Sunday, September 7, 2008

Iris Murdoch: Writer and Philosopher

By Kuldip Dhiman

A tribute to Iris Murdoch, one of the leading philosophers and writers of the second half of the present century, who died on February 8, 1999, in Oxford. As well as writing books on philosophy, she wrote 26 highly acclaimed novels. She won the Booker Prize for her novel The Sea, The Sea in 1978.

IN the male dominated world of philosophy, Iris Murdoch carved out a niche for herself. She was a pioneer of existentialist thought in Britain at a time when analytic and linguistic philosophy were in vogue in British universities.

Born on July 15, 1919, in Dublin of Anglo-Irish parents, Dame Iris Murdoch spent her early childhood in London where she attended the Froebel Educational Institute. Later she went to Badminton School, Bristol. From 1938 to 1942 she studied Classical Mods and Greats at Somerville College, Oxford. She worked for the British Treasury until 1944, and then for two years as administrative officer with the United Nations Rehabilitation Administration; a job that took her to Belgium and Austria. She held the Sarah Smithson Studentship in philosophy at Newnham College, Cambridge for a year, and she returned to Oxford in 1948 as fellow of St. Anne's College. She would remain there as Fellow and Tutor in philosophy until 1963.

Her first published work was Sartre — Romantic Rationalist which appeared in 1953. Quite early she realised the possibilities of using fiction in order to put forward her views. She believed that the message was more likely to reach the masses that way.

"The novelist proper is, in his way, a sort of phenomenologist. He has always implicitly understood what the philosopher has grasped less clearly: that human reason is not a single unitary gadget the nature of which could be discovered once for all."

Murdoch's first novel Under the Net appeared in 1954, followed by The Flight from the Enchanter in 1955. Her other major novels are The Sandcastle, The Bell, An Unofficial Rose, The Unicorn. She won the Tait Black Memorial Prize for her novel The Black Prince (1973). Her novel The Sacred and Profane Love Machine fetched her the Whitbread Prize in 1974, and she won the coveted Booker Prize in 1978 for The Sea, The Sea. Until she got afflicted with the Alzheimer's disease five years ago, she turned out, on an average, one book a year.

Iris Murdoch's novel The Bell is about the trials and misadventures of an eccentric religious community in Gloucester-shire. "The book has the dense poetic texture," one critic observed, "fanciful originality and visual splendour which we associate with the work of Miss Murdoch. It is essentially a study of two

opposing types of moral and religious conviction". In An Unofficial Rose Murdoch introduced nine major characters, each of whom is looking for love and 'so closely is the web woven that the actions and passions of each are constantly affecting each other'.

Commenting on lris Murdoch's novels, Dr Satya

P. Gautam of Panjab University says, "She explored the existential possibilities of human condition through her fiction. Her novels were not merely narratives of complex situations in which human beings find themselves, but also a perceptive analysis for philosophical insights regarding dilemmas and paradoxes that arise in

everyday life. The central theme of her fiction reflects knowledge of other minds, self-deception, self-knowledge, interpersonal relations, and the role of feelings such as revenge, jealousy, love and anguish."

Although philosophy and literature try to understand the problems of life, Iris Murdoch believed there was a subtle difference in their approach. In a discussion with philosopher Bryan Magee, she once said: "Philosophy aims to clarify and to explain, it states and attempts to solve very difficult highly technical problems, and the writing must be subservient to this aim. One might say that bad philosophy is not philosophy, whereas bad art is still art. There are

all sorts of ways in which we tend to forgive literature, but we do not forgive philosophy.... Literature entertains, it does many things, and philosophy does one thing... Philosophical writing is not self-expression, it involves a disciplined removal of the personal voice... The Literary

writer deliberately leaves a space for his readers to play in. The philosopher must not leave any space."

Though they are different in certain ways, both philosophy and literature are truth-seeking and truth-telling activities: they are cognitive activities, explanations. Murdoch did not believe that the artist has a duty to society. His duty is to art, 'to truth-telling in his own medium', his duty is to try to do his best, and to produce his work with conviction, otherwise it becomes

mere propaganda. "A good society contains many different artists doing many different things; a bad society coerces artists because it knows that they can reveal all kinds of truths..." The great artist sees the vast interesting collection of what is other than himself and does not picture the world as his own image. I think this particular kind of merciful objectivity is virtue, and it is this which totalitarian state is trying to destroy when it persecutes art."

Although literature has philosophical elements in it, the writer must not let the philosophical voice become too strong. "I am not sure how far Sartre's plays are, or are not, damaged by having strong theoretical motives. Certainly one sees from Sartre's other novels, and novels of Simon de Beavoir, and I admire all these, as soon as the 'existentialist voice' is switched on, the work of art rigidifies. In general, I am reluctant to say that the deep structure of any good literary work could be a philosophical one.... Think how much original thought there is in Shakespeare and how divinely inconspicuous it is."

Iris Murdoch was made an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1975. The British government awarded her the CBE in 1976. She died of Alzheimer's disease at Vale House, Oxford, at the age of 79. Her husband John Bayley, was at her bedside when the end came. For more that forty years he had shared the ups and downs of life with her. Last year, he drew a very poignant picture of his ailing wife in Iris A memoir of Iris Murdoch. He has to get along with his life without the woman who was his friend, philosopher and wife.

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