Interview with Iris Murdoch by John Haffenden

John Haffenden

Interview with Iris Murdoch


Born in Dublin, Iris Murdoch was brought up in England and took a degree in classics at Somerville College, Oxford, in 1942. After two years as an Assistant Principal at the Treasury, she worked for a further two years (1944-46) with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in Belgium and Austria. She held the Sarah Smithson Studentship in philosophy at Newnham College, Cambridge, for a year, and in 1948 returned to Oxford, where she was for fifteen years a Fellow of St Anne’s College and University Lecturer in Philosophy. In 1956 she married John Bayley, who is Wharton Professor of English Literature, and a Fellow of St Catherine’s College, Oxford. John Haffenden interviewed her in London, and began by asking about her latest novel – her twenty-first – The Philosopher’s Pupil, which is published by Chatto & Windus this month.

The Philosopher’s Pupil is a powerful story of dark obsession and love, riveting reading. It’s the first novel in which you’ve placed a philosopher at the centre, almost as if you are outfacing critics who have labelled you a philosophical novelist.

This novel really has more to do with a pupil-teacher relationship, which I’ve been involved in all my life – in both roles. I think it’s interesting and moving, and I made the character a philosopher because it came along with the package, as it were. I am writing philosophy at the moment, but of course in The Philosopher’s Pupil the character talks philosophy en passant rather than as part of the story.

And yet the character, John Robert Rozanov, has covered something of the same ground as your own work in philosophy, including Platonism …

In a very rough way, yes, but that’s not particularly significant.

You didn’t intend the novel to be an indictment of a certain kind of philosopher?

No, but I think philosophy is a subject which does lead some people to despair, it’s much too difficult for the human mind. If you are an ancient historian or a linguist there is always something you can be doing which is part of your job, but if you’re not doing philosophy pretty well you’re not doing it at all.

Do you mean that philosophy requires a rigorously disciplined mind, a mind which can live with the knowledge that the ultimate quest of moral philosophy – for the good, that is – can never be completed?

It is impossible to do moral philosophy without asserting values of your own, and as you say – virtue is unattainable. It’s a very deep subject and can’t help being a metaphysical subject, and that’s what interests me most.

There’s one passage in the novel which may be very difficult for the reader who hasn’t followed your earlier work, and that’s when the philosopher has his first long and crucial conversation with Father Bernard, who suffers his own doubts.

Yes, I think that conversation is important. It’s about real issues, but of course it is very inconclusive. It’s important in relation to the characters, or else· I wouldn’t have it as part of the story.

John Robert can be seen as a kind of Prospero figure who attempts to dominate and to decide the destiny of other characters – particularly of Hattie and Tom, who are hopeful innocents while the flailing and angry George, his former pupil, takes the part of Caliban. I wonder to what extent you deliberately assumed The Tempest as the myth of the novel?

I’ve always got The Tempest in my head, just as I had in The Sea, The Sea: the idea of giving up magic, the relation between religion and power, and so on. John Robert is a power figure, he can’t help exercisingpower. I don’t think too much weight should be put on the notion that the book is about the nature of philosophy; it’s about the nature of power in human relations. The teacher is a powerful and potentially destructive person. Of course Rozanov acts wrongly towards George. He should let George off, be nice to him, and become a bit less absolute; but a certain kind of philosophical mind is very absolute in relation to philosophy. This could spill over into real life, as it were, the feeling that you must have perfect truth and never fudge things. John Robert hates messy and emotional situations. George behaves in exactly the way to enrage him, which is what George partly wants: he wants the emotional drama which will make a bond between them.

George is looking for salvation from the mess of his own life, and so he constructs for himself the myth that John Robert should be his redeemer.

He’s been obsessed and dominated by this man; it’s a love relationship of a special kind.

The question of whether or not George did actually try to kill his wife, Stella, is never actually answered, is it?

It’s an extreme fit of rage (and he’s had plenty of such fits before), and it comes up when Stella mentions John Robert. It happens again later, as the narrator points out, when George thinks he’s about to go off with his mistress, Diane, and he asks Stella what she is going to do. She says that she might go and see John Robert, and that remark sets off another frenzy.

I know that you write at least two drafts of each novel. Can you explain how you set about writing this novel?

The drafts come after I’ve finished the novel. The invention is what’s difficult; everything is over, as it were, when I’ve finished inventing it, because I invent it in such enormous detail. So that the drafts come at a fairly late stage of the proceeding.

Before you actually start writing you have set out for yourself every character and incident?

Yes. It’s all very strongly related, they all come into being with a kind of necessity in relation to each other.

There seems to be a slight structural problem with the role of Stella, George’s wife, who has to be removed from much of the action in order that George himself should become the focus of attention. His private and public turbulence requires him to be set apart from his wife, and the reader may be rather sceptically surprised to discover that Stella has in fact been harboured by N.

Yes, I think Stella is not a very successful character. I never solved the problem of Stella. She had to be put off the stage for a while, and it occurred to me later on that she was with N.

Did you have a real spa in mind in creating the town of Ennistone?

No, it’s entirely fictional, and inventing it gave me great pleasure.

But the Baths do reflect your own passion for water.

Yes, there is water in all the books. Thinking of the background of the drowning of John Robert, one image printed on my mind is from a film I saw a hundred years ago, Les Enfants du Paradis, where there is a murder in a swimming bath (though the character in the film is not drowned but shot, I think). When I was in China I visited a bath establishment, which also struck my imagination, and in Iceland I have been in warm pools where it is a great joy to swim on a cold day . I do love swimming. I used to be absolutely fearless in the sea, but I nearly drowned once, and I’m now much more cautious. I used to think the sea and I were great friends, but one must fear the sea.

I know you have felt the strain between determining the form of a novel and allowing the characters to have an open and contingent life of their own.

The determined form I’m frightened of is certainly not anybody else’s form. It has nothing to do with being dominated by Shakespeare or anyone else; it has to do with being dominated by myself and by my own mythology, which is very strong. This book is very scattered, and has a lot of people in it, and that’s good. I think there are a great number of points of serious interest, and I hope the characters exist in their own right.

The question of self-expression is relevant here, I think, in the sense that the novelist may have an absorbing interest in other human beings or use the novel as a forum for his own personal concerns and obsessions.

It begins from an interest in human beings, but any writer is inevitably going to work with his own anxieties and desires. If the book is any good it has got to have in it the fire of a personal unconscious mind.

Which of your anxieties and desires came into this book, do you think? Is it to do with the tension between philosophy and art?

No, I don’t feel any such tension. The only tension involved there is that both pursuits take up time. This book has much more to do with power – being isolated by power, and John Robert’s misuse of power – together with the despair of the philosopher. The anguish of the philosopher comes about because philosophy touches impossibility. I think it’s something all philosophers feel. I’m sure Plato and Kant felt it, that you can’t get it right. It’s impossible for the human mind to, dominate the things which haunt it. There’s the impossibility of being good, and the way in which the human being is doomed to be bad and even evil, and the impossibility of stating the basis of everything. Kant and Plato, my personal gods, come near to doing this: their god-like minds make these patterns, but that isn’t quite right either, since one can’t really do it.

Is the philosopher seeking power?

Yes … you want to be god, you want to see the whole thing.

Is there a sense in which writing novels is therefore a relaxation for you?

No, writing novels is my job, and it’s a serious undertaking. I always wanted to be a novelist, but there was a time when I thought I wanted to be an archaeologist and art historian, when I was at Oxford. I couldn’t go on with the art history because I was conscripted as soon as I left Oxford; I was working in a Government office, the Treasury, just ten days after I took Schools. My path took me away from the academic world, but then I was taken over by the desire to be a philosopher by the end of the War. I would very much like to have been a Renaissance art historian, and at one time I wanted to be a painter. I think I would have been a moderate painter if I had given my life to it, but that is an absolute hypothesis without any basis to it! I do sometimes try to paint, but I haven’t got any training. So this is just a dream life. I envy painters, I think they are happy people. The painter lives with his craft the whole time: the visual world, which I adore, is always present, and the artist can always be thinking about his work, being inspired by light and so on. Painters can have a nice time.

Do you have a nice time writing novels?

Yes, I very much enjoy writing novels, but the beginning of a novel is a time of awful torment, when you’re dealing with a lot of dead pieces and you have to wait and wail for some kind of animation.

Writing is also terribly solitary, and prevents you from observing and being with other people.

That’s what sometimes makes me want to write for the theatre: you can have company! I very much enjoyed being a teacher, and I enjoyed college life. But I don’t cooperate with anybody in writing novels.

You mean you don’t discuss your work in progress with anybody, not even with your husband?

No, he reads the novels only when they’re absolutely finished.

Do you think you’ve been influenced by his work as a critic?

I don’t think I’ve been influenced as a novelist by him, but obviously if you live with someone for many years your mind and his mind become very closely connected. But he doesn’t do any sort of critical job on the novels.

How did you get on with your parents?

Perfectly. I’m an only child, and I lived in a perfect trinity of love. It made me expect that, in a way, everything is going to be like that, since it was a very deep harmony. My darling mother, who is still alive, had a marvellous soprano voice – Dublin, as you know, is a great singing city – but she got married when she was eighteen, which was silly of her from the point of view of a possible career! She had a professional teacher in Dublin, and then again when we moved to London. My father was an extremely good and clever man, and we used to discuss books when I was very young, the Alice books and so on. He comes from County Down and grew up in a sheep-farming family. His family were admirable people, but Protestants of a very strict kind, and I think he wanted to get away. He joined a territorial unit just before the war, and went through the entire First World War in the cavalry, which saved his life. Although the cavalry did man dangerous things they weren’t in that awful holocaust of the trenches. When he wasn’t in France his unit was stationed at the Curragh, and one day in Dublin when he was going to Church on a tram he met this beautiful girl who was going to the same church. She was singing in the choir. So that was that; they got married and he removed her to London where he joined the civil service. My father was a very good civil servant; he started at a low level and rose to the top. We settled down in London – where we knew nobody – and I grew up as a Londoner, and it’s only lately ·that I’ve imagined how strange that was. I never had any family apart from this perfect trinity, and I scarcely know my Irish relations. I feel as I grow older that we were wanderers, and I’ve only recently realised that I’m a kind of exile, a displaced person. I identify with exiles.

Your work in the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration at the end of the war must have been quite harrowing?

Yes, it was extraordinary. It was concerned with displaced persons, lots of Yugoslavs and Poles, every sort of person who had to be identified and looked after. A number of them, particularly Yugoslavs, didn’t want to go back to their homeland. It was absolutely front-line stuff, and much of the time one was simply preoccupied with feeding people.

What impressions are you left with from that time? Is it mostly a sense of hassle and anxiety?

Yes, chaos, and the sadness of the old people. I did help some younger people to come to England. But in general the problem was so enormous that one couldn’t do much, other than feeding them and being nice to them. There was an utter breakdown of society. At least it was instructive to witness that.

One of the interesting aspects of your novels is that you often depict characters – such as Hilary Burde in A Word Child, and Charles Arrowby in The Sea, The Sea – who are repressed or in some way fixated by their past lives, by certain events or situations they cannot escape.

It’s a salient thing in human life, one of the most general features of human beings, that they may be dominated by remorse or by some plan of their lives which may have gone wrong. I think it’s one of the things that prevents people from being good. Why are people not good, and why, without being evil or even having bad intentions, do they do bad things? Schopenhauer, whom I admire, is good on this topic of tragedy. Some people who are not bad find themselves so situated that they are unable to stop themselves from doing the greatest possible harm they can to others. It’s an evident feature of human psychology that people have secret dream lives. The secrecy of people is very interesting, and the novelist is overcoming the secrecy and attempting to understand. Readers sometimes say to me that I portray odd characters; but the secret thoughts and obsessions and fantasies of others would amaze one, only people don’t tell them, partly because they’re ashamed and partly because secrecy is very natural and proper.

I think you’ve remarked elsewhere on the inadequacies of psychoanalysis.

Yes, but not in any theoretical way. It’s not as if I’ve studied Freud and found him wanting, though I have read a lot of Freud. I love reading Freud, because one gets all sorts of ideas from him, and he’s a great and interesting thinker. But one effect of psychoanalysis is to make you concentrate enormously on yourself, to think too much about yourself, whereas the best cure for misery is to help somebody else. I think analysis can help people as a sort of first-aid. The analyst is in a sense a blunt instrument, and he can work as somebody who cares, and I think a good analyst makes the patient feel that he has value. People can easily feel that their value is lost or blackened, and the analyst can fulfil a priestly role in making them feel there is hope. I don’t think the theoretical stuff quite explains what the analyst is doing, but a good analyst knows that the theory is something suggestive and perhaps helpful to him. What is really happening is a very private and emotional thing, a relationship between two individuals of a secret kind.

Do you have any qualms about the fact that as a novelist you are revealing secrets?

I reveal other people’s secrets, not mine, except in the sense that any artist reveals himself to some extent in his work. But it’s the secrets of my fictional characters that I’m giving away.

Do you think you reveal your theoretical if not your personal preoccupations?

My theoretical preoccupations don’t come in much. They sometimes come in through the characters, who might want to discuss certain things in a theoretical way. Putting in too much theorising is an obvious danger, but it’s not a temptation I especially feel. One could paralyse a book by putting in a lot of theoretical stuff. But knowing things is vital for a novelist. Cleverness and thought and understanding a lot of things are a great benefit. ·

What areas of Freud’s work do you think valuable?

Well, there’s a bit of deep truth in certain things like the notion of the superego and the id. What I agree with in Freud is what he frankly says he’s pinched from Plato. The doctrine of anamnesis is a doctrine of the unconscious mind, and the idea of eros as fundamental energy, a drive which includes sex and which can be good and can be bad: that’s all in Plato.

I wonder what you think of Freud’s explanations of dreams? After all, Freud himself writes packaged stories, solved and shaped …

I think dreams have a great many sorts of explanation. Once the Freud virus has, as it were, got into you, you keep on looking at things in that way. But surely there’s a lot of pure accident in dreams. One has kinds of obsessions and fears that can’t be given a sexual meaning. I think the inventiveness and the details of dreams are amazing.

Do you ever record your own dreams?

I sometimes do. One invents amazing things in dreams which one couldn’t invent in real life. One cure for insomnia is to make yourself dream. I usually sleep extremely well, but if ever I find myself waking I invent a dream , which starts off consciously and goes on unconsciously.

Can you give me an example?

I don’t think I will.

You have written that it’s always a good question to ask a philosopher what he’s afraid of, and I would like to ask that question of you.

I think I’m afraid of somehow finding out that it doesn’t really matter how you behave, that morality is just a superficial phenomenon. I don’t think one could find this out, it’s just a bogey; the impossibility of finding it out is very deep in moral philosophy. I don’t believe in God, but I think morality is fundamental to human life.

In The Philosopher’s Pupil, of course, John Robert determines on the possibility of passing beyond good and evil.

Yes, he’s interested m this question, and George tags on to it.

What do you say to critics who think you take a dismal view of marital love and of fulfilment?

Well, of course a novel is a drama, and dramas happen when there is trouble. A completely harmonious life might not produce the drama. But the books are full of happiness; I feel they are shining with happiness. In spite of the fact that people have a bad time – this is true of the novel in a general way – the novel is a comic form.

But comedy can be a consequence of form, which might be illustrating the risible divisions between people’s self-images and what they find themselves doing.

I’m not mocking my characters. The comedy is very deep in the form. The vitality and energy of art make you happy whatever its subject matter. In The Philosopher’s Pupil Hattie and Tom are radiant and happy people; they have the sort of energy that destines them for happiness, and I think that’s true of Emma too. But one tends to be impressed by the people who are demonic.

Yes, you’ve said elsewhere that demonic characters have a sort of ‘illegitimate charm’.

That’s true in real life as well. To dramatise your life and to feel that you have a destiny represents a very general human temptation. It’s a magical element in life which is so dangerous, and which is the enemy of religion and the enemy of goodness. I think one identifies with the demonic characters in books, since it’s a deep notion to feel that the devil tempts you and gives you power in return for giving up goodness, which is after all often dull.

I imagine you feel dubious about imposing form on the novel for both artistic and ethical reasons, in that form might become a libel on real life?

A strong form tends to narrow the characters. I felt it particularly about A Severed Head, which was the end of a certain road, because a strong mythology can issue in a mechanical and unsurprising sort of writing. Good writing is full of surprises and novelties, moving in a direction you don’t expect. The idea of the myth and the form have got to be present, but one has brutally to stop the form determining the emotion of the book by working in the opposite direction, by making something happen which doesn’t belong to the world of the magic.

But when you first map your characters and plot you may in a sense be pre-empting the contingent openness of it.

No, because that has to be invented too, the way in which one destroys or blocks the myth. I am very conscious of this tension at the start, and I play it to and fro.

You have written that Art is the ‘great clue to morals’. I assume you feel that there must be some educational or even didactic thrust to the novel, whereas some theorists believe that the novel can be no more than conjectural play.

Yes, there is a sort of pedagogue in my novels. I think a novelist should be truthful. Bad novels project various personal daydreams – the daydream of power, for example, or of being fearfully sexually attractive and so on – and this can be horrid. But the contingent nature of life and what human failings are like, and also what it’s like for somebody to be good: all this is very difficult, and it’s where truthfulness comes in, to stop yourself from telling something which is a lie.

And yet it might seem presumptuous for a novelist to aspire to truth-telling, when there are so many ingredients and variables in a novel, including characterisation, pattern of events, myth, as well as ethics.

All these are mixed up. A bad painter is lying because he hasn’t really looked – in the way that Rembrandt has looked. Truth and justice are involved here, because the artist has to have a just judgement. I think it’s not presumptuous; it’s a humble occupation if it’s pursued properly. But then, you see, one is also carried away by the eros of the thing. Truth and happiness are ideally frolicking together, so that it is a happy density when it’s working well. Works of art make you happy. Even King Lear makes you happy, and yet it comes near to the edge of the impossible – that you could be made happy by a work of art which is about something terrible.

Your good characters – Tallis in A Fairly Honourable Defeat, for example, or those who aspire to good behaviour like the Count and Anne in Nuns and Soldiers – can turn out to be ineffectual people, moral touchstones which verge on the symbolic. A virtuous character acts in a disinterested way and therefore, as you suggested earlier, can become uninteresting.

Yes, that’s the paradox. But Tallis is allegorical, he is supposed to be a sort of Christ figure and is recognised as such by his archenemy, Julius. Tallis is a symbolic character; it’s his job, as it were, to be good. You tend to think that a good character is not strong, but Tallis is strong. The Count, on the other hand, is an innocent and noble character; he’s not exactly a good character in any strict sense, but then good characters in a strict sense are not met with in ordinary life.

I want to ask about your evidently deep response to Simone Weil …

Yes, I love her.

… mainly because it might be thought that her prescription for a kind of hopeless waiting (which is involved in the concept of amor fati) could be regarded as life-denying.

Not at all. It requires the most enormous spiritual energy to decreate yourself in this sort of way. Ordinary life is a kind of dreamy drifting, defending yourself all the time, pushing other people out of the way. think things like meditation and prayer help you to grasp the unreality of ordinary states of mind. I don’t like the idea of amor fati, which seems to be the opposite of what I think. Simone Weil does sometimes use the term amor fati – which I connect with stoicism, a doctrine I don’t at all embrace – but I think her notion of obedience is rather to be understood as breaking the current of the ordinary egoistic life and feeling as if you might as well be anything. I am very much against Jung, who is the enemy here. I think you realise your contingency when you break this current, and not that you have a great serise of destiny – because you don’t know the myth, you don’t know what’s happening. It’s rather that you relate yourself to your surroundings in a different way, and you relate yourself to other people in a selfless way. It’s an exercise in self-denial.

Does this connect with your interest in Buddhism, which has the idea that at death you should feel both fulfilled and mortified?

It seems to me that some kind of Christian Buddhism would make a satisfactory religion because of course I can’t get away from Christ, who travels with me; I was a Christian as a child. But I don’t believe in the supernatural aspects of Christianity. Buddhism is a good picture of the thing – not, of course, its mythical ideas about reincarnation, but that the aim is to destroy the ego. Schopenhauer plays with this idea, that one’s task in life is to be aware of the world without the ego . It’s not at all an other-worldly religion, it’s absolutely this-worldly, here and now: this is where it’s all happening and there isn’t anywhere else. But to deny the ego is the most difficult thing of all. It would be a condition of goodness when you then respond to your surroundings in an appropriate way because you are not blind. Painting is an image of the spiritual life; the painter really sees, and the veil is taken away. You see the world in a much more clarified way, which would be at its most important where one is thinking about other people, because they are the most difficult and complicated things you ever come across. I think people who are good – it sounds romantic, but I think I’ve met one or two – make a sort of space around them, and you feel you are safe with them. And there are certainly people who are menacing, who breathe up all the air so that you can’t breathe, and who diminish you. This is why a good analyst would have to have this quality of making a large space – someone who is reassuring without bolstering up in an illegitimate way, because the good person also comes to one as a judge. Buddhism has very much to do with understanding these things about human life, together with the notion that it is absolutely important. I want there to be religion on this planet.

But what is worrying is Buddhism’s radical ruling that all existence is ultimately evil, and should perhaps be annihilated.

It depends how you understand this. I think Nirvana should be taken as a mythical idea; there couldn’t be such a thing as entering nothingness. Nirvana means that the selfish world is as nothing to the spiritual, and vice versa. Sophisticated Buddhism is very conscious of conceptual limitations, that these myths are saying something which has to be understood in another way. The total obliteration of your present being would mean that the world would exist and not you. This is an idea that Simone Weil expresses – that you want the world and God to be alone together and to remove yourself – and it makes sense to me. I think that in this sense death is happening all the time, and not that one soldiers on through life and then there’s something terribly special at the end, which seems to me to be an old-fashioned religious mythical idea.

Some critics have felt that you have a very limited view of the human capability for improvement.

I think anybody would have it if they looked around. Perhaps one can improve a little bit, but egoism is so fearfully strong and so natural. One is demanding something which goes contrary to nature if one thinks of attaining goodness, or even of improving oneself markedly. Do you know anyone who has improved themselves much?

Yet it does seem that there is a sort of sub-text in some of your novels, positing an impersonal love which is impossible- quite beyond human happiness, niceness, decency, sexual love …

Yes, I think one is haunted by this idea. How far it can change one’s life is another matter, but I think it’s worth having it there. That’s why I feel much closer to Christianity now than when I was younger. If you are fortunate enough to have Christ in your life, it’s something you should hold on to.

What do you think is the true function of art? Is it consolation, education, pure pleasure?

The phrase you’ve used – pure pleasure – is good, I think. One should live with good art and not get addicted to bad art, which is demoralising and disappointing. Good art is a pleasure which is uncontaminated, it’s happiness. One also learns a lot from art: how to look at the world and to understand it; it makes everything far more interesting. It’s a mode of reflection, and this is why it’s a terrible crime for totalitarian states to interfere with artists. Artists must be left alone, the critics must leave them alone too. I think artists are often in the situation of being bullied by critics, which is monstrous. Artists are essentially free individuals. Art is a great hall of reflection, and that’s why it’s important from a political point of view that there would be a free art, because art is a place where all sorts of free reflection goes on. It’s a mode of thought, a mode of knowledge. Good art can’t help teaching you things, but it mustn’t aim at teaching. The artist’s task is to make good works of art. A novel is a mode of explanation; you can’t help explaining characters and scrutinising their motives. The novelist is the judge of these people – that can’t help emerging – and it is more difficult for the novelist to be a just judge. In the traditional novel, which is what I’m talking about, the novelist is ipso facto revealing his own morality, and he should be doing so.

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