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  • Iris Murdoch's Aesthetics of Masochism
  • Bran Nicol (bio)

In her essay "On 'God' and 'Good,'" Iris Murdoch writes that "[i]t is always a significant question to ask of any philosopher: what is he [sic] afraid of?" (Murdoch 1999a: 359). She is considering the difficulty "in philosophy to tell whether one is saying something reasonably public and objective, or whether one is merely erecting a barrier, special to one's own temperament, against one's own personal fears" (Murdoch 1999a: 359). Her question suggests what we might regard as her own fear as a writer—and of fiction, not just philosophy: the sense that she might be fooling herself, presenting a piece of writing as objective or impersonal when it is, in fact, driven by her desire. Her main strategy for alleviating this fear is the theory of literary production she developed throughout her career.

What is distinctive about Murdoch's theory of the novel is that it is also a theory of ethics. Like the good person, she maintained, a novelist should engage in the literary equivalent of ascesis, peeling away the egotistical layers of self which cling to her work to leave the representation of pure "reality"—or as close as one can get to it in art—in all its contingent glory. As she argues elsewhere in "On 'God' and 'Good,'" "[t]he chief enemy of excellence in morality (and also in art) is personal fantasy: the tissue of self-aggrandizing and consoling wishes and dreams which prevents one from seeing what is there outside one" (Murdoch 1999a: 347–8). The writer must resist the temptation to give in to this fantasy by featuring herself in her work or imposing pre-existing schema or judgement upon it. Characters should develop "independently" of the author and each other, and not be subservient to the demands of the plot. "[T]he greatest art," Murdoch says, "is 'impersonal' because it shows us the world, our world and not another one, with a clarity which startles and delights us simply because we are not used to looking at the real world at all" (Murdoch 1999a: 352). [End Page 148]

Murdoch's official "ethics of impersonality" is reinforced at a more subtle level by the "epitextual" dimension of her work, which has the effect of underlining how faithful she was to her own theory. According to Gérard Genette, epitexts are those texts produced by authors, such as interviews, private letters and journals, etc., which do not occupy the same space as those in the main text (i.e. "peritexts," such as title, dedication, preface, postscript, etc.), but which nevertheless function to delimit and direct the readings of it. When her most important interviews are considered together1 it is remarkable how consistent Murdoch remained in her "public" pronouncements. More or less from the outset, she had developed a kind of "totalized" philosophy (though she would have disliked such a label).

Murdoch's epitexts also strengthen the sense of correspondence between theory and practice in a more subtle way by making it difficult to attempt any biographical reading of her fiction. Her essays and interviews seldom feature details about her life outside her "public" roles as writer and philosopher. Recently, however, this has changed, as a result of a series of biographical portraits2 published following her death. These suggest that Murdoch's personal investment in her own fiction is much more complex than it once seemed. Previously she tended to be caricatured in public as a private, puritanical individual, almost close to a saint, a portrait of the author that complemented her theory of authorship. Now, however, she has been transformed into a quite different figure: a complex, sexualized being, capable of cruelty and deception as much as kindness and intellectual seriousness. What is striking is the way this biographical material has transformed not simply our perception of Murdoch's personality, but her writing. Murdoch has effectively been returned to her own fiction, where previously she seemed strangely absent from it. The impression that she maintained of a disciplined detachment from her own fiction now seems less persuasive.

One of the clearest examples of a correspondence between life and work...


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pp. 148-165
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