Lisa Louie's Reviews > The Sea, the Sea

The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch
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May 04, 12

Read in April, 2012

'Don't take anything personally' is the second agreement that we should make with ourselves according to Don Miguel Ruiz in his self-help book, The Four Agreements. We are all trapped within our own “dreams,” or our own “bubbles” as an acquaintance of mine once put it, and as such we cannot perceive the thing-itself, the truth as it really is. We can only see our own projections of each other, and we treat each other accordingly. Therefore, I cannot take your behavior personally--meaning, I can't take it on and make its supposed message stick to me as a true reflection of who I am and what I deserve. Let me admit up front that I embrace this premise with relief . It is liberating to believe that I am not responsible for other people's condescension or their hurt feelings when I do not appear to esteem them as highly as they think they deserve. But once I begin to operate on this premise, a number of ethical problems come to light. If I lay hands on your person, whether by physical or other material means, then am I still excused from owning any responsibility because I am only acting according to the logic of my dream while you are acting according to yours? In other words, are all dreams equally invalid and thereby equally innocent? These are the questions that Iris Murdoch's novel, The Sea, The Sea illustrates and explores in depth.

The Sea, The Sea, is the masterful psychological depiction of a distasteful man in the autumn of his life, trapped within his own universe. He makes moral choices based upon his fantasy that Fate has offered him an opportunity to redeem his licentious, desultory life. Charles first inhabits this fantasy when his childhood sweetheart, Hartley, crosses his path in the seaside village to which he has retired after leaving his career in theater. We learn that Charles regards Hartley as his only true and pure love. In his psyche, he has erected her as both idol and singular proof that he is not as wretched as everyone, including himself, believes. So he pursues her, even though she is married, stalking her cottage and eavesdropping upon her arguments with her husband. As a biased witness to a marriage, an institutional state with which he has no personal experience, Charles interprets what he sees and hears according to his own desires, and then he acts upon them. What he does is unconscionable, but Murdoch's mastery revealed here is that his actions seem utterly understandable, even reasonable, given the laws of his internal universe which Murdoch fleshes out so adeptly.

This story and its execution are an exquisite example of the utility of the novel form in a time when the novel is being eclipsed by memoir. By the end of novel, Murdoch has led me to consider a rather complex moral philosophical problem in depth, and wonders of wonders, in imagining Charles' dream and seeing its consequences through Charles' eyes as narrator, I am able to approach an answer. I can affirm that while all dreams might be equal in their fictions, they are not innocent because they have actual consequences for other people. Truth be told, I couldn't stand Charles, and by the close of the 10+ page epilogue, I was thoroughly repulsed by having had to listen to him for so long. For this reason, I didn't love the book. But Murdoch's execution of this particular meditation is finely wrought and thoroughly impressive. The effort I spent suffering Charles' voice and dreaming his dream was well worth it.
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