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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.3 (2001) 580-601

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Philosophy's Dangerous Pupil: Murdoch And Derrida

Bran Nicol

The anguish of the philosopher comes about because philosophy touches impossibility [. . .]. It's impossible for the human mind to dominate the things which haunt it.

--Iris Murdoch, "Iris Murdoch."

What is the relation between philosophy and literature in Murdoch's writing? The question has often been raised in discussions of her work, even though Murdoch herself always seemed quite clear about the answer. Time and again in interviews she patiently maintained that while her novels did contain philosophical discussions they were certainly not "philosophical novels," nor did she set out deliberately to dramatize in fiction the philosophical questions that interested her. Speaking in 1976 Murdoch explained that in her fiction "there's just a sort of atmosphere and, as it were, tension and direction which is sometimes given by a [End Page 580] philosophical interest, but not anything very explicit" ("Iris Murdoch in Conversation" 5-6). In 1985 she claimed even more forcefully that she felt no "tension" as a result of the demands placed on her by philosophy and art other than that produced by the fact that "both pursuits take up time" ("Iris Murdoch" 198). Most conclusive of all, perhaps, her opinion seems to be justified by the work itself, which manages to preserve a remarkably stable outward distinction between her two writing identities. Philosophy, in other words, is often present within Murdoch's fiction but only in an atmospheric sense, contributing to the discussions and conflicts between characters, while her non-fiction (with the exception of interviews and conference papers) is largely devoid of references to her status as a practicing novelist, even in essays concerned with the state of the contemporary novel like "The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited" or "Against Dryness."

Nevertheless, that Murdoch should use the word "tension" in both of these remarks is interesting, for tension is precisely what we might expect to be produced in the practically unique case of a writer who continued to produce both philosophy and fiction side by side throughout her long career. Furthermore, she conceived of her two disciplines as not just different but quite opposite in crucial respects. While the fundamental aim of both was to convey "truth," philosophy should try to clarify while literature must mystify. Literature was about play, magic, entertainment, arousing emotions, whereas philosophy had a duty to strive toward an "unambiguous plainness and hardness [. . .] an austere unselfish candid style. A philosopher must try to explain exactly what he means and avoid rhetoric and idle decoration" ("Philosophy and Literature" 264-7). Each discipline is governed, in other words, by an opposite impulse or desire. In psychoanalytic terms, the co-existence of mutually exclusive desires is likely to lead to tension, perhaps even neurosis. How valid is Murdoch's insistence that her two main interests created only a small, productive amount of tension?

The answer might be found in two of the rare moments in her writing when the boundary between her double writing identity is temporarily broken down. In The Philosopher's Pupil we learn that the philosopher John Robert Rozanov had once published a "seminal work" (83) called Nostalgia for the Particular, which also happens to be the title of one of Murdoch's early essays. Self-reference is one of the postmodern [End Page 581] indulgences Murdoch sparingly allows herself in her fiction (consider for example the bottle of wine in An Unofficial Rose, which is apparently made by the hero of A Severed Head, or Julian's fictional boyfriend in The Black Prince, who turns up in therapy in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine), perhaps because, as these examples show, the practice subtly serves to snag the fabric of Murdoch's realism by exposing the fictionality of her work as much as it strengthens its sense of verisimilitude by suggesting an extended fictional universe beyond the confines of the text. This reference to "Nostalgia for the Particular"prefigures the famous admission by the shadowy narrator at the end of the novel, "I also...


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