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Flights of Being

by Maisie Corkhill

The 15 July of this year will mark the centenary of the birth of novelist, philosopher and Oxford professor Dame Iris Murdoch. Efforts to mark this event are already well underway: at the beginning of May there was a day-long symposium at Regent’s Park College; a few days later Iris Murdoch’s biographer and close friend Peter J Conraldi gave a talk at St. Anne’s College about her life and work. Murdoch has gained something of a cult status in Oxford and beyond: not only were the symposium’s speakers distinguished Murdoch experts, but so were most of the attendees. It was quite surprising, when a specific novel or character came up, how often and meaningfully someone would interject with what they felt about it. Dr Miles Leeson brought up an unpublished journal entry by Murdoch on the greatest artistic minds. It listed Plato, Shakespeare and Mozart. He joked that we don’t know if Murdoch herself is to be placed in this succession – after a pause, one of the other speakers answered ‘yes.’


Yes, because while Murdoch offers dense and compelling material which has provoked a steady succession of academic papers and books, she also provides stories that we can inhabit and characters we can feel something about. There is an overwhelming sense that within Murdoch’s large following, each person has perceived their own Iris Murdoch, one who has written something that interests, comforts or moves them deeply and personally. At the centenary of her birth, Murdoch occupies a double role in history. In fact, most attempts to categorise her in recent years have focused on weighing the two major strands of her output against one another. Was she primarily a novelist, or a philosopher?


A profuse and popular writer, she published 26 novels in the period between 1954 and 1995 and was awarded the Booker prize in 1978 for The Sea, The Sea. But during much of this time she was also a fellow at St Anne’s, teaching philosophy and writing complex, elegant and important texts including The Sovereignty of Good and Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. These achievements certainly do not negate one another – and in one sense they comprise two distinct bodies of work for which Murdoch must be celebrated.


Murdoch’s greatest contribution was linking these two worlds. Her most striking novels make the reader re-evaluate their connection, not only to the story world they find within her books, but to the physical world they find themselves in.


Murdoch herself often blurs the border between literature and philosophy. In a 1959 Yale Review article entitled 'The Sublime and Beautiful Revisited', she connected literary problems with more general political and moral ones, arguing that literature must prompt, in her words, ‘the realization of a vast and varied reality outside ourselves which brings about a sense initially of terror, and when properly understood of exhilaration and spiritual power.’ By revising German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s theory of the sublime, Murdoch found a space in which literature and philosophy could meaningfully intersect: morals.


In his 1764 book, Observations of the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, Immanuel Kant argued that the sublime was something more composite – something capable of arousing ‘enjoyment, but with horror.’ Murdoch developed this theory further in 'The Sublime and the Good', presenting sublimity as a mixed experience, characterised by what she termed ‘negative pleasure’. The self feels internal conflict when confronted by sublimity, but at the same time is reminded of the permanent conflict with everything outside of itself. It is only by confronting the shock of the sublime – and therefore that which is outside ourselves – that we can turn towards ‘the good’ and convert the ‘negative sublime’ into the ‘positive sublime’. But doing so entails a loss of control: as Murdoch put it in her more literary-minded article 'Against Dryness', ‘we are not isolated free choosers, monarchs of all we survey, but benighted creatures sunk in a reality whose nature we are constantly and overwhelmingly tempted to deform by fantasy.’ There are two levels of strange ‘otherness’ at play here. The reality we are sunk in and the fantasy we try to escape to. And these meet in Iris Murdoch’s fiction.


The strange and symbolic elements in Murdoch’s novels offer a space where moral concepts can be put into imaginative play, internalised and then brought back into the real world. Yet when her literary output is critiqued, it is usually for melodrama, heavy-handed symbolism or implausibility. This is perhaps why, as Anil Gomes wrote in the TLS, Murdoch’s idea of a moral reality ‘continues to dumbfound’ – to appear obscure and insubstantial in light of contemporary issues. But for some this is why her novels are so necessary: with the intellectual force of a philosopher and the artistry of a talented literary craftsman, Murdoch plays out her moral ideals through a cast of characters who are facing some kind of internal or external conflict. She often places her characters in hostile environments, and places us there with them.


In The Unicorn, a young schoolteacher, Marian, is confronted by a rural landscape which is ‘appalling’, the ‘dark coastline repellent and frightening.’ If the landscape is fearful, it is the people who inhabit this desolate part of Ireland who most vividly demonstrate Murdoch’s concept of the ‘other’. She has taken a governess post only to find that her pupil is an adult woman, Hannah, who is confined to her Gothic stately home, Gaze Castle. We never find out whether Hannah is the captive of her retinue of servants and tyrannical absent husband, or orchestrating the situation herself in a kind of ritualistic sacrifice. Like Marian, the reader is drawn in by this tragic, mysterious world. So it comes as a shock to realise that nothing magical or fantastical actually happens at all. The Unicorn is marketed and consumed as a gothic modern fairy-tale, and both publisher and reader tend to rely on the myths within it to explain away human action that is difficult to comprehend. When the characters have no clear motivations or intentions, it is easier to cope with them in symbolic terms: Hannah becomes a vampire, a pipistrelle bat, a unicorn. We experience them only under the cloak of fantasy, symbolism and allegory – but realising this can strip away the barrier, allowing us to confront their strangeness as sameness.


Murdoch believed her characters strangeness should push against the boundaries of the human, but never exceed them. They remain fundamentally the same as us – this is the doorway to a moral reading. Murdoch wrote that ‘love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.’ The characters are sublime in the Kantian sense: their fictions arouse enjoyment and provoke horror simultaneously. The horror stems from the fact that their difference is a thin veil for their sameness; by resisting the temptation to ‘deform by fantasy’ we learn to approach them with moral empathy, with love.


Some philosophers would dispute the marriage of truth and morality. Wittgenstein thought that ethics could not be put into words: in his view, language can only contain truth value if it is a verifiable statement of fact. Statements of value – ‘this is good’, ‘that is bad’ – are, for Wittgenstein, ‘unsayable’. This would mean that we cannot rightly say anything about ethics or morality, which are based on arbitrary value systems. But Murdoch’s work suggests that where philosophy faces rigid confines, fiction, which need not make any formal truth-claims, is free to say the unsayable.


Murdoch’s novels show that literature and philosophy can be considered together without judging them by each other’s standards. Literature can be philosophical, but is so on its own terms. In a 1977 interview, Murdoch said ‘they are both connected with truth ... they are truth seeking, truth revealing activities in some sense.’ Where philosophy can reach an impasse in trying to establish truth, literature can move beyond, with free reign to explore and expand abstract concepts.


In a passage from the 1968 novel The Nice and the Good, we can see that Murdoch attributes value to abstract emotions, deftly weighing them against each other:


Great love is inseparable from joy, but further thought brought to her an equal portion of pain. There was absolutely nothing that she could do with this huge emotion which she had so suddenly discovered in herself.


This is the moment when Mary Clothier – an important but unassuming character – realises that she isn’t in love with Willy Kost, whom she had been pursuing through the first half of the novel, but oddly and very unexpectedly with her friend John Ducane. It contains what appear to be truth claims: love is inseparable from joy, and by implication connected to pain. But this is not allowed to convert to real action in the world – there was absolutely nothing that she could do. Murdoch provides a model for how far the emotions in literature can escape into our relationship with the world.


Fictional discourse is a space in which words are liberated from strict truth value; whilst fiction might not contain truth value, it can certainly inform, and be informed by it. Put simply, fiction arises from and prompts our emotional engagement with the world. In her 1976 study of Plato, The Fire and the Sun, Murdoch reminds us that ‘we are able meaningfully and plausibly to say what is not the case: to fantasise, speculate, tell lies, and write stories ... for truth to exist falsehood must be able to exist too’. Formally, truth is a very restrictive category, in which little can actually be established. Literature, on the other hand, offers a chaotic other-world where anything can happen, anything can be felt.


Fiction, then, can offer us insight into our world. But it can also give us a break from it. By forming another space to act out emotional possibilities, fiction plays into human nature. In Murdoch’s 15th novel The Black Prince, the unstable and morally dubious Bradley Pearson considers how time is punctuated by days and nights, noting:


We are not condemned to sustained flights of being, but are constantly refreshed by little holidays from ourselves. We are intermittent creatures, always falling to little ends and rising to little new beginnings.


Reading novels allows us to be intermittent beings – to enter a world of moral scope where we can explore emotional and ethical possibilities. Surely this is taking a break from ourselves – a short holiday – from which we return to view the world if not in a better, then at least in a more attentive way. Murdoch, over the course of her career, has offered us this respite. The centenary is as good a time as any to take Murdoch’s lesson: to learn how we might submit to that which we cannot comprehend, to compromise in the face of what we cannot control, and to love when feelings of otherness make it seem impossible to do so.


MAISIE CORKHILL reads English Literature at Christ Church. She shouldn’t have told her tutor that she lives in Coleridge’s house.

Art by Alex Haveron Jones