Why Iris Murdoch Matters review: A compact scholarly work
Gary Browning tries to explain the mechanics of Murdoch’s ability to bewitch readers
Iris Murdoch, novelist, playwright and philosopher. Photograph: Getty
Why Iris Murdoch Matters
I first read Iris Murdoch’s writing in 1999, shortly after her death and the Penguin reprint of her Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sea, the Sea (with its wonderful introduction by John Burnside). I followed this reading with her early novels – Under the Net, Flight of the Enchanter and later The Bell, and over the years have worked my way through many, though not all, of her 27 novels. I would often wonder what it was Murdoch was doing to me as a reader to both enchant and excite me so much. It was hard to determine. For Murdoch does not write dramatic novels. Her books are not about voice nor are they overly concerned with form, and they are devoid of sentiment. Besides their trademark intelligence and brilliant prose, there is some other quality that over time I began to sense was deeply rooted in her philosophy.
Gary Browning’s new book, which forms part of the “Why Philosophy Matters” series, is a compact scholarly work which goes some way to explain the mechanics of Murdoch’s ability to bewitch readers – due, of course, to her dazzling literary style but also, as Browning confirms, to her moral philosophy, which is rooted in Plato and the European philosophers she came to admire while at Oxford and Cambridge, namely Sartre and Simone Weil.
Though Murdoch denied her novels were philosophical pieces, her characters frequently find themselves in moral dilemmas (in Flight of the Enchanter, Rosa becomes mistress to two brothers; in The Bell, Dora must make a vital decision on her marriage, etc), and it is via Murdoch’s metaphysics that she works these dilemmas out. As Browning explains, while her philosopher peers at Oxford and later Cambridge were drawn to modern philosophy, and were concerned with matters to do with human choice and individual freedom, Murdoch was more interested in the Platonic idea of goodness, what makes a good person, what is virtue, etc.
In this new work, which draws on much unpublished material and letters (to Brigid Brophy, Raymond Queneau and others), Browning, who is professor of politics at Oxford Brookes University, sets out to make the case for Murdoch’s place among the key theorists of the modern age, why she matters, etc. One might argue that her novels should surely be enough to warrant this distinction, but to be presented here with further, detailed evidence of her process and preoccupations, drawn chiefly from her metaphysical theorising, adds much to an understanding of her novels.
Browning divides each of the seven chapters of his thesis into an introduction, several sub-headings and a conclusion. The conclusion acts as an important means to assimilate and reaffirm often quite difficult scholarly information.
In Chapter One, “Murdoch and Lived Experience”, Browning lays out his goals for his book, which include to “attend to the critical and dialectical way in which Murdoch integrates forms of thought and action” and to explain how Murdoch, who claimed to have “a mind on the borders of philosophy, literature and politics”, integrates these three elements in her work.
In “Murdoch and Metaphysics” (Chapter Two) Browning notes that Murdoch went “where the honey was”, and this she found primarily in Plato, Sartre, Heidegger and Hegel. In her theorising Murdoch sets out a: “Metaphysics in and for a modern world that she diagnoses to have lost touch with large scale, ordering beliefs in religion, morality, politics, arts and philosophy. Her metaphysics charts this loss and looks to redeem the situation by connecting forms of experience with the world as a whole.”
Browning alerts us to Murdoch’s strong sense of writing in a demythologised postwar age that was keenly aware of what it had lost. Here, I’m reminded of the striking image of the sunken convent bell in The Bell. In light of Murdoch’s looking to “redeem the situation”, the presence of this image in the novel increases in meaning. The submerged bell is not just there for its haunting beauty; it represents the lost “myth” of the contemporary era, something we can no longer hear etc.
In “Murdoch and the Political”, Browning refers to the presence of political tropes in Murdoch’s work and life. Though she began as a member of the Communist Party, and was an admirer of Weil (and Weil’s concept of “attention”), as Murdoch got older she moved away from the socialist project and “utopian politics” in general.
Nonetheless, Browning notes the “international perspective” of her fiction, citing Flight of the Enchanter, which, like many of her novels, contains a number of migrant characters, the Polish Lusiewicz brothers, Jan and Stefan, and their mother, as well as the tragic Nina, who is an illegal resident. (The London setting of Under the Net is crowded with migrants and refugees from the second World War, with its main characters, Jake Donaghue and Peter O’Finney, bearing clearly Irish surnames.)
It’s worth noting that in 1944, Murdoch, who was born in Dublin to Irish parents (who later moved to London), worked at the UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) camps. Browning underlines the contemporary resonances of this aspect of Murdoch’s fiction: “the international implications of her political theory, along with her Europeanism, and her progressive tolerance of divergent sexual attitudes mark her political thought as continuing to be of relevance in an uncertain world”.
This is a stunning account of the philosophical and, to a lesser degree, political, underpinning of Murdoch’s novel writing. Though I did wonder as I read Browning’s at times complex theorising if the reverse were also true; if the novels themselves had perhaps helped to inform Murdoch’s metaphysics, and if in working out her characters’ moral dilemmas in 27 fictional universes she found answers there rather than in her own metaphysical guide.
Written in precise, rich prose, this is an important contribution to the growing sphere of Iris Murdoch studies but should also prove to be of immense interest to the general reader alike.