“One of the functions of art,” Ursula K. Le Guin observed in contemplating art, storytelling, and the power of language to transform and redeem, “is to give people the words to know their own experience… Storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want.” Because self-knowledge is the most difficult of the arts of living, because understanding ourselves is a prerequisite for understanding anybody else, and because we can hardly fathom the reality of another without first plumbing our own depths, art is what makes us not only human but humane.
That is what the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) — one of the most lucid and luminous minds of the twentieth century — explored in a long, deep, immensely insightful 1977 conversation with the British broadcaster and philosopher Bryan McGee, which aired on McGee’s television series Men of Ideas. (That, after all, was the era when every woman was “man.”) The transcript was later adapted and published in the altogether revelatory collection of Murdoch’s essays and interviews, Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (public library).
Murdoch begins by reflecting on the fundamental difference between the function of philosophy and that of art — one being to clarify and concretize, the other to mystify and expand. She observes:
Literary writing is an art, an aspect of an art form. It may be self-effacing or it may be grand, but if it is literature it has an artful intention, the language is being used in a characteristically elaborate manner in relation to the “work,” long or short, of which it forms a part. So there is not one literary style or ideal literary style, though of course there is good and bad writing.
A century after Nietzsche examined the power of language to both conceal and reveal truth, and several years before Oliver Sacks’s trailblazing insight into narrative as the pillar of identity, Murdoch considers how we, as storytelling creatures, use language in the parallel arts of literature and living:
Literary modes are very natural to us, very close to ordinary life and to the way we live as reflective beings. Not all literature is fiction, but the greater part of it is or involves fiction, invention, masks, playing roles, pretending, imagining, story-telling. When we return home and “tell our day,” we are artfully shaping material into story form. (These stories are very often funny, incidentally.) So in a way as word-users we all exist in a literary atmosphere, we live and breathe literature, we are all literary artists, we are constantly employing language to make interesting forms out of experience which perhaps originally seemed dull or incoherent. How far reshaping involves offences against truth is a problem any artist must face. A deep motive for making literature or art of any sort is the desire to defeat the formlessness of the world and cheer oneself up by constructing forms out of what might otherwise seem a mass of senseless rubble.
One of Salvador Dalí’s etchings for a rare 1969 edition of Alice in Wonderland
Echoing Hemingway’s admonition against the dangers of ego in creative work, Murdoch cautions:
We want a writer to write well and to have something interesting to say. Perhaps we should distinguish a recognisable style from a personal presence. Shakespeare has a recognisable style but no presence, whereas a writer like D. H. Lawrence has a less evident style but a strong presence. Though many poets and some novelists speak to us in a highly personal manner, much of the best literature has no strongly felt presence of the author in the work. A literary presence if it is too bossy, like Lawrence’s, may be damaging; when for instance one favoured character is the author’s spokesman. Bad writing is almost always full of the fumes of personality.
In a sentiment bridging William James’s landmark assertion that “a purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity” and Tolstoy’s insistence that “emotional infectiousness” is what separates good art from the bad, Murdoch considers the central animating force of art:
Literature could be called a disciplined technique for arousing certain emotions. (Of course there are other such techniques.) I would include the arousing of emotion in the definition of art, although not every occasion of experiencing art is an emotional occasion. The sensuous nature of art is involved here, the fact that it is concerned with visual and auditory sensations and bodily sensations. If nothing sensuous is present no art is present. This fact alone makes it quite different from “theoretical” activities… Art is close dangerous play with unconscious forces. We enjoy art, even simple art, because it disturbs us in deep often incomprehensible ways; and this is one reason why it is good for us when it is good and bad for us when it is bad.
Illustration from Alice and Martin Provensen’s vintage adaptation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey
Expanding upon the ideas of the ancient Greeks, so formative to our understanding of art, Murdoch offers a definition:
Art is mimesis and good art is, to use another Platonic term, anamnesis, “memory” of what we did not know we knew… Art “holds the mirror up to nature.” Of course this reflection or “imitation”” does not mean slavish or photographic copying. But it is important to hold on to the idea that art is about the world, it exists for us standing out against a background of our ordinary knowledge. Art may extend this knowledge but is also tested by it.
She considers the ecosystem of good and bad art in human culture, and the essential distinguishing factor between the two:
There is always more bad art around than good art, and more people like bad art than like good art.
Good art is good for people precisely because it is not fantasy but imagination. It breaks the grip of our own dull fantasy life and stirs us to the effort of true vision. Most of the time we fail to see the big wide real world at all because we are blinded by obsession, anxiety, envy, resentment, fear. We make a small personal world in which we remain enclosed. Great art is liberating, it enables us to see and take pleasure in what is not ourselves. Literature stirs and satisfies our curiosity, it interests us in other people and other scenes, and helps us to be tolerant and generous. Art is informative. And even mediocre art can tell us something, for instance about how other people live. But to say this is not to hold a utilitarian or didactic view of art. Art is larger than such narrow ideas.
A decade after James Baldwin wielded the double-edged sword of the artist’s duty to society, Murdoch insists on this largeness:
I certainly do not believe that it is the artist’s task to serve society.
A citizen has a duty to society, and a writer might sometimes feel he ought to write persuasive newspaper articles or pamphlets, but this would be a different activity. The artist’s duty is to art, to truth-telling in his own medium, the writer’s duty is to produce the best literary work of which he is capable, and he must find out how this can be done.
Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses
In consonance with John F. Kennedy’s exhortation to a propaganda-smothered society — “We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” — Murdoch considers the deeper reality beneath what may appear as an artificial distinction between artist and citizen:
A propaganda play which is indifferent to art is likely to be a misleading statement even if it is inspired by good principles. If serious art is a primary aim then some sort of justice is a primary aim. A social theme presented as art is likely to be more clarified even if it is less immediately persuasive. And any artist may serve his society incidentally by revealing things which people have not noticed or understood. Imagination reveals, it explains. This is part of what is meant by saying that art is mimesis. Any society contains propaganda, but it is important to distinguish this from art and to preserve the purity and independence of the practice of art. A good society contains many different artists doing many different things. A bad society coerces artists because it knows that they can reveal all kinds of truths.
Three decades after the teenage Sylvia Plath precociously observed that “once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader,” Murdoch examines the laboratory for reflection and interpretation that great art constructs in its pursuit of truth:
A poem, play or novel usually appears as a closed pattern. But it is also open in so far as it refers to a reality beyond itself, and such a reference raises… questions about truth… Art is truth as well as form, it is representational as well as autonomous. Of course the communication may be indirect, but the ambiguity of the great writer creates spaces which we can explore and enjoy because they are openings on to the real world and not formal language games or narrow crevices of personal fantasy; and we do not get tired of great writers, because what is true is interesting… Any serious artist has a sense of distance between himself and something quite other in relation to which he feels humility since he knows that it is far more detailed and wonderful and awful and amazing than anything which he can ever express. This “other” is most readily called “reality” or “nature” or “the world” and this is a way of talking that one must not give up.
One of Salvador Dalí’s etchings for a rare edition of Montaigne’s essays
Murdoch holds good criticism — the formal interpretation of art — to the same standard as good art:
Beauty in art is the formal imaginative exhibition of something true, and criticism must remain free to work at a level where it can judge truth in art… Training in an art is largely training in how to discover a touchstone of truth; and there is an analogous training in criticism.
In a passage that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s beautiful wisdom on storytelling and what it means to be a moral human being, Murdoch weighs the relationship between morality and truth, as mediated by language:
It is important to remember that language itself is a moral medium, almost all uses of language convey value. This is one reason why we are almost always morally active. Life is soaked in the moral, literature is soaked in the moral. If we attempted to describe this room our descriptions would naturally carry all sorts of values. Value is only artificially and with difficulty expelled from language for scientific purposes. So the novelist is revealing his values by any sort of writing which he may do. He is particularly bound to make moral judgements in so far as his subject matter is the behaviour of human beings… The author’s moral judgement is the air which the reader breathes.
The extent to which the writer is a seer and channeler of truth, Murdoch argues, is the measure of his or her writing:
One can see here very clearly the contrast between blind fantasy and visionary imagination. The bad writer gives way to personal obsession and exalts some characters and demeans others without any concern for truth or justice, that is without any suitable aesthetic ‘explanation’. It is clear here how the idea of reality enters into literary judgement. The good writer is the just, intelligent judge. He justifies his placing of his characters by some sort of work which he does in the book. A literary fault such as sentimentality results from idealisation without work. This work of course may be of different kinds, and all sorts of methods of placing characters, or relation of characters to plot or theme, may produce good art. Criticism is much concerned with the techniques by which this is done. A great writer can combine form and character in a felicitous way (think how Shakespeare does it) so as to produce a large space in which the characters can exist freely and yet at the same time serve the purposes of the tale. A great work of art gives one a sense of space, as if one had been invited into some large hall of reflection.
Artists are often revolutionary in some sense or other. But the good artist has, I think, a sense of reality and might be said to understand “how things are” and why they are… The great artist sees the marvels which selfish anxiety conceals from the rest of us. But what the artist sees is not something separate and special, some metaphysically cut-off never-never land. The artist engages a very large area of his personality in his work…
In a sentiment that Zadie Smith would come to echo in the tenth of her ten tenets of writing — “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it.” — Murdoch adds:
Art is naturally communication (only a perverse ingenuity can attempt to deny this obvious truth) and this involves the joining of the farthest-out reality to what is nearer, as must be done by any truthful explorer… Literature is connected with the way we live. Some philosophers tell us that the self is discontinuous and some writers explore this idea, but the writing (and the philosophy) takes place in a world where we have good reasons for assuming the self to be continuous. Of course this is not a plea for ‘realistic’ writing. It is to say that the artist cannot avoid the demands of truth, and that his decision about how to tell truth in his art is his most important decision.
One of Salvador Dalí’s etchings for a rare edition of Montaigne’s essays
A quarter century after Hannah Arendt penned her timeless treatise on how dictatorships use isolation as a weapon of oppression, Murdoch considers this singular virtue of “merciful objectivity” at the heart of art — the selfsame virtue of which totalitarian regimes bereave society by persecuting art and artists. In a parallel to physicist Freeman Dyson’s observation that “the glory of life [is] that it always seems to tend to diversity,” she argues that what art gives us, above all else, is a warm and welcoming regard for what is other than ourselves:
I would like to say that all great artists are tolerant in their art, but perhaps this cannot be argued. Was Dante tolerant? I think most great writers have a sort of calm merciful vision because they can see how different people are and why they are different. Tolerance is connected with being able to imagine centres of reality which are remote from oneself. There is a breath of tolerance and generosity and intelligent kindness which blows out of Homer and Shakespeare and the great novelists. The great artist sees the vast interesting collection of what is other than himself and does not picture the world in his own image.
Murdoch’s Existentialists and Mystics is a trove of abiding insight in its totality — one of those rare books that illuminate the immense breadth of the human experience while also plumbing its richest depth. Complement this particular portion with Rebecca West on storytelling as a survival mechanism, Pablo Neruda’s touching account of what a childhood encounter taught him about why we make art, and Jeanette Winterson on how art redeems our inner lives, then revisit Iris Murdoch on causality, chance, and how love gives meaning to our existence and her devastatingly beautiful love letters.