Iris Murdoch has been a unique presence in British intellectual and literary life. Lesley Chamberlain says she has tried to teach us good and beautiful things, but fears that her legacy will be slightby Lesley Chamberlain / February 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
The announcement that Iris Murdoch is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease has produced, together with great sadness, an urge to celebrate her unique presence in British intellectual life as expressed in her philosophical work and 29 novels.
All the essays in this collection return us to the novels for which she is most widely known. Murdoch holds that our experience is always larger than the words we have to express it; art, with its heightened expressiveness, is a bridge to metaphysical reality. Hence the deep need for literature.
Murdoch’s enterprise is philosophically old-fashioned. There is a connection in both her philosophy and her fiction to part of Aristotle’s critique of Plato, a point she picks up in her finest essay, “The Fire and the Sun.” This is the notion that art may mislead us, but that its “divine frenzy” can provide a magical shortcut to true understanding. Many of her characters, for better or for worse, dabble in magic-like the suicide Radeechy in The Nice and the Good. Many others are artists.
As an Oxford philosopher Murdoch was always atypical. Her career has been devoted to arguing against the two forces which have dominated British philosophy this century, particularly the ethics which most interest her. She cannot agree with Hume, nor with modern philosophical behaviourists, that nothing exists objectively to compel us to be moral. Nor (contrary to the “language, truth and logic” tradition) can morality, for Murdoch, ever be accounted for only in terms of its vocabulary. Good is not just a word. The good is a metaphysical entity (as it was for Plato). We look for it in the inner life, in the inner connectedness of things, in the existence of something just beyond what can be expressed. Murdoch is a moralist and a mystic. Those who see her as a theologian might fault her for refusing to go where her arguments lead and claim that she is bound to believe in God. Her answer is that belief in God is not rational-though not senseless. The good sense of faith lies in the refined inner life it encourages.
Nazism, communism and the second world war caused the upheaval in values which created existentialism. Murdoch, fascinated but critical, wrote much of her best work in its wake, in the 1950s. She has always been aware of Freud, too, as one of the great shaping forces of our time. She is not an existentialist, recoiling from the senselessness of the world, although something like the existentialist dilemma features in many of her novels. But as a novelist she shares the psychoanalyst’s tolerance of human perversity and the healing inclination, which Plato and Freud have in common, of wanting to bring to full consciousness knowledge buried in the past. Her fictional world seems to depict a pre-analysis muddle: characters cannot act freely because they lack knowledge.
Murdoch is a connoisseur of the odd relationship, which may cross generations and may be sexually unconventional or not sexual at all. The three-in-the-bed scenes in The Flight from the Enchanter stick in the mind as well as those in Nabokov’s Ada; but so do the innocently loving bonds between humans and animals. She shows us imperfect, messy relationships-often rather comical-side by side with the continuing search for perfect love. The presence of Plato mitigates against any real sensuality in the novels because there is a continual drift towards the rarified and the good, leaving all activity in the physical world seeming merely symbolic. But the novels do contain charmed observations of spiritual reality:
There is a sense of one’s own face as stretched, as thinned, which goes with extreme joy. I felt as if my face were simply a stretched skin, the features vanished, the pure radiance blazing through.
This, from A Word Child, is better than her manufactured symbols at recommending the good.
In the end there is too much Plato. In Plato, mud has no transcendent form, so Murdoch’s benighted characters repeatedly struggle in it. The most dramatic scenes in A Word Child are enacted beside the Thames at ebb tide. Everywhere in the novels there is water, especially sea, because the sea is where the spiritual aspirant first glimpses the reflection of truth, on emerging from Plato’s cave.
It is her mystical faith which allows Murdoch to be absolutely in love with the quiddity of the world, and her novels are at their best when we see them fully caught up in it. She loves the pageantry and the symmetry she can see in everyday life-every now and again, for the sake of storytelling, she brings this to a melodramatic head, with a stage setting, colours and lights. The books are fleshed out with observations of social class, mores, food, transport, clothes. The “thinginess” of the novels, capturing the world of the 1950s and 1960s, caused Murdoch to be labelled an existential realist and, later, a matriarchal realist. But her novelistic world was always highly stylised. Having thought hard about the craft of the novel, Murdoch created a Platonic genre. Better still, we might say that she created a genre all of her own.
In a 1961 essay she divided the contemporary novel into the journalistic and the crystalline, observing that most serious writers aspire to the latter. Crystalline objects reflect light. I still think that Murdoch’s first novel, The Flight from the Enchanter, is her finest; in part because in it her experience of communism and fascism crystallised. On the other hand, much of Murdoch’s output seems to fall between these two modes of writing, with the result that her novels are high-class entertainment, rather like Graham Greene’s. Indeed, she is quite close to Le Carr? and PD James-writers who, like Murdoch, are driven by the metaphysics of good and evil. Metaphysics creeps into the British drawing room via the crime novel and the thriller. The Murdoch novels, although peculiar to themselves, burst with admiration for Dostoevsky, author of that enthralling detective novel Crime and Punishment, who was a pioneer of the philosophical melodrama with its requisite chiaroscuro effects. Murdoch also makes an interesting comparison with Nabokov, another writer fascinated with the relation of symbol-laden fiction to some other reality beyond.
The middle and later novels are too long, and Murdoch keeps repeating the same formula. The philosophical necessity that the plots should incline towards the good aggravates the tedium; the characters are too obviously moral agents under the microscope. The dilemmas of Murdoch’s world, compared with the moral fictions of Nadine Gordimer-another Booker prize winner-are artificially lit. Neither does Murdoch’s prose have the steely quality of Gordimer’s, nor the subtlety and density of a great writer of the previous generation, Elizabeth Bowen. But Murdoch’s words are subordinate to another purpose. One feels that her work ultimately has its value as a unique spiritual object, beyond both literature and philosophy. A 1995 volume from Cambridge University Press called Platonism and the English Imagination pays her just the right tribute by including her with St Augustine, Erasmus, More, Donne, Milton, Blake, Coleridge, Arnold, Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Auden and others.
Her fascination with the temptation of perfection has given her a particular perspective on Marxism and Nazism, thoroughly explored in the philosophical writings. The novels meanwhile coruscate with charismatic personalities and dreamers. There are symbols of stasis or false permanence such as the Enchanter’s goldfish bowl in Flight and the stamp collection in Bruno’s Dream. Murdoch hides her own personality, yet she is surely present in Flight in the middle-class char-acter of Rosa Keepe, a woman of literary education who, after the war, works in a factory out of solidarity with the working class and the displaced. Rosa is a woman of good action, endangered by her love for the Enchanter. She is in love with a false promise of perfection. Rose is also the name of a leading female character in The Book and the Brotherhood-the closest Murdoch came to “explaining” her university communism.
Peter Conradi, the editor of this collection, maintains that the early books are light comedies, but Flight bears the stamp of all her most serious work to come. Murdoch writes of Rosa Keepe, wrenching herself away from the charismatic Mischa Fox: “The need for action, so far from being satisfied by ‘mere ritual,’ was grown within her into an obsessive fury.” It is a thoroughly Murdochian message that too much of our world is satisfied by “mere ritual” posing as action, and that is to highlight its moral weakness. Fiction and philosophy may themselves be mere ritual-Murdoch’s novels are delivered with this qualification. There comes a point when we must fly from the enchantment of words and act. She has tried to teach us grand and beautiful things. But has she really been influential, as claimed here? This, alas, seems like a piety at the end of her thinking life. It is certainly not borne out by Mary Warnock’s miserable little entry in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy of a few years ago, nor by Murdoch’s continuing absence from undergraduate ethics courses.
In terms of her position on the British intellectual scene, Murdoch surely resembles Rebecca West, another unplaceable woman writer of intellectual power and passion and an admirer of the Slav world. West is sharper, more political, more worldly; Murdoch is softer, more ethereal. Dame Iris has been called “a stark-raving Platonist.” But with her gentleness of heart combined with great insight Murdoch is better compared to Dostoevsky’s Idiot, Prince Myshkin. No one is quite sure what to do with his goodness either, but they revere it nonetheless.
Iris Murdoch, existentialists and mystics writing on philosophy and literature
Peter Conradi (editor)
Chatto & Windus 1997, ?20