Iris Murdoch Centenary Marked This Week

This week is the 100th anniversary of novelist-philosopher Iris Murdoch’s birth in 1919. It will be marked by a Centenary Conference at St Anne’s College, Oxford this weekend (13-15 July). A later conference is scheduled on 10-11 October at the University of Picardy in France sponsored by the SEAC (Societe d’Etudes Anglaises Contemporaines).

This week’s TLS has also devoted a good deal of space to the centenary observance. There is a memoir by her biographer Peter Conradi, a review of two recent books about her works and a review of Conradi’s recent memoirs, the last third of which are devoted to his association with Murdoch. In addition, there are several brief remembrances and appreciations of Murdoch by other writers, including A N Wilson, William Boyd and Mary Beard.

Waugh did not review any of Murdoch’s books, although he does seem to have read some of her works–at least The Bell (1957), which many consider one of her best. This is mentioned in Martin Stannard’s Evelyn Waugh: The Later Years (p. 446, n.13) in a discussion of Waugh’s assessment of the then younger generation of aspiring English novelists. Tom Driberg had written to Waugh in 1961

…citing Murdoch as a writer who alternately irritated and fascinated him by her self-conscious use of symbols. ‘Symbols,’ Waugh replied…’I should have qualified my remarks by saying “good novelists”. Murdoch is a fraud. E.g. her bell could not have been rung as she describes it’.

Waugh’s message was included in his written dedication of Driberg’s copy of Unconditional Surrender. Whether Murdoch herself wrote any assessment of Waugh’s works isn’t mentioned.

A recent MA thesis compares the works of the two writers. This is by H C Otis and is entitled “The Love that Points: The teleologies of Evelyn Waugh and Iris Murdoch.” It was submitted last year at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan. Here is the Abstract:

Both Evelyn Waugh and Iris Murdoch use their novels to work out the ways in which metaphysical ends undergird and direct the world of lived experience. In other words, both authors are consistently teleological, though they disagree wildly on what (or who) the ultimate teleological good actually is. I have chosen to examine Waugh’s and Murdoch’s teleologies in light of the nature of love, which functions for both authors as a virtue and as a teleological engine. In my first chapter I treat the relationship between love and sex in Murdoch’s The Black Prince and Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, considering Murdoch and Waugh as exemplars of Platonic and Dantean eroticism, respectively. In my second chapter I treat the relationship between love and art in Waugh’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold and Murdoch’s A Fairly Honourable Defeat, where Murdoch reflects a Platonic conception of creation and Waugh an Augustinian one. In my final chapter I treat the relationship between love and service in Murdoch’s Bruno’s Dream and Waugh’s Sword of Honour, arguing that Murdoch exemplifies Simone Weil’s understanding of the human self and will, whereas Waugh exemplifies Augustine’s understanding of the same. For Murdoch, I argue, sex and art are teleologically split: that is, they are each by nature at least partially inimical to virtue, and thus must remain imperfect if they are to direct the soul toward the Good. Likewise, the efficacy of service depends on a recognition of the imperfection of the self and its subsequent destruction. For Waugh, on the other hand, sex and art are each by nature good; though that goodness becomes demonic when wrenched from its proper context, it nonetheless continues to point toward God, a lesser and distorted reflection of a greater light. Similarly, service requires not the destruction of the self but rather an affirmation of the self and its particular vocation toward God and others. In all this, Murdoch’s Good gives her a teleology that is markedly impersonal and distrustful of the self, whereas Waugh’s God gives him a teleology that is markedly personal and affirmative of the self.

The full text of the thesis is available at this link.


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