Thursday, July 15, 2010

Iris Murdoch

All art is a struggle to be, in a particular sort of way, virtuous.
- Iris Murdoch

On this day in 1919, the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch was born in Dublin. British writer, university lecturer and prolific and highly professional novelist, Iris Murdoch dealt with everyday ethical or moral issues, sometimes in the light of myths. As a writer, she was a perfectionist who did not allow editors to change her text. Murdoch produced 26 novels in 40 years.

"She wanted, through her novels, to reach all possible readers, in different ways and by different means: by the excitement of her story, its pace and its comedy, through its ideas and its philosophical implications, through the numinous atmosphere of her own original and created world--the world she must have glimpsed as she considered and planned her first steps in the art of fiction." (John Bailey in Elegy for Iris, 1998)

In 1948 she was elected a fellow of St. Anne's College, Oxford, where she worked as a tutor until 1963. Following that time, Murdoch devoted herself entirely to writing. Between the years 1963 and 1967 she also lectured at the Royal College of Art.
Murdoch's first published work, SARTRE, ROMANTIC RATIONALIST (1953), was a critical study. She had met Sartre in the 1940s, becoming interested in existentialism. Murdoch made her debut as a novelist with UNDER THE NET (1954), which had as its protagonist the Sartrean hero Jack Donaghue, but also suggested a familiarity with modern British philosophy. A SEVERED HEAD (1961) exploited Jungian theories of archetypes. A Severed Head analyzes Freud's theories about male sexuality and desire, and particularly the fear of castration. THE BELL (1958) is among Murdoch's most successful novels. It depcts an Anglican religious community in Gloucestershire. The events focus on the replacement bell to be hung in an abbey tower. Finally the difficulties of the task culminate in an effort to move the bell along a causeway to the gates of the nunnery - the bell suddenly falls into the water and sinks without a trace. The story was later televised.

Often, Murdoch used fantasy and gothic elements, but her characters were realistically portrayed in their attempts to find meaning to their lives in extraordinary situations. In the 1950s, Murdoch wrote, "We live in a scientific and anti-metaphysical age, in which the dogmas, images, and precepts of religion have lost much of their power," and we have been left with "far too shallow and flimsy an idea of human personality." Many of her novels have a religious or philosophical theme, but she avoided clear political statements. "As I said, I do not think that the artist, qua artist, has a duty to society. A citizen has a duty to society, and a writer might sometimes feel he ought to write persuasive newspaper articles or pamphlets, but this would be a different activity. The artist's duty is to art, to truth-telling in his own medium, the writer's duty is to produce the best literary work of which he is capable, and he must find out how this can be done." (from Existentialists and Mystics, Peter Conradi, Ed., 1997) In THE TIME OF THE ANGELS (1965) the protagonist is Carel Fisher, an eccentric Anglican priest in an inner-city parish, who engages in devil worship. His daughter Muriel finds out that his niece Elizabeth is his illegitimate daughter, and lets him die following an overdose of sleeping pills. "Those with whom the angels communicate are lost," says one of the characters.

In the experimental novel THE BLACK PRINCE (1973) the narrator is a self-conscious writer, Bradley Pearson. He is obsessed by perfection and sees the artistic calling as "a doom," a Last Judgment. A passionate love awakens his Black Eros, a source of love and art, and he lands in jail for a crime he did not commit. "Can there be a natural, as it were Shakespearean, felicity in the moral life?" he asks. THE GOOD APPRENTICE (1985) was an allegory of the battle between good and evil, focusing on the protagonist's suffering. Stuart Cuno has decided to become good, and his methods include celibacy, chastity and the abandonment of a promising academic career. Stuart's stepbrother Edward Baltram is tormented by guilt because he has, he believes, killed his best friend. Stuart goes to rescue Edward from his 'journey to the underworld' and causes a final catastrophic clash of forces. Murdoch's major work is considered THE SEA, THE SEA, which won the Booker Prize in 1978. The narrator, Charles Arrowby, is a tyrannical director-playwright who, after 40 years, again makes contact with his worn-out childhood sweetheart, bullies her without being able to change, and then starts an affair with an equally monstrous 18-year-old girl. My personal favorite of her novels is A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970), in part because it was my introduction to her writing. In recent years The Black Prince, due to its' themes and style has also become a favorite of mine.

She died in Oxford on February 8, 1999. In his memoir Elegy for Iris John Bayley portrays his brilliant wife lovingly but unsentimentally. "She was a superior being, and I knew that superior beings just did not have the kind of mind that I had." Murdoch's benevolent personality was not broken by her disease. In Iris and Her Friends: A Memoir of Memory and Desire (1999) Bayley continued his examination of his long romance. Richard Eyre's film Iris (2001), starring Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, and Kate Winslet, was based on Bayley's Elegy fo Iris.

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