Valuing Fiction

Although currently I am reading more non-fiction books than fiction, reading a well written work of fiction often can be a treat.  A book club in Long Beach that I have attended the few years meets on a monthly basis.  The book discussed last month was a work by Iris Murdoch, titled The Sea the Sea, published in 1978, that won the Booker Prize.

There are different levels of fiction from sitting on the beach and reading pulp fiction for pure enjoyment and entertainment, to more scholarly works that compel one to contemplate ideas on a deeper level.  I found the latter to be true of Murdoch’s, The Sea to Sea.  The book is written through the view of the protagonist, Charles Arrowby, in the first person singular.  Unlike many novels, there is no omniscient narrator, but rather the entire content of the book is contained in Arrowby’s own point of view as he describes his earlier life going into the present.  This, in itself, is unusual given that a female author has chosen to project her thoughts through that of a male.  The reflections of Arrowby are real enough to afford the reader credence into Murdoch’s weaving of the plot.

For those that enjoy fiction and have the time, I will make an effort to avoid any spoilers that would come by virtue of my summarizing the plot. Suffice it to say, Murdoch examines many ideas through the actions and consequences of Arrowby.  The latter figure retires from his successful career in the theatre where he has achieved wealth and fame to a quiet removed place by the sea away from the roar of the crowd.  He will keep a journal of his life with the intention of becoming a better person, a good person.  But he cannot escape the past, and the characters that had once been a part of his life come back to haunt him.  That past is in one in which Charles has been seduced by power and its concomitant corrupting influences he holds over his peers and counterparts.

In contrast to Arrowby’s very materialistic, solipsist self, his cousin, James, is spiritual and a student of Buddhist ideals.  But ironically, the knowledge that James has taken from the practice of Buddhism seduces him into believing he can heal others with his “magic.” Although both Charles and his cousin, James, have followed very divergent paths in their lives, they both suffer from the need to control others.

Underlying the plight of these two characters, Murdoch, the author, who had studied Tibetan Buddhism, is asking the moral question of how one can better one-self.   In the 9th century, the Buddhist sage Lin Chi told a monk, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”  More recently, the late psychologist, Sheldon Kopp took up the same theme when he wrote a book with the same title referring to it as the Pilgrimage of Psychotherapy.  Implicit in his book is the provocative idea of “killing the Buddhist,” because the most important things that each man must learn, no one can teach him.

The ocean, the title and geographic essence of the book, represents a vastness that cannot be enclosed.  It can be unpredictable and uncontrollable in its vastness.  Human life, in some sense, mirrors the sea insofar as every aspect of one’s life cannot be enclosed and sealed off from the rest of the world.  Because he still treats others in the same manner than he had in the past, when Charles isolates himself to become a better person, he fails.  While he is caught in the illusive world he created in the past, his view of reality will remain distorted.

An unexpected event of tragic proportions impacts Charles in a way foreign to his nature.  This experience allows him to begin to release the reins he has had on his former social connections so he can let in others without the need to control them.  He is willing to accept life in its vastness, a mirror of the sea that Murdoch chose to use as a metaphor, that in its vastness, cannot be enclosed nor boxed in.

Murdoch has written a book that contains ancient subject matter still very much germane to contemporary life.  Her exploration into the thinking of the protagonist, Charles, causes the reader to stop and wonder at his illusory thinking that has shaped his life. Reading the novel and then discussing it with a group helped me gain a greater understanding of my reactions to it.  I highly recommend reading the book and, if you can, find a friend or friends that have the time to join you.  I’m quite sure sharing your vision of the book with others and hearing what they have to say, you will find enlightening.