Defeating the formlessness

I’m not a philosophical novelist

“I’m not a philosophical novelist. People think that because I’m a philosopher there’s a philosophical view being put across, but this is not so. I’ve got a philosophical viewpoint but I certainly don’t want to force it across in the novels, although a certain amount of one’s metaphysic in a very general sense comes across as it would with any writer. I am a reflective person, but then so are a great many novelists who are not philosophers.”

– Iris Murdoch. Interview by Simon Blow, Spectator, September 25th, 1976


 The centre of the operation

“I think there are many faults in the books. For instance I don’t think my portrayal of character is as good as it might be. (…) For me the creation of character is the centre of the operation, and if I haven’t got the characters right then the novel is going to be faulty, and the characters are never quite right, and by that I mean fully imagined, and so the novel is always a bit faulty. It’s terribly important to see the person, to know what they’re like in depth, and this is difficult. If you’ve got the person fully imagined and really alive, and of course if you’ve got six of them that’s great, then your story invents itself quite quickly and is the right story for those people.”

– Iris Murdoch. Interview by Simon Blow, Spectator, September 25th, 1976


Art is a realism

“Art is a realism, and the enemy of the artist is an egoistic fantasy which seeks freedom through a kind of violence and solitude. We’re all part egoists and our obsessions are very strong, and of course the paradox is that unless you are driven by a need to express your obsessions you may not create art at all. But as soon as you’re in the game you see that your obsessions are the main obstacle to doing well, so one is held between having too much of this force uncontrolled and producing the same old fantasy and not having enough energy to produce an imaginative work. I don’t feel any lack of imaginative energy but I do feel menaced by patterns of fantasy which I’m always trying to break. (…) So there’s this empty space into which one projects this energy (…).”

– Iris Murdoch. Interview by Simon Blow, Spectator, September 25th, 1976


Franz Marc, “Fighting Forms”, 1914.

Defeating the formlessness

Bryan Magee: You said the aim of philosophy is to clarify and the aim of literature is to mystify and I suppose it’s central to what the novelist or the playwright is doing that he’s actually trying to create an illusion whereas it’s central to what the philosopher is doing that he’s trying to dispel illusion or pierce through illusion to liberate his and our minds from illusion. Is that an essential part of the difference?
Iris Murdoch: Yes, certainly, and philosophy is to do with getting hold of a problem and holding onto it relentlessly and doggedly. This is the mark of a philosophical mind, this particular real interest, the fact that you stick to your problem. (…) When we tell stories or when we write letters and so on we are making a form out of something which might be formless and this is one of the deep motives for literature or for art of any sort: that one is defeating the formlessness. (…) Philosophers also take this view and it means looking at things which one takes for granted and suddenly seeing that they’re very very odd. (…) I certainly hold a particular view on the subject of what art is like and literature is like and this view – which wouldn’t be shared by everybody any means – would assimilate philosophy and literature just in that way. (…) This may be perhaps the only important thing they have in common: they are both connected with truth, they are truth-seeking, truth-revealing activities in some sense (…) I think both philosopher and writer have to face a conflict between imagination and fantasy in themselves. Of course, philosophy is an imaginative activity. If one thinks of the great philosophers, they are often picture-makers, they are people who produce enormous metaphors and pictures to explain things, and the intrusion of personal fantasy obviously has a place there. But I think it’s an even greater a conflict for the writer, because creative imagination and personal fantasy are awfully close in relation to fiction. (…) I think that, fortunately, artists don’t pay too much attention to philosophy. they just carry on. I think philosophy can be damaging to art, and I think the people it damages most are students who long to have theories.”
– Philosophy and Literature with Iris Murdoch and Bryan Magee (1977),  from the series Modern Philosophy (see video below).

A plaything of the writer

Iris Murdoch: I think as soon as philosophy gets into a novel, it ceases to be philosophy, it becomes something else: it becomes a plaything of the writer. (…) In pursuing this particular activity of producing literary work, particularly, of course, fictions, one is inevitably involved in making moral judgments. (…) Iyou tell somebody to describe their room or something which one might think was a fairly neutral activity, this description will be crammed with value judgments and this is something which one cannot avoid – not only in the choice of what they describe, but in the words that they use.  Words are full of value and this is very obviously the case, of course, in the author’s relation to his characters.  And this comes back partly to this distinction between fantasy and imagination  – that, if the relation is a fantasy relation, the work is damaged, because the expansion, the ability to exhibit the world in some way under a certain light is damaged. (…) And I think that the novelist may as well admit this: that he is going to be involved in making moral judgments and his relationship to his characters is going to reveal his morality, so that there is a kind of moral challenge involved in art (…) The artist is concerned to see what is other than himself and in a sense to respect it, and to have the self-discipline to check the rushes of fantasy to which he may be subject  (…) The work of imagination creates a kind of space and one does have a kind of feeling of imaginative space in great works of art,  as if one was standing in a big hall (…). At the prior level he [the writer] has to do this and at a secondary level, when he’s actually creating the work, he will find that he has to judge his characters, and he has a way to take sides and this can be done of course in many many ways (…) The author can play all sorts of fun games with the way in which he reveals his characters –  I mean, Henry James is full of such games, for instance – but the revelation is there and the judgment is there. (…)”

– Philosophy and Literature with Iris Murdoch and Bryan Magee (1977),  from the series Modern Philosophy (see video below).

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