Iris Murdoch Murdoch, (Jean) Iris (Vol. 3)

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Murdoch, (Jean) Iris (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Murdoch, (Jean) Iris 1919–

Iris Murdoch, an Irish-born British novelist and lecturer in philosophy, writes powerful and complex intellectual novels, often employing metaphysical themes, about the possibility of love and individual freedom. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14.)

Iris Murdoch belongs within the tradition of continental letters, to that awesome line of philosopher-novelists who write novels of ideas. Philosophers by trade and temperament, they appropriate fiction in order to tell us something about universal ambiguity. Huxley did it through what he called the "musicalization of fiction," Sartre through existential heroics. Iris Murdoch's brand is metaphysical fantasy: a combination of pyrotechnics and philosophy, a design of bizarre effects intended to convey reality as contingent and eccentric….

Iris Murdoch's bizarre design [in Bruno's Dream] is fleshed out with coincidence, riddles, ironic reversals and hints of sexual perversion that constitute a strategy of insinuation employed to highlight the susceptibility of her self-styled victims. By converting the unknown into vague concepts of destiny, demons and portents, they see themselves as spellbound by arbitrary powers. It is as if some omnipotent Spider were spinning out a Web to ensnare them in disaster. But, the author assures us, there is no universal mechanism grinding out suffering or conspiring against us: "the machine is just a phantasm of our pain." Life is painfully mysterious and the universe, unfathomable, so all we can do is blunder along as best we can trying to fit the pieces together free of grand illusions.

This message is familiar, though the unusual design not quite the extravagant fare one has come to expect, say, from Miss Murdoch's absurdist fairy tale, The Flight from the Enchanter, or her grotesque myth, A Severed Head. Moreover, the gothic romance of The Unicorn and the anti-Christian allegory of The Bell make the current theme somewhat less than exciting. In comparison, Bruno's Dream is a version of the metaphysical muddle modified by the author's unwillingness to surrender her people to despair….

Many readers will also regret the waning of Iris Murdoch's inventive powers and wonder why she continues to turn out a variation on her formula almost once a year. Since The Unicorn in 1963, she has rarely shown the uncanny imagination that illuminated the earlier works. And while Bruno's Dream can be viewed as an attempt to scale universal ambiguity down to human proportions, it is an undistinguished novel of ideas, with only a few vestiges of the Murdoch flair and wit and scarcely a breath of life.

Linda Kuehl, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), March 28, 1969, pp. 52-3.

Iris Murdoch's speculative emphasis is on the writer's persistence in his work rather than on the finished product and the competition of masterpieces. Following Sartre, she has spoken pointedly of the making of works of art as not only "a struggle for freedom" but as "a task which does not come to an end." Against the bourgeois idolatry of masterpieces and their creators (an attitude which she has called "Romantic"), she advances an image of endless marginal struggle with, at best, only limited and provisional success. "Art, too," she has asserted, "lives in a region where all endeavor is failure." Hence it "must not be too much afraid of incompleteness." her solutions as a novelist ratify her speculative pronouncements, and in their conjunction she has become a writer whom anyone concerned with the immediate future of literature must come to terms with; she stands at present for as effectively reasoned a program of creative renewal as exists in the English-speaking world….

She became a novelist in order to deal freshly with matters on which the intellectual tradition she was reared in had, it seemed, reached a dead end. The problem of knowing "other minds" (a kind of philosophic counterpart to the durable English obsession with "personal...

(The entire section is 4,511 words.)