Another page on this author in this site, here
When She Was Good
by Martha C. Nussbaum
Post date: 12.20.01
Issue date: 12.31.01
Murdoch: A Life
by Peter J. Conradi
(W.W. Norton, 706 pp., $35)
How is moral philosophy related to narrative fiction? One would think that the relationship ought to be an intimate one. Both genres are concerned with character and choice, with motives and imaginings, with the vicissitudes of passion. And yet, from the time when Plato attacked the tragic artists, the relationship has often been characterized by mutual suspicion, philosophers viewing narrative literature as indulgent, emotional, and lacking in normative clarity, writers of fiction viewing philosophers as intolerant moralists who lack appreciation of what Proust calls the "intermittences of the heart." But some cultures and some periods have been marked by especially hostile relations between the camps. In the latter half of the twentieth century, fiction and philosophy drew close in France, with Sartre and Camus writing both kinds of books and blurring the distinction. In the English-speaking world, by contrast, things were very different. Very few noted philosophers attempted fiction, and Iris Murdoch was the only eminent novelist to publish serious works of moral philosophy.
To some extent, the reason for this estrangement was cultural. British academic society had a marked distaste for the public display of strong passions. For the typical Oxbridge don, novelists were a little like actors: amusing at a distance, embarrassing if they came too close. To some extent, too, the estrangement was stylistic. Anglo-American philosophy was written in a very austere and impersonal way, so that any incursion of narrative and emotion into the text would be regarded as an embarrassing anomaly. But how could a novelist not want to record the texture of concrete particulars--what Murdoch once memorably described in the hallowed precincts of the Aristotelian Society as "the smell of the Paris metro or what it is like to hold a mouse in one's hand"? Her remark was shocking in those quarters, because it insisted that such details of experience were the stuff of philosophy as well as the stuff of life. People were not yet ready to listen.
Above all, the estrangement between philosophy and literature was produced by issues of philosophical substance. Moral philosophy in the postwar period had become preoccupied--not surprisingly, given the tumultuous times--with the moment of ethical choice, and with the role of the will in choosing the appropriate action. R.M. Hare, who had spent time in a prisoner-of-war camp and on the Burmese railway, had no interest at all in the inner life, or in the effort to cultivate the thoughts and the feelings of a person of good character. He wanted a philosophy that would produce good in the world and help us understand the nature of good action. His analysis of moral language famously held that all moral statements were in essence commands to act, and this soldierly conception of morality became popular in a world intent on seeing the good defeat the bad. (On the Continent, a similar emphasis prevailed: Sartre depicted the moral agent as a free and isolated will, capable of choosing courageously for the sake of humanity only if it could first come to grips with the agony of being free.)
To this muscular conception of philosophy, the preoccupations of the novelist--the vagaries of emotion and desire, the variety of human character, the predatoriness of love--looked simply irrelevant, as if one had suggested that a grandiose salon painting of "The Choice of Hercules" could be improved by the addition of a floating indeterminate sky in the style of Turner. But the choice-of-Hercules conception of the ethical life left out a good deal, and these omissions were damaging to the postwar philosophers' own project of understanding how good can be done and evil can be avoided. For evil is very likely to begin in the inner world, with the struggle of love against infantile egoism and ambivalence, the laborious effort to form patterns of thought and action that defeat narcissism and acknowledge the reality of other people.
Oddly enough, these British philosophers were all teaching the Greeks, and they must have encountered there a richer view of the moral life. Teaching Aristotle, they would have reflected that a person's goodness does not consist in isolated moments of willing, but rather in a lifelong effort to cultivate patterns of motivation, attention, reaction, and, related to all these, choice. The effort was a virtuous one only if these patterns became genuinely rooted, suffusing the moral life. Aristotle certainly had too simple and too sunny a conception of the obstacles to goodness in the human personality, in part because he took no interest in children; but his conception is promising in its general shape, and it can be deepened by the addition of a more nuanced psychology. Still, teaching Aristotle did not affect the substance of what Oxford philosophers wrote--until much later, and under the influence of Iris Murdoch.
Murdoch was, for many years, an anomaly: a celebrated and also popular novelist, and at the same time a respected philosophy tutor at Oxford, who throughout her career (even after she quit teaching) continued to publish serious philosophical essays and books. For most of this time Murdoch opposed any effort to connect her two careers. In an interview with Bryan Magee in 1978, on the subject of "Philosophy and the Novel," she offered a caricature of Oxbridge philosophy at its driest as a definition of what philosophy was, and a similarly extreme definition of the novel as uncommitted play, as if to say to her baffled interlocutor: "See? You thought you'd do a program about how my two careers are connected. But there's no such connection, except in your well-intentioned head." As Peter J. Conradi's book makes clear, Murdoch had a constant desire to mystify and to prevent people from finding her where she was, and this interview was a splendid case in point.
Needless to say, there are profound connections between Murdoch's fiction and Murdoch's philosophy, and they become more apparent all the time. For Anglo-American moral philosophy has by now achieved a broader conception of its subject matter, which would today be agreed to include the virtues and the vices, the nature of imagination and attention, the vicissitudes of passion. And Murdoch's novels, which once looked like stylized social comedy portraying the foibles of the British upper middle classes, can now be seen more justly as complicated meditations about the nature of sin and the struggle of the personality with itself, in which artistic attention is not only the organizing force that drives the whole, but also, at the same time, an object of critical scrutiny.
The novels are a major part of Murdoch's philosophical contribution, because one cannot fully make the case for the moral significance of the strivings of the inner world without narratives that show at length and in detail what Henry James called "the effort really to see and really to represent," as it contends with "the constant force that makes for muddlement." Conradi misses this, and thus he misses Murdoch's large philosophical importance, assuming that like-minded souls in Oxford, such as Philippa Foot and John McDowell, are more important as philosophical writers about virtue because they were writing more of the conventional sort of philosophical work. What he fails to grasp (perhaps because he gets most of his information about philosophy from Foot) is that the ideas that Murdoch shares with these more conventional contemporaries require for their full exploration a different and riskier type of writing, which only she, with her complex erotic gifts, attempted to deliver.
In 1947, Iris Murdoch wrote in her journal: "For me philosophical problems are the problems of my own life." Conradi's biography makes it clear that Murdoch's life, like her work, was shaped by a moral struggle against the forces of destructiveness and sadism. Conradi is the editor of Murdoch's philosophical essays (a fine volume called Existentialists and Mystics) and the author of a good study of the novels. He was also a close friend of Murdoch's, particularly in the final decades of her life. Elegy for Iris, John Bayley's moving memoir of his wife's descent into Alzheimer's disease, is dedicated to Conradi and his partner Jim O'Neill, and the last chapter of Conradi's biography describes O'Neill bathing Murdoch at a time when she could only say, with bafflement, "I wrote."
Murdoch gave Conradi access to the journals that she kept for most of her adult life (with some pages excised), and her friends, many of whom are still living, have extensively confided in him. So this is a biography rich in information, written in a humble and tasteful way by an intimate whose aim is to put a lot of material at the reader's disposal, obtruding his own personality as little as possible. (Conradi, a Buddhist, introduced Murdoch to Buddhist conceptions of "unselfing.") As Conradi says, it is not the only sort of biography of her that will be written; but it is, I think, a fine example of its kind.
Murdoch was born in 1919, the only child of an Anglo-Irish couple who soon moved from Dublin to London, though they returned to Ireland frequently for holidays. (Murdoch's identification with the Irish was very deep.) Her childhood was a placid one, as she was evidently the delight of her gentle father and her able, enterprising mother. Success at school came easily, in studies and in sports. After Badminton School she went up to Somerville College, Oxford in 1938, where she read Mods and Greats, the taxing undergraduate combination of Greek and Latin literature with ancient history and philosophy. Her interest in Greek conceptions of virtue thus got its start early, and she attended with great enthusiasm Eduard Fraenkel's famous seminar on Aeschylus's Agamemnon. (Fraenkel figures as a character in The Unicorn, one of her odder and less successful novels.) She was deeply influenced also by her philosophy tutor Donald MacKinnon, whose religious sensibility put him at odds with the times. She joined the Communist Party.
But this was wartime, and Oxford was greatly altered by the departure of so many young men for the front. Murdoch's first great love was Frank Thompson, the elder brother of the historian E.P. Thompson. They exchanged intimate letters while he served in Europe, and his death in Bulgaria in 1944 was a personal tragedy. After receiving a first-class degree, Murdoch went to London to work for the Treasury, sharing a flat with Philippa Bosanquet, later Foot. (Shortly before this, Murdoch left the Communist Party. Her past membership caused her no subsequent difficulty in Britain, though for years it made trouble every time she wanted to visit the United States.) In 1944, bored with the life of the bureaucrat ("I am inefficient and administration depresses me"), she joined UNRRA (the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration), and worked for two years with refugees and displaced persons, first in England and then on the Continent.
After a period studying philosophy in Cambridge--where she briefly encountered and was deeply impressed by Wittgenstein, though she was critical of his destructive use of his power, his capacity to destroy self-respect--she accepted a tutorial fellowship at St. Anne's College, Oxford. For the next six years or so, she taught philosophy by day, and by night she pursued the amazingly complex erotic life that she had already begun in London. The reader of Murdoch's novels tends to think that the constant changing of partners is fantastic high comedy; but life and art were closer than we thought. As Murdoch writes of herself, "Urge towards drama is fundamental. I am 'full of representations of myself.'"
Murdoch typically carried on simultaneous affairs with multiple men (and the occasional woman), affairs that were emotionally complex and often involved the betrayal of a friend. Sex, Bayley opines in Elegy for Iris, was of marginal interest to her where most of these men are concerned. Conradi's biography casts doubt on this, suggesting that she was a person of very strong physical passion. But sex was certainly, for her, about more than pleasure: it was about power, about mystification, about her own importance, about the desire, as she puts it in her journal, "to give moderately and yet have full attention."
She constantly caused pain to others, both the men who had to compete with other concealed rivals and the partners of these men. (Her friendship with Philippa Foot was broken for years on account of the suffering that she caused Michael Foot when she left him for the economist Tommy Balogh, a suffering for which Philippa consoled Michael. Murdoch wrote that Philippa "most successfully salvaged what was left after my behaviour," a characteristically self-dramatizing way of seeing the situation.) "Let me do no harm to [him or her]": this becomes a regular refrain in the journals. And yet she goes on doing harm.
Her lovers were almost all intellectually distinguished, and they fell into two types: the gentle and childlike (usually close to her own age) and the fascinating and cruel (usually much older). Murdoch indulged her fascination with the second sort while planning ultimately to settle down with the first sort. In the first category were the anthropologist and poet Franz Steiner, to whom she almost became engaged before he died young of a heart attack, and the literary critic John Bayley, whom she married--her "ideal co-child," in his words, with whom she had a relationship of immense gentleness and intimacy that seems to have kept at bay, at least for the most part, the more destructive aspects of her character. They created together a world of shared childhood, in which they called each other "Puss" and spoke a secret language, and at the same time shared a sense of life that only two sophisticated intellectuals could share. The marriage represented a remarkably successful incorporation of disparate elements.
But for some time before the marriage, and during the early days of her relationship with Bayley, the second sort held center stage. Murdoch formed alliances with a series of difficult and power-hungry older men, including Balogh and, most prominently, Elias Canetti, a charismatic figure who was constantly surrounded by worshipful disciples. Why Murdoch would spend even one evening in his company is more than one can fathom from Conradi's and Bayley's accounts of this loathsome and sinister egotist. Here is Bayley, in Elegy for Iris, describing a conversation in which Canetti asks him what he thinks of King Lear, and Bayley, after doing his best to answer the question, asks Canetti the same:
He continued to be silent for what seemed a long time. Finally, he spoke. "Friends tell me that my book is unbearable," he said. Fortunately, I knew this to be a reference to his long novel Die Blendung, and I nodded my head gravely. There was a further silence. "King Lear is also unbearable," he pronounced at last.
I bowed my head. Shakespeare and his masterpiece would never be paid a greater compliment than this.
Is this story true? (Bayley, who has publicly admitted to making up love affairs in a more recent memoir, is certainly capable of fabrication in the cause of maligning a rival.) But true or not in its details, it seems to be largely right about Canetti, who was grotesquely self-preoccupied, patently sadistic, incapable of non-exploitative love. When she chose the gently devious Bayley over the "great man," Murdoch ultimately chose wisely. And perhaps Bayley's reaction to Canetti is the basis for that splendid moment in A Fairly Honourable Defeat, one of her finest novels, when Simon, the young, gentle, pleasure-loving gay man, simply tosses Julius, the destructive enchanter, into his hosts' swimming pool. Simon, like Bayley, looks like a lightweight, but his whimsical humor, his ability to wear his heart on his sleeve, his total lack of cruelty, are the novel's moral core.
The power of the enchanter, such a major theme in Murdoch's novels as well as in her life: where does it come from? And what was it in Murdoch that made it impossible for her to have the healthy "into the swimming pool you go" reaction to these loathsome tyrants? Murdoch puzzled over this, again and again, in journals and in novels. Why do people let enchanters walk into their homes and destroy their relationships? In part because of their distinction--but she casts doubt on this source of erotic power by stripping Julius, the Canetti figure in A Fairly Honourable Defeat, of any real achievement. In part, no doubt, because of their wit and charm. But Julius is charming in the way that Mephistopheles is charming: he mocks everything that people hold dear, he gives the appearance of depth and profundity because he claims that human life is at bottom a sordid affair in which the baser instincts are driving everything. (So Canetti, casting doubt on Murdoch's political ideals, and insisting that the drives of the crowd produce all real historical events.)
So this just pushes the question back a step: why do people want this variety of enchantment? Murdoch's answer, in the end, is that it is the power of destructiveness and negativity itself that seduces, because many people have a sadomasochistic desire to be crushed, and to crush others in turn. She felt this at a personal sexual level. (Once she wrote in her journal that she felt herself to be a sadomasochistic homosexual man.) From the male enchanters, she endured--and evidently sought--an astonishing degree of exploitation and psychological abuse. With the gentle men, and also with women, she wanted to play, at times, the destroying man. (One journal entry reads: "Then I began to kiss her passionately and was desiring her very much. Understanding of what it would be to be a man, feeling very violent & positive, wanting to strike her body like an instrument.")
Murdoch connects sadomasochism with moral nihilism, and hence goodness with a gentleness that is free of sadism. For some, gentleness is a kind of grace with which they are fortunately endowed. (She once wrote that Bayley, like her father, was "a man entirely without the natural coarseness & selfishness of the male.") For Murdoch, who found in herself much "male" selfishness and coarseness, it became a lifelong project to achieve a non-destructive relation to people. This struggle is the source of much of her fiction.
It is natural for the reader of the biography to hope that it will trace the struggle to some early source. One close friend does tell Conradi that he thinks "something in Iris's past had introduced her to the idea of evil." But nothing reveals to us what this something is. Her father was a gentle man, her childhood was a happy one. At most one might say that she won the Oedipal struggle too easily, becoming her father's delight while her parents' very amicable marriage was apparently almost totally asexual. While Julius's destructiveness is explained--somewhat too easily--by making him a survivor of Belsen, young Iris was head girl in a prestigious school, a success at everything she tried, courted and loved by a large proportion of those who knew her. The darkness seems indigenous, lurking, inexplicable--and so it apparently seemed to her. While initially sympathetic to psychoanalysis, she came to feel that it told comforting, too-orderly stories about good and evil, which she preferred to see as real, absolute forces in human existence.
Murdoch thus came to see her own life, and life generally, as a moral struggle against what we might without melodrama call Mephistopheles: the nihilistic wiles of the self-insulating ego, which seeks power and comfort, exploiting and using other people. Its adversary is the moral imagination, which must strive constantly toward a clear vision of the reality of other people, one not marred by the ego's demands for control. One can see how difficult the struggle against her tendencies to control must have been from the extreme forms that it took, as she increasingly cultivated a shapeless and asexual physical persona and domestic surroundings whose squalor greatly exceeded even the British norm.
The novels, too, often associate neatness with egoism, vile filth with virtue. Thus Tallis Browne in A Fairly Honourable Defeat, who lives amid mold and vermin of all sorts, is a moral hero, in part because of this neglect of surroundings, and Julius's controlling sadism is revealed in his determination to clean the place up. Worse still, it is supposed to be good for Tallis to take a troubled teenage boy into his house--whereas this (no doubt all-too-controlling) American reader keeps feeling that charges of child abuse would be appropriate, both against Tallis and against the mother who promotes this life-threatening and (so it seems to me) quite sadistic arrangement. Bayley perceptively writes that Murdoch wanted to have objects around her and yet did not want to take care of them. Perhaps this neglect of the worldly was a part of her exacting idea of virtue, though it can easily look like a kind of aggression toward anyone who dares to come too close. Toward the end of her life Murdoch also re-wrote past journal entries, removing the names of sentiments, such as anger and contempt, that she felt she should not have had.
Conradi, who knew Murdoch in the last decades of her life, feels that her struggle was in the end successful. Her marriage to Bayley, though a source of great happiness, was not without tumult. A passionate lesbian affair in the early 1960s led her to resign from St. Anne's (this is the only instance in which Conradi conceals the name of a lover). One gets the impression that there were other lesser affairs. Still, as time went on Murdoch increasingly, if unevenly, distanced herself from her erotic self. The philosopher David Pears has remarked upon her "luminous goodness ... when she came into a room, you felt better." And many have attested to her intense aliveness to others. Murdoch's moral serenity seems proportionate to her focus on her husband. As time went on, Bayley's elaborate jokes and small kindnesses struck her as goodness itself. "4 January 1978. Puss singing in kitchen below. He is a good man." A year later, quoting a silly yet sophisticated impromptu Bayley poem about Strindberg and a skunk, she writes: "Of such is the kingdom of heaven."
For someone with such a tumultuous inner world, the muscular choice-is-all school of moral philosophy could not be satisfactory. Murdoch felt that we would get to the right choices only if we understood better the forces militating against goodness. And in her view the main force was our inability to see other people correctly. We are always representing people to ourselves in self-serving ways, she believed, ways that gratify our own egos and serve our own ends. To see truly is not the entirety of virtue, but it is a very crucial necessary part. And even where the overt choices go along well, if the inner vision is lacking, then an important part of virtue itself is lacking. (Here Murdoch agrees with Aristotle: there is a morally large difference between self-control and real virtue, even though the overt acts may look exactly the same, because the self-controlled person has not yet achieved the motives, the reactions, and the patterns of seeing that are characteristic of the good person.)
To make this point clear for philosophers, Murdoch invented an example that has become famous. In her lecture on "The Sovereignty of Good," she asks us to imagine a mother-in-law, M, who has contempt for D, her daughter-in-law. M sees D as common, cheap, low. Since M is a self-controlled Englishwoman, she behaves (so Murdoch stipulates) with perfect graciousness all the while, and no hint of her real view surfaces in her acts. But she realizes, too, that her feelings and thoughts are unworthy, and likely to be generated by jealousy and an excessively keen desire to hang on to her son. So she sets herself a moral task: she will change her view of D, making it more accurate, less marred by selfishness. She gives herself exercises in vision: where she is inclined to say "coarse," she will say, and see, "spontaneous." Where she is inclined to say "common," she will say, and see, "fresh and naive." As time goes on, the new images supplant the old. Eventually M does not have to make such an effort to control her actions: they flow naturally from the way she has come to see D.
Murdoch claims that this change is of moral significance. Getting the behavior right is one good thing; but getting the thoughts and the emotions right is another, and in some ways a more fundamental, good thing. She challenges moral philosophy to attend more to these long-term tasks in vision and self-cultivation, to focus on patterns of character that extend over a life rather than simply on isolated moments of choice. The challenge was first voiced in her splendid and highly critical book on Sartre, which appeared in 1953. Murdoch argued that because of his focus on the moment of choice, Sartre could not understand the sources of good or evil, which requires depicting "the mystery and contingent variousness of individuals." To Sartre's impoverished world she contrasts "the messy accidental world of the novel, so full of encounters and moral conflicts and love."
Murdoch's challenge to moral philosophy was given its most forceful articulation in 1970 in The Sovereignty of Good, which includes three of her most influential essays, and it was expressed strongly again six years later in The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists. (The meandering Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, Murdoch's expanded Gifford Lectures, which appeared in 1992, was a much less successful treatment of these themes.) It was Murdoch's early work that had a transformative impact on the discipline. Younger philosophers, themselves reacting against the neglect of the inner world, found illumination in the challenge of this example. Now few would deny that the then-unknown subject of "moral psychology" is one of the most important and fascinating branches of ethics; or that thinking about the nature of the emotions and the imagination, and what they contribute to moral choice, is one of the most significant tasks of the moral philosopher.
There are major gaps in Murdoch's philosophical vision. She seems almost entirely to lack interest in the political and social determinants of a moral vision, and in the larger social criticism that ought, one feels, to be a major element in the struggle against one's own defective tendencies. Her examples, and her characters, are almost always undone by something universal about the ego and its devious workings, almost never by prejudice or misogyny or other failings endemic to a particular society at a particular time. Indeed, although her journals fairly often complain about the hardship of being a woman at Oxford, she offers us little guidance in understanding how sexism thwarts perception. Race is almost totally unmentioned, except in the form of an erotic longing for, and anxiety about, Jews--a theme in her own life as well, but one that is never treated with the critical detachment that it deserves.
Only with regard to the lives of gay men does Murdoch retain a sense of the purely social and political obstacles to correct vision and action. She was a vigorous crusader for the abolition of sodomy laws, and in her fiction she depicted gay couples as fighting an uphill struggle for love and self-respect in a society that makes fun of them, or worse. In A Fairly Honourable Defeat, the older gay man Axel, working in Whitehall, has learned habits of secretiveness and denial that make it hard for him to express his love to Simon, or even to allow himself to be a person who fully loves. Simon, treated by straight society as a sex addict, has learned to doubt his own capacities for commitment and for goodness. But such suggestions of a complex relation between virtue and its social world should have played a more prominent role in the philosophical essays and the novels: all too rarely does Murdoch suggest that goodness requires reflection about social justice. Too often, indeed, the absence of a more textured social world impoverishes her characters, who seem to play out their erotic dance in a void.
Another problem, a deeper problem, is the tension between Murdoch's Platonism and her vision of particulars. Murdoch keeps on suggesting that "The Good" is a unitary abstraction of some kind, even while all her writerly instincts work in the direction of showing its irreducible many-sidedness and its kaleidoscopic variety; even while she also insists that what it is to be a good person is to see other particular people clearly. Her Platonism leads in the direction of the big abstract entity, but her moral instincts--I am tempted to call them Aristotelian--lead in the direction of the variegated world of surprising humanity. This tension is never fully resolved in the essays, where it simply sits there generating difficulty, or in the novels, where the vision of the particular predominates, but characters whom the writer appears to admire keep on talking what sounds like nonsense about "The Good." This fault in Murdoch's work may derive from her own experience of good and evil as original powers that stand somehow outside her, not generated by her particular biography. But they do mean that anyone who wishes to make philosophical use of her work must choose between the Aristotelian many-sidedness or the Platonic mysticism. (I know which I regard as the more fruitful, in philosophy and in life.)
Finally, there is an acute problem about action. Hare's vision of life is certainly incomplete; but it contains much that matters greatly. As the postwar generation knew, it does matter what one does. If one resists tyranny and saves the lives of the innocent, who cares if one was thinking "coarse" and "common" or, more virtuously, "spontaneous" and "fresh"? Murdoch is so preoccupied with the goings-on of the inner world that she seems almost to have forgotten about the difference that action can make; and the resulting obsession with one's own states looks strangely like egoism, in a world in which a forthright commitment to action can make the difference to people who are suffering, no matter whether the agents' intentions are pure.
Many years ago I had dinner with R.M. Hare in Oxford. With typical testiness, he complained about the new fashion for virtue ethics, which had eroded, he felt, philosophy's commitment to good works. Mentioning the cover of a book by one of his targets, which showed a naked man carrying a question mark over his shoulder, he said scornfully that this is what philosophy had become: meaning, I think, that it was all preoccupied with our naked insides and the interminable questions they pose, rather than armed for combat against real bad people and things. I have some sympathy with this way of seeing the movement that Murdoch inspired. Although there is no doubt that the big questions of social justice and human well-being need to be approached with an adequate moral psychology, Murdoch herself tended to veer sharply away from those questions, and even to suggest that in the end they did not matter, that the only important thing was each person's struggle for self-perfection.
That is a hopelessly egoistic vision of life, in a world in which sharp thinking about poverty and prejudice may actually make a difference to human lives. Whatever combination of Platonism, Christianity, and Buddhism shaped her sensibility, it was an oddly otherworldly sensibility in the end, as if we were already dead and in purgatory. But we are still on earth, so if we must try to see other people as well as we can, we must also try to create just institutions and just laws. This does not mean that it is the duty of every philosopher to talk only about justice; we all have our own projects. The mistake in Murdoch is her subtle suggestion that the search for justice is superficial.
Murdoch's philosophical vision is fulfilled in her novels, which dramatize again and again the struggle to see clearly, in a world of self-delusion, the revelations and the blindings of erotic love. Although the more schematic essays were crucial in laying out the essential elements of her view, showing what is really at stake required the creation of extended patterns of vision and struggle. The best of her novels, such as The Black Prince, The Bell, and The Sea, The Sea, are plainly continuous with the themes of her philosophy, and make good on its promises in a rich, devious, and open-ended way.
Since the imagination played such a central role in Murdoch's moral thought, she arrived at a grave and highly critical view of the artist's moral role. In her view, artists are our guides to a vision of the world: they shape and nourish, or they fail to shape and nourish, the moral imagination. So art cannot evade morality. The artist is inevitably a moral figure: for art either assuages the ego, portraying an easy, flattering vision of the world and making us cozy within it, or it challenges us outward, toward the reality of others.
Where did Murdoch place her own fiction within the contrast between great art and egoistic art that she develops in The Fire and the Sun? In purgatory, no doubt: struggling to be pure, but full of silly self-regard. Conradi is probably correct to see her own parody of herself in the comic figure of Arnold Baffin in The Black Prince, a popular novelist who produces a novel a year, all full of high metaphysical matters and comforting the reader with the sensation of having experienced deep thoughts. And some of the later novels do seem pseudo-profound, in part because they give expression to a monistic metaphysical vision that she never made fully compelling in any genre. Still, the complex moral and literary richness of Murdoch's best novels grows more evident all the time, now that we no longer read them as realist social satire, and can appreciate their allegorical elements.
There is an odd paradox in the relationship between the novels and the morality that they (and the philosophical writings) contain. The paradox is that their very coming-into-being would appear, by the lights of Murdoch's morality, to be an immoral act, an act of manipulation and excessive control. No artist wants to give an unfinished work to the world as a token of her vision. "Here is my messy moldy verminous novel": no writer says this. That is why Tallis Browne is no artist; indeed, he cannot even finish the one lecture that he keeps trying to write. Murdoch's art, like all good art, is highly structured and controlled--a house neat and clean enough to satisfy the most morally obtuse of her upper-class British characters. Indeed, her novels draw attention more than most to the presence of centralized control, as the characters execute a complicated erotic dance whose choreographer is always just offstage.
For such an artist, as Proust's narrator says, real people are just material, the stones that the artist uses to build his monument. The artist's vision of reality is finally a vision that he makes completely, using and even exploiting others; and its relation to the real surprisingness of people can never be morally simple. Murdoch sought uncontrol and "unselfing" all her life, as a corrective to egoism and sadism. Yet she so plainly seeks control, too; and she knows it. Moreover, she herself makes Proust's connection: in one period of emotional suffering, she observes in her journal that "like Proust I want to escape from the eternal push and rattle of time into the coolness & poise of a work of art." Can the perfection of art possibly co-exist with the attempt to perfect one's life, as she sees that aim? In the form of such a question the struggle renews itself, as the morality of art and the artist's own rage for control become a topic of anxious rumination on the part of characters, such as Bradley Pearson in The Black Prince, who seem to be surrogates for Murdoch's own sense of herself as artist. Does the artistic enterprise record and extend the struggle against the ego, or is it the ego's most subtle victory?
I connect this problem, very tentatively, to my own acquaintance with Murdoch. We met in New York in 1985, and she invited me to lunch at the house in Charlbury Road, Oxford where she and Bayley lived at the time. I went round to the house, very nervous and awkward, and sat for two hours in the chaotic kitchen being scrutinized, as I felt it, by her sharp probing eyes. We talked about Proust and Henry James, about postmodernism and current developments in ethical thought, about Charles Taylor, whom she admired, and R.M. Hare, whom she did not. All the while I felt that her very intense gaze was going straight through me, to something that was not me at all, but to which I was somehow related. More than once I had the thought that Julian Baffin, in The Black Prince, has about Bradley Pearson: "You don't really see me." I cannot forget those predatory eyes, and the way they attended to something of immense importance that was, as I say, not exactly outside of me, and that was perhaps more real than me, but that was not precisely me either. Nor can I ever forget the essential mysteriousness of her face, so much more alive than most people, so blazing with uncompromising passion, so intent upon things that were not exactly in the room. (I remember thinking a sad thought: that this was going to be the hoped-for friendship with a brilliant woman, but it is after all an encounter with just another predatory man. Erotic control and artistic control: where did one leave off and the other begin?)
If the gaze of art is fixed on the person and is at the same time intent on a creative work that appropriates and goes beyond the person, the question is whether this gaze can ever be, in the fullest sense, a humanly loving gaze, exemplary of the virtue that Murdoch's philosophy describes. Why not? It sees more truly than most loving people see. I had no doubt that Murdoch could have described me, after an hour, far more precisely than any lover of mine might have described me after some years. In this sense Proust seems right when he says that art is the fully lived life, life without patches of deadness and obtuseness.
And yet I believe that there is something more to loving vision than just seeing. There is also a willingness to permit oneself to be seen. And there is a willingness to stop seeing, to close one's eyes before the loved one's imperfections. And there is also a willingness to be, for a time, an animal or even a plant, relinquishing the sharpness of creative alertness before the presence of a beloved body. Does the artist's vision have about it these aspects of vulnerability, silence, and grace? Or does the artist's eye almost inevitably look down with something like disdain at the muddled animal interactions of human beings with one another, so obtuse and so lacking in nuance?
Still, if the novels were only tales of control, and their characters only the creatures of a sadistic enchanter, they would be, as Murdoch says, mediocre works. Some of them are indeed mediocre. The Unicorn, for example, is a rather sordid and pretentious melodrama about varieties of sexual sadism, in which Murdoch's own self-hatred becomes a hatred of humanity. And often the skepticism about human motivation is so thoroughgoing that one can hardly breathe. But the best of Murdoch's novels get beyond this. Perhaps this is because they are animated by a kind of humble opening toward reality in all its surprising diversity, by a quality of love for the world that even artistic polish cannot defeat.
And notice, really, that the moral problem I have outlined arises only for a writer who is both deeply moral (as Proust is not) and who has an extreme horror of her own destructiveness--who will not believe that anything she controls could possibly be all right for others. It is the same problem as the problem of the filthy house: only a certain sort of person would feel that her own efforts to clean up must inevitably be sinister, bringing death and destruction in their train. Someone less self-hating might think that there is glory, not sadism, in the beautiful thing.
In the end Murdoch transcended in her best books her own horror of control and cleanliness, allowing herself to express human love (and the artist's love for her characters) in a shapely and beautiful form. Consider this passage from A Fairly Honourable Defeat, in which good prose and tenderness unite, for once, to create a vision of happiness:
Simon went on through the hallway and out into the garden. The sun was still warm and bright, though the evening star had strengthened. The vine was hung with grassy green translucent grapes and the leaves and tendrils glowed with a pale green radiance, outspread and welcoming and still in the quiet sunlight. Simon moved towards the vine, bowed his head under its shadowy arch, and touched the warm pendant beads of the grape bunches.
Axel came out, removing his jacket and rolling up his white shirt sleeves. The sun made gold in his dark hair. "I've asked the patron to bring us a carafe of wine out here straight away. I'm just going up to look at the room. You stay here."
Simon sat down at the table. The patron bustled over wearing purple braces, with a carafe and two glasses. "Merci." Simon poured out some wine and tasted it. It was excellent. The serrated green leaves extended above him, before him, their motionless pattern of angelic hands. The air quivered with warmth and a diffusion of light.
Simon thought, it is an instinct, and not a disreputable one, to be consoled by love. Warily he probed the grief which had traveled with him so far, and he felt it as a little vaguer, a little less dense. His thoughts of Rupert now reached back further into the past, to good times which had their own untouchable reality. He drank some more wine and raised his face to the dazzle of the sun among the leaves and felt his youth lift him and make him buoyant. He was young and healthy and he loved and was loved. It was impossible for him, as he sat there in the green southern light and waited for Axel, not to feel in his veins the warm anticipation of a new happiness.
What is surprising in this passage is not just the suggestion of happiness, but more particularly the suggestion of an erotic happiness and even an erotic goodness, the Dionysian images linked with the imagery of angels' hands. There is no false comfort in Murdoch, but sometimes there is a comfort that is true.
Martha C. Nussbaum is author, most recently, of Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, (Cambridge University Press.)
LRB | Vol. 24 No. 17 dated 5 September 2002 | Susan Eilenberg
With A, then B, then C
Iris Murdoch: A Life by Peter Conradi | HarperCollins, 706 pp, £9.99
'My friends, my friends, I say to the teacups and spoons. Such intense love for Puss - more and more,' Iris Murdoch wrote in her journal. It was the summer of 1993. Her 25th novel was just being published, and she was working at her last, Jackson's Dilemma. Who was Jackson? Puss asked her, but she could not tell. 'I don't think he's been born yet,' she said, at which Puss, accustomed to finding her amusing, was amused. The beginning was too mild, too like the customary affectionate nonsense of their married life, for alarm. It was the autumn of 1993. 'Find difficulty in thinking and writing. Be brave,' she wrote, and was. The near edge of the unknowable, never well fixed, advanced. It was 1994. There began to be bewilderment in public settings, and although the bewilderment belonged increasingly to others, enough remained (it was 1996) for grief. It was 1997, the year her Alzheimer's was diagnosed. 'My dear, I am now going away for some time,' she wrote. She wrote, 'I hope you will be well,' trailed off, began a second sheet of paper. 'My dear, I am now going away for some time. I hope you will be well.' She began a third.
Although it is by no means always the case with Alzheimer's that illness uncovers truth, it seems both to Murdoch's husband, John Bayley ('Puss'), and to her biographer, Peter Conradi, that it did so here. In their view Murdoch's advancing illness, crumbling away language and reason, laid bare in her an essential impulse toward love. As words broke up, it was the vocabulary of love and delight that survived the longest. When those words followed the rest into oblivion, the ways of affection, gratitude, interest still remained, as if they were what was most deeply rooted in her nature, the truest part of her, until there was nothing left of her at all. She could say 'I love you' when other sentences were too hard to put together, and after she had forgotten the words 'I' and 'you' she remembered 'love'. Bayley tells of the day she put a hand on his knee and said to him, '"Susten poujin drom love poujin? Poujin susten?" I hastened to agree, and one word was clear . . . She knew what she meant even when there is no meaning, and there was in that word.'
She was mysterious, even unknowable, but yet, though unknowable, still capable of being known to be good: a formula worthy of a theologian. It had always been so; the failure of language simply made the paradox more troubling. Writing in his volumes of Murdoch-centred memoir Iris: A Memoir and Iris and the Friends, Bayley noted the degeneration of her words into babble even as he refused to doubt her meaning when that meaning seemed to be her love for him. Though at some point the gesture towards speech must cease to count as speech, it is nonetheless hard to know how else to regard it. Her ordinary babble, he remarked, 'seems normal to her and to me surprisingly fluent, provided I do not listen to what is being said but apprehend it in a matrimonial way, as the voice of familiarity and thus of recognition', and in company she continued to wear her usual expression of 'courteous but faintly amused interest', listening, offering responses, outwardly quite normal - an illusion that lasted until one came close enough to hear what she was saying. What sounded like real words, even real phrases, 'eerie felicities', as Bayley called them, still sometimes came out of her mouth. It is impossible to know what such things mean when they come from someone for whom words - particular words with particular meanings, as distinct from the cries one makes in response to pain or delight or the cries of others - seem no longer to function. Are they remnants, are they simulacra of meaning? Are they something else entirely? After Murdoch had lost the capacity for articulate speech, she nevertheless told Conradi that she was 'sailing into darkness' and exclaimed as a friend bathed her: 'I see an angel. I think it's you.' For Bayley the supposition that these were messages from inside the disease, signifying the survival of 'a whole silent but conscious and watching world' trapped within what Alzheimer's had made of his wife, became at last too painful to credit.
In Bayley's experience of an understanding too fragile, too unlikely, or too disconcerting to be pressed, any reader of Murdoch's novels will recognise a version of the perplexity, the maddeningly seductive illusion of intelligibility and intelligence, that was a speciality of the younger and still articulate novelist. Murdoch subjected both her characters and her readers to what amounted to large-scale versions of something not unlike 'Susten poujin drom love poujin'. From the beginning of her literary career she organised her fiction around the sensation of understanding that defied intelligible expression, the feeling of being overwhelmed by an insight that owned no specifiable content, the apprehension, well known not merely to lovers of the Gothic and the sublime but to lunatics of several varieties, that all this somehow meant something. The trick (it felt like a trick in her unhappily numerous weaker novels) worked until one realised that of course it did not, and that it was language that had abandoned sense rather than the other way around. Indeed, even in the handful of novels that earned Murdoch the right to be taken seriously as a contender for greatness, she set her ecstatic visions to fail. And if the narrative of a protagonist's approach to the verge of what seemed cosmic revelation was characteristic, so too was the scene of headachy confusion, semi-amnesia, and irritable incredulity that was sure to arrive in its train, like a migraine after its aura, or the aftermath of a fit.
Her subject is love: obsessive, incestuous, adulterous, selfless, blind, lost and unlikely and remembered, its objects so various and so fungible, its appearances so fantastically symmetrical, its developments so entirely subject to accident on the one hand and the rigorous necessity of permutation on the other that, for all the damage it inflicts, the reader soon learns to regard it with something approaching amused disbelief. More sceptical readers might doubt that it is love at all. Those among her principal characters who suffer from it use a rhetoric in which the erotic is indistinguishable from the metaphysical or even the eschatological. In any other book a character who exclaimed that love promised salvation and its loss damnation, that the success or failure of romance raised the lover to heaven or cast him into hell, would be regarded by the reader as guilty of improper and rather tired exaggeration. But a Murdoch character means what he says when he announces that to be looked at by his beloved is like being seen by God, that his 'black certain metaphysical love' is 'its own absolute justification', or that 'this is something very absolute. The past has folded up. There is no history. It's the last trump.' He is in the grip of a spiritual energy aimed at ultimates and absolutes partly Platonic and partly Christian. He believes (between intervals of hellish doubt) that love will redeem his sufferings, annihilate the obscure, guilty confusion of his finite chance-harried being, sublate his will into a necessity that governs accident and ordains significance. His old self will fall away, together with the vexation of innumerable wearying claims on his attention by contingent beings whom love has not so justified, and he will be saved, perhaps even deified. All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.
The desire to be innocent again, the desire to be redeemed, the desire that all this should mean something: in Murdoch's world, these are the great temptations and the great sources of spiritual corruption, particularly but not only when they offer themselves as cover for less acknowledgable motives. The loss of innocence feels to a Murdoch character like an injury for which he may reasonably demand a reparation not to be distinguished in its effects from revenge; his inability to bear his own guilt seems to require an act of self-restoration - or self-annihilation - that risks repeating his crimes. A character is cruel to others in proportion to the intensity of his lust for salvation: the myth of his own suffering and redemption obliterates everything it cannot absorb, as everyone around him is classified as an instrument of his salvation, an obstacle to his salvation, or an irrelevance, and used accordingly. Murdoch remarks through one of her characters that guilt 'isn't important, it may even be bad. One must just try to mend things, do better. Why cripple yourself when there's work to do?' But this is not what her protagonists want to hear. Whenever in Murdoch someone decides to become a 'clean man', bad things follow.
Murdoch denied that she used her novels to stage her ideas, pretending to 'an absolute horror of putting theories or "philosophical ideas" as such into my novels', insisting: 'I might put in things about philosophy because I happen to know about philosophy. If I knew about sailing ships I would put in sailing ships; and in a way, as a novelist, I would rather know about sailing ships than about philosophy.' This is disingenuous. The matters that obsess her protagonists clearly obsess her and her obsessible readers as well. Their temptations are hers and ours. The arguments about morality and religion Murdoch gives her characters, particularly those characters who represent the unegoistical mode of goodness despised by her clever protagonists as spiritually timid, repeat the same points she makes in her philosophical essays. They may matter even more in the fiction. For though she declares herself 'reluctant to say that the deep structure of any good literary work could be a philosophical one', she declares in her next breath: 'For better and worse art goes deeper than philosophy.'
The pleasures of the didactic are underrated. Still, it is an odd sensation to find oneself flipping impatiently past seductions, suicide pacts, levitations, sea monsters, exhilarations, exaltations in order to get at the good stuff - the didactives - and odder still given the sense of them. For what happens is that one by one the moral and metaphysical temptations are dismissed as unreal or unmeaning. Justification, necessity, forgiveness, salvation: there is no one to authorise such things or to recognise them. There is no 'magical rehabilitation', no machinery for the redemption of suffering. An essential need to adore confronts an emptiness. Turning the second commandment ('Thou shalt have no other gods before Me') against God himself, Murdoch guards this emptiness jealously, as if on his behalf, except that he does not exist, and even if he did he would be unworthy to occupy that space. (She guards the absoluteness of the irremediable with a like fierceness.) It is the ontological proof turned inside out: 'No existing thing could be what we have meant by God. Any existing God would be less than God. An existent God would be an idol or a demon.' Belief is evacuated of its content and yet required to stand. Pure faith would be faith in emptiness. Murdoch quotes Simone Weil quoting Valéry: 'The proper, unique and perpetual object of thought is that which does not exist.' If one is to be good it must be 'for nothing'.
'Absolute for-nothingness' transvalues the ordinary world of ordinary things and people, now to be loved, or at least seen, in all their contingency, which for Murdoch means in all their indifference to our purposes. These objects of potential attention (attention is love) remain particular, distinct, untheorised. Nothing is privileged, not because nothing matters (although nothingness does matter) but because everything does; on the other hand, while everything matters, nothing counts, because there is nothing for it to count towards. Yet because nothing is privileged, nothing is beneath notice, nothing is annulled. Dead leaves, scraps of paper, mismatched socks, even (after she became ill, when she sought to find homes for them) dead worms and cigarette butts: such things had for Murdoch, as they did for those of her characters with whom she shared a habit of tenderness towards forlorn objects, 'all a life and being of their own, and friendliness and rights'. In 1949 Murdoch wrote: 'Had a curious hesitation today about burning a sheet of paper. There is a sort of animism which I recognise in myself & in my parents. We are surrounded by live & rather pathetic objects.' And in 1992 (quoting Plato quoting Thales): 'All things are full of gods.' If nothing in particular must be adored, everything may be.
Such adoration often wore a sensual aspect. Like anything else of importance (goodness, understanding, God), adoration (or love, as we might as well call it) is plagued by false semblances. But in Murdoch's conception of love, the difference between the real thing (the selfless attention to another, the 'perception of individuals', or 'the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real') and the counterfeit (egoistic fantasy that blots out the reality of its object) is independent of any distinction between the physical and the spiritual. 'Stuart was not dismayed by his sexual feelings about the boy,' we read of a rare 'good' Murdoch character meditating the accusation of paedophilia a child has just levelled against him: 'He had, or had had, more or less vague sexual feelings about all sorts of things and people, schoolmasters, girls seen on trains, mathematical problems, holy objects, the idea of being good. Sex seemed to be mixed into everything.'
Peter Conradi was a close friend of Murdoch's in the last few years of her life and a support to Bayley as he cared for her. He had known her for many years before as a beguiling but terrifying figure, and had published a wise and meticulous study of her novels, The Saint and the Artist, in 1986; his valuable selection of her essays, Existentialists and Mystics, appeared in 1997. Iris Murdoch: A Life, to which Murdoch gave her consent, is, like Bayley's double memoir, the work of manifest affection. But where Bayley sets his marriage between his readers and his wife, distracting us from any disapproval of Murdoch by the subtle display of his own eccentricities and acting by right of husbandly feeling to suppress an occasional awkward fact, Conradi effaces himself in the presence of his subject, allowing his material to present itself as if neutrally. His purpose, he concedes, is at least partly defensive. Recognising the potential for scandal in some of his material, Conradi wants to ensure, by managing the task himself, that its first full-length presentation is both fair and sympathetic. Yet while contending that her good deeds would fill a book, he gives us not that book but another, one in which she bears a more ambiguous character.
Murdoch was born in Dublin in 1919, the only child of a gentle, spider-rescuing, nonsense-loving Scots-Irish father in the Civil Service and a mother who gave up training for a career as a singer when she married. The family left for London while Murdoch was still a baby. In later years a cultivator of exiles and refugees, Murdoch would speak of her family as 'wanderers' and say: 'I've only recently realised that I'm a kind of exile, a displaced person.' Despite what the slight, artfully preserved brogue of her adulthood might have suggested, her experience of Ireland was derived largely from summer holidays there. Her parents adored her. Looking back at her childhood, she would describe it as 'a perfect trinity of love. It made me expect that, in a way, everything is going to be like that, since it was a very deep harmony.' At the age of five she began her education at the Froebel Demonstration School, where imaginative lessons and games of Knights and Ladies absorbed her. Lacking a brother, she invented one in her ninth year, doing such a good job of it that her lifelong friend Miriam Allott was shocked to learn in 1998 that he had been an imaginary being; this brother, the innocent forerunner of the invidious, fantasy-ridden siblings she would invent later, was the basis for her first stories. When she was 12 her parents removed her to the small, conscientiously unsnobbish Badminton School to be a scholarship student. (Indira Gandhi was there, briefly, at the same time.) If Froebel had awakened a taste for quasi-medieval romance and its thrilling confusion of the erotic with the spiritual that would later prove so insistent a problem in her fiction, Badminton developed her interest in ethics and politics. Within a year of her admittance she had decided she was a Communist; not long afterwards she had her first religious experience and was confirmed into the Anglican Church. Aside from an early episode that prompted a fellow student to form a society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Iris, Murdoch was popular with everyone. She was a model student, notably kind, interested in and talented at everything, throwing herself into painting and hockey and poetry and Greek and Latin and debating and drama. She was a particular favourite with the head, Beatrice May Baker ('BMB'), a high-minded, free-thinking advocate of good works, cold baths, sex education and the League of Nations (as which organisation she came disguised to a Christmas party one year) who began with Murdoch a conversation about right and wrong that would last until the older woman's death. From BMB and her regimen (which included tuition in the League of Nations Summer School in Geneva) Murdoch absorbed enough political and especially pacifist sophistication to win prizes in the League of Nations essay competition two years in a row, beating the young Raymond Williams the second time around. From BMB Murdoch learned, too, an admiration for the Soviet Union which the evidence of Stalin's purges and show trials could not shake; her Soviet sympathies outlasted her pacifism by some years.
It was only in retrospect that her school years seemed dull. Murdoch went up to Somerville College, Oxford in 1938. As at Badminton, she wanted to try everything. Now there was far more to try and more at stake in doing so. She knew already that she wanted to be a writer and had thought she wanted to study English. From English she turned to classics. Her teachers - particularly Eduard Fraenkel, who taught her Horace and the Agamemnon and led discussions on suffering and violence, and Donald MacKinnon, whose subjects were theology, moral philosophy, and the dangerous appeal of pain - were of enormous importance to her intellectually (what she studied with them would remain a matter of essential concern in the next several decades of her career) but also emotionally. MacKinnon, she declared, inspired the kind of reverence one might have for Christ, and she proceeded to model her manner on a bizarre few of his mannerisms. In Fraenkel's seminars she was nearly as impressive a presence as Fraenkel himself. Yet not even these men fully absorbed her attention, or their fields her ambition. She loved jazz, dancing, drama, political debate; she wanted to be an archaeologist, a Renaissance art historian, a painter; and possibly as early as 1938 she joined the Communist Party. She met now many of the people who would matter to her for the rest of her life: an abundance of friends and (the two categories overlapping) an altogether absurd and certainly unsummable quantity of admirers. The philosopher Philippa Bosanquet was perhaps her closest friend from that period; the relationship was injured by Murdoch's romantic treachery towards both Bosanquet and M.R.D. Foot, the man Bosanquet would marry, but recovered (to Murdoch's guilty relief) when the Foots divorced. She was close as well to the linguist Frank Thompson, who would enlist in 1939 and die in 1944, a volume of Catullus in his pocket, while leading a group of Bulgarian partisans, the victim, almost certainly, of political treachery later unravelled by his younger brother, E.P. Thompson. He seemed to her at least retrospectively to have been the first man she loved enough to have married. His loss, unlike Philippa Foot's irreparable, remained a source of grief to the end of her life.
With her First in classics, Murdoch left Oxford in 1942 to spend the next three years in London, working first at the Treasury and then, in 1944, in an unsuccessful effort to escape London and romantic entanglements, at the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. Late in 1945 UNRRA sent her to the Continent to work with war refugees. Her ten months in Belgium and Austria, spent mostly, as she later said, 'simply preoccupied with feeding people', steadied her conviction that 'goodness is needful, one has to be good, for nothing, for immediate and obvious reasons, because somebody is hungry or somebody is crying.' In Brussels she met Sartre and in Austria captivated Queneau, two writers crucial for the development of her work. Though Sartre: Romantic Rationalist, the first of her books to be published and her first major act of resistance to the existentialist emphasis on the heroic will of what she would later call 'the lonely self-contained individual' (the human counterpart to Kant's 'pure, clean, self-contained' art), was still eight years off, and Under the Net, her Queneau-flavoured first published novel, nine, she had in effect already begun her life as a writer. By the time she met Sartre and Queneau, she had written at least two of the four or possibly six novels that preceded Under the Net (she destroyed them in the 1980s, hence the uncertainty about their number).
In 1946 she was in England again, reading, experimenting with Anglo-Catholicism, trying to recover from the devastation of yet another wave of love affairs. She spent a year on a studentship at Newnham College, Cambridge, balancing uneasily at the outermost edge of Wittgenstein's circle, friendly with some of his disciples but not with the man himself, before accepting a philosophy tutorship at St Anne's College, Oxford in 1948. Here too she was philosophically eccentric, out of sympathy with the dominant analytic philosophy and more inclined towards a difficult-to-define spirituality than seemed quite fitting. She was, in Isaiah Berlin's words, a 'lady not known for the clarity of her views'. It didn't matter. By now, reading Simone Weil, rereading the formerly despised Plato, reconsidering Christianity, and moving in the direction of an interest in Buddhism, she began to form a new intellectual centre for herself: it would be goodness, selflessness, and attention to others that she would study.
These qualities, only intemittently evident in her romantic relationships of the period, did matter in her relationship with Franz Baermann Steiner. Like so many of Murdoch's close friends, Steiner was a Jewish refugee, his scholarly interests embracing holiness and the taboo. After he died in 1952 at the age of 43, possibly in an embrace with Murdoch (so Conradi conjectures), Murdoch exclaimed that she had 'lost, by death, the person who was closest to me, whom I loved very dearly, whom I would very probably have married, if things had gone on as they were going'. She looked for consolation to Elias Canetti, the dark counterpart to Steiner but also, in his attentiveness, his promiscuity and his power to enslave his lovers, a counterpart to Murdoch herself, or to what she might have been on the verge of becoming. He may have been the person who launched her career by sending the manuscript of Under the Net to Viking Press. He may also, Conradi suggests, have taught her by example what evil was.
From the cruel and cruelty-inducing tangles of Canetti's erotic affairs, Bayley rescued her, his innocence, his gentleness (reminiscent of her father's), and his evident vulnerability calling forth her own. Their marriage, which took place in 1956, was founded, though it is impossible to know how consciously, on a rejection of everything Murdoch's experience with Canetti and the line of demon-lovers that led up to him represented. They moved out of Oxford, in part to distance Murdoch from the continuing solicitations of her still numerous admirers. She kept her position at St Anne's for another seven years before resigning to take a very different kind of position at the Royal College of Art in London, where she taught for four years.
She was putting more of her energies into the writing of her novels, which, after the tremendous success of Under the Net in 1954, would appear very regularly, one a year, or very nearly, until the late 1970s. Her production then began to moderate. She had wanted to be like Tolstoy, like Shakespeare; she had wanted to write a masterpiece. She was capable of mocking her own literary eccentricities (notably in those of the two fictional novelists Arnold Baffin and Bradley Pearson in The Black Prince), but as friend after friend told her her novels were bad, she became prickly. Her volumes of philosophy, The Sovereignty of Good and Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, were more highly regarded by the non-academic public than by most of her academic peers. She won the Booker Prize for The Sea, The Sea in 1978 and was made a CBE in 1976, then a Dame in 1987. In the last decade of her career her novels noticeably weakened, the prosiness, the didacticism, and the reliance on whimsy, allegory and magic gradually and tediously overwhelming the hilarity, the perfection of tone, the witty throwaway symmetries of accident and insight, the artfully balanced (and, for Murdoch, guiltily gratifying) rhythms and geometries of passion and form of which she had, at her earlier best, been a master. Her old admirers might have read the last novels groaning, but it was Murdoch, after all, and therefore impossible not to read. But by the time Jackson's Dilemma came out, even those of us who knew nothing of her life other than the version on the jackets of her books recognised that something was very badly wrong.
There is more, however, and more and more: the evidence of erotic excess. Bayley alluded to this excess in his memoirs; Richard Eyre's film Iris (2001) offers a sliver. But neither gives anything like an adequate sense of the scale of it, and it is impossible to do so here. Not even Conradi himself can quite manage it: his six hundred or so pages are too few for what he has to tell, and his efforts resemble those of a man sitting on a hopelessly overstuffed trunk in an attempt to make it close. It can't: it is crammed with lovers packed in tight, the details smashed flat, extraneous facts shorn away to save space, mangled and compressed to the point of incomprehensibility and all beyond counting or collating. Behind every layer of involvements and subinvolvements and distractions from involvement there is another layer of involvements and subinvolvements, and behind that another still, each new layer coming as a complete surprise no matter how predictable its emergence ought to be after so many hundreds of pages, and all the more ridiculous for Conradi's apparent hope - as he slips in yet another brief allusion to the revival of relations with some fellow with whom we haven't up until now been given reason to suspect Murdoch had ever had any relationship at all - that we might not notice. Not even Murdoch's own novels, which Conradi shows to be far more nearly realistic in this respect than her critics could have guessed, can compete in erotic complexity with her life.
Murdoch had begun her romantic life (so Bayley told the Mail on Sunday) with an attachment to a slug; her first semi-serious schoolgirl romance, largely epistolary and wholly innocent, involved a dentistry student so extravagantly fond of blank verse that he was later to compose his first lecture as a professor of dental anatomy in it. But when Murdoch went to Oxford she unleashed her heart, and unleashed it remained for the next quarter of a century. Though she was by conventional standards closer to plain than to pretty and had a gait, somebody once remarked, like the oxen in Homer, she nonetheless radiated erotic significance. People felt it in her, just as she felt it in them: there was something here that mattered, though what it was remained impossible to convey in words. (Pictures are something else. The photographs Conradi includes are themselves worth the price of the book.) At Oxford especially, virtually everyone she had anything to do with fell in love with her. Conradi compares her to Zuleika Dobson. She had marriage proposals the way some people have hiccups. She had only to ride by on a bicycle or lean an elbow on a table during a lecture to become an object of fascination. One otherwise apparently normal young man glanced out a window, caught a glimpse of her as she passed by - an unknown young woman in an academic gown walking with a friend - and immediately jumped up, ran outside, and followed her into Fraenkel's Agamemnon seminar, where the young infatuate proceeded to ignore Fraenkel and to look at her, entranced, until the seminar ended. Often enough she seems to have done nothing in particular to invite this interest. The mere sight of her was enough. But once opportunity offered she was incapable of refusing: 'There has never been a moment when I have trembled on the brink of such an exchange and drawn back,' she wrote of one admittedly foolish out-of-nowhere kiss. 'One of my fundamental assumptions is that I have the power to seduce anyone,' she wrote another time. As one of the many men she was engaged to remarked, she was 'monumentally unfaithful'. She made a joke about 'there having been only one man in Oxford she had not had an affair with'. These affairs, some of them lasting for years, others hours, most of them kept secret from the participants in rival affairs, ran not just serially but also simultaneously, in packs or even swarms. She slept with strangers and friends, men and women. Nor, though it certainly diminished, did the promiscuity end when she married. Her affair with Philippa Foot was an event of the late 1960s. Bayley represented her leaving St Anne's as a decision she made in order to concentrate on her writing, but not at all: she left after being warned that a long-evolving obsessional relationship with a colleague there - the model for Honor Klein of A Severed Head, Conradi suggests - was causing scandal.
It is not at all clear what motivated her in her relations with her lovers. The possibly untrustworthy and certainly fragmentary record of what she felt during those years, when at any given moment she was in love in a dozen different directions at once, is bewildering. Conradi suggests that the appeal of these relationships for her was usually 'intellectual and moral', and there is reason to believe this was a factor in some cases. Meeting Fraenkel again in the 1960s after years of estrangement (she had resented his criticism of a novel of hers containing a character she had based on him), she remarked: 'When I am with him knowledge & ideas seem to flow from him & into me quite automatically. Great teacher, great man . . . I love him, & love him physically too.' Affection and admiration almost invariably felt to her like erotic attraction. But often enough all a beautiful young thing had to be was beautiful. Though she behaved at times as one frantic for love, she couldn't always respond in kind to offers of love, and a number of relationships had more to do with domination and submission than with happiness or affection. Bayley doubts that sex was ever important to her, and by 1968 Murdoch looked back to judge all 'that business of falling in love with A, then with B, then with C (all madly) . . . a bit sickening'. At various times she described herself as a libertine, as a stranger to passion, as a narcissist, as a sadomasochistic gay man, as a corrupter of love, her 'generosity, gentleness, douceur, tendresse' turning dangerous, 'especially in their corrupted form in me'. To one lover she wrote: 'I still make my love very seriously & let it tear my guts out every time.' But after Steiner's death her own toughness appalled her: 'The horror of feeling indestructible. I can bear all this grief and more without breaking.' And she could compare a former lover, Conradi writes, 'to a great fish she had seen dying by the river, and [wonder] why she did not feel more distress. (Of another lover who stayed "stricken", she commented coolly that it was like knocking someone down and then coming back, years later, and finding them still suffering by the roadside.)' Yet with very few exceptions her former lovers remained her friends.
'There are not many people whom one wants to know one!' she told her journal in 1971. Despite the apparent openness to others, she was careful to preserve her privacy, her guard dropping, slightly, only when she felt protected by distance either generic (as in letter-writing or fiction-writing) or geographic. She had always destroyed letters she received from other people, and when she and Bayley were preparing to move back to Oxford in 1985 she went to work on her journals with a razor blade, destroying materials throughout but concentrating particularly on what she had written during the war and during another period beginning in 1972. The large fact of her three-year affair with Canetti was unknown to any friend Conradi was able to contact as late as 1999.
Her powers of reticence, effacement, and disguise were immense and could be directed against herself as well as against others. 'I haven't a face any more,' she wrote to Thompson. In 1970 she noted: 'I have very little sense of my own identity. Cd one gradually go mad by slowly losing all one's sense of identity?' In 1989 she told an interviewer: 'I don't think of myself as existing much, somehow.' Bayley reports that she lacked what he calls 'stream of consciousness'; the internal voice that comments on the self and its sensations, she told him, was silent in her. Believing introspection invites drama and self-delusion, she judged it better not to pay much attention to oneself. It is the same in her fiction; the characters whom Conradi says Murdoch identified as her fictional doubles are those whose being it is hardest to imagine or even to want to imagine: Hannah Crean-Smith from The Unicorn, with her tainted, disquieting victimhood, the hideously destructive Morgan from A Fairly Honourable Defeat, and the emotionally opaque Anna Quentin from Under the Net. Murdoch invites no one to enter her reflections. 'It is good to declare a blankness now and then,' one of her creatures tells another. 'We are not anything very much.'
Conradi is fine at summing up the social and intellectual worlds in which Murdoch moved. We learn a lot about the political atmosphere of Oxford, the number of homeless people in London during the war, what she could see out of her window and where she went to fetch water when she was living in her favourite London flat, how (in moving detail, because she didn't cut up his letters) Frank Thompson felt about her, how (in even more moving detail, because he left a journal) Franz Steiner felt about her, how Murdoch's friends and acquaintances conducted their friendships and quarrels with one another, even how her friend Janet Stone bought her clothes (by mail order). We learn that people around her found her naive, aboriginal, virginal (long after the facts indicated otherwise), powerful, gentle, extraordinarily kind (unless she wanted your husband), shy, confident, uncensorious, harmonious, inspired, unpretentious, 'a golden girl for whom the waters parted', a fairytale princess, a little bull, a lioness, a water-buffalo. We learn that she had a quality of 'luminous goodness' and that 'when she came into a room, you felt better.'
But for all the admirable work Conradi has done among archives, private letters, and those papers that escaped Murdoch's censoring razor blade, and for all the years of friendship Conradi shared with her, we have here a woman seen for the most part from a distance, the proportions of her story all too evidently (though understandably) a function of the relative availability or unavailability of biographical material. Still more information of the kind those razored bits might have represented could not remedy her essential unknowableness; nor would a different biographical sensibility. The Saint and the Artist proved Conradi's quiet ability to convey what is most important about Murdoch. So when Conradi insists on his feeling that he never understood her - a bafflement he shares with her friends and even with her husband - it is something to take seriously.
Murdoch herself, or what it felt like to be her - which any biography-reader, no matter how sophisticated, tactlessly and incorrigibly wants to discover - is elusive. It is impossible to imagine what it must have felt like to her to be luminously good, or to seem so, or to walk into a room and make everyone feel better. Possibly we would need to be luminously good ourselves in order to understand. Or possibly we might in this case consider adjusting our sense of what understanding someone means.
Love is the usual clue to understanding - telling us that A is close to so-and-so's heart, B less so, and C abominable, so that one begins to guess at a structure of intimacy and exclusion, of surfaces and depths and loyalties and aversions. But love gives us a different kind of clue where Murdoch is concerned. With Murdoch love leads not somewhere in particular but seemingly everywhere, to A and B and C, right on down the alphabet. Everything is equally inside the space of her attention: spider; slug; Canetti (and his maimed wife and his dying mistress); the Agamemnon; Bayley; the mouse that ran unnoticed up Bayley's arm one day while he was looking at badgers and then across his collar and down the other arm, still unnoticed; the badgers themselves; her friends the teacups and spoons; the scrap of paper she could not bring herself to burn. Her affections are like the glittering tangles one of her characters watches another comb delicately from his hair, floating to the floor but glimpsed again later in 'the gleaming fuzz of innumerable stars' in the Milky Way, wheeling through 'the deep absolute darkness that hid other and other and other galaxies', a cosmos accidentally imaged in the most accidental of forms, the likeness itself neither fully meaningful nor completely absurd, not a marriage but a kiss.
'Art invigorates us by a juxtaposition, almost an identification, of pointlessness and value,' Murdoch writes. Her tangles turn sometimes into galaxies and (since transfiguration, a 'simulation of the self-contained aimlessness of the universe', is as likely to tip backwards as forwards) her galaxies sometimes into tangles. Her ecstatic visions are never the last word. Ecstasy itself is suspect until it is reabsorbed into 'the bafflement of the mind by the world', into the 'ordinary human jumble' that is its source and - if the vision is true - its only valid sense. All this contributes to the notorious difficulty of discussing her work without sounding befuddled. Writing of the novels in The Saint and the Artist, Conradi observes: 'the truths they mediate turn out often to be as simple as "Nobody's perfect" or "Handsome is as handsome does." That such dull commonplaces can radiate as much light as apparent profundities is her point.' He is entirely right - and admirably reasonable. But embarrassed in my efforts to translate a prolonged and helpless infatuation with the novels into something resembling sense, I feel closer to the doomed Murdoch character on an LSD trip, as he tries to describe to his non-tripping friend his blissful insight into the nature of things:
How things are. They are in themselves, they are, I say, in themselves, that's the - the secret . . . They are not just in themselves - they are - themselves. Everything is - itself. It is a - itself. But, you know, there's - there's only one . . . Anything. Everything is - all together - like a big - it's shaggy -
Susan Eilenberg, an associate professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo, is the author of The Strange Power of Speech: Wordsworth, Coleridge and Literary Possession (1992). Her next book will be about Milton and the problem of sinister excess.
the yale review of books
Fall 2001 Issue
Vol. 4, n.º 3
Iris Murdoch: A Life
W.W. Norton & Co., 706 pp., $35
reviewed by Carey Seal
Carey Seal is a sophomore in Silliman and an editor of the YRB
Maze of Murdoch
Conradi peers into the life of an enigmatic scholar.
The unique magnetism Iris Murdoch’s twenty-six novels exert on critics and public alike lies not solely in the vividness of her characterization and the fecund richness of her plots. Murdoch’s books also have a readily palpable moral depth: the reader of her fiction can always perceive beneath the baroque superstructure a ceaseless quest for the nature of goodness. An Oxford-trained philosopher whose books on ethics and on the role of art have their own enduring importance in their own right, Murdoch disliked the confining label of “philosophical novelist;” she preferred instead to see herself in the tradition of the expansive nineteenth-century masters—Scott, Austen, Tolstoy—whom she found “to a staggering degree better than the most praised of contemporary novelists.” These writers, she wrote, understood that “art is not an expression of personality; it is a question rather of the continual expelling of oneself from the matter at hand.” Murdoch took as her task nothing less than the revival of what she once called the “true novel,” the novel of independent and fully realized characters that is concerned above all else with love, that is, our “indefinitely extended capacity to imagine the being of others.”
Peter Conradi’s authorized biography of Murdoch, written with the cooperation of her husband, John Bayley, is a major contribution to our understanding of the complex and often turbulent emotional and intellectual life that fueled her daringly ambitious project. The biographer, an English professor at the University of Kingston and a friend of Bayley’s and Murdoch’s, succeeded in obtaining the latter’s approval for his book before she entered the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Although he follows Murdoch through her Anglo-Irish childhood, her years teaching philosophy at Oxford, and her decades as a phenomenally productive novelist to her death in 1999, Conradi centers his attention on her youth: she doesn’t publish her first novel until 400 pages into the book. “Iris’s life seems more improbably packed with strange coincidence than her own plots,” Conradi writes; his book conscientiously seeks to make sense of that coincidence and patiently unravels for us the intersecting webs of love and friendship in which she enmeshed herself.
Although marred by some irritating quirks, including a bizarre series of extraneous hostile references to Oxford classicist Maurice Bowra, Conradi’s narrative retains interest throughout. Unfortunately, Murdoch’s apparently inexhaustible capacity to inspire passionate attachment combines with Conradi’s penchant for piling on marginally relevant detail to leave us in hopeless confusion by the time the budding author graduates from Oxford. A moment of unintentional hilarity is achieved when Conradi interrupts his Homeric catalogue of those who fell under Murdoch’s spell to announce that “in the interests of clarity, this biography presents a few strands only” of its subject’s Byzantine entanglements.
Conradi industriously shines his professorial light into some hitherto ill-illuminated corners of Murdoch’s life. Particularly revelatory is his account of her scarring liaison with future Nobel laureate Elias Canetti, who, Conradi persuasively argues, is the model for the charismatically tyrannical “enchanter” figures that dominate many of her novels. Conradi bristles with indignation at the “Svengali-like” manner in which Canetti treated Murdoch and is often unable to keep himself from descending into ad hominem snideness: Canetti’s claim that Murdoch had experienced “real terror” only vicariously is “a curious charge, coming from someone who went to Amersham to escape the Blitz.”
Murdoch’s famously happy forty-three-year marriage to Bayley, an Oxford don and noted literary critic, receives less attention, perhaps because much of the relevant material has already been covered by Bayley in his bestselling series of memoirs. Conradi charts new ground, however, in his discussion of the only one of Murdoch’s romantic involvements to threaten the couple’s much-chronicled matrimonial bliss. Drawing on Murdoch’s journals, he reveals that Iris did not leave her academic post at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, in order to devote her time to writing, as was publicly reported. (Indeed, she took up teaching at the Royal College of Art immediately thereafter.) Rather, she hoped to escape from “a mutually obsessional attachment to a woman colleague that threatened scandal.” Conradi’s accounts of this episode and Murdoch’s other extramarital imbroglios are remarkably free from prurience; he treats such incidents as opportunities to gain insight into the complexity of her search for love rather than as occasions for scandal-mongering.
Conradi fails to do justice to his subject, however, in his discussion of her philosophical and political thought. “One aim of this biography,” he writes in his conclusion, “has been to suggest how intensely she lived, felt, and engaged with the pressures of her age.” Making sense of these pressures and sorting out the heterogeneous sources of her thought—Marxism, French existentialism, Christian and Buddhist mysticism, Platonism—is of course an imposing task; it was not without justification that Isaiah Berlin called her “a lady not known for the clarity of her views.” But Conradi makes no real attempt to trace the development of these views or to convey the complexity of Murdoch’s relations to the dominant intellectual currents of her century. He notes almost perfunctorily her shift in philosophical orientation during the early 1950s from a “mainstream Wittgensteinian” point of view towards “a more inclusive philosophy,” one “more open to Continental Europe,” but declines to devote any space to the significance of this evolution in the context of the then-chasmic split between Continental thought and Anglo-American analytic philosophy.
We learn from Conradi that Murdoch’s break with the English mainstream was regarded as near-apostasy by her peers; Berlin and A.J. Ayer, among others, were aggressively unsympathetic, and even her lifelong friend Philippa Foot, a distinguished analytic philosopher, told an interviewer that “she left us.” But we must turn to Murdoch’s collected philosophical writings, Existentialists and Mystics, edited by Conradi himself, to find out anything concerning the substance of her differences with Oxford philosophy. The essays collected there make it clear that while Murdoch had great respect for the clarity and logical rigor of the analytic school’s work, she felt that its reductive account of the human mind and, crucially, the ethical schemae founded on that account were profoundly inadequate. The “elimination of metaphysics from ethics,” she wrote, left moral philosophy “a stripped and empty scene.” Pointing out in several essays the thinness of what she called the “British Liberal” approach to moral reasoning, she argued forcefully for the reintegration of metaphysics and ethics, and so anticipated the central concerns of her late philosophical magnum opus, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. Conradi neglects to offer any substantive explication of Murdoch’s controversial views on these subjects and mentions only in passing the profound influence her work would have on a “less provincial” later generation of philosophers.
The biography is also disturbingly unclear on Murdoch’s ambivalent relation to Sartrean existentialism. Murdoch wrote her first book on Sartre and was instrumental in giving his ideas currency in the English-speaking world. But, as her essays from the early 1950s make clear, she came to see existentialist ethics, with its emphasis on moral choice, as ultimately a late and extreme version of what she regarded as a moribund liberal individualism.
Conradi’s failure to provide an illuminating picture of Murdoch’s philosophical development stems largely from his apparent unwillingness to acknowledge the depth and sincerity of her early commitment to Marxism as a philosophical and political project. He attributes her stint in the Communist Party as an undergraduate more to the influence of an eccentric boarding-school headmistress than to any genuine political engagement. He lumps Marxism with Anglo-Catholicism and existentialism, neither of which Iris ever firmly embraced, in a glib reference to Murdoch’s “immature philosophies.” Essay after essay in Existentialists and Mystics, however, shows the longevity and profundity of her attachment in post-Party years to what she called a “refurbished Marxism”—an anti-Stalinist Marxism alive to other philosophical traditions and to the moral complexity of lived experience. Conradi gives a single sentence of misleading summary to “A House of Theory,” Murdoch’s landmark contribution to socialist political thought; his circumscribed account of her trajectory of thought leaves us with no way of apprehending her true stature as a moral and political philosopher.
“I wanted to write the first biography of Iris, but not the last,” Conradi writes in his introduction. Perhaps his successor will give us a more searching and attentive retracing of her intellectual odyssey. In the interim, however, Conradi’s book stands as an inviting guide to the inner terrain of Iris Murdoch, novelist, metaphysician, artist of life.
Nov. 30, 2001, 11:10AM
By MALINDA NASH
By Peter J. Conradi.
HOW does one describe Iris Murdoch? Let us count the ways: distinguished Oxford philosopher, prize-winning novelist, dramatist, critic, passionate student. One of England's charming blue-eyed eccentrics, indifferent to fashion and to dust on the furniture. Author of 26 witty novels exploring themes of love and power among the chattering classes of 20th-century Europe.
English critic Peter J. Conradi (Iris Murdoch: The Saint and the Artist) examines Murdoch's quicksilver mind and operatic prose in a biography outstanding both in scope and detail. Previously unseen diaries and letters, plus hundreds of interviews, enable him to present her life and work with freshness and clarity. Because Murdoch's years after her marriage to Oxford don John Bayley in 1954 are well-documented, Conradi concentrates on the period 1919-1954.
He brings his subject to life. The reader encounters an idealist who, like Shakespeare, believed in love at first sight; a moralist who considered pride the fundamental sin; a thinker whose protean mind challenged humanism by arguing that man is not good or rational by nature but by dint of great effort.
Dame Iris Murdoch (1919-1999), a much-loved only child, was born in Dublin into an Anglo-Irish family "stuffed with independent minds." She had a bookish father and a bright mother who gave up a music career for marriage. (Murdoch grieved for her mother's sacrifice and created several characters who gave up careers for their husbands.)
Murdoch's early years belie the fashionable conceit of childhood rebellion. Family life was calm and happy, with singing, swimming and animals. She recalls an early sense of wonderment and imagination, a capacity for strong emotion. The three Murdochs formed a compact unit and got along as equals. Friends saw Iris as "a golden girl for whom the waters parted."
Murdoch's mysticism and lofty Platonism followed naturally from her Irish roots. The writer who loved her "precious enclosed community" of Oxford was not, however, the only Iris.
Conradi finds that Murdoch played two opposite roles. She was both a hardheaded, hardworking professional woman and a softhearted masochist, other-centered to the degree that she could lose her own identity. (Bayley said Iris "paid no attention to what people thought of her; she was not at all self-conscious.") This fundamental dichotomy structures her biography. It accommodates her several facets and accounts for her childlike wonder, love affairs and political idealism.
Conradi relates Murdoch's life to her fiction. He names individuals who inspired characters in her complicated Shakespearean romances. His most interesting point demonstrates how her Gothic fantasies describe the urgencies and illusions of our moral life. "Murdoch has often said that people are secretly much odder, less rational, more powered by obsession and passion than they pretend or know." The make-believe of ordinary life can be carried out anywhere, in a bomb shelter or at a tea table.
Murdoch's best-known novels include the Booker Prize-winning The Sea, The Sea (1978), The Black Prince (1973) and The Good Apprentice (1985). Among her philosophical works are The Sovereignty of the Good (1970) and Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992).
The narrative arc of Murdoch's life spans history's most violent century. Born at the end of World War I, she saw Hitler, Stalin, Europe in World War II, existentialism and the decline of organized religion. She supported the Spanish Republic; she worked at refugee camps in Austria and Belgium. "I'm glad I was born when I was, aren't you?" she wrote to a friend. "Lord, this is an interesting age."
History taught her to doubt rationalism and optimism, convincing her that man is not innately good or free. The idea of fast moral change she considered romantic and false, and she rejected existentialism's promise of total human freedom. Her prose explores the irrational forces within the individual that make dictators possible.
Iris Murdoch died of Alzheimer's in 1999. Her ashes were scattered; her brain was left to science.
Novelist A.S. Byatt says the English are hard to sum up. Conradi is equal to the task: He tells the intimate history of an important and complex intellectual. Readers will warm to his straightforward tone and intuitive sympathy for a writer at the heart of the British tradition of idealism and satire. His careful respect may ensure that Iris Murdoch will be loved even better after death.
Malinda Nash is a Midland-based writer and reviewer.
N Z Z Online
18. Januar 2003, 02:10, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
All about Iris
Peter J. Conradis Biographie «Iris Murdoch. Ein Leben»
Jede Woche schickte Louisas Sohn Hughes seine Wäsche aus dem Internat nach Hause. Und jede Woche schnitt Louisa vor dem Waschen alle Knöpfe von Hughes' Kleidern und nähte sie danach wieder an. Die zweite Kindergärtnerin von Hughes' eigener Tochter Iris wiederum starb, Jahrzehnte nach ihrer Zeit mit dem kleinen Mädchen, am Stich einer Biene. - Auf den ersten 500 Seiten seiner Biographie «Iris Murdoch. Ein Leben» scheint Peter J. Conradi jeden, wirklich jeden Schnörkel um sein Studienobjekt zu schlingen, der sich noch irgend vertreten lässt. Dabei bietet dieser reiche, bisweilen überreiche Blick auf die Jahre 1616 (so weit lässt sich der Stammbaum der Schriftstellerin zurückverfolgen) bis 1956 (das Jahr ihrer Eheschliessung) nur einen Bruchteil dessen, was Conradi an Material ausgegraben hat; der Rest ist ins Archiv gewandert. Und auch die 350 Seiten, die das Leben Iris Murdochs seit Mitte der fünfziger Jahre bis zu ihrem Tod 1999 nachzeichnen, zehren - trotz weiser Zurückhaltung an gebotenem Ort - von dieser Fülle.
Iris Murdoch hat immer genau hingeschaut. Sie hat, bei aller Melodramatik ihrer «silly spoilt nervy pseudo-intellectuals» (Murdoch über Murdoch-Helden) und ihrer Plots, immer aufmerksam aufs Kleine geachtet. Und nun hat einer ebenso genau auf ihr Leben geblickt, aufs Kleine wie aufs Dramatische, und führt uns, flanierend und konversierend, durch ihre vergangenen Welten.
Peter J. Conradi kann aus dem Vollen schöpfen: Schon als Schulbub liebte der heute emeritierte Professor und Autor die Bücher der Erzählerin und Philosophin. Seine Doktorarbeit schrieb er über den Platonismus in den literarischen Werken Murdochs. Und persönlich lernte er die Romancière 1981 kennen. Aus der Bekanntschaft sollte mit der Zeit eine enge Freundschaft werden; eine Freundschaft, in welche die Lebenspartner mit einbezogen waren: In den letzten drei Jahren vor dem Tod der Autorin wuchsen die beiden Paare zu «so etwas wie einer Familie» zusammen.
Trotzdem - oder gerade deshalb, um jener Objektivität willen nämlich, die durch Distanz geschaffen wird - ist Conradis Biographie vor allem a portrait of the artist as a young woman. Aufgabe einer Biographie sei es, «den Menschen in seinen Zeitverhältnissen darzustellen und zu zeigen, . . . wie er sich eine Welt- und Menschenansicht daraus gebildet und wie er sie, wenn er Künstler, Dichter, Schriftsteller ist, wieder nach aussen abspiegelt», schreibt Goethe. Und genau das ist die Geschichte, die uns Conradi in seinen zahllosen kleinen Geschichten über Iris (bestückt mit beinah 100 Seiten Fussnoten) erzählt: wie das 1919 in Dublin geborene Kleine-Leute-Kind, erzogen an Privatschulen, ausgebildet und später unterrichtend an der Universität Oxford, in die Kriegswirren geworfen, sich in Liebeswirren verstrickend, zur Grande Dame der englischen Literatur heranreift.
Die Tochter eines Standesbeamten mauserte sich zur Starschülerin, Schulsprecherin, (blauäugigen) Stalin-Gläubigen, Stipendiatin am Somerville-College in Oxford. Dort stürzte sie sich rasch in einen «Orkan von Essays und Übersetzungen und Kampagnen und Komitees und Sherrypartys und Auseinandersetzungen über Politik und Ästhetik». Es war eine Zeit, in der Studentinnen, die in flagranti mit einem Mann ertappt wurden, noch der Universität verwiesen werden konnten. In der Alkohol zu trinken verboten war. In der auf sechs männliche Studierende in Oxford eine Frau kam. Doch Iris trank, liebte, brillierte - und schlug mit ihrem kindlichen Charme, ihrer ruhigen Selbstsicherheit, Ehrlichkeit und Bescheidenheit alle in ihren Bann. Sie war davon überzeugt, jeden Menschen verführen zu können - und sie konnte es.
Aber sie konnte noch mehr: Freundschaft retten, wenn Leidenschaft erloschen war. Sich von einer (Liebes-)Krise in die nächste fallen lassen - eine der langlebigsten, für ihre Entwicklung entscheidendsten hiess Elias Canetti - und trotzdem wieder aufstehen, wieder schreiben. Als eine stürmische lesbische Affäre ihr in den Sechzigern den Seelenfrieden raubt und selbst ihre fröhlich-friedliche offene Ehe bedroht, verlässt sie das Oxforder College, an dem sie Philosophie lehrt - und schreibt. Briefe, Tagebücher, Gedichte, Romane: Ob die junge Frau nach dem Krieg in Österreich Flüchtlingen hilft, ob sie in London lebt oder in der Abgeschiedenheit ihres altersschwachen, überfüllten Hauses in Oxford, stets wird sie sich schriftlich über ihr Tun und Sein vergewissern; austauschen.
Ihr Mann John Bayley schuf als erstes Buch über seine Frau ein anrührendes Dokument seiner Liebe, ihrer Liebe («Elegie für Iris», NZZ 25. 7. 00). Man machte aus ihrem Leben einen Film. Nun aber hat Peter J. Conradi etliche Erzählfäden auseinander gezwirbelt und neu verknüpft, hat Geheimnisse offen gelassen und Widersprüche zugelassen. Seine Iris ist wild und weich, treuherzig und weise, gurusüchtig und souverän, politisch links und rechts, analytisch und chaotisch, notlügenreich und wahrheitstrunken. Und auf der Suche nach dem Guten in der Welt - auch dann, als der Krieg die heiteren Studentenjahre endgültig in ein Paradise Lost verwandelt, als er geliebte Menschen stiehlt, Verwirrung stiftet, die Hässlichkeit des Homo sapiens blossstellt. Diese Suche führt Iris einmal auf marxistische und existenzialistische, dann wieder auf christliche oder buddhistische Wege. Doch immer in jenes einzige Gebiet, «in dem ich mich wirklich auskenne», wie sie 1976 ins Tagebuch notiert: in das der Liebe. Es begann einst mit der Passion für eine Nacktschnecke und wird - in den Jahren ihrer Alzheimer-Erkrankung - nur langsam verblassen: Liebevoll kümmert sich die Patientin etwa um zerdrückte Dosen und Zigarettenstummel.
Vielleicht hätte man nicht von jedem fiktiven Hund Iris Murdochs das reale Pendant kennen lernen müssen. Und auch nicht jedes part, jedes propos über Freunde, Verwandte und Bekannte erfahren. Aber Peter J. Conradis Opus magnum ist mehr, viel mehr als ein Kompendium Murdoch'scher Kuriositäten: Es ist ein Zeugnis von «the making of», ein Panorama ihrer prägenden Jahre, ein quellenreicher Fundus für jeden künftigen Murdoch-Forscher, ein elegant arrangiertes Album voller Atmosphäre und Anekdoten und, nicht zuletzt, eine biographisch-philosophisch orientierte Lektürehilfe für unvergessene, unvergessliche Werke wie «The Sea, the Sea». Es ist, alles in allem, enorm.
Peter J. Conradi: Iris Murdoch. Ein Leben. Biographie. Aus dem Englischen von Juliane Gräbener-Müller und Marion Balkenhol. Deuticke-Verlag, Wien 2002. 847 S., Fr. 66.-.
From Peter Conradi
I was grateful for Susan Eilenberg's generous reading of my Iris Murdoch: A Life and The Saint and the Artist (LRB, 5 September), but unhappy about being advertised as anxious about the scandalous potential of my material and therefore disguising Murdoch's youthful 'erotic excess'. What constitutes a statistically acceptable number of lovers has presumably not been computed; Eilenberg quotes Murdoch as writing: 'I still make my love very seriously & let it tear my guts out every time.' What Murdoch wrote was: 'I still take my love very seriously' - rather different. My anxiety had to do with depicting a muddled young Iris metamorphosing into a wiser older one: neither wisdom nor moral change is fashionable, and both preoccupied Murdoch's life and work. Conflating epithets used of her in 1938 with those from 1990 minimises both. Who, by the way, compared Murdoch to a 'water buffalo'?
The passionate and the good
IRIS MURDOCH: A LIFE
HarperCollins, £24.99, pp.736, ISBN:0002571234
Any feeling reader will
confess, I think, to distinct ambivalence about Iris Murdoch. It is all too easy
to make her sound absolutely ridiculous; her plots permutational, her tone
gushing, her symbolism crude and external. There are books of hers in which she
manages to squeeze 15 separate sexual relationships out of a group of eight
people; and by the time you’ve done that, the light is fading and there’s not a
lot of point in starting to talk about anything else much. Her dialogue can be
absolutely atrocious; she has no shame whatever in writing sentences like ‘My
body is aching for the embrace of you, my love,’ or ‘Oh God, Hilary, I do love
you so terribly,’ or ‘Human beings are roughly constructed entities full of
indeterminateness and vaguenesses and empty spaces.’
In the end, one does come to the conclusion that her range of interests is not quite wide enough to sustain work of such massive bulk; one wants her to talk about money or politics or anything but that ceaseless harping on love and virtue. Ivy Compton-Burnett is reported as saying, ‘I do wish that she had not got involved in philosophy. If she had studied domestic science or trained to be a Norland nurse, I’m sure her books would have been much better.’ There is something in that; the books do have too narrow a range of represented humanity, and go too quickly into discussions of abstract states. And yet, in many ways, one reacts viscerally to them as marvellous, magical books. A half-dozen of them are appallingly readable; at their best they swipe away the objection of implausibility by their romantic sweep.
I think she abandoned too much by plunging into the richly patterned romances of her later years. Too often, motivation, psychology, plausible behaviour just disappear, leaving behind the intricate play of symbol and action, like a gaudy Jonsonian masque. That is to sacrifice a great deal, but I think what you can say for Murdoch is that, like very few other novelists, she showed the generations of novelists who followed her some unsuspected possibilities. A. S. Byatt’s The Virgin in the Garden is a much richer novel than anything Murdoch ever did, but its revolutionary play of realism, masque, symbolism and self-willed mythologies is surely the synthesis Murdoch had pointed to and hoped to achieve in something like An Accidental Man or The Bell. And later novelists, few of whom would openly admit to admiring Murdoch, nevertheless explored a particular vein of explicit artifice, of display and revelation, which she first opened up. I never believe anyone who tells me that they find Iris Murdoch unreadable. Deplorable, perhaps; fascinating, always.
In a way, one doesn’t really want a biography of Murdoch. It opens up the question of how someone so formidably intelligent could be so careless and even silly when it came to putting a work of art together. A Fairly Honourable Defeat is justly regarded as one of her best things, but even that is full of absurdities. There are small irritations — Tallis’ next-door neighbours are Sikhs for half the novel, and Muslims for the rest — but the bigger ones can only be regarded as a failure of intelligence. The plot is wildly implausible; the liaison at the centre of the novel would collapse if either party remarked, as lovers tend to, ‘The first time you wrote to me. . .’ How could someone so able and intelligent perpetrate something so daft?
These are questions which the novels, alone, don’t raise. But a biography is always going to reveal a truly intelligent and extraordinary woman, and make us feel, somehow, that the novels were not entirely worthy of her capacities. There is no doubt at all that she was astonishingly intelligent. She cut a swathe through Oxford both with her quick academic mastery and her famous, pale, kobold-like beauty, seducing men and women without seeming to try. Two big passions left a mark: one for Frank Thompson, E. P. Thompson’s brother, who died a hero’s death in the Balkans, and who seems to have been the one man who could keep up with Iris intellectually (his letters are certainly clear-sighted and perceptive on every subject). The other, for Franz Steiner, emerged from a more general fascination with the middle-European émigré population; another émigré, Eduard Fraenkel, was among her most important teachers, and Murdoch’s life was for years entwined with that bogus sage, Elias Canetti.
After Steiner’s early death from a weak heart, Murdoch published her first, hugely successful novel and married, to everyone’s mild surprise, John Bayley. The tone of their marriage was set by Murdoch’s reply to his proposal, when he asked her whether there was anything that appealed to her about the idea of marrying him. ‘Well, yes,’ she said. ‘I rather like to think of you coming home in the evening, and me rushing out to say, “Darling, the badgers have broken into the garden.” ’ Bayley’s Harold Skimpole routine was already highly developed, and the ménage at Cedar Lodge at Steeple Aston soon created its own mythology; the mice which Conradi says, entering into the fantasy, ‘they early on watched planning to confiscate Iris’s Mars Bar’. The vast acres of unused rooms — a dining- room, a sauna, a ‘groom’s bed-chamber’, a ‘gardener’s earth-closet’ — went unexplored by anyone except the mice. The freezing cold and the leaking roof and the Sellotape on window cracks — some people found it charming, and some, like Stuart Hampshire, ‘beyond bohemianism’.
This unworldliness was all very well, and conformed to part of Murdoch’s character, but there was certainly a part of her which wanted more worldly pleasures. In a way, she was not far from Dora in The Bell, who longs for ‘jazz records and sandals and multi-coloured skirts’. Certainly she rather relished being accosted by Noël Coward at the Connaught with the words ‘I’m a screaming Murdoch fan!’ even if, ‘unfortunately’, the conversation was cut short by the arrival of Princess Margaret. Since her death, her image has been of a sweet, rather vague lady who turned up to receptions in galoshes and who lived, like a five-year-old, off Mr Kipling’s cakes with thousands of pounds stuffed under the mattress. (There is going to be a film, with Dame Judi Dench, and one knows, alas, exactly what it will be like.)
Nice as the Mrs Tiggywinkle image is, it doesn’t really account for the tough-minded philosopher, or the fact that Murdoch went on breaking the hearts of men and women for years after her marriage. No doubt a great deal of attention will be paid to these affairs, but I think the interesting thing about them is what one had already surmised from the novels at their most disenchanted, their most worldly; sometimes, one would like to think, Murdoch just got sick of all that Mr Mouse and Pie-Land and the boring badgers breaking into the boring garden, and went off to have some serious fun with the grown-ups.
The one thing that can be said for Peter Conradi’s biography is that it is properly respectful, and properly determined to be the life of the writer. Everyone knows, alas, the story of Murdoch’s last years, and for a while her decline into dementia seemed likely to blot out her substantial achievement as an artist. It must be said that there was something extremely distasteful about the spectacle of her husband’s various books on the subject; Murdoch had had nearly 50 years’ opportunity as a writer to set down her own life had she wished to. She did not, and it was difficult to share in the admiration and sympathy for her husband, who published the most intimate details of her life once she was incapable of forbidding it. Whatever the motive behind Bayley’s intimately confessional memoirs, Conradi says that ‘it helped him’, which may be true, and that it ‘hurt no one’, which is demonstrably false — they seemed rather less sensitive when one considered the domestic circumstances in which they must have been composed.
Bayley’s books raised a number of ethical questions about biography. Conradi’s life, which is a more orthodox account and a more balanced one, is not as awkward. But there are some questions here which linger in the mind. There is a strange futility about the book, and at very few places does Conradi establish any plausible connection between Murdoch’s life and her novels. From the beginning, and increasingly, she preferred to draw entirely from her imagination rather than from observation. Hardly any of her characters have any original in real life; Elias Canetti, perhaps, inspired some of her mage-like figures, but there is no obvious portrait of herself in the novels, or of Bayley, or anyone else close to her. Nor do the frantic romance-plots bear much relationship to her own existence. Given that, you start to wonder what the point of a biography is; when exploration of a life can’t illuminate the life’s work, it inevitably starts to seem rather prurient. It’s not altogether Conradi’s fault — and it should be said that this is a good, tactful biography — but rather the fault of the genre.
Whether her books will survive, I find a question almost impossible to answer. Certainly, at the moment, her serious reputation is at a low point, and the flaws and longueurs of her work are all too evident. But there is, as well, the question of what she meant to a whole generation of novelists, and the introduction of fantasy and artifice into the English novel. Useless, too, to deny that in half a dozen novels the apparent silliness is spectacularly outweighed by thunderous, shamelessly dramatic scenes and developments. The value of even her best things, The Black Prince or A Word Child, is for the moment not quite clear. What we can still surrender to is their interest and the shameless, absorbed pleasure they give.
September 3, 2000
Iris Murdoch diaries to lift veil on series of love affairs
by Richard Brooks, Arts Editor
The sexual appetite of Dame Iris Murdoch, the outwardly serious and high-minded writer who died last year, could be laid bare in a graphic series of nearly 100 journals.
Friends and associates of Murdoch believe she kept notebooks of her affairs over a 50-year period with lovers including Elias Canetti, the British author who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1981 and who died in 1994, and Brigid Brophy, the novelist and critic.
Murdoch, one of the most acclaimed British novelists of the second half of last century, is also said to have had crushes on and relationships with several much younger men in her later years. She died in February last year after suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
Although her husband, John Bayley, the Oxford academic, has not commented on the diaries, he has told of how she was the sexual veteran and he the innocent when they met at Oxford in 1954.
In his book Iris: A Memoir, he conjured up a lasting image of Murdoch's love life shortly before their wedding. "She sat me down in her room and said she'd better tell me of the people of her past. Had I not heard all about them? It appeared I had not. Unknown figures arose before me like the procession of kings in Macbeth, seeming to regard me with grave curiosity as they passed by."
The affairs occurred both when Murdoch was single and through most of her 43-year marriage. They were prompted partly by her apparent frustration at the lack of a satisfying sex life with Bayley.
Sir Richard Eyre, the former director of the National Theatre, who is due to make a film early next year based on Bayley's book, said: "John was always very aware of what Iris was doing. But he turned a blind eye." Eyre, whose own mother died of Alzheimer's, believes Murdoch and Bayley had a very happy marriage. It was one, however, where sex was not the highest priority, at least not for him.
Both Murdoch - whose novels included The Sea, The Sea, winner of the Booker Prize in 1978 - and Bayley were known for their lack of concern about how they dressed, looked and lived. Their house in Oxford, where the journals were written and kept, was strewn with papers and books. Murdoch appeared to the public to have the same donnish character as her books. She was not conventionally beautiful.
Ed Victor, Murdoch's agent, said the idea that she kept journals was "a delicious thought, particularly when I envisage this bag lady, who used to come into my office, as this sexual hot-pot".
Bayley admitted on Radio 4 last year that "he had no sexual feelings at all until he was 27", and that his love for his wife was "in the mind, rather than physically erotic". He admitted he had not found Murdoch attractive, although he quickly added that he hoped nobody else would find her so.
By contrast, many others, both men and women, were clearly drawn to her intellect and fame. "She had lots of affairs," said the writer A N Wilson. "Iris was more lesbian, though she did have crushes on men, some of them young enough to have been her son."
Wilson, who has written books on religion as well as his much-praised biography of C S Lewis, author of the Tales of Narnia, planned a biography of Murdoch in the mid-1990s. The book was cancelled when she developed Alzheimer's. Her official biography will instead be written by Peter Conradi, an academic who became a close friend of Murdoch and Bayley in the 1990s.
Bayley, who remarried the Norwegian-born Audi Villers, a family friend, earlier this year, was not able to comment on the sex diaries. It is understood "he tittered" when friends raised their existence with him.
Bayley won both friends and enemies with his memoir, published in 1998. While it was moving, it was criticised by others because his wife was still alive, even though by then her illness meant she would not have realised it was being written. Last year he published Iris and The Friends, which chronicled the last years of her life. The former professor of English at Oxford has recently said he intends to pen a third book, The Widower's House, a wry look at the topic of death.
Eyre's film, backed with American money, will star Dame Judi Dench as Murdoch. Bayley has not yet been cast, though there have been talks with Sir Michael Gambon. Another actress will play the young Murdoch. "Iris was clearly quite a goer," said Dench. "But we can't get anybody too sexy for the younger Iris."
Bayley wrote in his memoir that, when he first saw Murdoch riding past on a bicycle, he thought "what a nice-looking girl". He first talked to her at a party at St Anne's College, where he was the only male present. He refers to the "lesbian" tendencies among the dons at women's colleges.
He also says Brophy tried very hard to persuade Murdoch to go to bed with her "both before and after we were married". He believes she failed.
there were two
He's best known for taking care of his first wife, Iris Murdoch, till her death from Alzheimer's. Now, four years on, John Bayley is basking in wedded bliss with Audi - an old family friend
Monday June 2, 2003
We stalk our way through the wild flowers up the garden path. Past the tangle of honeysuckle, we can see a red car and just about make out a cottage. This is where John Bayley used to live with his wife, Iris Murdoch. They made for a famous pair - both respected academics and writers, both equally eccentric. Iris may have had many affairs with men and women, but they remained a loving couple. And when Murdoch was struck down with Alzheimer's disease they became an even more famous pair. They would sit together and hold hands and she would giggle and smile vacantly, and he would chat to her as if she was the old Iris all the way into that dark night.
Bayley wrote three books about his first wife - the first was made into the film Iris, and Jim Broadbent won an Oscar for his uncanny impression of Bayley.
Today, Bayley is 78. and lives in the same cottage with a newish wife, Audi Villers. He has known Audi for many years. Indeed, Audi and her first husband Borys, and Iris and John made for a happy foursome. For 10 years or so, they holidayed together every summer. Then Borys died. When Iris became ill, Audi came to stay at the cottage to give Bayley breaks. After Iris died, they became closer and closer.
There is a note above the bell saying "Please knock the bell is broken". The note has been there for years. Bayley shuffles to the door. He looks the same as ever - long white sideburns, sweater, cap. But he also looks fresher, cleaner. Iris and John were renowned for their filthy ways - their kitchen, with its multiple coffee jars and Pringles boxes, and bottles of booze, and dirt.
He leads me into the dark lounge. The first thing I see is Peter Conradi's biography of Iris. There is Iris memorabilia scattered round the house.
"Peter's book is very good I think. He was a great friend of ours. He's got a little house in Wales and we used to go and stay there with his partner, Jim, a delightful man. Sh-sh-she loved that, and she was very happy there."
When he stammers, his words become a soft whistle. "That was '97/98. She died at the beginning of '99. She was never unhappy. She had such a sweet nature." But she did have her difficult moments? "Well, yes, in a way she did, but in a way it was more my fault than hers. She could be rather exasperating." When she ran off from him, like a wild horse? "Oh, yes. I was so scared, I was so pleased when she came back." His language is simple and tender - most unacademic. That's what has made his writing so appealing.
"Ah, here's Audi." A tall, rather statuesque woman enters the room.
John: "Come and sit in your chair Audi."
They start nattering away. Her face is full of laughter. Audi seems to have a cut-glass English accent till I realise she is Norwegian.
Bayley was bereft when Iris died. He said he felt vulnerable, that he couldn't cope with the kindness of people and didn't know how to pass the time without her.
Audi is 17 years younger than him. I ask her if she was ever a student of his. She burst out laughing. "Oh, no, no, no, not at all." She tells me how the four of them met at a dinner party and how their friendship grew from there.
John: "Really, you were a very close friend of Iris, darling. You were married to your f-f-f-first husband for a very long time. How long was it?"
Audi: "It was 27 years. He was too young when he died, but he wasn't very young."
John: "He was a very nice man and Iris was very fond of him."
Audi: "Oh, yes."
Can I ask a nosy question? They nod enthusiastically. When you went on holiday together did you fancy each other?
Audi: "Heeheehee. It didn't occur to me."
John: "By all means ask, but it puts me in a rather difficult situation, because I thought Audi was very attractive, but I didn't fancy her in that sense. No. And, you know, yes ..."
Audi: "I don't think Iris fancied Borys either."
John: "No, we were just good friends."
Audi: "Yes, just good friends, nothing more."
They burst out laughing.
John: "Well, it was rather like that, wasn't it?"
Audi: "When Iris was ill, you see, I used to come and stay quite a lot. I wouldn't say I helped to look after her."
John: "Well, you did."
Audi: "No, but I gave you a break. And she seemed to be quite happy with me."
John: "Oh, she was."
Audi: "And then when she died, of course, I came to see you now and again. One of those very many ... Heeheeheehee!"
They exchange knowing looks. In Bayley's last book, about life after Iris, he revealed that he had been seduced by a couple of women, one of them a young former student. I ask Audi if she faced a lot of competition.
"Yes, but I snapped him up."
They natter about the names and natures of his lovers.
John: "What were they called, darling? You know, I can't actually remember because I fictionalised them."
Audi: "Well, I don't think he entirely fictionalised them."
John: "They both had strong elements of reality about them. One was a former pupil, you see. A nice sort of forlorn girl. In a sense, I think she wanted something to look after, but I didn't feel like being looked after at all."
Well, I say, you were so used to doing the looking after. "Yes, that's true. And it's one of the pleasures in marriage to look after the other one. And I've always been accustomed to rather looking after Iris. Even when she was young."
I ask them who popped the question. He looks surprised, as if he has just remembered something vital.
John: "I don't think we did ever, did we Audi?" he says gingerly.
Audi: " You popped the question."
John: "Did I? I don't remember. Ah, yes, I think I said to you this is rather nice, supposing we were to g-g-g-get married."
Audi: "Something like that."
John: "I suppose, in that way, we are rather old-fashioned aren't we, dear?"
Audi: "It was very nice to get married."
Does this love feel different to his love for Iris? He and Iris always seemed like kids who were best friends, I say.
"Well, yes, but that's what it still is. Companionship is what Audi and I have. And, rather like me and Iris, we just chatter away about anything we think of. I think we're both talkers, aren't we?"
"Yeeessss," says Audi, a little uncertainly. "You're certainly quite chatty."
John: "I didn't talk to Iris as much as I do to you for one thing ..."
Audi: "She was always working ..."
John: "... Thinking or something."
Audi: "Yes. Unlike me. Heeheeheehee!"
John: "Oh dear. I r-r-r-rather slipped up there."
Audi: "Grounds for divorce, I say. Are you recording this, we could use it in court."
Does Audi write? No, she says - Iris encouraged her, but she never did. She used to be a travel guide, and that is how she came to meet her first husband in the Canaries. We walk, slowly, through the house to have the photograph taken in the garden. Is Audi tidier than Iris was?
John: "Well, it is cleaner."
I tell him that he looks more presentable than he used to. He grins.
Audi: "It's quite a job!"
John: "I quite often wear a dirty jersey around the house and I don't think you mind too much about that?"
Audi: "It's quite difficult to get these things off you in order to wash them."
Do they talk a lot about Iris and Borys?
Audi: "We certainly talk a lot about Iris."
John: "That's true, that's true."
Audi: "And Borys occasionally as well."
John: "Oh well, darling, quite a lot I think. I think we feel the old four are still around in some way."
Whenever I think of him and Iris an image comes to mind from the film of them swimming naked in the river. Does he still do that?
Audi: "I don't think you often do that."
John: "Not now, no."
Audi: "You're more likely to wear a lot of clothes, including your cap. You put all sorts of clothes on, including your overcoat."
John: "Well ... But when it was hot in the summer, Iris and I used to go up to the Thames, to a place we found which was really quiet, and we used to just slip in. It was very touching actually the last time, which was less than a year before she died. She wanted to go swimming and I had to dress her up a bit, and she was quite frightened ..."
Audi: "Yes, it's funny she became frightened of water. Of being anywhere near the water."
I ask them what they most like doing together. He winks suggestively.
Audi: "And drinking."
In unison: "Eating and drinking is lovely, yes."
John: "Audi is a very, very good cook, so that's a bit of a change."
Bayley recently announced he was going to sell Iris's library. Predictably, stories appeared in newspapers suggesting that he would profit to the tune of £150,000. How did the criticism make him feel?
John: "Oh, she wouldn't have minded a bit. You see, they are all philosophy, theology - things which I don't understand a bit. So I thought somebody else might appreciate them. I know perfectly well - and you do, too, don't you Audi? - that Iris wouldn't have minded a damn if she knew that her books had been sold."
Audi: "I don't know. I'm sure she wouldn't. On the other hand, she would never have got rid of them herself."
John: "No, I don't think she would have, but that is because she was using them."
Audi: "She didn't like to get rid of anything, in fact."
John: "No, she used to pick up stones. She was a petrophile. She was a stone lover."
What a great word, I say.
John: "Yes, just like paedophile but rather different." They burst out laughing.
John: "We're not interested in the price so much. We're hoping one of the libraries, maybe even the Bodleian, will be able to take them.
Audi: "Actually, we are quite interested in the price."
John: "Well, because we are going to go to St Anne's, where she used to teach, to make a scholarship - set up a sort of bursary. Then if there is any surplus it is going to go to a chair in geriatrics in Oxford."
The garden is gorgeous. The birds are twittering away, the comfrey and Queen Anne's lace are a riot of colour. Even the lawn is mown.
He takes off his cap for the first time, puts his arm round her shoulder and nuzzles at her bosom.
John: "You're taller than Iris, aren't you darling?"
Audi: "Yes, a little. See, this is the sort of thing one notices."
I remind him that he once said that he thought of himself and Iris as two animals in a field. "Actually, Audi feels like an animal to me, too. Same sort of thing." And they burst out laughing again.
You two are so giggly, I say.
that a lot," Audi says. "I often think, if somebody could listen to us what
would they think?"
They knew her too well
John Bayley and AN Wilson are at war over the life of Iris Murdoch. But maybe neither should be trusted
Tuesday August 26, 2003
What might fairly be called the legend of Iris Murdoch has been up and running for a good half-decade. It began even before its subject's death, in 1999, with the publication of her husband John Bayley's Iris: A Memoir. Two further volumes followed with what, certain critics deposed, was rather indecent haste. Then came the critically acclaimed film starring Judi Dench and Kate Winslet, closely trailed by Peter Conradi's mammoth official life.
What with Bayley's 600 pages and Professor Conradi's 700, not to mention 90 minutes of picturesque celluloid, one might be forgiven for thinking that not a great deal remained to be said - only for AN Wilson's Iris Murdoch As I Knew Her to blaze into view with the aim of imparting a whole extra dimension to a life that had previously seemed embalmed beyond upset.
To call Wilson's memoir "revisionist" is putting it rather mildly. Ominously enough, the revisionism is lavished not so much on Dame Iris, who Wilson clearly revered, as on Bayley, here represented as a "screaming, hate-filled child" who never read his wife's books beyond an anguished perusal of The Bell in 1956, prevented her from having children and betrayed her memory with his best-selling accounts of Alzheimer's-ravaged decline. The intensely private novelist, Wilson suggests, would have found the - in some cases literal - exposure of her dirty laundry "inconceivable".
All this is given an added piquancy by the thought of hands being bitten that formerly fed: it was Bayley who interviewed the teenaged Wilson for his Oxford place back in 1968, taught him as an undergraduate and effectively promoted his early career.
Naturally this choice literary spat tells us something about the relationship between Wilson and Bayley, but it also reinforces one of the elemental, and self-evident, laws of biography. This is that different people take different views of their departed friends and what to one onlooker is scrupulous detachment may, to the next person in the queue, look like flagrant misrepresentation.
Not long back, for example, hearing of the death of the poet, travel writer and editor Alan Ross, and keen to mark the passing of someone to whom I owed a substantial personal debt, I sat down and wrote a tribute for the Spectator. Barely had the issue hit the news-stands before a riposte winged in from one of the deceased's colleagues maintaining that I hadn't a clue about what made Ross tick and had traduced an occasion at which he, the writer, had been present.
The letter was printed under the heading "The wrong Ross" and made me feel foolish for about five minutes, until I realised that this kind of call to order has long historical precedent: that surviving chums will always be jealous of their individual memories and that any attempt to conflate these random fragments is doomed to failure. The great Victorian editor John Blackwood once turned down a memorial sketch of Thackeray on precisely these grounds: "I feel so truly about him I am frightened to give a wrong impression of him to one who did not know him."
But what made Blackwood the arbiter of Thackeray's reputation? Complex enough in ordinary circumstances, biography turns yet more problematic when practised by people who knew their subjects. To the Victorians, pre-Lytton Strachey, this was not a problem: personal knowledge was considered an essential weapon in the biographer's armoury, and many of the great Victorian lives were written by sons or acolytes. A century on, their partiality makes them suspect. In fact, you sometimes feel that the closer a biographer is to his or her subject, the greater the danger of real identities being swamped by sheer human warmth, not to mention some rather suspect evidence.
Significantly enough, the Wilson/Bayley spat seems to rest on verbal sources. These, as every biographer knows, are both irresistible and highly dangerous. Clever, mischievous people very often don't mean what they say, or mean only some of it.
Some years ago, I was sent to Cairo to interview the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, whose great trilogy was then being issued by a British publisher. Mahfouz, who spoke perfect English, insisted on having all remarks translated into Arabic by his secretary. When I congratulated him on his English debut he replied: "My books reach England?" The only honest response would have been: "You know bloody well they do, or else why would I be here?" He was having a little fun.
John Bayley, one suspects, sometimes enjoys a little fun too. Twenty years ago a postgraduate friend of mine stayed up all night to write an essay for him that should have taken a month - Bayley was Warton professor of English literature at Oxford - and produced some nonsense about literature being metaphorical quilt-making. Bayley returned it with a B-plus and the comment that it had gone "rather over his head".
Donnish larks, you see, and not to be taken at face value. Whatever the merits of the Wilson case, you wonder whether water samples of this kind wouldn't be better taken a mile or two further on from the river's source.
DJ Taylor's most recent book is a biography of George
Not Knowing Iris
By Inigo Thomas
Posted Tuesday, January 22, 2002, at 11:22 AM PT
I spoke to Iris Murdoch on the telephone on a couple of occasions, if only to say on each, "Hello. Is John Bayley there?" The paper where I then worked wanted to ascertain when Oxford's Wharton Professor of English might be submitting his review. When the article then arrived, one would occasionally find a supermarket receipt Bayley had accidentally placed inside the envelope—the sherry and the pilchards listed in these receipts gave some of idea of the fuel that kept the Murdoch-Bayley household going.
Along with Murdoch's novels and Bayley's book about his wife, this is all I know about Iris Murdoch—although a paragraph in an article she wrote for the New York Review of Books in 1993 sticks in my mind. "I am not in the athletic sense a keen swimmer," Murdoch said, "but I am a devoted one. On hot days in the Oxford summer my husband and I usually manage to slip into the Thames a mile or two above Oxford, where the hay in the water meadows is still owned and cut on the medieval strip system. The art is to draw no attention to oneself but to cruise quietly by the reeds like a water rat: seeing and unseen from that angle, one can hear the sedge warblers' mysterious little melodies, and sometimes a cuckoo flies cuckooing over our heads, or a kingfisher flashes past."
Now, with the release of Richard Eyre's movie about the life of Iris Murdoch, everyone seems to have known the novelist and philosopher, though many of them not much better than me. One review after another has a tale about visiting the Murdoch-Bayley house in Oxford or an account of seeing the couple across a crowded room. Anecdote, it seems, is the chief criterion by which the performances of Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent are being judged, although many of these stories serve only to deepen the Murdoch mystery. "Iris Murdoch and John Bayley were familiar figures during my undergraduate years at Oxford in the mid-1950s, cycling around town together", wrote Philip French in this week's Observer. "I didn't meet them until 40 years later when they were introduced to a group I was in at a party. They just stood there, saying little, looking beatific and holding each other in mutual dependency". According to French, Dench's portrayal of Murdoch matches his own anecdotal evidence.
That's true, too, of Mark Bostridge, who says in the Independent that he first saw Murdoch when he was "a sixth-former in the 1970s when she had visited my school and, in a scene reminiscent of the one early in the film, held us all spellbound by the intricacies of her thought wrapped up in language of beauty and clarity". Murdoch's language, beautiful and clear as it no doubt was, evidently so mesmerised the young Bostridge that he chooses not to recall what she talked about that day. Kate Kellaway, who met Murdoch in 1995—at about the time Alzheimer's was beginning to cripple the Murdoch mind—says in the Observer: "I met John Bayley and Iris Murdoch in north Oxford. I did not know then that Iris was unwell. I was charmed by them and incredulous at their house which turned squalor into an art form. ... I was impressed by Iris's indifference to our meeting, and when she got up from the congested table and wandered off into another room, I wasn't suspicious but amused. I thought her admirably eccentric".
Kellaway is one of many people to have detected eccentricity in Iris Murdoch, and yes, Murdoch was eccentric. But many of the reviews of Iris describe Murdoch and Bayley as if they were the last of a British breed. Moreover, eccentric looks or behaviour on their own don't necessarily explain very much. In the penultimate issue of Talk, editor-in-chief Tina Brown says that Iris "gives us Dame Judi Dench as Murdoch, and she is eerily like the woman I had lunch with at a cottage outside Oxford with a bunch of writer friends 20-odd years ago. ... Bayley wears an egg-checked tweed jacket and dented fisherman's hat. Iris a has strong jaw, unwavering masculine gaze, and wears oddly girly ankle-length smock". Murdoch appears eccentric in this account, but in a sense, so what? We can also infer that Murdoch was just a person who didn't care about what she wore.
Yet that odd smock, eccentric as it may have appeared, does say something about Murdoch. It's in keeping with what A.N. Wilson has identified as the writer's "unique quality of serious playfulness". Understood as that, Murdoch's dress sense echoes the Murdoch swimming instructions: It was part of her art of not drawing attention to herself as Iris Murdoch, novelist or philosopher—or intruder on the upper reaches of the Thames. This was an art Murdoch mastered, just as she mastered the art of being like a water rat, seeing but remaining unseen, cruising quietly by.
Inigo Thomas is co-editor of Slate UK.
By William H. Pritchard, 11/18/2001
Iris Murdoch: A
By Peter J. Conradi
Norton, 706 pp., $35
"Of all the post-war English novelists she has the greatest intellectual range, the deepest rigour," writes Peter J. Conradi at the end of his 700-page biography of Iris Murdoch. It is the first but - so Mr. Conradi trusts - not the last biography of this writer, and it aspires to set her work "in the context of the cultural-intellectual life of the mid-twentieth century, of the generation who struggled to come to terms ... with Stalin and Hitler." The first two-thirds of the book takes us through Murdoch ‘s birth in 1919 through her marriage to John Bayley in 1956. These are turbulent decades, the turbulence occurring not in her childhood (she had a happy one) but in the 1940s and early '50s, when she was a student, later a lecturer, at Oxford. During these years she seems to have fallen in love with just about everyone, male and female. The marriage to Bayley, a distinguished literary critic and latterly a novelist, was a happy one. In the eyes of the novelist A. N. Wilson, who once began work on a biography of Murdoch, it meant that "Iris's wild earlier selves could find happy resting-places and turn themselves into fiction" - which seems like a neat arrangement.
In his introduction Conradi announces himself as nothing less than a fan: "These books are about me," he exclaimed upon first acquaintance with Murdoch’s novels. At one of their lunches together, he offered to stand on his head for her, applying his hatha yoga expertise; she declined the offer but used the incident in a novel. Such energetic, chatty enthusiasm surely aided Conradi in establishing with assiduity the names, dates, and facts of Murdoch’s life and career; whether it is of equal aid to his critical judgment and evaluation of her work as a novelist is more doubtful.
Conradi is good on the Anglo-Irish Iris Murdoch, her early upbringing and ancestors in Dublin, then her schooling in London and at Badminton School in England's west. But our readerly interest quickens when she goes to Oxford and enters into intellectual and emotional commitments. With England on the verge of World War II, Murdoch read classics and philosophy, joined the Communist Party like many others, and met many of the people whose names would recur in the journals she kept for almost 60 years. Like Auden, Murdoch never met with a belief or idea she couldn't at least entertain: Communism, Catholicism, and Buddhism were just a few of the indulged flirtations on which her eventually skeptical pen would cast a colder eye. But, again like Auden, there is a feeling of promiscuity in these indiscriminate enthusiasms. "I want to write a long, long & exceedingly obscure novel objectifying the queer conflicts I find within myself & observe in the characters of others," she wrote to Frank Thompson in 1943 after taking her degree and moving to London to work in the Treasury. Thompson was one of the first and probably most serious of Murdoch’s early loves. His death in the Balkans soon afterward left open the question of whether they would have married. But he ended up as only one on her long list of loves and lovers.
Conradi’s chapters are divided into numbered blocks - sometimes very short - of subchapters, many of them devoted to vignettes of the various beloveds. Sometimes one scarcely knows what to make of them (or what Conradi has made of them), as for example a moment in 1948 when Murdoch is back teaching philosophy at Oxford. We are introduced to "the striking Stella Aldwinckle," a proselytizer for the Student Christian Movement, who writes "sentimental letters" to which Murdoch responds by telling Aldwinckle that "the strange mingling of masculine & feminine in her was a mystery that moved me deeply." Two paragraphs later we learn that while driving from London to Oxford, Aldwinckle "told Iris to stop the car in a layby; they walked half a mile to a wood where nightingales were magically singing." And then? Of course that's what nightingales do in England (magically sing), but it's not clear why the reader should respond to it with any more than an "Oh yeah?" or perhaps a "Do tell." Conradi’s own narrative promiscuity, his indiscriminate presentation of items for our inspection, is what makes his book so overweight.
But its subject is surely to blame in part, since Murdoch, up to her marriage to Bayley, was in perpetual motion, especially with various male "enchanter" figures, the most notorious of whom was Elias Canetti. Conradi puts her affair with Canetti in grandly dark terms, telling us that he "represented the artist-as-manipulative-and-sadistic-mythomaniac who had struck a Faustian bargain, the mystifier-enchanter Iris feared turning into, whom indeed she might have become." This sounds very much like Murdoch’s conviction that novels had to do with "erotic mysteries and deep, dark struggles between good and evil," and it foresees the heated, hectic atmosphere of so many of them. Compared to this, John Bayley must have felt like Mr. Flopsy Bunny as he prepared picnic meals of " Wind-in-the-Willows food" for them both.
The last third of Conradi’s biography is pretty much a trip through the 26 novels Murdoch published, from "Under the Net" (1954) to "Jackson's Dilemma" (1995). Those looking for what he calls in-depth literary criticism are directed to his earlier book (once his PhD dissertation), "The Saint and the Artist: A Study of the Fiction of Iris Murdoch " (1986). Conradi has his preferences among the novels but doesn't suggest what I at least have found to be the case in reading them: that the early books up through "A Severed Head" (and including most notably "The Sandcastle" and "The Bell") were waited for and read eagerly when they came out, and can be returned to with pleasure and admiration. But then the repetition and recycling began: Too many implausible characters did implausible things to one another in an atmosphere of authorial conspiracy and manipulation. Describing her immense productivity, Martin Amis suspected that "she can't, in the nature of things, revise much and probably she never rereads; she just `gets on with the next one."' When asked how long she took between finishing one book and beginning the next, Murdoch replied, who knows how truthfully, "About a half-hour."
In his final pages Conradi states what is certainly the case: that she was the heir to Dostoevsky rather than to (as she once thought) George Eliot. But the biographer doesn't think there's anything potentially disastrous about the inheritance. "Perhaps she wrote too fast," he conceded, and ventures that "her last works are not always her strongest." The concessions are minimal, and don't come to grips with the high-pitched, melodramatic goings-on of characters and situations - not only in the later works - into which the novelist pumps extra jolts of mystery and ineffability, at other times just narrates them in a deadpan, blandly terse mode that refrains from any kind of judgment. As for claiming that her novels are daring explorations into the nature of love, the claim seems to me to mistake intention for execution. Her books are remarkable for their intellectuality but not so much for their intelligence, and I was pleased to encounter a remark Conradi quotes from a narrower but more severe artist, Ivy Compton-Burnett, who said to Francis King, "I do wish that [Murdoch] had not got involved in philosophy. If she had studied domestic science or trained to be a Norland nurse, I'm sure her books would have been much better." A wicked but perhaps not wholly unjust remark.
William H. Pritchard is professor of English at Amherst College.
This story ran on page E4 of the Boston Globe on 11/18/2001.