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Metamorphosis pp 321-360 | Cite as

A Portrait of the Artist as a Sophist — Plato and Iris Murdoch’s Art of Fiction

  • Sabine Coelsch-Foisner
Chapter
Part of the Analecta Husserliana book series (ANHU, volume 81)

Abstract

How does Iris Murdoch’s work fit into a congress on phenomenology? Murdoch has vehemently rejected the phenomenological novel, debunked the moral, logic, and aesthetic position of its representatives, and in 1950 described phenomenology rather callously as an “a priori theory of meaning with a psychological flavour and a highly developed descriptive technique”.1 And yet, her first novel unquestionably bears the stamp of French existentialism, and up to the present day, her fictions have voraciously absorbed Sartre, Kant, Plato, Hegel, to name only a few, and exploited a plethora of ideas and concepts borrowed from such diverse sources as Socialism, Buddhism, Christian doctrine, Symbolist aesthetics, etc., only — as I propose to show — to cast light on a question central to phenomenological enquiry: How does man fare in view of a world that exists separately and independently? To exemplify man’s approach to and recognition of external reality, a great deal of Murdoch’s fictional work self-consciously deals with the creative impulse and the process of creation, and it is a phenomenological approach which may best explain the many ambiguities, tensions, and contradictions lying at the heart of her work. The aim of this paper is on the one hand to investigate the philosophical intentions behind Murdoch’s prose fiction, and on the other to explore its technical properties and affective aspect.

Keywords

External World Moral Reality External Reality Outer World Coherent Account 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    “The Novelist as Metaphysician”, The Listener, 43 (16 March, 1950), p. 473.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Oxford: OUP, 1977. Hereafter cited as Plato. Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Sartre: Romantic Rationalist, London: Bowes & Bowes, 1953.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Cf. Michael O. Bellamy, “An Interview with Iris Murdoch”, Contemporary Literature, 18 (1977), p. 131: “I don’t think philosophy influences my work as a novelist.” Cf. also Jack I. Biles, “An Interview with Iris Murdoch”, in British Novelists since 1900, Biles (ed.) (New York: AMSP, 1987): “To my mind, philosophy is a completely different game […]. This is quite unlike writing stories, and I play the game according to the rules” (p. 300). References to pronouncements by Murdoch made in these interviews are included parenthetically as ‘‘Biles”, or “Bellamy”.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Cf. Peter Wolfe’s chapter on “Under the Net: The Novel as Philosophical Criticism”, in his study The Disciplined Heart: Iris Murdoch and Her Novels (Columbia: Missouri UP, 1966), pp. 46–67; Kingsley Widmer, “The Wages of Intellectuality… and the Fictional Wagers of Iris Murdoch”, in Thomas F. Staley (ed.), Twentieth-Century Women Novelists (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1982), pp. 16–38; Linda Kuehl, “Iris Murdoch: The Novelist as Magician/The Magician as Artist”, MFS 15:3 (Autumn, 1969), p. 347. Cf. also Harold Bloom’s introduction to Modern Critical Views: Iris Murdoch (New York et al.: Chelsea House, 1986), p. 2.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Hereafter page references to Murdoch’s novels will be included parenthetically and abbreviated as follows: SC for The Sandcastle, 1957; rpt., Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960; UN for Under the Net, 1954; rpt., Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960; SS for The Sea, the Sea, 1978; rpt., Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980; IG for The Italian Girl, 1964, rpt., Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Cf. Kuehl’s suggestion that Murdoch’s novels are “literary correlatives” of her philosophical vision and representative of a “contemporary proclivity towards novels of ideas and a nostalgic commitment to novels of character.” Op. cit., pp. 347, 359.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    In her interview with Biles, Murdoch clearly distances herself from Sartre and company, whilst expressing her affinities to Dostoevsky (p. 301).Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    In her interview with Christopher Bigsby, in Heide Ziegler and Christopher Bigsby (eds.), The Radical Imagination and the Liberal Tradition (London: Junction, 1982), Murdoch refers to Bledyard (SC) as an “anti-art artist” and to the death-avowing James (SS) as a “mystical idealist” and “religious fantasist” (p. 229). Similarly, Hugo Belfounder is referred to as a paralysed “non-philosophical metaphysician” in her interview with Frank Kermode, “The House of Fiction: Interviews with Seven English Novelists”, Partisan Review 30:1 (Spring, 1963), p. 65.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Cf. Wolfe, op. cit., p. 47.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Cf. Murdoch’s review of Canetti’s Crowds and Power, “Mass, Might and Myth”, Spectator (7 Sept 1962), p. 337.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Acastos (London: Chatto & Windus,1986), p. 85.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Though not relating her observations to Plato, in her analysis of Flight from the Enchanter, A Severed Head and The Unicorn, Kuehl points to a “tomb-womb feeling emphasized by recurring words like cavern, cave, dim, opaque and remote” (p. 348). See also The Black Prince, which deals with a similar case of retirement in favour of a full-time literary career to be pursued in solitude. Though anxiously seeking the truth, Bradley Pearson tragically fails. For an analysis see Peter Wolfe, “‘Malformed Treatise’ and Prizewinner: Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince”, in Biles, op. cit., pp. 279–297.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    The importance of architecture as a “stock convention” to isolate her characters is also suggested by Kuehl, p. 348.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Cf. Zohreh T. Sullivan’s reference to these images in terms of an “imaginative inadequacy in an age that venerates power and solipsism” in his interpretation of Murdoch’s Gothic novels, MFS 23:4 (Winter 1977/78), pp. 566–567.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Widmer, op. cit., pp. 16, 31.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    “The Novelist as Metaphysician”, p. 473.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    There is obsessive animal imagery in IG. Dogs of all animals are the most frequent attendant demons, signalling personal attachments which prompt the flawed appropriation of external reality by the self. To Isabel in IG the fire is good company like a dog, and so is the old vase at Shruff End (p. 39). The dead Liffey in SC is the demonic bond of Mor and Nan’s marriage. In IG, the dog is not only dead, but non-existent, representing an unfulfilled marital loyalty. In SS, the servant-like Gilbert is repeatedly compared to a dog (pp. 243, 450), Titus returns to Shruff End like a dog (p. 355), Lizzie is like a dog, Hartley looks like an obedient dog (p. 327), and again it is a dog which symbolizes the marriage bond between her and Ben.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Translated in Sartre, p. 21.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Cf. “The Idea of Perfection”, The Yale Review 53:3 (March, 1964), p. 373.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Cf. ibid., p. 376.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    “The Novelist as Metaphysician”, p. 376.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    “Against Dryness”, Encounter, 16:1 (January 1961); rpt. in Bloom, op. cit. (p.12). Hereafter abbreviated “AD”.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Cf.: “One is tremendously struck, reading the great Victorian novelists, with how much religion was taken for granted.” Interview with Biles, op. cit., p. 304.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Suguna Ramanathan, Iris Murdoch (London: MacMillan, 1990), p. 70.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    München: Piper, 1983.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Quoted after Ramantathan, op. cit., p. 9.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    (1983; rpt., Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), pp. 552–553.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Cf. George H. Szanto, Narrative Consciousness: Structure and Perception in the Ficiton of Kafka, Beckett,and Robbe-Grillet (Austin and London: Texas UP, 1972), p. 11.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, James M. Edie (trans.), Arleen B. Dallery (trans.) (Chicago: Northwestern UP, 1964), p. 5.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Cf. “The Idea of Perfection”, pp. 346–347.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    Wolfe’s interpretation of The Black Prince reaches a similar conclusion as to the protagonist’s death: “The completeness that comes with making his life imitate art shuts out contingency. It is a literary, rather than a fully human, sensation […] unless grounded in human contingency, aesthetic experience nuns to waste.” In Biles, op. cit., p. 289.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Quoted after Ramanathan, op. cit., p. 11.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    “The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited”, Yale Review 49 (Winter 1959), pp. 264, 267.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Cf. ibid., pp. 257–261.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Quoted after Ramanathan, op. cit., pp. 34–35.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    For a detailed explication of these terms see Kermode’s interview with Murdoch, op. cit., pp. 62–63.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    Sullivan suggests that the Gothic novels represent a deviation from this claim in that they reveal a more closed structural design, op. cit., p. 561.Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    Kuehl, e.g. speaks of an “anachronistic literary theory”, p. 360, and Bloom comments on Murdoch’s “anachronistic style and outmoded narrative devices” (p. 1).Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    Cf. an early interview with William K. Rose, “Iris Murdoch, Informally”, London Magazine (8 June 1968), pp. 9–73.Google Scholar
  41. 41.
    Bellamy, op. cit., p. 132.Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    Roger Corless, “A Christian Perspective of Buddhist Liberation”, Concilium 116 (1979), p. 76.Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    Cf. Widmer’s critique: “Though sinking in aged disillusions at his semi-reclusive end, there is little escape from his, and Murdoch’s obsessional preoccupations”, op. cit., p. 31.Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    I owe this observation to Richard Todd, Iris Murdoch (London and New York: Methuen, 1984), p. 89.Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    Neil McEwan, Perspective in British Historical Fiction Today (Wolfeboro, NH: Longwood, 1987), p. 183.Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    See also Michael Gorra, The English Novel at the Mid-Century (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1990), p. xv.Google Scholar
  47. 47.
    S. W. Dawson, “Iris Murdoch: The Limits of Contrivance,” in Boris Ford, ed., The Present (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983), pp. 226–231.Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    Cf. Kuehl, p. 354. See also Peter Kemp, “The Fight Against Fantasy: Iris Murdoch’s The Red and The Green”, MFS 15:3 (Autumn 1969), p. 410.Google Scholar
  49. 49.
    Cf. Kuehl accusing Murdoch of “an almost voyeuristic delight in her Mephistophelian characters”, op. cit., p. 356; and Kemp: “They move according to the needs of the books’ theses”, op. cit., p. 411.Google Scholar
  50. 50.
    In her interview with Biles Murdoch also concedes: “I know what’s wrong with the stuff […] all the time, one is terribly conscious of one’s limitations as an artist” (pp. 306–307).Google Scholar
  51. 51.
    Quoted after Kemp, “The Fight Against Fantasy” p. 412. See also Kemp’s interview, p. 64.Google Scholar
  52. 52.
    In this context Kemp’s suggestion is interesting: Murdoch’s intentions as a novelist, he argues, are the very opposite of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir’s professed attempt to transform in art the contingent into the necessary, for she “emphasizes contingency and the shapelessness of life”, but “in the majority of her own novels, takes the opposite course.” See “The Fight against Fantasy”, pp. 410–411.Google Scholar
  53. 53.
    Ibid., p. 411.Google Scholar
  54. 54.
    Platon: Sa¨mtliche Werke, 3 vols. (Berlin: Schneider, n.d.), pp. 659–661.Google Scholar
  55. 55.
    Cf. Bruce Morrissette, Novel and Film: Essays in Two Genres (Chicago and London: Chicago UP, 1985), p. 102.Google Scholar
  56. 56.
    See Murdoch’s example of the woman whose attitude towards her daughter-in-law changes from hostility to genuine liking, but whose behaviour never expresses any ill feelings. Her change of mood is not traceable in her acts. “The Idea of Perfection”, pp. 356–362.Google Scholar
  57. 57.
    Cf. Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader: Pattern of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1974), p. 293.Google Scholar
  58. 58.
    Cf. Murdoch’s suggestion that people “like to be bullied by some kind of quasi-fiction which they set going in their own environment.” Bigsby, op. cit., p. 227.Google Scholar
  59. 59.
    “What an odd discipline autobiography turns out to be.” (p. 3).Google Scholar
  60. 60.
    Cf. Hugh Holman and William Harmon, A Handbook to Literature (New York: Macmillan, 1992), p. 136.Google Scholar
  61. 61.
    Cf. Mark Sinfield’s review of James E. Swearingen’s Reflexivity in ‘Tristram Shandy’: An Essay in Phenomenological Criticism, in English 27 (1978), p. 192.Google Scholar
  62. 62.
    Cf. Aufzeichnungen aus dem Untergrund (MÜnchen: dtv, 1985), II:2, pp. 66–68. See also Murdoch’s reference to the novel in Plato, p. 75.Google Scholar
  63. 63.
    ‘‘I identifly with men more than with women”, Murdoch says in Bellamy’s interview, p. 133, and repeats this in her interview with Biles, p. 304.Google Scholar
  64. 64.
    In this context one may note that Murdoch has called herself a scrupulous planner (Biles, op. cit., p. 300).Google Scholar
  65. 65.
    Roman Ingarden, Vom Erkennen des literarischen Kunstwerks (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1968), pp. 196–203.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sabine Coelsch-Foisner
    • 1
  1. 1.University of SalzburgÖsterreich

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