Essays and Criticism
Murdoch's Philosophical Influence
Although she was never a student of the turnof- the-century Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein, Murdoch did once meet the philosopher and befriended Wittgenstein’s star pupil, Yorich Smythies. Murdoch was also influenced by Wittgenstein’s concepts, as many critics have noted, especially in her first novel, Under the Net. This influence begins with the title and carries through the story, in particular through her protagonist Jake Donahue.
One of the concepts that Wittgenstein professed in his most widely read philosophical treatise Tractatus (1921) is that the deepest truths, although people might conceive of them, can never be fully verbalized. Truths, he believed, become diminished by the limitations of language. Any attempt to talk about, to explain, or to write a truth is similar to placing a net over the truth, which in essence is to blur the image, to make the truth less than perfect, or, in other words, to hinder it. In choosing her title, Murdoch thus signals that she is incorporating the Wittgenstein theory into her work. To know this allows the reader to look for other ways in which Murdoch explores Wittgenstein’s concepts. How might Murdoch have created her protagonist, for instance, to demonstrate Wittgenstein’s ideas? How would this affect the rest of her characters? What would be the consequences? How might she symbolize the theory in her characters’ actions?
Jake is introduced as he is walking down the street toward the house where he has been living with his close companion Finn (a man who seldom ever talks), and Jake’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Madge. Finn greets Jake with the news that Madge has kicked them out. Jake and Finn are to pack their belongings and vacate the house that very day. Finn is disheartened, and Jake is a bit put-off by the sudden change of heart by Madge, but he is not totally surprised. He knows that Madge has wanted to get married. He had even considered it at one point, but he could not commit to such a relationship. Madge, on the other hand, just wants to get married. If she cannot have Jake, she will find someone else, like Sacred Sammy, the bookie. With this first scene, Murdoch demonstrates, on a somewhat simplistic level, the various layers of lies that are spoken in an attempt to express a truth. Wittgenstein believed that in verbalizing truths, only lies come forth. Madge, for instance, really does not want to marry Sammy. She wants to marry Jake. Jake, on the other hand, does not want to leave Madge, but he does not want to marry her either. The character Finn here represents silence. Only in silence can one remain in truth, according to Wittgenstein.
Jake packs his bags, and his next stop is Mrs. Tinckham’s newspaper shop. Mrs. Tinckham is the kind of woman with whom everyone likes to talk. She is a good listener. People come to her and tell her all kinds of personal stories, and they can count on her to keep all their secrets. This draws them to her. At one point, one of her customers becomes so frustrated with her unwillingness to share a secret about someone else that he shouts, “You are pathologically discreet!” In other words, Mrs. Tinckkam, like Finn, represents silence. Therefore she can be trusted. Mrs. Tinckham, with her gift of silence and thus trust, represents truth. “I suspect,” states the narrator, “that this is the secret of Mrs. Tinckham’s success.” Then Jake tries to further describe Mrs. Tinckham, but he cannot quite figure her out. Is she very intelligent or very naïve? He has trouble defining her, just as one would have trouble defining truth. He concludes his observations of Mrs. Tinckham with the statement: “Whatever may be the truth, one thing is certain, that no one will ever know it.” To know truth is to translate it, to put it into words. Truth is beyond knowing, according to Wittgenstein.
Jake travels on to Dave’s house next, looking for a bed and a roof over his head. Dave is a philosopher, “a real one,” Jake says. He also says that he used to like to talk to Dave about philosophy. “I thought that he might tell me some important truths.” No matter how much Jake talks to Dave, he finds that they never get anywhere. Jake would present various philosophical concepts, say from Hegel or Spinoza, things that Jake did not fully understand. However, after Jake would submit his thoughts, Dave would tell him that he did not understand him. So Jake would repeat himself. “It took me some time,” Jake says, “to realize that when Dave said he didn’t understand, what he meant was that what I said was nonsense.” This statement is very similar to one that Wittgenstein was known to make. He believed that all philosophers, including himself, could at best only write nonsense. Jake then offers one of Hegel’s concepts, “Truth is a great word and the thing is greater still.” This is another way of stating Wittgenstein’s theory about the limitation of language. Jake finally concedes to Dave, or at least gives up trying to talk...
(The entire section is 2044 words.)