Monday, September 09, 2002

The Lifetime Writings of Iris Murdoch

This morning I want to depart from my normal course of reviewing a current novel and, instead, talk to you about the lifetime writings of Iris Murdoch. A few weeks ago, Jan Haaken and I talked to you a bit about the movie, Iris; while we were both somewhat disappointed with the movie, we ended by agreeing that, at least, the popularity of the movie might get some people to actually read Murdoch and might serve as well to slow her disappearance from the public mind. Shortly after our review, I was urged by a number of friends to write some sort of editorial about Murdoch’s philosophy as an attempt to correct the impressions made by the movie as well as simply to provide some overview of her work that was woefully lacking in the movie. Although the movie has come and gone, it still seems appropriate to try to say something of the importance of Murdoch.

If the movie were all one had to go on in trying to decide what Murdoch was about, her work would seem pretty vacuous indeed. Let’s face it, though Judy Dench did a great job of portraying the older Murdoch, the movie was more about Kate Winslett’s bare breasts than about Iris Murdoch’s philosophy. As Jan remarked to me (and mentioned in our joint review), all we learn about Murdoch in the movie is some vague claim that we ought to be free along with an endorsement for free love. Neither does any justice to Murdoch’s views. Indeed, one of her major disagreements with both Anglo-American, analytic philosophers and Continental, existentialist philosophers, centers on their endorsement of free will and duty as central to morality. While Murdoch sees little agreement between these two warring traditions, she insists that analytic philosophers have centered morality on the concept of duty, and the moral person is the one who, often heroically, uses leaps of will (against natural inclination) to do their duty, to do the right thing. Existentialists, while not thinking much of the concept of duty, nevertheless insist that freedom is everything; indeed, Sartre in his characteristic hyperbolic way, insists that he is nothing but his freedom. Remember his little shibboleth that is supposed to unlock the meaning of existentialism? Existence precedes essence; we (as human beings) have no essence, but instead we create our essence by our acts of choice. You are what you choose; you are what you do.

Murdoch, although sympathetic to Sartre and to his attempt to really make philosophy count in everyday life, to live his philosophy, nevertheless takes him to task for his claims about what she calls the much vaunted freedom of the will. Murdoch insists that the works of Marx and Freud have altered the intellectual landscape forever, and that it is not free will (or even the concept of duty) that is central to morality. Indeed, we are determined by our natures to be selfish; we are self-interested naturally, though not necessarily. We can (to some small extent) overcome our natural tendencies to see everything through the veil of our selfish cares and concerns, but this occurs (when it does occur at all) not through heroic acts of will in dramatic moments of decision, but, rather, via the painfully slow and incremental establishing of habits of really looking at others—seeing them not through the veil of our cares and concerns but as they really are. Morality, properly understood, is simply truth applied to ethics; i.e., seeing the real needs of others and acting on those needs. Thus, it is neither will nor duty that is central to ethics, but the good. Indeed, the title of one of her most famous and most important philosophical essays is “The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts”.

Murdoch’s moral philosophy is not unique to her, nor is it a complex or completely worked out view. To put is simply: Murdoch believes that good is real (it is not, as Sartre would claim, created by choice or by the will); it is not relative to the individual (or tribe, or culture). The problem with much of analytic philosophy (according to Murdoch) is that while it correctly rejects Sartrean (and similar) attempts to place value in the subject (to make it subjective and relative), it attempts to come up with a successful analysis of good; i.e., to come up with some property or set of properties that all good things share and by virtue of which they are good. Murdoch, agreeing with an Oxford philosopher famous to academic philosophers though not to others, G.E. Moore, insists that while good is real, is an objective feature of the universe, it is simple and unanalyzable. There is no property that all good things share except their goodness.

So, good is real; the concept of good is central in ethics, and people come to be good not by heroic acts of will, but by the day to day accretion of the habit of attending to others. But why write novels instead of simply writing good, clear, discursive essay if one wants to put forward this theory of morality? Well, Murdoch believes that since good is not analyzable, cannot be broken down or analyzed further, the best that we can do to portray good is by pointing to it. Murdoch supposes herself to be agreeing with Plato in claiming that metaphor is not simply a useful tool in displaying good, but a necessary one. She reminds her readers that Plato often uses the metaphor of the sun when speaking of good, and invites us to again think about his allegory of the cave. Plato, usually so successful in analyzing difficult and pivotal concepts, seems here to resort to metaphor. Likewise, Murdoch, in her novels, intends to show us good in the concrete acts of characters immersed in life. She intends also to show us, clearly and convincingly, the myriad ways in which we are blinded by self, the ways in which not only the will to power can lead to self-absorption (and consequently moral blindness), but many other things that are not normally seen as selfish. For example, guilt can, easily and completely, return the gaze to the self, and though guilt may be understandable, may even seem morally required, guilt rarely if ever leads us to good. Resentment, grief, guilt, even what gets called love (especially of the romantic and sexual variety) are ways of being self-absorbed, and thus are also ways of going wrong, of not being good.

Murdoch writes novels not to take the place of discursive essay, and indeed insists that discursive essay has its part to play in doing ethics. She simply thinks that it is not enough, especially if the attempt is not simply to talk about morality but to make people better, to help them to really see. Novels concretize, put into context, good acts and good people, but even more clearly, they show us how people ‘go bad’, how and why they usually miss the mark . It is one thing to say that deceit leads to deceit, that lies accrue and gather and destroy, it is quite another to show how this happens. One simple lie, often enough told to ‘spare’ another some unpleasant truth, begins an entire network of lies and obfuscation. In one of her best novels, A Fairly Honorable Defeat, there is a good and successful homosexual relationship between two men who rank among the best of Murdoch’s characters (characters who are so often dark and selfish and deceitful); the relationship is one of very few I can think of in her novels that seems to be a really good and mutually caring, mutually seeing one. But a skillful enchanter (and there are so many skillful enchanters in Murdoch’s novels) decides, just for the fun of it, to test this relationship, and he does it by the simply machination of getting Simon (the younger and more naive of the lovers) to cover a possibly embarrassing admission with a lie. The reader has to stand by in horror as a series of cover-up lies ensues; no one horrible in itself, but deceit (Murdoch shows us) destroys trust and intimacy.

But I am trying to do too much here too fast. Let me end by saying simply that you ought sometime to pick up an Iris Murdoch novel, and I’m tempted to say that any one will do. Read through it expecting it to say something important, expecting it not to simply be pessimistic or simply mocking the human condition. In fact, pick up one of her essays on ethics (say from the excellent collection Existentialists and Mystics), and read what she has to say about morality. And then read another of her novels, or read the same novel again. I think you will see that Murdoch is getting at essential truths about the human condition, and that she is doing so with the intention of making us better, making us wiser. Perhaps you will even come to agree with me that Murdoch is a very good ethicist, and one of the most important novelists of the century.

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