"I think being a woman is like being Irish. Everyone says you're important and nice, but you take second place all the same." -- Iris Murdoch
Iris Murdoch DBE (15 July 1919 — 8 February 1999) was an Irish-born British author and philosopher, best known for her novels about political and social questions of good and evil, sexual relationships, morality, and the power of the unconscious. Her first published novel, Under the Net, was selected in 2001 by the editorial board of the American Modern Library as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. In 1987, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 2008, The Times named Murdoch among their list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945".
"A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia.""All art is a struggle to be, in a particular sort of way, virtuous.""Anything that consoles is fake.""Art is the final cunning of the human soul which would rather do anything than face the gods.""Being good is just a matter of temperament in the end.""Between saying and doing, many a pair of shoes is worn out.""But fantasy kills imagination, pornography is death to art.""Every man needs two women: a quiet home-maker, and a thrilling nymph.""Falling out of love is chiefly a matter of forgetting how charming someone is.""Falling out of love is very enlightening. For a short while you see the world with new eyes.""Happiness is a matter of one's most ordinary and everyday mode of consciousness being busy and lively and unconcerned with self.""He was a sociologist; he had got into an intellectual muddle early on in life and never managed to get out.""Human affairs are not serious, but they have to be taken seriously.""I daresay anything can be made holy by being sincerely worshipped.""I see myself as Rhoda, not Mary Tyler Moore.""In almost every marriage there is a selfish and an unselfish partner. A pattern is set up and soon becomes inflexible, of one person always making the demands and one person always giving way.""In philosophy if you aren't moving at a snail's pace you aren't moving at all.""Literature could be said to be a sort of disciplined technique for arousing certain emotions.""Love is the difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.""Moralistic is not moral. And as for truth - well, it's like brown - it's not in the spectrum. Truth is so generic.""No love is entirely without worth, even when the frivolous calls to the frivolous and the base to the base.""One doesn't have to get anywhere in a marriage. It's not a public conveyance.""Only lies and evil come from letting people off.""People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.""Perhaps misguided moral passion is better than confused indifference.""Perhaps when distant people on other planets pick up some wavelength of ours all they hear is a continuous scream.""Philosophy! Empty thinking by ignorant conceited men who think they can digest without eating!""The absolute yearning of one human body for another particular body and its indifference to substitutes is one of life's major mysteries.""The cry of equality pulls everyone down.""The notion that one will not survive a particular catastrophe is, in general terms, a comfort since it is equivalent to abolishing the catastrophe.""The priesthood is a marriage. People often start by falling in love, and they go on for years without realizing that love must change into some other love which is so unlike it that it can hardly be recognized as love at all.""There is no substitute for the comfort supplied by the utterly taken-for-granted relationship.""We can only learn to love by loving.""We live in a fantasy world, a world of illusion. The great task in life is to find reality.""We shall be better prepared for the future if we see how terrible, how doomed the present is.""Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck."
Jean Iris Murdoch was born at 59 Blessington Street, Dublin, Ireland, on 15 July 1919. Her father, Wills John Hughes Murdoch, came from a mainly Presbyterian sheep farming family from Hillhall, County Down, and her mother, Irene Alice Richardson, who had trained as a singer until Iris was born, was from a middle class, Church of Ireland (Anglican) family from Dublin. When Iris was very young, her parents moved to London, where her father worked in the Civil Service.
She was educated in progressive schools, first at the Froebel Demonstration School, and then as a boarder at the Badminton School in Bristol in 1932. She went on to read classics, ancient history, and philosophy at Somerville College, Oxford, and philosophy as a postgraduate at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she attended a number of Ludwig Wittgenstein's lectures. In 1948, she became a fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford.
She wrote her first novel, Under the Net, in 1954, having previously published essays on philosophy, and the first monograph study in English of Jean-Paul Sartre. It was at Oxford in 1956 that she met and married John Bayley, a professor of English literature and also a novelist. She went on to produce 25 more novels and other works of philosophy and drama until 1995, when she began to suffer the early effects of Alzheimer's disease, the symptoms of which she at first attributed to writer's block. She died, aged 79, in 1999 and her ashes were scattered in the garden at the Oxford Crematorium. She had no children.
Her philosophical writings were influenced by Simone Weil (from whom she borrows the concept of 'attention'), and by Plato, under whose banner she claimed to fight. In re-animating Plato, she gives force to the reality of the Good, and to a sense of the moral life as a pilgrimage from illusion to reality. From this perspective, Murdoch's work offers perceptive criticism of Sartre and Wittgenstein ('early' and 'late'). Her most central parable concerns a mother-in-law 'M' who works to see her daughter-in-law 'D' "justly or lovingly" and to overcome an obscuring jealousy. The parable is partly meant to show (against Oxford contemporaries including R. M. Hare and Stuart Hampshire) the importance of the 'inner' life to moral action. The parable also draws a connection between loving faith in an individual and seeing them aright. This is of significance for Murdoch's wider theory of knowledge, and for her conception of her craft as a novelist. It is the interest, for Murdoch, of St Anselm's remarks in the ontological argument, "I believe in order to understand".
Her novels, in their attention and generosity to the inner lives of individuals, follow the tradition of novelists like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, George Eliot, and Proust, besides showing an abiding love of Shakespeare. There is however great variety in her achievement, and the richly layerd structure and compelling realistic imagination of The Black Prince is very different from the early comic work Under The Net or The Unicorn. The Unicorn (1963) can be read as a sophisticated Gothic romance, or as a novel with Gothic trappings, or perhaps as a parody of the Gothic mode of writing. The Black Prince (1973), for which Murdoch won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, is a study of erotic obsession, and the text becomes more complicated, suggesting multiple interpretations, when subordinate characters contradict the narrator and the mysterious "editor" of the book in a series of afterwords. Though novels differ markedly, and her style developed, themes recur. Her novels often include upper middle class intellectual males caught in moral dilemmas, gay characters, refugees, Anglo-Catholics with crises of faith, empathetic pets, curiously "knowing" children and sometimes a powerful and almost demonic male "enchanter" who imposes his will on the other characters ... a type of man Murdoch is said to have modelled on her lover, the Nobel laureate Elias Canetti.
Murdoch was awarded the Booker Prize in 1978 for The Sea, the Sea, a finely detailed novel about the power of love and loss, featuring a retired stage director who is overwhelmed by jealousy when he meets his erstwhile lover after several decades apart. Several of her works have been adapted for the screen, including the British television series of her novels An Unofficial Rose and The Bell. J. B. Priestley's dramatisation of her 1961 novel A Severed Head starred Ian Holm and Richard Attenborough.
From 1938, she was, like a large proportion of her Oxford contemporaries, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, The timing of her departure from the party seems uncertain. Conradi notes that she left twice: once technically in 1942, so she could get a job at HM Treasury, and then, at the end of that decade, leaving spiritually, as her philosophical thinking developed and she digested the lessons of Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. A.N. Wilson remarked that Iris Murdoch joined the Communist Party for 'religious' reasons , and Conradi concurs that she left for exactly the same sort of reason . She nevertheless remained close to the left for a long time. She subsequently had trouble getting a visa to the United States because of her former party membership. Around 1988—1990, she commented that her membership in the Communist Party had helped her see "how strong and how awful it [Marxism] is, certainly in its organized form". In 1983 (two years before Neil Kinnock famously confronted Derek Hatton) she writes to Phillipa Foot that she "did not much like the Tories [...] [but] the Labour Party is [...] contaminated by the extreme left". Believing that their extreme aims were "to abolish parliamentry democracy" she vociferously attacked Arthur Scargill, remarking during the 1981 Miners' Strike that "they should be put up against the wall and shot."
Ireland is the other senstitive detail of Murdoch' political life that seems to attract interest. Part of the interest revolves around the fact that, although Irish by both birth and traced descent on both sides, Murdoch does not display the full set of political opinions that are sometimes assumed to go with this origin: "No one ever agrees about who is entitled to lay claim to Irishness. Iris's Belfast cousins today call themselves British, not Irish... [but] with both parents brought up in Ireland, and an ancestry within Ireland both North and South going back three centuries, Iris has as valid a claim to call herself Irish as most North Americans have to call themselves American". Conradi notes A.N. Wilson's record that Murdoch regretted the sympathetic portrayal of the Irish nationalist cause she had given earlier in 'The Red and the Green', and a competing defence of the book at Caen in 1978. The novel while broad of sympathy is hardly an unambiguous celebration of the 1916 rising, dwelling upon bloodshed, unintended consequences and the evils of romanticism, besides celebrating selfless individuals on both sides. Iris Murdoch's father Hughes Murdoch, from Ulster, was an Officer in the British Cavalary in France at the time of the Rising. Her mother Rene Richardson was a Dublinner, and it was in Dublin that Murdoch's parents first met, while Hughes was on leave from the front. Later, of Ian Paisley, Iris Murdoch stated “[he] sincerely condemns violence and did not intend to incite the Protestant terrorists. That he is emotional and angry is not surprising, after 12-15 years of murderous IRA activity. All this business is deep in my soul I’m afraid."
Peter J. Conradi's 2001 biography was the fruit of long research and authorised access to journals and other papers. It is also a labour of love, and of a friendship with Murdoch that extended from a meeting at her Gifford Lectures to her death. The book was well received. John Updike: commented "There would be no need to complain of literary biographies [...] if they were all as good". The text addresses many popular questions about Murdoch such as how Irish she was, what her politics were. Though not a trained philosopher, Conradi's interest in Murdoch's achievement as a Thinker is evident in the biography, and yet more so in his earlier work of literary criticism The Saint and the Artist: A Study of Iris Murdoch's Works (Macmillan 1986, HarperCollins 2001). He also recalled his personal encounters with Murdoch in Going Buddhist: Panic and Emptiness, the Buddha and Me. (Short Books, 2005).
An account of Murdoch's life with a different ambition is given by A.N. Wilson in his 2003 book Iris Murdoch as I Knew Her. The work was described by The Guardian as "mischievously revelatory" and labelled by Wilson himself as an "anti-biography". It eschews Conradi's objectivity, but is careful to stress his current and past affection for his subject. Wilson's work describes a woman who was "prepared to go to bed with almost anyone" and Conradi is similarly frank. A central difference is that while Murdoch's Thought is for Conradi an inspiration to his "Going Buddhist", Wilson treats Murdoch's philosophical work as at best a distraction. In a BBC Radio 4 discussion of Murdoch and her work in 2009, Wilson assented to Bidisha's view that Murdoch's philosophical output consisted of nothing but “GCSE-style” essays on Plato., and even suggested that Murdoch's later philosophical work "Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals" was a mistake that precipitated Murdoch into Alzheimers. This would be the area of difference between Wilson and Conradi. This dispute between two literary figures about the status of Murdoch's philosophical contribution has some life also among professional philosophers (as will be evident when a section on the academic literature is added).
The aspect of memoir in Wilson's "anti-biography" is developed in David Morgan's With Love and Rage: A Friendship with Iris Murdoch (Kingston University Press 2010). Morgan is as direct and subjective about Murdoch as is Wilson.
Murdoch was portrayed by Kate Winslet and Judi Dench in Richard Eyre's film Iris (2001), based on Bayley's memories of his wife as she developed Alzheimer's disease. Parts of the movie were filmed at Southwold in Suffolk, one of Murdoch's favourite holiday places.