Influential women philosophers are as rare as hen's teeth. Or used to be. Things are changing now, in part because of Iris Murdoch's writings on moral philosophy and because of her fascination with the inner struggles with good and evil of reflective people, a recurring theme of her twenty six novels. Murdoch, living and writing in Oxford during most of her life, managed to resist the powerful influence of Oxford philosophers for whom there was simply no place in philosophy for talk of the emotions and imagination except as sources of interference with rational thought.
Anyone who has read her philosophy, or her novels, or who has read John Bayley's exquisite memoirs of their life together and his detailed descriptions of the savage effects on her mind of Alzheimer's disease, will appreciate the careful reconstruction of her life presented in Iris Murdoch: A Life by friend, editor of a book of her philosophical essays and author of a book on her novels, Peter Conradi. Conradi has amassed an astounding amount of detailed information about Iris from her journals and correspondence as well as from extensive correspondence with dozens of people: friends, colleagues, teachers, acquaintances, fellow students. I counted over 1600 footnotes to the twenty-two chapters that make up this remarkable study. The book includes a genealogical tree of her Irish family as well as an excellent bibliography. The book is nothing if not thorough.
So what do we learn about Iris from this impressive mass of pointillist detail? While her husband John Bayley wrote an elegy, this book is a eulogy for her high intelligence, her remarkable energy, her competence in everything she did, her moral seriousness, her charisma. People fell in love with her simply watching her walk to class, or seeing her ride by on her bicycle (as did John Bayley, who thought this is the person I will marry as she cycled past his window). Countless young men asked her to marry them. The philosopher David Pears remarked on her "luminous goodness Ó. when she came into a room, you felt better." As a woman and philosopher myself, long daunted by the 'dryness' and 'coldness' of Anglo-American philosophy, grateful to Murdoch for her writing on moral philosophy, for her reintroduction of the inner life of the soul into this arid discipline, her insight into the messiness of our attempts to discern the good under the pressures of the 'fat relentless ego', I read the book with fascination and envy. What would it be like to be able to resist the powerful norms of Oxford philosophy and say what you think and make a dent on subsequent thinking about moral life? What would it be like to live such a charmed life, to inspire passion without having to even bother combing one's hair? To be, as Murdoch was, cherished in elementary school, head girl in high school, an impressive student at Oxford, Dame of the Empire and have one's portrait included in the National Gallery?
But of course things are never so simple. Iris struggled for years within various complicated love relationships: One was carried on by correspondence for almost four years with fellow student, the heroic poet-soldier Frank Thompson; some were with powerful, sadistic intellectual men like Elias Canetti; sometimes she had affairs with two or more people simultaneously, and generally she tended to suffer acutely from what she once referred to as 'this love business'. She became 'demented with grief' over the death of Franz Steiner, the cause of terrible sadness in those hopelessly in love with her, and finally was forced to resign from St Ann's College, where she taught philosophy, as a result of a passionate lesbian affair. Things settled down considerably, but not completely, when she married the very gentle John Bayley at the age of thirty-seven.
I used to look forward each year to her latest novel. I read each one avidly. Eventually, however, I tired of the emotional chaos engendered by the complicated, sometimes destructive erotic attachments and obsessions of her characters. But now as I reread these texts, I find it illuminating to see the pointlessness of such turmoil. I'm now more appreciative of the descriptions in these books of the few characters who, free of emotional self-obsession, live very much in the present moment, free of the anxieties of attachment, capable of generous giving. Characters such as Jackson, (in Jackson's Dilemma, her last novel, written just in the nick of time, as Alzheimer's disease began its cruel encroachment on her memory), are luminous humble people, almost nondescript, who have an uncanny way of loosening the knots that paralyze the other characters and of bringing a sense of lightness to situations. Good fiction and sound moral philosophy remind us of these possibilities. We need reminders. It is through such fictional characters that we are able to think more clearly about moral possibilities. Detailed models of people getting it right, or getting it wrong are necessary to give substance to moral philosophy.
One of my colleagues remarked, when he heard I was writing this review, that, like books on Marx which are only appreciated by Marxists, a book on Iris Murdoch would probably only interest those already taken with her novels or her philosophy. Not so. This is the story of the life of an intellectual woman intensely engaged with the best writers, thinkers and artists of the time. Engaged in an attempt to see clearly and to act responsibly during a time of terrible political turmoil. Born in 1919 she lived through the events leading up to and following World War II as a young student. She was, like many idealistic intellectuals of the time, a deeply committed member of the Communist Party until the hopes she and her friends had for Russia were obliterated by revelations of what really went on during Stalin's reign of terror. Today, many of us feel a similar sense of dismay as we watch the erosion of democracy in countries around the world and witness atrocities that many fear cannot be contained or resolved.
Murdoch did not address larger political questions in her writing, confining her focus to the struggles within the individual¨the internal sources of evil and chaos, and those sparked by immediate personal relationships¨and to ways in which such struggles can be resolved. But this kind of moral guidance for the self assists with formulating broader, socially-relevant moral prescripts. The idea of the moral imagination is key. This is not something esoteric. It is simple. To quote Murdoch, "Anyone can try to imagine someone else's plight." "We can all receive moral help by focusing our attention upon things which are valuable: virtuous people, great art, perhaps the idea of goodness itself." Moral life is less a matter of making specific choices, A vs B, more a matter of cultivating the quality of our attention. Less a matter of will, more a matter of vision. "Our ability to act well 'when the time comes' depends partly, perhaps largely, upon the quality of our habitual acts of attention."
Is this nanve aestheticism? Denial? Or clichTd 'positive thinking'? No. The main theme in her novels and her philosophical writing is the importance of recognizing and resisting escape, fantasy, avoidance. In her short essay entitled 'Void', in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, we read of the enormous fragility of human beings. Anyone can be destroyed. There is nothing that cannot be broken or taken away from us. The only thing we can do vis a vis the void, the emptiness, the losses, the evil acts of others, is to avoid denial, mechanical thinking, "to live close to the painful reality and try to relate it to what is good." "We have a natural impulse to derealise our world and surround ourselves with fantasy. Simply stopping this Ó is progress."
Conradi's book provides the rich detailed description of a person striving to live this philosophy. It is more richly textured than any novel, based, as it is, on such enormous documentation and on a cherished friendship with Iris and John. As Sabina Lovibond puts it in her recent book Ethical Formation, moral life is not captured by codes of conduct. "The uncodifiability of what is apparent to the morally exemplary person is offset Ó.by real-life material from which the spirit of their thinking can be reconstructed." ˛