- Surrey Research Insight Open Access

‘Iris Murdoch and the Aesthetics of Masochism’
Bran Nicol
Journal of Modern Literature, 29:2, 2006. pp.148-65.
[author’s copy]
In her essay “On ‘God’ and ‘Good,’ ” Iris Murdoch writes that “[i]t is always a
significant question to ask of any philosopher: what is he [sic] afraid of?” (Murdoch
1999a: 359). She is considering the difficulty “in philosophy to tell whether one is
saying something reasonably public and objective, or whether one is merely erecting a
barrier, special to one’s own temperament, against one’s own personal fears”
(Murdoch 1999a: 359). Her question suggests what we might regard as her own fear
as a writer—and of fiction, not just philosophy: the sense that she might be fooling
herself, presenting a piece of writing as objective or impersonal when it is, in fact,
driven by her desire. Her main strategy for alleviating this fear is the theory of literary
production she developed throughout her career.
What is distinctive about Murdoch’s theory of the novel is that it is also a
theory of ethics. Like the good person, she maintained, a novelist should engage in the
literary equivalent of ascesis, peeling away the egotistical layers of self which cling to
her work to leave the representation of pure “reality”—or as close as one can get to it
in art—in all its contingent glory. As she argues elsewhere in “On ‘God’ and ‘Good,’
” “[t]he chief enemy of excellence in morality (and also in art) is personal fantasy: the
tissue of self-aggrandizing and consoling wishes and dreams which prevents one from
seeing what is there outside one” (Murdoch 1999a: 347–8). The writer must resist the
temptation to give in to this fantasy by featuring herself in her work or imposing preexisting schema or judgement upon it. Characters should develop “independently” of
the author and each other, and not be subservient to the demands of the plot. “[T]he
greatest art,” Murdoch says, “is ‘impersonal’ because it shows us the world, our world
and not another one, with a clarity which startles and delights us simply because we
are not used to looking at the real world at all” (Murdoch 1999a: 352).
Murdoch’s official “ethics of impersonality” is reinforced at a more subtle level
by the “epitextual” dimension of her work, which has the effect of underlining how
faithful she was to her own theory. According to Gérard Genette, epitexts are those
texts produced by authors, such as interviews, private letters and journals, etc., which
do not occupy the same space as those in the main text (i.e. “peritexts,” such as title,
dedication, preface, postscript, etc.), but which nevertheless function to delimit and
direct the readings of it. When her most important interviews are considered together1
it is remarkable how consistent Murdoch remained in her “public” pronouncements.
More or less from the outset, she had developed a kind of “totalized” philosophy
(though she would have disliked such a label).
Murdoch’s epitexts also strengthen the sense of correspondence between theory
and practice in a more subtle way by making it difficult to attempt any biographical
reading of her fiction. Her essays and interviews seldom feature details about her life
outside her “public” roles as writer and philosopher. Recently, however, this has
changed, as a result of a series of biographical portraits2 published following her
death. These suggest that Murdoch’s personal investment in her own fiction is much
more complex than it once seemed. Previously she tended to be caricatured in public
as a private, puritanical individual, almost close to a saint, a portrait of the author that
complemented her theory of authorship. Now, however, she has been transformed into
a quite different figure: a complex, sexualized being, capable of cruelty and deception
as much as kindness and intellectual seriousness. What is striking is the way this
biographical material has transformed not simply our perception of Murdoch’s
personality, but her writing. Murdoch has effectively been returned to her own fiction,
where previously she seemed strangely absent from it. The impression that she
maintained of a disciplined detachment from her own fiction now seems less
One of the clearest examples of a correspondence between life and work is the
significance of masochism in both. There are, of course, characters with overt
masochistic sexual preferences (such as Martin Lynch-Gibbon in A Severed Head or
Blaise Gavender and Emily McHugh in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine). But
Murdoch’s novels also feature many other characters who exhibit, as critics have
noted, a masochistic response to love. Carol Siegel has shown that Murdoch’s male
heroes tend to experience love as something excessive and overwhelming that must be
submitted to without volition (Siegel 95–103). Dorothy Winsor has noted how even
those characters who selflessly devote themselves to others and would thus seem to
approximate the Good, such as Harriet Gavender in The Sacred and Profane Love
Machine, exemplify “an oddly masochistic notion of goodness” (Winsor 401).
This tendency becomes even more notable when we consider Murdoch’s own,
newly revealed, tendency towards masochism. The centrepiece of PeterConradi’s
biography is the story, corroborated by extracts from her journals, of a sado-
masochistic affair Murdoch conducted in secret with the writer Elias Canetti. Conradi
is careful to note that she “did not judge a proclivity for masochism harshly,” and that
masochism “was only one part of her highly complex nature” (Conradi 2002: 358).
But this qualification is rather unconvincing if we consider Conradi’s remarks against
the ideas of those who have attempted to theorize masochism.
In his 1924 essay “The Economic Problem of Masochism” (Freud 1984) Freud
distinguished between three principal kinds of masochism: “erotogenic” (the deriving
of sexual excitement from physical pain), “feminine” (the desire to be beaten), and
“moral” (where the superego “punishes” the ego). Theorists since (whom I will
consider in more depth below) have followed Freud’s terminology by showing that
masochism in its most familiar form as sexual fantasy and enactment is only one
manifestation of more a fundamental or, to use Leo Bersani’s phrase, ontological type
of masochism. In response to Conradi’s disclaimer, we could surmise that although
masochism in its erotogenic form may have manifested itself only sporadically in
Murdoch’s life, the structure of masochism might well have determined many of the
patterns in other aspects of her life and work: her dealings with others, the
presentation of character or plot in her novels, and, most intriguingly, her literary
theory. For the fact is that masochism plays a fundamental role in Murdoch’s theory
of literary production, though this is not always obvious. As I will suggest in what
follows, it is the issue around which some of the crucial tensions between her theory
and her practice gather.
To begin with, we should recognise that while Murdoch’s literary theory recalls
a range of theories of authorship from romanticism (e.g. Schiller, Coleridge, Keats) to
modernism (Eliot and Joyce) and poststructuralism (Barthes, perhaps even Bakhtin),
the body of thought it most resembles is psychoanalysis. Her theory of artistic
production rests on a principle similar to the one which underpins much of Freud’s
writings on aesthetics: art arises out of the effort to defuse our natural desires. It is
important not to overplay this similarity, because for Freud art remains a disguised
expression of selfish impulses no matter its quality, while for Murdoch, the better the
art the further away it is from personal desire. Yet fundamentally Murdoch would
seem to share Freud’s view that the seductions of the unconscious—the artist’s
compulsions and fantasies—are never far away from artistic endeavour. To guard
against this she endorses something like Freud’s notion of sublimation, a process by
which, as she summarizes it herself in The Fire and the Sun, “[t]he destructive power
of the neurosis is foiled by art; the art object expresses the neurotic conflict and
defuses it” (Murdoch 1999c: 423).
The psychoanalytic dimension of Murdoch’s approach to the novel is suggested
most clearly in “On ‘God’ and ‘Good,’ ” her most sustained engagementwith Freud.
Here she expands on the rather general references to the dangers of “personal
obsession” and “fantasy” in previous works (e.g. “The Sublime and the Beautiful
Revisited” and “Against Dryness”) and focuses on masochism in particular as a
danger to artistic creation:
A chief enemy to [. . .] clarity of vision, whether in art or in morals, is the
system to which the technical name of sado-masochism has been given. It is the
peculiar subtlety of this system that, while constantly leading attention and
energy back into the self, it can produce, almost all the way as it were to the
summit, plausible imitations of what is good. Refined sado-masochism can ruin
art which is too good to be ruined by the cruder vulgarities of self-indulgence.
One’s self is interesting, so one’s motives are interesting, and the unworthiness
of one’s motives is interesting. (Murdoch 1999a: 355).
This passage is not far from depicting authorship as an inherently perverse
activity: whenever an author aims at achieving “clarity of vision,” masochistic
impulses are ready to derail the process. Artistic creation is presented here as nothing
other than a struggle against masochism, the implication being that, if left to its own
devices—without careful attention—art will naturally become an outlet for
masochistic desire.
We might say then that Murdoch’s theory of the novel is founded upon a kind
of aesthetic equivalent of Freud’s “primary masochism.” Masochism, Freud comes to
realise in “The Economic Problem of Masochism,” is a “norm of behaviour” rather
than a sexual perversion. This essay signifies an important moment of
reconceptualization for Freud, as it overturned his longheld view (as expressed in
earlier work like “Instincts and their Vissitudes” or “A Child is Being Beaten”) that
sadism was the primary impulse in the psyche and masochism the result of this
aggression subsequently being turned against the subject itself. Instead, influenced by
his conceptualization of the death drive in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1923),
Freud contends that there is in fact a primary masochism, a masochism which is the
result of the death drive being directed towards oneself rather than towards an external
object. The process by which sadistic impulses become directed inwards was what he
came to consider as secondary masochism. As Lacan was to summarize this reversal,
“sadism is merely the disavowal of masochism” (Lacan 1977:186).
Leo Bersani has usefully considered how primary masochism—or his critical
revision of Freud’s theory—impacts upon aesthetic production. Because sexuality, in
his view, is “that which is intolerable to the structured self”—a jouissance which
“shatters” the coherence of subjectivity—it is in fact nothing other than “a tautology
for masochism” (Bersani 1986: 39), that is, a kind of pain that brings the pleasure of
dissolution. Masochism is primary in this radical sense: rather than being a property of
sexuality, it is in fact its defining feature, and subjectivity itself is constituted in order
for sexuality to have a structure to blow apart. Bersani goes on to suggest that this
inherent sexual masochism is what accounts for cultural sublimation. Masochism, in
other words, is not only primary in determining sexuality and subjectivity, but has a
foundational role in cultural production, too: “the taming of our sexuality perhaps
depends, as I have been suggesting, on the cultural ‘assumption,’ or replay, of its
masochistic nature” (Bersani 1986: 115). For Bersani the aesthetic is “a perpetuation
and elaboration of masochistic sexual tensions” (Bersani 1986: 107).
Murdoch’s implicit belief in “primary masochism” is markedly different from
both Freud’s and Bersani’s in a number of ways. Most obviously, she understands
masochism not as a shattering of subjectivity, as Bersani does, but as a mechanism
which sustains a particular egocentric view of oneself as coherent subject. When
asked in an interview about Dorothy Winsor’s idea of her “masochistic notion of
goodness” she replied: “I wouldn’t use the word masochistic. That suggests that there
is something self-regarding in this pursuit. What is to be ‘destroyed’ is one’s egoism,
not oneself” (Heusel 2002: 200). Nevertheless, she shares with both the view that art
is an attempt to deal with the effects of a particular libidinal energy which inevitably
directs itself back towards the author. The difference is that where Bersani asserts the
value of this kind of masochism as something which can “maintain the tensions of an
eroticized, de-narrativized, and mobile consciousness” (Bersani 1986: 63–4),
Murdoch (like Freud in Bersani’s reading of him) would seem to equate masochism
to a dangerously productive force which must be tamed.
In practice, Murdoch’s efforts to temper her own tendency towards masochism
while writing fiction resemble Freud’s third category of masochism in “The
Economics of Masochism,” that of “moral masochism.” Moral masochism, he argues,
is the result of the ego’s efforts to commandeer unruly libidinal impulses to ensure the
resolution of the Oedipus complex. But this means that the energy from the id asserts
itself elsewhere, in the formation of an overbearing superego. Murdoch’s portrait of
the author, constantly subject to masochistic impulses, is the equivalent of the ego in
Freud’s structure, while the ethical ideal of impersonality, a safeguard against this
process, figures as a version of the superego. Her two characteristic writing “selves,”
novelist and philosopher, function in her work like the ego and the superego in the
psyche. That is, her philosophical self advances an “official” theory of authorship (in
her non-fiction writings—interviews, philosophy and literary criticism) which
involves laying down injunctions, prohibitions and codes of behaviour. With all the
characteristic rhetoric of the superego, this persona reminds Murdoch that the good
author keeps herself out of her work, strives to create characters who are not indulgent
versions of herself, and avoids imposing consoling patterns. The authorial self which
actually writes the fiction is analogous to the ego, trying to steer a course between the
demands of the superego and the desires of the unconscious.
The key to Murdoch’s appropriation of masochism in her theory is one of its
fundamental characteristics, what we might call the element of masquerade. Theorists
of masochism (such as Freud, Reik and Deleuze) have noted its “theatrical” quality.
Part of this is its curious potential to appear as something other than it is, especially as
its “opposite,” sadism. Freud’s famous discussion of the beating fantasy in his essay
“A Child is Being Beaten,” for example, shows how the fantasy originally appears to
be sadistic, but that this masks its fundamental masochistic nature.3 Murdoch’s notion
of masochism turns on the idea that masochism, like a great actor, is capable of
seducing those who witness its performance into believing that it is in fact something
other than it is. If masochism is removed from a purely sexual context and “refined”
(sublimated) into morality or art, she argues, it can present itself as something
virtuous—i.e. telling the truth about the reality of the world around us—when in fact it
is driven by a secret egotism which invests personal emotional energy in what it
depicts. Depicting suffering is really a way of feeding a dangerous interest in one’s
own self: of gaining pleasure from enduring apparent unpleasure.4
Support for this account of masochism as masquerade can be found in a theory
which departs further from the psychoanalytic paradigm, Gilles Deleuze’s, as outlined
in “Coldness and Cruelty.” Central to his essay is the insistence that we should be
wary of the automatic pairing together of sadism and masochism, as “their processes
and formations are entirely different” (Deleuze 46). Deleuze argues that masochism
presents itself as passive suffering when in fact it has engineered its own passivity
through busy preparatory activity. Because masochism typically operates according to
a contract, often drawn up explicitly, which persuades the torturer to act in a certain
way, the result is that the masochist “appears to be held by real chains, but in fact he is
bound by his word alone” (Deleuze 75). Thus the secret pleasure of the masochist
derives not from being severely punished by an external agency, but by fashioning
one’s own punishment by moulding this agency oneself. Masochism is not a matter of
laying oneself open to the will of another, but of willing that other into being.
The peculiar capacity of masochism to appear as something other than it is
seems to me illuminating in relation to one of the most distinctive features of
Murdoch’s fiction, the distribution of power amongst her characters. Her fictional
world is dominated by a series of “enchanter-figures” who rule over others like cruel
tyrants, punishing them emotionally, often enjoying them sexually. It is natural to
characterize these characters as sadistic, especially as they exhibit something of the
distinctive sadistic coldness in their disregard for the feelings of others. But what
makes them powerful is the way that others enable them to remain powerful. Deleuze
argues that what distinguishes masochism from sadism is not material or moral
qualities but formal ones. It is not the content of masochistic activities that is
important (neither the particular means of visiting pain, beatings or piercings,
whatever, nor the guilt-feelings Freud was preoccupied with in his consideration of
masochism) but the particular context that the subject sets up and the role s/he plays in
the narrative. A sadist might appear in the masochistic universe, but he is only a sadist
from the perspective of the masochist. A “proper” sadist is not what a masochist
requires, for integral to the masochistic structure is the need to mould a torturer
through persuasion, usually through the contract. This suggests a way of
understanding Murdoch’s masochistic characters—the women who imagine they are
in love with a powerful enchanter and surrender themselves to him abjectly and the
men who are willing to become their slaves (e.g. Tommy or Arthur in A Word Child,
Morgan in A Fairly Honourable Defeat)—who often offer themselves completely and
explicitly to their imagined tormentors: “Julius, I could be your slave”; “I don’t want a
slave,” “I would do anything you wanted, perform any penance” [Murdoch 1972:
142–3]). Murdoch’s stories, in other words, present the enchanters from the overall
perspective of the masochist rather than the sadist.
Masochistic masquerade features more profoundly in another typical feature of
Murdoch’s fiction, its depiction of characters who endure suffering which actually
they secretly desire and prolong. One of the most interesting examples of this is
Murdoch’s 1958 novel The Bell. A reading of this novel shows the capacity for selfdeception which is typical of Murdoch’s characters in a way which supports her
understanding of masochistic masquerade in “On ‘God’ and ‘Good.’”
The Bell is the first of Murdoch’s novels to make use of the audacious grand
flourish of plotting which characterises later novels such as An Accidental Man (1970)
and A Word Child (1975), where a shocking event that happened in the past comes to
happen again, as if predetermined. After a scandalous affair with one of his pupils,
former schoolteacher Michael Meade is attempting to rebuild his life as leader of an
Anglican lay community in Imber Court in Oxfordshire. But having apparently freed
himself from the scandal of his past, he does exactly the same thing again. He
impulsively kisses Toby, a young man who is visiting Imber before going to
university. As befits a novel so concerned with religion, this is the most obvious of a
number of “falls.” It is Michael’s second fall from grace, while Toby is brutally
propelled from the innocent world of childhood to the ambivalent world of adult
sexual desire. What is more, Nick Fawley, the subject of Michael’s first indiscretion,
who has turned up at Imber working as a groundsman, figures (as his surname
suggests) as a kind of fallen angel, once innocent and beautiful, now exiled into an
contemptuous alcoholic hell. His brooding presence on the margins heralds the
dramatic climax to the plot, when he commits suicide.
Michael’s “fall” casts doubt on what he had been determined to regard as his
redemption after the scandal of his previous career. The lessons he believes he has
learned after the initial scandal are most clearly expressed in a sermon he gives to the
assembled community. Where his colleague, James Tayper Pace, has, in a previous
sermon, defined goodness as a matter of adhering to rules, a kind of Kantian
categorical imperative which requires working “from outside inwards” (Murdoch
1999d: 132), Michael argues goodness is the result of knowing oneself, acting from
“inside outwards” (Murdoch 1999d: 204). What is valuable is “exploring one’s
personality and estimating the consequences rather than austerely following the rules”
(Murdoch 1999d: 205). Thus Michael implicitly endorses Milton’s argument in his
Areopagitica speech of 1644, which James had quoted from disapprovingly, that
knowledge of good requires a knowledge of evil: both are inseparable and can only be
distinguished through an understanding of each. But this is problematic because “the
knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in
so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned” (Milton 1973: 14–15).
Just as evil can appear as good, so solipsism can masquerade as altruism. The
irony about Michael’s sermon is that he clearly does not know himself. As we see
time and again in Murdoch, it is easier when placed in a troubling situation to
succumb to a “mythological feeling of destiny,” as she herself put it (Bradbury 1976):
that is, to interpret our experiences in terms of a narrative imposed by some external
force and to act subsequently in a way which conforms to its apparent logic. This is a
very real danger to Michael, who tends to interpret his life in religious terms. When
the Abbess of Imber first outlines her vision of how the establishment of a religious
retreat can help assuage the prevailing modern spiritual “sickness,” Michael instantly
recognises himself in her words, hearing in them precisely the kind of summons he
has always been expecting: “It was an aspect of Michael’s belief in God, and one
which although he knew it to be dangerous he could never altogether reject, that he
expected the emergence in his life of patterns and signs. He had always felt himself to
be a man with a definite destiny, a man waiting for a call” (Murdoch 1999d: 82).
Michael’s way of coping with traumatic events is by appeal to religious
narratives. As he prepares to put the scandal surrounding Nick behind him and start a
new career at Imber, he reflects that “the catastrophe which destroyed his first attempt
[to become a priest] had been designed to humble him” (Murdoch 1999d: 108). And
when Nick unexpectedly reappears in Michael’s life at Imber he is sure that “Nick had
been brought back to him, surely by no accident” (Murdoch 1999d: 114). It is
therefore a natural response during the events of the second crisis, his desire for Toby
and Nick’s subsequent death, to interpret both occurences as somehow predetermined.
One of his immediate responses to Nick’s suicide is to think that by killing himself
Nick must have hit upon a more elaborate form of revenge than simply seducing
Toby: “Instead, Nick had forced Toby to play exactly the part which Nick himself had
played thirteen years earlier” (Murdoch 1999d: 295). The reader knows this is
unlikely, having been party to the rather awkward, distanced relationship that Nick
and Toby have in fact had.
This is where we can appreciate the fact that the apparently neat binaristic
philosophical symmetry of The Bell, exemplified by James’s and Michael’s carefully
placed sermons, is in fact offset by a later third “sermon,” which is what a drunken
Nick calls a bitter and ironic statement, far removed from the measured rhetoric of
James’s and Michael’s speeches, that he delivers to Toby shortly before his suicide.
He begins by presenting Imber as a world where innocence has been lost, something
which certainly applies to Toby’s recent experience there. He suggests that there is
something masochistic about religion, as sinning enables the sinner to gain the
exquisite jouissance of repentence and confession. Although Nick is, as Toby protests,
“raving,” his point seems to be that Michael’s apology to Toby and the anguished
monologue of repentence he is running through in his mind (which we can vouch for,
having just read it) provide him with a masochistic kind of pleasure. As a counterpoint
to the two previous sermons, Nick suggests that besides renouncing the personality
and adhering to the law of God, or interpreting the law of God according to a detailed
knowledge of the limits of one’s personality, there is a third position: the spiritual
masquerade which pretends to look at the self unflinchingly but in doing so only
submits to another form of self-deception, one that substitutes forbidden pleasure for a
secret enjoyment sanctioned by the church.
The dangers are apparent in the way Michael has chosen to interpret his
original “fall,” his relationship with Nick. When initially considering whether to try to
become a priest, he is worried that his homosexuality is likely fatally to compromise
his religious ambitions. He resolves the dilemma by deciding that “in some curious
way the emotion which fed both arose deeply from the same source” (Murdoch
1999d: 100). This enables him to give up sexual desire and redirect its energy into his
religion. But in the midst of the crisis caused by his relationship with Nick, he begins
to look at this from the opposite perspective. Rather than his religious impulses being
tarnished by his sexual desire, surely his sexuality could be purified by its proximity
to noble spiritual impulses. “Vaguely Michael had visions of himself as the boy’s
spiritual guardian, his passion slowly transformed into a lofty and more selfless
attachment” (Murdoch 1999d: 105). On one level, of course, a serious debate is being
conducted here about the Platonic theory of low and high Eros—or to put it in
Freudian terms, sublimation. But on another level (and the choice of word “vaguely”
is the clue) it suggests the dangers of using a mythical or theoretical framework to
make sense of experience. There is something here reminsicent of Death in Venice, in
which an older man also justifies his pursuit of a younger one by invoking Platonic
Michael Levenson has argued that The Bell can be illuminated by comparison
with an early essay of Murdoch’s, “Vision and Choice in Morality,” which argues
how “parables and stories” can function as “moral guides” to an incomprehensible
world. The last line of the novel, Levenson suggests—“Tonight she would be telling
the whole story to Sally” (Murdoch 1999d: 316)—indicates that Dora Greenfield,
another of the central characters, has “gained” a past which enables her to have a
future. She “anticipates an act of memory, and she does so by preparing to tell a story,
the ‘whole story’ ” (Levenson 577). This is persuasive, when we consider that the
other main characters also do something similar. Toby is clearly affected by Michael’s
advances, as because of them he has “received, though not yet digested, one of the
earliest lessons of adult life: that one is never secure” (Murdoch 1999d: 160).
Immature for his age, Toby has had a rude awakening. Yet because his inexperience is
often referred to by the narrator (e.g. Murdoch 1999d: 161), the suggestion is that this
apparently traumatic event is really just part of gaining maturity. Toby slips out of the
novel after being advised to leave Imber by an over-cautious James and is not
mentioned again until he sends Michael a letter, once he has begun life at Oxford.
Michael is relieved to discern from it that Toby has apparently suffered neither from
guilt nor anxiety, nor is he especially curious about Imber: “He was in a new and
wonderful world, and already Imber had become a story” (Murdoch 1999d: 305).
Even Michael is able to recognise eventually that Nick “needed love, and he
[Michael] ought to have given him what he had to offer, without fears about its
imperfection” (Murdoch 1999d: 307). He is able to understand that “[t]he pattern
which he had seen in his life had existed only in his own romantic imagination. At the
human level there was no pattern” (Murdoch 1999d: 308). He has assumed
responsibility for the narrative which he had previously treated as being constructed
by external forces. The implication is that imposing a narrative on one’s experience,
composed with sufficient detachment and without conforming to pre-existing
conventions (such as the religious ones so central to The Bell or, we might add,
psychoanalytic or historiographic ones), is a valuable moral activity.
Yet Michael’s experiences for most of the novel indicate that The Bell is more
deeply concerned with the dangers of narrative, the way that random or simple causal
occurrences can be perceived as part of a grandiose sequence of meaningful events,
“patterns and signs” by which the perceiver can inflate his or her sense of selfimportance. Although the end of the novel shows that narrative can be written from
the “inside outwards,” made personal, it has also suggested throughout that there is the
danger that it can be the opposite. Worse, there is the possibility that narrative is
constructed from a position where the inside is mistaken for the outside, as Michael is
tempted to do for much of the novel. This is a particular problem for those of a
masochistic disposition, like Michael.
The relationship of narrative to masochism is considered by Bersani in his
tentative construction of an “aesthetics of masochism” in The Freudian Body. As a
force synonymous with the shattering force of sexuality, masochism for Bersani is
naturally “nonnarrative” (Bersani 1986: 113), for narrative—or at least traditional
realist narrative—“fixes” the reader’s desire by attaching it to particular scenarios or
images rather than allowing it to flow into displaced and indeterminate spaces. Freud
himself is guilty of divesting masochism of its properly erotic quality through
“narrativization” (as Bersani contends he does with all sexuality) by incorporating it
into a teleological account of infantile sexual development (Bersani 64). In Murdoch’s
thought it seems that masochism and narrative are intertwined in a different way. The
Bell implies that narrative has a fundamentally masochistic component in so far as it
feeds impulses towards self-deception and self-aggrandizement. In doing so it would
suggest, contra Bersani, that in realist narrative—and The Bell is a deliberately
“traditional” one in Bersani’s terms, as it was Murdoch’s first successful attempt to
replicate the kind of realism produced by key influences like George Eliot and
James—positions are not as fixed as it might seem.5
No matter how casual, chronological and generic traditional narrative might be,
it also depends upon interpretation, as the sequence of events it details has been
ordered and presented by the narrator—and must be received (re-ordered and
interpreted) by the reader. The “same” story—or, more specifically, the precise role of
particular participants in the story—can of course be interpreted in different ways.
This fact is central to The Bell, even though it is not one of Murdoch’s fictions (like,
for example, The Black Prince or The Sea, the Sea) which builds a self-conscious
concern with narration into the story itself. Michael is perhaps the principal character,
but the whole narrative is not just focalized through his consciousness but through
those of the two other main characters too, Toby and Dora. By the end it is clear that
each has interpreted the same story in different ways: Toby has learned a lesson which
is crucial to becoming an adult, while Dora has been able to come to terms with her
general inability to engage fully with life as a result of her troublesome marriage.
Another way of understanding the implications of masquerade in masochism is
to say that masochism problematizes the act of interpretation, for it complicates
notions of intention and the will.6 It is no accident that masochism has been the
subject of such a diverse range of attempts at classification, not just in the clinical
field (by psychoanalytic theorists and by the American Psychiatric Association7) but
by theorists of literature and film (see Siegel 1–7). Masochism shares its ability to
simultaneously generate and confound interpretative endeavour with the work of art,
which by definition encourages a multiplicity of interpretations. There is no doubt that
this capacity enriches the experience of reading and analysing artistic works like The
Bell that focus on masochistic masquerade. But it also points to a problem with
appropriating the structure of masochism into a theory of artistic production, such as
Murdoch’s, which depends upon dividing works of art into ethical categories.
Murdoch’s comments on art in “On ‘God’ and ‘Good’ ” imply that one can distinguish
between good art and bad art on the basis of the degree to which an author invests at a
fantasmatic level in their work. But this is problematic given the deceptive—and selfdeceptive—capacity of masochism which she describes.
The difficulties are clearly suggested in one of Murdoch’s later studies of the
masochistic sensibility, The Black Prince (1973). This novel tells the story of Bradley
Pearson, an elderly artist who falls in love with Julian Baffin, the daughter of his
friend and literary rival Arnold Baffin, and ends up framed for his murder. It is
presented as a series of embedded narratives in the manner of Nabokov’s Pale Fire,
Bradley’s own narrative bookended by a series of deconstructive prefaces and
postscripts supposedly written by other characters. Each of these functions as a kind of
apologia for its narrator, justifying his or her actions in the main story in such a way
that casts serious doubt on the motivations behind Bradley’s account and its veracity.
As such, The Black Prince is Murdoch’s most radically experimental, metafictional
At the heart of the novel is a scene in which Bradley gives Julian a comical
erotically-charged “tutorial” on Hamlet. This provides the clearest illustration of Carol
Siegel’s theory (though she does not consider this novel) of the tendency of
Murdoch’s heroes to experience love as passionate surrender (Siegel 95–103), for
once Julian has left the tutorial, Bradley ends up prostrate on the floor, shattered by
the experience he has just undergone. The tutorial itself consists mainly of a lengthy
discussion on masochism and art which relates not only to The Black Prince as a
whole but to Murdoch’s consideration of masochism in “On ‘God’ and ‘Good.’ ”
Bradley argues that Shakespeare dares to make his own crisis of identity into the
central issue in Hamlet and thus reveals himself to be the “king of masochists”
(Murdoch 1975: 199). Through Hamlet he puts on display his own suffering—the
trauma of his Oedipal conflict, his melancholia and misogyny, but most of all the
problem of being a writer, of being “made of words” (Murdoch 1975: 199). Hamlet is
a daring piece of literary exhibitionism, Bradley thinks, because Shakespeare turns his
personal desires and obsessions into beautiful, memorable language, “so public that it
can be mumbled by a child” (Murdoch 1975: 200). This language represents him, puts
his very character on public display: “Words are Hamlet’s being as they were
Shakespeare’s” (Murdoch 1975: 199). How, Bradley wonders, does Shakespeare dare
to do it? “How can it not bring down on his head a punishment which is as much more
exquisite than that of ordinary writers as the god whom he worships is above the god
whom they worship?” (Murdoch 1975: 199).
From the reference to Hamlet as “the god’s flayed victim dancing the dance of
creation,” it seems clear that the god Bradley envisages as Shakespeare’s is also the
god whom he feels is his own: Apollo. Throughout the novel Bradley’s meditations on
art are addressed to the mysterious “editor” Loxias (who writes the first preface and
the last postscript) whose name is one of the epithets used for Apollo, god of art,
leader of the muses (Conradi 1989: 185). This indicates that the novel, like many of
Murdoch’s, is informed by the myth of Apollo and Marysas, which is commonly seen
as being about artistic hubris and a particularly literal form of ascesis. Apollo punishes
Marsyas for daring to compete with the gods in the performance of his art (music),
just as in Hamlet Shakespeare risks showing excessive pride and incurring the wrath
of the gods by putting himself and his genius on display so daringly.
A.S. Byatt and Richard Todd have both already considered The Black Prince in
terms of Murdoch’s understanding of masochism, pointing out that Bradley Pearson
derives pleasure from the humiliation and punishment he suffers in his story (Byatt
271; Todd 29–30). Bradley Pearson serves as a perfect exemplification of the kind of
ingenious artist who presents his story as a tale of purification when in fact it is driven
by the jouissance he derives from the idea of suffering. This is intensified by the fact
that the novel is narrated retrospectively in the first person, for as author of his own
narrative it is Bradley who has chosen to present himself in this way, wallowing in his
own humiliation.8 Byatt and Todd note rightly that the novel illustrates Murdoch’s
argument in “The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts” that “[m]asochism is
the artist’s greatest and most subtle enemy” (Murdoch 1999e: 371). More precisely, as
Todd suggests, Bradley’s idiosyncratic reading of Hamlet illuminates Murdoch’s
mysterious comment at the end of her earlier essay, “Against Dryness,” that despite
Shakespeare’s special talent for creating properly “impersonal” art, “even Hamlet
looks second-rate compared with Lear” (Murdoch 1999f: 295). The difference, as she
was later to elaborate in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, is that Hamlet conforms to
the Aristotelian “tragic ideal” and provides a sense of catharsis which “redeems” the
tragic events of the play. King Lear, however, gives us, in the death of Cordelia, the
“absolute cancellation” of this idea. There is no reason for Cordelia’s death (i.e. it is
unnecessary for the unfolding of the plot) other than to cancel out Lear’s masochistic
(in Murdoch’s terms) vision of blissful reunion with Cordelia: “We two alone shall
sing like birds i’ the cage” (Murdoch 1992: 119–23).
But what makes The Black Prince’s concern with masochism especially
complex is the fact that the idea of masquerade figures as part of its structure rather
than just being treated thematically. Because of the novel’s self-reflexivity, which
makes Bradley’s comments about his art reflect equally on the novel in which he
appears (e.g. when he describes Hamlet as “a supreme creative feat, a work endlessly
reflecting on itself, not discursively, but in its very substance, a Chinese box of words
. . .” or says that Shakespeare “is speaking as few artists can speak, in the first person
and yet at the pinnacle of artifice” [Murdoch 1975: 199]), it means that Murdoch
herself is indulging in a form of masquerade, allowing one of her fictional characters
to speak directly for her. This applies at a direct level, in fact, as The Black Prince is a
novel in which Murdoch flirts continuously with appearing in her own fiction,
“dividing herself” into both its principal authors, Bradley and Arnold (Conradi 1989
3–4). As the prolific writer of bestselling intellectual romances Arnold represents the
public version of her authorial persona, while Bradley figures as her more puritanical
serious side (the one closest—in tandem of course with Loxias—to her philosophical
The reflexive logic which operates throughout Bradley’s discourse in the novel
naturally functions in his discussion of masochism too. What he says about
Shakespeare, in other words, not only applies to himself but to Iris Murdoch.
Shakespeare “is at his most cryptic when he is talking about himself” (Murdoch 1975:
198), says Bradley. The artist “appears, however much he may imagine that he hides,
in the revealed extension of his work” (Murdoch 1975: 12). The implication of the
tutorial section is that in The Black Prince Murdoch is performing an act just as
daring, just as exhibitionist as Shakespeare’s in Hamlet. Furthermore it implies that it
is just as masochistic, too, because at all points it directs its energies back into the self
of its author. In writing a novel which revolves around the difficulty of writing
impersonally Murdoch is dwelling as openly as she dare on her own fears as an artist.
For it is striking how far The Black Prince is from her own “ethics of impersonality.”
Her unprecedented act of literary exhibitionism in this novel contravenes most of the
injunctions of her literary superego: it is exquisitely patterned; the hero is manifested
as a—heavily disguised—version of herself who regards all other characters in terms
of how they relate to himself rather than as separate individuals. Just as Shakespeare
risks hubris by putting himself on a par with the gods, so does The Black Prince
contradict Murdoch’s ethics of literary production by unmasking her as the supremely
transcendent author, organizing tyrannically all the points of view in the text, rather
than letting the characters exist freely as separate beings. The radical implication is
that if this applies to The Black Prince, the same can be said of her other novels, even
the less experimental ones where she assumes a position of “impersonality” with
regard to her fictional world and its inhabitants.
A convoluted text like The Black Prince creates a similar sense of
indeterminacy to the masochistic masquerade. Though we identify with Bradley
Pearson—just as we do with Hamlet—we cannot be absolutely sure in the end if his
version of events is correct. We cannot be certain which, if any, of the interpretations
of his narrative offered by the other members of the cast in their postscripts is the
correct one. In this sense, Murdoch has managed to keep her distance from her
characters, as she always intended: the novel does not suggest which view she
endorses. Yet, crucially, this sense of indeterminacy prevails when it comes to the
question of masochism and the novel. For at the end it is unclear whether the narrative
Bradley produces is the outcome of having been led from his ordeal to some greater
apprehension of reality, or whether it is merely an example of the “refined” sadomasochism which can masquerade as good art. In this novel, one never can tell: all the
acts of criticism it contains—from Bradley’s partial reviews of Arnold’s novels to the
postscripts analysing his own narrative—contain insights, “truths,” but which are
skewed by desire. This aspect of the novel, Murdoch’s most sustained practical
enquiry into the theory and practice of authorship, complicates her literary theory.
How can we tell whether any good work of art is really a good work of art or one that
is only pretending to be one?
The Black Prince thus opens up a contradiction at the heart of Murdoch’s ethics
of impersonality. We could quite easily regard her efforts to avoid masochism as in
fact masking a deeper—more refined—masochism of her own. In “The Sovereignty of
Good Over Other Concepts,” Murdoch writes that consciousness “is not normally a
transparent glass through which it views the world, but a cloud of more or less
fantastic reverie designed to protect the psyche from pain” (Murdoch 1999e: 364). Yet
doesn’t it follow that Murdoch’s ethics urge us to face this pain and, moreover, derive
some pleasure—the pleasure of moral rectitude—from it? As Nick Fawley suggests in
The Bell, there is of course strong masochistic potential in ascesis. Theorists of
masochism such as Theodor Reik (1957) and Kaja Silverman (1992) have explored
the masochistic dimension of Christianity. Religious ritual enables the individual to
assuage guilt and enjoy life by undergoing a process of self-sacrifice, by, as Silverman
puts it, “remak[ing] him or herself according to the model of the suffering Christ”
(Silverman 1992: 199). To an extent, authorship is another example of moral
masochism as it is about choosing to put oneself through a difficult, painful
experience, and deriving enjoyment from this. Murdoch’s writing is not obviously the
product of suffering or pain in the way that, say, Kafka’s is, but it is clear that, at least,
it requires a kind of self-sacrifice. Whether or not one would go as far as saying that
this means denying her own special gifts as a novelist—in other words, choosing to
limit her natural aptitude for plotting and creating totalizing pattern in order to stay
true to her theory of the novel—one has to acknowledge the sheer discipline involved
in staying true to her ideal. We could perhaps go further and suggest that Murdoch’s
theory turns on the idea of submission: the artist remains passive in order to let the
world in all its contingent reality pass through her into her work.
The problem with Murdoch’s theory of art is precisely the fact that it is also a
theory of ethics. It is never simply a question of “the novel” with Murdoch; it is
always “the good novel” or “the bad novel,” terms that are almost always relative and
dependent on context (and Murdoch’s discussions of literature rarely give detailed
examples). When it comes to art it is not possible, even if we decide it is desirable, to
assess value by applying rules “from outside inwards” (to use the terms of James
Tayper Pace in The Bell), especially if they are rules which appeal to
psychopathological criteria. Murdoch’s decision to co-opt the structure of masochism
into her ethics of literary production is perhaps an implicit admission of her own
ultimate fear as a philosopher. As she goes on to say in the passage from “On ‘God’
and ‘Good’ ” with which I began this essay, her impersonal language barely
disguising its personal significance:
Of course one is afraid that the attempt to be good may turn out to be
meaningless, or at best something vague and not very important, [. . .] or that
the very greatness of great art may be an ephemeral illusion. (Murdoch 1999a
1. The publication of Gillian Dooley’s book From a Tiny Corner in the House of
Fiction: Conversations with Iris Murdoch (Columbia, South Carolina: University of
South Carolina Press, 2003) means we can now do this.
2. John Bayley, Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch (1998) Iris and the Friends: A Year of
Memories (1999), and The Widower’s House (2002); Peter J. Conradi, Iris Murdoch:
A Life (London: Harper Collins, 2001); A. N. Wilson, Iris Murdoch: As I Knew Her
(London: Hutchison, 2003).
3. Freud separates the fantasy into a sequence of three clear phases or “scenes”: “my
father is beating the child”; “I am being beaten by my father”; “A child is being
beaten.” Although the enjoyment gained from each of these seems would seem on the
surface to be sadistic, Freud argues that the fantasy is in fact masochistic, because the
first sadistic element of the fantasy—“my father is beating the child whom I hate”—is
the product of an earlier phase of sexual development (the sadistic-anal stage) which
has become repressed through guilt as the child moves into the phallic stage. This
repression through guilt actually “transforms the sadism of this stage into masochism,
which is passive and again in a certain sense narcissistic” (Freud 1993: 181).
4. It is worth pointing out that Murdoch here is surely referring only to masochism
rather than sadism, even though she uses the term “sadomasochism.” Her insights do
not seem to apply to sadism, which is purely, overtly egotistical in her terms,
compared to masochism, which has the capacity to give the illusion of being
something other than it is.
5. It should be noted that Bersani and Ulysses Dutoit (Bersani and Dutoit) also see
“sadomasochistic” ritual, as opposed to the productive masochism they champion, as
an archetypal “narrative” phenomenon because it fixes its participants into positions.
See Caserio for a discussion which engages with their theory to explore the productive
masochism of non-realist postmodern narrative.
6. This is clear when we consider legal attempts to interpret cases involving
masochism, such as the infamous “Spanner” case in 1993 in Britain. Operation
Spanner was a police investigation, begun in 1987, which resulted in a group of men
being charged with the murder of a teenage rent-boy. The men successfully argued in
court that the death was the result of a sado-masochistic act which had gone tragically
wrong. Can someone be guilty of perpetrating violence on a person, if prior consent
has been given via a contract? More recently a similar question was raised in the trial
of Arwin Meiwes in 2004 in Germany, who killed and ate Bernd Jürgen Brandes as
part of a sado-masochistic ritual. The prosecution were unable to convince the jury
that the case was one of murder because the victim had clearly given his consent.
7. Carol Siegel notes that the American Psychiatric Association preferred the term
“self-defeating personality disorder” to “masochism” in their Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (DSM-III-R) because of the diagnostic
difficulties of the original terms.
8. Important here, too, is the way Loxias figures as a version of the superego in
Freud’s theory of “moral masochism” and therefore as the counterpart of what I have
described as the superegoic element of Murdoch’s aesthetic. In “The Economic
Problem of Masochism” Freud insists the superego is never impersonal. It begins as
introjected imagos of the parents, but progressively gives way to a succession of
authority figures. “The last figure in the series that began with the parents is the dark
power of Destiny which only the fewest of us are able to look upon as impersonal”
(Freud 1984: 423). Immediately before the Hamlet tutorial Bradley feels “the hand of
destiny” (Murdoch 1975: 193) upon him and it is reasonable to assume that the
shadowy figure of Loxias is linked to his sense of fate and impending judgement.
Throughout he is aware of Loxias watching his every move and registering his every
thought: e.g. “My friend Loxias has taught me the absolute spiritual necessity of
silence” (Murdoch 1975: 187). While Loxias seems to the reader much less severe and
less demonstrative than Bradley makes him out to be—indeed his characteristic move
is to refrain from judging—it seems that Bradley’s masochism has characterized him
as severe. So on one level Loxias’s modest claims that he is simply an editor, a rather
shabby “impresario” figure, are to be taken as true. To Bradley however, he the
superegoic agent of destiny.
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