            The story in the novel told by Bradley is also seen through his eyes and its central event is marked by “the complete shift in his vision of the world which is produced by his sudden, overwhelming experience of love for Arnold Baffin’s daughter, Julian.”[6]

            If we are to take into account some other readings of the novel, it is often suggested that Bradley should be seen as a repressed homosexual because his love –object dresses in male clothing. Bove is the one who also comments that “Bradley has homosexual tendencies. At moments of crisis he often rushes outside his flat and glances at the phallic post office tower.” In addition to this, Wolfe claims that Bradley’s ability to consummate his relationship with Julian can be seen as the result of his overtaking of his narcissistic ideal, just as Hamlet. This also refers to a Freudian interpretation of the scene because if we are to consider this so- called narcissism we surely make the connection to the work of Freud in which it is stated that male homosexuals experience that psychic malaise.

            Freud considers that male homosexuals pass through a short phase of intense fixation to their mother. Consequently it can be noticed in the novel that Bradley remembers his mother more than his father and refers to her in different passages “My mother filled me with exasperation and shame but I loved her…My father I simply disliked.”[7] or “My mother was very important to me. I loved her.”[8] and then they arrive at narcissism looking for a young man who  in a way resembles and whom they may love as their mother loved them.

            Tammy Grimshaw states that “in a reductive Freudian reading, Bradley’s narcissism points to his homosexuality.”[9] Francis Marloe is the first who tries to reveal Bradley his tendencies by asking him: “Why do you have nightmares about empty shops, why are you obsessed with the Post Office Tower, why do you keep worrying about smells?” [10] and telling him repeatedly that he has to accept his sexual orientation: “One must accept one’s body, one must learn to relax. Your thing about smells is a guilt complex because of your repressed tendencies, you won’t accept your body, it is a well-known neurosis…You are trembling with nerves and sensibility”[11]

            At the end of the narrative, in his postscript, Francis Marloe again adds an oversimplified analysis of Bradley: “it is … of course clear from the most casual scrutiny that our subject is homosexual. He has the typical narcissism of the breed” adding all the elements that define homosexuality : “his masochism…, his eager professions virility, his confessed lack of identity, his attitude… to women, the evidence of his parental relationship patterns, all this point in the same direction.”[12]

            Considering the many points of view of the numerous critics that have deconstructed and reconstructed Murdoch’s work , it should be borne in mind that Murdoch was in fact a Platonist (she believed like  Plato that people go through life only with a limited sense of truth since our everyday world is a world full of illusion, but behind this there is a world full of ideal forms) who used Freudian concepts integrated in the life of her characters and Shakespeare’s influences, all of which helped her  produced this writing and artistic masterpiece: “The Black Prince”.

 

 Select Bibliography

 

Primary Sources:

 

Novels:

  1. The Black Prince, New York, Viking Press, 1973

Non-fiction:

  1. Against Dryness, Encounter, January 1961
  2. Metaphysics and Esthetic: The Nature of Metaphysics, London, Macmillan, 1957
  3. Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, London, Macmillan, 1957
  4. The Sovereignty of Good, London, Oxford University Press, 1970
  5. The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists, London, Oxford University Press, 1977

 

Secondary Sources:

  1. Antonaccio, Maria, Schwiker, William: “Iris Murdoch and the Search for Human Goodness, University of Chicago Press, 1996
  1. 2.Bloom, Harold, Iris Murdoch .Modern Critical Views, Chelsea House Publishers, New York, New Heaven , Philadelphia, 1986.
  2. Bove, Cheryl K., Understanding Iris, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993; Iris Murdoch: A Reference Guide To English Literature: Writers H-Z, second edition, Chicago & London, 1991
  3. Burdescu, Felicia, Iris Murdoch’s Way with Philosophical Texts, Universitaria, 2006
  4. Byatt, A.S., Degrees of Freedom, London, Vintage, 1994
  5. Conradi, Peter, Iris Murdoch: The Saint and the Artist, london, 1986
  6. Dipple, Elizabeth, Iris Murdoch, Work for the Spirit, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1982
  7. Dooley, Gillian, From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction, University of South California Press, 2003
  8. Feagin, Susan L., Reading with Feeling, Cornell University Press, 1996
  9. Grimshaw, Tammy, Sexuality, Gender and Power in Iris Murdoch’s Fiction, Fairleigh Dickinson, University press, 2005
  10. Hague, Angela, Iris Murdoch’s Comic Vision, Associated University Press, London and Toronto, 1984
  11. Johnson, Deborah, Iris Murdoch. The Role of the Narrator, The Harvest Press, 1987
  12. 13.Pachuau, Margret P., Construction of Good and Evil in Iris Murdoch’s Discourse, Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 2007
  13. Sanders, Julie, Novel Shakespeares, Manchester University Press, 2001
  14. 15.Todd, Richard, Iris Murdoch, Vision, 1979
  15. Widdows, Heather, The Moral Vision of Iris Murdoch, Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2005.

 


[1]  Murdoch, Iris , Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, London, Macmillan, 1957

[2] Conradi, Peter. J., Iris Murdoch : The Saint and the Artist , London, 1986, p.8

 

[3] .Panchman, Margret P., Construction of Good and Evil in Iris Murdoch’s Discourse, Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 2007, p.76

[4] Byatt, A.S., Degrees of Freedom, London, Vintage, 1994, p.269

[5] Murdoch, Iris, The Sovereignity of Good, London,Oxford University Press, 1970, p 64

[6] Byatt, A.S., Degrees of Freedom, London, Vintage, 1994, p.269

[7] The Black Prince, New York, Viking Press, 1973,p. 15

[8] Idem, p.82

[9] Grimshaw, Tammy, Sexuality, Gender and Power in Iris Murdoch’s Fiction, Fairleigh Dickinson, University press, 2005, p.207

[10] The Black Prince, New York, Viking Press, 1973, p.152

[11] The Black Prince, New York, Viking Press, 1973, p.153

[12] The Black Prince, New York, Viking Press, 1973,p.398

 


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