Iris Murdoch Essay - Critical Essays

Iris Murdoch Long Fiction Analysis

A knowledge of Iris Murdoch’s philosophical and critical essays is invaluable for the reader wishing to understand her fiction. Her moral philosophy, which entails a rejection of existentialism, behaviorism, and linguistic empiricism, informs her fiction throughout and provides a basis for an interpretation of both the content and the form of her work. Although early influenced by Sartrean existentialism, she developed a radically different view of the human condition. The major disagreement she had with the existentialist position was its emphasis on choice, a belief Murdoch characterized as “unrealistic, over-optimistic, romantic” because it fails to consider the true nature of human consciousness and what she called “a sort of continuous background with a life of its own.” Existentialism, which she called “the last fling of liberal Romanticism in philosophy," presents humanity with “too grand” a conception of itself as isolated from its surroundings and capable of rational, free choice. She described this picture of humankind as “Kantian man-gods” who are “free, independent, lonely, powerful, rational, responsible, and brave.” Although Murdoch denied being a Freudian, Sigmund Freud’s “realistic and detailed picture of the fallen man” is much closer to her own conception of human nature, and she agreed with what she called Freud’s “thoroughly pessimistic view” in which the psyche is described as an “egocentric system of quasi-mechanical energy” determined by its individual history; the natural attachments of this psyche are “sexual, ambiguous, and hard for the subject to control.” The most important dimension of this description of the individual is his lack of rational free will, and Murdoch’s statement in “Against Dryness” that “we are not isolated free choosers, monarchs of all we survey, but benighted creatures sunk in a reality whose nature we are constantly and overwhelmingly tempted to deform by fantasy” is perhaps her tersest summary of the human condition.

Murdoch’s philosophical position was the basis for her choice of prose fiction as the most realistic literary genre. The novelist’s advantage is a “blessed freedom from rationalism,” and she saw the novel as the literary form that, because of its lack of formal restrictions, could best portray the “open world, a world of absurdity and loose ends and ignorance.” Although she had reservations about modern literature and believed that the twentieth century novel tends either to be “crystalline” (self-contained, mythic, sometimes allegorical, and frequently neurotic) or “journalistic” (semidocumentary, descriptive, and factual), the nineteenth century novel as written by Leo Tolstoy, Jane Austen, and George Eliot remains the best example of how fiction can create free, independent characters who are not “merely puppets in the exteriorization of some closely-locked psychological conflict” of the author. The nineteenth century novel, because it “throve upon a dynamic merging of the idea of person with the idea of class,” was not simply a representation of the human condition but rather contained “real various individuals struggling in society”; in other words, it presented characters and the “continuous background with a life of its own.”

Murdoch believed that the most important obligation for the novelist is the creation of particularized, unique, and ultimately indefinable human beings, characters who move outside the novelist’s consciousness into an independent ontological status. This aesthetic theory has its corollary in Murdoch’s moral philosophy, in which she stresses the need for the individual to recognize the “otherness” of other individuals. The great novelist, like the “good” person, has an “apprehension of the absurd irreducible uniqueness of people and of their relations with each other,” an apprehension she castigated Sartre for lacking. Recognition of otherness is, to a degree, dependent on the individual’s ability to “attend to” other individuals, a concept Murdoch derived from the philosophy of Simone Weil. Murdoch described attention as a “patient, loving regard, directed upon a person, a thing, a situation” and believed that we “grow by looking”; morality, both for the individual and the novelist who is attempting a realistic portrayal of human beings in the world, is an endless process of attending to a reality outside the individual consciousness. Attention is seeing, “a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality,” and as such is an effort to counteract “states of illusion” brought about by selfish fantasy. For Murdoch, attention is also another name for love, and “the ability to direct attention is love.” Imaginative prose literature, Murdoch believed, is the best medium in which to focus attention on the individual because it is “par excellence the form of art most concerned with the existence of other persons.”

In “The Sublime and the Good,” Murdoch defines love as “the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.” She has also said that the main subject of her fiction is love, and her novels usually depict the difficulties involved in recognizing the uniqueness and independence of other human beings. In The Bell, the Abbess tells Michael Meade that “all of our failures are ultimately failures in love,” a statement that neatly describes Murdoch’s fictional world. The enemy of love in her novels is the propensity of the individual to fantasize and to create false pictures of reality, particularly distorted conceptions of other people. As a result, her novels frequently present situations in which characters are forced to confront the “otherness” of those around them, situations that often involve a realization of the past or present sexual involvements of other persons. The comfort and safety of the “old world,” as it is called by many Murdoch characters, is destroyed by a discovery about the past or by characters suddenly falling passionately in love with each other. A Severed Head, in which Martin Lynch-Gibbon is shocked by a series of revelations about his wife and friends and falls precipitately and unpredictably in love with Honor Klein, is one of the best examples of this recurring pattern in Murdoch’s work.

Murdoch believed that the experience of art can serve to shock the individual into an awareness of a reality outside the personal psyche, and her novels contain several scenes in which characters who gaze upon paintings are able to escape temporarily from solipsistic fantasy. Dora Greenfield in The Bell, Harriet Gavender in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, and Tim Reede in Nuns and Soldiers each experience what Murdoch calls “unselfing” and Harriet Gavender describes as “not being myself any more”; in fact, Dora Greenfield notes that paintings give her “something which her consciousness could not wretchedly devour.The pictures were something real outside herself.” Murdoch, in “The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited,” calls art “spiritual experience” because it can bring out this radical change in perception, and in The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists, she claims that in an unreligious age good art provides people with “their clearest experience of something grasped as separate and precious and beneficial and held quietly and unpossessively in the attention.”

Murdoch’s ambivalent attitudes about the role of art and artists are present in both her fiction and her philosophy. In an interview with Michael Bellamy, in Contemporary Literature (1977), she described art as a “temptation to impose from where perhaps it isn’t always appropriate,” and in the same discussion noted that “morality has to do with not imposing form, except appropriately and cautiously and carefully and with attention to appropriate detail.” Murdoch suggested to several interviewers that the basis of her novels is what she calls the conflict between “the saint and the artist,” or the dichotomy between the “truthful, formless figure” and the “form-maker.” She mentioned Tallis Browne and Julius King in A Fairly Honourable Defeat, Ann and Randall Peronett in An Unofficial Rose, and Hugo Belfounder and Jake Donaghue in Under the Net as examples. She believed that Plato’s life exemplifies this conflict: “We can see played out in that great spirit the peculiarly distressing struggle between the artist and the saint.” The true or “good” artist must avoid the “ruthless subjection of characters” to his will and should use symbolism judiciously in a “natural, subordinate way” that attempts to be “perfectly realistic.” In her fiction, Murdoch’s artist figures are often demonic individuals who manipulate people in real life without regard for their well-being or independence as persons. Her “saint” figures have a corresponding lack of form, or sense of self, and are frequently unable or unwilling to act in any way. Douglas Swann’s comment in An Unofficial Rose that “nothing is more fatal to love than to want everything to have form” is also true of Murdoch’s attitude toward art.

Many of Murdoch’s characters attempt to find form in their own lives in order to explain the apparent chaos that surrounds them. In her essay “Vision and Choice in Morality,” Murdoch talks about the need at times to stress “not the comprehensibility of the world but its incomprehensibility” and says that “there are even moments when understanding ought to be withheld.” In The Flight from the Enchanter, John Rainborough experiences a moment of joy when he feels “how little I know, and how little it is possible to know,” but this happiness in a lack of knowledge is rare in Murdoch’s fiction. In the same novel, Rosa Keepe, a much more representative Murdoch character, listens to the sound of the machines in the factory, hoping to hear a “harmonious and repetitive pattern,” just as Michael Meade in The Bell expects to find “the emergence in his life of patterns and signs.” At the end of the novel, he regretfully concludes that the apparent pattern he had observed in his life was merely his own “romantic imagination. At the human level there was no pattern.”

The search for rational, discernible causal relationships is the major structuring principle in An Accidental Man, a novel concerned with the discovery of, in Gracie Tisbourne’s words, “a worldquite without order.” In “The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts,” Murdoch says that “there are properly many patterns and purposes within life, but there is no general and as it were externally guaranteed pattern or purpose of the kind for which philosophers and theologians used to search,” and she has also stated her desire to write novels that, because they contain more of the contingent, accidental dimensions of life, are more realistic than “patterned” fiction.

Murdoch’s reservations about form in life and art are paralleled by her suspicions about language. A fervent defender of literature and language who said in “Salvation by Words” that “words constitute the ultimate texture and stuff of our moral being.The fundamental distinctions can only be made in words” and in The Fire and the Sun that “the careful responsible skillful use of words is our highest instrument of thought and one of our highest modes of being,” Murdoch also voiced suspicions about the ironic nature of language, its potential to distort the truth and to create false pictures of reality. This distrust of language is evident in her first novel, Under the Net, and continued to inform her fiction. In this respect, Murdoch was greatly influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein; direct references and sly, sometimes ironic allusions to Wittgenstein appear repeatedly in her novels.

In spite of these reservations, however, Murdoch mounts one of the most eloquent defenses of art and literature in modern times in The Sovereignty of Good and The Fire and the Sun. She claims in “The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts” that art “can enlarge the sensibility of its consumer. It is a kind of goodness by proxy,” and in “On ’God’ and ’Good,’” she asserts that art, rather than being any kind of playful diversion for the human race, is “the place of its most fundamental insight.” According to Murdoch, literature is the most important art because of its unique ability to shed light on the human condition: “The most essential and fundamental aspect of culture is the study of literature, since this is an education in how to picture and understand human situations.” This statement in “The Idea of Perfection” obviously places an enormous burden on the novelist, a burden that Murdoch’s prolific output, technical virtuosity, and moral vision appear to be capable of bearing.

Under the Net

Jake Donaghue, the narrator-protagonist of Under the Net, informs the reader early in the novel that the story’s central theme is his acquaintance with Hugo Belfounder. The relationship between the two men illustrates Murdoch’s philosophical and aesthetic concerns, for the Hugo-Jake friendship represents the saint-artist dichotomy; this “philosophical novel” allows her to explore the problem of theoretical approaches to reality, the issue of contingency, the realization of the otherness of individuals, and the ambiguities of language and art.

The character of Hugo Belfounder is based in part on that of the enigmatic Elias Canetti, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981; the Bulgarian-born Canetti, who settled in England in 1939, appears in various guises in several of Murdoch’s early novels. Hugo, some of whose precepts also suggest the influence of Wittgenstein, is Murdoch’s first “saint” figure, and he embodies many of the qualities of the “good” characters who appear later in her fiction. Hugo’s saintliness is a result of his truthfulness and his lack of desire for form or structure in life and art. Opposed to him is Jake, who, fearing that he may actually tell the truth to Mrs. Tinckham about being evicted by Madge, delays telling his story until he can present it in a “more dramatic wayas yet it lacked form.” Form, as Jake tacitly admits, is a kind of lying, an imposition of structure that distorts reality. Hugo, on the other hand, is attracted by the ephemerality and formlessness of the firework displays he has created, and he abandons them when they receive the attention of art critics who begin to classify his work into styles. Hugo is also characterized by a selflessness that Jake finds astonishing: It does not occur to him that he is responsible for the concepts discussed in Jake’s book The Silencer, or that Anna Quentin’s mime theater is based on her interpretation of his beliefs.

The difference between the two men is also evident in their attitude toward theory. After his conversations with Hugo, Jake concedes that his own approach to life is “blurred by generalities,” and he is entranced by Hugo’s refusal to classify the world around him or to adopt any kind of theory about it. Annandine, Hugo’s persona in The Silencer, says that “the movement away from theory and generality is the movement towards truth. All theorizing is flight. We must be ruled by the situation itself and this is unutterably particular.” Theories, like form, distort what they attempt to explain and understand. Hugo’s lack of a general theoretical framework for his ideas, the “net” of the novel’s title, makes everything he encounters “astonishing, delightful, complicated, and mysterious.”

Part of Jake’s education and development as a potential artist is dependent on his relinquishing the need for theories and generalizations. In his first meeting with Anna, he notices that she is in “the grip of a theory,” and one of the most important episodes in the novel is Jake’s realization that Jean-Pierre Breteuil, whose work he has previously translated into English, has finally written a good novel—a feat Jake had believed impossible. He understands that he has incorrectly “classed” Jean-Pierre and says that “It wrenched me, like the changing of a fundamental category.” Similarly, when Jake becomes aware that Hugo is in love with Sadie Quentin rather than Anna, he says that “a pattern in my mind was suddenly scattered and the pieces of it went flying about me like birds.” At the end of the novel, Jake has abandoned attempts to impose his own ideas onto his environment; rather, he decides to sit quietly and “let things take shape deeply within me,” noting that he can “sense,” beneath the level of his attention and without his conscious aid, “great forms moving in the darkness.”

Jake’s initial need to perceive form and to create theories is paralleled by his fear of contingency. One of Murdoch’s major quarrels with Sartre is his inability to deal with the contingent, or, in her words, the “messiness” and “muddle” of human existence. Rather than rejecting Sartre’s concept of viscosity, Murdoch frequently forces her characters to come to terms with the physical world and the accidental and apparently chaotic nature of reality. Early in the novel, Jake announces that “I hate contingency. I want everything in my life to have a sufficient reason,” and later, in a reference to Sartre’s La Nausée (1938; Nausea, 1949), observes that Hugo’s Bounty Belfounder film studio is situated in a part of London “where contingency reaches the point of nausea.” The novel ends with Jake laughingly admitting that he does not know why Mrs. Tinckham’s kittens look as they do. “I don’t know why it is,” he says. “It’s just one of the wonders of the world.” In this scene, Jake focuses on the particular—the kittens—and is able to accept that their appearance cannot be explained by him, two actions that show that he has moved much closer to Hugo’s position. Hugo had earlier advised Jake that “some situations can’t be unravelled” and, as a result, should be “dropped.”

This acceptance of contingency implies a realization that life cannot be completely controlled by human will. Jake also learns that other individuals exist independent of him and resist his efforts to explain and categorize their behavior. When he introduces his close friend Peter O’Finney to the reader, he claims that “Finn has very little inner life” and that, while Finn is an inhabitant of his universe, “Icannot conceive that he has one containing me.” Events in the novel force Jake to move out of his solipsistic consciousness, and at the conclusion he acknowledges that for the first time Anna exists “as a separate being and not as a part of myself,” an experience he finds “extremely painful.” She becomes “something which had to be learnt afresh,” and he then asks if it is possible ever to know another human being. He answers himself in a statement that clearly belongs to his author: “Perhaps only after one has realized the impossibility of knowledge and renounced the desire for it and finally ceased to feel even the need of it.” In the same way, Jake also grants Hugo a final mysteriousness and impenetrability, comparing him to a monolith whose purpose remains obscure.

Murdoch’s suspicions about the nature of language are also evident in Under the Net. In a conversation between Hugo and Jake, Hugo maintains that, by definition, language lies: “The whole language is a machine for making falsehoods.” Language is also vulnerable because of humanity’s tendency to distort and to exaggerate experiences when attempting to articulate them; Hugo notes that when he speaks he does not state precisely what he thinks but rather what will impress Jake and force him to respond. Only actions, says Hugo, do not lie. This is not, however, Murdoch’s final word on language and literature, for Jake’s development as a human being during the course of the novel culminates in his realization that he will be able to write creatively. The “shiver of possibility” that he feels at the novel’s conclusion is his knowledge that his earlier writing has been merely a preparation for his emergence as a novelist.

Murdoch’s first novel is clearly a Künstlerroman and her most overtly “philosophical” novel. In an interview in 1978 with Jack Biles, in Studies in the Literary Imagination, she said that she does not want to “promote” her philosophical views in her novels or to allow them to “intrude into the novel world.” This attitude certainly seems more descriptive of the novels written after Under the Net. Although she paints an ironically amusing portrait of the novel’s only professional philosopher, Dave Gellman, her major concerns in her first novel are clearly philosophical; Under the Net contains in more obvious form the philosophical issues that are transmuted into the fictional material of her subsequent work.

A Fairly Honourable Defeat

Speaking of A Fairly Honourable Defeat in her interview with Michael Bellamy, Murdoch said that the “defeat” of the novel’s title is the defeat of good by evil. She calls the novel a “theological myth” in which Julius King is Satan, Tallis Browne is a Christ figure, and Leonard Browne is God the Father. Another trichotomy, however, is suggested in A Fairly Honourable Defeat, for Julius and Tallis, like Ann and Randall Peronett in An Unofficial Rose, embody the saint-artist opposition that is so common in Murdoch’s fiction, and Rupert Foster represents the rationalist philosopher’s approach to experience, an approach that ultimately fails because it does not take into consideration the reality of evil and the formlessness of good. The relationships among these three men form one of the most important thematic concerns of the novel.

A Fairly Honourable Defeat begins with Hilda and Rupert Foster enacting a scene common in Murdoch’s fiction, that of the happily married couple whose contentment has insulated them from their less fortunate friends. Like Kate and Octavian Gray in The Nice and the Good, Rupert and Hilda feel as if their happiness has granted them a privileged and protected status. Rupert’s statement that “anything is permitted to us,” ominously similar to Friedrich Nietzsche’s “all is permitted,” signals that for the moment they live in the “old world” of pleasure and stability that is so frequently shattered in the course of a Murdoch novel. The agent of destruction in A Fairly Honourable Defeat is Julius King, a scientist who considers himself an “artist” whose artworks consist of manipulating the lives of people around him, forcing them to “act parts” and in the process become “educated” about their moral failures.

Julius King’s reaction to Rupert’s philosophy of life is the catalyst for the events of the novel. Although Rupert, like Murdoch, calls human existence “jumble” and castigates his sister-in-law Morgan Browne for her “love and do as you please” attitude toward people, Rupert believes that “complete information and straight answers and unambiguous positionsclarifications and rational policies” are possible and desirable; for Rupert, goodness is a fairly simplistic concept that can be experienced directly and articulated eloquently. His statement to Morgan after Julius has orchestrated their ostensible “love affair” that “nothing awful can happen” summarizes his inability to grasp the kind of evil that Julius represents, and the destruction of the manuscript of his book on moral philosophy symbolizes the fragility of his worldview, a fragility underscored by his death. Rupert’s major error is believing that his own rationality can prevail; he hypocritically thinks that “the top of the moral structure was no dream, and he had proved this by exercises in loving attention: loving people, loving art, loving work, loving paving stones and leaves on trees.” In reality, as Julius later observes, Rupert is in love with his own image of himself as a good, loving, and rational man who can control any urge that threatens the “moral structure” of his world; while he espouses many theories about the nature of love, he lacks the “direct language of love” that makes real action possible.

Unlike Rupert, who believes that his duty is to love others, Julius’s attitude toward human beings is one of contempt, an emotion the narrator describes as “the opposite extreme from love: the cynicism of a deliberate contemptuous diminution of another person.” One of the major reasons for his low valuation of people is the very quality that makes them vulnerable to his manipulation—their malleability, or, as he phrases it, the easiness with which they are “beguiled.” In a conversation with Tallis, Julius says that most individuals,...

(The entire section is 10340 words.)