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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.3 (2001) 696-714

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An Interview with Iris Murdoch

S. B. Sagare

The following interview took place during August 1987 at Iris Murdoch's home in Oxford. 1

SAGARE: To begin with, I'll take your statement from "Vision and Choice in Morality": "Great philosophers coin new moral concepts and communicate new moral vision and modes of understanding" (42). Will you please explain this?

MURDOCH: I think this is a characteristic of the history of philosophy, that philosophical progress depends on great geniuses who appear at different times, such as Plato, Aristotle, and Kant, and later Hegel, Wittgenstein. Philosophy depends more than other studies on great metaphysical visions. This is just part of the history of human thought that these visions do occur from time to time and then exert a very great influence, so that was what I was referring to.

SAGARE: You say that the great novel is shaped by the vision of the artist--I mean, "a novelist should have a view point of mature morality" ("Sublime and Beautiful Revisited" 257). Will you please elaborate? [End Page 696]

MURDOCH: This seems to me true of the great novels; of course, one recognizes the great novel by many different features about it: that it is a well made story, that it has lively characters, that it has an interesting point of view, is beautifully written, and so on. I think the fundamental thing which a great novel can't be without is a kind of moral vision, an ability of the writer to judge justly his own general attitude to his society and attitude to his characters. This is what must be deep, must be just, and must be compassionate. The presence of these virtues, the ability to see thing in perspective also implies an ability to express what is funny in the right sort of way. These are things which great novelists do, though of course, when you look at the great novelists, very often they seem in terms of style and attitude very different from each other, but I think they have this sort of great humanity in common.

SAGARE: Now, do you think that there is a similarity between a philosopher and a novelist?

MURDOCH: No, I don't. They are quite different operations. I think it's very dangerous if a novelist attempts to express a philosophy or definite theory in a novel. 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 life that are being spoken of and not an abstract theory. Philosophy is very difficult; it is a very different kind of thought, in an essential sense, abstract. Writing a novel involves being plunged into all the details of human life.

SAGARE: What is your view of life? Is it optimistic?

MURDOCH: Well, it's hard to say. It's pessimistic in many ways. I think that human beings are very much given to selfishness. It's a part of human nature to be selfish; it's difficult to overcome this, to overcome egoism and the ruthlessness that people feel when their interests collide, and of course international politics at the moment don't look very cheerful. I think, however, that I am also an optimist. I believe in the importance of virtue, of love, of trying to lead a good life, of trying to change oneself and society for the better. These are difficult goals, but I think that there is a kind of hopeful idealism which always returns to human beings. [End Page 697]

SAGARE: Why is your view of the world not very optimistic? Do you mean that we are all liars, deceivers, or that humanity is not improving?

MURDOCH: Human arrangements have improved enormously. If one thinks of even the last hundred years or so we have made things very much better. Certainly, in Western society and in other societies too, we have better attitudes--to women, to children, to people of other races, and to...


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