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’.

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