Group and Church

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means, The Driver’s Seat, The Only Problem.
By Muriel Spark.
Everyman’s Library Contemporary Classics. 608 pp. $23.

IN 1948, A PSYCHIATRIST in London named W. R. Bion invited volunteers to help him study the psychic life of groups. This was in the days before supervisory committees began to deter researchers from inflicting anguish on human subjects, and the volunteers had no idea what they were in for. In Bion’s account, it sounds as if his experimental technique extended the neutrality of Freud and anticipated the surrealism of Monty Python:

At the appointed time members of the group begin to arrive; individuals engage each other in conversation for a short time, and then, when a certain number has collected, a silence falls on the group. After a while desultory conversation breaks out again, and then another silence falls. It becomes clear to me that I am, in some sense, the focus of attention in the group. Furthermore, I am aware of feeling uneasily that I am expected to do something. At this point I confide my anxieties to the group, remarking that, however mistaken my attitude might be, I feel just this.

I soon find that my confidence is not very well received. . . .

The disappointment was only the first in a series. The group continued to expect Bion to tell them what to do, and he continued not to. As frustration and confusion set in, he persisted in offering nothing but mild-mannered observations of what he thought they thought of him, until his abstinence, perceived as sabotage, had so charged the room with anger and resentment that the group was “almost devoid of intellectual content.” Success!

Bion’s account is fun to read. The hapless are having their reality messed with, and an authority figure is indulging in mischief. It is not unlike the fun to be had by watching Ashton Kutcher’s Punked. Yet with his prank Bion was posing important questions. Why does a group insist on having a leader? If deprived of the leader it expects, how does it choose a new one? Bion, who fought with distinction in World War I, began his psychiatric practice during World War II, when he developed a group therapy for British soldiers, and perhaps he felt challenged to understand Britain’s ideological enemy, fascism. His questions about groups and leaders soon led him to a broader inquiry: How does a group enhance and compromise the individuals that compose it?

He developed a complex theory. Though he considered Aristotle’s Politics “an extremely dreary work,” he agreed with Aristotle that the human is a political animal, or “group animal,” as he preferred to phrase it. According to Bion, adults are always ready to participate in three groups: the dependent group, who require a master for nourishment and protection; the fight-flight group, who demand a leader to take them into battle or away from danger; and the pairing group, who hope for a messiah and sort themselves into couples (they will create him by mating, if other searches fail). Bion’s experiences suggested to him that in the absence of rules and traditions, humans revert to these primitive groups, which feel vital but not always pleasant. Unfortunately, in selecting a master, leader, or messiah, a primitive group tends to choose a person good at evacuating himself of his individuality and poor at apprehending reality. On this point Bion’s sense of humor was nicely bleak: “In its search for a leader the group finds a paranoid schizophrenic or malignant hysteric if possible; failing either of these, a psychopathic personality with delinquent trends will do; failing a psychopathic personality it will pick on the verbally facile high-grade defective. I have at no time experienced a group of more than five people that could not provide a good specimen of one of these.”

Like Freud, Bion was pessimistic about the human predicament. And yet, like Freud, he was not despairing. In order to resist the atavistic pull, sophisticated groups could balance the three primitive arrangements against one another and regulate them with artifices, such as laws. As for the individual, Bion saw him as “a group animal at war, not simply with the group, but with himself for being a group animal.” Nonetheless, no individual truly lived apart from the group. “You cannot understand a recluse living in isolation,” Bion wrote, “unless you inform yourself about the group of which he is a member.”

IN MURIEL SPARK’S novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, when visitors ask Sister Helena about the influences that led her to convert to Roman Catholicism and write a treatise on morals, she gently corrects the tendency of their questions. No, she wasn’t a fan of Auden or Eliot in the 1930s. No, she wasn’t reacting against Calvinism. “But there was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime,” she volunteers. Sister Helena may have set herself apart from the world by joining a convent, but she cannot be understood unless the reader informs himself about the group of which she is a member. In her case, that group consists of an unorthodox teacher and the women who were fascinated by her as schoolgirls. (Like Bion, Spark recognizes that a group may survive its dispersal and even the death of some of its members.)

The fictions of Muriel Spark are wonderfully unlike one another in their premises. The four novels collected in the new Everyman’s Library omnibus, for example, are concerned with a teacher’s influence on her protegees at an Edinburgh girls’ school (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1961), a tragedy in a boarding house for young women in wartime London (The Girls of Slender Means, 1963), an accountant who makes her vacation the occasion of an antisocial spree (The Driver’s Seat, 1970), and a man whose inherited wealth enables him to study the Book of Job full-time (The Only Problem, 1984). Elsewhere she has written about an amateur autobiographers’ club, anonymous phone calls that disconcert a circle of elderly friends, and a ghost’s account of haunting her murderer. And this list is only a sample of her range.

But for all its disparity of subject, Spark’s fiction is consistent in one aspect–its focus on the group. On occasion an individual receives a close-up and the narrative follows that person’s train of thought, but the story never belongs to a single person. In fact, individuals are expendable, and Spark’s indifference to their fate can be shocking. Early in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the reader learns that the stupidest of the girls under Jean Brodie’s spell, Mary Macgregor, “a silent lump, a nobody whom everybody could blame,” will die at age twenty-three in a fire in a hotel. There is no indication that her death is regrettable.

Back and forth along the corridors ran Mary Macgregor, through the thickening smoke. She ran one way; then, turning, the other way; and at either end the blast furnace of the fire met her. She heard no screams, for the roar of the fire drowned the screams; she gave no scream for the smoke was choking her. She ran into somebody on her third turn, stumbled and died.

Groups of two do not fix Spark’s attention, either. There are romantic affairs and even marriages in her fiction, but they feel incidental. In Memento Mori (1958), Godfrey Colston perks up considerably when he learns that his eighty-five-year-old wife was, decades earlier, as unfaithful as he; his relief is highly Sparkian. More Sparkian still is the daisy chain of broken confidences and lingering fondnesses that leads to Godfrey’s revelation. It is where three or more are gathered that Spark takes an interest. Her favorite material is the tissue between characters, composed of their acknowledged and unacknowledged exchanges–the shared secrets and the purloined, the matched moods and the resisted. In a different genre, Muriel Spark has asked questions about group life as probing as Bion’s, and her books have defied expectation as freakishly as his experiments.

SPARK CAME OF AGE during World War II. She was in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) when it began. “Believe it or not, . . . I wanted to ‘experience’ the war,” she writes in her memoir, Curriculum Vitae (1993). In 1944 she placed her five-year-old son in a boarding school and returned to Great Britain alone. She also left behind a husband whom she was divorcing; he had become violent and was being treated in a mental hospital.

In wartime London, she took a job in “the dark field of Black Propaganda or Psychological Warfare.” She assisted at a top-secret radio station run by British intelligence, which broadcast in German and pretended to be Nazi in order to demoralize and mislead unsavvy German listeners. German POWs were the announcers. Sometimes the lies Spark helped to manufacture boomeranged and were reported as fact in British newspaper. “We were constantly in danger of deceiving our own side,” she writes in her memoir, “and sometimes, at least for a while, we did.” It would be hard to imagine a more appropriate training for a novelist. As Godfrey’s wife, a novelist, remarks in Memento Mori, “The art of fiction is very like the practise of deception.” In order to save the country from fascism, Spark helped to make up stories with a fascist point of view. She received an education in the moral hazards of fiction into the bargain.

After the war, Spark edited a trade magazine for jewelers, which she enjoyed, and a poetry journal, which she loathed (“In no other job have I ever had to deal with such utterly abnormal people”). For the next few years she worked as an independent literary scholar. “No one . . . has ever been as poor as you were in those days,” a friend later recalled; “I mean someone of education, culture and background. . . . You had one dress, and your shoes had holes in them.” She again became entangled with a man who suffered from mental illness.

She then suffered a series of transformative experiences. Intense reading of John Henry Newman led to her conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1954. Shortly afterward, malnourishment and overuse of dexedrine caused her to have hallucinations. As she recovered, it was her good fortune to receive a small subsidy from Graham Greene and a commission from Macmillan to write her first novel– then as now “a thing unheard of,” as she admits in her memoir. The Comforters, which made literary use of her hallucinations and her conversion, was published in 1957 and brought her success; here her memoir ends.

HER MOST FAMOUS WORK, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, seems slighter than it is. It is more a novella than a novel in length; it takes up only 123 pages in the Everyman’s Library edition. Published in 1961–the same year as Bion’s collection of papers Experiences in Groups–it is concerned with a schoolteacher named Jean Brodie and five girls who were her pupils in the junior grades and who “remained unmistakably Brodie” in the senior grades and beyond. Inside the Brodie circle, life is charmed. “All my pupils are the creme de la creme,” Jean Brodie assures her followers.

As a sort of schoolgirl romance, the book scarcely seems serious enough in genre to take up the subject of fascism. Yet the subject is present on the first page, in an inventory of the miscellaneous knowledge that distinguishes the Brodie set from their peers:

These girls were discovered to have heard of the Buchmanites and Mussolini, the Italian Renaissance painters, the advantages to the skin of cleansing cream and witch-hazel over honest soap and water, and the word ‘menarche’; the interior decoration of the London house of the author of Winnie-the-Pooh had been described to them, as had the love lives of Charlotte Bronte and of Miss Brodie herself.

At the name Mussolini (and at the name Buchman, if you know that he was an early admirer of Hitler, a fact I had to look up), a reader may be startled. But it is difficult to take the startle seriously. The reader doesn’t yet know what Miss Brodie thinks of Mussolini and Buchman, and the other items in the list are so prepossessing and harmless. Witch hazel! A. A. Milne! The reader suppresses his qualms and is thereby inoculated. By the time he learns, a chapter further on, that Miss Brodie has returned from a vacation in Italy with a picture “showing the triumphant march of the black uniforms in Rome,” which she displays to her students admiringly, he is willing to regard her politics as an eccentricity. He takes it as he might take the news that an admired musician has been caught shoplifting, or that a favorite actor belongs to what is probably a cult. The misbehavior doesn’t seem to taint what he admires–her regally announced preferences (Giotto over Leonardo; goodness, truth, and beauty before safety), her unchecked flair for personal drama. People like her tend to break rules, after all.

What sort of group is Jean Brodie’s? That she breaks rules is one of the first clues. “Hold up your books,” she instructs her pupils; “prop them up in your hands, in case of intruders. If there are any intruders, we are doing our history lesson.” It is the sort of group that lies to outsiders. But such a flat, moralizing description feels unfair. Brodie encourages her students to deceive the headmistress so that she may narrate to them the romantic death of her fiance in World War I. Hers is a seductive badness; it brings access to secret knowledge. And the secret knowledge leads to personal developments that might not otherwise be possible. Inspired by Brodie’s tale, two of the girls collaborate on a kind of slash-fiction sequel, in which Brodie’s fiance survives, returns to Scotland, and tries to hold them prisoner in a mountain hut.

Here are the two girls at work:

Jenny wrote: With one movement he flung her to the farthest end of the hut and strode out into the moonlight and his strides made light of the drifting snow.

‘Put in about his boots,’ said Sandy.

Jenny wrote: His high boots flashed in the moonlight.

‘There are too many moonlights,’ Sandy said, ‘but we can sort that later when it comes to publication.’

‘Oh, but it’s a secret, Sandy!’ said Jenny.

‘I know that,’ Sandy said. ‘Don’t worry, we won’t publish it till our prime.’

The reader feels the lure. He may even feel as if he too belongs, because Spark has written so as to induce that feeling. She uses words, such as prime, that have a private meaning in the Brodie set. The sequence of ideas is jumpy, forcing the reader to supply context as if from his own experience as a member. Is Sandy or Jenny the primary creator of the fantasy about Jean Brodie’s fiance? It is left purposely vague, as if no individuals were responsible. It is also unclear whether Sandy’s wish to publish the fantasy is in earnest or is itself a component of the fantasy.

It is worth looking closely at that last ambiguity. Probably Sandy does wish to share the tale with others, and Jenny’s response is an admonishment: As members of the Brodie group, they mustn’t. Sandy and Jenny have split off from the main group in order to fantasize about Brodie’s love life. The fantasy is loyal to Brodie, in object if not in spirit, but if it were to issue in a work made public–if, in pairing up, Sandy and Jenny were to give birth, so to speak–they would no longer belong to Brodie’s group but to their own, led not by her but by the fiction they had created. They would betray her. Because Sandy is still loyal, she expresses her wish to publish ambiguously, so that it need not become a confrontation. It does not, and neither does Jenny’s correction. At this stage of the novel, Sandy is willing to defer, if not sacrifice, her personal wishes.

Am I reading too much into a couple of lighthearted lines of dialogue? The more bonded you are to Jean Brodie’s group, the more likely you are to think so, and Spark is at pains to have the reader bonded. Inside a group, simple disavowals–I didn’t mean “here” but “in Neverland”; I didn’t mean “next week” but “in our prime”–may be enough to suppress the awareness of dissent, because the group doesn’t want to know about it in the first place. “Group mentality,” Bion writes, “is the unanimous expression of the will of the group, contributed to by the individual in ways of which he is unaware, influencing him disagreeably whenever he thinks or behaves in a manner at variance with the basic assumptions” governing the group. Paramount among the basic assumptions is the assumption that the survival of the group trumps the welfare of mere individuals.

The ambiguity of Sandy’s challenge reflects not only insight into groups but also a stylistic innovation. Spark did not write The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie from an omniscient point of view. Nor did she write it in free indirect style, the technique that intermittently sinks a bird’s-eye perspective into the consciousness of a particular character. The book is not written from Sandy’s perspective or from that of the Sister Helena she grows up to become. It is not written from the perspective of Jenny, Mary, or any of the other girls, and it is not written from Jean Brodie’s perspective, either. It certainly isn’t written as if by an outsider. It is written, rather, from the point of view of the Brodie group. It descends at will into their group mentality and participates in all the limitations of understanding and banishments of conflict that belonging enforces.

THE BRODIE GROUP is responsible for the sadism in the narrative toward the longanimical Mary Macgregor. Individually, none of the girls are so heartless. Even Jean Brodie voices a regret; “Perhaps I should have been kinder to Mary,” she speculates at one point.

But the group has no remorse. It knows that Mary “was too stupid ever to tell a lie,” and therefore it ought to realize that she must be telling the truth when she says she doesn’t know who spilled ink on the floor. But it blames her nonetheless. “I dare say it was you,” Jean Brodie pronounces. “I’ve never come across such a clumsy girl.” Mary is the scapegoat. The group requires her to play the role, in spite of fact and logic, and she accepts it for the sake of belonging. She accepts it deeply. “These were the days,” Spark writes, with killing irony, “that Mary Macgregor, on looking back, found to be the happiest days of her life.”

It is when Sandy feels the “temptation to be nice to Mary Macgregor” that she first appreciates the power of the Brodie group. On a field trip, Sandy joins in mockery of Mary’s awkward gait but then feels sorry. While Miss Brodie is praising the girls as “heroines in the making,” Sandy considers treating Mary kindly. At once she experiences something she calls “group-fright.” If she were kind to Mary, she “would separate herself, and be lonely, and blameable in a more dreadful way than Mary who, although officially the faulty one, was at least inside Miss Brodie’s category of heroines in the making.” Kindness would probably frighten Mary, too. If the group did not blame her, it might have no use for her at all.

We know the group that requires a scapegoat; everyone has been in it at some point. How do you leave? How do you change it? Told as it is from the perspective of the Brodie group, the answer in Spark’s novel is betrayal. It would please the dreary Aristotle to know that she consistently writes novels with a recognition and a reversal, which betrayal neatly provides.

TO MAKE A CONNECTION between Bion’s ideas, Spark’s novels, and the relation of fascism to group life, I’ve been focusing on just the first few chapters of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Before finishing, I’d like to survey several of Spark’s novels quickly, in order to suggest their connection to religion.

When the four novels in this omnibus are read one after the other, one sees that it is Spark’s pattern to follow an idyll with a catastrophe. The idyll is in some cases less than idyllic. It might be more accurate to call it a time of license, which the catastrophe to some extent punishes. Miss Brodie defies the pedagogical norms of Edinburgh and turns her classroom into something like a salon. In The Girls of Slender Means, wartime poverty seems to bind a group of beautiful young women into a community, who share dresses and ration coupons. The vacationing heroine of The Driver’s Seat has mysteriously excused herself from taking into account any consequences that might take more than a day to reach her. And in The Only Problem, after Harvey Gotham is abandoned by his wife, he takes up with his sister-in-law, somewhat improvisationally. In each case, the lawlessness of the idyll accounts in large part for its charm. And the trick of it is that in each case, beneath the charm of the idyll is evil, in the person or the conditions that have made it possible. In the catastrophe, the evil surfaces, and the novel turns on its own pleasures.

There is evil, in other words, in one of the most attractive aspects of Spark’s fiction, because the pleasure of the idyll is a pleasure of this world, which is led by the prince of this world. The pleasures of the novel are also subject to him. This is an awfully dark aesthetic. Transposed from the key of religion to that of politics, an equivalent might be a radio program broadcast from the Nazi point of view but intended to demoralize Nazis.

In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Spark pokes fun at the perversity of John Calvin in “having made it God’s pleasure to implant in certain people an erroneous sense of joy and salvation, so that their surprise at the end might be the nastier.” But Calvinism has no monopoly on such twists. Is it any less perverse to suppose that God sent his spirit into a body as a means for teaching that the body must be mortified? In The Comforters, Caroline Rose, a recent convert to Roman Catholicism, makes a revealing joke. Attending mass always puts her in a bad mood, she admits. “It’s evidence of the truth of the Mass, don’t you see?” she tells her boyfriend. “The flesh despairs.” In Loitering with Intent (1981), Spark offers a piece of advice to novelists: “To make a character ring true it needs must be in some way contradictory, somewhere a paradox.” Maybe the advice also applies to religious doctrines.

It takes just such a perversity to write novels that convict novelizing. Like the mortification of the flesh, the thwarting of novelists has a religious flavor in Spark’s fiction. In The Comforters, Caroline is convinced by her hallucinations that someone on another plane is trying to write her into a novel, and she feels obliged to resist. “I intend to stand aside and see if the novel has any real form apart from this artificial plot,” she says. “I happen to be a Christian.” (Soon after she says this, whoever is writing the novel puts her into a car wreck.)

To be more precise, Spark’s novels convict wild novelizing. They warn against the stunted artist who devotes her storytelling to the fascination and control of weaker personalities–who turns her powers on life rather than art. In Spark’s fiction she is usually a woman, but not always. Like Spark herself, the wild novelizer specializes in configurations of at least three people, such as blackmail. She is almost always opposed by another storyteller, younger and more gifted. Is the difference between them merely a matter of talent?

Maybe the difference is like that between a cult and a church. People in a church are likely to be more talented at leading a religion than those in a cult, but it seems inadequate to say that the presence of talent is what distinguishes the two groups. Those in a church have found a way to check dangerous personalities. Bion noted that priests handle the issue of leadership as tenderly as if it were dynamite. “The attempt is constantly and increasingly made to ensure that the leader . . . is not a concrete person–the commonest way in which this is done is of course by making a god the leader; and when that, for a variety of reasons, turns out still to be not sufficiently immaterial, by striving to make him God, a spirit.” (By this logic, Bion would probably have seen real mischief in the carnalizing conceit of Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, which posits that Christ wed Mary Magdalene and that his descendants survive today. ) The expertise of the priests matters less, perhaps, than the methods they rely on: the development, systematization, and perpetuation of a set of beliefs. The beliefs feel arbitrary in proportion as they restrain the group from following its nature, known to Bion as the group’s basic assumption and to the church as original sin.

A novel and a religion might both be described as ways of giving structure to groups of people. Where religions have orthodoxy, novels have something else, a kind of aesthetic principle. Spark does not confuse the two; she is quite worldly about crime and sex, for example. The ultimate lawfulness of her novels is quiet. But it is only in her confidence of the law that she borrows so unabashedly from the vitality of lawlessness. Mere abstinence from vitality is not enough, her novels suggest; that only gets you into car wrecks. It is only by the dangerous art of writing novels that novelizing may be put right.

One thought on “Group and Church”

  1. Great post! I'm obsessed with Spark, and it's for exactly this "group" reason you draw out here. Groups seem to me as much or more interesting as couples as a fictional subject, and yet it is relatively rare that you read a great novel and think "that novel really works out something important about how people behave in small groups."

Comments are closed.