Iris Murdoch, Under the Net
Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) was a philosopher and English language novelist. It isn’t true that she started as a philosopher and then regretted her choice and turned to literature. I believe that this misconception is due to the fact that the first thing she published, in 1953, was an essay on Sartre, while her first novel, Under the Net (which was recently published in Italian under the title Sotto la rete, translated by Argia Micchettoni, Rizzoli, 2005) came out a year later. In the 1940s, however, she had written two or three novels, though these had not met with any publishing success. Iris “always” wrote novels and “always” thought, spoke and wrote about philosophy. What I mean is that the two kinds of writing – narrative and philosophical – did not begin or end separately. I see them as being two sides of a unique, secret practice. But we must keep in mind that the sides are asymmetrical so that someone reading her novels may happily ignore the philosophical tracts while we will see that the opposite does not hold.
Readers of the Manifesto will certainly remember the lovely review that Graziella Pulce devoted to Under the net (“Le palline di Iris”, Alias March 12th). The text ends with the description of a cultural, historical season that appeared unrecognizable to itself and intimately discordant. These last words also characterize Iris’ thought and perhaps even her personality. The asymmetry that I spoke of is seen here and is also visible in the principal characters of the novel, Hugo who follows the haecceitas (the here and now of individual reality) as the only possible but ineffable truth, and Jake, who admires Hugo but flees from him as he flees from contingency (“I hate contingency”). In the later novels we will not see such a conspicuous intrusion of philosophy as is found in this novel, starting with the title (a Wittgenstein quote), but rather we will note the presence of contrasting pairs that loom throughout the book without reaching a synthesis. This is an enduring characteristic of Iris Murdoch’s work, including her novels. Rather, her novels provide more fertile ground for this ambiguity than philosophy can.
Therefore, the false belief that I mentioned in opening does hold a grain of truth and there is a point in Murdoch’s work that philosophy is cut of and she must begin to think in another manner. For Iris Murdoch fiction is imagination saving reality because while it makes us abandon the trap of generalizations, which order reality but are substantially empty, it prevents us from becoming lost in the chance nature of our lives.
This means that in our fight against reality we must be able to see others, see that there are real, in order to be real ourselves. The discovery of the actuality of others is the outcome of Jake’s experience in Under the net: “Anna really existed”, he says at the end, just as he discovered that taciturn and helpful Finn existed too. He discovers this with surprise just at the moment when he finds that he is no longer by his side. Where has he gone? Where he had always said he wanted to go, to Catholic Ireland, without receiving the slightest recognition from Jake, still too wrapped up in himself.
I must warn that my interpretation of this novel does not seem to be shared by those who have read it without philosophical concerns, at least judging by the reviews. I read it like a moral change novel (like Tolstoy’s Resurrection, while considering the considerable due differences). It is true that a few reviews refer to it as a formation novel, and Graziella Pulce has ably seen that the chaotic plot does not develop randomly as everything begins with Jake’s getaway. But no one speaks of moral progress with regards to Jake. The only exception is Antonia’s Byatt’s 1965 review and it is not merely coincidental that she too was guided by the philosophical works.
I think that the discrepancies arising in the different interpretations of the novel must remain unresolved. In fact I believe that there was an implicit wager in Iris Murdoch’s work, a wager both artistic and political which must remain open.
In her philosophical works she does not spend much time outlining her own idea of freedom, focusing instead on criticizing the dominant trends. She criticizes the liberal view (that of English analytical philosophy) because it impoverishes freedom, reducing it to a shopping trip, finds that the existentialist viewpoint is emphatically fixed on “choice”, while the Hegelian and Marxist interpretations reproach the horror of contingency and the recourse to so-called “historical necessity”. But in my opinion her apparent reticence is a dodge, comparable to the movement an animal makes to escape the line of fire when under hot pursuit. I believe that she does this with her philosophy of freedom, which is new to the historical panorama of ideas, as, in my opinion, is all of her philosophy. Her concept of freedom bases its foundations in her experience as a writer and a reader, in the form of a problem unique to her: that of creating characters that are free both in their imaginary world and even more so (but the two things hold), independent from the author who created them. As well as being a writer, Iris was a keen reader of fiction; Shakespeare, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Tolstoy and Proust are among her favourite authors. One might think that the name George Eliot doesn’t fit here and should be crossed out, as you do in the weekly crossword. Iris would not agree and her reply is certainly illuminating. Disagreeing with Eliot the poet she writes with an unusually lively tone: it is unforgivable that he judges George Eliot negatively, a writer who “demonstrates an almost divine capacity for respecting and loving her characters to the point of making them exist as separate and free beings”. (Cited from Existentialists and Mystics, in press by Il Saggiatore)
Our question is this: what relationship is there between the art of creating such characters and freedom, understood as a realization of humanity and political principle? The philosopher responds that a society that can produce great novelists and appreciate them is a society in which loving tolerance flourishes (it is not enough for her to say “tolerance”) as well as respect for the existence of people who are very different from oneself, and the inner freedom that this suggests. It is an important response but, based on her line of thought, the nexus of the two freedoms can also be expressed in another less realistic manner, non mediated by the social figure of the novelist, which is more direct and symbolic consisting in doing imagination work, a moral and political action that, like true ‘dodging’, lets us exist otherwise and elsewhere, away from the pathways of the power that conditions us inside and out.
Anyone who has seen Abdellatif Kechiche’s film entitled L’esquive (‘The Dodge’) will not find it hard to understand what I am saying. The film, set in Paris suburbs, in an Arab immigrant quarter, relates the amorous and social conflicts of a group of adolescents, both male and female, engaged in putting on a pièce by Marivaux. The film itself is an escape for the author who does not dedicate his efforts to describing life in the suburbs, telling instead a story about young people who are also seeking to avoid the path of those who might crush or annihilate them, from the police to commonplace. Viewed outside of any racist or left-wing militant stereotype we can truly see them exist.
This is Jake’s discovery over the course of his zigzagging journey. For Iris Murdoch this discovery – that others exist- is freedom, and the art of making them exist, in our vision, in our heart, in the pages of a novel or the images of a film, is “the fight for freedom”: mine, theirs. Thus the art of creating free characters becomes the symbolic work that sets us free (Iris’ secret practice…) and at the same time is the concrete pathway to achieving this change, while imagination work is the way of avoiding the most calculable pathways. Calculated by whom? By power, I said earlier. Now I add (and it is virtually the same thing): by ourselves, with our fixations and the weakness of our representations. By abandoning these to make room for other things, for other people, including ourselves, we can even come to recognize ourselves through a kind of free self-alienation.