BOOK REVIEW / Life (sentences) and hard labour: 'Metaphysics as a guide to morals' - Iris Murdoch: Chatto, 20 pounds

This book is based on the Gifford Lectures that Iris Murdoch gave in Edinburgh in 1982, and is a grand elaboration of her earlier The Sovereignty of Good (1970). It is a great congested work, a foaming sourcebook, about life, imagination, tragedy, philosophy, morality, religion and art. It feels as if it has grown to its present length of 200,000 words by radical tmesis, a long and uninhibited process of interpolation of new sentences into a cherished and increasingly gravid text.

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,

assembling reminders.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette

film
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz