Iris as Pupil

Before this canonical English writer published novels, she was a student of French postwar philosophy

Mykyta Nikiforov/Flickr
Mykyta Nikiforov/Flickr

When we think of Dame Iris Murdoch, many of us might picture another dame, Judi Dench, who portrayed Murdoch’s descent into dementia in the film Iris. Dench is astounding, but the film is frustrating. While it recounts, as the film critic Roger Ebert remarked, Murdoch’s early years (featuring Kate Winslet) and her final years (embodied by Dench), it leaves out most everything in between, including the nearly 30 novels Murdoch wrote during the second half of the 20th century.

Murdoch the novelist was both probing and prolific, her works always in the running for the prestigious Booker Prize, though she won it only once, for The Sea, The Sea in 1978. Murdoch was not only one of Great Britain’s most celebrated novelists, she was also, for many critics, its last novelist of the first rank. Harold Bloom was undoubtedly not alone to sigh upon Murdoch’s death that there were “no first-rate writers left in Britain.”

She was also the most cerebral of writers. Before turning full-time to writing in 1963, she had taught philosophy full-time at Oxford since 1948. Increasingly these days, a growing number of professional philosophers associate Murdoch’s name not with fiction but with philosophy. In the 25 years since her death—an anniversary that passed mostly unnoticed last month—the works and life she left for us have prodded philosophers to rethink what we talk about when we talk about the nature of the good. And goodness only knows how important a subject this is—not just in the groves of academe, but most everywhere else in this battered and limping world we have made.

At Oxford’s Somerville College during World War II, Murdoch completed the demanding four-year degree in ancient languages and philosophy known as “greats.” Crucially, though, she then worked as a United Nations relief worker in Europe. Assigned to a series of posts in Austria, she wrote to a friend, “How irrevocably broken so many lives have been by this war. … Nothing nothing nothing ahead for these people.”

But for a new generation of French philosophers, there was something ahead. Before she had left for Austria, Murdoch was also irrevocably marked by her discovery of existentialism, a school of thought she believed might help repair the broken world. While in Brussels, she met Jean-Paul Sartre, whose early works she had already begun to devour. “His talk is ruthlessly gorgeously lucid—& I begin to like his ideas more and more,” she wrote. Ditto for the novels and essays of Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir.

How could a 20-something, shocked by a war that had devastated not only countless lives but also the moral and religious conventions that had shaped those lives, not be drawn to the ideas of radical freedom and individual responsibility that these 30-something French thinkers were affirming? It was, Murdoch exclaimed, “a philosophy of vigour & action. Denuding. Stimulating.” No less denuding and stimulating to her was Simone Weil, the French Jewish philosopher who, despite her training, spent most of her short life working in factories and farms and fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Weil died in 1943 in England, where she had joined Charles de Gaulle’s Free French resistance forces. She left behind a mass of papers and essays—most of which Camus edited and published after the war—that traced her intellectual journey from Platonism to Catholicism, from political militancy to religious mysticism. Murdoch was fascinated by the French thinker’s insistence that being goodly—or Godly—means seeing rightly.

We often look to philosophers to answer the question “What does it mean to be good?” And philosophers being philosophers, what we get in return is not one, but many and competing answers. Given the current debate among the ranks of deontologists, consequentialists, and virtue ethicists—new names for ancient schools—professional philosophers seem no closer to a unified field theory of the Good than they were 2,000 years ago.

Much less often do we look to philosophers to see whether they live according to the answers they give. But there are notable exceptions. There is Socrates, of course, who lived and died in pursuit of the Good. Two millennia later, Baruch Spinoza was another thinker accused of heresy for acting on what he believed was the “true good.” More recently, the thinker Costica Bradatan has made the case for Jan Potocka, the Czech philosopher who also lived by, and died for, his idea of being good.

As she pored over Weil’s writings, Murdoch paid close attention to, yes, the notion of attention. By attention, Weil means the kind of sight that is “so full that the ‘I’ disappears,” the kind of sight that allows others to be seen as they truly are. Achieving this requires, quite literally, self-restraint. Ideally, it leads to “the extremely difficult realization,” as Murdoch later wrote, “that something other than oneself is real.”

By the time Murdoch wrote that line, she had herself come to the extremely difficult realization—one that I find unjustified—that she was not cut out to be a real philosopher. Or, at least, a practitioner of the sort of philosophy then in vogue. By and large, Anglo-American philosophers had turned from the perennial questions over the meaning of life to precise questions over the meaning of words. The practice of ordinary language philosophy, with its emphasis on getting words right, marginalized those increasingly rare philosophers whose language grappled with the extraordinary in our lives.

In part, Murdoch sought to fill this “void in present-day moral philosophy” by the writing of fiction. Oddly, she always denied a connection between her novelistic and philosophic writing—a claim that leaves those with even the slightest acquaintance with her fiction and philosophy scratching their heads. Perhaps Murdoch insisted on this firewall because, as she confessed to a friend, “my novels are too full of thought.”

While her narratives can, at times, slip from the pondering to the ponderous, there are certainly worse literary sins. More important, and the reason I prize Murdoch as a thinker, is that her philosophy is so full of narrative. A famous instance is her account of a mother-in-law, called M, who had long scorned her daughter-in-law, D, as unworthy of her son. But M, who is neither shallow nor hateful, eventually reassesses her picture of D. “Let me look again,” M resolves—a resolution to see D not as a mother afraid to lose her son, but as a person determined to see another person as complex and worthy as herself.

Murdoch argues that to really look at another person is the work of Weilian attention. We can never fully succeed, but we can, with apologies to Samuel Beckett, fail better and better over time. In short, Murdoch argues that we “grow by looking.” Rather than remaining “imprisoned by a fixed picture” of another person, we can loosen, if never break, the chains of habit by finding the right words and images to see that person more fully. But to move away from these fixed pictures means that we must also move away, as much as we can, from our “fat, relentless ego” and its dismal train of resentment, self-pity, and despair.

“It is a task to come to see the world as it is,” Murdoch writes. Yet no task is more important because no task is more attached to goodness. Whereas Murdoch allows that the concept of the Good “remains obscure and mysterious,” there is nothing obscure or mysterious about the goodness of seeing the world as it is, and others as they are, and not as we wish it and them to be. Nor is it mysterious how critical this activity is in our own age where a virtual world eclipses the real one and the self steeps in the toxic stew of social platforms.

In one of her essays, “On ‘Good’ and ‘God,’” Murdoch warns us that the “chief enemy of excellence in morality is personal fantasy: the tissue of self-aggrandizing and consoling wishes and dreams which prevents one from seeing what there is outside one.” What time could be better than now to turn off your screen, open up a Murdoch novel, or simply open yourself to the world and the persons seated next to you?

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Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. He is the author most recently of Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.


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