Iris Murdoch: A Life book by Peter Conradi

The unique magnetism Iris Murdoch’s twenty-six novels exert on critics and public alike lies not solely in the vividness of her characterization and the fecund richness of her plots. Murdoch’s books also have a readily palpable moral depth: the reader of her fiction can always perceive beneath the baroque superstructure a ceaseless quest for the nature of goodness. An Oxford-trained philosopher whose books on ethics and on the role of art have their own enduring importance in their own right, Murdoch disliked the confining label of “philosophical novelist;” she preferred instead to see herself in the tradition of the expansive nineteenth-century masters—Scott, Austen, Tolstoy—whom she found “to a staggering degree better than the most praised of contemporary novelists.” These writers, she wrote, understood that “art is not an expression of personality; it is a question rather of the continual expelling of oneself from the matter at hand.” Murdoch took as her task nothing less than the revival of what she once called the “true novel,” the novel of independent and fully realized characters that is concerned above all else with love, that is, our “indefinitely extended capacity to imagine the being of others.”

Peter Conradi’s authorized biography of Murdoch, written with the cooperation of her husband, John Bayley, is a major contribution to our understanding of the complex and often turbulent emotional and intellectual life that fueled her daringly ambitious project. The biographer, an English professor at the University of Kingston and a friend of Bayley’s and Murdoch’s, succeeded in obtaining the latter’s approval for his book before she entered the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Although he follows Murdoch through her Anglo-Irish childhood, her years teaching philosophy at Oxford, and her decades as a phenomenally productive novelist to her death in 1999, Conradi centers his attention on her youth: she doesn’t publish her first novel until 400 pages into the book. “Iris’s life seems more improbably packed with strange coincidence than her own plots,” Conradi writes; his book conscientiously seeks to make sense of that coincidence and patiently unravels for us the intersecting webs of love and friendship in which she enmeshed herself.

Although marred by some irritating quirks, including a bizarre series of extraneous hostile references to Oxford classicist Maurice Bowra, Conradi’s narrative retains interest throughout. Unfortunately, Murdoch’s apparently inexhaustible capacity to inspire passionate attachment combines with Conradi’s penchant for piling on marginally relevant detail to leave us in hopeless confusion by the time the budding author graduates from Oxford. A moment of unintentional hilarity is achieved when Conradi interrupts his Homeric catalogue of those who fell under Murdoch’s spell to announce that “in the interests of clarity, this biography presents a few strands only” of its subject’s Byzantine entanglements.

Conradi industriously shines his professorial light into some hitherto ill-illuminated corners of Murdoch’s life. Particularly revelatory is his account of her scarring liaison with future Nobel laureate Elias Canetti, who, Conradi persuasively argues, is the model for the charismatically tyrannical “enchanter” figures that dominate many of her novels. Conradi bristles with indignation at the “Svengali-like” manner in which Canetti treated Murdoch and is often unable to keep himself from descending into ad hominem snideness: Canetti’s claim that Murdoch had experienced “real terror” only vicariously is “a curious charge, coming from someone who went to Amersham to escape the Blitz.”

Murdoch’s famously happy forty-three-year marriage to Bayley, an Oxford don and noted literary critic, receives less attention, perhaps because much of the relevant material has already been covered by Bayley in his bestselling series of memoirs. Conradi charts new ground, however, in his discussion of the only one of Murdoch’s romantic involvements to threaten the couple’s much-chronicled matrimonial bliss. Drawing on Murdoch’s journals, he reveals that Iris did not leave her academic post at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, in order to devote her time to writing, as was publicly reported. (Indeed, she took up teaching at the Royal College of Art immediately thereafter.) Rather, she hoped to escape from “a mutually obsessional attachment to a woman colleague that threatened scandal.” Conradi’s accounts of this episode and Murdoch’s other extramarital imbroglios are remarkably free from prurience; he treats such incidents as opportunities to gain insight into the complexity of her search for love rather than as occasions for scandal-mongering.

Conradi fails to do justice to his subject, however, in his discussion of her philosophical and political thought. “One aim of this biography,” he writes in his conclusion, “has been to suggest how intensely she lived, felt, and engaged with the pressures of her age.” Making sense of these pressures and sorting out the heterogeneous sources of her thought—Marxism, French existentialism, Christian and Buddhist mysticism, Platonism—is of course an imposing task; it was not without justification that Isaiah Berlin called her “a lady not known for the clarity of her views.” But Conradi makes no real attempt to trace the development of these views or to convey the complexity of Murdoch’s relations to the dominant intellectual currents of her century. He notes almost perfunctorily her shift in philosophical orientation during the early 1950s from a “mainstream Wittgensteinian” point of view towards “a more inclusive philosophy,” one “more open to Continental Europe,” but declines to devote any space to the significance of this evolution in the context of the then-chasmic split between Continental thought and Anglo-American analytic philosophy.

We learn from Conradi that Murdoch’s break with the English mainstream was regarded as near-apostasy by her peers; Berlin and A.J. Ayer, among others, were aggressively unsympathetic, and even her lifelong friend Philippa Foot, a distinguished analytic philosopher, told an interviewer that “she left us.” But we must turn to Murdoch’s collected philosophical writings, Existentialists and Mystics, edited by Conradi himself, to find out anything concerning the substance of her differences with Oxford philosophy. The essays collected there make it clear that while Murdoch had great respect for the clarity and logical rigor of the analytic school’s work, she felt that its reductive account of the human mind and, crucially, the ethical schemae founded on that account were profoundly inadequate. The “elimination of metaphysics from ethics,” she wrote, left moral philosophy “a stripped and empty scene.” Pointing out in several essays the thinness of what she called the “British Liberal” approach to moral reasoning, she argued forcefully for the reintegration of metaphysics and ethics, and so anticipated the central concerns of her late philosophical magnum opus, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. Conradi neglects to offer any substantive explication of Murdoch’s controversial views on these subjects and mentions only in passing the profound influence her work would have on a “less provincial” later generation of philosophers.

The biography is also disturbingly unclear on Murdoch’s ambivalent relation to Sartrean existentialism. Murdoch wrote her first book on Sartre and was instrumental in giving his ideas currency in the English-speaking world. But, as her essays from the early 1950s make clear, she came to see existentialist ethics, with its emphasis on moral choice, as ultimately a late and extreme version of what she regarded as a moribund liberal individualism.

Conradi’s failure to provide an illuminating picture of Murdoch’s philosophical development stems largely from his apparent unwillingness to acknowledge the depth and sincerity of her early commitment to Marxism as a philosophical and political project. He attributes her stint in the Communist Party as an undergraduate more to the influence of an eccentric boarding-school headmistress than to any genuine political engagement. He lumps Marxism with Anglo-Catholicism and existentialism, neither of which Iris ever firmly embraced, in a glib reference to Murdoch’s “immature philosophies.” Essay after essay in Existentialists and Mystics, however, shows the longevity and profundity of her attachment in post-Party years to what she called a “refurbished Marxism”—an anti-Stalinist Marxism alive to other philosophical traditions and to the moral complexity of lived experience. Conradi gives a single sentence of misleading summary to “A House of Theory,” Murdoch’s landmark contribution to socialist political thought; his circumscribed account of her trajectory of thought leaves us with no way of apprehending her true stature as a moral and political philosopher.

I wanted to write the first biography of Iris, but not the last,” Conradi writes in his introduction. Perhaps his successor will give us a more searching and attentive retracing of her intellectual odyssey. In the interim, however, Conradi’s book stands as an inviting guide to the inner terrain of Iris Murdoch, novelist, metaphysician, artist of life.