Philosophical Interventions: Book Reviews, 1986-2011

By Martha C. Nussbaum | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWENTY
When She Was Good

PETER J. CONRADI (2001), Iris Murdoch: A Life


I

How is moral philosophy related to narrative fiction? One would think that the relationship ought to be an intimate one. Both genres are concerned with character and choice, with motives and imaginings, with the vicissitudes of passion. And yet, from the time when Plato attacked the tragic artists, the relationship has often been characterized by mutual suspicion, philosophers viewing narrative literature as indulgent, emotional, and lacking in normative clarity, writers of fiction viewing philosophers as intolerant moralists who lack appreciation of what Proust calls the “intermittences of the heart.” But some cultures and some periods have been marked by especially hostile relations between the camps. In the latter half of the twentieth century, fiction and philosophy drew close in France, with Sartre and Camus writing both kinds of books and blurring the distinction. In the English-speaking world, by contrast, things were very different. Very few noted philosophers attempted fiction, and Iris Murdoch was the only eminent novelist to publish serious works of moral philosophy.

To some extent, the reason for this estrangement was cultural. British academic society had a marked distaste for the public display of strong passions. For the typical Oxbridge don, novelists were a little like actors: amusing at a distance, embarrassing if they came too close. To some extent, too, the estrangement was stylistic. Anglo-American philosophy was written in a very austere and impersonal way, so that any incursion of narrative and emotion into the text would be regarded as an embarrassing anomaly. But how could a novelist not want to record the texture of concrete particulars— what Murdoch once memorably described in the hallowed precincts of the Aristotelian Society as “the smell of the Paris metro or what it is like to hold a mouse in one’s hand”? Her remark was shocking in those quarters, because

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