August 26, 2009
I don’t know why I picked up Iris Murdoch’s seventeenth novel published in 1975 and read it for the third time in the past week. It follows the themes of many of her novels. An ‘outsider’ tries to order his world but life keeps intruding. Hilary Burde is as thoroughly an unsympathetic character as literature has to offer, whose grand passion in the form of an adulterous affair led directly to the death of a woman and her unborn child. This tragedy defines his life as we learn when the novel begins forty years or so after the events for which Hilary finds repentance so unrealistic or elusive.
What struck me this time through however was not the standard-for-Murdoch suicidal tendencies of her characters, baptismal drownings in rivers and mud, religion without its content and so on. What struck me in particular was the ways in which the characters of this novel try and find order and perhaps a facsimile of meaning through ritual. The chapter headings are days of the week (with death often occurring on Fridays and Sundays not making an appearance until late in the story). Hilary Burde has a ‘day’ for everything. On Mondays he dines with so and so, Thursdays he sees his sister and so on. As his world unravels he recognizes that there will likely be ‘no more days’.
I think about our rituals on Sundays as telling, --or more fully, reenacting’-- the story that shapes our lives. In this sense I think of ritual as liberating, creative, something of an art form, in which we are all participants (or perhaps it is performance art for an audience of one.) But I’m also aware that many critics of liturgical worship and those who engage in it believe that it is somehow escapist and not ‘prayer from the heart’ and the like. Burde uses rituals to shield himself from the realities of life even as he insists that “There are rituals for separating out the tiny grain of penitence. There are rituals for this, even when, as anything experienced, the penitence does not exist at all. But I could not use these machines. It all remained, for me, grossly muddled up, penitence, remorse, resentment, violence and hate. And it was not a tragedy. I had not even the consolation of that way of picturing the matter. Tragedy belongs in art. Life has no tragedies.”
The only point of view he can imagine is his own. Everything else he spurns or sneers at. It might be possible to believe that some similar kind of self delusions going on in worship but I hold a reasonable and holy hope that over time that would not be sustainable as the falsehoods of life are unveiled for those of us who participate.