Occasionally you stumble upon something of value on Instagram. For me it was a quote from Iris Murdoch. I’d never heard of the British and Irish novelist and philosopher until reading this: “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.”
I went down a rabbit hole to learn more. Murdoch studied at Oxford in the late 1930s and emerged after World War II as part of a group of female philosophers that included Mary Midgley, Philippa Foot and Elizabeth Anscombe, who believed that good and evil were not subjective — not merely a matter of opinion, the popular view of the time — but were real and discoverable. The quartet are the subjects of two recent biographies, The Women are Up to Something by Benjamin J.B. Lipscomb and Metaphysical Animals by Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman.
Murdoch was an atheist who was also deeply Anglican. She did not believe in a personal God. In her moral philosophy, Goodness takes God’s place, but she also took religious questions seriously.
Murdoch had studied the “Greats” at Oxford: an undergraduate course in philosophy, classics and ancient history not unlike the Program of Liberal Studies at Notre Dame. In addition to her work as a moral philosopher, she would publish 26 novels, five plays and a book of poems, and in 1987 was made a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.
Intrigued, I ordered a copy of her 1958 novel, The Bell, which tells the story of several weeks in the life of Imber Court, a lay, Anglo-Catholic community outside Imber Abbey, a cloistered convent of Benedictine nuns.
The book was a delight, its descriptions vivid, its plot darkly funny and sad and full of surprises. The Bell is a novel about sex and religion and how difficult it is to be “good” at them — or to really know oneself.
Murdoch’s story is told from the perspective of Michael, Toby and Dora. Dora has married Paul, an art historian who is easily angered and controlling. She discovers only after marrying him that she likes the idea of herself as his wife much more than the reality. Unhappy, she leaves Paul and begins an affair with his opposite, a freewheeling journalist and layabout. In Dora’s absence, Paul takes on the role of the aggrieved husband, finds religion and joins the community at Imber. Dora, unhappy with or without him, decides to join her estranged husband there — never mind that the Paul she knew had never expressed any faith or that Dora herself had long ago disposed of it.
The people of Imber are immediately recognizable to anyone who has ever lived or worked in an intentional community. They’re likable and complicated and real. Even the nuns, awaiting the arrival of a bell for their bell tower, though rarely seen, are fully realized. The seven-person lay community welcomes Dora but explains that she must follow their rules, which urge her to downplay self-expression. Paul likes that everyone in the community knows that Dora has been unfaithful and thinks well of Paul for taking her back. He feels his power over her increase. Paul doesn’t love Dora, but he loves the idea of himself as the patient and forgiving spouse.
Other residents have also come to Imber in search of meaning and purpose in their messy lives. Michael, the leader of the community, has decided to become a priest after his disastrous affair with a student, Nick, led to his being fired from his teaching position.
Ashamed of being gay, Michael tells no one in the community about his past, not even James, his second-in-command. He likes the idea of himself as a priest, as a person called to a celibate life, but in reality he longs for a partner.
The community at Imber even has its own “saint.” Catherine, Nick’s sister, is preparing to enter the abbey as a postulant. Her vocation places her on a pedestal.
For a time, things go smoothly, but eventually those who most invested in denying some aspect of themselves are forced to face reality. Michael makes a pass at Toby, the 18-year-old living at Imber for the summer before matriculating at Oxford. Dora realizes that playing at marriage hasn’t changed the fact that she and Paul don’t love each other. Even Catherine has a reckoning.
The Bell reminds us there are no shortcuts to growth. Changing one’s circumstances via marriage or holy orders, or surrounding oneself with likeminded “believers” by joining a movement, won’t save a person from the hard work of dealing with life.
Murdoch the philosopher was interested in the ego and how it gets in the way of seeing reality. In one of The Bell’s most interesting scenes, Dora flees to London and visits the National Gallery, looking at a painting by Gainsborough. She really sees the painting for the first time — its goodness, its beauty, the artist’s love for his daughters. “The pictures were something real outside herself, which spoke to her kindly and yet in sovereign tones, something superior and good whose presence destroyed the dreary trance like solipsism,” Murdoch writes. The museum becomes a place of encounter; standing before the beauty of the painting, Dora wants to fall to her knees. Her fantasies about who she is will no longer suffice. She needs to change her life.
The Bell could have been written today. How often do we think that having a child, joining a company or getting married will magically change some aspect of ourselves? Becoming oneself is a messy business, but true connection with God and others depends on authenticity.
After reading The Bell, I laughed a little thinking about The Benedict Option, in which Rod Dreher argues that tradition-minded Christians are now living in a world so intolerant of their beliefs in general, and their beliefs about sex and gender in particular, that they must withdraw from mainstream American life and form communities often organized around a church or abbey, in which their views about the family might be sustained.
Murdoch’s characters in The Bell do just that. The only problem is that they are still the same people with the same messy lives. We cannot escape ourselves. An immature religion wants to project evil onto others — evil is always external, always outside the walls, and never within. In The Bell Murdoch warns us that a certain kind of “violence is born of the desire to escape oneself.”
A mature religion is humble. It is the tax collector praying, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It knows that mere life changes cannot magically make us happy, grounded, easy to be around or clean. As a friend who moved to Manhattan once told me, “It turns out you can still be sad and lonely anywhere.”
Anna Keating is a graduate of the Program of Liberal Studies, author of The Catholic Catalogue and owner of Keating Woodworks and Kempt Kitchens in Colorado Springs. She’s working on a memoir about rock climbing.