A guru among logic-choppers
IRIS MURDOCH AS I KNEW HER by A. N. Wilson Hutchinson, £18.99, pp. 384, ISBN 0091742463 mr A. N. Wilson is outraged at the image of Iris Murdoch presented in the film in which Dame Judi Dench starred and which was based on her husband John Bayley's books. The film is deeply moving. It is in Bayley's books, Wilson fears, that Iris will be remembered as a dribbling, spoon-fed incontinent, imprisoned in the darkness of Alzheimer's disease, rather than the gifted writer she was. It is absurd that John Bayley should maintain that Iris would have approved of his books. She was an intensely private person. Wilson seeks to penetrate the mystery of her personality and the nature of a writer's consciousness and how this can be transmuted into art. For this he is uniquely qualified: as a novelist himself. inspired to write by her early novels; as her friend for 30 years; as asked by Iris to become her biographer. Yet the reader should be warned that this book is as much about the author himself — his tortured exits from the priesthood and the collapse of his first marriage which drove him to the frontiers of madness — as it is about Iris. Novelists fabricate. It is their trade. Wilson's fabrications as a biogra
pher are outrageous. Eric Christiansen, victim of one of his wilder fantasies, dismisses them as the work of 'a justified sinner'.
My qualifications for writing about Iris in this review are slight compared to those of Wilson and in writing it I may well appear as self-obsessed as he, My excuse is that my contacts with Iris go back further than those of Wilson who became her friend when she was 50. I met her first in October 1938 when we were both working in the campaign office of the Oxford Labour party during the famous Popular Front election of that year. Wilson explains what was, at the time, a mystery to me. Engaged in sticking up envelopes and the other chores of the campaign, I was vastly attracted to a strikingly beautiful girl. But I found all my advances somehow or other blocked by Iris. I did not realise that she was bisexual and that her lesbianism, according to Wilson, was 'perhaps the most important element of her personal life'. She herself claimed that 'all great artists have been bisexual'. Surely not Dickens, George Eliot, the Brontës, Jane Austen?
During the election campaign, we were both dispatched to canvass the lower end of the Abingdon Road. It was drizzling and I suggested to Iris that we might get a taxi. She refused point blank; we must walk or go by bus. Iris was far from mean, a generous helper of friends in need. But she had, as Wilson suggests, a strong streak of austerity which helps to explain her admiration for the Soviet Union where a common austerity levelled out undesirable differences of class. When she became a rich woman — she left £2 million — the austerity persisted. Food at her house in Steeple Aston was often inedible and the wine always cheap. I had no sympathy for all this. It is an elementary courtesy for those who can afford it to provide their friends with decent food and drink, even to keep the house clean. In their London flat, which Iris kept so that she could maintain her contacts with the metropolitan literati, the Bayleys lived in a squalor 'which would require a new vocabulary to describe'.
Our next contact was indirect. We were both asked to join the Communist party. I, and I presume Iris, were called to be interviewed as prospective candidates. To be accepted, we were told, we must accept the party's 'democratic centralism'. Free debate was permissible, indeed healthy; but once the party had made up its mind, then its 'line' must be accepted unconditionally. To accept what was presented as an oath of allegiance was for me impossible and I refused and was dismissed as a bourgeois liberal. (Perhaps as a result of a telephone interview with a stone-deaf man, Peter Conradi, in his long biography of Iris, maintains that I joined the party at the same time as Iris, an assertion which has caused me some embarrassment.) Iris swallowed 'democratic centralism', a diges
tive feat which puzzles Wilson and distresses me. When during the war she worked in the Treasury she passed on any information she had gleaned to her Communist party contact. Luckily such information as she possessed was pretty useless. But supposing she had been in the Air Ministry or — and it is improbable — she had been employed at Bletchley. The consequences for herself and her country might have been calamitous.
But there were consequences for herself. In the Communist party lying, if the defence party line required it, was a political virtue. Iris, with reservations, accepted the party line on the Nazi-Soviet pact and the invasion of Finland. Iris, Wilson writes, 'thrived on acts of betrayal', confessing in her journal that she -lied to all and sundry'. We all indulge in social lies to protect our privacy. Dancing with her, before the days when noise drowned conversation, I praised her shoes. 'Yes,' she replied, 'I knitted them myself.' A harmless and absurd social lie. But people who lie to others may end up lying to themselves in a process of self-invention. This is particularly the case with writers, Victor Hugo's vast oeuvre is a prolonged exercise in selfinvention. Thus Iris saw herself as an Irish writer, almost a paid-up member of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy. Yet she was the daughter of a shabby-genteel Ulster family who lived her life in England and whose books met with a hostile reception across the Irish Channel. 'People who boast of happy marriages,' she wrote, 'are, I submit, usually self-deceivers, if not actually liars.' As for her husband, John Bayley, he confessed in a radio interview, 'I've never set much store by the truth.'
By some commentators the decision to join the Communist party has been seen as in the nature of a religious conversion. That she was essentially a religious person is the core of Wilson's book. The Bayleys were deeply concerned in and fascinated by Wilson's rejection as a High Anglican priest by the Church of England selection board. They wanted him to seek immediate ordination at the hands of a friendly bishop. Helen Gardner, the formidable boss of the English Faculty at Oxford, counselled against this. 'A reading of Iris's novels,' she wrote in a letter to Wilson, 'will show that she is not really very au fait with today's church, and her grasp of reality is not her strong point!'
It is not surprising that Iris did not like what she found when she came back to Oxford in order to teach philosophy at Somerville College. The Oxford school was dominated by what she called the 'logical gadgets' of the analytical philosophers. Her existentialism — she had met Sartre in Paris — was a protest against the arid provincialism of Oxford philosophy. Wilson rightly asserts that in her best novels she remained an existentialist; 'Existentialism is, or was, a philosophic viewpoint well suited to writing fiction.' But she became a vehement enemy of existentialism from within; its appeal,' she wrote. is at present its romantic and antisocial exaltation of the individual.' Guided by Plato she had started on the intellectual odyssey that was to lead her to the 'sovereignty of the Good' which she defined as the unimaginable object of our desires. It cannot be a mere matter of choice.' Stuart Hampshire she admired, but, just as the existentialists had erred in making moral decisions a matter of the individual will, Hampshire, she conceived, had erred in making morality 'a mere matter' of intelligent choice.
What did the Good mean? Her books are peopled with nuns and priests. One such priest writes:
If the idea of Good is severed from the idea of perfection it is emasculated and any theory which tolerates this severance, however highminded it professes to be, is in the end vulgar relativism. If the idea of Good is not severed from the idea of perfection it is impossible to avoid the problem of the transcendent.
The word transcendent struck a chord in my mind.
Transcendentalism was the invention of Ralph Waldo Emerson in the Boston of the 1840s. Like Emerson, Iris had lost all faith in the personal God of orthodox Christianity. God, for Emerson, was in every man who strove after the Good. He was, like Iris, a Platonist. His transcendentalism was one of the surrogate religions invented to give faith in the void created by the retreat of Christianity in the later 19th century. Iris, to me though clearly not to Wilson, was neither a saint nor a mystic, but a transcendentalist guru who had invented yet another surrogate religion.
Gurus crop up in her novels starting with her first and, to me, one of her best books, Under the Net, with the mysterious Hugo. They cropped up in her emotional life. She started on the road to the sovereignty of the Good as a pupil at Oxford of the wildly eccentric neo-Kantian Christian Donald MacKinnon. MacKinnon did not become her lover, but it was an emotionally fraught relationship, as he had a jealous wife. Iris deepened her awareness of what she called 'the total breakdown of civilisation in Europe' as the mistress of the exiled Jewish anthropologist Fritz Steiner. She called him 'a good man, a religious man in the deep sense', whose death almost destroyed her. His successor as a lover, Elias Canetti, was a militant atheist and not remotely a good man. Like Wilson I find Canetti's Auto da Fe, which gained him the Nobel Prize, a boring, flawed masterpiece and his domination of the groupies who surrounded him in Hampstead obscene. For him love was a power game as it is often in Iris's novels. He treated her abominably: he was both physically violent and intellectually abrasive, condemning her novels as vulgar. After the man she called 'a bull, a lion, an angel', John Bayley must have come as a comic relief. Or had she become, as Wilson suggests, as a result of her experiences with Canetti, a sado-masochist who found in her husband 'the ideal slave whom she could torture'?
With the assurance of an only child of doting parents, she had no doubts about herself as a guru, just as she was confident of her stature as a writer. When asked if she would have been dismayed if she had not won the Booker Prize, she retorted that she fully deserved it as superior to all possible rivals. She was as confident as Solzhenitsyn that she had a message for the West. At a conference attended by eminent businessmen and politicians the question arose as to what would fill the void left by the collapse of 'real socialism' in what was then called the Soviet Union. When questioned what might replace it, to my astonishment she replied with the two words, 'Moral philosophy', and lapsed into silence. The hungry sheep had looked up, but had not been fed.
Her voyage to the Good was paralleled by her journey to the political Right. Her views on the Irish question were not too far from those of Dr Paisley; the girl who in the 1930s condemned Neville Chamberlain as a strike-breaker was to
argue as a woman in the 1980s that Scargill and his followers deserved to be shot. 'What has always interested me,' she said, 'is the idea. . . of individual freedom.' But there was precious little freedom in Plato's Republic — particularly for artists. In my time as a student at a German university in 1937 The Republic was a set book that provided philosophical endorsement for the Fiihrer-prinzip. She came to admire Karl Popper's brand of liberalism. Had she not read The Open Society and its Enemies or did she not take in that he was the sworn enemy of Plato's monism as entailing tyranny, a view shared by her friend Isaiah Berlin? Wilson denies that she was a monist, i.e. believing that there was one
single truth. Yet she herself confessed to being a monist of sorts.
The best one can say is that she was often confused and found difficulty in clear exposition. She always held that philosophy was a 'hard subject' and that its virtue was clarity in the pursuit of truth. But the virtue of the novelist is the pursuit of ambiguities. Less and less a professional philosopher, she was considered by many of her academic colleagues as a purveyor of well-intentioned nonsense. Truths, for Iris, found expression in metaphors. She struggled for six years to write a book on Heidegger only to give up in despair. Her 1982 Gifford Lectures on Metaphysics and Morals Wilson finds incoherent.
Confused she may have been, but like most Platonists she had an authoritarian streak that did not easily tolerate dissent or what she condemned as 'drifting'. After a dinner at Downing Street with Lady Thatcher, she confessed to admiring her hostess's `will-to-power'. The first time I dined with her after the war I asked, 'Are you still a socialist?' She turned on me savagely. 'Yes. Aren't you?' She did not easily tolerate other people's 'drifting' rightwards.
Raymond Asquith wrote of the works of a now forgotten writer 'quite clever but not first-rate'. That may well be posterity's verdict on Iris's novels and the philosophical writings collected in her Saints and Mystics. Her novels dazzled her middleand uppermiddle-class readers. She herself was a fan of The Archers, the middle-class soap par excellence. But these readers are now senior citizens. According to my children she is meaningless to the young. 'She's a child of her generation,' my son-in-law declared, 'all that stuff about snack bars and Lyons.'
If Wilson may fail to convince his readers of her greatness as a writer — in her later novels she so often soars off the ground only to fly on automatic pilot — he does succeed in establishing her as..a lovable, warm-hearted friend. In many viiqys remote, she possessed 'a remarkable sunniness of disposition'. To give Bayley due credit he does not deny this. But Wilson argues that for years he accepted Iris's status as a writer of international renown with benign tolerance. But when his own reputation as a writer waxed while his wife's waned he took his revenge; 'inside the little Leprechaun there was a screaming, hate-filled child.'
The virtue of Wilson's book is that it is an intelligent study of Iris Murdoch's development as a novelist and philosopher. It is marred not merely by its economy with the truth but because, like Bayley, Wilson uses his subject to publicise his own life and works. Bayley has already enjoyed a succes de scandale. So will Wilson. But there is a cost to pay for publicity. Both appear as slightly ridiculous walk-onextras, albeit with some good lines, in a private tragedy played out in public.