Saturday, 13 November 2004

Iris Murdoch: The Sacred and Profane Love Machine (1974)

Edition: Chatto & Windus, 1987 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1273

A theme which runs through most, and possibly all, of Iris Murdoch's novels is that of love or affection which is misplaced or unequal. In The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, it is central to the novel, and it is a feature of all the relationships between the characters. So there is a mother whose teenage son is beginning to strain for independence; a man crippled by grief following the death of his wife; another man who is regretting the affair he has been carrying on for the last eight years, and so on.

The plot of the novel is basically the story of what happens when Blaise is driven to admit his affair - and small son - to his completely unsuspecting wife. This of course leads to dramatic changes in all the relationships depicted, which centre around the couple. There is little more to the novel than this; it is a study of character and relationships, and how they are transformed when this kind of cataclysm shatters their stable pattern. From a philosophical or psychological point of view, it is clear that Murdoch was interested in how character and relationships affect each other, and how circumstance affects them both. (This could also almost be suggested as the principal interest of the novel form itself.) It could be argued that the interplay between character and circumstance determines relationships, but Murdoch's view is a little more subtle, as characters are influenced and evolve through the action of the other components.

Unusually for an Iris Murdoch novel, there is not much discussion of religion in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, despite its title (which is not one of Murdoch's best, in my opinion). I am not sure why this is, though she may well have felt that adding more would detract from the various elements already present. The "Sacred and Profane" of the title would then refer to the different kinds of love in the novel and their varying degrees of what might be termed legitimacy. No relationship which is as one sided as those depicted in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine could be considered totally legitimate; this is a work about the shades of grey that determine our perception of this measure, and about how much this perception could differ from the black and white ideas of legitimacy which tend to be used by society generally.

Initially, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine does not seem to be one of Murdoch's better novels. This feeling is perhaps initially prompted by the sub-hippy culture title, but it also begins in rather a dull way. It becomes interesting immediately on the cataclysmic revelation of Blaise's infidelity. It is definitely worth persevering with, but even so it is not up there with The Sea, The Sea, The Bell or Under the Net.

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