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Iris Murdoch and the Good Psychoanalyst

By Turner, Jack | Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

Iris Murdoch and the Good Psychoanalyst

Turner, Jack, Twentieth Century Literature

Several . . . films [Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Field of Dreams, and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, 1989] send their heroes searching for hints of God's presence in the universe, on quests for spiritual meaning. . . .

And like many New Age approaches that cloak self-absorption in a veneer of spirituality, the films are not really about God and faith.

In every case, the religious quest masks a more human concern, a reconciliation with the hero's own father. (Caryn James)

What seems to us so grandiose about ethics, so mysterious and, in a mythical fashion, so self-evident, owes these characteristics to its connection with religion, its origins from the will of the father.

(Sigmund Freud 370)

Thomas McCaskerville, the Scottish psychoanalyst in Iris Murdoch's The Good Apprentice (1985), is meticulously ethical, constantly concerned with doing what is right, always thinking of the effects of his words and actions on others, and also religious in a way, practicing what Harold Bloom calls Murdoch's "astringent post-Christian Platonism," a kind of "negative theology." "Let's say that God is a permanent non-degradable love object," Thomas says to young Stuart Cuno. "Must we not imagine something of the sort?" Then, running through a typical, even stereotypical, Murdochian litany, Stuart eventually says that he wants to go it alone, without a god, "Just to try to be good, to be for others and not oneself. . . . [The good is] all, everywhere, as if everything spoke it and showed it - and it's so deep that it's entirely me, and yet it's entirely not me too -." "Steady on," says Thomas. "All that sounds like God. You say there is no God, then you aspire to be God yourself, you take over his attributes. Perhaps that is the task of the present age" (140-41).

John Updike, himself a religious quester in his fiction, writes that Murdoch, "unable in good conscience to locate depth in the external cosmos where God once reigned, turns, in the paradoxical gesture of Christian humanism, toward Man himself to supply the depth that Man demands. . . . Murdoch's central male triangle of Harry [Cuno], Edward [Baltram, Harry's stepson], and Stuart [Harry's son] . . . does not illustrate much in the way of depth" (126). However, Thomas, the artistic "saint," and Jesse Baltram, the saintly artist (Edward's biological father), supply plenty, maybe too much.(1)

"The esthetic puzzle," Bloom writes, "is whether the comic story and the spiritual kernel can be held together by Miss Murdoch's archaic stance as an authorial will." Pearl K. Bell argues that the novel is "peculiarly disjointed and uneven" (36); Gillian Wilce calls it "a moral soap opera" (30). The Good Apprentice, however, does include a realistic, sensitive portrayal of an analyst - the first and only such portrayal in her canon - and, as in A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1971), itself a social and psychological comedy, and of equal rank with this one, here Murdoch creates characters and landscapes that come to life, colorful and vibrant people and settings. Further, in showing Stuart beating everyone over the head with his heavy-handed ethical message, Murdoch is lampooning the didactic side of herself (undercutting her usual moral agenda), a tactic that allows the surface of the novel to have a light and airy feel, even as dark, mysterious forces seem to be at work. Her command of detail and her painterly descriptions invest the book with what Peter J. Conradi calls her "luminous, lyrical accuracy" (4). The moral agenda is allowed to drift and grow beneath the surface, as it often does in good literature. Ironically, by blatantly calling attention to morality with the naive character Stuart, Murdoch manages to push her own moral philosophy into the shadows awhile, where it becomes even more effective. Stuart is portrayed as a good person, but unintentionally a clown, not a saint.

Thomas is the saint figure, but although he is presented as an almost ideal man (resembling Murdoch's father in his intelligence, steadiness, and success),(2) he nonetheless has faults as both man and analyst, which are used indirectly to criticize Freudianism once again (as Murdoch often does in both her fiction and nonfiction).

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