The Pursuit of Middle HeavenPrint
Missives about sex, love, and the value of really good talk
By George O’Brien
February 29, 2016
Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch, 1934–1995, edited by Avril Horner and Anne Rowe; Princeton University Press, 666 pp., $39.95
The more than 700 letters in this handsome and well-edited volume of Iris Murdoch’s correspondence are only a sample of the thousands that she wrote, many of them at a desk once owned by J. R. R. Tolkien. But even this selection constitutes quite a saga—not of journeys to some equivalent of Middle Earth, perhaps, but instead of the numerous and varied voyages to Eros on which the novelist, dramatist, metaphysician, and academic continually embarked. Yet, despite Murdoch’s assertion that “sex is … nearly the whole of life,” the story told here of such sallying forth will disappoint the prurient. These letters are no mere record of conquests. On the contrary, they show Murdoch’s objective not only to be sexual but also to aspire to something like a metaphysical state, an ideal plane in which mind and body, self and other, coalesced—a kind of Middle Heaven, the pursuit of which is inspired as much by a lifelong love of Plato as by less elevated considerations.
Born in Dublin in 1919, Iris Murdoch, though she thought of herself as Irish, was educated, socialized, and acculturated in England, or more precisely in that particular version of England made up of work and play in Oxford and London. In these two cities she fashioned for herself a magic circle of lovers, colleagues, and students, roles that sometimes risked becoming synonymous, dangerously so in the context of her professional academic responsibilities. The atmosphere within this circle often seems somewhat overheated by the lavish protestations of love and caring that are staples of what Murdoch calls her “letter-writing persona.” Beyond these immediate occasions of “engagement” was a somewhat looser circle largely consisting of distant Europeans, among them luminaries such as the French poet and novelist Raymond Queneau, with whom her love remained unconsummated, and the Austrian author Elias Canetti, whose lover she once was. But psychologically and intellectually revealing as these European involvements are, geographic and other forms of distance ensured that they lacked the ardor of her affairs with such English contemporaries as the philosophers Michael Oakeshott and Philippa Foot and particularly with the novelist and cultural gadfly Brigid Brophy. These were additionally complicated—or as Murdoch would have put it, rich in moral nuance—because the lovers in question were also concurrently in other relationships. And for most of the time, Murdoch herself was married to the critic and academic John Bayley, “who trusts me absolutely and never wants to hear details”—although there are indications that things were not always that simple.
According to Murdoch, “I am, I think, rather like my books,” and inasmuch as they depict emotional frenzy involving a small group of closely related, typically upper-class characters, her books resemble her letters as well. And if her novels may be described as idealistic fables in which moral conflict and sexual suffering are undergone largely so that they can be overcome, such struggles also mark Murdoch’s correspondence. Not surprisingly, intensity, or what might be termed the will to goodness, is choreographed more formally in novels such as The Black Prince and The Philosopher’s Pupil, but the letters clearly convey the same ethics of freedom and frailty, of meaning well and acting beneficially that preoccupy Murdoch’s fiction. For all the infidelities that it records, the correspondence throughout contains an enduring undercurrent of good faith, a belief that loving will uplift both lover and beloved, that it will engender the best version of themselves, and that whatever its physical manifestations may be, they are ultimately portals to an enhanced, or even entranced, metaphysic of acceptance. Correspondence emerges as an operative term, with its connotations of interplay, mutuality, trust, giving and receiving, and of the privacy that implicitly is an individual’s preeminent entitlement and domain.
Although “writing these letters is not a sexless activity,” the articulation and affirmation of desire—and of desire as a known, shared value—seems the mail’s special function. “Living on paper” attains a literal meaning, signifying the vital part correspondence plays in the process of sustaining the (so to speak) singular duality that self and other are capable of creating. In a sense, a correspondence is an affair in written form, a form that culminates not in whatever is entailed in Murdoch’s thinking herself “a sadomasochistic male homosexual” but in the really good talk she would have with her partner du jour when next they met.
Yet, large as the ethics and morality of relationships loom, they are far from being the whole story of Living on Paper. A discouraged Murdoch asserted, late in her career, that “I am just not a philosopher,” and although this may be technically the case, her writings are imbued with a keen awareness of and relish for all the philosophical and artistic embodiments of the European humanist tradition (at least up to the advent of deconstruction). These letters exemplify in tone and discursiveness her view that “philosophy is thinking without presuppositions—or aspires to it.” Indeed, the unconditional may be her watchword. The editors honor her wonderfully well stocked mind by including an appendix of names and terms, and deal tactfully with that mind’s sad decline. (Murdoch died of Alzheimer’s disease in 1999.) As well as indicating her philosophical enthusiasms, the letters also trace her spiritual and political trajectories, from apprentice existentialist to Christian-Buddhist mystic and from zealous Communist Party member to Margaret Thatcher supporter, making Living on Paper a noteworthy contribution to the intellectual and cultural history of postwar England. And the book also has much to offer concerning the long-standing intellectual crisis arising out of the withering away of romanticism. Perhaps the editors in their introductions to the book’s eight sections might have supplied a little more social and historical background to those days. Doing so would sharpen still further an appreciation of Iris Murdoch’s obviously powerful need to “live in letters.”
George O’Brien is professor emeritus of English at Georgetown University.