Philosophy Essays Iris Murdoch The Bell

1. Murdoch’s Religion

Iris Murdoch’s account of the relationship between art, morals and religion is a response to the Christian doctrine of original sin, updated by Freud, which, for Murdoch, amounts to the claim that “[o]bjectivity and unselfishness are not natural to human beings” ([1], p. 51)1. She thinks that it is no longer possible to believe in God understood as a supernatural person ([3], p. 419); for Murdoch, “our sense of reality has shifted, we explain the world in new ways which cohere with all our new knowledge” ([4], p. 84). The method for overcoming human sinfulness which she therefore advocates is contemplation of the Good, a “principle of truthful cognition and moral understanding...a ‘reality principle’ whereby we find our way about the world” ([3], p. 474). She suggests that Plato’s Trinity, consisting of the Forms, the Demiurge and the World Soul, is “more morally radiant than that of the Church” ([5], p. 52) because “[t]he image of a morally perfect but not all-powerful Goodness seems…better to express some ultimate (inexpressible) truth about our condition” ([5], p. 52). In addition, “the eternal separate inviolate Forms seem…a more profound image of moral and spiritual reality than the picture of a personal Father, however good” ([5], p. 52).

Nevertheless, although the Good is not another name for God, it is described using some of the attributes which have been traditionally ascribed to God—both God and the Good are “single perfect transcendent non-representable and necessarily real object[s] of attention” ([1], p. 55)—and the Good is regarded as a metaphor for the transcendent reality for which God is also a symbol ([1], p. 93; [3], p. 428). Indeed, Murdoch suggests that “Buddhism and Hinduism, even more ‘picturesque’ than Christianity, have always provided a variety of paths whereby their ‘gods’ can be seen as images of a higher reality” ([3], p. 451). Thus, the Good and God in Murdoch’s thought have a common noumenal denominator2. Attention to the Good shows us general moral rules (for example, “do not lie”, “be helpful”, and “be kind” ([3], p. 302)), purifies our desires ([3], p. 109), and helps us to act well in every situation by enabling “the true and just seeing of people and human institutions, which is also a seeing of the invisible through the visible, the real through the apparent, the spiritual beyond the material” ([3], p. 475). For Murdoch, reality is “the object of truthful vision, and virtuous action...[is] the product of such vision” ([3], p. 39).

Although, for Murdoch, the Good is largely substituted for God3, she does appear to regard her position as religious. For Murdoch, “religion is…the passionate love of good” ([3], p. 326), and is concerned with “reconciliation and forgiveness and renewal of life and salvation from sin and despair” ([3], p. 129). She suggests that “Christianity can continue without a personal God or a risen Christ, without beliefs in supernatural places and happenings, such as heaven and life after death, but retaining the mystical figure of Christ occupying a place analogous to that of Buddha: a Christ who can console and save, but who is to be found as a living force within each human soul and not in some supernatural elsewhere” ([3], p. 419). Such a view, Murdoch suggests, “would preserve and renew the Christian tradition as it has always, hitherto, somehow or other, been preserved and renewed. It has always changed itself into something that can be generally believed” ([3], p. 419). To accomplish this, Murdoch thinks that it may “be necessary for philosophers to become theologians and theologians to become philosophers” ([3], p. 419).

Broadly speaking, Murdoch offers two philosophical arguments in support of her position. The first is a set of “arguments from experience concerned with the realism which we perceive to be connected with goodness” ([1], p. 75), which is developed in her chapter on the Ontological Proof in the Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals ([3], Chapter 13)4. I focus here on the second argument, “the love and detachment which is exhibited in great art” ([1], p. 75), an argument which is developed in Chapters 1, 4 and 5 of the Metaphysics but permeates much of her philosophical writing5. I suggest that this argument has five distinct but related strands, and argue that, taken together, these may be regarded as a cumulative case for the existence of the Good/God.

2. Murdoch on the Relationship between Art and Religion

Murdoch suggests that “[t]he Judaeo-Christian God owes a considerable debt to art, may even be seen as a work of art” ([3], p. 7), and that “[m]uch religious belief is like living in a work of art” ([3], p. 131). Indeed, she thinks, religion without art may be a kind of theological magic; “If we are to like religion we cannot be instantly confronted with nothing but the frightful austerity of what it is really asking!” ([3], p. 130) Murdoch argues that both the Christian Gospels and the writings of Paul may be understood as works of art. The Gospels “are the kind of great art where we feel: It is so” ([3], p. 128). Christ may be seen as “a universal tragic character” ([3], p. 125), and the Gospels show us “defeat turning into victory, the triumph of suffering over death, suffering set up as the adversary of death. The frightful story of Christ’s death becomes a supreme cosmic event. The terrified confused abandoned disciples turn into heroes and geniuses. The story of Christ is the story that we want to hear: that suffering can be redemptive, and that death is not the end. Suffering and death are now joined in such a way that the former swallows up the latter. Suffering need not be pointless, it need not be wasted, it has meaning, it can be the way. The dying Christ redeems suffering itself, even beautifies it, as well as overcoming death” ([3], p. 128). Similarly, “Paul’s writings, also great art, express a kind of demonic power, a sense of something being created before one’s eyes by a force of inspired will, which convinces by rhetoric” ([3], p. 128). But even “[s]imple edifying religious homilies (as in sermons, Thoughts for the Day, etc.), using homely examples and excluding anything lofty or high-flown” may be regarded as “a clearly recognisable art form” ([3], p. 126).

Thus, for Murdoch, religious texts, religion, and perhaps even the Judaeo-Christian God, may be regarded as works of art. But Murdoch also argues that all great works of art are, in some sense, religious. Therefore, “[u]nderstanding what art is, its charms, its powers, its limits, helps us to understand religion” ([3], p. 83).

3. Murdoch’s Five Ways from Art to Religion

Although Murdoch acknowledges “the fundamentally religious nature of Plato’s objections to art…Art is dangerous [for Plato] chiefly because it apes the spiritual and subtly disguises and trivializes it” ([5], p. 65), she thinks that “Plato never did justice to the unique truth-conveying capacities of art” ([5], p. 85). In this section, I identify five ways in which, according to Murdoch, great art supports moral/religious belief and practice.

3.1. Art as Revelation

For Murdoch, great art shows us “the world as we were never able so clearly to see it before” ([5], p. 78) by leading us towards “a juster, clearer, more detailed, more refined understanding of human nature, or of the natural world which crowds upon our senses” ([11], p. 90). For example, she suggests, Rubens’ painting of the Last Supper shows Judas’ dog sitting under his chair, which invites us to see him not simply as the villain whose action led to the death of Christ but as a sinful human being with redeeming qualities ([3], p. 86)—like other sinful human beings—and thus to conclude that human nature is never unambiguously good or bad.

Art also reveals to us “accident and contingency and the general muddle of life, the limitations of time and the discursive intellect”, enabling us “to survey complex or horrible things which would otherwise appal us” ([3], p. 8). For Murdoch, the bad story is “the sentimental untruthful tale of how the brave attractive ego...triumphs over accident and causality and is never really mocked or brought to nought” ([3], p. 86). Bad art “misrepresents the world so as to pretend there is no defeat” ([3], p. 88), whereas “[a] study of good literature, or of any good art, enlarges and refines our understanding of truth” ([3], p. 86).

3.2. Art as Evidence for the Existence of the Good/God

In showing us the world as we have never seen it before, great art, Murdoch claims, enables us to deduce the existence of the principle which gave rise to such attentive perception, and helps us to attend to or contemplate it. Murdoch suggests that there is “something in the serious attempt to look compassionately at human things which automatically suggests that ‘there is more than this’”. This “there is more than this” is “a very tiny spark of insight” which has “a metaphysical position but no metaphysical form” and “great art is evidence of its reality” ([1], p. 73). According to Murdoch, a work of art “conveys...the idea of a transcendent perfection” ([3], p. 8). Indeed, “[t]he art object, transcendent, clarified, self-contained, alone, secure and time-resistant, shedding light upon the miserable human scene, prompting compassion and just judgment, seems like a picture of goodness itself, a sort of semi-sensory image of a spiritual ideal” ([3], p. 9).

Even great art can never constitute more than an imperfect image of Good/God, however, because it cannot give us an accurate representation of every aspect of the world. For example, it is unable to portray the extreme horrors of life: “[W]e need only to reflect seriously upon really terrible human fates to see that they exceed art, are utterly different from art: bereavements...oppression, starvation, torture, terrorism, the father murdered in front of his child, the innumerable people who at this moment die of hunger in deserts and suffer without hope in prisons. And the fate of the Jews under Hitler which has become a symbol of the capacity and strength of human wickedness” ([3], p. 94). Art offers “some consolation, some sense, some form whereas the most dreadful ills of human life allow of none” ([3], p. 93).

Like art, religion can also offer consolation. It is “traditionally connected with bliss, whether as something to be attained hereafter or, by the elect, enjoyed in this life” ([3], p. 123). But, religion “also contains a self-transcending imperative, a continuous...urge to move beyond false consolation, suggesting a magnetic end-point where there is no more illusion, only truth” ([3], p. 124). It is for this reason that the highest forms of religion ultimately surpass even the greatest works of art in their ability to point towards the transcendent principle of Good/God ([3], p. 93).

3.3. Art as a “Hall of Reflection”

Art not only reveals the true nature of reality, thereby pointing beyond itself towards a transcendent guiding principle of goodness; it also provides us with opportunities to consider morally relevant situations. Murdoch suggests that art is “a great hall of reflection where we can all meet and where everything under the sun can be examined and considered” ([5], p. 86; [3], p. 8). Literary works, in particular, enable us to experiment with different fictional situations in order to try to understand them and discover appropriate courses of action so that, when we are required to act, we act well. Thus, by examining, for example, the accounts of Tamar’s experience of abortion in Murdoch’s novel The Book and the Brotherhood ([12], pp. 283–85, 322–30, 342–48, 364–68, 442–46, 449–51), we might be able to gain a better understanding of the nature of the moral dilemmas which such a situation can present, along with the emotional distress with which it may be associated, and thus to make a more reasoned assessment of the moral arguments concerning abortion than might otherwise have been possible. Although we may sometimes be able to gain the understanding which we need by means of direct personal experience of a similar situation, or, perhaps, from the accounts of others whose life-experiences differ from our own, no single person can gain all of their morally-relevant knowledge in this way. Furthermore, others’ accounts of their experiences must necessarily be selective, and may possibly be embellished. As Murdoch observes, “even the man who is telling his wife what happened at the office, is confronted, whether he knows it or not, by questions concerning objectivity, impartiality, truth, justice” ([13], p. 254). Noël Carroll suggests, however, that “the way in which moral understanding is enhanced by narrative artworks need not be thought of as a matter of the fiction supplying readers with templates that they then go on to match to real cases.” He cites the example of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which, for Carroll, shows us that evil is produced by the environment and social conditioning. Even though “[w]e are not in a position to measure real-life cases on a one-to-one basis against the story of Frankenstein…after reading the novel our moral understanding may be more sophisticated in such a way that we can identify cases of injustice quite unlike that portrayed in Frankenstein.” ([14], pp. 146–47).

Carroll also notes that medieval theologians acknowledged the importance of examples for moral understanding in their recommendation of the use of the exemplum which can be traced to Aristotle’s discussions of illustrations in his Rhetoric ([14], p. 146). Indeed, Carroll suggests, art “shares the thought experiment with philosophy” ([15], p. 137). But Martha Nussbaum argues that “[s]chematic philosophers’ examples almost always lack the particularity, the emotive appeal, the absorbing plottedness, the variety and indeterminacy, of good fiction; they lack, too, good fiction’s way of making the reader a participant and a friend” ([16], p. 46). She therefore suggests that we need “either side by side with a philosophical ‘outline’ or inside it—texts which display to us the complexity, the indeterminacy, the sheer difficulty of moral choice, and which show us…the childishness, the refusal of life involved in fixing everything in advance according to some system of inviolable rules” ([16], pp. 141–42). This function, Nussbaum argues, cannot be easily performed by philosophical texts that adopt a hard, plain style and speak in universal terms. Such texts, she thinks, fail to grasp the uniqueness of the particular, and cannot convey the complexity of the “matter of the practical” and “the active adventure of the deliberative intelligence, the ‘yearnings of thought and excursions of sympathy’ that make up much of our actual moral life?” ([16], p. 142, quoting [17], II.330)6.

3.4. Art as an Analogue for World-Perception

Art can also serve as an analogue for the way in which we should try to perceive our world. According to Murdoch, great art attempts to show us reality untainted by “the intrusion of fantasy”, or “the assertion of self” ([1], p. 59). For example, she suggests that, unlike the Romantic novelists, great writers such as Scott and Tolstoy portray their characters as “free, independent of their author, and not merely puppets in the exteriorization of some closely locked psychological conflict of his own” ([18], p. 257). Shakespeare, being “the most invisible of writers”, is the greatest exponent of such “tolerance” ([18], p. 261).

Rubin Rabinowitz objects that Murdoch fails to explain how self-involved writers such as Dostoyevsky still achieve greatness. He suggests that, on Murdoch’s view, “one would expect [her own novel] The Sandcastle, containing fewer autobiographical elements than either Under the Net or The Flight from the Enchanter, to be the best novel of the three. But this book lacks the intensity and vividness of her first two novels, and a lack of subjective elements may even be one of the causes of the failure of The Sandcastle to involve the reader” ([19], p. 294). Murdoch does, indeed, acknowledge that “if you are not deeply personally engaged the work will be trivial”. However, she continues, it is one of the paradoxes of art that “if you are it may be half blind” ([3], p. 103). Our sympathy for a character may lead us to ignore his faults; we may feel some affinity with the Prodigal Son, but this must be tempered by an awareness of the virtues of his brother ([3], p. 103). Thus, as Maria Antonaccio suggests, the task of the artist is not to “create a work that is a projection of her own fantasy or ego” ([20], p. 121), but to try to understand and portray accurately her characters’ feelings, motivations and actions. The artist may sometimes be able to draw on her own experiences in depicting those of her characters, but she will use them only as a means of gaining insight, and will not inappropriately impose her own thoughts and feelings on her characters in their unique situations.

3.5. Art and Self-Transcendence

Lastly, Murdoch argues that art can help us to achieve self-transcendence, which is a necessary prerequisite for moral vision ([1], p. 85). For example, in her novel The Bell, Dora contemplates the pictures in the National Gallery which “were something real outside herself, which spoke to her kindly and yet in sovereign tones, something superior and good whose presence destroyed the dreary trance-like solipsism of her earlier mood” ([21], p. 191). The experience of self-transcendence may be described in ordinary words, such as “‘All my anxieties fell away and I realized that what I was worrying about was not worth worrying about!’ All the things that nag away at one, the fantasies of power or of revenge, anxiety, resentment and envy—all of this is what the revelation will blot out” ([22], p. 88).

It might be objected that Murdoch is merely advocating a kind of escapism for which great art is not required and Murdoch does, herself, acknowledge that “[a] sentimental novel can be a decent rest from one’s troubles” ([23], p. 272). She also acknowledges that a similar function can be performed by beauty ([1], p. 84), or by the intellectual discipline required to learn a new skill ([1], pp. 88–89). Furthermore, it might be argued that self-transcendence is of limited moral/religious relevance since the loss of selfish concern does not necessarily lead to concern for others. Nevertheless, it might be argued that at least some measure of self-transcendence is necessary for us to achieve an understanding of the true nature of reality, and, specifically, of other people and their concerns. The attainment of self-transcendence does not, in itself, constitute a moral/religious achievement, but one cannot adequately understand reality unless one has attained it. As Antonaccio suggests, “[w]ithout undergoing the discipline of unselfing, what the artist or moral agent will produce is not a vision of reality, but rather her own fantasy—and hence bad art, or distorted perception” ([24], p. 159).

Thus we have seen that, for Murdoch, great art can show us the true nature of reality and, perhaps, the transcendent principle of God/Good to which it points. Great art also provides us with opportunities to reflect upon the nature of goodness, and can serve as an analogue for the way in which we should attend to the Good. Finally, it can also help us to transcend our selfish concerns and, thereby, to perceive more clearly the nature of reality and, perhaps, to glimpse the transcendent goodness which demands our attention. Murdoch’s theory of art may therefore be described as a modified functionalist theory. If a functionalist theory is one which holds that “what makes something a work of art is a function it has” ([10], p. 116), then Murdoch holds that what makes something a great work of art is its capacity to lead us, in one or more of the five ways described in this section, towards a better understanding of the true nature of those aspects of reality which are relevant for our moral/religious development.

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