Iris Murdoch, The Virtuoso Of Virtue

The letters of the great writer reveal affairs with both sexes but also an intense intellectual and spiritual life

Academia Critique Literature Philosophy
Novelist and tutor, 1960: As a student, Iris Murdoch had confided to a friend: “I find myself quite astonishingly interested in the opposite sex” (photo: ©Horst Tappe/Pic Inc/Life Images Collection/Getty)

There are various ways to lead a life, but the most difficult form of life to write about is that of the mind, the intellectual life. The journey into a rich and profound interior existence, though arduous, is also the most rewarding for the writer, for it promises to reveal the buried treasure of imagination and ideas that give such a life its lustre. Leading the intellectual life is not the same as being an intellectual — not, at least, in the self-conscious, usually self-aggrandising sense of the word — but instead refers to an activity. The vita contemplativa is in reality a form of the vita activa, only all the action takes place in the mind. And it is this abstract species of action — the drama of interiority — that holds an all-consuming interest for a certain kind of novelist. The interest is proportionate to the intensity of the intellectual life in question. What is known in English as the novel of ideas, which originally derives from the German genre of the Bildungsroman, is the literary expression of the emergence of an intellectual life. It is here that the domains of the philosopher and the novelist overlap, nowhere more clearly than in the work of a woman whose intellectual life embraced both vocations with equal enthusiasm: Iris Murdoch (1919-1999).

By the time I made her acquaintance in the 1980s, Iris had been a public figure for a generation. Her only rival as a philosopher-novelist had been Sartre, whom she had introduced to the Anglo-Saxon world. Having outlived and in many ways outshone him, she was a star of the first magnitude in the intellectual constellation of post-war Europe. Though she belonged to a brilliant generation of female philosophers — her “dearest girl” Philippa (“Pip”) Foot, her “friend-foe” Elizabeth Anscombe, and her friends Mary Midgley and Mary Warnock — all of whom made major contributions to academic and public life, Iris was the only philosopher of either sex among her contemporaries to become a truly national figure. She deserved her renown; her posthumous reputation as a writer and thinker has survived the scrutiny of biographers and critics. She never wrote an autobiography, but her letters reveal her introspective side, as she looks back over la vie antérieure and forward to new fields — and men — to conquer.

I became aware of her name already in childhood; my mother reviewed the novels as they appeared for the TLS. One of my early memories at Oxford was failing to gain admittance to the Sheldonian Theatre to hear Iris deliver her 1976 Romanes Lecture (“The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato banished the artists”). The university was belatedly honouring one of its most celebrated dons, but her sphere of influence had never been confined to Oxford. Uniquely endowed with both analytical and synthetic talents, Iris Murdoch had effortlessly conquered both literary and academic worlds. Even queens of the cultural realm like Hannah Arendt or Susan Sontag could not claim to have produced a corpus of such breadth and depth: some 26 novels, plus poetry and plays, together with several volumes of philosophy, ranging from East to West and ancient to modern.

Occupying this pedestal might have made her insufferably pompous, pathologically reclusive, or both. Not a bit of it: Iris was friendly, down-to-earth and rather jolly. She and her husband John Bayley were by this point inseparable, growing old together in the manner described in Iris: A Memoir and depicted in the subsequent film. If Iris was no longer a wanderer in the wilderness on a quest for truth, beauty and the good, with an insatiable appetite for erotic adventure, she was still the composer of lyrical novels of ideas, the mistress of metaphysics, the virtuoso of virtue.

The last time I spent time with her, at a literary festival in the early 1990s, she was already suffering from the dementia that ultimately rendered the incomparable instrument of her mind incapable of performance. John unwisely let himself be persuaded by the festival director to coax Iris onto the platform for a debate. She could no longer cope with public speaking and her visible distress was excruciating to behold. But she still had moments of lucidity and her abiding emotion was that of gratitude. When I read aloud the greatest Holocaust poem in German, Paul Celan’s “Death Fugue”, to a disgruntled British audience, Iris said afterwards how much she had enjoyed the music of the verses, even though she was by then losing fluency in her own language. Iris was always grateful for small mercies, and her correspondence testifies to her overwhelming gratitude for love and companionship throughout her intellectual life.

Those letters have now appeared in a compulsively readable volume: Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch, 1934-1995, edited by Avril Horner and Anne Rowe (Chatto & Windus, 666pp, £25). Reflecting on her many affairs and friendships, one is driven to the conclusion that, for Iris, the most powerful aphrodisiac was genius. It worked both ways. She was so gifted that many of the most brilliant of her contemporaries of both sexes were drawn to her, but although she often reciprocated, she longed for the unattainable. Already in 1939, aged just 19, she wrote: “I find myself quite astonishingly interested in the opposite sex, and capable of being in love with about six men all at once — which gives rise to complications and distresses.” For Iris, love was a form of sentimental journey, an education in how to live. Each new man in her life — and there were often several at once — was an opportunity to experience the eroticism of intellectual discovery.

All her life, Iris found that, for her, love, sex and friendship were a single continuum, with no clear boundaries separating them. To the end, she was very much a “touchy-feely” person. In a self-revelatory letter in 1967 to Georg Kreisel, one of her few male friends who did not become her lover, she confessed that she was “probably not at all normal sexually. I am not a lesbian, in spite of one or two unevents on that front; I am certainly strongly interested in men. But I don’t think I want normal heterosexual relations with them. (It’s taken me a long time to find this out.) I think I am sexually rather odd, which is a male homosexual in female guise . . . I doubt if Freud knew anything about me, though Proust knew about my female equivalent. I have never been much good at going to bed, though quite often in love.”

Iris was never physically robust — she suffered all her life from asthma, Ménière’s disease (tinnitus, deafness, giddiness) and arthritis — and she identified with those who died young. Her first great love was Frank Thompson (elder brother of E.P. Thompson), whom she had hoped to marry until he was captured, tortured and executed by the Nazis. War and Holocaust, indeed, overshadowed her intellectual life almost as much as those who had lost family and homeland. She spent a year working with displaced persons for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in Belgium and Austria from 1945-46 — an experience that left her shattered but also exhilarated. Among many lovers, the next man she hoped to marry was the anthropologist and poet Franz Baermann Steiner, who died suddenly in 1952, at 43 of a heart attack after an intense but chaste eight-month relationship. Steiner had established himself in Oxford, but had lost the manuscript of his magnum opus on the sociology of slavery at Reading railway station (an episode Iris reworked in one of her novels). Through him she was introduced to oriental religion, to the world of Kafka’s Prague, of Jewish mysticism and Zionism, but also to the reality of evil. Steiner’s family had perished in Treblinka and for her, “Franz was certainly one of Hitler’s victims.” His asceticism and precarious hold on life attracted Iris, and his posthumous book Taboo, a minor classic, displays the rare quality of his intellect.

But it was Elias Canetti, Steiner’s friend from Vienna, who would exercise a lasting hold over her literary imagination and as he comforted her in mourning for her beloved Steiner, she fell under the spell of his hortative yet seductive personality. Her letters to Canetti are those of a pupil to a master, quite unlike any others that she wrote, for in general she felt herself fully equal to her male friends, even if they were older. Canetti claims that he never answered her letters; he made her adopt a secret code if she wished to call him, and generally forced her to dance to his tune. In his memoir Party im Blitz (Party in the Blitz), published only after both of them were dead, Canetti makes it clear that their relationship — “an embarrassingly one-sided affair” — was all about power. He forced her to abandon the Christianity to which she had returned. In 1954, Canetti forbade her to have sex with her latest conquest, John Bayley, whom she would marry two years later. His descriptions of her appearance, her lovemaking, even her hospitality, ooze with condescension, indeed malice. Her only virtue, in his eyes, was to be a good listener, but even this back-handed compliment was double-edged: “She kept her piratical nature well hidden but was out to rob each of her lovers, not of his heart but of his intellect.” He saw her as a cross between an Oxford don and a vampire; she saw him as a sorcerer, but a dangerous one to his circle of apprentices. Though she never belonged to Canetti’s Hampstead Kreis — modelled on that of his hero, Karl Kraus, in 1920s Vienna — she observed his manipulative magnetism at work. In a late letter to Michael Hamburger, she declared: “Canetti is not anywhere in my novels, by the way! I would not want to ‘copy’ people, I invent them.” And yet from the character Mischa Fox in The Flight from the Enchanter onwards, Canetti’s presence haunts her fiction. Despite immortalising him, she aroused his literary envy as well as his sexual jealousy. Canetti even turned the fact that she was prolific against her: “I consider her as, so to speak, an ‘illegitimate’ writer. She never had to suffer for having to write.” Her fluency and success must have contrasted painfully with his own lack of either.

When he finally won the Nobel Prize in 1981, it was for his one and only novel, Die Blendung (translated as Auto da Fè), which had appeared as long ago as 1935. He also struggled to write non-fiction, again producing a single work, Crowds and Power (1960), which failed to make the éclat he had expected, at least in Britain. Canetti resented the fact that his talent as a memoirist and a miniaturist led him to aphoristic and fragmentary forms that had less prestige than novel or treatise. Iris eventually freed herself from the tutelage of the man her husband referred to sardonically as “the Dichter”, but she continued to act as a kind of unofficial spokesman for him. In 1982, she wrote to the Sunday Times to defend Canetti against the claim that he had refused to publish an earlier memoir (The Torch in My Ear) in Britain “because he resents neglect of his work in this country. This is not his motive; he wishes simply to avoid hurting the feelings of certain people who live here.” Iris would have been mortified to read his posthumous revenge on her.

Iris’s correspondence testifies to other passions for older men of high intellect, many of them émigrés from Nazi-occupied Europe, from whom she learnt what she could: M.R.D. Foot, the war hero and SOE historian who later married (and divorced) her friend Philippa Bosanquet; Thomas Balogh, the Hungarian economist, whom she denounced as “the devil incarnate” and “quite unscrupulous”, but who seems to have cured her of Communism; Eduard Fraenkel, her “dear” tutor in classics who, though “a little sadistic”, gave her “a vision of excellence”; Raymond Queneau, the French writer and editor at Gallimard, whom Iris loved but never seduced; Arnaldo Momigliano, the historian of ancient Rome, who introduced her to Italy; and Georg Kreisel, a favourite disciple of Wittgenstein himself, who became her confidante and the model for Marcus Vallar, the charismatic healer in The Message to the Planet. A smaller number of women were also close to Iris. Some were bisexual — such as Philippa Foot and Brigid Brophy, the novelist and musicologist who carried on a series of lesbian affairs while married to the director of the National Gallery, Michael Levey — while others were equally unconventional, such as Lucy Klatschko, who gave up secular life for her vocation as a nun, Sister Marian of Stanbrook Abbey. What these friends of Iris had in common was that they all loved her, even if they left her.

I have left Michael Oakeshott till last because his relationship with Iris was perhaps the most improbable of them all. A political philosopher of real stature, who had a short affair and a long friendship with Iris, Oakeshott carried on a vigorous correspondence with her from 1958 to 1963, though their friendship faded in later years. When John Bayley sold her working library in 2003, I wrote a piece about the marginalia. Nine years after their affair in 1950, Oakeshott gave her a book on philosophy “with very much love”, but his guide to the Derby, How to Pick a Winner, was unread. It was Oakeshott who, having broken off the affair, later became the emotionally needy one, as he poured out his woes over an unhappy relationship with a married woman. They were both romantics, although their politics at this stage were at opposite poles: he was becoming the leading conservative thinker of the day, while she was still firmly on the anti-Communist Left. “I suspect you are responsible, by reaction,” she teased him in 1958, “for a lot of my political ideas!” Soothingly, she added: “But my thoughts of you are not political at all.” What seems to have fascinated her about his thought was his critique of rationalism in politics, in favour of custom and experience.

In later years, Iris moved much further in Oakeshott’s direction. She was unimpressed by the radicalism of the 1960s and even more alarmed by the rise of Islamic radicalism after 1979. To the American literary critic Naomi Lebowitz, she came out with an extraordinary prophecy, while denouncing the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie:

The Muslims in this country (quite a substantial number of them) speak like savage madmen — I mean some of them do, and keep it up. All men speaking out and being photographed, of course, no women. They are constantly demanding Muslim schools, compulsory separation of women, teaching the Koran etc. They are quite unlike other persons from elsewhere. Perhaps Islam will conquer the whole planet in the next century. To think that the wicked old priest can condemn someone to death just by pointing at him — it’s a nightmare . . . It is a pity that Islam will now be hated in this country — including nice perhaps innocent shopkeepers etc. who just want to go on with their lives. But I exaggerate I daresay. Anyway it’s a rotten religion which owes much of its popularity to its absolute and fundamental degradation of women. Or expresses what (a large number of) men feel in their hearts.

It is remarkable that a woman whose mind was open to almost all spiritual ideas should have rejected Islam so vehemently — and yet have feared its ultimate triumph. Her life was devoted to the consolations of philosophy, but she yearned for something more. “Why do I want to write philosophy, why can’t I just forget it, what use is it anyway? I suppose it is a sort of addiction,” she wrote in her last letter to Brigid Brophy. “Is it philosophy, am I any good at it? Probably not.” To Sister Marian, she lamented “the loss of Christianity” among the young. “I think that Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism find it easier to handle what is holy, what is good — to keep it in a changing scene . . . We, who are not Jews etc. suffer from the awful crude clarities of the technological age.”

Iris never lost her own curiosity about the world but she missed such curiosity in the culture that was emerging. I shall always cherish a memory from the 1980s, before her mind became occluded by Alzheimer’s, of sitting with Iris and John, plus a couple of others, in a bleak hotel room with nothing but a bottle of sherry to keep us company. We talked about philosophy, politics, literature and life. She hated anything that sought to place limits on such conversation. Iris Murdoch’s letters are a testament to her determination not merely to lead the intellectual life but to enjoy it too.