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Rencontres avec Iris Murdoch

Jean-Louis Chevalier

Closing debate

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1I. MURDOCH. — I want to say again how extraordinarily nice it is to be here and how touched I am that people should have thought so much about this « stuff » — it's a great feast of egoism for me to listen to your thoughts, too, though I can't help feeling that you would have got on better if I hadn't been here because then you could have said all sorts of rude things about me which you felt you couldn't say because of my presence ! I thought that we'd organize this part of the scene, if it is O.K. by everybody, by my talking first of all quite briefly about various points which I noticed in the « communications » which I'd like to pick up and perhaps slightly elaborate upon, and then we could go on to questions, and I will do the best I can. I should say that in the discussions after the « communications » I couldn't always hear what the question was and couldn't always understand what was being asked, so if you feel that your question is still unclarified, perhaps you would ask me again.

2First of all, about the illuminating discussion, or rather « communication » we had this morning about A Word Child which I found so good and so touchingly detailed and clear. When one hears one's works discussed, of course, in this sort of detail, one sees very clearly what's wrong with them, and I think one of the things which I feel is wrong with that novel, and which did come out somewhat in the discussion of it, is (well, whether it is something wrong or nor I'm not sure but one might reflect on this) that I haven't actually made Hilary's telling of the story itself into part of the story. Now, this is something which a modem novelist often tends to do — if he's writing in the first person he will situate the first person narrative within some kind of hint of how it has been written, or when it has been written, or why it has been written, or what the writing of it is going to do, and this I've done myself in other novels, in The Black Prince for instance. I haven't done it in this one, that is, I've stuck to an older convention and actually, now I come to say it, I don't see why one shouldn't use that convention; but it leaves, of course, unanswered the question of what Hilary would have done next and whether the telling of the story would have helped him, and anyway, who's he telling it to, and why, and what is one to think of the end of the story ? I felt myself that the end was meant to be unresolved : whether Hilary would find any sort of salvation, either by himself or with Tommy, or whether he wouldn't fall back into some hopeless kind of neutotic obsessional repetition of what had happened, so that the next twenty years of his life might resemble the twenty years which are described in the book. Another mistake that I saw in the book when I listened to this very clear « exposé » was — I'm not sure how important these mistakes are — that I tied up too many loose ends. I think this is always a temptation that a novelist has (particularly a novelist like myself who is interested in plots and patterns), that he must relate everybody to everybody, and I related Crystal to Gunnar through that rather odd incident. I don't mind the incident itself because this is the sort of odd thing that seems to me not impossible to tell in such a context — how Gunnar seduces Crystal on the night that Anne dies — but this very close connection of Crystal with Gunnar was perhaps a mistake.

3It might have been better if I'd left that completely open. Then a more minor matter : making Christopher marry Biscuit. I think that was a mistake too and that it would have been better to leave these things mysterious and unclear. Novelists must resist the temptation to tie up all the loose ends. And perhaps that's the context in which I should say that I do regard myself as a realistic novelist — that what I'm trying to do is to imitate nature and hold the mirror up to the world and do those things which are in fact so frightfully difficult to do, to create characters who are like real people. This doesn't mean that fantastic things can't happen — fantastic things happen all the time in ordinary life and people are very, very odd — but there's some kind of air of open plausibility and open connection with life which I would want my novels to have and which perhaps it's difficult for them to have because of the conflict which I always feel between character and plot. This I think was also mentioned, that the « situation » and the « personnages » can get in each other's way.

4I'm sorry that my observations here will necessarily be rather staccato and disconnected because I haven't had time, of course, to go through my scribbled comments which I wrote down when I was listening to the « communications » and put them in any sort of proper order, so they'll come rather randomly and I'll maybe find that I'm repeating myself. Another thing to say perhaps about A Word Child : Kitty I think is a very silly woman, and this is something that should emerge in the novel, that she's a touching figure, and she means very well, but she's very silly. It was a rational and a good idea that she should try to get rid of Gunnar's obsession by involving Hilary, but it was an idea she couldn't possibly carry out without involving herself in all kinds of folly. On the other hand. Gunnar really behaves with great rationality and the exorcism does work for him — simply to see Hilary and talk to him briefly makes the whole thing vanish and that could have been the happy ending which of course doesn't come about chiefly because of Kitty's folly and also of course because Hilary can't resist this particular situation. I think it is important in this novel and perhaps in all my novels, and perhaps in all novels, that the story i form. Tragedy appears only in a kind of remote sense in the novel. Terribly, terribly sad things happen in novels but I don't think they're tragic things because of the form. Tragedy belongs to the theatre, it doesn't belong in real life, as somebody observed (perhaps me) — and it doesn't belong in the novel either, which in this sense is like real life and not like the theatre; so that what happens to Hilary, although it is terrible, isn't tragic in that sense. It isn't given a final significance. M. Chevalier talked very well about Hilary's use of language and repartee and quips and escapes into superficial witticism and so on, and this was a very good image of what he was suggesting about Hilary's relation to language which I think I hadn't seen fully myself until I heard it explained, but which I think is there — though one might also say that Hilary is an exponent of what in English we call « trench humour », or « humour noir », the jokes of somebody who's in a pretty awful state but is always making jokes, and it is fortunate for the human race that we can do this. It is, I think, a real release, a real consolation — a minor one perhaps — that one can always make jokes. And I was very pleased that, whether it was in the « communication » or in the questions, somebody picked up .the reference to King Lear where Hilary says « Crystal and I won't be able to be like birds in a cage » — the reference to Lear, what Lear thinks that he and Cordelia are going to do, but of course he's wrong. This is a very moving thing in King Lear. Lear thinks that somehow or other it will end in a kind of solemn, tragic peace and they'll be alone together at the end, but they aren't, and it ends in a much more terrible way. This is the sort of peace which Hilary thought perhaps would be his final consolation; and that little picking-up of that quotation I was very grateful for.

5To move on to the discussion of A Fairly Honourable Defeat; perhaps I should say something in general about that novel, which has annoyed various people because they couldn't see what it was doing, or else because they thought it was anti-semitic because Julius King was Jewish — which stunned me because I'm pro-semitic and the idea of being accused of anti-semitism is .so alien to me that I couldn't imagine how anyone could see it in this way, but I think perhaps some people were indeed offended by the fact that this character was Jewish. I should say that Jews, in my novels, always appear as spiritual figures and tend to gather the spirit of the novel towards themselves and this is usually a case of good spiritual people; in this case it was a bad spiritual person. I should perhaps say in general, about the novel (which I hope won't seem too tiresome) that it is, in a con­cealed way (I mean so concealed that it doesn't in a sense matter) a theological allegory. Tallis is the Christ figure or the « high incarnation » to use a sort of Eastern term — Julius is of course the Prince of Darkness, King of this World — Morgan is the human soul over whom they are disputing — that explains the title incidentally, that Tallis is of course defeated but it is a « fairly honourable defeat ». Leonard is God the Father — a very gloomy figure — that's Tallis's father who realises the whole thing went wrong from the start, and if you like to go that far Tallis's dead sister is the Holy Spirit. This is an unnecessary allegory in a sense, I mean it was necessary through being connected with the construction of the work, but it doesn't emerge in the work in any very clear way. Tallis, I should say, is one of my attempt at portraying at good man. I think it is very difficult to portray a good man in fiction for reasons explained by Plato and I noticed in the discussion of the book, practically nobody mentioned Tallis, and he is rather an invisible figure, but, of course, an important one. Another in a sense accidental thing in the book was that I wanted to portray a happy homosexual relationship, which I succeeded in doing, I hope, with Simon and Axel.

6I was very interested, in this discussion, about the idea of theatre in the book and I think this is revealing and good, I mean, the notion of « arene » in which human beings can be seen as the puppets of their own emotions, and Julius, of course, manipulating them in a completely careless way. Tallis and Julius, incidentally, recognize each other in a significant scene where Tallis sees the concentration-camp mark on Julius's arm. I don't know whether this is theologically sound or not, but perhaps the Devil suffers all the time too, just through being the Devil, and perhaps he does homage to Christ, even loves him. As for manipulating people, people are manipulated in real life, and I think the notion about power which was being hinted at in the discussion is real too, that people are not only manipulated by others but want to be so. This is a subject that interests me very much. People very often elect a god in their lives, they elect somebody whose puppet they want to be, and a group of people can elect somebody in this sense as their leader, or their angel, or their god or whatever it might be, and then perhaps, almost subconsciously, are ready to receive suggestions from this person. And again here, I was touched and pleased that the background in Shakespeare was seen. Much more obvious here, of course, are the references to A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest. So the end, with Julius going off to Paris and feeling happy, is important — he's all right, he's going to go and make some more mischief somewhere else. And another thing about Tallis, á propos of modes of speech which you have been at different rimes interested in discussing : Tallis has got no particular mode of speech, he hasn't got any voice really, he hasn't got any kind of ringing voice which one hears in the book, it's all a kind of jumble and muddle and this is important too.

7Mile Henry's piece about the symbols I also liked very much. (Under the Net, of course.) The titles are important, the titles are all the names of the books, the title is what the book is about in every case, so they are important. Under the Net is an immature, childish work, it was much influenced by Samuel Beckert and Raymond Queneau, though I don't think it particularly resembles anything by either of them, but that wasn't my fault, I was copying them as hard as I could !

8The « net », of course, under which one cannot get, is the net of language. It's interesting that the discussions which were in my head, at that time, in the 1950's, are very much the discussions that we're hearing now about silence, about language moving towards silence, and the difficulty of relating concepts to anything which lies behind them, or under them. The unicorn again is an obvious symbol, of a Christ figure, a highly ambiguous one. This is a subject which interests me very much, the ambiguity of spirituality, that the spiritual person is suffering particularly strong temptations, and that what looks like giving up the world may in fact be an exercise of power in another sense; and I think that Mile Henry picked this up when she spoke of enchantera. There are powerful figures in many of the novels who attract other people, such as Misha and Calvin (who are the same person divided into conscious and unconscious) — and there are enchanters like Hannah who are unconsciously so, even in a sense innocently so, who attract others because of a kind of discharge of confused spirituality. The point about twins, perhaps I should say something about twins, and siblings, which is important perhaps just in a minor sense. I am an only child, and this may affect my interest in brothers and sisters; and I notice that Sartre, in Les Mots, says the same thing. He says that he, as an only child, has also had this great fascination with twins — the lost, other person whom one is looking for. I was also pleased — a tiny point — to have the sound of the bird singing oh the telephone picked up — I mean these are the kind of things which please novelists — they put in these little, tiny decorations, and then they hope that somebody will notice them, and it's very gratifying when they are actually noticed.

9A general point about symbolism perhaps, I think critics can make too much of symbolism. I mean, as I say, I am realistic novelist, and try to be, and I think that symbols are just an ordinary part of life — one doesn't have to go very far in life before falling over a symbol — we all make symbols the whole time, we make symbols in family life, in love relationships, in all sorts of power relationships and in work. We use certain things as symbols, this is a natural activity, and the invention of interesting, amusing symbols is a part of our ordinary, literary activity as human beings (though I agree that in some of my books there are what one might call « external » symbols). We might distinguish between internal symbols, which are invented by the characters themselves as part of their ordinary existence, and external symbols which the author has put upon them in some way.

10To go on — I'm sorry to be following in this rather mechanical manner the order of the speeches, but I haven't, as I say, had time to sort this stuff out. To proceed to Mme Morin, this question, this complicated question of morality and art. Here, I'm not sure what to say because I don't know that I have any very definite view, or in so far as I have views, these views have been changing quite a good deal. Perhaps I should say here that of course I owe a great debt to Simone Weil, who is a marvellous thinker, and who opened my eyes to a great many things and set me onto various paths which I've followed since. I'm not a Christian; I was brought up as a Protestant; in so far as I have close relations with Ireland, I have family both North and South of the border (Protestants), I have a Puritan background. I don't feel that religion departed from my life when God the Father departed. I used to think that when God the Father went it was the end of religion for me, but I have learnt better. I feel now that I don't have to have this image or to believe in a personal God in order to have religion — after all Buddhists don't believe in a personal figure like this. Buddha is an image of spirituality, a teacher, and a centre of spiritual power, and I would want to regard Christ in this sort of light, the Buddha of the West, and I'm rather pleased to see that theology itself, at any rate Protestant theology, is changing in this direction, so that a number of people who thought they were outside the Church wake up one morning and find that really they're inside after all and they didn't know.

11To relate all this to The Black Prince : again, perhaps I should say something explanatory about this book. The « Black Prince », of course, is Apollo — most critics who reviewed the book in England didn't appear to realise this, even though there was a picture of Apollo on the front ! I got a dear friend of mine to do a picture of the head of the great statue of Apollo at Olympia and I thought really this is going too far in telling them what to think, but they didn't seem to know who this was a picture of or to interpret the name Loxias, after all perhaps rather obscure, which in fart is a name of Apollo. Apollo is the god of art, and is also identified by me with the black Eros, destructive and violent : Apollo, a murderer, a rapist, as is said in the novel when they're discussing who Mr. Loxias is, who killed a fellow musician in a horrible way, a great power figure, but not necessarily a good figure. So that there is — talking of mystification which M. Le Gros mentioned — a profound mystification in the book in relation to Bradley, and in Bradley's relation to the Black Prince, and indeed Bradley's relation to Arnold. As Mr. Le Gros said, there is a caricature of a one-book-a-year man who gabbles and writes, as Bradley judges, bad novels; but then are we to believe Bradley here ? Bradley is presented in the book as a man full of prejudices and self-deceptions and delusions. We certainly can't, I think, altogether believe Julian in her postscript, and can we even believe all that Mr. Loxias himself says, although I think that Mr. Loxias, in saying that art is very much greater than all these definitions which have been offered of it, is right. There is a sort of background of conflict, intentionally put there, in that novel, which may or may not be justified aesthetically. I was glad that Mr. Le Gros spoke of absurdity and funniness in the books because this is important in the way that I create, that the medium is, is supposed to be at any rate, funny. Awful things happen and very serious things are said, but people should laugh at the books too. And I followed with interest and agreement the remarks which Mr. Le Gros made about the different kinds of background symbolism — the references to the weather and so on — and also what he said briefly about fetichism and the references to Sartre which I found very interesting. One might notice that Sartre is also a Puritan, and this is a bond which I feel with him. At the time that I wrote the book about Sartre I was not entirely in agreement with him, and I feel now very far away from him, but I do continue to admire his novels. People have sometimes gone too far in saying that he was not a good novelist. I think he is a good novelist, I think he's really a very good novelist. Perhaps as a philosopher I'm particularly fond of La Nausee, but I think that Les Chemins de la Liberte — these are good stories, they're about something, they're full of memorable characters, and I think being memorable is a test of poetry, and it's a test also of the novel. Perhaps I should just say in conclusion — this relates both to Mr. Le Gros and Mme Morin — that I'm not sure in what sense I am a philosopher. I am a teacher of philosophy and I am trained as a philosopher and I « do » philosophy and I teach philosophy, but philosophy is fantastically difficult and I think those who attempt to write it would probably agree that there are very few moments when they rise to the level of real philosophy. One is writing about philosophy, one is «philosophisant» if this word can be used. One is not actually doing the real thing, and I don't think that I have done it in more than a few pages in all the stuff that I have written about philosophy. Certainly in the Plato book I have used my reflections on Plato to say something of my own. I did try very hard in that book to give a general account of Plato's thought, which actually is a very difficult thing to do, and I don't know whether I succeeded, but it isn't exactly real philosophy, it's thoughts about Plato. Anyway, I'll stop at this point if anyone would like to ask questions.

12C. MACDONOGH. — You were speaking about the difficulty of writing philosophy — what about someone who knows absolutely nothing about philosophy. Apart from writing it, to try to think a little bit — what would you advise them to do — to read — or how to begin an approach to a philosophical way of thinking about things ?

13I. MURDOCH. — Yes, if one knows nothing of philosophy how might one start to enter it ? Well I think the first thing to say is that it's not necessary to enter it at all — it's an extremely obscure, and in many ways, unrewarding subject, and curiously baffling, because one can read quite a lot of philosophy and not feel that one is getting into the centre of the subject. On the other hand, there are such wonderful things written by philosophers. I would think, try oneself out on fairly short texts. I mean if one was reading philosophy in a university with a teacher, then one might adopt some other method; but thinking of somebody who wants to read and reflect and see if this is something for them or not, I would advise them to read a number of different short books. They might read the Symposium of Plato, that's not actually a very good introduction to philosophy because it's so erratic and extraordinary and in many ways generalized and unclear, but one must read that anyway whatever one is thinking about or going to do. One might read John Stuart Mill's little book called Utilitarianism which is a good piece of philosophical argument about what justifies moral judgements, and this after all is a point where people would do well to try to start philosophy — at a point where they have a lot of their own experience which they can bring to bear on what's being discussed, and where the issue is important. What justifies my moral judgements ? — how do I make moral judgements in difficult situations ? — the sort of thing much discussed by existentialists. I think Mill's attempt to connect this with the idea of happiness is a very interesting one — I don't think he is right — but then very few philosophers are absolutely right. The thing is to start thinking in some way. And Kant's book, The Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, is a very good, short, extraordinarily illuminating and exciting book about morality, putting another completely different point of view. So, if you read Kant and Mill, and made them fight each other, as it were, you might then, in your own reflection, be getting somewhere. Sartre's little book called Existentialisme et Humanisme is worth looking at. It's very difficult to say about the great names in philosophy, because of finding something which one can readily get out of them. I think one might read some Berkeley, to puzzle oneself about sense perception and material objects. Or of course Descartes : cogito ergo sum. That's a great moment in philosophy and something one can reflect upon. The thing is to find a starting-point. Morality is a good starting-point, or worrying about problems of perception. One might read something by Merleau-Ponty after that. David Hume, again, the beginning of Hume's treatise about problems which also concern Kant — his discussion of the concept of cause. And it would be a pity not to read something by Hegel, but it's very difficult to say what. One might read the stuff in the Phenomenology about the master and slave — the famous part which Sartre is so interested in. That's terribly exciting and might make one want to read the whole of the rest of the book. One could go on for a long time on this. Thank you for asking !

14S. LEBERT. — In your novels, does the mystery in the plot correspond to the mystery inherent in human beings and their lives ?

15I. MURDOCH. — Mystery in the novels, yes — whether this reflects mystery in people in real life — well yes, and no. I think that any artist goes in for mystification, to use the word which was used before, and mystification and mystery I suppose are different things, but they can be connected. The artist doesn't want to be too simple ! This is something very important about art, that it's a game of tricks, the artist de-simplifies what he's doing, in a way, deliberately, in order to present it perhaps with a certain air of reality, or possibly to conceal things. There is an element of mystification in a great deal of art. I think the word « mystery » though is important here, and I would say yes to your question, separating it perhaps from the idea of mystifying. I think somebody quoted something which was out of me, that the person cannot be known — I'm sorry I can't remember who this was. I think it's important that the human person — and in this sense one could use the work of art as a kind of analogue of the human person — isn't knowable in the end. I think this is something that's dawned on me more and more as I've grown older, that one knows frightfully little. One knows very little about anything, and one knows awfully little about other people and awfully little about oneself. There's a kind of enormous jumble on the top, and what exactly is underneath is very obscure so that I would feel that a novelist especially, who has a responsibility because he's presenting people, should, unless there's an aesthetic reason otherwise, — I'll explain that point in a minute — present his people as being not totally explicable. This of course could be an excuse for not working hard, one would have to see what it looked like; but I think that great characters in great novels have got this inexhaustible quality. This is why they're so interesting, you want to discuss them; people argue endlessly about characters in Henry James, characters in Tolstoy, characters in Proust, characters in Shakespeare. There's something profouhdly and interestingly unclear about them. But there can be aesthetic reasons in a novel why you don't do this. One might take Robbe-Grillet as an example — there is a great deal of mystery and mystification in Robbe-Grillet, but I don't think it bears on real ambiguity of people treated as real people. I'm not certain about this, but I think it cornes out of a different aesthetic motive, and one might say something the same about people in Kafka. There can be aesthetic reasons for by-passing this aspect of the problem.

16M. MORIN. — I'd like to ask you a couple of slightly related questions. Firstly, do you think there's any basic difference between the three novels that are written in the first person and the others ? and secondly, is there any particular reason why in the three novels that are written in the first person, the narrator should be a man ?

17I. MURDOCH. — Yes... I think there are more than three of them... I can't remember.

18M. MORIN. - Under the Net. The Black Prince. A Word Child.

19I. MURDOCH. - And The Italian Girl. That's also written in the first person. I've just actually finished one which is also in the first person. Well, I think this is a very important decision that the novelist makes. When I make that decision I'm always anxious about it, for I know that things will come out quite differently if it's written in the first person. The advantages of writing in the first person are obvious. In a way, they are enormous because you can then ramble around enlessly, you can address your reader, and you can produce a tremendous amount of verbiage which has got a sense in relation to the speaker. Also, I think, there's often a bigger emotional charge. Perhaps you said this. Yes, I think you did. Yes — and I meant to pick that up, I think that you're right, that there probably is a more direct emotional punch if the thing is written in the first person. On the other hand, the danger of this is that it's harder then to create other characters who can stand up to the narrator, because they're being seen through his eyes. And I think my ideal novel — I mean, the novel which I would like to write and haven't yet written — would not be written in the first person, because I'd rather write a novel which is more scattered, with many different centres. I've often thought that the best way to write a novel would be to invent the story, and then to remove the hero and the heroine and write about the peripheral people — because one wants to extend one's sympathy and divide one's interests. This is what I want to do at any rate as a realistic novelist writing in the English tradition and the Russian tradition and the tradition of Ptoust. The advantages of writing not in the first person are that it's easier to spread your interests, and you get a more balanced story, and you have the added pleasure of animating all sorts of different characters.

20The ability to animate all sorts of odd characters is very valuable. I mean, as Tolstoy describes the feelings of Levin's dog — suddenly he becomes a dog ! This is very pleasing, and something that a novelist likes to do, and I think it pleases the reader as well, and it provides a method of relieving tension and taking the weight off and going off somewhere else, as it were, towards the side, which is good. About writing as a man, this is instinctive. I mean I think I identify more with my male characters than my female characters. I write through the consciousness of women in the stories which have different narrators, so I write as women also in those stories as well as men; but I suppose it's a kind of comment on the unliberated position of women. If I were black, I'd feel I ought perhaps to bear witness by writing as a black person, and not writing as a white person. On the other hand, if you write as a black person, you're introducing all sorts of compulsory problems which you may not want to deal with at the moment. There are very important problems about being black, but you mightn't as a black person always feel primarily interested in these problems. You might want to write about different things, when it did not matter whether you were black or white; and I think I want to write about things on the whole where it doesn't matter whether you're male or female, in which case you'd better be male, because a male represents ordinary human beings, unfortunately, as things stand at the moment, whereas a woman is always a woman ! In fact of course I'm very interested in problems about the liberation of women, particularly, for instance, in so far as these concern education. I'm interested in them both as a citizen and as a writer, so they do come in to some extent.

21J. BAYLEY. — It's interesting that women writers often feel it necessary to appear « in the right light ».

22I. MURDOCH. — I think it is true that, in a way, one would feel that one was letting something down if one's main female characters were very bad whereas it doesn't matter what you do with the male characters ! It's a freer world that you are in as a man than a woman. It's an interesting question and I don't think I've probably given the whole of the answer, but that's a part of the answer. A woman is much more self-conscious than a man, just as a black person is more self-conscious than a white person.

23M. BARIOU. — Could you give an estimation of approximately why there seem to be more great women writers in Britain than perhaps in any other country of the world ?

24I. MURDOCH. — Why there are more women writers in Britain than elsewhere ? I don't know. There are a lot of good women writers in France and in America. I wouldn't be sure without counting up. But there are certainly a lot of good women writers in Britain, yes. Perhaps I can't offer any answer which isn't chauvinistic ! I think that, in some very general sense, women are more liberated in England than they are in France or in America. I think that an aspect of this is that they are better educated; although I would add that I think English education is deteriorating, and French education is good and much more disciplined. But I think there has been a great liberation of women in England. This is something important to say when people moan about how everything is getting worse. Many many things have got very much better, and this is an important thing that has got better, that women are more liberated, they are more ordinary. The point of liberation is not, and this is to differ with certain views of women's lib, to say we're better, or we're special, or we're wonderful, but just to be equal, to be ordinary, to join the human race, to be people, just people like everybody else. I think that over quite an area of British society women have come out into the open, in this sense, possibly more than they have in France. I'm not certain — perhaps somebody would like to say something about this ? And I think that women in America, in becoming liberated have tended to produce a kind of cult of consciousness which is damaging to them as novelists, in that they think they've got to write as women in a rather aggressive manner, and I don't think English women feel this so much. I disapprove of « separatism » as a mode of liberation : women's studies, black studies, and nonsense of that sort. The point is to join the great main stream of thought and art from which we have been excluded.

25J.-L. CHEVALIER. — Do you think the sex of a novelist is important at all ? I wouldn't mind Dickens being a woman or George Eliot a man.

26I. MURDOCH. — I don't think at a high level of work there's a significant difference. I think it is possible that the soppy romance is, at a low level, more natural to women, and the rather brutal thriller more natural to the men, and this is to allow a kind of sex différenciation which I'm reluctant to mention, because I so much want to say that there isn't any difference between us ! But at a higher level — a more spiritual level — I think the difference vanishes. I don't see any difference between the man and woman good novelists. If someone says, « Look at George Eliot, how soppy she is about Will Ladislaw » — well, Conrad's soppy too. Soppiness can exist in the great writers of either sex !

27C. CHARPENTIER. — Three questions. Number one is about power and truth in connection with what you said yesterday about mimesis. Number two is about the way your novels are generated. And number three is about the use of the word « Gothic » in some reviews of your books.

28At the beginning of The Black Prince, on page 11, in Bradley Pearson's foreword, you make Bradley Pearson say — I suppose you make him say that « all art deals with the absurd and aims at the simple ». Could you please comment a tittle on that, although you have already partly answered. « All art deals with the absurd and aims at the simple. »

29I. MURDOCH. — This is what Bradley Pearson says. I'm not certain that I go along with it absolutely. I think it's an interesting remark. Think for a moment of Tolstoy or someone who wants to say that good art is not obscurantist, but has got some kind of lucidity about it. Here one would be opposing the simple to some kind of « bogusity ». I mean the word « bogus » in English. What's French for « bogus ? « Bogus » is a very good term. It means false, pretentiously false. A lot of art is pretentiously false and one might use the word « simple » or « lucid » to mean the opposite of that. And « dealing with the absurd » means not by-passing the kind of contingent, messy, rubbly aspect of ordinary life. You have to see ordinary life as it is. It's not tragic, it's not clear. It's not even knowable. It's a sort of mess. I think one might try to think of Shakespeare here. Well, Shakespeare very often seems remarkably simple. Of course, it's a kind of illusory simplicity because it conceals a very great depth of thought. But if you think of marvellous things in Shakespeare, for instance when background characters are relating to each other in some natural way, there's a kind of pure sense of simplicity and lucidity and clarity, and at the same time justice is done to the oddity and randomness of ordinary life. Of course, the fact that Shakespeare writes poetry is rather important ! Poets can express much more than novelists : this concentrated sense of something which is simple and lucid and true and non-bogus and at the same time oddly accidental. I think this sums up something about poetry really perhaps rather than about the novel because in the novel it's not so concentrated, so one doesn't see it so much. I don't know whether this is at all clear, but this is, perhaps, what Bradley meant anyway.

30C. CHARPENTIER. — Question number two. When I asked you a few questions a couple of years ago, if I may allude to this, about The Unicorn, you very kindly explained a lot of things about the way your novels are generated, if I may use the word, and you said that generally when you begin you can see the whole, that is, you have a pattern in front of you, a relation between the various characters, and you see the plot. May I ask you if that is still true now. I mean, would it apply to the recent works, particularly to A Word Child ?

31I. MURDOCH. — What novelists say about how they invent their novels is often very uninteresting because the whole process is complicated, and different novelists write in very different ways. I think I wouldn't say that I see the whole thing, like Mozart's seeing a symphony or something like that. It's a different process. I usually start with a little nucleus of two or three characters and some kind of general idea of a conflit; but of course one's head is full of stuff. I mean when one's writing a novel, there's an awful lot of stuff which is collecting, which one's got in a sense to ignore and which is there longing to rush about. I attach great importance to plot, and I usually start with the nucleus of the plot given in the relationship of the characters. For instance, take a family of five brothers, one brother's gone to Canada, and then suddenly, after twenty years, he cornes back : I mean, anything will do as a starting point for a plot where there's a tension in a relationship. At least this is how my plots usually begin. Then, very gradually, the story unwinds itself, and when one has got the thing really going, the story invents itself, and the characters in vent the story, and they in vent their dialogue, and they in vent all kinds of things about their childhood and so forth; but the beginning is that sort of nucleus.

32C. CHARPENTIER. — In many of the reviews, the word « Gothic » has been used. I often feel it isn't justified at all. How do you react to this yourself ? I often feel it's just an easy word which is used. There are some Gothic elements but I don't know what the elements are. We don't quite know. Do you accept this ? It's often used to describe some of your novels, particularly The Unicorn, and it's been used recently again for A Word Child.

33I, MURDOCH. — Well, it was used earlier today to describe my London, the Gothic London ? That's O.K. by me. I don't mind the idea of the Gothic London, the sort of Piranesi London; though in so far as London is a sort of main character in the books it appears differently in different contexts. That's O.K. and conjures up something which I think I'd accept. I don't like it as a general word about the novels because, as you say, it's an etiquette, it gives you a certain way of looking at the stuff which I think is rather limiting. It's an easy description. And as a would-be realist, and as somebody who I hope is writing novels that have a lot of different characteristics and different atmospheres, I would not like to be labelled as a Gothic novelist. I would regard this as limiting in a slightly derogatory sense.

34J.-L. CHEVALIER. — Even when it links you with Ivy Compton-Burnett, as in a paper by A.L. Rowse which calls either Miss Compton-Burnett or yourself « The Mrs Radcliffe de nos jours » and speaks of your « Gothic fantasies and unreal horrors » ? This was written in October 1977.

35I. MURDOCH. — I'm sorry to hear that this is still going on. How terrible ! I think I would object very much. I do admire Ivy Compton-Burnett, but she is totally unlike me, and I don't know what these « unreal horrors » are that he's speaking of. It is ordinary life that I'm talking about which after all is full of horrors.

36J.-L. CHEVALIER. — It was used to describe somebody else's work as well.

37I. MURDOCH. — This is a different point about Ivy Compton-Burnett. I don't think I bear any resemblance to het. And I don't think there's a kind of « Castle-of-Udolpho » atmosphere about my books. The Unicorn is about a castle and in The Time of the Angels people wander in the fog, but I don't think this sort of thing is a particularly important or general aspect of the work !

38M. DEBELLE. — You have said that Art imitates Nature several times. I think you said this. Don't you think that for aesthetic reasons, you might come to terms with the opposite statement made by Oscar Wilde that Nature imitates Art ?

39I. MURDOCH. — Art imitates Nature. Nature imitates Art. Yes, of course. I mean this would be to make the obvious countercharge to somebody who wants to take a mimetic view of Art, to say that of course we are « making » Nature. Art is acting upon our view of Nature and making Nature look like Art. And I think that

40Nature imirates Art both in the sense that we are besrowing meaning upon Nature which we then rediscover in Nature, perhaps with surprise; and also that people can, consciously or unconsciously, be influenced by aesthetic images. I mean aesthetic images of themselves. I date say Oscar Wilde was. I mean that one has an idea of oneself which may be taken from Stendhal or something. Professor A.J. Ayer in Oxford admits that he identifies with the hero of Le Rouge et Le Noir, and one constantly takes prototypes from literature who may actually influence one's conduct. But although it's true that Nature imitates Art, Nature is very much larger than Art and is going to have the last word. In the fight of Art against Nature, Nature is bound to win and Art had better realise this. That is, the artist must always be readjusting what he says, the good artist is learning the whole time by looking at the world. One can see this in the work of a painter.

41Yesterday, when we were in the Louvre, we saw two self-portraits by Rembrandt, one when he was very young, one when he was rather old, and somehow one could see what an extraordinary amount he'd learnt by looking at Narure. So the artist had better watch out and always be humble, he mustn't get a kind of luciferian pride in thinking that he can make Nature what he pleases, because Nature will get some kind of revenge on him. And he'd better go on readjusting what he does. I think every serious artist does constantly, says to himself, « Well, what I've just done isn't really the right thing. What I'm going to do next will be the right thing ».

42F. MACPHAIL. — When we were studying A Word Child, we were struck by the number of references to that rather sinister personage Peter Pan. We wondered why this importance in relation to Hilary and perhaps to you ?

43I. MURDOCH. — Yes, Peter Pan means a great deal to me. I expect everybody knows about Peter Pan. Is Peter Pan a popular figure in France ? My first introduction to Peter Pan was in Kensingron Gardens when I was about four or something, and I went to see that famous statue of Peter Pan which is so weird and sinister, yes, as you say, sinister, although that did not occur to me when I was four, but rather later on. The play of Peter Pan has an extraordinary story, if you reflect on it. For instance, the very interesting oddity of the same character being both Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. And the retreat of Mr. Darling to the dog kennel, and the division of Wendy's life between Peter and the real world. And the crocodile. It's full of strange symbolisms. John very kindly introduced me to a remarkable book which I didn't know existed, which is the novel of Peter Pan, in which the figure of Hook cornes out, I think, much more.

44J. BAYLEY. - The novel is full of fun.

45I. MURDOCH. — Yes, it's a funny book. Hook turns out to be an old Etonian. It's more wirty and light-hearted than the play. The play, it's a famous play for children after all, does not appear to be sinister when you see it. I think it contains

46for me one of the greatest of all moments of theatre which is the first appearance of Peter which always I find very exciting and very moving. In the silence of the nursery, this sinister figure appears at the window. It's frightening, and it's moving too. These ambiguous symbols about paternity are of course most interesting, and the division of the world between the real life of the Darlings and the never never land, land of lost boys is somehow ambiguous and very powerful. It's a play about the subconsdous mind and one's relationship to it. In A Word Chdd I play with the idea, and different people give different interpretations of it. Of course, it's liable to a number of interprerations. I connected it in some kind of very general way with Hilary as a lost boy.

47F. MACPHAIL. — Peter, I think, ends the play by saying, « To die would be an awfully big adventure »... and also of course possibly to live would be an awfully big adventure ?

48I. MURDOCH. — Yes... and the division of Wendy's life and Hilary as a lost boy and as a fatherless boy and as a boy who can't establish a relation with a woman. Wendy is a mother-figure. There's everything in that play. One could work this out I suppose with Hilary, but it just somehow happened. I mean Hilary happened to be living near Kensington Gardens, so Peter Pan got into the story somehow.

49S. LEBERT. — What do you think about the psychoanalyst and psychoanalysis ?

50I. MURDOCH. — Yes, I've got very mixed feelings about psychoanalysis. I would very much dislike to be psychoanalysed, and I don't know how much good this does people. I think it's a rescue operation. As a rescue operation, as an emergency therapeutic operation, it's something which may be justified in many cases. But the analyst has too much power, and the idea of transference I find very alarming indeed, and I think this can disturb somebody's life profoundly. Also it produces this tremendous concentration upon oneself which is nor necessarily rherapeutic in a spiritual sense at all, maybe indeed the opposite.

51This endless reflection on one's childhood and so on, and this dependence on the analyst and seeing him so often, I dont know, there's something — it's taking people away from ordinary life, and I think people should live in ordinary life and ger on there, and try to enjoy themselves there, and notice the claims and troubles of other people. On the other hand, I find Freud very interesting. One can't blame Freud for everything that analysts do. I find him, as a thinker, enormously exciting, he's full of insights. He wrore very interesting things about art, both what he actually says about works of art and also in general. It's the application to human beings in a therapeutic situation which taises the problem, but the general speculations are wonderfully rich. And I find this view of the human soul very sympathetic and realistic. Freud was influenced by the « tripartite soul » of Plato.

52The soul is divided into three parts. Freud also divides the soul into three parts, but he mistrusts the top part, I mean the super ego. He thinks that one must live in the ego and I wouldn't accept this, I would regard the ego as continuing into the super ego and in a Platonic sense I think this is very good human psychology, though not necessarily good as a therapy.

53J.-C. CASTANGT. — Is not novel writing a way of purifying philosophies, of putting them to the test of facts whether heard of or invented by the novelist, because philosophies may be patterns, and patterns in many of your novels, I think, prove of no avail, crash, and you have a deep sense of the uniqueness of people and situations ?

54I. MURDOCH. — I think that philosophers increasingly realise that it's quite useful to pay attention to novelists. A philosopher might now ask his pupils to read a novel and might find it valuable to discuss it with them. I agree with you that philosophers can be pedantic and can be shut up in a world of theory. This was noticeable in English philosophy, not so much now, but twenty or thirty years ago or before the war when there was a logical positivist moral philosophy of a highly oversimplified sort, which had got a very clear theory so that it fascinated people. It fascinated the philosophers themselves and their students and produced a kind of special language. This is a difficulty about philosophy. It's the difficulty about any sort of very strong theory that it produces its own jargon. I think that structuralism isn't without difficulties of this sorr. As soon as you have a very strong specialized technical vocabulary, it becomes impossible to state certain problems. In moral philosophy the technical vocabulary was so strong that if you tried to object to what was being said, you were reduced to some kind of very simple language which did not sound like philosophy at all. And this is where, I think, the resort to the novel is good because then one sees the moral problem in a real context. One's gor to have both philosophers and novelists.

55I think that the role of ordinary language in philosophy is very important. I know this is something which belongs to « les pays anglo-saxons » rather more than perhaps to here or Germany. Not all philosophers now in England or America would agree, but I do think that philosophy ought to be written in ordinary language, that the invention of technical terms is a dangerous occupation. It may seem a shortcut to a clarification, but it may produce its own problems because then it carries a value judgement of some sort with it usually, perhaps sometimes an invisible sort built into the language; so that the outsider, the critic of the philosopher, must always be trying to persuade the philosopher to explain in ordinary terms. This is like the presence of the jury in the law court. There are arguments about whether there should be juries because juries are stupid people who don't understand the law. There seems to me to be a conclusive answer to this. Juries make the lawyers explain. It's not just lawyers talking to lawyers. It's lawyers talking in the presence of people who don't have a technical vocabulary. And I think that philosophers should endeavour to use ordinary language which is also incidentally very good for ordinary language in that if you attempt to use the language for such purposes of clarification you are strengthening it.

56J. BAYLEY. — Are you rather against any kind of formalist vocabulary — critical vocabulary, then ?

57I. MURDOCH. — I feel diffident here, because although I know a certain amount about formalist criticism I'm not an expert on it. But I feel a little alarmed. Young people, students, or people who don't know very much pick up a bit of jargon and use it in argument, and it would be very much better if they tried to produce the explanation without the jargon. I certainly think this in moral philosophy. It's very difficult to clarify things philosophically but it is always rewarding to attempt to clarify in ordinary terms.

58X. — This is not a very important question. It is about your novels being more centred on ordinary life than before. Are you more concerned with ordinary things than with extraordinary ones ?

59I. MURDOCH. — I'm glad you think this. Young writers are often afraid of writing, about ordinary things because they think that this would be rather dull and of course they are anxious to startle their friends by writing something rather odd, and also they imagine that it's more original to write about something rather odd. I think the artist that has worked for a long time in his craft is less concerned with any desire to shock or any desire to search for oddities. He can find plenty of oddities without looking for them. I've been endeavouring for a long time to write about ordinary life and ordinary problems. Of course, one is the prisoner of one's own mind. Any novelist who has been writing for a long time has in a sense psychoanalysed himself. He can see what he's up to. He can see all sorts of things which he's not going to tell anybody else about himself and which he'll conceal from his reader, and all sorts of obsessional things and so on. And one tries to get out of these cages and one obvious way of getting out is, as we were saying just now, just to look at the world and try to identify with what's different and far away.

60R. DALIGAULT. — You seem to stress that your principal characters are tragic. Tragedy doesn't belong to the genre of the novel. Yet, would you say the world you create is a world of despair ?

61I. MURDOCH. — I don't think so, no. Of course a lot of the characters are people in despair, like Clifford in A Word Child, a picture of a man in despair. Incidentally, thinking again of Clifford and Hilary; it's possible that Hilary could have rescued Clifford if he'd attended to him a bit more, and not been frightened to feel affection for him and show affection for him. There's a certain pessimism in the books. I feel pessimistic about human personality in an obvious sense. This is just part of a realistic attitude to it. I think that people are pretty bad on the whole, not bad in the sense of wicked, but selfish and so on, selfishness is absolutely ingrained in human beings. And terribly few people ever climb out of this, and very often the people who do climb out are people who appear very simple or even dull to the outsider. I tried to portray another good person in An Unofficial Rose with the figure of Ann. No, I would not say despair, I think there's quite a lot of hope. The reader has got to put his own bit of hope into my bit of hope as it were. I mean, like at the end of A Word Child, there's a hint of hope in that it happens to be Christmas Day, and there's Tommy still there, and so on... but who knows what will happen next ? And funniness is never far away. I think in all the books there are plenty of indirect hints or indications of hope, and these are very important.

62M. MORIN. — I'd like to ask you a question about something you said earlier on. You said that you don't think you have any philosophy and don't you think that in the novel you're bound to express a coherent vision of life even if you wouldn't call this philosophy ?

63I. MURDOCH. — Yes. This question is about the expressing of philosophy or of a coherent vision of life. I would not use the word philosophy, but this is a verbal point. People often talk of somebody's philosophy of life, meaning their general outlook. The novel itself of course, the whole world of the novel, is the expression of a world outlook. And one can't avoid doing this. Any novelist produces a moral world and there's a kind of world outlook which can be deduced from each of the novels. And of course I have my own philosophy in a very general sense, a kind of moral psychology one might call it rather than philosophy. I have views about human nature, about good and evil, about repentance, about spirituality, about religion, about what religion is for people without God, and so on. And these views may add up to a world outlook, which comes to be expressed, directly or indirectly, in the novels. Also of course in the strict sense I have a philosophical position. I am a kind of Platonist, though I'm also a linguistic philosopher. I was trained as a linguistic philosopher and in many ways I remain one, but for purposes of moral philosophy I'm a sort of Platonist. I might describe myself as a Wittengsteinian neo-Platonist ! If I were shut up in prison for ten years and told to write my philosophy I could have a shot at explaining this, but it would take a long time !

64C. MACDONOGH. - Do you write poetry ?

65I. MURDOCH. — Do I write poetry ? Well you ask a very delicate question.

66C. MACDONOGH. — Somebody told me you did write some.

67I. MURDOCH. — I try to write poetry. I would much rather be a poet than a novelist, and I would imagine that no poet would ever want to be a novelist, only Philip Larkin says he would like to be a novelist.

68J. BAYLEY. — He wrote several novels which he never published. He wanted to become a novelist, but he's fortunately a poet.

69I. MURDOCH. — Well, I think he has a happy destiny being a poet. I'm not sure that it's not happier to be a painter, but I think to be a poet or a painter must be the nicest thing of all. Novelist cornes third. I would very much like to be a poet, and I write a lot of verse. I think poetry is terribly difficult. It's as difficult as philosophy. It's much harder than writing a novel. I go on trying. I have published a small amount of verse, but I think I'm probably not a natural poet. I can strive and produce something that looks like poetry and may deceive some people but it isn't really poetry and this mysterious gift which your Papa had is barred from me.

70J. BAYLEY. — Did your father ever try to write a novel ?

71C. MACDONOGH. - Yes, he tried, and he lasted until about the seventh page, I think. He didn't manage very well, so he just gave up.

72I. MURDOCH. — He was very sensible. If one can write poetry, why bother with writing novels, except that you earn more money writing novels of course. Poets don't earn money.

73C. MACDONOGH. — I think you're very fond of people and situations, and this one cannot express in poetry in the same way, one can not convey one's moral philosophy and describe characters as one can do in the novels.

74L MURDOCH. - Yes. This is very true.

75B. LE GROS. — Could you say something about the Englishness of the novels, or wherever the Englishness of the novels lies ?

76I. MURDOCH. — Well, I was using the word « English » here in the sense of the English novel tradition. I use the word « English » partly because our island is falling to pieces as you probably know. The Scots have become power-mad since they've found some oil and they've got all that whisky. And the Welsh have always been power-mad, and my pour native land has its troubles, and the English have become conscious of themselves as separate. Of course, I'm not English, I'm Irish. But I live in England and I identify with the English novel tradition although I suppose some people in that tradition are also Irish. I'm using the word « English » really to mean Jane Austen, Dickens, Emily Bronte, George Eliot, Henry James, as far as the English tradition spreads. I didn't mean anything very specially separate I'm of course very conscious of myself as Irish, and as I say I'm a Protestant and I come from both sides of the border, and the unhappiness of Ireland is something which I think about all the time. Some Irish ass wrote to the newspapers in England a couple of weeks ago, writing from the Republic, saying, « What are these Irish troubles ? We have no troubles ». And this of course is such a grim, cynical thing to say, if one thinks what Belfast is like and what Londonderry is like, and how awful the situation there is. How much people are suffering. How much children are suffering, which is one of the awful aspects of that hideous business, I mean their being demoralized and frightened and filled with hate and fear and so on. This is a part of being Irish and something that I carry with me. The Red and The Green which got mentioned a few rimes : I would regard that as a historical novel. It certainly, I think, is a good textbook for understanding Ireland, if anybody wants, quite apart from reading a novel, to get a glimpse of what Ireland's like, and what the confiras in Ireland are like,

77That book is quite a good introduction and it represents actually a lot of historical* research. For that particular week (the week of the 1916 rebellion which the novel is about) I tried to get everything right — what day a particular article was published on, what day and how they changed the plan for the insurrection, and what the English were doing, what everybody was doing during that week. Of course there is also an invented story which distracts attention from the historical background, but it's certainly a novel about Ireland and about the awful tensions involved in being Irish.

78J. BAYLEY. — We learn something from reading a novel that isn't in any sense English or nationalistic. I mean this is a thing that all good novelists do, don't you ?

79I. MURDOCH. - Yes.

80J. BAYLEY. — You could attach it to someone like Balzac who I think is a marvellous person to actually tell you the way people work,

81I. MURDOCH. — Yes. I'm sorry. I should perhaps have made that clearer, that I was speaking about « le roman » in relation to my own personal ancestry which includes of course the Russians and Proust. I don't feel so connected with Flaubert and Stendhal although I admire them, but for me the French novelist who is dosest to me is Proust. And he is very much one of my ancestors, so that I come out of a mixed tradition.

82J.-C. CASTANGT. — Would you attribute the sense of marvel and sometimes even fantastic trend which I think I find in your novels to the Celtic heritage which Mr. Bayley pointed out yesterday, to which you would add English realism ?

83I, MURDOCH. - Yes. Of course I'm not a Celt (selt) or Celt (kelt) or however you pronounce that word. My ancestors on my mother's side are pure Anglo-Irish, English people settled in Ireland as landed gentry. My father's ancestors are lowland Scors I assume from my name, although I don't know much about the history of my father's family except that they were farmers in County Down for a very long period.

84So that my Irishness is Anglo-lrishness in a very stria sense. I think this is a very special way of being Irish. People somerimes say to me rudely, « Oh ! you're not Irish at all ! » But of course I'm Irish. I'm profoundly Irish and I've been conscious of this all my life, and in a mode of being Irish which has produced a lot of very distinguished thinkers and writers. It is a particular tradition in Ireland. It's one which has been conneaed with sad things of course, because the Anglo-Irish are identified in some people's minds with intruders and exploitation.

85C. MACDONOGH. - What about the Puritanism of the Irish ? What do you think about that ?

86I. MURDOCH. — Well, about Puritanism. I don't know what makes people Puritans. Some people are and some aren't, and I am, and I don't think that I got it from my Ulster ancestors, although they certainly are Puritans. Sorry, this is going to be probably terribly boring, but my father fled from that world of black Protestantism. He ran just as soon as he could, immediately after the war. He grabbed my mother, and I was just coming into existence, and off we went to England, and this tension has always remained in my life between this ancestry, the removal from it, the removal from Ireland, the faa that my parents were exiles in England, that Ireland was for me, as a child, a very romande land, a land I always wanted to get to and find and discover. So I don't think that I acquired this Purita­nism in any direa way. Nevertheless, there's something there which must perhaps have come out of Ireland, I don't know. I think there's a lot of Puriranism in Ireland, both among Protestants and among Catholics. Ulysses can tell us a good deal about that.

© Presses universitaires de Caen, 1978

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