The Proper Basis for a Friendship is a Mutual Misunderstanding: Iris Murdoch’s “The Book and the Brotherhood”

The Proper Basis for a Friendship is a Mutual Misunderstanding: Iris Murdoch’s “The Book and the Brotherhood” September 17, 2014

The setup for The Book and the Brotherhood seems like one of those survivor’s-guilt campus novels I love. Back at Oxford a group of idealistic young Marxists came together and agreed to pay for one of their number, Crimond, to write a book which would change the world. They’d support him for however long it took to compose this thing.

But it took years. The rose-lip’t lad of the group died, as such lads often do, and the survivors mostly drifted away from actual Marxism into (even) more bourgeois soft-socialism. Crimond–the guy they’re bankrolling–stays radical, but he never produces an actual book. The group starts to wonder: Why are we subsidizing this person to write about ideas we now believe to be not merely wrong but dangerous? And then one day Crimond turns up at the Oxford Midsummer Dance, and it turns out that his ideas aren’t the only dangerous thing about him….

TBATB wraps an almost programmatic attack on the possibility of mutual understanding in a glittering net of compelling characterization. Or you could say the book comes in layers: The rich, chocolatey top layer is these characters and their hidden histories, Duncan’s drinking and Jean’s Heloise-ish self-centered selfless adultery and Gerard’s somehow-actually-heartbreaking lost parrot. The middle layer is a systematic argument that we never, ever understand one another. People take the exact wrong idea away from all their conversations. (This is a great novel of bad advice.) Everything misfires–a word I use deliberately. Even the cake plates are too small for the cakes! THE CAKE IS CONSCIOUSNESS, PEOPLE.

No, I mean there is a certain grim humor in the completeness of this vision of incompleteness, but it’s also true and powerful. In the last third of the book there are some intense confessional scenes, and yet the results even of humiliated honesty aren’t what anyone would expect or want. Characters misunderstand themselves; they misunderstand God, and misrepresent themselves to God, and even when they’re trying very hard to get it right, they’re just not capable of a whole lot of self-knowledge, let alone knowledge of others. Even liberal democracy itself turns out to be a way of coping with our inability to agree on one strong, true vision of the good: “It’s an illusion. Everything is just a muddle. That’s what liberal democracy means.”

There are some examples of what the characters believe to be successful communication. But these exchanges of mutual understanding take place with animals. And who’s going to tell you if you misunderstand a snail?

The friend who gave me the book suggested that these people can’t understand one another because they relate to each other as ideas, not people. I think that’s partly true–and they relate to each other as ideals, as roles or heroes, even more than as ideas–but it’s also just that nobody understands anything as much as we like to think we do.

This friend also noted that one character who seems peripheral at the beginning slowly becomes more important, and when we start getting inside her head she turns out to be especially fascinating. I completely agree. Keep your eye on Tamar. Her story turns out to be one of the harshest portrayals of a certain kind of religious problem, or religious consciousness, that I can remember.

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