Iris Murdoch draws together an elusive discipline with characteristic wit and clarity

December 28, 1997|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Iris Murdoch, Dame of the Order of the British Empire, has written 26 published novels, many of them vastly popular in America. Were it not for them, her latest book would get little attention outside universities, small mountain caves and those stony towers that rise high above the bosky dells where we simple folk toil in the mists.

As to her novels, my feelings echo with such words as fascinating, addicting, haunting, adoring. None suffices. The delight, energy, irony, truth and intricacy that spring from those I have read are apparently infinite.

But before Iris Murdoch the novelist - not to mention playwright, essayist, poet - came Iris Murdoch, the philosopher. Not your folksy observer of domestic human values. She is a philosopher in the formal meaning of a steel-disciplined scholar of he academic specialty.

Indeed, she is well credentialled, having taught philosophy at Oxford University for some 15 years. She has never stopped writing and lecturing on philosophy, as several major books and a lifetime of essays, colloquia and other formal acts attest.

Now comes "Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature" (Allen Lane/Penguin. 576 pages. $34.95). I am not a scholar of philosophy. For more than two full days of reading at this volume, however, I found myself enchanted, challenged - and never once befuddled.

It would be offensive to suggest this book is light reading. Few readers will rollick straight through. It is a gathering - and a very coherent one, accessible to anyone who can read this column - of a lot of immensely provocative material, an intellectual biography of a profoundly interesting person.

Back 47 years

The contents include essays, reviews, two plays, lectures, and symposium transcripts. The earliest work is a radio broadcast done in 1950, four years before her first novel was published. Much of the talk has been polished at least once by Murdoch. The whole thing was selected and edited - superbly, I think - by Professor Peter Conradi, whose explanatory preface is clear and concise.

Even if I were sufficiently learned or imperious to get away with it would be arrogant to try to sum up Iris Murdoch's principal positions, influences and role in the world of contemporary philosophy. Even to many richly literate readers, philosophy requires a great deal of hard work and deep concentration to understand. For others, to whom philosophy's main modern - and for that matter ancient - currents are familiar, putting labels on Murdoch's evolution of thought would be trivial at best, and useless.

The purpose of philosophy can be the subject of endless debate. But for Murdoch, philosophy "states and attempts to solve very difficult highly technical problems." Those questions of the core of life, of meaning itself, still are "mostly the same problems" that concerned the earliest philosophers - of whom Plato was intellectual emperor.

She makes a virtually unbridgeable division between her two lives: "A literary writer deliberately leaves a space for his reader to play in. The philosopher must not leave any space."

In his vivid foreword, George Steiner makes a core point very neatly: "Central to Iris Murdoch's imagining are the strangeness, the solitude, the psychological and social risks inherent in the 'examined life.' She possesses, in the rarest measure, a gift . . . of dramatising, of making figurative, the act of thought."

What on earth does Steiner mean? At the simplest level, I believe, that Murdoch the philosopher is relentlessly disciplined in the philosopher's job. That job is to pursue what has true meaning in life. It is to examine, relentlessly, the values of morality, consciousness, beauty, faith, of being.

To the almost scientific, sometimes almost mechanical, insights and conclusions of that job comes Murdoch the artist. That Murdoch is dauntlessly devoted to exploring the fact that such pursuits have no end. That they can yield no certainties.

The tribe of genius

If that sounds a bit heavy, so be it. Life isn't ping pong, even for people who are quite happy to feel that Plato is a great name for a well-mannered dog, and leave it at that. But the genius of Iris Murdoch - and I would hold that she indisputably is a member of the very, very small tribe that earn that title - is that she can make the most demanding questions of life accessible and exciting.

The book's title confronts existentialism and mysticism. Murdoch strikes me as finding existentialism, after a long struggle, as pathetically trivial. She seems to me to end her evolution as something that might be called a mystic, but not in any common sense of the term.

It would grossly disserve her and all she has done in 77 years on earth to try to reduce her values or philosophical evolution to simplisms. She and this work are immensely complex, while brilliantly readable.

It is not to trivialize, however, to note that in "Above the Gods," a classic dialogue first published in 1986, Murdoch puts this in the mouth of Socrates: "We've been told that religion is superstition, that it's socially useful, that it's the love of goodness, and now that it's the harmony of good and evil. But instead let's say something simple. The most important thing in life is virtue, and virtue isn't a mystery, it's truthfulness and justice and kindness and courage, things we understand. Anybody can try to be good, it's not obscure."

That is an arguing point in a debate that is still very much alive after 2,500 years. Far too rich an artist, and far too responsible a modern philosopher to put that simple a declaration in her own voice, she goes on being fascinating. A grand book, for months of dipping into - or a very solid long read.

Pub Date: 12/28/97

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