Good for nothing
- Iris Murdoch: Work for the Spirit by Elizabeth Dipple
Methuen, 356 pp, £12.50, January 1982, ISBN 0 416 31290 X
‘Philosophy, religion, science,’ wrote D.H. Lawrence, ‘they are all of them busy nailing things down ... But the novel, no ... If you try to nail anything down, in the novel, it either kills the novel, or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail!’ Hence Lawrence’s conclusion that only the novel can now do for us what philosophy once aspired to do:
Plato’s Dialogues were queer little novels. It seems to me that it was the greatest pity in the world when philosophy and fiction got split. They used to be one, right from the days of myth. Then they parted, like a nagging married couple, with Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas and that beastly Kant. So the novel went sloppy and philosophy went abstract-dry. The two should come together again – in the novel.
Why in the novel? ‘You may know a truth but if it’s at all complicated you have to be an artist not to utter it as a lie,’ says one of Iris Murdoch’s characters in An Accidental Man who is explaining why he has abandoned philosophy. It is always dangerous to impute a character’s views to an author: but in Iris Murdoch’s case there is a special hazard. Just because she does seem to hold that what makes utterances true or false is not the same as what makes statements true or false, so that a true statement can be uttered as a falsehood (but not, I take it, vice versa), Iris Murdoch’s characters sometimes appear, for the moment at least, to deprive Iris Murdoch’s philosophical views of credibility by the way in which they utter them. So in The Time of the Angels as the two brothers, Marcus and Carel, move unerringly and unintentionally towards disaster, what Marcus utters to himself as false consolation are pieces of Iris Murdoch’s own philosophy. Marcus is writing a book called ‘Morality in a World Without God’ in which he attacks those who have tried to understand judgments about goodness as expressions of will or choice in just the way that Iris Murdoch has done in more than one essay. Carel, an Anglican priest who no longer believes in God, and according to whom no one has as yet understood in a sufficiently radical way the consequences of not believing, embodies a view of which Iris Murdoch has said that she ‘is often more than half persuaded’, but which she finally rejects: the view that if God is not credible, then Good too is a superstition. Marcus after the disaster reflects: ‘Would he go on working on his book? Perhaps it was a book which only a genius could write, and he was not a genius. It might be that what he wanted to say about love and about humanity was true but simply could not be expressed as a theory.’
What this suggests is not only that a truth may be uttered so that it is a lie, but that moral truth may be such as to evade any theoretical expression – perhaps with the consequence that all theoretical expression of it will be to some degree a lie. Iris Murdoch’s novels are philosophy: but they are philosophy which casts doubts on all philosophy including her own. She is an author whose project involves an ironic distance not only from her characters but also from herself.
When I say that Iris Murdoch’s novels are philosophy, then, my claim has very little to do with the fact that her characters sometimes talk about Wittgenstein or quote Heidegger or Kant or go to dinner with Oxford philosophers, or that she makes philosophical jokes (‘There are some parts of London which are necessary and others which are contingent’). And my claim goes beyond pointing to the kinds of philosophical doctrine which some of her characters utter and which occasionally play an important part in their lives. What her novels systematically embody is a theory about theories, a theory which is to some degree against all theory – including itself. And if this does not entail that she had to be a novelist, it is at least clear that such a point of view could never have received adequate expression merely at the level of theory.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.