“Ragged, Inglorious, and Apparently Purposeless”: Iris Murdoch, Under the Net


Like a fish which swims calmly in deep water, I felt all about me the secure supporting pressure of my own life. Ragged, inglorious, and apparently purposeless, but my own.

In the very last chapter of Under the Net, I finally arrived at a passage that was the kind of writing I’d expected from Iris Murdoch:

Events stream past us like these crowds and the face of each is seen only for a minute. What is urgent is not urgent forever but only ephemerally. All work and all love, the search for wealth and fame, the search for truth, life itself, are made up of moments which pass and become nothing. Yet through this shaft of nothings we drive onward with that miraculous vitality that creates our precarious habitations in the past and the future. So we live; a spirit that broods and hovers over the continual death of time, the lost meaning, the unrecaptured moment, the unremembered face, until the final chop chop that ends all our moments and plunges that spirit back into the void from which it came.

OK, “the final chop chop” is unexpectedly colloquial, but overall this is more or less what I thought a “philosophical novelist” would sound like, or write about.

I’m not sorry Under the Net was not like that all the way through. In fact, I’m thrilled and relieved that it wasn’t, because imagine how dreary and pretentious it would have been! I am sorry, though, that I had so little understanding in advance of what Under the Net actually is like, or is about, because most of the time while I was reading it I felt quite adrift — not in an angrily puzzled way, but in an off-balance, faintly delirious way. I could tell that the novel was some kind of kunstlerroman — that Jake was somehow becoming something more or other, especially as a writer, than he was at the start. It felt like a quest plot, too, though a strangely erratic one, as Jake rushed off in one direction and then another, each time quite sure of what he was doing but rarely of exactly why or to what larger end. “There was a path which awaited me,” Jake says at one point, “and which if I failed to take it would lie untrodden forever.” His challenge, and thus our challenge, is first to discern it, and then to follow it.

For a while I concluded that the aimlessness, the fits and starts, were themselves the point: that Jake’s peripatetic misadventures stood in for a vision of life as itself without direction or purpose. I’m still not entirely sure that’s not the point — but at the end of the novel there’s a sense, not of everything coming together into a shapely unity, but of Jake gathering up the loose ends and preparing to make something more out of them. If I’d read the Introduction first, rather than last, I would have  seen this coming. Instead, the Introduction confirmed it for me: “In a nutshell,” says Kiernan Ryan helpfully, “Under the Net is Jake Donaghue’s account of how he became the writer who wrote Under the Net.” Aha! Although where, in Under the Net itself, qua novel, is the evidence of that slow-growing self-awareness and control? Maybe that’s to imagine Jake becoming a different kind of writer — the kind Pip is, for instance, in Great Expectations, one who infuses the story of his past inadequacies with the wisdom they helped him acquire. Maybe Jake has not acquired any wisdom, or maybe he doesn’t believe in art with such a moralizing bent. Ryan notes the novel’s affinity with a literary tradition I don’t know well at all: “the French surrealist Raymond Queneau, to whom the novel is dedicated, and the novels of Samel Beckett,” for instance. My disorientation arose, that suggests, from my associating the idea of a “philosophical novelist” with a different tradition — with George Eliot and Henry James, for instance, not just in their realism and moral seriousness but in their overt designs on their readers. What in either of them could have prepared me for the Marvellous Mister Mars?

Ryan’s introduction points out a whole range of things that I really didn’t grasp about Under the Net and philosophy — or as philosophy. If I reread Under the Net, I would try to focus on the meanings he sets out for its motley array of characters and its bizarre, seemingly haphazard events. That would be the way to a good reading of the novel, or at least a better one than I managed this time. In my defense, though, I don’t think that happy confusion is an illegitimate first response to Under the Net. Murdoch’s choice of an unaware first-person narrator means that we are necessarily in a different position than we are with Eliot or James: short-sighted or deluded where he is, hampered by his limitations of perception and insight. This doesn’t mean we can’t tell when he’s screwing up, but it does make it more of a pleasant surprise when he arrives at some self-knowledge, as when it occurs to him that his former lover Anna “really existed now as a separate being and not as part of myself”:

Anna was something which had to be learnt afresh. When does one ever know a human being? Perhaps only after one has realized the impossibility of knowledge and renounced the desire for it and finally ceased to feel even the need of it. But then what one achieves is no longer knowledge, it is simply a kind of co-existence; and this too is one of the guises of love.

There he goes again, being philosohical! And this, too, is near the end of the book, so it feels like somewhere Jake has arrived after some effort. The puzzle of Under the Net is how exactly he figured this out — and also how seriously we are  supposed to take it, given how bad Jake’s understanding of himself, of others, of life, has been up to this point. It feels more like a revelation than like any form of Bildung, and simply happening upon a significant idea is not a particularly philosophical method.

I could quote more of the introduction about how this all actual reflects “the fundamental wisdom that suffuses Iris Murdoch’s fiction,” and how the novel is “the imaginative embodiment of Murdoch’s artistic creed,” but that would be to borrow someone else’s comprehension as a mask for my own ongoing bemusement. Under the Net is the first Murdoch I’ve read. Maybe the pieces will fall into place as I read more! In the meantime, I look forward to my book club’s discussion tomorrow.

Philosophical Novels

In this week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review, James Ryerson wonders about the relationship between philosophy and literature:

Both disciplines seek to ask big questions, to locate and describe deeper truths, to shape some kind of order from the muddle of the world. But are they competitors — the imaginative intellect pitted against the logical mind — or teammates, tackling the same problems from different angles?

Interesting question! You could write a whole book about it–indeed, it could probably generate enough discussion to sustain an entire scholarly journal! Or, I guess, you could rattle off a few paragraphs in the Times.

Ryerson’s is a pretty typical piece in that it focuses on philosophy as a set of ideas and on literature as an aesthetic practice rather than considering the way form itself might have philosophical implications or be used to carry out or exemplify ideas. He also makes, but then fortunately backs away from, some of the silly broad generalizations that get bandied about when this topic comes up, such as “Philosophy is concerned with the general and abstract; literature with the specific and particular. Philosophy dispels illusions; literature creates them.” When people say things like this, I just want to mutter “Pope!” at them until they stop talking.

Ryerson touches on a number of the usual suspects for a discussion of this topic, including Aristotle, Sartre, Henry James, and Iris Murdoch, along with Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (author of the fairly tedious 36 Arguments for the Existence of God–a novel written by, for, and about philosophers if there ever was one!) but never mentions the one novelist to have been included in a dictionary of philosophers as well as to have been discussed in the eminent philosophy journal Mind–George Eliot. Martha Nussbaum’s indifference to Eliot in Love’s Knowledge prompted my own foray into this territory, “Martha Nussbaum and the Moral Life of Middlemarch.” This essay focused primarily on arguing with Nussbaum about her fixation on Henry James in general and The Golden Bowl in particular:

In this essay, I examine Martha Nussbaum’s fundamental claim about fiction, which I will call her “formal claim”: her argument that the philosophical significance of novels is to be found not in whatever theories or principles they might overtly discuss or dramatize but in their literary form and in their style.  Drawing on my analysis of this formal claim, I critique the Jamesian-Aristotelian model she develops as profoundly anti-philosophical in its commitment to indeterminacy, mystery, and complexity.  I argue that the Jamesian consciousness Nussbaum would have us emulate, far from being, as she believes, egalitarian, humane, and morally responsible, is elitist, exclusionary, and morally inert.[1] I propose, instead, George Eliot’s Middlemarch as exemplary of fiction’s potential as moral philosophy, for its approach and its answer to the question “How should one live?” and for its integration of novelistic perception and philosophic reflection.

[1] As Catherine Gardner describes it, the traditional philosophical approach or “philosophical model” is “the search for cogent and consistent arguments, the evaluation of the correctness of conclusions, and the construction of a systematic theory from these conclusions and arguments.”  Moral Philosophy and the Novels of George Eliot.  Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation (Philosophy), University of Virginia, 1996, p. 3.  Gardner suggests that George Eliot’s novels are “too ‘philosophical’ (in the traditional sense)” to satisfy Nussbaum’s desire for fiction that, like James’s, emphasizes perception, inquiry, and uncertainty.

Nussbaum’s method, ironically, is philosophical insofar as she considers her textual examples ahistorically, investigating their arguments or theories as a contemporary analytic philosopher approaches Descartes or Aquinas—that is, with little regard for historical or contextual placing or significance.  Alisdair MacIntyre notes “the persistently unhistorical treatment of moral philosophy by contemporary philosophers . . . [who] all too often treat the moral philosophers of the past as contributors to a single debate with a relatively unvarying subject-matter, treating Plato and Hume and Mill as contemporaries both of ourselves and of each other.”  After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory.  2nd edition.  (U Notre Dame P, 1984), p. 11.

Aren’t you glad I don’t write this way in my blog posts? In retrospect, I am very aware that I was actually trying to write ‘philosophically’ myself. I’m not actually a fan of ‘metadiscourse’–talking about the essay and its argument instead of just, you know, writing the essay and making the argument–but I was suffering a certain boundary-crossing anxiety. I had more fun later on in the essay when I got to turn away from Nussbuam (and The Golden Bowl–whew!) and write about Middlemarch:

Readers of Middlemarch will be well aware of how many passages in the novel insist on this need to replace the “flattering illusion” of our own centrality with the realization that others have an “equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference” (135).  My own interest here is to point out how the narrative itself, in its form, adheres to this principle and thus becomes, as Nussbaum argues James’s novels become, not just an account of but an example of the moral imperative—the ethical approach—it advocates.  Catherine Gardner notes that most philosophical approaches to literature leave us wondering “why we would want to read [these theories] in a novel rather than a philosophical treatise,” while discussions of Eliot and philosophy leave it “unclear why Eliot would choose to express her ideas in the form of a novel.”[1] . . . Fictional form of the sort Eliot creates is essential to the adequate presentation of this philosophical outlook: while the novel’s morality can be summarized or paraphrased, such a reduced account cannot reproduce the movement from self to other.  George Eliot’s moral philosophy, to put it another way, requires fictional form precisely because its basis is that movement from our own limited perspectives to the point of view of others and an awareness of relationships and connections across a wide range of individual experiences—the intellectual and imaginative movement that is the basis of sympathy.  While Middlemarch often, through its characters and events, tells us the value of this movement, and dramatizes the need for it as well as its difficulties, costs, and rewards, its greatest contribution as philosophical fiction is that it moves its readers in just this way.  Unlike readers of The Golden Bowl, readers of Middlemarch participate while they are reading the novel in an active, engaged ethical program.

. . .

“One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea—but why always Dorothea?  Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage?” (175).  Over and over . . . Middlemarch challenges the assumption that a single point of view suffices for understanding.  Just as individual characters learn by revisiting, rethinking, what they have seen or done, the novel and its implied author enact the moral obligation to see things from a different angle and disrupt our own desire—egotistical or readerly—to think, as [Geoffrey] Harpham puts it, “only through the ‘I.’”  And, as in the example from Chapter 29 just quoted, the overt artifice, the intrusiveness, of this method induces self-consciousness about it and so reflection on its implications: philosophical deliberation is both modeled and prompted by these novelistic techniques.  Not only does Eliot’s implied author demonstrate an ethos much more congenial to community as well as individual flourishing than James’s, but she also practices a form of fiction that works with her readers towards an answer to the question, not “How should one live?” but “How should we live?”

[1] Moral Philosophy and the Novels of George Eliot, p. 19.  Her chief example of such a conventional approach to philosophy in Eliot’s fiction is George Levine’s discussion of Eliot’s determinism.

OK, it’s not deathless prose, but it made it past the gatekeepers at Philosophy & Literature (home, of course, of the Bad Writing Contest). And I did make my best effort to get in the game Nussbaum proposed, which was to stop looking at literary texts as examples of philosophical problems or considering them philosophically significant only insofar as they overtly parrot or dramatize specific philosophical theorems, and instead to think about how their actual literary qualities get certain kinds of ethical work done. Much of the work I’ve read in this suposedly interdisciplinary zone moves very quickly towards plot summary, but if the important work of a novel is done at that reductive level, what an inefficient process!*

*My essay is behind a paywall, unfortunately, but if you’re actually interested in reading the whole thing and can’t get at it, let me know.