IN the study of human forms, taxonomy follows understanding, and criticism follows taxonomy, especially with late works by master artists. The critic must take special pains not to impose expectations shaped by previous works. Each poem, novel, and play must be approached individually. Another fact of human life: There is a superabundance of form(s) in the world. No critic can attend to all of them, nor be prepared to understand new ones on the basis of old acquaintance, however fond.
I had reason to recall these commonplace observations recently as I contemplated the publication of Iris Murdoch's 24th novel. Murdoch has just added to her list of honors the annual medal of honor for literature given by the National Arts Club in New York City. I had always been aware of Murdoch as a philosophical thinker and novelist admirably steady in her production. I had also noticed that her books had gotten longer: ``The Message to the Planet,'' at 563 pages, confirmed the trend. Could this sharp, rigorous mind have gone to seed?
A careful reading indicates not. The astringent point of view recalls Simone Weil's phrase ``the humiliation that forces us to renounce even despair.'' The fulsome treatment of the theme - an abundance of interesting characters, each contributing to the great conversation; a luxury of natural and human beauties rendered with pre-Raphaelite exactness - seems leavened by Chaucerian charity. This long, unblinking look at the human capacity for self-deception is so charming that I eventually accepted its message: One must do one's own thinking and living.
The plot turns on the character of a charismatic thinker named Marcus. However compelling his personality, Marcus is himself on a voyage into the unknown. Many get lost trying to follow him. He is unsure of his own powers. At one point early in the novel, but after he had already become a myth for his accomplishments in science and art, he seems to bring a young man back from the dead. Now he can't avoid attracting attention. Murdoch makes the reader think through various approaches to Marcus as represented by the characters whose lives are variously affected by him or by what he represents.
Theme and character are inseparable here; the play of ideas in action and conversation creates a pool brimming with possibility. Almost nothing is resolved except the fates of the characters. The whole work is open-ended in a most rigorous and uncompromising fashion.
Is this any way to write a novel? The question dies in the air. For what does novel matter when we've treated ourselves to a wondrous dance of ideas?