Archive for April 5th, 2019

Magnetic and inexhaustible reality

Iris Murdoch

I’ve just reread Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of the Good, in reaction to my rereading of Dave Hickey’s The Invisible Dragon, in an effort to see the contrast between their ideas about beauty. Hickey speaks about beauty and desire. Murdoch about beauty and love. One might think they are speaking the same language, Hickey at a very high rate of speed, full of rebellious spunk, and Murdoch deliberately, cautiously and in the dry language of a professional philosopher. They were both pushing back against a tide of thinking and theorizing, in their time, about what it means to be a responsible social human being. There is some commonality. It would seem Hickey would have been very uncomfortable with Murdoch’s wisdom. They arrive at what sound like very different conclusions, yet I’m wondering if Hickey might have appreciated Murdoch’s embrace of Greek philosophy a little more than he lets on in his own book. On the evidence, his view of beauty seems entirely utilitarian compared to hers, but his assertion that artists need to do beautiful work in familiarity with a tradition of past beauty that has some kinship with Murdoch’s concept of attention.  

She starts off in the weeds of shop talk, fending off one academic philosopher after another, trying to somehow save the idea of individual subjective consciousness against all the 20th century efforts to render human beings merely an agglomeration of genetic/cellular activity–or an isolated will, an abstract freedom of choice, completely detached from any governing reality external to the individual will. (The latter, existentialist view, has certainly receded since she wrote her book.) In rereading the book, at first, I was annoyed and puzzled by how dense her thinking gets, right out of the gate, as she fends off the other thinkers–analytic and existentialist both–who want to dismiss the idea of what used to be called the human soul, a consciousness that isn’t simply the epiphenomenon of bodily activity. She tentatively asserts subjective consciousness as the only way to describe the actual experience of being alive and human–an inner life apart from actual behavior that proves to others it exists–in order to build her philosophy of Goodness. Everything good in human behavior for her depends on a lone individual’s effortful attention to other people and things external to the self and she needs that inner life, that inner struggle of attention, which goes on invisibly from moment to moment (essentially a sort of continuous, daily discipline of contemplation) for her view of moral goodness to make sense. (Though she probably would have been disheartened by the current ubiquity of mindfulness meditation, complete with helpful apps on your phone, her thinking isn’t all that far from the moral dimension of mindfulness.)

For now, here’s a long series of excerpts from throughout her book. Any painter, including abstract painters, will recognize how much this describes the act of painting, how little depends on personal choice and how much relies on obedience to the requirements of a given picture, even though her focus is on moral behavior. She sees very little space between moral attention and creative attention:

But if we consider what the work of attention is like, how continuously it goes on, and how imperceptibly it builds up structures of value around about us, we shall not be surprised that at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over. This does not imply that we are not free, certainly not. But it implies that the exercise of our freedom is a small piecemeal business which goes on all the time and not a grandiose leaping about unimpeded at important moments. The moral life, on this view, is something that goes on continually, not something that is switched off in between the occurrence of explicit moral choices. What happens in between such choices is indeed what is crucial.

If I attend properly I will have no choices, and this is the ultimate condition to be aimed at. The ideal situation . . . is . . . to be represented as a kind of ‘necessity’. This is something of which saints speak and which any artist will readily understand. The idea of a patient, loving regard, directed upon a person, a thing, a situation, presents the will not as unimpeded movement but as something much more like ‘obedience.’

This is what Simone Weil means when she said ‘will is obedience not resolution.’ As moral agents we have to try to see justly, to overcome prejudice, to avoid temptation, to control and curb imagination, to direct reflection.

One of the great merits of moral psychology which I am proposing is that it does not contrast art and morals, but shows them to be two aspects of a single struggle.

In one of those important movements of return from philosophical theory to simple things we know about great art and about the moral insight which it contains and the moral achievement which it represents. Goodness and beauty are not to be contrasted, but are largely a part of the same structure. Plato, who tells us that beauty is the only spiritual thing which we love immediately by nature, treats the beautiful as an introductory section of the good. So that aesthetic situations are not so much analogies of morals as cases of morals. Virtue is au fond the same in the artist as in the good man in that it is a selfless attention to nature: something which is easy to name but very hard to achieve. Artists who have reflected have frequently given expression to this idea. (For instance Rilke praising Cezanne speaks of a ‘consuming love in anonymous work.’) Continue reading ‘Magnetic and inexhaustible reality’