Iris Murdoch, music, and medievalism

I ramble extensively about Murdoch, music, and medievalism. All page references to The Bell are from my Vintage paperback 2004.

In September my bookclub read Iris Murdoch’s The Bell, a novel that I had read twice before and didn’t remember having a lot of music in it. Some comments in the available secondary literature, however, claim music was pervasive, and while I still don’t think that music is completely central, its presence is worth some comment. As this is a blogpost and not an academic article, you’ll forgive me for presenting this as fairly random thoughts. And, while I did read a small amount of secondary literature out of general interest, I was not doing research per se. Nonetheless, I will suggest that the way music is framed in The Bell can be integrated into the sorts of analyses of this work proposed by scholars who have sought to connect it to Murdoch’s developing and associated philosophical ideas about love and sociability.

Corina Stan, for example, whose 2014 article lines The Bell up against some later Barthes, proposes that its set-up and characters show post-war discontent with the alienating features of modern ethical life in the context of a post-religious vagueness about what might ameliorate this. This vagueness results in the ostensibly religious (or, one could say, religious-adjacent) ‘buffer zone’ of Imber Court where, as aspiring postulant Catherine Fawley notes, they have to invent everything as they go along (Corina Stan, “A Sociality of Distances: Roland Barthes and Iris Murdoch on How to Live with Others”, Modern Language Notes 129, no. 5 (2014): 1170-98).

I very much liked Stan’s focus on the community and its members as an antidote to a more typical relentless focus on plot, since, especially on a third reading, the plot seemed to recede in importance to me as a reader. And it’s true that there are a range of practical, philosophical and interpersonal conflicts the community plays out on account of being in its squeezed liminal zone between the Abbey’s nucleus and the outer ring of the ‘real world’. The tension between the wish for (or belief in) some kind of Kantian objective moral law and the idea that human nature is so irreparably fallen that one can only muddle through and do one’s best is, as Stan notes, formulated most clearly in the two contrasting Sunday sermons by James (chapter IX) and Michael (chapter XVI).

This dichotomy is readily diagnosed as reflecting Murdoch’s own dissatisfaction with post-war moral philosophy being stuck between two unsatisfying alternatives:

While Barthes was looking for “a sociability without alienation and a solitude without exile,” Murdoch tries to find a middle ground between a philosophical tradition in which the individual is obliterated by a larger social totality, and an equally unfortunate alternative in which the tendency to fabricate self-absorbed myths or fantasies obscures the reality of others. (Stan 2014, p.1198)

And this idea of a middle ground between two extremes seems to be where the musical aspects of The Bell might be drawn into the discussion. Early in the novel, the community are reminded in a dinner announcement that there will be a Bach recital on the Friday evening (the second Friday of the two week period that occupies the bulk of the novel). Dora, the most important protagonist, whose close third person narration opens and closes the book, sees a poster advertising this recital when she arrives and, when she returns from her abortive flight back to London, she finds the community assembled at the recital which is in progress. Initially, she hears a piano, which perplexes her because there is no piano at Imber, but then she realises it is the gramophone recital of Bach. Dora is outside a lit room, looking in, a scene that exemplifies her alienation from this community; this alienation is joined by her hatred of Bach and the ‘secure complacent look’ of the ruling spiritual class of Imber and her sudden wish to ‘grow as large and fierce as a gorilla and shake the flimsy doors off their hinges to drown the repulsive music in a savage carnivorous yell’ (p.200). This aggressive reaction is because Dora ‘disliked any music in which she could not participate herself by singing or dancing’ (p.199). She hates Bach because it plucks at her emotions without satisfying them and arrogantly demands to be contemplated—Dora does not do contemplation. It is not specified, but I would guess the music is the Goldberg variations from the escaping Toby’s reference to a pause ‘between movements’ and estimate that it will last least another three-quarters of an hour, meaning that the whole work is longer than that.

We have already been told that before her marriage to Paul, Dora enjoyed dancing to Jazz records and the trip to London from which she has just returned involved a scene in which she calls in on her former lover, Noel. As she is slipping into her clothes after a bath,

she heard the steady expectant beat of a drum. Then into the deep rhythmic sound were woven the unpremeditated and protesting cries of a clarinet and a trumpet. The beat, more insistent than ever, was hidden in the increasingly complex golden nostalgic din. The music flowered, rampageous, irresistible. … Noel…was already pacing panther-like about the room…(p.192).

Together they dance, initially slowly but increasingly faster and more physically vigorously. The music is described in terms that makes it clear that this, too, is a jazz record, with the invocation of primitivism, turning its dancing listener into a panther—an animal, but an animal of nobility and grace. This animal grace, like the nostalgic din, is a recognition of human viscerality, sexuality, and embodiment that the silent, seated community listening to Bach at Imber is using music to suppress and control. In many ways this is a bit broad-brush for me and reflects some of the racially essentialist prejudices of 1950s England about jazz, as well as nationalist essentialism about German music. But these prejudices are Dora’s in her pre-denouement state when she rejects the past, honours only spontaneity (the ‘unpremeditated’ and ‘protesting cries’ of jazz) and is very much apt to ‘fabricate self-absorbed fantasies’ [that] obscure ‘the reality of others’.

Eventually, when Dora and Michael are left alone at Imber in the aftermath of its dissolution in the explosion of the interpersonal tensions of its inhabitants, she develops a ‘sudden new enthusiasm for Classical Music’. Specifically she listens to Mozart, which Stan does not mention but which aptly symbolises that middleground between the two earlier extremes, Dora’s shift to the ‘délicatesse’ of the neutral that Barthes proposes as his ‘a sociability without alienation and a solitude without exile’. Mozart is there to offer something clear, clean, formal, and classical. A middleground between the animalistically spontaneous primitivism of jazz and freighted heavy religious (moral) seriousness of Bach. Mozart is here heard as light, airy, purely aesthetic, beautiful, transcendent without being abstract, demanding extremes neither of contemplation nor of dance. While we might reject this description of Mozart now, pointing to his music’s frequent embodiment of dance (not to mention the same in Bach!), the point of the use of these three musics—jazz, Bach, Mozart—tells us not any particular truth about them, but reveals instead the conceptual and intellectual spaces they occupied in late 1950s England.

These musics are joined by other contrasting sonic practices in the book: birdsong, bells, and live sung human performance. The first is the importance of birdsong, which features in passing in connection with birds’ more central capacity to figure the desire for freedom from captivity. Like the butterfly Dora catches on the train in the opening chapter, the birds the community traps to ring (in chapter VIII) are confined for a short time in order to be set free; this short-term confinement goes for Dora too, who is also ‘ringed’ (with her wedding band) but is, by the end of the novel, to seek her freedom. Birdsong imitated by a human birder is used explicitly to trick Dora into thinking she has experienced something she hasn’t before this is explained by invoking Kant’s tale about the disappointment of guests who discover that the after-dinner nightingale is a small boy posted in the grove. Art imitating nature is, it seems, ultimately disappointing? And Dora’s recall to Imber by Paul phoning Noel’s flat is accompanied by the blackbird singing in the background to the phone box, perhaps, like the opening of many courtly love songs, voicing a wordless desire that Paul himself is far too uptight to express.

The bells in The Bell are, not surprisingly, pervasive, not only the two large bells called Gabriel, but the way that bells symbolize the swinging to and fro of Toby’s thoughts about Michael, their role as a more straightforwardly acceptably mechanical thing than a cultivator, the way they summon the community to rise and pray, the way the laughter of nuns peals like a bell to disturb Toby with its incongruity. As Sharon Kaehele and Howard German note (“The Discovery of Reality in Iris Murdoch’s The Bell”, Proceedings of the Modern Language Association 82, no. 7 (1967): 554-63), the inscriptions on the two main bells have the old Gabriel as the voice of love, a Gabriel of the Annunciation, and the new Gabriel as the voice of judgement, the Gabriel of Revelation. Again, they seem to offer a dichotomy related to that between the philosophies of absorption in love and an objective moral law but the interesting thing is that they are, materially, the same, produced by the same instrument—the bell. And this is, ultimately true of the trio of jazz, Bach, and Mozart, because they are all produced by the same instrument, the gramophone. This mechanical instrument complicates the dichotomization of jazz and classical music because both are produced in ways that deprive their listeners of the human co-presence of the performers, much as a bell sounds while hidden in a tower, and a cuckoo (or a man imitating a cuckoo) sounds while hidden in a wood. These sounds rendered acousmatically have all been rendered less human by their imprisonment: in a record, in a tower, in a forest.

I initially thought that there were two musical performances in the novel that are not presented acousmatically but by live singers. The second of these is part of the ceremony of the new bell and is a rather cod-folksy hymn-like song of local sentiment, supposedly specially written for the occasion and interrupted by the disastrous collapse of the causeway. But the first is, I think uncoincidentally, the only actually named piece of music, which has an individual identity as well as a composer: The Silver Swan by Orlando Gibbons. The madrigal, I wanted to claim, like the musical performance in the pageant for the bell, is community-building, here with one-to-a-part performances by five of the minor characters of the novel who are co-present with those listening. But in fact the madrigal is heard by Michael and Toby from across the lake at night, as disembodied voices with the ‘enchanting and slightly absurd precision of the madrigal’ (p.131), so this song, too, is essentially performed as disembodied voices, acousmatically. Nonetheless, I think the idea of co-presence is still tenable to some degree, as Michael is aware of whose voice is singing each part, recognizing them, and they are co-present—if at a distance and not visible. Moreover, their performance is clearly at least in part for the ears of the performers, who are genuinely co-present and in visual rapport with one another.

We are also told that the singers are ‘too far away’ for the non-singing listeners to hear the words, but Michael knows them well and remembers them, giving us the first couplet before the song is followed by an abrupt sonic switch to the roar of four jet planes flying low in formation and looping the loop above the lake. But the part of the text that Michael does not recall in the quatrain given in the chapter is the final couplet, which are the words of the song the swan sings: ‘”Farewell, all joys! O Death, come close mine eyes! /  More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise.” Perhaps remembering this far is too much for Michael, since he, like nearly all Imber Court members, proves to be one of those geese, but I think the idea of the swan’s death, with Catherine’s ‘thin triumphant soprano’ on the top part, is meant as an additional (unfulfilled) foreshadowing of her death, a foreshadowing already present in the story of the drowned nun, the bell portending a death, and Michael’s bad dream of the body in the lake.

This musical moment with the madrigal is music’s only contribution to the novel’s latent (but fairly minor) medievalism (unless we count the recorders in the pageant?). Perhaps frustratingly, the main work that medieval references serve are to characterize Dora’s loathsome and violent husband Paul as a ‘typical’ academic, interested more in the Imber psalter than his wife and actually viewing his wife on a par with (although of lesser value than) his collection of medieval ivories. His objectification of people and his inability to live in the present with real, changing humans makes him the least likeable character in the book. At the Bach recital he sits rigid, ‘tense, concentrated, as if he were about to bark out an order’ (p.200). Again, the link between medieval military violence and the suppression of bodily responses to music (he stops taking Dora to concerts because she taps her feet), seems to rely on a distinctly post-War assumption of stereotyped uptight Germanic culture, with its then-recent appeal to a German Middle Ages of Empire and military conquest.

More simply decorative medievalism can be seen  not only in the madrigal already mentioned but in the new and old bells, the welcome pageant for new one, the children playing recorders, the odd ritual ceremony of dressing the bell, and in Toby’s idea of being Dora’s knight in some courtly love scenario doing her service in switching the bells over. But Toby doesn’t like having to deal with both lady and adventure at the same time, and the bell pageant is sabotaged by a different protagonist and ultimately collapses into the lake. Perhaps the only positive medievalism here is the way Dora explicitly, and powerfully, takes on the character of a medieval witch, something that, more surprisingly, the Abbess also does implicitly in quoting one of the witches from Macbeth (‘when this hurly-burly’s done’, p.243). This casts her earlier use of Matthew 10:16, noting to Michael Christ’s imprecation to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves as at least one of the ingredients for a cauldron potion….

Perhaps this, at least, is a paranoid reading too far, but it is all inspired by the richness of Murdoch’s text, which easily bears multiple engagements and interpretations.

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