BOOK REVIEW / Life (sentences) and hard labour: 'Metaphysics as a guide to morals' - Iris Murdoch: Chatto, 20 pounds
Sunday 11 October 1992
This would explain the repetitiousness, the sargasso stretches, the ganglial overloads. In particular, it would explain the disconnection between the succeeding sentences, the lack of argumentative linkages, the almost complete absence of flow that makes it so hard to read, so thought-stopping. But the book has great charm in this form, with its asides and postscripts, notes to self and parentheses with no main verb: '(The weirdness of being human.)' Each individual sentence is clear, and the effect of constant hiatus may be intentional. Nor is repetition - repetition with variation - an automatic evil. We like it in the sea, with which Murdoch's style and outlook have something in common.
The fact remains that it is extremely hard work, not to be gone at from cover to cover. Better to read five or 10 pages here and there, starting anywhere, absorbing its fine preoccupied impersonal dramatic spirit (a Murdochian adjective cluster), and putting up with - floating across - all the passages that are likely to seem obscure if one is not a philosopher, for the sake of those that are accessible, true and insightful.
Slowly these interbreed to produce a view of the human condition, and, in general terms, of how to live, that is, with all its odd enabling biases, highly accurate, chastening, inspiriting, proof that talk about ethics is not 'just gassing' (as Wittgenstein feared). The last two short chapters are very helpful by way of summary, and the first two-thirds of the book are on the whole more rewarding than the last third, which is often unproductively theological and more burdened with powerful words gridlocked in heavy Germanic sentences.
The language in which Murdoch discusses moral matters is highly dramatic, and it can take time to see that it is compatible with an acknowledgement of the ordinariness (such as it is) of ordinary daily life. We are, she observes, limited, imperfect, unfinished, and full of blankness and jumble. We go weltering through eternity (as Shelley said), unable to domesticate the senseless rubble aspect of human life, the 'ultimately unintelligible mess'. We are divided creatures, distracted creatures, extended, layered, pulled apart, our minds are like ragbags, as we struggle with fear and muddle (nothing is more evident in human life), with the invincible variety, the unmasterable contingency of the world, with moments of senseless horror and 'scarcely communicable frightfulness'.
Our fundamental task is the attempt to become good, and this, in practice, is the battle against the fat relentless ego, 'ravenous', 'unbridled', 'deeply devious'. Egoistic anxiety veils the world. It sets up a haze of self-protective illusion. The mind is 'besieged or crowded' by selfish dream life. It is hard to exaggerate our capacity for egoistic fabrication and 'rat-like fantasies'. We cannot see things as they are.
Although we are blasted with self, we live deep in the moral code. The 'richly textured matrix of moment-to-moment consciousness' - whose reality and importance Murdoch defends decisively against two generations of unfortunate analytical philosophers who have denied both its significance and its very existence - involves a 'deep continuous working of values', an ever-persistent concern with ethics and goodness. The homiletic soap operas on TV (EastEnders, Home and Away) are popular principally because they dramatise the moral issues of everyday life. Those who are determined to be bad are as preoccupied with the issue of goodness as everyone else.
How are we to become good? Goodness requires above all realism, and realism requires the proper use of imagination, which 'is in part a moral discipline'. It also requires attention, a key notion which Murdoch takes from Simone Weil. True attention reveals the world as it is rather than as it appears through the cockeyed lens of self. It requires love, for love, being selfless, confers accurate vision (it is infatuation that is blind). We are bad at it. Even when we worry about those close to us we are usually thinking mostly about ourselves. We fail to pay attention and achieve the realism of accurate compassion. Sometimes we manage it. Realism breaks through in flashes, and we can usually tell when it does. But it is hard to keep up. We relapse into self-serving fantasy.
It seems enough, when trying to describe the task of goodness, that one should accumulate observations of this sort, but Murdoch wants greater metaphysical avoirdupois. Good, she says, is real, as real as rock. It is what people have in mind in talking of 'God', a word over which she dithers lovingly. In the end, though, she is clear. 'God does not and cannot exist.' There is no 'responsive superthou', although God is a picture of something that does exist - good. 'Good represents the reality of which God is the dream.'
It remains unclear how far Murdoch wishes to go. She is certainly rejecting the sceptics who say that the idea of good is purely subjective, a human construct. She is sure that there are objective truths about what is good, just as there are objective truths about gravity. But sometimes she seems to want more, and to envisage goodness as a kind of presence or force. And it is the same dramatic impulse, perhaps, that leads her to speak of the 'awful wickedness of the human race', and ask 'How can such a terrible planet dare to have art at all?' There is no daring here, nor general wickedness. Most of us do quite well, given what we live with - our vulnerability, our sulky egos, our heavy knowledge of death, of transience, of the inevitability of loss.
So sometimes Murdoch goes too far - but always against a background of calm, sensual intellect. She is an expert in the curiosities of moral psychology, as her novels also prove. She is right, talking of religion, to say that puritanism 'has its own form of degeneration into a sexually charged romanticism', and that sado- masochism is 'a subtle form of sentimentality'. She moves with awkward, scattered, unillusioned grace through areas of philosophy in which Wittgenstein's description of the difficulties seems apt: 'We feel as if we had to repair a torn spider's web with our fingers.' This is clearly a feeling of hopelessness, but Murdoch usually has the right response: to keep on trying, rephrasing, realigning,
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