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Iris Murdoch – one of the 20th century’s greatest writers, perhaps, but was she a philosopher?

Iris Murdoch’s fiction still stands up 30 years after its publication, but what about the moral questions it posed?

By on Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The latest edition of the Heythrop Journal has come to hand, and it contains an article I wrote a very long time ago about a book that is shortly to come out in paperback. The book is called Iris Murdoch: Philosophical Novelist and its author is a young Catholic academic Miles Leeson.

How good a novelist is Iris Murdoch? I can still remember the initial thrill I felt when I first discovered her work; but, perhaps, now the case is altered, and I would not find The Sandcastle (1957) or A Severed Head (1961) as enthralling today. However, I do think that The Bell (1958),the most famous of her early books, which I reread some time ago, and The Book and the Brotherhood (1987) which I am rereading at present, do stand up to the passage of time pretty well.

There seems to be a general perception that the novels were overrated at the time, something that Miles Leeson, in his study, alludes to on the very first page. No less a person that Antonia Byatt is quoted as a standard bearer for this view. Is Murdoch now ‘unfashionable’? But after a interval of thirty years The Bell seems as interesting and as fresh now as it did to me as a teenager. But The Bell is an early work, and some may detect a falling off towards the end of her career in works such as The Green Knight (1993); though The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983) strikes me as among her very best work. All three are, among others, are discussed by Miles Leeson in his book.

As a novelist of enduring interest, Murdoch will always be worth discussing; but as a philosopher, how does her reputation stand? Miles Leeson does draw on her purely philosophical work, but his main interest is to see her as a “philosophical novelist”. In other words, the substance of his enquiry is the relation between philosophy and fiction in the work of Iris Murdoch. Murdoch herself seemed clear that the way of Sartre was not the way to go and that overt didacticism was damaging to the art of fiction. And as Leeson shows, this was not her way. She was a novelist, a story-teller, not someone who wished to deliver thinly-disguised philosophy lectures. And yet, at the heart of her fiction is a concern with philosophy, in particular moral philosophy, for the key concern she had was the matter of human goodness and the question “How can we make ourselves better?”

In fact, as Leeson shows, most of Murdoch’s fiction is concerned with the opening up of this question, rather than with delivering the answer to it. His discussion of The Philosopher’s Pupil shows us that the philosopher and pupil of the title are set up into a counterpoised dialogue with each other, and the subject of the dialogue is the good life, led, in the end, by the priest Fr Bernard, who takes off to Greece to live the life, more or less, of a hermit. But there is something absurd about this conclusion, which leads one to think that it is the question that counts, not the answer. Suicide dominates so much of Murdoch’s world, perhaps hinting to us that most questions are unanswerable.

In the end, when all Murdoch’s books are laid aside, and this includes her non-fiction, we are left with very little that is hard and fast. There is no neatly packaged teaching or contribution to the history of philosophy that a student can take away; there is no material for a dictionary of philosophy, nothing that can be summed up in a nutshell. This was one of the reasons, I think, for her great success. She flatters her readers by getting them to consider moral questions, but she always lets them off the hook by not forcing them to make moral decisions: thus we can seem morally serious people but without ever having to pay the price for being morally serious.

But what there is in Murdoch (and it is always best to concentrate on what is there, rather than to moan about what is not) remains important: the urgent sense that moral questions are important, so important that they cannot be ignored, and that these questions lie like rocks beneath the smooth surface of daily life. That is where Murdoch’s contribution lies, and that is something that Dr Leeson’s excellent book points us towards. In that sense Murdoch is one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers, as Miles Leeson clearly believes.

  • Laurence Target

    The essays in “The Sovereignty of Good” remain very well worth reading and rereading, and that is a pretty good note of philosophical importance.  The rest of the essays in the collected essays don’t stand up so well, but then few in such collections stand up at all.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Thanks, Laurence. And while on the topic, I think ‘Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals’ has some wonderful stuff in it…. MInd you, Dr Leeson confines himself to the novels in his book.

  • Laurence Target

    “Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals” does indeed have some wonderful stuff, but the lack of a good editor left it sprawling and huge.  Murdoch’s reluctance to see that her idea of the good must be realized in God is also a flaw.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Quite so….. though she does admit religion is useful, she never plumps for religion as true. And frankly, while what is suseful is OK, it is truth that commands our love and loyalty.

  • Oconnordamien

    I hate the fact that fiction is now sneered at. It dismisses one of the best tools humanity has ever used. Your children need a lesson, well tell them a story. Where-in the phrase “and the moral of the story is..” 

    Fiction, or stories, are so effective because they burrow themselves into the mind, who can forget the “Ugly Duckling” and it’s teaching of morality.

  • Polypubs

    I must admit, I was under the impression that it was widely accepted that Murdoch was making two assertions- viz.
    1) some people are more important than others, and, in general, mere status, derived from things as unlikely as the possession of a title, a stately home, wild beauty, or even a Professorship, confer importance rather than the delicious idiocy of a PG Woodhouse character.
    2) important people act as though possessed of ‘ the urgent sense that moral questions are important, so important that they cannot be ignored, and that these questions lie like rocks beneath the smooth surface of daily life’- this prevents the foolish Waughian things they do from bearing a proper satiric charge thus affirming a moral centre to things.
    At bottom it is the,  quod nescis quo modo fiat, non facis quality of the background against which she foregrounds her own importance which unites her to Beckett and places her on the Celtic fringe of English literature.
    Still, Murdoch holds her place as the avatar of what Waugh called the ‘State trained intellectual’ because there really was a period when Britain was supposed to be moving towards a meritocracy of a particularly ghastly and self-important sort.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Thanks for this enlightening and amusing comment…. it opens up a new avenue of approach for me!

  • Parasum

    Unless truth is to come from elsewhere than religion. Perhaps the function of religion should be the old Roman one of keeping God “on side”. This would mean making a break with the Biblical function of the Jewish religion, which joined – or did not separate – worship & ethics & truth. But is making such a break out of the question ?

    If religion is something one does, as in the Letter of James, perhaps it is a mistake to treat religion as a source of truth.