A divine literary intelligence

In one of the last interviews with Iris Murdoch, Jason Cowley found her still pondering on the space

Late in the summer of 1993, when I worked as a reporter on the Bookseller magazine, I was despatched to interview Iris Murdoch at her large, eccentrically dishevelled house in north Oxford. She had just published The Green Knight, her 25th novel, and I was amazed when my idle request for an interview was granted. As it turned out, it was to be one of the last she ever gave. Not four years away from being an undergraduate, I was gauche and clumsy in her presence, mumbling the word "Dame" several times when she opened the door and stumbling over books scattered across her narrow hallway. My first question, describing one of her characters as "imperiously innocent", was greeted with a sympathetic smile and then a question of her own: "What exactly do you mean by that, young man?"

It was hard, listening to the tape of our conversation again this week, not to read into the gaps and omissions in her sentences - the stumbles and pauses, the memory lapses - early evidence of the Alzheimer's disease that banished her, for the last 30 months of her life, to a twilight realm of memory loss and baffled wonder. That morning, her stomach gently rumbling, she spoke with powerful regret of what she saw as the hard secularism of the modern world. "I think people must make an effort to retain Christianity, but in a non-literal form, as it were - not having to believe in God as a person or that Christ was divine, but to believe in everything that Christ meant. This is something that mustn't be lost . . . I believe it is quite possible to have a kind of teaching of religion which is not just meant for Christians. Some sort of teaching of morals should be present in schools. The problem with so many schools is that they remain under the influence of the free thinkers of 1968; they don't bother about spelling and everyone is into free expression."

Her fiction can be read as a kind of an extended elegy for that lost world of religious certainty of which she spoke, her characters stumbling unhappily in the spaces where God used to be. Her best novels are intricate moral parables, mini-quests on which her always educated creations embark to answer the question posed by Michael in The Bell: "What is the requirement of the good life?" A moral philosopher, Murdoch was genuinely troubled by this question, and she worried away at it, returning again and again to it, as she sought to refine and animate a secular morality. If her writing could be solemn, over-determined and repetitive, it was also surprisingly sensual and hard to forget. Hard to forget because of its very strangeness and eerie rigour. She sounded like no other writer.

Murdoch famously never allowed her work to be edited. It began to show. As she grew older, her novels, particularly the sequence of five beginning with The Philosopher's Pupil (1983) and ending in The Green Knight, became longer, more opaque and mannered: a great continuous symphony, with each work an instrument complementing and commenting on the one that went before. Late-phase Murdoch invariably featured a brilliant charismatic, a Wittgenstein-like figure who exerts a mesmeric hold over a group of people - Lucas or Peter in The Green Knight, Gerald Hernshaw in The Book and the Brotherhood, John Roberts in The Philosopher's Pupil; the characters' love relations are painfully intertwined; there are Shakespearean echoes; there is a mythic or visionary perspective; and death is always the intruder.

Peter Conradi, in his Guardian obituary this week, approvingly compared Murdoch to Dostoevsky. This is an important mistake. Murdoch may have grappled, like Dostoevsky, with moral and theological dilemmas, but there is none of the Russian's urban mania in her fiction, little of his existential extremism or tortured interiority. Reading Dostoevsky you feel that anything might happen; that the author himself, like a racing driver pushing himself and his car to the limit, had no idea where his erratic talent might take him, or what form his novel would take. Murdoch, by contrast, knew absolutely everything about her characters and the form of her novel before she began writing. The hard work was in the thought and planning; there was little to surprise her in its execution. So hers was a controlling, almost divine literary intelligence.

Iris Murdoch's own search for the good life was politically interesting; she metaphorically crossed the floor. Her journey from youthful illusion to disillusionment, from early support of the Communist Party to a kind of inchoate Thatcherism, was a model for her generation. By the time I met her a sad twilight had settled over her; she confessed to being "deeply disillusioned" by the contemporary world, by the cheapening of religion and the failure of progressive educational policies (she considered the comprehensive model a disastrous experiment in social engineering, more extreme than even the educational system of Soviet Russia).

"I became a Marxist at the time of the Spanish civil war: it was an emotional period as those who were against Franco were swept to the left," she told me. "At that time, I read a lot of Lenin and was caught up with the notion of building a better world. But I became quickly disillusioned with Marxism; the ideals were OK but what was being done in its name was awful. I remained on the left for a long time, up until the emergence of Arthur Scargill, really. I don't know where I am now - I feel very distressed by politics."

As a young woman Murdoch met Sartre and was swayed by the radical self- liberation of existentialism; she moved on to embrace a kind of ethical Platonism through which to see the good is simply to see the world as it really is.

To the end, though, she was unable to make that final leap into faith: a theologian in search of a consoling eschatology. "God does not and cannot exist," she wrote. "But what led us to conceive of him does exist and is constantly experienced and pictured. That is, as an Idea, and also incarnate in knowledge and work and love."

She and John Bayley, her devoted husband of more than 40 years, had no television. "At intervals," she told me, chuckling, "we get notes from the local authorities saying, 'We see that you have no television set, what is the reason for this?' and I have to reply, 'We don't like television'. I very much agree with Whitehouse and others that indiscriminate television can be very damaging to children, even the very jokey things."

The sadness is that Iris Murdoch, in her last, levelling years of illness, came to like television very much indeed, particularly Teletubbies, which she would watch in a kind of rapture each morning, one of the best minds of her generation entranced by the overlit, technicolour simplicities of La-La, Dipsy, Tinky-Winky and Po.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain