"We are human beings, Jessica. We can't just live in the present."
The above words regarding the complexities of living presently, as if one were a jolly zen monk, are spoken by John Ducane, the hero of Iris Murdoch's The Nice and the Good. Jessica is his mistress and he is struggling to break up with her in pleasant fashion so that he can be guilt-free with Kate Gray, the wife of his boss, Octavian, who is described jolly and round (like the Buddha) and who not only tolerates Ducane's dalliances with his wife but encourages them. Very modern, right? Only, Ducane, like most of the sexually confused friends in his circle, struggles not only to be present, but also, nice and good. The novel was published in 1968 and if it is not exactly a buzzkill on the hedonism characterizing late 60s Swinging London, then it is most definitely an eloquent reminder that free love, no matter how blissful, is dangerous in a moral vacuum.
Ducane is a civil servant charged by Octavian looking into a colleague's suicide. The colleague, Radeechy, had also lost his wife to suicide when she committed suicide the year before. But queries and interviews reveal Radeechy to be very post-Anglican (or pre-christian), the investigation turning up all kinds of pagan black magic hocus-pocus with hired women, dead pigeons, whips, silver chalices, and Latin cryptograms. It's all a bit untidy and gross and Ducane seeks relief from the case (and the unbearably hot London summer) at Kate's countryside estate in Dorsett. But things are hardly simple there: Kate's there, yes, (Octavian is often busy in London), but so is her nubile young daughter, Barbara, whom Pierce, a sex-starved hormonal teen pines for with unrequited success. Pierce's mother is Mary, a sensible widow who is generously put up in the house with Pierce by Kate. Yet another woman there is Paula, whose husband, Richard Biranne, is a promiscuous cad implicated in the shadowy world to which Radeechy had delved too deeply. She has eleven-year-old twins, Henrietta and Edward, obnoxiously precociously intelligent for their ages. They love fielding questions to Willie Kost, a German Jew intellectual refugee residing in a cottage on the estate. Willie, who survived Dachau, flirts gently with Mary, while intellectually sparring with Uncle Theo, Octavian's brother, who left India under a scandalous cloud and who might be a repressed homosexual.
But in the center of it is Ducane, in whose struggle to be nice and good, to, in essence, do the right thing is the moral quest of the novel. He is privileged by wealth, status, and feels this prevents him from being empathetic: "Ducane was being infinitely sorry for himself because the power was denied to him that comes from an understanding of suffering and pain. He would have liked to pray then for himself, to call suffering to him out of the chaos of the world." His suffering, for example his failure to break up with Jessica, is so much more superficial than what he perceives in the depth of others, in Mary and her widowhood or Willie and his internment by Nazi psychopaths. Ducane even tells Kate: "It's hard for people like us with ordinary healthy minds to imagine what it would be like for one's whole mode of consciousness to be painful, to be hell." It is particularly difficult for Ducane with Willie, a morose, dissatisfied intellectual whose emotional lows are impossible for him to bridge: "Duane thought, if I were not the tied-up puritan that I am I would touch him now, take his hand or something." The great irony is that all these lost souls see John as the nexus of niceness and goodness. They are oblivious that his private and professional lives are as muddled as anyone's.
Iris Murdoch is a brilliantly articulate writer who is never boring and whose inventiveness comes across in setting and character as her description of McGrath, a blackmailer in the case of Radeechy so beautifully illustrates: "A man had no right to have such red hair and such a white skin and such pallid watery blue eyes and such a sugary pink mouth in the middle of it all. McGrath was in very bad taste." Murdoch is also a peculiarly British novelist, at least to me. It is not just the complex cadence of her prose, but also the fidgety contrast between appearance and substance: everyone putting up a calm front but barely for the emotional turbulence of holding back so much of one's true feelings or if disclosed, tampering their confessions with over-intellectualized ideas or sarcastic embellishments. Reading Murdoch one gets the feeling it is painful to be British, to have so much interior life that cannot be confided or related and besides, impossible standards of goodness to live up to.
Is it for this reason that the novel often felt like a condemnation of the 1960s? No character best illustrates the quality of being morally adrift, of lostness, than Ducane's mistress, Jessica, a failed artist and something of a dilettante flower child, to whom Murdoch is venomous: "But Jessica had never developed the faculty of coloring and structuring her surroundings into a moral habitation, the faculty which is sometimes called moral sense. She kept her world denuded out of a fear of convention. Her morality lacked coherent movies. Her contacts with her contemporaries, and she met no one except her contemporaries, and her very strict contemporaries at that, were so public and so free as to become finally without taste." This is the Old Guard retaliating against the New Guard. But isn't the novel's central purpose in twentieth century literary fiction to explore the parameters of morality so that some sense can be made of the social vacuum we call life? Nice and good are so vague as to be totally without meaning. They barely scratch the surface of what it is to be a better man or woman. Without morality, we are on the proverbial tightrope without a net. It's a long way to fall metaphysically if we don't have the moral armor to deal with the inevitable personal crises that come from being human. Importantly, Ducane's great revelation at the end of the novel is Murdoch's clearest indictment against the sixties zeitgeist and its attendant gratifications: "Perhaps there were spirits, perhaps there were evil spirits, but they were little things. The great evil, the dreaded evil, that which made war and slavery and all man's inhumanity to man lay in the cool self-justifying ruthless selfishness of quite ordinary people."