It's been a long time since a book inspired me not to quote it, but write about it. I got Iris Murdoch's Bell from the second-hand book stalls under the Waterloo bridge. The themes it was addressing, I have been thinking about myself recently. More than talking about the book per se, I would like to explore these themes.
The book follows the thoughts and feelings of three members of a layman's religious community in West England. It primarily deals with the dichotomy between relativism vs. absolutism, as the characters search for the absolute truth, only to find that it is unattainable. Just like the enclosed grounds of the abbey across the lake, which is home to an order of nuns, truth and purity are there, theoretically possible, but out of reach.
Michael, the leader of the community, cannot find the strength in himself to live up to absolute moral standards in the face of love and desire. Dora, the erring wife, finds it impossible to grasp herself and the people around her as they really are; only the paintings in the National Gallery are able to comfort her with their absolute beauty - true beyond her interpretation. Toby, the young and wholesome boy, loses his carefree innocence with a simple kiss, falling into desperate confusion.
And all this seems to stem from one simple fact: The human condition, the mess we find ourselves in. Our minds sitting on top of an elephant of emotion, struggling to ride it. Sometimes it fails. And our curse is precisely this: We are aware of having lost control of the elephant, and we are aware that the elephant is taking us to the gutter. We are aware that nobody in their right minds would be doing what we are doing. We are aware that we are not interpreting people, situations correctly. But we simply don't know how to interpret them, what the truth is. Only if we had a manual to describe how people actually are. The whole thing has the urgency and inevitability of a disaster, and we are as helpless as in a dream.
That's why we worship and seek the absolute - wisdom, love, rules to live by. Only because we know we are unable to attain them. They are just ideas in the poor rider's head, the residue of a lost day and age, when people weren't as free to so visibly succumb to their weaknesses. But ideas and expectations remain; they continue to fool us into believing that something better is possible. We don't fail to be caught off guard every time reality falls short of what ought to be.
I should give the last word to poor Michael, who so eloquently explains that we are only entitled to the compass that is within us, and nothing else:
"In each of us there are different talents, different propensities, many of them capable of good or evil use. We must endeavour to know our possibilities and use what energy we really possess in the doing of God's will. As spiritual beings, in our imperfections and also in the possibility of our perfection, we differ profoundly one from another. How different we are from each other is something which it may take a long time to find out; and certain differences may never appear at all. Each one of us has his own way of apprehending God. I am sure you will know what I mean when I say that one finds God, as it were, in certain places; one has, where God is concerned, a sense of direction, a sense that here is what is most real, most good, most true. This sense of reality and weight attaches itself to certain experiences in our lives - and for different people these experiences may be different. God speaks to us in various tongues. To this, we must be attentive." pg. 209-210.