A commentary and answer to John Middleton Murry
By MICHAEL DE LA BEDOYERL
I REGARD Mr. Middleton Murry as one of the half-dozen serious English writers of the present time.
I mean by " serious a writer able, through his own intuitive power, to discern what is really happening to contemporary man and contemporary society and able to express his findings to the world 'that is interested. With him 1 should list Aldous Huxley. T. S. Eliot, Shaw, E. M. Forster, and, perhaps, Herbert Read. Among Catholics (who arc in a somewhat different position owing to the factor of Revelation in their outlook) there arc, above all, the late Eric Gill, Christopher Dawson and David Jones. F. I. Watkin and Fr. Vann also suggest themselves, but it would be invidious to limit the list where there is so much good work in application of orthodox Christianity to contemporary problems.
I mention all this in order to make it clear that Middleton Murry in whatever he writes is of the utmost importance. And I go on to agree with his publishers that Adam and Eve* is (so far as I have read him) " his most important work." And now I want to add that it is in many respects a very disappointing work—disappointing and yet containing some of the finest passages of his writing, passages for which the world is craving.
In his later books, The Defence of Democracy, The Betrayal of Christ by rite Churches and Christocracy, Middleton Murry seemed to be shedding a good many delusions — as they must seem to a Catholic. Like Aldous Huxley and (on a much more superficial plane) Joe& he seemed to be moving away from the political and romanticist experimentation in the possibilities of a post-Christian world and returning, slowly but thoughtfully, to the great tradition of which the Catholic Church has been the most faithful guardian. In his case in particular he seemed to be moving away from a one-man prophet attitude so marked in the Adelphi
IN Adam and Eve there are clear signs of a receding, or rather of that serious attempt to transcend the orthodox Christian tradition which also marks the later work of Huxley. I understand it in Huxley, because Huxley's difficulties over Catholicism seem to me to be real. They arc, of course, answerable, but I can see why Huxley will not accept the answers. In the case of Middleton Murry I feel that there
is a real misunderstanding. In other words, it seems to me that nothing of the magnificent teaching in this book is at bottom irreconcilable with Catholicity and that all of it would make a far more powerful appeal in what, I maintain, is its rightful setting.
Middleton Murry has persuaded himself that Christianity, as we usually understand the word. is passe. and he proposes his new Christianity based on the fulfilment of the individual in the love between man and woman which gives physical birth to the human race and which can and should give the rebirth into the Divine love, supremely expressed in the life of Our Lord. which is the essence. of Christianity. Now at the most obvious level of commonsense probabilities it seems to me that Christianity has a far greater survival and development value even in our nationalist-ridden machine age than Middleton Murry's substitute.
In the finest chapter of his book, " On Love and Marriage." he analyses the meaning of married love in a way which perhaps has not been approached before--I cannot see these pages as anything but some of the profoundest and most inspiring pas
sages of English writing — but how many of our contemporaries arc capable of understanding what he is saying, still less of rising to it I If thit is the religion which is going to regenerate the world, we shall have to wait a precious long time before it becomes discernible as a factor in our
post-Christian society. On the other hand, the same doctrine [which, I maintain, is pure Christianity) proposed in its proper setting and as the expression of the Christianity to, which various deglees of allegiance are still given throughout the world would have its chance of making a difference, of stemming the catastrophic drift of which Middleton Murry in his opening pages writes so admirably and convincingly.
LATHY then does he reject the very thing that should he supporting his own plea ? I think the reason is mainly personal. Middleton Murry is essentially an individualist, an experimentalist, a romantic, a man alone, a man who has forged his outlook in deep thought and in great anguish of mind. It is not surprising that as he comes near the rigid system that articulates the great tradition he also recoils. Bur there is another reason which is much easier to deal with : it is simply that he lust misunderstands a great deal of Catholicity, and misunderstands it at a surprisingly superficial level.
The book is full of really elementary mistakes. Where Our Lord says that in the Kingdom of Heaven there will be "neither marriage nor giving in marriage," Murry equates the Kingdom of Heaven with the Church. He states that " baptism and churching " are considered cleansing processes for the contamination of the process of birth. This is a common mistake in regard to churching, but I have never, before seen anyone suggest that baptism has the remotest connection with the physical process of birth.
He equates the spiritual authoritarianism of the Church with the utilitarian authoritarianism of the Nazis or the Communists, though the principle in the two cases is utterly different. He is unable to acknowledge that the conception of inviolable personal rights is the result of Christianity because " it was passionately asserted before Christianity was heard of." But was it ? For a minority of free citizens, yes ; but for the human being as such, no.
OBVIOUSLY in a short note like this one cannot argue in detail, but in general it seems to me that Middleton Murry wholly fails to allow the inevitable ups and downs of the Christian application in its unchanging moral principles. Or in so far as he does, he would talk of a romantic Christianity rather than an authoritative Catholicity. The case of slavery is an obvious ex
ample.. He regards the Church woodenly, statically, instead of dynamically and in terms of its fallible and tameable members. But he has another, more concrete, quarrel. He is swallowed up in what seems to me a thoroughly false residing of the Christian teaching about sex. There is in this hook much play about .lesus and Paul, about the position of Our Lady, about the Virgin Birth and the Immaculate Conception. about the celibacy of the clergy, and all this is used, as it has so often been used, to show that Catholicity divided the physical from the spiritual and regarded the act of generation as an unavoidable evil.
I do not deny the difficulties nor the possibility of the reading he has made; but it is not the true one. There is deep confusion in Middleton Murry's perhaps over-sensitive mind. His own doctrine, as it stands, would have to bear certain accidental changes to equate it with the fullest and deepest Christian teaching, but the changes, I believe, would strengthen rather than weaken it. Certainly they would not take away from the essence of the message he has to give to the modern world.
Could anything be more Catholic than the following quotations 7 :
" By a Jaunty we mean a real family, not less than three children, and preferably nearer six; children enough to he it little gang. to form their own society and proof against adult Interference, )et vitally dependent on the warm and steady vibration Di love between their parents."
Or this: "Perhaps no important experience is more common than love; yet none in a sense is more rare, It is incessantly contaminated by other elements than itself The lute between a man and a woman is far more often distorted than it is fulfilled by the physical desire between them. This is pitiful; because physical lute between a matt and a woman is. or should be, an essential part of the true love-relation. But We hare ta realise that alt)sical love is generically different Irma physical hot. In this realm. as in ever) other province of the love-relation, the word of St. Paul is the simple truth: that love sceketh not its own. Physical lust is egotistic: it seeks its own sensual gratification far its own sake, and is violent and brute in pursuit of its own self-centred end. The desired one is degraded into a means. But physical lave is essentially tender of the loved one."
Mr. Murry admits how near he is to Eric Gill. Yet Eric Gill would have told hint how much he had learnt from his conversion to the Catholic Church.