13 November 2023By Jianfeng YUEBlog

BSH Fund Fellow 2024

I am very honoured to have been awarded the Barbara Stevens Heusel Research Fund for Early-Career Scholars. I currently work as an assistant professor in the School of Foreign Languages, Tongji University, China. I obtained my doctorate from Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and I spent 2017-18 at the Iris Murdoch Research Centre under the supervision of Dr Miles Leeson. The title of my PhD dissertation is ‘Transcendence and Disunity: A Study of Iris Murdoch’s Void’. At present, I am working on ‘Iris Murdoch’s Buddhist Thoughts’, a ‘Project of Humanities and Social Sciences’ funded by the Ministry of Education in China. At present, I am focussing on Iris Murdoch’s connections to China, and my study can be divided into two main parts that are loosely intertwined: one is Murdoch’s lifelong enthusiasm towards Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism; the other is Murdoch’s ‘growing indifference’ to China.

Iris Murdoch had a great interest in Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, which has been elaborated and explored in The Sea, The Sea. My study aims to clarify Murdoch’s divided attitudes towards the area and the religion, and to further justify the author’s motivations of borrowing such images. Murdoch leaves us with some clues by open-ending the fiction with some interesting unfinished discussion on Tibetan Buddhism. Firstly, why does James Arrowby, the Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, fail in most of his magical practices? James practises several forms of magic in the fiction, but none of them can be deemed completely successful. The authenticity of tulpa (forming a human figure with one’s force of mind, borrowed from David-Neel’s Magic and Mystery in Tibet) was compromised with Charles’s suspecting the figure of being a spy or a waiter from a Chinese restaurant. James failed as well in ‘tummo’ (generating heat through ‘inner fire’, borrowed from David-Neel and John Blofeld’s The Way of Power) since his ‘vanity’ killed the sherpa Milarepa who served as guide. While David-Neel has seldom mentioned flawed consequences and the outcome of these, Murdoch has actually ‘rewritten’ Tibet with her rich imagination and in-depth moral philosophy thoughts. ‘Tulpa’ conveniently mirrors Murdochican moral philosophy terms ‘fantasy’ and ‘ego’, and ‘tummo’ vividly symbolises abstaining from will-to-power, which is the core theme of the fiction.

I have also noticed a subtle but influential intertextual reference to Evans-Wentz’s Tibet's Great Yogi Milarepa, the English translation of the Tibetan canon about the esteemed saint from Kargyu clan of Tibetan Buddhism. Elizabeth Dipple and Peter J. Conradi both make reference to the shadow of Milarepa in James’s pursuits as well as the identity of a ‘remorseful ex-murderer’. However, in the preface to the 1999 Penguin edition of the novel, John Burnside, who has also draw inspiration from Buddhism, argues that Charles, the abominable and narcissistic protagonist, demonstrates a resemblance to the real Milarepa. The intertextual references could be easier to disentangle through Milarepa’s two magic practices of hailing. He summoned the first hail to take revenge for his mother against his uncle’s family (strikingly similar to Charles, almost in a Freudian way). Due to his guilt and regret, Milarepa converted to Buddhism as an adept to Marpa, the founder of Kargyu clan. Instead of teaching him Buddhist scriptures, Marpa punished him with Sisyphus-like toil. Milarepa found another Tibetan guru to teach him Buddhism, but as exchange, the guru required him to summon a second hail. Milarepa was of course unwilling to abuse magic, but the temptation of power was too intense to resist. The intertextual connection between this second hail and James’s second failure in saving Titus is also striking convincing. But here is where Murdoch and Tibetan Buddhism diverges – Milarepa continued his ‘path of lightness’ towards becoming a true saint in the religious sense, but Murdoch was very cautious about such ‘asceticism’, which she explored again and again in her later works.

As James makes his exit in a mystical manner, the final question is whether James was really dead or not: Murdoch was sure about James’s physical death when interviewed by Bigsby. The question I pose here is of James’s ‘spiritual’ death, or to put it another way, whether James was qualified enough to reach the Buddhist state of Nirvana. The detailed description of pre-mortem arrangements, elegant posture and graceful facial expression, suggests a positive answer from Murdoch that James has escaped from bardo. The mysterious concepts lingering around James’s death – nirvana, karma, the Wheel and bardo – can be traced back to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a book that ‘went viral’ in the postwar West. Donald S. Lopez, an American Tibetologist, encapsulates the basis of Westerners’ various motivations to romanticise Tibet as Utopia in Prisoner of Shangri-la: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Here, a question waiting to be answered is whether Iris Murdoch was a ‘prisoner’ of such overt romanticisation, an endangering element to moral life that she has repeatedly warned against. A detour to differentiate the Murdochian ‘void’ from Buddhist ‘emptiness’ would be conducive here. According to Buddhist philosophy, nirvana, the embodiment of achieving the state of complete emptiness, reflects one’s spiritual yearning for the continuation and externality of the life. James had surely fallen in love with these mysterious parts of religion, but he was reminded now and then by his emotional attachment to Charles of the omniscient presence of the ‘void', which is ‘a sense of ordinary experiences of severe suffering, and loss of meaning and orientation’. As bardo in the fiction stands for the pilgrimage towards moral perfection, nirvana is the efforts to make one yet emptier despite his keen awareness of the suffering from the void.

Murdoch latterly shed her personal attitudes on Tibet, which brings forth another topic I would like to explore: ‘Iris Murdoch’s visit to China’. As an intellectual working against the post-war political atmosphere, Murdoch, unavoidably, has perceived Tibet and China as ‘the Other’ from a superior perspective. Compared with Murdoch’s three visits to Japan, her 1979 visit to China with the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) is rarely touched upon. Regarding the trip, I believe the following three questions are worthy of academic attention: (1) Murdoch mentioned China in the Kuan Yin poem when she was a young school girl and explored Tibet in The Sea, The Sea, so why did Murdoch’s passion in China gradually fade? Was the trip somewhat of a disenchantment? (2) Why does Murdoch avoid writing about or mentioning China at all in her fiction? (3) To what degree does Murdoch connect the image of new China with communism?

My study is part of the emerging research on Iris Murdoch’s connections to the East, especially China, from an interdisciplinary perspective. I intend to encapsulate Murdoch’s relation to China with a combination of textual analysis and socio-historical study. With the help of the BSH fund, I would like to go through the Tibetan Buddhism books that Murdoch has read and studied in the archive, especially those with Murdoch’s notes, such as With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet (1936) and The Way of Power: A Practical Guide to the Tantric mysticism of Tibet (1970). I would like to explore Murdoch’s connection with Milarepa with the help of the archive. For the second strand, I would like to discover if any of Chinese institutions that Murdoch visited have any record of her visit to provide more support for my study.

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