For Murdoch, the most crucial moral virtue was a kind of attentiveness to detail, a wise, trained capacity for vision, which could see what was really going on in a situation and respond accordingly. The sort of psychological insight and attentiveness to detail necessary for writing fiction was also, for Murdoch, what enables a person to live a morally good life. ‘It is obvious here,’ she wrote, ‘what is the role, for the artist or spectator, of exactness and good vision:
unsentimental, detached, unselfish, objective attention.
It is also clear that in moral situations a similar exactness is called for.’
For Murdoch, what so often keeps us from acting morally is not that we fail to follow the moral rules that tell us how to act; rather, it is that we misunderstand the situation before us.[…] As [Jonathan] Dancy once described it, to give one’s justifications for responding in a certain way
‘is just to lay out how one sees the situation…The persuasiveness here is the persuasiveness of narrative: an internal coherence in the account which compels assent. We succeed in our aim when our story sounds right.’
Murdoch the novelist would have approved.
From Godless yet good, a piece on secular ethics by Troy Jollimore in Aeon Magazine.
February 9, 1999OBITUARY
Iris Murdoch, Novelist and Philosopher, Is Dead
By RICHARD NICHOLLS
Iris Murdoch, a prodigiously inventive and idiosyncratic British writer whose 26 novels offered lively plots, complex characters and intellectual speculation, died yesterday at a nursing home in Oxford, England. She was 79 and had Alzheimer's disease.
Her struggle with Alzheimer's was documented recently in ''Elegy for Iris,'' a memoir by her husband, the critic and novelist John Bayley, who was at her bedside when she died.
Miss Murdoch's first novel was published in 1954 and in a career that lasted for more than four decades, her fiction received many honors, including the Booker Prize for ''The Sea, the Sea,'' the Whitbread Literary Award for Fiction for ''The Sacred and Profane Love Machine'' and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for ''The Black Prince.'' Although she was made a Dame of the British Empire, she rarely garnered the attention given to gaudier contemporaries. She spent much of her career quietly teaching and writing, away from lecture tours, prize committees and television appearances.
Along with novels, she produced a half a dozen works on philosophy, several plays, critical writing on literature and modern ideas and poetry.
Miss Murdoch had a background in philosophy -- she knew and wrote about Jean-Paul Sartre, studied with Ludwig Wittgenstein and was a lecturer in philosophy at Oxford University -- and her fiction grappled with such questions as the nature of good and evil. This led many who knew her work superficially to assume that her novels were philosophical explorations of the origins of morality and behavior and too esoteric or intellectually rigorous for a general audience.
In fact, many of Miss Murdoch's novels are exuberantly melodramatic, offering bemused records of romantic or erotic follies, as well as more somber battles between individuals representing moral good and its opposite. Her characters, drawn largely from the middle class, are described with loving exactitude and in such depth that their struggles to define what it means to live a good life take on dramatic force.In Books, Happiness And Moral Lessons
Far from viewing fiction as another and lesser way of dealing with philosophical questions, Miss Murdoch argued that literature was meant ''to be grasped by enjoyment,'' and that the art of the tale was ''a fundamental form of thought'' in its own right. The ideal reader, she told one interviewer, was ''someone who likes a jolly good yarn and enjoys thinking about the book as well, about the moral issues.'' In another interview she went further, asserting that good art offers ''uncontaminated'' happiness that also teaches ''how to look at the world and to understand it; it makes everything far more interesting.''
Her belief in literature had its inception in her happy and book-filled childhood. Jean Iris Murdoch was born in Dublin on July 15, 1919, the only child of British and Irish parents. When she was a year old her family moved to London, where her father, Wills John Hughes Murdoch, joined the civil service. In interviews she remembered that as a child she had existed ''in a perfect trinity of love.'' Her mother, the former Irene Alice Richardson, who had trained as an opera singer, was a ''beautiful, lively, witty woman with a happy temperament.''
Her father began discussing books with her early on and encouraged her to read widely. She progressed rapidly from Lewis Carroll (one of her favorites) and Robert Louis Stevenson to more adult fare. Her great pleasure in reading, and her early attempts to write stories led to the conviction, which she formed as a child, that she would become a writer.
She attended boarding school in Bristol, and in 1938 entered Somerville College, a women's college at Oxford, where she studied the classics, ancient history and philosophy. She graduated with honors in 1942 and immediately took a job with the Treasury. In 1944 she began working for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, which helped Europeans displaced by World War II. The somber experiences of the war had a profound impact on her thinking. Close friends died while in service, and her work, often on the front lines, with poor and elderly refugees was hard but instructive.
If her childhood had been mostly idyllic, there was, she later noted, at least one shadow falling across her memories of those years: her family members were largely ''wanderers,'' cut off from their Irish relations and their roots. Working with refugees led her to reflect further on the place of the exile in modern society, as well as on the sources of evil, raising questions that she would pursue in many novels.
After leaving the United Nations, Miss Murdoch took up further study in philosophy at Cambridge University, where she worked with Wittgenstein. While she expressed no lasting allegiance to his school of thought, she said her studies with him spurred her development as a writer.
In 1948 she became a fellow and tutor at St. Anne's College at Oxford, where she remained for 15 years as a lecturer in philosophy. It was a particularly heady time for anyone concerned with the study and application of philosophical thought; new schools of philosophy were contending for primacy and often combative works were being produced to define these emerging disciplines.
Miss Murdoch had met Sartre, the most visible proponent of existentialism, while working with refugees in Belgium. Existentialism, with its focus on individual will, appealed to her, but she found its emphasis on the primacy of the self disturbing. Her first published work, ''Sartre: Romantic Rationalist'' (1953), was a serious, clear explanation of existentialism and its place in contemporary thought. While it was balanced, it was not uncritical: Miss Murdoch felt that existentialism encouraged an almost hermetic focus on the self, ignoring the corrosive implications of such a perspective on society.
Her study paid special attention to Sartre's fiction. She had already written and discarded several novels, but now she had become absorbed with how fiction expressed ideas and the ways fiction and ideas could best be blended. ''Under the Net,'' her first published novel, appeared to generally positive reviews. It focused on the picaresque adventures of a free-spirited Irishman making the rounds of some of the more raffish areas of London and Paris. A reviewer in The Times Literary Supplement said the work seemed to announce the emergence of ''a brilliant talent.''
The novel signaled the beginning of an industrious and prolific career. Miss Murdoch published, on average, a novel every two years for the next four decades. Her work, while varied in setting and tone, rarely moved far from several central preoccupations and themes.
She first encountered existentialist writings while working with refugees, and she drew deeply from her fascination with those experiences in her second novel, ''Flight From the Enchanter'' (1956). It concerns the well-intentioned, conventionally liberal Rose Keep, who attempts to offer solace to two Polish brothers, refugees from the war. Her efforts founder because she cannot see the brothers as something more than symbols of displaced, wounded humanity.Revisiting Themes Of Pure Love
The double-edged nature of love figures often in Miss Murdoch's fiction. True love, she asserted in the essay ''The Sublime and the Good,'' was perhaps the best way to overcome isolation and the absorption with one's crippled and constricted self. ''Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real,'' she argued.
Many of the figures in her fourth novel, ''The Bell'' (1958), are crippled by their inability to clearly see, and thus to truly love, those around them. ''The Bell'' reached a new level of sophistication for Miss Murdoch, displaying elements that would become hallmarks of her fiction: effortless shifting between the grim and the humorous; deft marshaling of a large, varied cast of characters and numerous subplots, and creation of fables or myths that could suggest the struggle between true and diminished forms of love.
In many of Miss Murdoch's novels, romantic disasters, suicides and even murder are set in motion by a character who is brilliant and ferociously self-absorbed. Such figures, usually men, often go beyond egotism into evil.
In ''A Fairly Honorable Defeat'' (1970), a biologist who helps create biological weapons sets out to destroy those around him. But goodness, Miss Murdoch suggests, while imperiled, is also resilient.
In ''The Sacred and Profane Love Machine'' (1974), the only character who comes close to true altruism is destroyed. But the novel suggests that her death may have opened the hearts of those around her to a better, more responsible life.
''The Sea, the Sea'' (1978), which received the Booker Prize, is considered one of Miss Murdoch's best novels. Its protagonist, a retired theatrical director trying to win back his first love, is not so much evil as simply self-absorbed and dangerously certain of his limited view of the world. ''A Severed Head'' (1961) was a black farce about infidelity, incest and violence.Storytelling And Large Truths
Miss Murdoch was always balancing the demands of storytelling with the more urgent need to examine how the truth of a fleeting life reflected the larger, permanent truths of existence.
''The Red and the Green'' charts the fates of two friends who find themselves on opposite sides during Ireland's 1916 Easter rebellion against British rule.
''The Nice and the Good'' follows the efforts of a decent man to uncover the reasons for a colleague's suicide and extricate himself from the seamy web of blackmail and the occult that he uncovers.
''Italian Girl'' traces the struggle of a young man to liberate himself from the corrosive effects of family secrets and a shallow, destructive image of love.
The tension generated by this iconoclastic approach to fiction has made Murdoch's novels unique and controversial. Her fiction takes a distinctive vigor and texture from its combination of the usual elements of a tale with a sustained, sophisticated inquiry into such concepts as the defining characteristics of goodness, the nature of morality, the place of faith in everyday life and the conflict between spiritual and carnal love.
When most other writers were content to dwell on the heated specifics of individual lives or to simply offer a catalogue of society's ills, Miss Murdoch dared to suggest that fiction should be a means of dealing with life's largest and most basic issues and a way to learn about moral behavior.
This quest ''for a passion beyond any center of self,'' as David Bromwich wrote in The New York Times Book Review, made her fiction unlike that of any other contemporary Western writer. It also let her in for both considerable acclaim and criticism. Harold Bloom, while praising her ''formidable combination of intellectual drive and storytelling exuberance'' in a review of her novel ''The Good Apprentice'' in The Times, and noting her ''mastery'' in ''representing the maelstrom of falling in love,'' also found that her narrative voice often lacked authority, ''being too qualified and fussy.''
Anthony Burgess, while noting the highly original ''synthesis of the traditional and revolutionary'' in her work and praising her talent for creating stories that were ''both thoroughly realistic yet at the same time loaded with symbols,'' also argued in his 1967 book ''The Novel Now'' that her characters were too often ''caught up in a purely intellectual pattern.'' In a memorable phrase, he contended that, while Miss Murdoch had a rare ability ''to dredge that world of the strange and mysterious'' that rested ''on the boundary of the ordinary,'' her work rarely offered a convincing portrait of the more common realms of life.
In a body of work so large, both admirers and critics were bound to find material to advance their arguments, and this was true as well in her later novels, such as ''The Message to the Planet'' (1989) and ''The Green Knight'' (1994).
But neither criticism nor praise seemed much to affect her. She said that she never read her reviews. She rarely read modern writers, preferring the British and European novelists of the 19th century (Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Henry James, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky), with whom she felt an affinity, describing them as ''moralistic writers who portray the complexity of morality and the difficulty of being good.''
She lived for many years in the small village of Steeple Aston, near Oxford, in a house crowded with books and paintings. The quiet life there, and in the house in Oxford to which she moved in 1986, has been described memorably by her husband, an Oxford don, in ''Elegy for Iris,'' his memoir of their lives together.
John Bayley fell in love with Iris Murdoch when he was in his late 20's and she was in her early 30's; she passed his window on a bicycle. ''I indulged the momentary fantasy that nothing had ever happened to her; that she was simply bicycling about, waiting for me to arrive,'' he wrote. ''She was not a woman with a past or an unknown present.'' They were married in 1956; he is her only close survivor.
The novelist Mary Gordon, reviewing ''Elegy for Iris'' in The Times, touched on their relationship. ''Radical privacy, sealing compartments of her life off from each other, was always a condition of Iris Murdoch's selfhood, and anyone who married her had to deal with that. From the beginning, she had friendships that she kept from Bayley, and love affairs that he was meant to understand had nothing to do with him. There are some hints that this was not always easy, but Bayley rose to the challenge.'' Ms. Gordon then quotes Mr. Bayley's memoir: ''In early days, I always thought it would be vulgar -- as well as not my place -- to give any indications of jealousy, but she knew when it was there, and she soothed it just by being the self she always was with me, which I soon knew to be wholly and entirely different from any way that she was with other people.''Slipping Into A Baffling Darkness
In 1995 Miss Murdoch told an interviewer that she was experiencing severe writer's block, noting that the struggle to write had left her in ''a hard, dark place.'' In 1996, Mr. Bayley announced that she had Alzheimer's disease, which she had suffered for five years by the time she died. Her final three weeks were spent in a nursing home. If ''Elegy for Iris'' offers a moving evocation of a great love story, it also provides a grim record of watching the personality of a loved one gradually dwindle under the burden of fear, bafflement and grief.
She was, Miss Murdoch confided to one of her friends, ''sailing into the darkness.'' Mr. Bayley's descriptions of his struggle to understand his wife's suffering, to find ways to ameliorate it and to come to grips with the physical demands of his new responsibilities and to understand the conflicting emotions aroused in him by the experience are exact, penetrating and unsparing. Miss Murdoch became like ''a very nice 3-year-old,'' her husband said, and she needed to be fed, bathed and changed.
The note on which the book concludes, however, is one of reconciliation, and of a painfully won serenity. ''Every day,'' Mr. Bayley wrote of their lives together in Miss Murdoch's last years, ''we are physically closer. . . . She is not sailing into the dark. The voyage is over, and under the dark escort of Alzheimer's, she has arrived somewhere. So have I.''