Iris Murdoch's philosophical fiction
Upon the demon-ridden pilgrimage of human life, what next I wonder?
The struggle between good and evil.
Strange, unique, compelling, traditional, comic, moral, discursive, sexual, Platonic, anti-Freudian, mystic, entertaining, watery, gothic,—the novels of Iris Murdoch are some of the most original, interesting work of late twentieth century British novelists. Like the precursors who inspired her—Dickens, Eliot, Tolstoy—she draws you slowly in to a fully-imagined world, that works not just as realism but as a believable sub-reality, one that operates according to its own internal rules. Oddities, whether spiritual, psychological, coincidental, or sexual, never feel out of place. It is precisely the large strangeness of her fiction that entices readers.
Murdoch’s novels have the sexual antics of Noel Coward, the moral force of Dostoyevsky, and whisky drunk in quantities more usual to Raymond Chandler. She has Joyce’s unexpectedness, his cantering juxtapositions, but not his incomprehensibility or his dense confusions. Her frantic plots, and many of her character archetypes, are drawn from Shakespeare. “I am always thinking about The Tempest,” she once said. And she’s funny: from grumpy old men to running jokes about Wittgenstein, her novels make you chuckle, even while they are very serious.
Like E.M. Forster, she is capable of abrupt changes in mood. In the middle of The Black Prince there is an exchange between two characters that could have come out of Plato’s Symposium. And then this happens:
Rachel turned away, and in a single quick contorted movement peeled off her blouse and brassière. Naked to the waist she now regarded me. This was a very different matter.
Philosophical ideas are never very far away from the comic, physical shock of the real world in Irish Murdoch.
Now, twenty-five years after her death (Murdoch died on 9th February, 1999), and seventy years since the publication of her first novel Under the Net, Murdoch is winning a new audience. Her novels are populated with characters who resonate more and more strongly today: as well as therapists losing faith in their profession and priests who have spiritual awakenings, Murdoch writes about people with depression and anxiety, sexual and gender fluidity, and those who come to feel disheartened with the ironic, over-self-aware approach to life. Although many philosophical ideas appear in her books, her philosopher characters tend to be morally harmful or incapable.
Some novelists are praised for their entertainment (Dickens), some for their realism (Flaubert), some for their intellectual capacity (Eliot). Murdoch can be praised for all of this: she is a realist, an entertainer, and a thinker; she has huge capacity for empathy and compassion; she is fun. Murdoch believed art should be entertaining but she wasn’t only trying to entertain; fiction, she believed, had a “special moral dimension”.
It is often said that love is her subject, but that isn’t quite right. Murdoch is a novelist of the Good. As she said, in 1978, in ‘Art is the Imitation of Nature’,
…fictional literature has a special moral dimension because it is about people and, I venture to say, it is in however covert, unclear, secret, ambiguous a way, about the struggle between good and evil.
For various reasons contemporary writers are often reluctant to admit this, and it is interesting to see that a work such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which is very clearly about the struggle between good and evil, is a great popular success.
She is praised for being entertaining but she was also deeply serious.
The marriage of philosophy and character
It is both philosophical ideas and her personal life that provided Murdoch with the ideas and material that make up her novels.
Murdoch was born in 1919, and grew up in a small, loving Anglo Irish family. Her father was a civil servant, and her mother had been a singer. Young Iris was given space to develop her interests, attending a Froebel school where once a term a “king’s court” was assembled, and the headmistress walked through a court of children dressed as dames and squires, she in a velvet cloak. After going to Badminton, Murdoch read Greats at Oxford, before doing war work in London. In 1947 she went back to Oxford and studied Philosophy, where she met Wittgenstein. She was a Philosophy tutor at St Anne’s college until 1963. Although Murdoch made significant contributions to moral philosophy, her true calling was as novelist.
This gives a rather flat impression of Murdoch’s eventful life. “I think I am sexually rather odd… a male homosexual in female guise,” she wrote in 1967. She had, by that time, been married to the literary critic John Bayley for over a decade,—he once wrote that sex was “objectively ridiculous”. Murdoch conducted a large number of affairs, including with the novelist Brigid Brophy, which gave her an interest in, and sympathy with, the wide range of human sexuality. Many of her plots involve adultery, fornication, repression, incest, homosexuality, transsexuality, voyeurism. She wrote openly and sympathetically about homosexuality before it was legalised, and she took seriously those characters who appeared in drag, including in a novel set in a conservative town in the 1980s.
Murdoch believed, along with John Bayley, in the central importance of character to literature. She also believed, as she said in a Times profile in 1983, “We live in a fantasy world, a world of illusion. The great task in life is to find reality.” It was through character that literature could help us find reality. On both counts—her Platonism and her interest in character—Murdoch was often at odds with the post-modern, post-structural theories of the time. But to many modern readers, a novelist who takes the idea of good and evil seriously and explores it through character-based fiction is an appealing prospect.
Murdoch is undogmatic about how to become good. As her biographer Peter Conradi said, “any authentic spiritual tradition, including appreciation of the visual arts, provides a means of ascent” towards the Good. People are stranger and more multi-faceted than we know, Murdoch is constantly saying. Look more closely at the people around you. They are various. Middle-aged women and strange young men who are seen askance by other characters are apt to emerge as impressive, unexpected people in her work.
Informed as much by her experiences of life as by her philosophical ideas, Murdoch’s sub-reality is a place where all can be redeemed. Whatever demons have possessed her characters, they can find their way back to the Good, unless they are philosophers, who tend to be trapped in their own vanity.
All can be saved, but not on a single, narrow path.
A philosopher of the particular; a novelist of people.
In The Good Apprentice, Stuart tries to become good by renouncing the world (a literal apprentice of goodness) while Edward commits grave sins and has a nervous breakdown; both find their path to a good life, neither without complications or failures. In The Sea, The Sea, the protagonist Charles Arrowby, a Prospero-like figure, is domineering, arrogant, selfish; he kidnaps a woman in a fit of madness; but by the end, he seems to be somewhat redeemed.
Some critics see Charles as unredeemed, because he made a novel out of his own life, he is self-aggrandising. Murdoch took her cue for this autobiographical conceit from the end of The Tempest, when Alonso says to Prospero, “I long/ To hear the story of your life, which must/ Take the ear strangely.”
Prospero promises to tell them the story and then turns to Ariel, his spirit accomplice:
My Ariel, chick,
That is thy charge. Then to the elements
Be free, and fare thou well.
One of the last things that happens in The Sea, The Sea is that a box supposedly containing demons falls off the wall. In the last line, Charles says, “Upon the demon-ridden pilgrimage of human life, what next I wonder?” The parallel is clear: Prospero is redeemed and releases Ariel, and Charles is also freed, however temporarily, of his demons. Prospero asks the audience for their forgiveness (my ending is despair,/ Unless I be relieved by prayer) and Murdoch is asking the reader to understand Charles.
But Murdoch’s books are not simple “moral of the story” affairs. Charles is also a horrible warning. Being good, Murdoch teaches us, is a practical matter: you must get out of yourself, realise the presence of other people who need your help—you must flee the world of your own fantasy, flee the enticements of becoming a Prospero.
In her early work, in books like A Severed Head, this idea is submerged in the frantic whirls of the plot, full of sexual farce; the later novels like the magnificent The Philosopher’s Pupil, work this theme on larger and larger scales, inventing whole towns, whole networks of stories and relationships.
As her work develops, Murdoch increasingly emphasises the details of life. “The great artists reveal the details of the world,” says Murdoch. Rather than asking how people in general can attain goodness and avoid evil, Murdoch’s novels ask how these sorts of people, in these sorts of situations, can do so. She is a philosopher of the particular, of the lived experience, of what she called the “thingyness of the world”. While that makes her sympathetic to the difficulties faced by individuals, she also insists that we must be unselfish, avoid sin: we must seek the truth.
Murdoch thought that that too many novelists wrote “crystalline” or “journalistic” narratives, with neither real character or the specifics of life, but instead the small, dry clarity of symbolism and lots of talk about “the human condition”. She saw both as forms of fantasy, lacking true imagination: journalistic novels are shapeless day-dreams, and crystalline novels are small myths. Instead, she wanted the wide scope of reality grappled with by the imagination.
For Murdoch, the mistake of the modern novel was to console, to reassure. Instead, art ought to renew our sense “of the difficulty and complexity of the moral life and the opacity of persons.” Literature can arm us, she believed, against consolation, which tempts us to retreat into ego, self-sorrow, and moral indifference.
But to do this, the novel had to recover its sense of style, glory, and eloquence, it had to present the incompleteness and contingency of life.
And it had to show real people.
The struggle to depict true character
Holy fools, secular mystics, pseudo-magis, false gods, covens and cabals—all manner of fabulistic people abound in Murdoch’s novels. She often writes archetypes, rather than fully individuated characters, many of whom don’t have a real idiolect.
Many of her personages have the lasting power to enliven the memory. But it is the situations and settings, a semi-phantasmagorical world of dreams, delusions, and deceits, that most defines her work. Her quest to write true characters, as Shakespeare and Tolstoy had done, is often limited by her attention to the details of her fictional worlds: plot and place sometimes overwhelm people.
This passage, from A Word Child, is dialogue from a discussion between the protagonist, Hilary, the depressed and unstable narrator, and his colleague and confidant Clifford. Having teased Hilary about some gossip he was about to reveal, Clifford changes his mind—
He pushed his chair back. “Oh, nothing—nothing. I’m feeling rotten. I can’t sleep. The pills don’t work anymore. I’m just saving them up now. It’s no good imagining gardens and garden gates, that used to help. Now I lie for hours just staring at the ceiling. Human life is a scene of horror. I hope you enjoyed the cheese soufflé. Nothing could be more important than that Mozart died a pauper, except that Shakespeare stopped writing. A scene of horror. You’d better go home.”
If one reads too many of Murdoch’s many novels in succession, one wearies of the overfamiliar pattern of cantering sexual and psychological escapades: passages like this demonstrate her capacity to draw individuated characters amidst the familiar settings. Clifford stands out, alive and vivid. What she wants is for Hilary, and us, to be startled into realising that Clifford is real. Truly seeing other people, she believed, was a very difficult thing, and one of the primary tasks of the novel. Clifford’s dialogue shows Murdoch’s capacity for treading the line between farce and psychological breakdown: those are the moments when we most need to be shocked into seeing other people for who they really are, when we most need shaking out of our own inner lives.
But not all of her characters stand out so sharply. At one point in A Word Child, Hilary says, “Of course, I think too grandly of myself. Who am I to have a cosmic sorrow?” it is a line we could attribute to many of the darkly anxious first-person narrators from her 1970s novels. Reviewers often noted this tendency to types. David Bromwich wrote in his review of A Word Child—
How many Murdoch novels have the enchanting, even saintly, miserable and somehow mysterious homosexual, who is bent on suicide? The ritual baptism purgation by near-drowning? The scene of incest, implied or actual? The argument over a work of art (“Hamlet,” “Peter Pan.”) in which eager disputants reveal everything about themselves?
Often, as with Clifford, it is her minor characters who tell most strongly, even if only in bursts. Nigel, the male nurse and self-professed “priest of a nonsense god”, in Bruno’s Dream, has much less space than the other characters, but is only out-dramatised by Bruno himself, another Prospero figure, who regrets that he had loved selfishly, that he has lived through a vale of tears and never seen anything real—the archetypal Murdoch archetype. Many of the characters in The Flight from the Enchanter remain vivid only in so far as they get into difficult situations—being locked, topless, in a wardrobe; being watched having intercourse by an elderly Polish woman. But the group of elderly suffragists appear unexpectedly at a shareholder meeting they arrive like a cool breeze out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel.
Picking up the idea from Virginia Woolf, John Bayley, once wrote that post-modernist writers were so soaked in Joyce they had become entirely concerned with the quality of their writing, not with creating “what seems a new and spacious reality”, whereas the Victorians, who were soaked in Walter Scott, had it the other way around. Murdoch has this “verbally un-self-conscious” quality of Victorian writers, more concerned to create a new reality independent of words than with the words themselves.
However limited her characters are, she always does create a parallel world. While she never rises to the level of a new and fully imagined genre, like magical realism, or a new perspective, a new type of fiction, like modernism, she creates a mode and a mood quite unlike any other author. At the time when Martin Amis was declaring himself a great stylist in the tradition of Joyce, Murdoch was writing with the free flowing immersivity of Walter Scott.
We might not be always able to pick out her characters from their dialogue, but we could never read a page of her novels and think them to have been written by somebody else. What she loses in characterisation, she gains in the creating of a Murdochopia.
The battle of art and philosophy
This accounts for Murdoch’s ongoing popularity—readers are always hungry for fully created, fully-independent fictional worlds. And it explains something deep about the purpose of her writing. Whether in the early, experimental phase— when she wrote existential picaresque (Under the Net), comedy of manners (The Flight from the Enchanter), romance (The Sandcastle), gothic (The Bell and The Unicorn)—or in her later works, where all these forms and modes are blended together to make more fully realised novels like The Black Prince and The Good Apprentice—Murdoch never lets her philosophical and moral ideas impede on the creation of a world into which the reader can slip.
In the struggle between art and philosophy, Murdoch chooses art.
This creates a dilemma. Art is a flight from reality, but Murdoch’s main concern is to instruct readers not to fly reality, not to live in illusions, not to succumb to personal fantasy instead of living in the real world.
Why is she not then, like her hero Plato, suspicious of art? Plato thought art could corrupt; Murdoch thought it could unself. Morality depends on seeing other people, on being released from our own ego.
In A Word Child Hilary grew up unloved, illegitimate, and lives as an adult in a miserable absence of love. Hilary did something unforgivable: committed adultery with his colleague’s wife, and when she broke things off, drove so recklessly he killed her and her unborn child. But his wickedness, Murdoch is clear, stems from his lack of love. At one point, he almost realises that love is the route to goodness.
Then I made love to her. And in the transporting joy of love seemed to find a sudden fated issue from all the terrors that had been obsessing me. The world, for a short time, became marvellously simple and beautiful, immediate present and satisfactory. And it seemed real too.
So many Murdoch characters have moments like this. At the end of Bruno’s Dream, Diana reaches a sort of enlightenment when she is finally unconcerned with her own problems and desires and is simply able to take care of the ailing Bruno, to love him. She feels pain, a new sensation, and a step towards fulfilment. Her selfless caring for Bruno is reminiscent of Gerasim in The Death of Ivan Illiych. Murdoch’s stories are close to didactic on this point, and Murdoch knew, like George Eliot, that art is more likely to teach this lesson than philosophy. “A false doctor is not a kind of doctor,” says Nigel, the mystic of Bruno’s Dream, “but a false god is a kind of god.”
Novels may be a false life, but they are a kind of life, and one that can lead us towards a clearer understanding of morality in our own lives. That is why Charles Arrowby is sympathetic at the end of The Sea The Sea: by writing a novelistic autobiography he has created a false god, a false life, but one that can still bring him towards the Good.
Writing what she knew, not just what she believed
How does Murdoch achieve this, though, if her characters are often archetypes rather than true individuals? (Julian in A Fairly Honourable Defeat, for example, is the enchanter archetype which recurs as Bruno in Bruno’s Dream, Charles in The Sea, Sea, and Rozanov in The Philosopher’s Pupil.)
In 1974, John Bayley wrote that character is an intersection between novelist and reader, “a complex process of rapport between the author and ourselves”. Novelists like Jane Austen and Tolstoy have a view of society that is “unremittingly specific and cut-and-dried”. To Bayley—
The knowledge of life and the world which has produced them is contingent on the conviction that the world is as it appears and that the sum of human experience can both understand and generalise with authority about the behaviour of the sexes, types of human beings, etc.
When novelists make us see the world as they do, we discover character, just as they have discovered the character while writing it. Bayley calls this process “synthesised reaction”. How often, when we read, do we have moments of thinking “ah, I knew that, I just didn’t know it consciously or have words for it, until I read this novel!” It is these moments that create character.
Bayley gives an example from Anna Karenina. When Levin and Oblonsky have lunch, Tolstoy says that Oblonsky knew exactly what to do when lunch ended and there was nothing else to be said. “Parting must be effected—lightly, instantly, and totally—and the slate wiped clean to await the expected pleasure of the next friendly engagement.” For Bayley, this was a moment when we realise that Tolstoy has experienced this, and so have we. By pushing us to realise that we know this, Tolstoy creates the character of Oblonsky in our minds.
Novelists, then, so not show us what they believe, but what they know. To create characters who offer moments of realisation is not a way of pushing a theory or ideology or opinion, but a form of observing and describing the world.
Bayley praised Dostoyevsky whose “Underground Man is offered to us by his author in a spirit of complete intimacy, but also of complete equivocation”, but dismissed Graham Greene because he “can only repeat, by shuffling the cards of fiction, what he personally feels to be the case.”
Murdoch’s characters succeed when, as Bayley says, she makes art out of her knowledge of the world, gleaned from her own affairs and from her massive correspondence. She was constantly learning about the nitty-gritty, the small details of mundane living. That is why her books are so real.
Her most successful characters are the ones who are full of these details of life and who shimmer strangely with the magical, irrational side of life. Murdoch shares Dostoyevsky’s equivocation: she is showing us these characters drawn from the world, not merely writing her own experiences through a series of archetypes. Often her ideas are present not with the clarity of philosophy, but the mystery of art.
Iris Murdoch is a great novelist because even though her characters aren’t always essentially distinct, she’s always thinking, with great psychological acuity, showing you that the truth runs deeper, deeper. The world of her fiction is built carefully from the thingyness of reality as well as from her philosophical ideas. Whether as true individuals or archetypes, Murdoch’s characters draw you into the strange, unique world of her imagination, trying to show you that art entertains, but also enlightens.
As Bradley says in The Black Prince, in a brief moment of truth, “The human soul craves for the eternal of which, apart from certain rare mysteries of religion, only love and art can give a glimpse.”
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