Tuesday, April 26, 2005
My Century is Better Than Yours
Sorry for doing yet another post that consists primarily of a rather long quote, but I’ve been puzzling over some of Iris Murdoch’s essays, of which none are online. So I must quote. I was particularly struck by the following passage from her 1961 essay “Against Dryness” (reprinted in the 1997 collection entitled Existentialists and Mystics).
Murdoch as a whole seems to adhere roughly to Enlightenment individualism, and talks about secularism though both her novels and her philosophical essays suggest a mystical bent, especially where works of art are concerned. Below she compares 18th, 19th, and 20th century novels at a gulp. She finds the “human condition” overly romantic, and suggests that the kinds of novels that work as art are driven by representations of “real,” complex human characters, and also in some way engage the problems of the Enlightenment.
She likes the nineteenth-century novel, and doesn’t like either the eighteenth-century or twentieth-century.
The eighteenth century was an era of rationalistic allegories and moral tales. The nineteenth century (roughly) was the great era of the novel: and the novel throve upon a dynamic merging of the idea of person with the idea of class. Because nineteenth-century society was dynamic and interesting and because (to use a Marxist notion) the type and the individual could there be seen as merged, the solution of the eighteenth-century problem could be put off. It has been put off till now.
In the next few sentences, Murdoch suggests that the 19th C. class struggle allowed the problem of individuality to be put off until the mid/late twentieth century. It can now be discussed because the structure of society has become less dynamic in the era of the stabilized welfare state. To continue:
If we consider twentieth-century literature as compared to nineteenth-century literature, we notice certain significant contrasts. I said that, in a way, we were back in the eighteenth century, the era of rationalistic allegories and moral tales, the era when the idea of human nature was unitary and single. The nineteenth-century novel (I use these terms boldly and roughly: of course there were exceptions) was not concerned with ‘the human condition’, it was concerned with real various individuals struggling in society. The twentieth-century novel is usually either crystalline of journalistic; that is, it is either a small quasi-allegorical object portraying the human conditions and not containing ‘characters’ in the nineteenth-century sense, or else it is a large shapeless quasi-documenary object, the degenerate descendent of the nineteenth-century novel, telling, with pale conventional characters, some straightforward story enlivened with empirical facts. Neither of these kinds of literature engages with the problem that I mentioned above.
Keep in mind that she was writing in 1961, so postmodernism was not yet in the picture (though the Nouveau Roman had already emerged; in another essay I saw a skeptical reference to Robbe-Grillet). Murdoch doesn’t name too many authors who seem “crystalline” (which is interchangeable for her with “dry"), though she suggests they are doing in prose what the Symbolists and T.S. Eliot did in verse. She does mention later, in a slightly different context, that she doesn’t like Hemingway, but she does like Beckett and Nabokov. In the nineteenth century she generally likes Tolstoy, though she criticizes him for being too Platonic. And that leads to a long bit:
Tolstoy who said that art was an expression of the religious perception of the age was nearer the truth than Kant who saw it as the imagination in a frolic with the understanding. The connection between art and moral life has languished because we are losing our sense of form and structure in the moral world itself. Linguistic and existentialist behavioursim, our Romantic philosophy, has reduced our vocabulary and simplified and impoverished our view of the inner life. . . . For political purposes we have been encouraged to think of our selves as totally free and responsible, knowing everything we need to know for the important purposes of life. But this is one of the things of which Hume said that it may be ture in politics but false in fact; and is it really true in politics? We need a post-Kantian unromantic Liberalism with a different image of freedom.
The technique of becoming free is more difficult than John Stuart Mill imagined. We need more concepts than our philosophies have furnished us with. We need to be enabled to think in terms of degrees of freedom, and to picture, in a non-metaphysical, non-totalitarian and non-religious sense, the transcendence of reality. A simple-minded faith in science, together with the assumption that we are all rational and totally free, engenders a dangerous lack of curiosity about the real world, a failure to appreciate the difficulties of knowing it. We need to return from the self-centred concept of sincerity to the other-centred concept of truth. We are not isolated free choosers, monarchs of all we survey, but benighted creatures sunk in a reality whose nature we are constantly and overwhelmingly tempted to deform by fantasy.
Quite the manifesto. Any takers? Objections? Outrage? Laughter?
[People who have access to Project Muse might want to click on this Murdoch interview, which she did with the Indian scholar S.B. Sagare in 1989. It has a kind of freshness to it, perhaps partly because Murdoch is forced to get creative to find answers to Sagare’s incredibly incompetent questions!]
Murdoch here realizes that retrochronal toroids and sidereal engineering do not, in themselves, make you free.
In one of those essays Murdoch writes, “we must be willing consciously to defend . . . a conception of the whole human being, the contingent eccentric fellow, the fellow whom John Stuart Mill lovingly envisaged but whom he was unable philosophically to protect, as having a right to exist.” But how to achieve this recuperation of Mill’s Liberalism? If we wish to do so, she says, “it is necessary to detach Liberalism from Romanticism"—and by Romanticism Murdoch chiefly means Kant. I once heard one philosopher tell another that “Kant is something you can get over,” but for Murdoch Kant is something we have to get over if we want to have a healthy Liberal regard for ordinary people and ordinary life. The problem is to imagine what Liberalism would look like if it were completely purged of Kantianism. Actually, I’m pretty sure I know the answer to that riddle: it would look like a novel by George Eliot, or (in a quirkier form) by Charles Dickens. Middlemarch and Bleak House simply are the true philosophical discourse of Liberalism, which is constitutionally unamenable to dialectical defense. This is Murdoch’s view, and I agree with it, in part because it helps to explain why the work of John Rawls is useful only to people who are already liberals. Rawls will never convince anyone to become a liberal; George Eliot has convinced thousands. (How’s that for one-upping Murdoch in the Sweeping Statements category?)
Thanks for this—I’ve always liked Murdoch, both the novelist and the philosophical essayist (Fire and the Sun is fantastic). For what it’s worth coming from a writer/reviewer (who studied philosophy as an undergrad), I think she’s dead-on about the necessary project (though her judgement on 20th c. literature may be a bit broad)--I wonder, however, if people are able to read in a way that makes her point live--both as problem and possibility? The notion of a “crisis of ideas” doesn’t exactly play well these days (from the pop-psych pragmatists: “Get a grip!” to the medical scientists: “Not sure whether to prescribe Xanax or Prozac here...” to, ahem, post-modernist/lit-crit crowd: “C’mon--it’s just play" (I once had a pal, a very sophisticated lit-crit type, tell me of a bad love: “it’s just a game, man...it’s not real,” and the spiritual desolation embodied in that remark made me more depressed than getting dumped.)-- all of these conspire against a drama of the “benighted creature sunk in a reality whose nature we are constantly and overwhelmingly tempted to deform by fantasy.”
Finally, I had one agent say of Baghdad Express, “What’s with the Kierkegaard? It’s not like you got your legs blown off.” Sigh...