Best Known As The Author Of Twenty Six Novels, Iris Murdoch Also Made Significant Contributions To The Fields Of Ethics And Aesthetics Collected Here For The First Time In One Volume Are Her Most Influential Literary And Philosophical Essays Tracing Murdoch S Journey To A Modern Platonism, This Volume Includes Incisive Evaluations Of The Thought And Writings Of T S Eliot, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone De Beauvior, And Elias Canetti, As Well As Key Texts On The Continuing Importance Of The Sublime, On The Concept Of Love, And The Role Great Literature Can Play In Curing The Ills Of Philosophy Existentialists And Mystics Not Only Illuminates The Mysticism And Intellectual Underpinnings Of Murdoch S Novels, But Confirms Her Major Contributions To Twentieth Century Thought There is no doubt which art is the most practically important for our survival and our salvation, and that is literature Words constitute the ultimate texture and stuff of our moral being, since they are the most refined and delicate and detailed, as well as the most universally used and understood, of the symbolisms whereby we express ourselves into existence We became spiritual animals when we became verbal animals The fundamental distinctions can only be made in words Words are spirit. Murdoch is one of the kindest and most humble writers of philosophy I ve ever read She writes about existential themes without angst, with keen insight and admirable restraint With both her style and her substantive claims, she rightly balances the urge toward philosophy and the urge toward literature She directs her attention to some of the most lasting problems in philosophy without much simplification and she avoids over radical claims It s not standard academic fare, yet it comes from a Murdoch is one of the kindest and most humble writers of philosophy I ve ever read She writes about existential themes without angst, with keen insight and admirable restraint With both her style and her substantive claims, she rightly balances the urge toward philosophy and the urge toward literature She directs her attention to some of the most lasting problems in philosophy without much simplification and she avoids over radical claims It s not standard academic fare, yet it comes from a mind that clearly understands the importance and lasting relevance of the philosophical canon Whereas much of philosophy serves to problematize life, hers is a philosophy that makes life appear less problematic The best essay in this book for me is by far Iris Murdoch s The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited in fact I think this has influencedthan just my views on novels but rather on general ethics and how people should treat one another entirely I recently read this again and was no less moved than by the first time I read it over ten years ago. The first thing I want to say is that Iris Murdoch has a very good prose style It has the clarity and simplicity of good philosophical writing, proceeding smoothly from point to point, from premise to conclusion Yet her career as a novelist certainly shows itself in her great idiomatic and metaphoric flair, not at all overwritten or purple, but equally understated and clear Here is an exemplary paragraph from The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited What is pictured here is very like Kant s The first thing I want to say is that Iris Murdoch has a very good prose style It has the clarity and simplicity of good philosophical writing, proceeding smoothly from point to point, from premise to conclusion Yet her career as a novelist certainly shows itself in her great idiomatic and metaphoric flair, not at all overwritten or purple, but equally understated and clear Here is an exemplary paragraph from The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited What is pictured here is very like Kant s idea of the sublime and yet importantly different too Kant s man stands alone confronting the mountains or the sea and feels defiant pride in the free power of his reason His reason, it is true, is at that moment frustrated and conscious of its inability to achieve complete understanding but there is nothing humbling or regrettable about this frustration On the contrary, it brings with it a larger consciousness of the dignity of rationality Whereas the man that I have in mind, faced by the manifold of humanity, may feel, as well as terror, delight, but not, if he really sees what is before him, superiority He will suffer that undramatic, because un self centred, agnosticism which goes with tolerance To understand other people is a task which does not come to an end This man will possess spirit in the sense intended by Pascal when he said Thespirit one has theoriginal men one discovers Ordinary people do not notice differences between men And a better name for spirit here is not reason, not tolerance even, but love Her appreciation for being un self centred evidenced here is very a propos, because Murdoch herself spends most of this book getting out of the way of others ideas, and communicating those as best she can She certainly has something to say, but she often says it by trying to clarify or summarize the words of another In this sense, I think the reader of this book would do best to skip to the end The last two pieces in this book, two Platonic dialogues, express so much of what goes on in this book, and do it with charm and easy grace They will give the reader a sense of where Murdoch s sense of balance is, and so better understand her criticism of others throughout the rest of the book.I think the best pieces here are the two longish essays that deal with the relationship between art, philosophy, and life, The Sublime and the Good, and The Fire and the Sun The latter essay is really an exploration of Plato s relationship to art, but since Plato has been so formative for Murdoch, this essay manages to capture most of what she has to say anyway.I also really loved her essay on T.S Eliot as well, called T.S Eliot as a Moralist After having read Eliot s prose work, I have to say that she s got his number, and she made me rethink him She both makes his ideas look stronger andintegral to our lives than we might have complacently supposed, yet also shows where he missteps.Without having read any Iris Murdoch novels, I can say that these essaysthan account for her reputation I can only imagine how muchawaits me in her novels Murdoch says, in a revised conversation with Magee, any artist must be at least half in love with his unconscious mind which after all provides his motive force and does a great deal of his work Mine was behind Sketch of a Just Man, An instance from which telepathy can be proved, the poems, The Man Who Stopped Time, where it took over my writing hand to achieve exactly the effect it wanted, CORRESPONDENCE of John Cairns with Betty Clark Joan Ure , Phoenixflower, Dark Side of the Moon, the Murdoch says, in a revised conversation with Magee, any artist must be at least half in love with his unconscious mind which after all provides his motive force and does a great deal of his work Mine was behind Sketch of a Just Man, An instance from which telepathy can be proved, the poems, The Man Who Stopped Time, where it took over my writing hand to achieve exactly the effect it wanted, CORRESPONDENCE of John Cairns with Betty Clark Joan Ure , Phoenixflower, Dark Side of the Moon, the lot Murdoch didn t want to be obviously present in her artistic work Literature could be called a disciplined technique for arousing certain emotions If nothing sensuous is present no art is present Art is close play with unconscious forces Art is mimesis and good art is anamnesis, memory of what we did not know we knew That about sums up the book , lived by unconscious direction and realised at unconscious instigation from its intact memory The unconscious mind is not a philosopher, she says It s not a mind either but a spirit informing the mind, both the unconscious and conscious mind Art, she thinks, is a battle with obsessive unconscious forces although the unconscious is also the source of art Mine liked I didn t let consciousness get in his way whereas Betty Clark inhibited his and her unconscious s expression Art goes deeper than philosophy, she writes Formalists want to cure us of the realistic fallacy of imagining we look through language into a separate world beyond, like taking what the writer is imagining in words as depicting what s there, I suppose When Johnson kicked the stone to refute Berkeley he was protesting against the latter s metaphysical attempt to remove a necessary distinction between self and the world She thinks words should be seen as a medium through which one relates to the world, whatever that world is, including that of works of art The world of people, and things, ismalleable than she thinks Art is truth as well as form, she says, representational as well as autonomous, suggesting a relative truth, true to something other Art has got to have form, she avers, life need not It may Mine did I was interested in what she had to say about truth in art She says literature is often criticised for being in some sense untruthful, using words like sentimental, pretentious, self indulgent, trivial, vulgar, banal but primarily fantasy, to impute some kind of falsehood The Greeks exonerated fiction from being a lie but she s defining truth in art from what falsifies it I m no clearer knowing how it can be true except to a writer s unalloyed imagination recognised as true by an appreciative reader, a not very convincing criterion She later writes the good artist is a vehicle of truth in that he formulates ideas which otherwise would remain vague and focuses attention on facts which can then no longer be ignored without exemplifying this contention The artist must tell the truth about something he has understood The paradox of art is that the work itself may have to invent the methods by which we verify it, to erect its own interior standards of truthfulness Hmm Modern writing isironical and less confident than that of the nineteenth century, the storynarrowly connected with the consciousness of the author who narrates through the consciousness of a character, without direct judging or description by the author as an external authoritative intelligence To write like a nineteenth century novelist now would seem like a literary device In a novel the conflict between the representational and formal may appear as that between characters and plot A bad writer gives way to personal obsession, exalting some characters, demeaning others, without concern for truth or justice ie without a suitable aesthetic explanation In paraphrasing Ayer on the mind she refers to overt public conventions she defines as what govern the inward utterance of words which is all that thinking can properly consist of, as if all thinking is conscious and uses language The Turk didn t speak English nor I Turkish yet I stopped and turned to look back to see how far we d come down the slipway all the while fluently communicating without vocalising The slipway, of course, would be physical symbol of what we d been doing and I wouldn t have been thinking fluently communicating or vocalising ,likely talking and without speaking ie communicating without verbalising In that mode of communicating he asked if I wanted to go back to my friends, so interpreting my stopping and looking back No What I was unconsciously doing was raising a buoy to the surface so that on looking back I d see something there, look at itclosely and pull on the line, bringing memory after attached memory up into consciousness until I d realised the incident from unconscious memory I ve put it metaphorically At the time I realised we hadn t been actually talking, stopped and looked back, measuring how far we d come while communicating without using language I d avoided using the word realised before because it d convey consciousness and I d still be unconscious but perhaps nearing the interface of the unconscious with consciousness The young Turk probably got the gist at the time or later forgot it entirely because unconscious then The means to an end wouldn t interest him anyway I can t myself be that interested in a conscious thinking which excludes that of the unconscious and presumes therefore that all thinking is done linguistically, in English, French, Turkish or whatever Morality is pictured without any transcendent background because there are no metaphysical entities, though will is In our society we believe in judging a man by his conduct, she says He s not fully conscious of what he is The current view is his moral life is a series of overt choices and acts She holds it s not only his choices but his vision that constitutes his morality Marxists, Xians, Moslems believe we are immersed in a reality which transcends us and moral progress consists in awareness of this reality and submission to its purpose She defines Sartre s idea of consciousness, that it s for itself ie nothing although the source of all meaning Its nothingness is freedom that it has to realise in contention with things that exist in themselves and with other selves making an object, a thing, of it Sartre refuses to accept that emotion consciousness is aware of has a meaning of which it is unconscious It is that we are not reflectively aware of the configuration we have consciously framed to achieve the purpose of the emotion No wonder she thinks Sartre stupid If freedom founds all values why, she asks, ought she to will it for herself and others If it s to be defined in terms of what she chooses, does not that imply making a distinction between true and false values which can t be derived from free choice Sartre s man inhabits a universe which contains no transcendent objective truth Man is an emptiness between two inaccessible totalities, of an impenetrable world of objects and an unattainable world of intelligible being He wants to be a living transparent consciousness and simultaneously a stable opaque being, impossibly contradictory It s an aspiration to be god but no project satisfies him, all tending to fall dead into the region of the reified, thus all projects are equally vain a revient au meme de s enivrer solitairement ou de conduire les peuples Nothing from the outside confers sense on one s actions Bad faith, the illusion one can be something in a thinglike manner, comes from consciousness s wish to be in itself, rendering sincerity impossible Murdoch says Hampshire argues will is dependent on desires, some of which are dependent on beliefs, in turn dependent on thinking It s true mother and I could think ourselves into emotion but not I don t think into beliefs belief a form of thinking and on to will In any case, if from thinking, all this is to do with consciousness as if because one is aware of emotion it is attributable to consciousness, engendered by it It s only if an unconscious, trapped inside and only able to act through consciousness, is reinforcing conscious will that the latter has any emotional heft eg I had the intimation of a Greek looking over his shoulder at his unconscious, protesting he was heterosexual when she wanted him to take an interest in me He went along with it because any direction from within was also of his self and therefore acceptable I received this intimation from my man, my unconscious will, who put it pictorially to my inner eye I was imagining it Unconscious thinking uses the same ways as imagination It s an exercise of will The unconscious will comes first and puts on desire, love or emotion to make one focus and do what it wants, and it is transcendent Jim took me to Lawrence s trial at Richmond magistrates I cowered beside Jim until I realised Lawrence didn t know me I wanted nothing to do with him My man told me, It s your job Whereupon I wouldn t mind the odd buffet or two since I didn t see how I could treat him with policemen on either side restraining his arms My man assured me I wouldn t be hurt Jim brought a reluctant Lawrence to me after stealing booze from Marks Within twenty minutes Lawrence wanted me That desire would alter his will but it was my transcendent will preceded and brought that situation about Love, she says, is the imaginative recognition of ie respect for the otherness of an irreducibly dissimilar individual I d go further it s the acceptance of an alternative criterion for oneself always provided the other decides for one Goodness, she says Moore says, is a function of the will Mine is The psychopath s badness was a function of his in taking being good at menace as good though it hurt his soul and made for an unhappiness he didn t know how to mitigate She thinks goodness is connected to knowledge, a refined and honest perception of what is really the case That would be quite beyond the psychopath who was dim and drunk all the time so his unconscious might be out causing havoc It wasn t necessarily beyond me in dealing with his case He liked me because I wasn t afraid of him I am, I said, giving hostage to fortune The fear had to be suppressed for me to function, as I may also very well have told him Angst she would describe as a kind of fright which the conscious will feels when it apprehends the strength and direction of the personality not under its immediate control She actually believes the will is conscious and that s it Even if her unconscious will were acting on and through consciousness she wouldn t know it was but take it as conscious because conscious of it though not enough to know a difference in her willing when her unconscious will was engaged It may be when she attends properly and has no choices, the ultimate condition she aimed for Freedom s not having multiple possibilities of action the ideal situation is represented as a kind of necessity, that would be when there s only the one Good she thinks is indefinable because of the infinite difficulty of apprehending a magnetic and inexhaustible reality No magnetic good for the psychopath unless mine Good, not will, is transcendent, she emphasises, but then she only knows of conscious will which can t be As far as she can see there is no metaphysical unity in life which is subject to chance I have a metaphysical unity, that of my unconscious will, and if I do, so must you, from yours, like the psychopath had unhappily from his and, less unhappily, after I and mine had effected a correction to it Patently that metaphysical unity need not be good When true good is loved, the quality of love is refined, she says It wasn t my active unconscious will the psychopath loved but my receptive will, let s say my soul or that half of my soul, and his love was refined by love he wouldn t hit me in my room because I felt safe there and only lightly because he didn t think I could take too much What was most for his good was his irretrievable loss of me Steiner gives biographical details She exemplifies her philosophy not from life but art, a procedure she defends as valid She analyses Plato and her philosophy is summed up in her two Platonic dialogues Reading this involves patience and attention, which might be the whole point It s worth it, and don t expect to be super entertained for me, it was a brain workout.Telling a story and approaching a logical proof involve the same intention, I m going to make it impossible for you not to believe me And I m going to do it in a way that can transcend the usual barriers language, geography, time You get the sense that Murdoch was aware that her reader would be checking for logical flaws and u Reading this involves patience and attention, which might be the whole point It s worth it, and don t expect to be super entertained for me, it was a brain workout.Telling a story and approaching a logical proof involve the same intention, I m going to make it impossible for you not to believe me And I m going to do it in a way that can transcend the usual barriers language, geography, time You get the sense that Murdoch was aware that her reader would be checking for logical flaws and unnecessary ambiguity as a scientist would She takes it a step further and urges us to bring it into our personal interactions.In art, writing, or philosophy, we consent to be deceived we humor stories in hopes that short term relative deception will accomplish long term transcendent truth In this book, Murdoch declines to use this approach She is observational and follows logical patterns.Takeaways It s impractical to ignore life s mystery, and Murdoch urges us to curb our egos, But did I really decide To examine that question I examine the context of my announcement rather than its private core 13 Habitually remembering that our opinions are likely the result of our own personal histories humility, basically, check yourself before you wreck yourself is synonymous with living righteously Murdoch s approach to relationships is far less romantic than it is a scientific byproduct of our condition on earth Ex day to day, we all hope that nothing horrible will happen, but everywhere you look there s scattered evidence that it s happening all the time It s a precarious position We are constructed so as to think that we are central to the universe and permanent they ll die, but not me It s obviously not true and we know it, Murdoch seems to want us to constantly remember that it s so which makes sense, because we should all attempt to quickly and habitually go to higher ground Any sane person would want to, and the necessity is deeply fundamental.So in a tough spot, should we should resist or be compassionate When you work through it, I think it s the same If you are understanding somebody in a way that s enabling them to do evil things, you re not actually understanding them When we really consider that anything could happen to any loved one at any time, that we are so limited in our ability to love and therefore incredibly vulnerable, along with the notion that our egos and sense of being separate is actually delusional attentive patience will be the conclusion to any rigorous examination of our condition here i didn t always have the background to fully appreciate her points but i always felt enlivened by the arguments. Yet another book that I did not finish because it did not deliver what the title promised.The main focus on this book appears to be literature Philosophy seems to be the secondary purpose, and indeed it s almostabout what literature can teach us of philosophy.The problem is the title puts Philosophy first and I expected aphilosophy centric approach, which I did not get Indeed, the section titles were also misleading Towards a Practical Mysticism did no such thing. it took me about a year to get through these essays i really enjoyed her writing and philosphy what was a little difficult for me was the grouping of the essays i didn t get that i especially enjoyed the interview transcriptions, and the essays where she discussed the connection between literature and philosphy. Very accessible and lucid despite her erudition.I actually enjoyed thisthan her novels, which I sometimes feel i readfor the scenery.Extremely useful even if you know as little as I do about philosophy.
- 576 pages
- Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature
- Iris Murdoch
- 11 May 2017 Iris Murdoch