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Iris Murdoch Remembered
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Iris Murdoch Remembered

Roman Bonzon

Iris Murdoch, British novelist and philosopher, died on February 8, 1999, in Oxford, England, at the age of seventy-nine. She had suffered from Alzheimers disease since the mid-1990s, and died at a nursing home with her husband by her side. “She is not sailing into the dark”, he wrote in the moving account of her illness and their life together published in the United States early this year as Elegy for Iris. “The voyage is over and, under the dark escort of Alzheimers, she has arrived somewhere.” The last of her novels, Jacksons Dilemma, appeared in 1995, and a collection of her essays on philosophy and literature, Existentialists and Mystics, was issued in 1997. Her major philosophical work, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, based on the 1982 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, was published in 1992.

Dame Jean Iris Murdoch was born in Dublin, Ireland, on July 15, 1919. The family moved to London in her childhood, and she attended Badminton School in Bristol. She won the Harriet Needham Exhibition to Sommerville College, Oxford in 1938, gaining a first in Greats in 1942. From 1944 to 1946 she worked for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in Belgium and Austria. Although she thought she might become an art historian or an archaeologist, she came across Sartres L’être et le néant in a Brussels bookstore, and reading it convinced her to turn to philosophy. Denied a visa to enter the United States in 1946 to pursue further studies because of her former membership in the Communist Party, she took up the Sarah Smithson Studentship in Philosophy at Newnham College, Cambridge the following year (contrary to some reports, she never formally studied under Wittgenstein). She was elected a fellow of St. Annes College, Oxford in 1948, working as a tutor of philosophy until 1963, when she retired as Honorary Fellow. She lectured at the Royal College of Art from 1963 to 1967.

She is most widely known for her varied and dazzling twenty-six novels, the first of which, Under the Net, appeared in 1954. Among the more notable are: The Bell (1958), A Severed Head (1961, subsequently adapted as a play with J. B. Priestly and as a movie), The Nice and the Good (1968), A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970), The Black Prince (1973), The Sacred and Profane Love Machine (1974), The Sea, the Sea (1978), The Philosophers Pupil (1983), The Book and the Brotherhood (1987), The Message to the Planet (1989), nd The Green Knight (1993). She also published plays (most adapted from the novels) and a volume of poetry, A Year of Birds (1978, with engravings by Reynolds Stone). Meticulously plotted, with sharp characterizations and serious themes, the novels have been hailed as a major contribution to English literature of the second half of the twentieth century. They were written under the acknowledged influence of the great 19th century novelists Dickens, George Eliot, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Henry James, and constitute a sustained meditation upon dense and complex configurations of chaos and contingency, goodness and evil, power, fantasy, enchantment, truth and love.

Her philosophical works began with Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953), followed by The Sovereignty of Good in 1970, and The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists, based on the 1976 Romanes Lecture, in 1977. Acastos: Two Platonic Dialogues appeared in 1996. The predominant influence on her philosophical thought is Plato, but Kant, Freud, Sartre, Wittgenstein and Weil have been important at various stages of her development.

While she was primarily a moral philosopher, engagement with issues in aesthetics and the philosophy of art was never far from the center of her theoretical concerns. She first advanced her thoughts on these matters in two essays that appeared in 1959, “The Sublime and the Good” and “The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited”. Her initial preoccupation was with Kant and Tolstoy, in relation to whom she first stated her view: “Art and morals are, with certain provisos…one. Their essence is the same. The essence of both of them is love…. Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.” With various extensions, qualifications, and clarifications this is the vision she attempted to communicate in all her subsequent work.

She explicitly introduces and locates beauty in the scheme in “On God and Good” and it plays a larger role in “The Sovereignty of Good over other Concepts”. These essays, which were published together with a third essay as The Sovereignty of Good, are probably her most influential pieces of philosophy. She maintains that beauty “appears as the visible and accessible aspect of the Good”. It is “the only spiritual thing which we love by instinct”. Proper attention to a great work of art will lead us out of ourselves into a clear vision of reality, and beauty is the means that mediates this.

The Fire and the Sun is her fullest and most concentrated treatment of these matters, in which her long preoccupation with Plato bears fruit . She distinguishes fantasy from imagination, and links them to art by identifying bad art with art that aids the artists and audiences daydreaming self-contained fantasies and good art with art that exercises the imagination and leads out of the selfish ego to an apprehension of reality. This allowed her to propose a Platonic conception of art fashioned from materials in the Philebus, the Phaedrus, and the Symposium that contrasts with, at the same time as it explains, the condemnation of poets in the Republic. She extended her Platonic account in a discussion of mimesis and the problems presented by music and abstract paintings in “Art is the Imitation of Nature” (1978). Acastos is a lucid and relatively elementary presentation of the view in mock-Platonic dialogue form (it was staged as a National Theatre Platform Performance in 1980 under the direction of Michael Kustow). Her final thoughts on the subject are contained in the first five chapters of Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals.

As a philosopher of literature she wrote a number of essays that have particularly interested literary critics and theorists: “The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited” and “Against Dryness” propose a theory of the novel which allowed her to divide twentieth-century novels into the “crystalline” – the kind of novel that is “a small quasi-allegorical object portraying the human condition and not conaining characters in the nineteenth-century sense – and the “journalistic” – a “large shapeless quasi-documentary object, the degenerate descendant of the nineteenth-century novel, telling, with pale conventional characters, some straightforward story enlivened with empirical facts”. Neither kind, she believed, addresses the problems about human personality posed by the Enlightenment. More explicitly on the relation between literature and philosophy is an interview with Bryan Magee in Men of Ideas (1978), in which she addresses the possible relation (none, she claimed) between her philosophical views and her fictions.

There was a conference on her work at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago in 1994 which brought together scholars from philosophy, literature, and theology, including Charles Taylor, Martha Nussbaum, and Cora Diamond (the proceedings were subsequently published as Iris Murdoch and the Search for Human Goodness, 1996). But the secondary literature on her is dominated by literature professors and theologians. Though Nussbaum, Taylor, Diamond, and Sabina Lovibond have cited the influence of her essays, her magnum opus Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals has not yet received the notice it deserves from philosophers. It is an attempt to articulate a deep unifying basis for her thoughts on art, morality and reality, an intellectual voyage that begins with a discussion of the powers of art and of different kinds of art (Chapters 1-5), continues with an investigation of the mind, of consciousness, thought, will, and imagination (Chapters 6-11), and ends with an exploration of realities: the political, the religious, and the transcendental (Chapters 12-19). Along the way are interspersed valuable accounts of Schopenhauer, Derrida, Wittgenstein, and Martin Buber. (She was reportedly working on a book on Heidegger when her illness set in.)

Iris Murdoch received numerous honors and awards. She was made Commander of the British Empire in 1976 and Dame of the British Empire in 1987. She was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1982. Among her literary awards were: the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, 1973; the Whitbread Prize, 1974; the Booker McConnell Prize, 1978 (for which 6 of her novels had been shortlisted). She was also made a Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature in 1987, and awarded the National Arts Clubs (New York) Medal of Honor for Literature in 1990.

She is survived by her husband of forty-three years, the literary critic, novelist and Oxford professor John Bayley.

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