Good for nothing

Alasdair MacIntyre

  • 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.

I do not think that what I have just said is true in the same way and to the same degree of all Iris Murdoch’s novels. In the earlier novels she is perhaps more concerned to emphasise the pure contingency both of circumstance and of human freedom. What entangles us and so endangers that freedom is our propensity to be deceived by a self-indulgent resort to myth and fantasy, a resort which makes us the all too easy victims of those who use myth and fantasy to enchant us. But already in the early novels two kinds of progress are evident. One is in understanding how it is the novelist as well as her characters who have to fear this entanglement by myth. ‘There is a temptation for any novelist ... to imagine that the problem of a novel is solved and the difficulties overcome as soon as a form in the sense of a satisfactory myth has been evolved’ (‘The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited’, Yale Review, 1960). A second is in understanding how myth cannot be escaped, a lesson she herself ascribed to the influence of Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power: ‘The mythical is not something “extra”; we live in myth and symbol all the time’ (Spectator, 7 September 1962). So the novelist is engaged in a half-paradoxical enterprise: she is to tell stories in order to free us from myth and magic. But free us for what? The answer that has emerged is ‘For the Good’ – the Good, Plato’s Good.

The earlier progress of this development was excellently charted by A. S. Byatt, both in her book Degrees of Freedom and in her British Council guide, Iris Murdoch. Her analysis is extended and continued here, in Elizabeth Dipple’s very good book, which traces the whole course of development from Under the Net to Nuns and Soldiers. Professor Dipple uses Iris Murdoch’s philosophical essays to illuminate the novels with perceptiveness and sensitivity to conceptual issues: but her central concern is with enabling us to read the novels for what she takes them to be – and, unsurprisingly, she does not understand the novels as philosophy. Indeed, she congratulates Iris Murdoch for ‘persistently arguing for a strict differentiation between philosophy and the novel’. I suspect that it is as a consequence of this that although what she has to say about such earlier philosophical influences on Iris Murdoch as those of Sartre and Simone Weil (where she acknowledges our indebtedness to A. S. Byatt) is very much to the point, she does not adequately grasp the extent to which, as the novels progress, their unity has become the construction of a 20th-century Neoplatonism. But her patient interpretative expositions of plot and character provide all the evidence for just such a verdict.

So Professor Dipple rightly connects the rejections which are so central to Nuns and Soldiers – the rejection of God, of philosophy and of at-homeness-in-the-world – with Iris Murdoch’s belief that ‘the Good has nothing to do with purpose ... The only genuine way to be good is to be good “for nothing” ... ’ (The Sovereignty of Good), although oddly enough she quotes it not from Iris Murdoch in her own voice, but as it comes from the mouth of Carel Fisher in The Time of the Angels as part of what Dipple calls his ‘demonic nay-saying’. Yet although Carel may put this belief to the service of his demonism – and almost any, perhaps any belief can be thus misused – what Carel says is something which Iris Murdoch herself takes to be true, and something which we use God, philosophy and the project of making ourselves at home in the world to conceal from ourselves, because the purposelessness of Good makes it so lacking in consolation.

What this search for consolation engenders in us is untruthfulness and distractedness. The untruthfulness is to be corrected, as Simone Weil taught, by learning to attend to how things are, by learning to see what is really there. Simone Weil and Iris Murdoch share a view of moral judgment which is very much at variance both with Aristotle’s and with that of many modern analytic philosophers. For according to both Aristotle and such philosophers – Ayer and Stevenson are two distinguished examples – discerning the relevant facts is, as it were, a preliminary task which has to be completed before an evaluative judgment or choice is made. According to Weil and Murdoch, the central moral task often just is learning how to see the facts as they are – and indeed when that task has been completed, the relevant moral judgments and choices often turn out to have already been made in the course of learning how to see. It is this task of focusing the attention which connects art with morality. ‘Virtue is au fond the same in the artist as in the good man in that it is a selfless attention to nature: something which it is easy to name but very hard to achieve’ (The Sovereignty of Good).

Selfless attention is also necessary to deliver us from distractedness, on the one hand, and obsession, on the other. Obsession, like attention, is single-minded. But attention is to its object, whereas obsession is preoccupied with the object only because of its larger preoccupation with its own self. Charles Arrowby in The Sea, the Sea exemplifies such obsession; Tallis Browne in A Fairly Honourable Defeat has the crucial quality of moral endurance; Anne Cavidge in Nuns and Soldiers has that purity of heart which is to will one thing. But to describe Iris Murdoch’s characters like this is to misdescribe: it makes them sound like characters in a Medieval morality play and in so doing it misrepresents the moral stance that her understanding of character embodies. Iris Murdoch could not write a book like Theophrastus’s Characters which describes types of vice: the niggardly man, the gossip, the cynic – and not just because she has the novelist’s concern with the detail of particularity. To be virtuous, according to her, is not to exhibit a collection of traits, it is to be moving with a certain kind of directedness; and one and the same trait or set of traits can in different characters have quite different moral significance. So that one could not specify the moral life by an account of the character traits of the good man or woman. Iris Murdoch’s morality is a morality of virtue, not of the virtues. There does seem to be one particular virtue without which virtue itself is impossible: goodness requires humility. ‘The humble man, because he sees himself as nothing, can see other things as they are’ (The Sovereignty of Good). But on this account ‘humility’ turns out not to be the name of a particular virtue after all, but of virtue as such. Thus Iris Murdoch’s Platonism brings her closer to Kant than to Aristotle, although what impresses her in Kant’s doctrine is very different from what has been emphasised by those analytic moral philosophers who have written about him: ‘his term “Ideas of Reason” expresses precisely that endless aspiration to perfection which is characteristic of moral activity ... There exists a moral reality, a real although infinitely distant standard’ (The Sovereignty of Good).

Consequently, to understand the place of a trait in the moral life we need to be shown one and the same trait in the context of different kinds of character with different kinds of directedness, and thus learn the very wide range of different kinds of significance that that trait can have. So in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine what seem to be the same traits operate quite differently in different characters. Professor Dipple identifies the importance of this in her comparison of Edgar Demarnay with Harriet Gavender. If the novel has a hero, it is in the end Edgar, who, in spite of what another character calls his ‘blundering kindness’ and his ‘soggy so-called religion’, is able to endure. Yet as Professor Dipple points out, the reader who is tempted to conclude that Edgar’s ‘persistence in the point of view that loving attention to every detail constitutes his central task’ is the character trait in virtue of which he is the hero has merely to recall that Harriet Gavender, the other character who seemed to exemplify the same trait, is betrayed by it. For she was at home in her own small world, content with herself and her relationships, not directed beyond herself by some view of the Good. Hence when she discovers her husband’s infidelity, she collapses into a discovery of how terrible the world is, a discovery which drives her towards false consolations. Thus Iris Murdoch, as Professor Dipple puts it, ‘breaks any positive pattern projected by Edgar’s courage’. The breaking of patterns is at the heart both of the novelist’s enterprise and of the life of virtue. ‘The idea of perfection can only be exemplified in particular cases in terms of the kind of perfection which is appropriate. So one could not say in general what perfection is, in the way in which one could talk about generosity or good painting’ (The Sovereignty of Good). But the philosophical reader ought now to be puzzled. For here is a doctrine which links the supremacy of Plato’s Form of the Good, of the Neoplatonic One with its simplicity of perfection, to the need to write about particular cases in detail as the novelist or the dramatic poet writes. Yet Plato himself would have expelled the dramatic poets from the republic and understood the mimesis of art as a tempting source of illusion. A Neoplatonic novelist seems to be an embodied contradiction.

Iris Murdoch has confronted this problem in The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists, where she draws our attention to Plato’s ambivalence about the arts. ‘He kept emphasising the imageless remoteness of the Good, yet kept returning in his exposition to the more elaborate uses of art.’ And she might well have drawn our attention to the fact that in the Republic, where Plato’s attack on all sensible representation is most vehement, the exposition of the diagram of the line, in terms of which the theory of forms is explained, includes the remark that any type of apprehension which has to be mediated by a diagram cannot be true knowledge of the forms. But if we and Glaucon and Adeimantus have had to learn about the forms by means of the diagram of the line, then sensible representation has had to play its part in the mind’s ascent towards the Form of the Good, and perhaps a part that cannot ever quite be left behind. And where then does the condemnation of the artist stand, deriving as it does in Book X precisely from the fact that mimesis is a form of sensible representation? It is very much to the point that Plato’s attack on the dramatic poets is voiced in a work which is itself an outstanding piece of dramatic art. Not only Iris Murdoch, but also D.H. Lawrence look this to be a centrally important fact about Plato, I presume because it is difficult to believe that Plato was not well aware of the paradoxical character of his enterprise in the Republic. Thus what is present in that dialogue at least may not be so much ambivalence as a conviction that this kind of paradox is ineliminable. If so, Iris Murdoch seems to be at one with Plato, although she extends his suspicion of art into a suspicion of philosophy. It too can screen us from the Form of the Good, it too can be a form of self-indulgence. And just as Plato attacked dramatic art in a play, so Iris Murdoch has voiced her indictments of philosophy in philosophical essays as well as in novels.

When I spoke of her as a Neoplatonist, I did so not only because she exhibits the same freedom in reworking Platonic themes that the Neoplatonists do, but also because she shares with some of them both a repudiation of belief in the God of Christian theology and an acceptance of mysticism. ‘Morality has always been connected with religion and religion with mysticism. The disappearance of the middle term leaves morality in a situation which is certainly more difficult, but essentially the same. The background to morality is properly some sort of mysticism, if by this is meant a non-dogmatic essentially unformulated faith in the reality of the Good, occasionally connected with experience’ (The Sovereignty of Good). But this reality evades formulation: to use it is to have ‘a very tiny spark of insight, something with, as it were, a metaphysical position but no metaphysical form’. And when the novels succeed, they have an essential incompleteness, for the characters who endure point to, but cannot share with us, this spark of insight.

I say ‘when the novels succeed’ because they sometimes fail. And their failure seems to me to belong to their character as philosophy and not to those qualities which literary critics have sometimes attacked. Christopher Ricks, for example, has castigated her prose style in Nuns and Soldiers for being spattered with such phrases as ‘a sort of’ or ‘a kind of’ (Sunday Times, 7 September 1980): but, although he has a point, it is less lethal against the storytelling voice, which is so important to Iris Murdoch’s novels, than he supposes it to be. That storytelling voice is what gives the novels their pace and their comic energy, and with these, the enjoyment that comes from the reader’s, and the characters’, being carried along so swiftly. But where are the characters being carried to? At what does the directedness of those who aim at the good point? Where does the distractedness of those who fail to aim at the good prevent them from moving to? Aristotle long ago criticised the Platonic conception of the Form of the Good for being practically empty, for affording us no guidance. Lacking any specific content, it is in fact a nothing, the ghost of a something.

It is characteristic of Iris Murdoch’s later novels that all goodness being referred to the Form of the Good seems to entail that there is no such thing as a good way of life or a good form of human community. Good is an object only of individual aspiration. Social circumstances are not themselves, except accidentally, part of the matter of morality, which is a purely individual enterprise and one that, just because what is good is good ‘for nothing’, leads nowhere. This is why her novels have no genuine endings. They simply stop. Professor Dipple notices this in passing: ‘in the early novels, she sometimes compulsively submitted to closed form, but as her work matured, her talent can be described as concentrating on the open middle: the endings of the mature novels are almost ironic and even irrelevant to the large, free central area of activity which defines her development of style.’ About the inadequacy of the endings – consider, for example, the melodramalic death of Harriet in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine – this is an understatement. What this inability to produce an adequate ending for a tale suggests is that the novels may, quite inadvertently, make a case for the pointlessness of morality, not, as our modern Neoplatonists intend, in the sense of a high-minded disclaiming of any this-worldly telos, of any form of social life as the good life for man, but in a way which makes morality appear to be in the end no more than an aesthetically engaging and compelling phenomenon. Admiring these novels as I do, I also distrust them.