IN DAME Iris Murdoch’s front garden, snowdrops and crocuses poked their heads into the misty drizzle that hung about the dreaming spires. Still pretty at 73, her face is alive with thoughtfulness. “Yes,” she said, “I’m always writing a novel.” This from a writer who has produced 24 novels, beginning with Under the Net — “an existential, picaresque squib” — in 1954, and including the Booker prizewinner The Sea, The Sea in 1978.
In her study there are books everywhere, even on the shelves; shoals of correspondence; and a well- stocked drinks tray. “Have you read A. N. Wilson’s Jesus?” she asked. “It’s splendidly critical.”
Iris Murdoch was born in Dublin in 1919, of Anglo-Irish parents — “Protestant, of course” — but was brought up in London and educated in Bristol. At Somerville College, Oxford, she took a first in Greats. It was wartime and, after graduation, she followed her father into the Civil Service, where she worked as a temporary officer in the Treasury.
When the war ended she went to Belgium and then Austria, where she worked in a camp for displaced persons. A studentship in philosophy at Newnham College, Cambridge, followed; and in 1948 Dame Iris was elected to a Fellowship at St Anne’s College, Oxford, a post which she has held ever since. In 1956 she married John Bayley, now Wharton Professor of English Literature.
After, or rather along with, all those novels, Dame Iris published towards the end of last year and to wide acclaim her long-promised tome Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. Is there a governing idea to this book?
“Yes, not God but the idea of God. And the sovereignty of good. I can’t believe in a personal God or in the incarnation, but I do believe in the essence of Christianity and in Jesus Christ as an unparalleled teacher and example of goodness.”
She is modern in so far as she accepts the manifesto of the biblical critics and the world view which cannot find a place for the supernatural. This does not mean that she has no belief in transcendence. Goodness, in Dame Iris’s vocabulary, must always be written with Plato’s initial capitals.
“I want to use Plato’s images as a sort of Ontological Proof of the necessity of Good, or rather — since Plato himself has already done this — to put his argument into a modern context as a background to moral philosophy, as a bridge between morals and religion, and as relevant to our new disturbed understanding of religious truth.”
She believes that much of moral philosophy of the 20th century has been shallow, reductive, and unhelpful, particularly the emotivism of the logical positivists such as A. J. Ayer (whom she knew well), which declared that moral statements are only a declaration of personal feelings. “But”, she said, “moral philosophy is much richer now. R. M. Hare got us out of the emotivist dead-end, and Oxford philosophers like Philippa Foot are reading and writing about Aquinas.”
The post-critical attitude to theism and revealed religion does not extend to metaphysics. Here, Dame Iris holds firmly to the belief in the interrelatedness and mutual interdependence of Goodness, Beauty, and Truth. Once again, the capital letters are obligatory, and the moralist sits down surrounded by echoes not just of Plato but of Kant and Keats: our Duty is to follow Truth, which we will discover as the Good and the Beautiful.
“This is not without its problems — epistemological, ethical, and aesthetic. Nietzsche, for instance. He was very destructive, and a lot of what he wrote is not true. But much of it is beautiful.”
A novelist must be a practical philosopher engaged with the world of experience. Here, Dame Iris affirms her pessimism. “There is so much evil, so many evil influences on young people today. Television and its violent images. . . We don’t have television. And we are all divided creatures who must perhaps hope, at best, to control, not remove, our evil impulses. There is no harmonious balance whereby we suddenly find that evil is just a dark side which actually enhances good. Good and evil are irreconcilable enemies, and they are condemned to everlasting war.
“On the other hand, the vision of perfection which condemns evil as evil is never absent; we live with the real possibility of moral improvement. This is true for everyone. Schopenhauer — even Schopenhauer, you know — said that everyone has the element of compassion in him.
“But we live in evil times. The truths of religion and its essence can be forgotten. That’s a terrifying thought. A lot of people don’t know anything about religion, and that puts them in great danger.”
THE lady philosopher who believes in the idea of God also believes in the idea of women’s ordination: she was a member of MOW. “Oh, yes, it’s more than a question of justice for women. It is simply something which ought to be. I don’t like all this talk about women bringing their femininity or womanly qualities to the priesthood. To look at their femininity in that way is only a refined form of saying that, of course, they’re very good at washing up or making jam. Women may be priests, now. What they will exercise is not their femininity but their priesthood.”
She has this strong persuasion that thinking about ethics is a moral good in itself. She expresses it with a sort of moral vehemence: “There are a lot of good people in Oxford.”
The donnish mannerisms are all there: the recurrence of “perhaps” and “it may even be”, the clipped tones, the finished sentences. The impression is of Bloomsbury reincarnated, of philosophy as something exquisite and fascinating — the ghosts of Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf feeling an ethical intuition coming on.
She has met the big names and numbered many of them among her friends: Russell, Ryle, Ayer. Speaking of Wittgenstein, she said that she thought the Tractatus “a very dotty book”. And, “I did talk to him just after the war before he left Cambridge. I was bowled over by his Philosophical Investigations, but then I developed a distaste for much of his latter philosophy.”
Writing novels is a daily discipline. Illuminating as her big book on ethics is, this is where her vocation finds fulfilment. The novels are realistic: they incarnate her philosophy, obliging the world of Platonic forms to inhabit the real world, which, beside the Good, contains the bad and the ugly.
She bends her vigorously eclectic mind to this obligation. “There are things which you actually discover. For instance: that we live in a fantasy world, a world of illusion. The great task in life is to find reality; but anything that consoles is fake. Love, yes. Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.”
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Iris Murdoch will be the subject of the final part of our series on Anglican women novelists, published on Friday (19 July).