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James T. KeaneSeptember 19, 2023
Iris Murdoch. (Image by NCMallory/Creative Commons)

She was banned from studying in the United States as a young woman because she had been a communist in college. She was Irish-born but rarely returned home and once described herself as “unsentimental about Ireland.” She married an Oxford professor but had romantic affairs with both men and women throughout their marriage. Her novels treated subjects considered beyond the pale by many reviewers—and certainly so for America’s literary sensibilities in the 1950s and 1960s. An atheist, she described religion as “no longer sustainable” in the modern age.

An unlikely candidate for praise from America reviewers—but not if you’re Iris Murdoch.

James K. A. Smith: “At the heart of Iris Murdoch’s moral vision is what she calls 'unselfing,' something surely worth revisiting in the age of the selfie.”

Our scribes and editors couldn’t get enough, and the philosopher-turned-novelist’s books received many a sparkling review in the magazine’s pages, starting with 1957’s The Sandcastle. Numerous positive mentions followed throughout the next three decades; her 1968 novel The Nice and the Good was reviewed by William B. Hill, S.J., who wrote that the book, “though filled with incident, including murder and perilous adventure, still manages to be profound—perhaps Miss Murdoch’s best to date.” Father Hill reviewed 1972’s An Accidental Man as well, praising Murdoch for “characters in sprawling abundance, most of them perfectly limned.”

In a 1973 review of Murdoch’s The Black Prince, James R. Lindroth noted Murdoch’s “enduring concern” about solipsism and narcissism as dominant themes in modern life; “unlike many of her contemporaries who do no more than confirm man’s despair, she reaffirms love as a force capable of shattering the shell of self.” The Black Prince, Lindroth wrote, “marks a further step in the artistic development of one of England’s most impressive authors.”

In a long 1974 roundup of “The Year’s Best in Paperbacks,” Paul C. Doherty praised Murdoch’s “fine new novel,” A Fairly Honorable Defeat, “in which the only character who can consistently respond to the events of the story with charity, intelligence and dignity is the homosexual hero, Axel, and yet Axel must hide his true feelings from all but his closest friends.” Doherty linked Murdoch’s latest effort to E. M. Forster’s novel Maurice, first written in 1913 but not published until 1971 because the title character was gay. (The year 1974 seems to have marked an expansion of America’s purview in terms of book coverage; Thomas Pynchon made the same roundup).

A 1980 review in America by James Gaffney treated Murdoch’s nonfiction text The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists. Calling Murdoch “one of my favorite modern fiction writers as well as one of my favorite modern philosophers,” Gaffney gave the book high praise, writing that it “sums up vast traces of Platonic thought so well that it could serve as either an introduction to Plato or a source of new insight.” In 1983, Samuel Coale praised Murdoch’s The Philosopher’s Pupil as a “fat, dazzling novel” that “demonstrates Murdoch’s penchant for allegory.”

Murdoch's 1953 book Sartre: Romantic Rationalist introduced many English-language readers to the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre for the first time.

Those three decades of approbation weren’t the end of America’s fascination with Murdoch’s life and works, and just four years ago, James K. A. Smith penned a long essay, “The Moral Vision of Iris Murdoch,” after the publication of a Gary Browning’s Why Iris Murdoch Matters, in which he wrote:

At the heart of Murdoch’s moral vision is what she calls “unselfing,” something surely worth revisiting in the age of the selfie. As one might guess, this amounts to finding a way out of the claustrophobia of our self-regard by answering a call from outside.

Murdoch was born in 1919 in Dublin to a Protestant family, but her family moved to London when she was an infant. After studying Classics and philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge, she taught philosophy for many years at Oxford. In 1956, she married John Bayley, an Oxford English professor and novelist, though their long-lasting union was recognized by both partners as an open marriage. (The 2001 film “Iris,” starring Kate Winslet and Dame Judi Dench as Murdoch, was based on Bayley’s memoirs about their marriage and Murdoch’s eventual death in 1999 from Alzheimer’s disease.)

Though Murdoch is remembered most often on this side of the pond as a fiction writer, her 26 novels (and several plays) were all published only after Sartre: Romantic Rationalist, her 1953 book that introduced many English-language readers to the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre for the first time—and Sartre’s themes of alienation and solipsism in modern life certainly found their way into many of her works of fiction. As a philosopher, Murdoch is noted for her work on the cultivation of virtue and the search for meaning in modern life.

Murdoch, noted Smith in his essay, objected to the separation of ethics from personal development. “Ethics left in the hands of philosophers became one more epistemic puzzle. The problem of the moral life was construed as either ignorance or paralysis in the face of moral dilemmas. But Murdoch knew this was all a smokescreen,” wrote Smith. “The source of our moral problems is not that we do not know enough; the problem is us. ‘In the moral life the enemy is the fat relentless ego,’ she wryly remarked.”

Murdoch became more of a novelist than a philosopher as the years went by, though the two vocations always seemed linked. She was awarded the Booker Prize in 1978 for The Sea, The Sea, and was made a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 1987. That same year, she won the Royal Society Literary Award. Her novels were often sprawling affairs, full of multiple characters and plot twists, but a common theme was love in all its forms—and all its possible modern permutations.

“For Murdoch, love’s pageant was by turns chimerical, alchemical and miraculous,” wrote Gerald T. Cobb, S.J., in his 2002 America review of Iris Murdoch, a biography by Peter J. Conradi. “Her fiction implicitly argues that one must be something of a philosopher to be a true lover, and conversely that one must be something of a lover to be a profound philosopher.”

Much of that fiction—about alienated people searching for love in all the right and wrong places—remains pertinent today. “We in the United States might not have been ready for Murdoch in her lifetime,” Smith wrote. “She wrote in and for a post-Christian world that has only more recently become our shared experience. She wrote for a world that is now our milieu.”

“Her fiction implicitly argues that one must be something of a philosopher to be a true lover, and conversely that one must be something of a lover to be a profound philosopher.”

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is “Little Brother,” by Jennifer M. Phillips. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

Also, this summer the Catholic Book Club is reading and discussing Mary Doria Russell’s novel, The Sparrow. Click here for more information or to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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