A little art is a dangerous thing

Review: EXISTENTIALISTS AND MYSTICS by Iris Murdoch, Chatto pounds 20
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Iris Murdoch was a philosopher before she turned to writing novels, and while she is best known as a novelist, she has always managed, like George Eliot and Simone de Beauvoir, to keep the two parts of her career going in tandem. This collection gathers together most of her philosophical writings up to 1980. It is characteristic of its slightly arbitrary feel that we are offered no reason why it stops at that date - perhaps at close to 600 difficult pages, it was thought to be long enough.

Iris Murdoch's development as a philosopher began with her reading the French Existentialists while working with refugees in Belgium at the end of the Second World War, and Sartre and his associates remained a reference point through the rest of her career. French Existentialism was, of course, a literary as well as a philosophical movement, and what excited Murdoch about it was its concern, in contrast to the linguistic philosophy she had learnt at Oxford, with lived experience - its willingness to tackle problems of morality and value.

From the beginning, however, even while introducing English-speaking readers to the work of the French philosophers, Murdoch distanced herself from their position, and through the 1950s and 1960s she moved ever further towards her own brand of "mysticism". She came, in fact, to argue that there was little to choose between the French philosophy of action and the emotivism of analytic moral philosophers like A J Ayer. In rejecting the existence of an external moral order and making value a matter of personal choice, both the French Existentialists and British empiricists ended with "a dramatic solipsistic, romantic and anti-social exaltation of the individual". "Twentieth-century man," she writes, "finds his religious and metaphysical background so impoverished that he is in some danger of being left with nothing of inherent value except will-power itself."

Where the main tradition of modern moral philosophy looks back to Hume and Kant, Murdoch finds her inspiration in Plato. She contends that morality is not about decision but vision, not about inventing norms for oneself but about discovering them in the universe. Murdoch, here like Sartre, takes a fairly dim view of human nature: "Objectivity and unselfishness are not natural to human beings." But where Sartre thought that our vices boil down, in the end, to a weakness of the will, Murdoch argues that they have more to do with a failure in objectivity: instead of seeing things as they really are, we see them as we want them to be. Hence, for Murdoch, the significance of art. The artistic imagination is, as Plato saw, a dangerous thing - it is a source of distortion, of fantasy, as well as insight. "Art can make terrible things into wonderful things and that is the biggest lie of all." But the best art offers an objective vision of the world, and in doing so it humbles and edifies. What is great about Shakespeare and Tolstoy - the writers Murdoch admires most - is not the individuality of the work but its impersonality; they are the best guides we have in "the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real".

Given that this collection covers a period of more than 30 years, and incorporates not just essays but reviews, broadcasts and two Socratic dialogues, it displays an impressive continuity in theme. The limitations of "existentialism", the centrality of vision to moral life, the ambiguous nature of art - these, few in number, large in scale, are Murdoch's themes. Nevertheless there are developments in her writings, mainly for the better. The early essays and reviews tend to be sketchy and slightly pretentious - for a while, Murdoch got into a habit of dropping intellectual names. The best that can be said about her disdain for "the half-baked amusements" of pop culture is that it is very much a part of its time.

Into the 1960s, culminating in the three essays published together in 1970 as the The Sovereignty of Good, her writing became a bit easier and more constructive. There is still, it is true, not much by way of argument - Murdoch writes like a novelist, describing the world as she sees it. Those not disposed to her way of thinking are unlikely to be convinced by anything she has to say: I found myself wondering, for instance, how she reconciles her moral absolutism - her belief in one right answer to all moral questions - with her emphasis on "how different people are". Others, who share her tender-minded vision of a single objective Good to which all art and morality tend, will find these later essays compelling articulations of their view.