A clarity which startles

It’s terrible to be in danger of writing a philosophical novel

“I suppose since I’m largely influenced and interested in moral philosophy that some of the reflections about moral philosophy and about ethics may be connected with thinking about the dilemmas of my characters but this is very, very indirect. Philosophy is such a different game from writing fiction. I think it’s terrible to be in danger of writing a philosophical novel.”
– Iris Murdoch, in conversation with James Atlas. Collaboration between 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center and The Paris Review, recorded live at 92Y on February 22, 1990 (see video at the end of this post).

Moral philosophy & narrative fiction

“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.” (…) 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.”

– Martha C. Nussbaum, “When She Was Good”, The New Republic, December 31, 2001.

An obscure system of energy

“What we really are seems much more like an obscure system of energy out of which choices and visible acts of will emerge at intervals in ways which are often unclear and often dependent on the condition of the system in between moments of choice.”

― Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good

Moments of choice & patterns of character

“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. (…) 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. (…) For some 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.) (…) 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.”

– Martha C. Nussbaum, “When She Was Good”, The New Republic, December 31, 2001.

Perhaps we don’t know much about goodness

“Plato remarks in The Republic that bad characters are volatile and interesting, whereas good characters are dull and always the same. This certainly indicates a literary problem. It is difficult in life to be good, and difficult in art to portray goodness. Perhaps we don’t know much about goodness. (…) I think that is the absolutely prime example of how we ought to tell a story—invent characters and convey something dramatic, which at the same time has deep spiritual significance. (…) I don’t think this connects with philosophy. The consideration of moral issues in the novels may be intensified by some philosophical considerations, but on the whole I think it’s dangerous writing a philosophical novel. I mean, this is not a thing writers can easily get away with. Take the case of Thomas Mann, whom I adore, for instance. When his characters start having very long philosophical conversations, one feels, Well, perhaps we could do without this. My novels are not “philosophical novels.””

– Iris Murdoch. Interviewed by Jeffrey Meyers, The Paris Review, Issue 115, Summer 1990

The artist’s moral role

“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.”

– Martha C. Nussbaum, “When She Was Good”, The New Republic, December 31, 2001.

The realism of compassion

“It is in the capacity to love, that is to see, that the liberation of the soul from fantasy consists. The freedom which is a proper human goal is the freedom from fantasy, that is the realism of compassion. What I have called fantasy, the proliferation of blinding self-centered aims and images, is itself a powerful system of energy, and most of what is often called ‘will’ or ‘willing’ belongs to this system. What counteracts the system is attention to reality inspired by, consisting of, love.”

― Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good

The most difficult task

“It is this progression from complete freedom to a narrow cage, how fast you move and when you decide what the main things in the book are going to be. I think these are the most difficult things. One must consider what one’s characters are like, what jobs they do, what religion they have, what nationality they are, how they are related to each other, and so on. Here at the beginning one has infinite possibilities, this choice of what sort of people they are and what sort of troubles they are going to have, who wins, who loses, who dies. Most of all one must reflect upon their values, their morality, their moral dilemmas. You can’t write any novel without implying values. You can’t write a traditional novel without giving your characters moral problems and judgments. That is what is most difficult of all.”

– Iris Murdoch. Interviewed by Jeffrey Meyers, The Paris Review, Issue 115, Summer 1990

Caravaggio, “Narcissus”, c. 1599.

Seeing the real

“To silence and expel self, to contemplate and delineate nature with a clear eye, is not easy and demands a moral discipline. A great artist is, in respect of his work, a good man, and, in the true sense, a free man. (…) The appreciation of beauty in art or nature is not only (for all its difficulties) the easiest available spiritual exercise; it is also a completely adequate entry into (an not just analogy of) the good life, since it is the checking of selfishness in the interest of seeing the real. (…) The greatest art is impersonal because it shows us the world, our world and not another one, with a clarity which startles and delights us simply because we are not used to looking at the real world at all.”
― Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good

Courage and truthfulness

“To write a good book you have to have certain qualities. Great art is connected with courage and truthfulness. There is a conception of truth, a lack of illusion, an ability to overcome selfish obsessions, which goes with good art, and the artist has got to have that particular sort of moral stamina. Good art, whatever its style, has qualities of hardness, firmness, realism, clarity, detachment, justice, truth. It is the work of a free, unfettered, uncorrupted imagination. Whereas bad art is the soft, messy self-indulgent work of an enslaved fantasy. Pornography is at one end of that scale, great art at the other end. The reading of great books, the contemplation of great art, is somehow very good for one. There’s a truthfulness of great art that one sees in the great nineteenth-century novels. It is very difficult to attain, to create something which is not a fantasy. I’d want to make a distinction between fantasy and imagination, not the same as Coleridge’s, but a distinction between the expression of immediate selfish feelings and the elimination of yourself in a work of art. (…) A novelist is bound to express values, and I think he should be conscious of the fact that he is, in a sense, a compulsory moralist. Novelists differ, of course, in the extent to which they set out to reflect on morals and to put that reflection into their work. I certainly do reflect and put this reflection into my works, whether or not with success. The question is how to do it. If you can’t do it well, you had better not do it at all. If you have strong moral feelings, you may be in difficulties with your characters because you may want them to be less emphatic than you are yourself. In answer to your question, I think a novelist should be wary of being a teacher in a didactic sense, but should be conscious of himself as a moralist.”

– Iris Murdoch. Interviewed by Jeffrey Meyers, The Paris Review, Issue 115, Summer 1990

To be grasped by enjoyment


What effect would you like your books to have?


I’d like people to enjoy reading them. A readable novel is a gift to humanity. It provides an innocent occupation. Any novel takes people away from their troubles and the television set; it may even stir them to reflect about human life, characters, morals. So I would like people to be able to read the stuff. I’d like it to be understood too; though some of the novels are not all that easy, I’d like them to be understood, and not grossly misunderstood. But literature is to be enjoyed, to be grasped by enjoyment.”

– Iris Murdoch. Interviewed by Jeffrey Meyers, The Paris Review, Issue 115, Summer 1990

3 thoughts on “A clarity which startles

  1. I love that you’re showcasing IM like this and what a lot of work you’ve put into it. I really like my book of her collected interviews, Gillian Dooley’s “From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction”. And of course I used that last quote in my own research when talking about what IM wanted people to get out of her books and who she wanted her readers to be.


    1. Thank you, Liz! I’ve just finished The Bell, which I read for the readalong 🙂 I am preparing my review, and, when I bumped into some of her interviews, I just couldn’t resist taking some quotes for my commonplace book. She seems to have been a fascinating woman! I am yet to read your book, which I bought on kindle, but I am thinking of reading it in parallel with the books for the readalong 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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