- The Existence of Other People: Byatt, Manning, and Murdoch
“[Virtue] is concerned with really apprehending that other people exist,” writes Iris Murdoch. “…The knowledge and imagination which is virtue is precisely the kind which the novelist needs to let his characters be, to respect their freedom and to study them themselves in that most significant area of activity, where they are trying to apprehend the reality of others” (284). Murdoch’s concern with the literary imagination as a means of apprehending the reality of others is shared by A. S. Byatt and Olivia Manning, the other subjects of the three excellent critical works discussed here. Murdoch’s engagement with this concept, in philosophical and critical writings as in her fiction, is surely the basis for much of her long-term influence on both literary studies and ethics, as well as on younger writers such as Byatt. Proponents of the “ethical turn” in literary criticism certainly acknowledge this powerful influence. S. L. Goldberg, for instance, praises The Sovereignty of Good as “so deepen[ing] my understanding of the moral aspects of literature that my debts to it are now too basic and too pervasive to be spelt out” (253). Despite some negative voices, many philosophers accept Murdoch’s work as groundbreaking: [End Page 693] Charles Taylor sees her as a trail-blazer (qtd. in Rowe and Horner 23), while Martha Nussbaum claims that Murdoch more than any of her contemporaries inspired the growing concern with “the moral significance of the imagination” (137).
Given her undoubted influence, current directions in Murdoch studies become a matter of some importance, and Iris Murdoch: Texts and Contexts, a stimulating essay collection, provides a useful indication of current trends and future possibilities. Many of the essays use materials from the Murdoch Special Collections in Kingston University Library, London, which includes among its various holdings Peter Conradi’s extensive archive as well as Murdoch’s Oxford library. Murdoch’s annotations on her books provide a rich source for scholars. Elaine Morley, for instance, argues, from examination of Murdoch’s extensive comments on her copies of Elias Canetti’s works and from a careful reading of both writers, for the need to reassess their relationship “as writers rather than lovers” (158). Frances White, discussing T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral in relation to one of Murdoch’s least-known works, her 1987 radio play The One Alone, notes the markings on Murdoch’s acting copy of Eliot’s play, dating from undergraduate days when she performed in a student production of it. Comparing Eliot’s celebrated Christian martyr with Murdoch’s nameless political prisoner, White argues convincingly for the importance of The One Alone as illuminating Murdoch’s concern with the role of suffering in the moral life.
The various essays in this collection are organized into sections on various contexts: White’s essay appears among “Literary Contexts, ” and other sections focus on Theological Contexts, Political Contexts, and so on. The editors point out that, as well as examining intertextual relations, their collection “develops an emerging strand of current Murdoch criticism that...align[s] her work with thinkers and modes of writing she would herself have resisted” (2), and this approach is certainly vindicated by three strong essays addressing Murdoch’s reading of Derrida, to whom she was consistently hostile. Both Tony Milligan and Paul S. Fiddes, acknowledging the flaws in her treatment of Derrida, explore this misreading as a basis for understanding her larger concerns. Milligan argues that “her flawed critique of Derrida promises to shed light upon her flawed and troubled engagement with Heidegger himself” (78). He also claims that Derrida and Murdoch had common concerns, as both attack “a linguistic Puritanism that demands precision where a tolerance for the indeterminate and the ambiguous may be less prone to mislead” (88). Fiddes takes a...