The ethical eye

Iris Murdoch

I read a tremendous book a few months ago called Shop Class is Soul Craft, by Matthew Crawford, about the philosophical satisfactions of skilled physical labor. I heard about the book from my friend Walt—aka, Sancho—down in Tennessee, and I promptly ordered it and read it in a couple of sittings. It celebrates the dignity, beauty and intelligence of craftsmanship, and it makes me want to tear down my R1150R and put it back together again, just to get physical with my motorcycle in some way other than riding it. It’s a book people in Washington and on Wall Street ought to read, though they never will. They might realize that a country strong in the trades—a country good at building and repairing physical objects, a place where the average voter knows a socket wrench from an Allen wrench—is one that produces value the rest of the world actually needs. (How to revive manufacturing here in the U.S. is part of the economic enigma that needs to be deciphered for our economy to revive—and to wean ourselves from the financial sleight of hand that has been passing for economic growth the past couple decades.) It’s a sophisticated book by a man who left his position at a Washington think tank to repair motorcycles for a living. You can see some of his own craftsmanship at Yet the real joy of the book for me was that it introduced me to yet another book, The Sovereignty of the Good, by Iris Murdoch, the British philosopher and novelist. When I finished Crawford’s book and started to read Murdoch’s, I realized I’d found yet another foundational piece of writing—like The Doors of Perception—that helped explain why painting matters, especially representational painting. (The writing about painting that means the most to me, for some reason, often gets done by people outside the field of art—in this case by a motorcycle mechanic.)

You can open Murdoch’s book almost anywhere and come away with a sentence that makes you say, “Of course! I knew that.” And then you ask yourself, “Didn’t I?” Nicholson Baker used to do that for me on every page, some little observation about the engineering of a plastic straw, vs. paper, that would make you pay attention to your own subliminal awareness of how daily objects work, how they’re designed, perceptions that underlie your experience of life without your being quite conscious of them, until you’d read The Mezzanine. Murdoch does this on a more abstract plane. For example, everyone knows how discomfiting it can be to watch a John Cassavetes film or one by the young Mike Leigh, or to glance at certain great paintings for the first time, one of Lucien Freud’s nudes, for example. Murdoch has a simple perspective on this:

(good art) resists the easy patterns of fantasy . . . the recognizable and familiar rat-runs of selfish day-dream. Good art shows us how difficult it is to be objective by showing us how differently the world looks to an objective vision.

Crawford elaborates wonderfully on this in his own book:

Iris Murdoch writes that to respond to the world justly, you first have to perceive it clearly, and this requires a kind of “unselfing.” “Anything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue.” “Virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.” This attempt is never fully successful, because we are preoccupied with our own concerns. But getting outside her own head is the task the artist sets herself, and this is the mechanic’s task too. Both, if they are good, use their imagination “not to escape the world but to join it, and this exhilarates us because of the distance between our ordinary dulled consciousness and an apprehension of the real.” This is the exhilaration a mechanic gets when he finds the underlying cause of some problem.

It’s the exhilaration an artist gets, as well, when he or she “gets it right.” It’s clear how this view applies to representational art, yet in a slightly different sense, it implicates any art form, representational or not. The work of art itself becomes the object of awareness and the struggle with it induces the same kind of strenuous, rapt, unselfish attention required to create a persuasive image of a pear or a cloud formation or a foot. Great art happens when you forget yourself, and your notions about what you choose to do, and you become aware only of the work and the incessant, peculiar demands it makes on your eye and hand. And what you see or create, as a result of this effort, isn’t always or necessarily pleasant. Yet it has a chance at being some approximation of truth.

When you look at one of Freud’s massive, fat-laden bodies, you know that you’re seeing the truth of what it means to carry your flesh over carpet and grass and pavement for seventy years. The older you get, the clearer you see the empathy of Freud’s painterly realism, his lumpy, supine figures, and the more you realize how accurate and clear-headed they actually are, even if they don’t convey what a photograph would.  Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose: what the coach on Friday Night Lights chanted, with his players, and it applies just as well in art as on the gridiron.

What’s interesting in Murdoch’s vision is how it serves as an earlier articulation of the wisdom Jonathan Franzen tried to convey in his last novel: that real freedom isn’t the ability to make arbitrary choices in the cause of personal happiness as much as it is freedom from falsehood and lies and illusions, and the way to get there is through restraint, obedience, and self-sacrifice—not the exercise of  “free will” and personal whim.  In Murdoch’s view, spiritual freedom feels less like liberation and a lot more like a work release program in which you wear one of those orange jumpsuits and collect trash along the interstate. Painting is exactly like that. You can’t look at one of Chardin’s still lifes without feeling how much he was ruled by his painting, rather than the other way around, even though, when it was over, he’d done things no one else could figure out. Some artists do make it look easy: Sargent, just about any time he picked up a brush, and the line drawings of Picasso and Matisse, and that ink sketch by Rembrandt, “A Child Being Taught to Walk,” the one David Hockney got justifiably ecstatic about when he was campaigning for painters to swear off using cameras to produce source material for paintings. But that kind of mastery took years of labor to achieve, and it’s likely that the easy-looking work feels like an ordeal to the one who’s doing it. Matisse was reputed to go through the motions of a particular line portrait dozens of times, his pencil looping and stabbing the air above the paper, before he ever committed a mark.

For Murdoch, this loss of self represents the beginning of the freedom that makes ethical behavior possible—that gives the Good a chance to emerge in human awareness and behavior. You don’t create the Good. You become obedient to the demands it makes on you, as the artist does, submitting to what the work requires, and, if you withstand the discipline of it, great work can emerge.

One might say here that art is an excellent . . . case of morals. We cease to be in order to attend to the existence of something else, a natural object, a person in need. We can see in mediocre art, where perhaps it is even more clearly seen than in mediocre conduct, the intrusion of fantasy, the assertion of self, the dimming of any reflection of the real world.

For her, what distinguishes good art, and good behavior, is first and last the quality of attention to reality that makes it possible—that makes it happen, on its own, as it were. You don’t will it so much as you make it possible through years of practicing an attentive gaze, a certain state of awareness and an intimate acquaintance with what the tools of your art will let you do.

I have used the word “attention” . . . to express the idea of a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality. I believe this to be the characteristic and proper mark of the active moral agent. I suggest we can, if we simply introduce into the picture the idea of attention, or looking . . .I can only choose within the world I can see, in the moral sense of see, which implies that clear vision is a result of moral imagination and moral effort.

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 us, we shall not be surprised that at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over. The moral life, in 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.

And then she brings all of this gracefully back to the subject of art.

If I attend properly (to the nature of people and things around me and to myself) 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 very much more like ‘obedience.’”

. . . any artist would appreciate the notion of will as obedience to reality, an obedience which ideally teaches a position where there is no choice. One of the great merits of the 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. Goodness and beauty are not to be contrasted, but are largely 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.

The brilliance and wisdom embodied in her book makes her decline, years later, into Alzheimer’s, all the more tragic and sad.  A stubborn, hard-shell Platonist in a century filled with existentialists, positivists, and their heirs, the post-modernists, she was more trustworthy, and more in touch with the ground under her feet, than any of them.

 (Yet) it is in the capacity to love . . . that the liberation of the soul from fantasy consists. The freedom which is a proper human goal is the freedom from fantasy . . . (and) what I have called fantasy, the proliferation of blinding self-centred aims and images, is itself a powerful system of energy, and most of what is often called ‘will’ or ‘willing’ belongs to this system. What counteracts this system is attention to reality inspired by, consisting of love. In the case of art and nature such attention is immediately rewarded by the enjoyment of beauty.

It is a task (simply) to see the world as it is.

And, finally, perhaps my favorite passage from the book, she rises from ethics to a vision even more inclusive:

(Literature and painting) show us the absolute pointlessness of virtue while exhibiting its supreme importance; the enjoyment of art is a training in the love of virtue. The pointlessness of art is not the pointlessness of a game, it is the pointlessness of human life itself, and form in art is properly the simulation of the self-contained aimlessness of the universe.

2 Responses to “The ethical eye”

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