Faulting the Lemon

James Wood

  • Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature by Iris Murdoch
    Chatto, 546 pp, £20.00, July 1997, ISBN 0 7011 6629 0

English fiction since the war has been a house of good intentions. Inside it are thick theories and slender fulfilments. English novelists solemnise, in commentary about the novel, the qualities and virtues they most obviously lack in practice. They people their artistic gaps with desiderata. Thus Angus Wilson possessed a serious liberal politics, and an ethical respect for the individual, which illuminates his criticism of the novel; but he never created a single character of free and serious depth (he got closest in Late Call). A.S. Byatt has written well about her desire to write what she calls ‘self-conscious realism’; but her realism is seldom deep enough to warrant its self-consciousness. Margaret Drabble appears to want to combine Dickens and Woolf, to combine caricature and experimental forms, but can create neither vivid caricatures nor daring experiments. Martin Amis seems to want to borrow that very faculty – soul – about which he is most naturally, and most amusingly, ironic. And Iris Murdoch has written repeatedly that the definition of the great novel is the free and realised life it gives to its characters, while making her own fictional characters as unfree as pampered convicts. Perhaps in our time only V.S. Pritchett has written the fiction his criticism desires.

A list of the weaknesses of English fiction since, say, Henry Green would go like this: it has produced few characters of depth or life (only Mr Biswas, Jean Brodie and John Self in almost forty years); it has been grossly, childishly explicit with symbol and allegory (Golding, Carter); the freedom of its characters has been too often muffled by bossy authorial intrusion (Spark, Drabble, Byatt); its comedy is too easy, too shallow, or too narrowly social (Spark, Wilson, both Amises); it lacks a tragic sense.

Though Iris Murdoch has rarely mentioned her contemporaries, this might be a list of Murdoch’s own anathemata, of all the ways in which modern fiction falls short of the Tolstoyan ideal. ‘Ultimately,’ she has written in ‘The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited’ (one of the essays collected in Existentialists and Mystics), ‘we judge the great novelists by the quality of their awareness of others ... for the novelist this is at the highest level the most crucial test.’ That her own fiction fails this test, indeed that it commits many of the sins she has proscribed, is not lost on her. The struggle between breviary and right conduct, the wrestle to turn a plan into a real city, is one of the admitted anxieties in Murdoch’s writing about fiction. Indeed, it seems likely that her training as a philosopher, and her tendency to discuss fiction in armoured philosophical generalities, exaggerates this gap. ‘We no longer demand of people in books that they should be like real people, except in some minimal sense of verisimilitude,’ she complains, and then confesses, rather movingly:

And we may be tempted to forget how impossibly difficult it is to create a free and lifelike character, or to feel that this particular effort is worth making ... How soon one discovers that, however much one is in the ordinary sense ‘interested in other people’, this interest has left one far short of possessing the knowledge required to create a character who is not oneself. It is impossible, it seems to me, not to see one’s failure here at a sort of spiritual failure.

Murdoch’s tendency to be philosophical before she is aesthetic, and her clipped relations with the aesthetic (so that she must see the failure to create real characters as a ‘spiritual failure’ rather than an aesthetic one), her humility, her anxious sternness, the gulf between her theory and practice – all this gives Existentialists and Mystics an extraordinary interest. This book, which gathers Murdoch’s uncollected writing on fiction and philosophy, is surely one of the most substantial, rigorous and suggestive collections to have been produced by an English novelist. Murdoch’s inspiring, unembarrassed hospitality to sublimity, her philosophical seriousness, and her free travel through literatures (she writes about Camus, Kant, Hegel, Sartre, Simone Weil) recalls sometimes the English 19th century, and sometimes, in the 20th, that Continental essayistic tradition which permits a writer like Thomas Mann or Jacques Rivière to produce a kind of fattened philosophy.

During the Fifties, Murdoch exchanged her Existentialism for a loosely Christian Platonism, which has been the fabric of her worldview ever since. (Her Gifford Lectures, published as Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, offer the clearest summary.) On the evidence of Existentialists and Mystics, the shift was the result of reading Simone Weil. In a review of Weil’s Notebooks, written in 1956, Murdoch praises Weil for avoiding both Existentialism (whose offer of a freedom to choose Murdoch finds too ‘consoling’) and ‘the English ethics of act and choice’. Instead, Murdoch praises Weil for her emphasis on ‘waiting’ and ‘attention’. Weil meant by this a prayerful attention to a God-like Good, which is necessarily mysterious and beyond us, given to us and not made by us, revealed not to our intelligence but to our love. In Murdoch’s version, this Good is less God-like than it was for Weil, because her impulse is less religious than Weil’s. But the Good is certainly transcendent. In her essay ‘On “God” and “Good” ’, published in 1969, she writes that ‘the idea of the transcendent, in some form or another, belongs to morality,’ and adds that we need to retain ‘a metaphysical position but no metaphysical form’.

Murdoch has an appealing, though vulnerable, metaphysics – appealing because vulnerable – which might be called daylight mysticism. It is a pudding of Plato, Kant and Weil. Looking around her, she feels summoned to a belief that ‘philosophers must try to invent a terminology which shows that our natural psychology can be altered by conceptions which lie beyond its range ... the Platonic metaphor of the Good provides a suitable picture here.’ Actually, she does not really mean to demote the Good to metaphorical status. On the contrary, she gives evidence of believing that the truth exists outside our metaphorical picturing of it, that our souls nudge a reality that lies beyond what we can see. This is not a philosophy of ‘as if’. (In direct contrast, George Steiner, who contributes an Introduction to this book, has a literary metaphysics – his Real Presence doctrine – that seems to be merely metaphorical, but which borrows a non-metaphorical religious language.) This transcendent reality, in Murdoch’s vision, appears to resemble a retired God: ‘God does not and cannot exist,’ she writes in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. ‘But what led us to conceive of him does exist and is constantly experienced and pictured. That is, it is real as an Idea, and also incarnate in knowledge and work and love.’

As with God, it is worth contemplating this transcendence: ‘we can all receive moral help by focusing our attention on things which are valuable: virtuous people, great art ... the idea of Good itself.’ And as with God, this transcendent object is beautiful – indeed, it is beauty itself. ‘Beauty is the visible and accessible aspect of the Good. The Good is not itself visible.’ Truth is beauty, and where Murdoch differs from Weil (and, obviously, from Plato) is in her conviction that the Good finds clear, empirically discoverable incarnation in great works of art. Art, Murdoch might say, is the house of the Idea; it is where we can visit truth and spend the day with it. The best way to contemplate the Good, then, is to contemplate great art, for this contemplation is ‘an entry into (and not just an analogy of) the good life, since it is the checking of selfishness in the interest of seeing the real’. When we read Shakespeare or Tolstoy (Murdoch returns fondly to these two, like someone returning to the city of her honeymoon), ‘we learn something about the real quality of human nature ... with a clarity which does not belong to the self-centred rush of ordinary life.’

Art, according to Murdoch, incarnates the Good, for two reasons: first because, through a picture of reality, it offers a grounded version of the truth and irreducibility of other people’s lives; and secondly (and more abstractly), because art has an independence from us that cannot be altered or possessed by us. This is essentially Keats’s view of the urn: art is beautiful because of the ‘heard melodies’, the realities it conjures; and truthful because it ‘cannot fade’ – and the reason for that is the ‘unheard’ melody it represents. Art is truth because it reveals; and because it exists. In the title essay of this collection, written in 1970, Murdoch goes even further. If the contemplation of art represents an entry into the good life, then the artist ‘is the good man: the lover who, nothing himself, lets other things be through him’.

On the face of it, Murdoch’s metaphysics would seem to be too aesthetic and her aesthetics too metaphysical. Her philosophy, for instance, would be swiftly singed by proximity to the empirical. She does not really argue, against the claims of relativism, for the existence of a transcendent truth or reason (as, in a different form, Thomas Nagel does in his recent book, The Last Word). She simply asserts this transcendence. Her long essays begin sternly but soon undergo a rich degradation, into polemic and command. She is a literary thinker, trained in philosophy but exercised by art. Imperatives are her syntax, and metaphor her logic: ‘philosophers must try to invent a terminology’; ‘prose must recover its former glory’; ‘moral philosophy should attempt to retain a central concept’ – the concept of the transcendent. Though she says that she is not a critic, her favourite way of doing philosophy is to take Kant or Plato and submit them to amorous critical reinterpretation, as if their philosophical worlds were clumsily suggestive, like those of the great novels. Thus she decides that Kant’s theory of the sublime ought to be his theory of the beautiful, and his theory of the beautiful ought to be a theory of tragedy. (Tragedy, she believes, is the highest art form.) Once she has decided that, she can proceed to invent her ideal Kantian aesthetics. A philosopher who refers slidingly to the importance of ‘the idea of the transcendent, in some form or another’, who is hungry enough to talk vaguely of the ‘moral help’ we can get from attending to the Good, is not one who wants to win, but rather is content to gamble, her arguments. And, one feels, she would admit this: clearly, she loves to conjoin aesthetics and ethics, because art is the felt reality for ‘the hygienic and dehydrated analysis of mental concepts which we use in this city’. The ‘city’ of course is Oxford and art is a London to philosophy’s Oxford.

Murdoch’s metaphysics can perhaps survive on the alms of assertion, but her aesthetics cannot. She is at her most calmly assertive, most serenely philosophical, when in the midst of aesthetic argument. Since aesthetics does not really exist anyway – it is always a form of criticism – all aesthetic arguments need to stop at local stations. The discussion of specific works is the only valid aesthetics. As Coleridge has it in Chapter 14 of the Biographia Literaria, the answer to the question ‘What is poetry?’ is so nearly the answer to the question ‘What is a poet?’ that ‘the answer to the one is involved in the solution to the other.’ Since criticism is itself ultimately subjective, Murdoch would not actually avoid assertion if she exchanged aesthetics for criticism proper. But if she were writing criticism her assertion would at least be rationally softened.

Instead, Murdoch’s aesthetics have a strange, quasi-philosophical circularity. At the beginning of ‘The Sublime and the Good’, she takes issue with Tolstoy’s idea that we should first fix our aesthetics and then, in the light of that theory, choose the artworks which fit it. ‘Our aesthetic,’ she replies, ‘must stand to be judged by great works of art which we know to be such idependently.’ She goes on: ‘So let us start by saying that Shakespeare is the greatest of all artists, and let our aesthetic grow to be the philosophical justification of this judgment.’ But this is illogical. If one simply knows ‘independently’ that Shakespeare is great (though Murdoch never tells us whence comes this independence: nor can she, of course), then one cannot test one’s aesthetic by recourse to Shakespeare. Murdoch promises to make her aesthetics provisional – but provisional on an aesthetic certainty secured without the help of aesthetics.

‘Independently’: Murdoch does not know Shakespeare to be great via any aesthetic independence (for she clearly proposes this independence as something apart from aesthetics), but via philosophical certitude. She knows that Shakespeare is great, philosophically. Shakespeare represents the Good. In other words, her aesthetics is not aesthetics at all, but philosophy. Once one has discovered this, both her arguments about fiction and her fiction itself glow more clearly for us. In particular, the puzzling gap between her theory about fiction and her own practice as a novelist comes to seem less puzzling. For her aesthetics are precisely the expression of a philosophical ideal, serenely meditated in an Atlantis of the mind.

In one rather austere sense, her own novels must then seem irrelevant as practice, for they are simply shards of this ideal. If one just knows Shakespeare to be great, then one also knows that, out of sight, there is an even greater artist, the Idea of the artist. In this view of things, one could not only never be as great as Shakespeare or Tolstoy, one could never be as great as fiction itself; one could never be as great as the Good. Thus one could never be great at all. Perhaps some such excessive Platonic scrupulousness on Murdoch’s part infects her practice as a novelist; it may explain the apparent wildness, even the carelessness, of many of her novels, not to mention the almost disrespectful fecundity of her imagination.

Of course, a novelist could never think of her novels as irrelevant. So a simpler explanation for the gap between theory and practice might be to suggest that it is we, not Murdoch, who see a gap. We see a gap because we read Murdoch’s commentary on fiction as a species of aesthetics, and then watch her novels enact a different aesthetics, or fail to enact the desired aesthetics. But if we read Murdoch’s commentary as a species of philosophy, and her novels as hapless enactments of philosophy, as necessary metaphysical failures or lapses (remember that Murdoch feels that the inability to create real characters is a ‘spiritual’ failure not an aesthetic one), then the novels are the logical product of Murdoch’s commentary.

For Murdoch, ethics means the annihilation of self before the irreducibility of other people. This belief can be found throughout her fiction. In The Nice and the Good, John Ducane realises that ‘the great evil, the dreadful evil, that which made war and slavery and all man’s inhumanity to man, lay in the cool self-justifying ruthless selfishness of quite ordinary people.’ It is the novelist, according to Murdoch, who can best deliver us from the tyranny of ourselves: ‘The novelist is par excellence the unprejudiced describer of le monde vécu.’ In a marvellous denunciation of T.S. Eliot (written in 1959, in ‘The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited’), Murdoch wonders if Eliot has ever admired and enjoyed a novel. Eliot, Murdoch complains, doesn’t want us ‘to attend to other people’: he wants us to attend to God. ‘So it is not surprising that he makes no place for imaginative prose literature, which is par excellence the form of art most concerned with the existence of other persons.’ Murdoch returns to this repeatedly. In 1970, she writes: ‘Art (good art) used to silence and annihilate the self. We contemplated in quietness something whose authority made us unaware of ourselves.’

The 19th century is the optimal playground for the greatest novelists (Balzac, Dickens, Eliot, Tolstoy). ‘The most obvious difference between 19th-century novels and 20th-century ones is that the 19th-century ones are better,’ Murdoch catechises somewhat sharply. In the 19th century, the individual is seen in all his social and ethical fullness, against an entire society. At its highest levels, the novelist’s ability to penetrate the otherness of his characters is indistinguishable from love. This leads Murdoch to her most passionate emphasis:

Art and morals are ... one. Their essence is the same. The essence of both of them is love. Love is the perception of individuals. 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 enemies of art and of morals, the enemies that is of love, are the same: social convention and neurosis ... Fantasy, the enemy of art, is the enemy of true imagination: Love, an exercise of the imagination ... The exercise of overcoming one’s self, of the expulsion of fantasy and convention, which attends for instance the reading of King Lear, is indeed exhilarating. It is also, if we perform it properly ... painful.

It is stirring to read a novelist who believes so acutely in the destiny of fiction, and in its renovation in our time. But it is stirring only as personal faith. An aesthetics that announces, with Oxonian briskness, and merely in passing, that ‘the highest art is not music, as Schopenhauer, who was not very concerned with particular human beings, imagined, but ... tragedy, because its subject-matter is the most important and most individual that we know,’ can only be taken as personal faith. To demote music aesthetically because it is not ‘concerned with human beings’ is to demote it via non-aesthetic criteria for failing to be something it has no power to be. It is like faulting a lemon morally for not tasting sweet.

More important, Murdoch’s conception of virtue is not only asserted, it seems limited. Why should it be the case that the highest ethics is the suppression of self, or that the greatest artists gloriously smother their personalities? (Think of Melville, of Dostoevsky and of the wholly personal T.S. Eliot.) Murdoch’s actual example, in ‘On “God” and “Good” ’, of unselfish virtue – ‘the unselfish man in the concentration camp’ – is troublingly academic. What, indeed, could selfishness mean in such a place? Why would it necessarily be good to be unselfish there? Selfishness, in such a place, might be a form of unselfishness, if this meant preserving oneself in order to preserve other, weaker souls. And how, in that place, could one ever grade one victim as morally superior to the next? Murdoch’s Christian emphasis on unselfish virtue recalls Nietzsche’s gibe about George Eliot in The Twilight of the Idols, that she had got rid of the Christian God, but only clung more fiercely to Christian morality. Naturally, if one does not share Murdoch’s idea of virtue, one may not share her wholly ethical idea of what makes fiction great. For example, if she believes that the artist is ‘the lover who, nothing himself, lets other things be through him’, this may explain her own lack of interest, as a novelist, in surfaces, in the pigments of reality, in all the textured distractions which might obstruct the free-flow of otherness. It may illuminate why she appears to attend so little, as a novelist, to her prose, which seems good only by accident, and is often careless. Only this can explain that baffling moment near the end of ‘Against Dryness’, when Murdoch, lamenting that English fiction no longer seems ‘written’, and arguing that fiction must ‘recover its former glory’, alights on Camus as the ideal. ‘All his novels were written.’ Camus! That great truthful blunderbuss, whose novels have an almost cherishable aesthetic clumsiness! Who is so eager for philosophical conversation between his (largely unfree) characters to begin that his descriptive linkages from set-piece discussion to set-piece discussion are rudely formulaic, and who abandoned description altogether in The Fall! It is hard to see how Camus represents a prose of ‘eloquence’ or richness, unless one’s ideal in this regard is coolly renunciatory. And perhaps, metaphysically speaking, a rich prose would be precisely that assertion of self which Murdoch finds neurotic and unvirtuous. Perhaps her novels are the aesthetic sacrifices to her stern metaphysics.

Likewise, it seems significant that while it is philosophically important for novelists to attend to other people, Murdoch has little interest in the aesthetic quality of that otherness. She uses Tolstoy and Shakespeare, in a sense, to close aesthetic discussion. Once they have appeared in the argument, there is no need to examine what it is the great novelists do with their free characters. It is enough for these characters to exist, independently of their creators. Again, perhaps just such an idea is enacted in Murdoch’s novels, which are full of characters who are clearly not their author, but who often seem savagely meaningless in any way other than in their histrionic freedom. They mean their freedom, they perform in the theatre of it. But it is often hard to find any other meaning in them. This is most clear in Murdoch’s treatment of her demonic characters – people like Mischa Fox in The Flight from the Enchanter, Father Carel in The Time of the Angels, and Julius King in A Fairly Honourable Defeat. The demonism which such characters threaten represents an important philosophical vice in Murdoch’s vision. Such people are enchanters, fantasists, controllers. They do not attend to the reality of other people, but distort other people into false statuary (or worse: Father Carel sleeps with his own daughter and believes that since God is dead, all is permitted). Every critic who writes about Murdoch canters loyally in her path, remarking on the centrality of such demonic people in her fiction. Very few remark on how undemonic such people actually seem in the novels. One reads her fiction happily reminding oneself that such people are supposed to be horribly menacing when, in fact, her conception of demonism – that which opposes the Good, presumably – seems precisely too philosophically refined to be truly threatening. Murdoch clearly believes that great fiction stages wars between good and evil, but her evildoers never have the felt demonism of, say, Henry James’s malefactors. Gilbert Osmond is truly evil; Mischa Fox is theoretically evil. James seems to know what to do, aesthetically, with such people, and binds them deep into the aesthetic structure; Murdoch seems only to lease them to the novel before reclaiming them for philosophy.

Of all the postwar English novelists, Murdoch has the greatest intellectual range, the deepest rigour. She takes her place, however awkwardly, in a tradition of English Christian Platonism which includes Ruskin and George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. Woolf, in some ways, was the rebel who had to overthrow her father’s moral Platonism and make the Good an aesthetic category only, and one discoverable only by a highly aestheticiscd fiction. Murdoch may be seen as the rebel to Woolf’s rebellion, closing down Bloomsbury’s aesthetic mysticism (art is never for art’s sake, always for life’s sake, she writes here) in favour of a moral, ‘hard idea of truth’. In doing so, she joins herself to the George Eliot who, writing of Ruskin in 1856, sounds exactly like Murdoch: ‘The fundamental principles of all just thought and beautiful action or creation are the same and in making clear to ourselves what is best and noblest in art, we are making clear to ourselves what is best and noblest in morals ... all truth and beauty are to be attained by a humble and faithful study of nature, and not by substituting vague forms, bred by imagination on the mists of feeling, in place of definite, substantial reality.’ Had Murdoch’s aesthetics been more aesthetic, her fiction might have been less philosophical. But this is to fault the lemon morally for not being sweet.