Iris Murdoch and the death of God

Iris Murdoch’s The Time of the Angels (1966) features not one but two clerical characters, both of the Church of England, and amongst the principal characters to boot. A little while ago I introduced the physical setting in which Murdoch’s drama is played out: the vicarage of a ruined church in a London wasteland, blanketed in snow and shrouded in the twilight of a London fog. It is against this backdrop of isolation and purposelessness that Murdoch is able to dramatise the impact of the ‘Death of God’ theology of the 1960s.

The blitzed church of St Dunstan in the East, now a public garden. Image: Peter Webster

The blitzed church of St Dunstan in the East, now a public garden.
Image: Peter Webster

There are two Fisher brothers: Marcus, and his elder brother Carel, the rector of St Eustace Watergate. Marcus has become concerned about his brother, living as a recluse in the rectory and refusing all callers, including Marcus. He is concerned not only for Carel, but also for Carel’s daughter Muriel, and for Elizabeth, to whom Marcus and Carel are guardians. He is also concerned on his own account. Marcus, a schoolteacher, is writing a book, Morality in a World without God (chapter 7), which will ‘rescue the idea of an Absolute in morals by showing it to be implied in the most unavoidable human activity of moral evaluation’. Thus armed, no longer would either theological metaphor or crude existentialism be necessary in order to society to function. But somehow he is distracted by the thought of his brother.

Marcus’ friend Norah has her doubts about the book, and Marcus’ intentions in writing it (chapter 2). Despite his apparent wish to start afresh, Marcus’ favourite reading is still works of theology; for Norah, Marcus is ‘just a Christian fellow-traveller. It’s better not to tinker with a dying mythology.’ The sooner the West would pass through its current twilight of the gods, the better, Norah thought. Her aim, characteristic of ‘the brisk sensibleness of an old Fabian radical’ was to get all that out of the system.

Concerned about Carel’s state of mind, Norah and Marcus consult with his bishop (chapter 9). Murdoch does not name him, but the parallel is very clearly with John Robinson, bishop of Woolwich, whose 1963 book Honest to God was perhaps the last theological bestseller in British history, for which he was censured by Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury. Both Norah and Marcus press the bishop on Carel’s apparent lack of belief, while he tucks into their treacle tart, washing it down with their claret. ‘It is a time’ he says ‘when, as one might put it, mankind is growing up. … Much of the symbolism of theology … is, in this scientific age, simply a barrier to belief. Our symbolism must change.’ As for Carel, the key is not his beliefs, but ‘passion, Kierkegaard said, didn’t he, passion. That’s the necessary truth.’ For the so-called ‘South Bank Religion’, what one believed was not so important as the earnestness with which one believed it. Despite his confession of atheism, the bishop regards Carel as ‘a profoundly religious man’.

I don’t want to write too much here about Carel himself, since to do so could very easily spoil the plot for anyone who has not read the book. But his character, and his actions, are the dark counterpart to both Marcus and the bishop. Marcus is superficially sure that his project of morality without the supernatural can be achieved. The bishop seems content enough that the church can survive the kind of testing and purification that the current ‘interregnum’ (Norah’s twilight of the gods) will entail. Carel, and the suffocating darkness that seems to emanate from him and damage those around him, is the side of their argument that neither can contemplate. Murdoch shows us the abyss of meaninglessness that may be glimpsed but cannot be faced.

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Christopher Wren in the wasteland

Iris Murdoch’s The Time of the Angels (1966) is a dramatisation of the crisis of belief of the 1960s, and her two clerical characters deserve their own blog posts. But here,  I want to dwell on the setting of the novel in London and the atmosphere it creates.

A little while ago I wrote about Penelope Lively’s London churches of the mind: how the churches of Lively’s late 1980s are bearers of meanings imprinted by the past, but with no present life, and no future. As the redevelopment of parts of London is in full spate, these buildings are stranded, mute islands of memory in a sea of forgetting and obliteration. Murdoch’s London is of the mid 1960s, when pockets of land still remained uncleared of the rubble of the Blitz twenty years before. London’s population continued to fall, and it was only town planners that thought parts of the city had any future.

St Dunstan in the East. Image: Peter Webster

St Dunstan-in-the-East.
Image: Peter Webster

Although an invention of Murdoch’s, St Eustace Watergate is (or was) a Christopher Wren church, only the tower of which survived the bombing. The tower, and the nearby rectory are the only remaining buildings in the midst of a building site on which there is no building, shrouded by the London fog that makes day night, cut off from the city that surrounds it. The scene is the London docklands, close to the City but yet at the same time isolated on the peninsula of the Isle of Dogs, hemmed in on three sides by the river.

There were many blitzed churches, several of them of Wren, but by the 1960s the Church of England had more or less found ways of dealing with them, a cluster of fine buildings without parishioners to serve. Some were abandoned, their demolition completed and the sites sold. Some that could be rebuilt were rebuilt; others such as St Dunstan-in-the-East were left in ruins and converted into public gardens, both war memorial and public utility. Even those that were intact were no longer typical parish churches, but lived only during the working week: ‘lectures and concerts and shut on Sundays’ (p.13).

Murdoch’s St Eustace, neither rebuilt nor demolished, is ‘a niche for problem children’ (p.13): clergy whom the bishop can neither make use nor be rid of. There is half-hearted talk of an appeal to wealthy Americans for funds with which to rebuild, but we hear little of it. St Eustace is half a church: stranded amidst the debris of an old order, an empty shell which looms in the gloom, the only thing yet to be cleared before rebuilding may begin. But that rebuilding is itself stalled, stymied, by the withdrawal of planning permission for a skyscraper. All is becalmed, frozen in the half-light of the fog and carpeted in snow. It is both symbol and backdrop against which Murdoch develops her theme of the loss of faith and the directionless search for something with which to replace it.