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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.3 (2001) 551-557

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Introduction: Approaches To Murdoch

David Herman

I am honored to introduce this special issue of Modern Fiction Studies centering on the work of Iris Murdoch (1919-1999), a philosopher and novelist whose vital importance as a thinker and writer is evidenced by the contributions that follow. The issue was given immediate impetus by Murdoch's recent death after struggling for several years with Alzheimer's disease, as so movingly documented by John Bayley in his memoir, Elegy for Iris. More than just a tribute, however, the issue is intended to help take the measure of Murdoch's achievement and influence in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond.

As befits a special issue of this journal, the contributions focus on the nature, sources, and implications of Murdoch's fictional practice. Yet in exploring the themes and techniques of Murdoch's novels, the contributors also broach many of the ethical, literary-theoretical, and sociocultural issues that exercised this prolific and polymathic fictionalist over the course of her long career. Murdoch herself was opposed in principle to the enterprise of writing philosophic novels. In the interview with S. B. Sagare contained in this issue, she reiterates her conviction that philosophy and fiction "are quite different operations [. . .]. The traditional novel is a place where people live in all kinds of different ways, where different kinds of characters meet, where it's the deep aspects of human [End Page 551] life that are being spoken of and not an abstract theory. Philosophy [. . .] is a very different kind of thought, in an essential sense abstract." (See Bran Nicol's contribution, however, for a critique of Murdoch's attempts to draw a quasi-categorical distinction between philosophy and fiction--between what she construed as the philosopher's duty of systematic thinking and the novelist's obligation to celebrate the nonsystematic or contingent elements of human experience.) Although Murdoch may have tried to extirpate system and abstraction from her fictional works--to foreground the contingencies of "different kinds of characters" over the imperatives of "a philosophy or definite theory"--, for their part the contributors to this issue reveal multiple, systematic interconnections between Murdoch's oeuvre and developments in the literary, philosophical, and cultural contexts in which she lived and wrote.

Michael Levenson situates Murdoch's 1958 novel, The Bell, within the then-crystallizing dispute between Continental philosophers' (for instance, Sartre's and Marcel's) continued emphasis on inner experience and the radically behaviorist orientation of post-WWII Oxford linguistic philosophy, as exemplified by Gibert Ryle in The Concept of Mind (1949) and R. M. Hare in The Language of Morals (1952). Levenson shows how Murdoch, at that time a tutor in philosophy at St. Anne's College in Oxford, repeatedly used a spatial figure to distinguish the loss of the inner world "over here" in Britain from richer Existentialist treatments of interiority on the continent. In The Bell that divide is reduplicated in the distance between the sparse, austere setting of Imber, a lay Anglican community with a rigid code of conduct, on the one hand, and the Lodge across the lake where Nick Fawley is engaged in his own private agon, on the other hand. Neither mode of life, though, is entirely acceptable, mirroring the way Existentialism, for Murdoch, countered the "diminishments of Oxford" but at the cost of a solipsistic focus on the individual that was at odds with Murdoch's own ethical first principles--in particular, with her definition of freedom as an ongoing appreciation of alterity, an abiding respect for the otherness of the other. Especially compelling are Levenson's closing comments about the importance of storytelling both for characters in The Bell and for Murdoch herself in her early philosophic writings. Just as Murdoch the philosopher came to view parables and stories as indispensable moral guides, and to use narratives as a strategy for establishing genealogical affiliations between ostensibly [End Page 552] isolated philosophical trends and ideas, the ending of The Bell suggests that Dora Greenfield will begin to reclaim her past, and connect herself to...


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