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No one has ever written about passion like Iris Murdoch

Religion, though, she didn’t understand

By on Friday, 20 May 2011

Every now and then I am tempted to re-read a novel that delighted me in the distant past, to see if it really was as good as my memory suggests. In this spirit I recently returned to Iris Murdoch’s The Bell, which I first read as a sixth former. I was extremely lucky to have had an inspirational English teacher, Fr J F Morris, and he too was an admirer of Iris Murdoch, and often used to speak of The Philosopher’s Pupil as a favourite book of his. By the time I had finished my first year at university, I had read that too and all her other works. At Oxford I was blessed to have the late great Dorothy Bednarowska (obituaries here and here) as my tutor: Dorothy had for many years been dean of Saint Anne’s College, and had known Iris Murdoch well. In fact Dorothy’s sitting room in Wolvercote, where she gave her inspirational tutorials, was lined with signed first editions of Dame Iris’s work, all containing breathless dedications. However, though Iris admired Dorothy, the compliment was not returned.

“Every year she writes a book and sends me a copy, with “To dearest Dorothy” written on it; and every year I think, oh God, have I got to read this? And what on earth am I going to say to her when I have done so?” was The Bedder’s comment.

“Her novels?” said Freddie Copleston, when I mentioned Murdoch to him. “You mean her novel. She writes the same one every year.”

Much as Fr Copleston (obituary here) remains a huge hero for me, and much as I admired Mrs Bednarowska, having re-read The Bell, I think Iris Murdoch’s reputation is secure. Her books will last.

The Bell is a marvellous and memorable book. Many of the scenes have stayed in my mind over the last 30 years. I think this is partly because it is such an elemental book, by which I mean that the actions and characters seem to have such depth to them. The book is replete with symbols – the convent and its wall, the lake, the tower, and of course the bell itself. The simple truth is that no one has ever written about the passions, the sexual passions, in the way Iris Murdoch did.

I remember once discussing Iris Murdoch with the great critic A N Wilson. “But don’t you think that she had a real insight into religion?” he said. “No,” I replied. “I think she did not understand religion at all.” (I still think this – she was looking in from the outside.) “But I do think she had a real insight into sex.”

Funnily enough I have a personal reason for liking The Bell. It is a pursuit frowned on by literary purists, but it is fun to spot how many of the characters in Iris Murdoch’s books are thinly disguised real people. Back in the 1950s she stayed at the Anglican Malling Abbey, where she met the then Abbess, who is supposed to have inspired the figure of the Abbess in the book. Mrs Bednarowska said (correctly, for she was right about everything) that Murdoch was an atheist who did not like religion, but the nearest she got to sympathy with faith was the scene where the Abbess appears and says “The way is always forward”. The Abbess Murdoch knew was a cousin of mine, Dame Violet Lucie-Smith.

Incidentally, I went to Malling Abbey years ago to visit my cousin, then in her 90s, and found there the truth of what Iris Murdoch describes as the “annihilating silence” of the cloister. That too is a phrase that has stayed with me.

  • http://www.catholictruthscotland.com EditorCT

    And perhaps, Father, you’d like to tell us all, precisely how you know that Iris Murdoch (or anyone else for that matter) “had a real insight into sex”…  and that  “no-one has ever written about the passions, the sexual passions, in the way Irish Murdoch did.”

    Perhaps you’ve made a study of the topic, or is your point of reference your leisure time reading?

      

  • Anonymous

    Come on, EditorCT, be fair. Priests and religious are perfectly capable of commenting on the subject. It is a part of human nature and marriage – a parish priest should be able to give advice about marriage, wouldn’t you say? 

  • http://www.catholictruthscotland.com EditorCT

    I could give advice about marriage without reading sexually explicit material. I should hope a priest could, as  well. And just  what kind of dumbell would go to a priest for advice about sexual intimacy?

  • Horace Zagreus

    And could you, madame editrix, explain precisely why you want to know, what business it is of yours, by what authority you probe into the lives, private and public, of others, and how this, and the antics of your gossiping rag is anything more than scandal-mongering?

    Perhaps you would further indulge us by explaining precisely why someone who so jealously guards their privacy as you do, madame, has any right to go poking their noses into the affairs of others, like Fr Lucie-Smith? 

    And for someone in your marital state, madame editrix, to cast aspersions on another is further gross hypocrisy, I think.

    In any case, perhaps if you had read the article with less of a view to raking up snide accusations, and had paid more attention to the words on the screen, you might have noted that nowhere does Fr Lucie-Smith make any reference to personal knowledge of sex. Rather, the good Fr makes a reference to sexual passions, and anyone who can’t see the difference between the two needs their eyes examining, in particular to check that their vision isn’t blocked by their upturned nose.

    As for where a priest would gain knowledge of this, there are two points which may – and, indeed, seem - to have escaped your notice. First, that priests quite regularly sit in a little box in the side of the Church and listen to the darkest and most shameful secrets of a good chunk of the people who visit it. Second, that priests are ordained, not born. Perhaps you would like to think about that second point, and what it might mean.

     You quite happily – and with great gusto – dig up muck and gossip, and fling it about as far and wide as you can, and then accuse your victims of being the ones creating scandal. But not satisfied with this, you then sit in Pharsaic judgement over the rest of humanity, having declared yourself the One True Catholic.

    One has the distinct impression that, had you lived in the time of Our Lord, you would hav marched up to him and demanded to know just what he knew about looking lustfully at women and committing adultery if he was so high-and-mighty, and how he ought to be ashamed of himself for hanging around with a prostitute, and that furthermore you were going to make sure that all of Judaea knew about his scandalous behaviour.

    I’ve seen a lot of immoral and revolting views espoused and sometimes acted upon by my fellow Catholics, but you are by far the most vicious and un-Christian of the lot. But I am sure I have not offended you – after all, you will no doubt console yourself with having Abraham for an ancestor.

  • http://www.catholictruthscotland.com EditorCT

    What a nasty post. Not a single shred of evidence posted to substantiate any of the false allegations against me, but that’s easily explained. There IS  no evidence. Indeed, it is the simple fact that we publish only the demonstrable truth, that so infuriates enemies of the truth – like you.  And the other thing that drives you (obviously) mad is that we don’t need to go raking up information – it comes to us, usually from priests fed up with the dereliction of episcopal duty.

    However, I grant you this:  I think I’ve been unfair to Fr Lucie-Smith. I attend an SSPX chapel for Mass and when the priests there let fall the odd mention of books they’ve read or are reading they cite wholesome literature, never a seedy word. I just cannot imagine any one of our priests writing the article penned by Fr Lucie-Smith.  Thus, I’ve been blessed;  it isn’t really fair to expect such standards from modern priests in diocesan parishes these days.

    And for the record, I can’t recall Jesus telling anyone that he’d read a book by an expert on “the sexual passions” – but I do recall St Paul teaching that the most serious sins are sexual sins because all other sins are committed outside of the body but when we sin sexually, we sin against our own body.  Put that together with Our Lady’s warning to Sr Lucy of Fatima that “more souls go to Hell through sins of impurity than any other sin” and I guess you’d tend to think that a priest with some column inches to spare might use them to help his readers to raise their thoughts to higher things.  Society is obsessed with sex. It’s kind of disappointing to find priests of the same mentality.

  • Joel Pinheiro

    Every man has sexual passions. Ever wonder how Bl. Pope John Paul II could write his Theology of the Body?

  • MP

    Excellent stuff. I must re-read “The Bell”.  

  • Anonymous

    Ever wondered why no other pope in history has written anything remotely like the Theology of the Body?

    Ever wondered why the popes of the past wrote about chastity and purity?

    Ever wondered why St Paul said that such talk (of sexual matters) was not becoming of the saints?

  • Anonymous

    I read it as a student. Wouldn’t recommend it. 

  • Annie

    Wow, this has got some peoples panties in a bunch, lol! 

  • The GF

    Taking a leaf out of Iris Murdoch’s book, in more ways than one, might do you some good, Madame Editrix: your understanding of Catholicism is rather narrow if you think that there is something wrong with any of this. Indeed, pursuing some of this ‘leisure time reading’ might loosen you up a bit and help you to divert your own negative passions away from your hounding agenda.

  • Anonymous

    Actually, to be honest, I cannot remember a thing about The Bell.  That’s why I wouldn’t recommend it – instantly forgettable.

    Since you don’t know me, I find your personal nasty comments rather puzzling. What do you mean by “loosen up”,  “negative passions” and “hounding agenda”?

  • Anonymous

    Editor CT – the problem with your replies is very simple: they lack charity. What was it that St. Paul said about charity? I will remind you…

    “Though I speak with
    the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as
    sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. [...] And
    though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and
    all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove
    mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. [...] Charity suffereth
    long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is
    not puffed up, [...]“

  • Joan

    If reading stories with sexual descriptions in them helps us to become better Catholics, that would be fine but the church has always said we have a weakness in that area as a resul tof the Fall/Original Sin, so I must admit to being surprised to see a priest writing in this way about sex.  Already there are some uncouth comments on the blog so that tells us something, or am I being very old fashioned?

  • Joan

    I think JPII’s beatification was hindered by his theology of the body. I know lots of married people who were reallly shocked by it.  

  • Joan

    We’re not encouraged to be chaste and pure these days.  It is really sad but I think priests want to be seen as relevant and they can’t see they’ve been carried along with the crowd when it comes to sex.  We should pray for them.

  • Joan

     I think it depends what you mean by charity. Some people might not think it is charitable for a priest to get people thinking about sex like this. I’m not a prude or anything, but I was brought up at a time when priests used to tell us to guard against bad thoughts and sexual temptations, not praise authors who wrote about these things better than other authors. I’m not meaning to criticise Fr Smith, but just making the point that there’s different ways of looking at charity.

  • Anonymous

    You make a fair point – I suppose this is a generational thing. For people of my generation (i.e. under 30), including Catholics, it seems quite bizarre that someone would consider it sinful simply to discuss sex. As was pointed out above, Bl. JP II wrote about it at length. I would say the important thing is that the different generations can talk to each other respectfully, without getting angy or making innuendos…

  • Anonymous

     I agree with EditorCT, (not on the substance on the article) but on the nastiness of your comments.

    EditorCT was merely poking fun in the ‘leisure time experience’ comment – whereas you decided to get extremely personal. Do you not have the confidence in your own arguments that they will not stand up without first lacing them in personal attacks?

    This is shameful behaviour for a ‘Catholic’.

  • Anonymous

    Pathetic. Make a substantive argument against specific beliefs or postings from EditorCT. Personal attacks may increase your ego, but they prove nothing.

  • The GF

    Oh, I know you, Patricia.

  • Anonymous

     Agreed. Sex isn’t something that can just be swept under the carpet like it is not there. After all we all owe our existence to it!

  • Anonymous

    paulsays, thanks for your kind support. I think I’m right in saying we’ve not always agreed in the past, so I appreciate your fairness here.

    However, I wasn’t really “poking fun” about the leisure reading – it is really a matter of much concern that priests have become sexualized.  Your patron saint – St Paul – tells us that we shouldn’t speak about such things.  If we think nothing of reading sexual material, we will think nothing of speaking of sexual matters (and sexual talk and behaviour is all around us).  Soon, our resistance to sexual temptations is gradually broken down.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks again, paulsays.  I’ll need to get a cheque in the post to you, if this goes on!

    Seriously, though, I couldn’t agree more that personal attacks prove nothing and that it is crucial to debate issues, not personalities.  Thanks for pointing that out. 

  • Anonymous

    No you DON’T know me; you may know my name but so what? I don’t know YOU, so why not have the courage of your convictions and identify yourself?  Otherwise, if you are one of these nuts (IF) who is obsessed with me (God help their lack of wits) I’m going to ignore your comments.  I come on here to debate issues, not defend myself from anonymous, nasty and utterly cowardly critics. 

  • Anonymous

    Yes, Joan, we must pray for them, of course, but when the opportunity presents itself, we must if necessary correct them. Many younger priests think nothing of engaging in sexual talk and, in not a few cases, I’ve not been too surprised when they’ve up and left their ministry having moved on from mere talk.  Not for nothing has the Church always warned us against reading impure literature and watching explicit sexual content in films and TV. Yet, how few Catholics – including priests – heed that warning today?  

  • Anonymous

    A tad judgmental, Ian749. 

  • Anonymous

    Joan,

    When you say you were brought up “at a time when priests used to tell us to guard against bad thoughts and sexual temptations”  I take it you are meaning to highlight the fact that priests no longer tell us to be careful in this area. You are not, are you, meaning to say that such teaching is no longer relevant?

    And, with respect, what is this fear of criticizing Fr Smith?  Anyone who writes in the public forum should be prepared for criticism. In a matter of this seriousness, we have a positive duty to criticize.  Do you want your children or grandchildren being “ministered to” by priests who are spending their leisure time indulging in sexual reading/films?  Who have read so many books on “the sexual passions” that they are in a position to identify which author is best at writing on this topic?

  • Anonymous

    With respect, it is NOT a “generational” thing.  St Paul’s warning against sexual talk was addressed to every Christian, not the over 60′s. 

    And when the Pope canonised Maria Goretti in the 1950s, he said that she was a particularly important saint for our times. Even then, the sex-obsession in western societies has set in. Our Lady warned at Fatima that fashions would be introduced in our times that would offend God. Only today I read of a study that shows a high percentage of children’s clothes are designed to sexualize them. No, it’s not a generational thing – purity is a Christian virtue and it is one we are ALL obliged to seek. Like all virtues, we need to take practical steps if we are to attain this holiness – and care in what goes into our minds, what our eyes see and our ears hear, is of paramount importance.

  • Anonymous

    Perhaps. Though pots and kettles do come to mind.

    Although I can only admire the tenacity of your concern for the Church, I do think it is important that we make sure that we act with charity, even and especially when we are criticising others. This includes considering the circumstances in which people act. In our contemporary society, which I will grant is over-sexualised, priests have to engage with a wide range of people, including young people, who take it for granted that sex is something that can be discussed. If priests do not engage with these people, surely they are failing in their pastoral duty, and also lose the chance to influence them towards more humane ideas.

    Would you not agree that you can sometimes alienate people, more than convince them, with the tone of your attacks?

  • Anonymous

    paulsays, my friend!  It isn’t about “sweeping sex under the carpet.”  Outside of marriage, sex is a grave sin and we must avoid sin at all costs. We have to avoid all dangerous occasions of sin, things, people, places, events, whatever might lead us to sin.  If we are reading descriptions of sexual activity, we are offending God, whether or not our reading/viewing leads us to actively sin sexually.

    Sex is a gift from God to be used only in marriage. Gifts from God are to be treasured and cherished, not belittled and mis-used.  Owing our existence to it, as you say, is fast becoming a thing of the past. The sex industry has been highly successful in separating the sexual act (once called the “marriage act”) from marriage and procreation, and removing it from its exalted position as a treasured gift of God, something intensely personal and private between  two married people, so that we now have same-sex “relationships” written into the national legal framework and advertisers promoting everything from toothpaste to talent competitions rely on sex to sell their products.

    No, it’s not about sweeping sex under the carpet, but about keeping it in its rightful place. Take a look at any of the classic works of literature, stories of chaste romance leading to marriage, and compare those beautiful writings with the tacky texts around today.  No contest.

  • Joel Pinheiro

    People were “shocked” by St. Phillip Neri’s playful humor.

    That something was done in the past doesn’t necessarily mean it was the best. There is such a thing as doctrinal development.

    I dare you to find anything written by any Pope or Saint about the unitive purpose of sex before the 19th century. Would you say that sex has, therefore, no unitive purpose? Or is that a legitimate development of doctrine?

  • Louisa

    It doesn’t seem particularly appropriate subject  material for a Catholic paper, nor does it seem relevant to much else in the paper.

  • Horace Zagreus

    “Ever wondered why no other pope in history has written anything remotely like the Theology of the Body?”
    Actually, what I’m wondering is why you think that’s a bad thing compared to various historical popes who had numerous illegitimate children, and in one case – Pope Pius II – wrote erotic poetry.

  • Anonymous

    Bl. JH Newman:

    “[...] absence, or partial absence, or incompleteness of dogmatic statements [is not] proof of the absence of impressions or implicit judgements, in the mind of the Church. Even centuries might pass without the formal expression of a truth, which had been all along the secret life of millions of faithful souls.”

  • The GF

    I might swing by Cambuslang later. Maybe see you at St Andrew’s during the week.

    Cheers
    Martin

  • Teresa Pinfold

    It seems strange that a post on Iris Murdoch has attracted little comment that is relevant to Iris Murdoch herself. As a keen student of English Literature, I am pleased to see Dame Iris receive the attentiuon that the poster gives her. She deserves it as a major author of our times. But I am distressed to find so many Catholics decrying this. What ever happened to the idea of dialogue and engagement with the world? True, Murdoch was not Catholic or even Christian, but she still repays careful study, and we do not want Catholicism to retreat back to the ghetto, do we? Or do we?
    It is also distressing to see so many people who perhaps have no real knowledge of her works assuming that Murdoch is not suitable reading for a priest or indeed anyone else. This is to malign her. She was a writer of great moral seriousness. Incidentally, one thing that comes through her novels is her strong disapproval of abortion. 
    The current Pope, and his predecessor, the Blessed John Paul, strongly encourage the evangelisation of culture. I find that the discussion of literary giants in the pages of a Catholic newspaper nothing but a good thing.

  • Anonymous

    Since there’s more than one Martin in my life, perhaps you’d like to give more clues – preferably your surname AND location – level playing field requires AT LEAST location. Courage would dictate surname as well.  I’m  waiting..

  • Anonymous

    Perhaps it’s my fault for not being clear, but (as I said in one of my posts above, I don’t even remember much about The Bell so I take your point) my dissatisfaction with the article arises from the way the author – a priest – focuses on “the sexual passions” and compares Murdoch’s literary exploration of “the sexual passions” with any other author.  He doesn’t mention other books, so I’m not sure what he means.  The topic, indicated in the headline,is not suitable for Catholic discussion and it is disingenuous to talk  about “engagement with the world.”  The world is sex-obsessed so no Catholic should be engaging with it at that level. When I was a member of the Legion of Mary and we spoke to prostitutes, we didn’t focus on their “lifestyle choice” and debate whether or not they should be encouraged to have “safe sex” but we focused on what lay  ahead for us in eternity. We gave them miraculous medals, chatted for as long as we could and, as charitably as we could, spoke, as I’ve said, of the next world, not this one. Not once did we meet with hostility or a suggestion to  “dialogue.” 

    A friend recently handed me an alleged detective novel recommended by her parish priest, for my opinion.  Since most of the first chapter were a description of explicit sex (and, yes, I read it for the express purpose of seeing how long this would last – i.e. almost entire first chapter) I am only too well aware that not just members of the laity, but priests as well, sadly spend their time in unsuitable-through-to sinful pastimes, including seedy reading. When I tried to return the book (she wouldn’t take it – she hadn’t liked it either – I told her to tell her priest what I thought of the first chapter beyond which, in conscience, I couldn’t read, but she said she “wouldn’t like to say that to a priest,”   Notice, the priest had no hesitation in offering a most unsuitable book to a laywoman.  “Diabolical Disorientation”, Our Lady warned.  And how.

    I haven’t the time to look out any essays I may have written on Murdoch’s The Bell, but if the focus had been on “the sexual passions” I think I would have remembered.  I try to keep in my mind Our Lady’s warning that “more souls go to Hell through sins of impurity than any other sin” and – worry not – I prayed for the grace not to be adversely affected or tempted by the explicit descriptions in that Jo Nesbo novel.  The devil works harder on priests than on the rest of us. If (Irish Murdoch aside) Fr Lucie-Smith enjoys reading about “the sexual passions” then – like any other human being – he is putting his soul in spiritual danger.

  • Anonymous

    No you are NOT being “old fashioned” – you are showing sound Catholic sense.  It’s a true saying that “you  are what you read” so unless we want to be as sex-obsessed as the rest of our sick society, we should choose our reading very carefully. 

  • Anonymous

    I agree totally.  Sign of the times, though, that we appear to be in a minority.  New Mass, New Catechism, New Evangelisation, New Rosary and now New Morality.  It’s a great time to be a public sinner, Louisa!

  • Anonymous

    This is precisely the kind of uncouth talk that results from being sexualised. You have made my point brilliantly. Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    Both categories of popes identified by you most certainly would not have been helped to avoid sexual temptations by reading sexually explicit literature.  So thanks for this.  

    St Paul, I repeat, has warned us not to talk about sexual matters; only those who are in denial about our weak, fallen human nature will try to pretend that we can talk about such stuff, watch it on films and read it, without the risk of falling into sexual sin.

    Or would you approve of popes having illegitimate children and writing erotic poetry? 

  • Annie

    ‘Sexualised’ because I used that phrase? Gosh. I must tell my husband.

    I love Harry Potter too. Must make me completely beyond the pale.

    Seriously though CT I am appalled by the way in which sex is used in our society, I loathe its trivialisation and the way in which it’s portrayed as a recreational activity.

    I do not however agree at all that anyone -priest or not- should be judged because they read and comment on Murdoch.

    How do you feel about Shakespeare? He was a bit racy.

  • Anonymous

    Annie, Catholics, including, sadly, women, have become coarse in the way many of them speak. As a result of the “sexual liberation” or so they say.  This coarseness shows in both speech and in dress. Did you notice how many people thought Catherine Middleton’s wedding dress was “old fashioned” just because it had a top and sleeves?  It would have been prettier had the top been completely lace but it was certainly a big improvement on the usual completely immodest dresses worn by “brides” these days, so it is revealing (excuse the pun) to note the way Catholics have been coarsened.

    This is not intended to be a personal insult Annie.  It’s just a fact that Catholics HAVE become coarsened like everyone else and instead of priests preaching purity and chastity, they see nothing wrong with this now widespread sexualizaton and coarsening of the Catholic people. Sad.

  • Petrus

    This is absolutely true.  Only a couple of years ago, I heard a retired priest in my parish tell the congegation that the BYOB on the notice for the parish dance meant, “Bring Your Own Boyfriend.”  Of course, the whole church burst into laughter and applause.  I didn’t find it the least bit funny. 

    Catholics certainly have become coarsened.  Just look at how the “pilgrims” dress at World Youth Day!  Look at some of the images John Paul II used in his “Theology of the Body”.  He claimed that the joys of Heaven can be compared to the physical enjoyment of the marital act!  Scandalous.  If you go into any “Catholic” High Schools you will see some outrageous sights.  Headteachers or chaplains wouldn’t dream of saying anything about this because they actually don’t see anything wrong with it themselves. 

    Of course, sex education in schools plays such a big part in the de-sancitification of sex.  Hearing your teacher explain the “mechanics” in a matter of fact way, does not reinforce the sacred nature of the marital act.  And before anyone even tries to claim that Sex Education in the Catholic school DOES teach the sanctity of the marital act, go and have a read at St Francis De Sales’ “Introduction to the Devout Life” and compare it to the sexualisation of children that is going on in Catholic schools! If Sex Education is taught alongisde Maths and History, why shouldn’t we talk about?  This is a huge problem.

  • Petrus

    When numerous Saints have written about the marital act from a purely Catholic perspective, why would a priest be promoting this text?  Why not Saint Francis De Sales?

  • Annie

    So no thoughts on Shakespeare?

  • Anonymous

    Well, Annie, my thoughts on Shakespeare are very simple.  I’ve never been a fan of the Bard, but I took a fourth year English class through Romeo and Juliet some years ago, and there was nothing “racy” about it. In fact, despite all sorts of preparation work, examining Elizabethan England, the characters, the basic story line, the pupils found it so boring, that,rest assured, “racy” is the last adjective they’d have chosen to describe it!

    I’m aware that there have been complaints from audiences and even some calls for Shakespeare not to be taught in schools, following objectionable performances of certain of Shakespeare’s plays but, like all classic literature, Shakespeare can be read and interpreted on various levels.  Needless to say, in our sex obsessed society, anything remotely vulgar will be played up.  I’m no expert on Shakespeare but I’ve never thought of his work as being “racy”.  I’ve read and studied his plays on a rather different level. Boring old me…

  • Anonymous

    All so true. Disappointingly, I remember watching Pope John Paul II, at one of these World Youth Days, doing a sexy gyration (winning roars of approval  from his young audience, of course) so it is little wonder that priests see nothing untoward in joining the “sexual revolution”