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Iris Murdoch’s Ethics of Attention

Iris Murdoch and the Chime of More than One Bell: Ethical Imagination and Attention to Voices

Iris Murdoch et le son de plus d’une cloche : imagination éthique et attention aux voix
Cornelius Crowley


L’article propose une lecture du roman de Murdoch, The Bell (1958), mettant en lumière des proximités entre le sort de Dora Greenfield et deux héroïnes emblématiques du roman de xixe siècle, Dorothea Brooke dans Middlemarch, Isabel Archer dans The Portrait of a Lady. Les trois romans, malgré des différences, sont lisibles comme des fictions centrées sur des enjeux d’envoûtement et de soumission. Des questions de voix narrative, la différence entre les procédures éthiques et épistémologiques du récit à la 1re personne et la narration romanesque extradiégétique sont abordées, dans l’œuvre de Murdoch et quelques exemples de la fiction du xxie siècle. L’article pointe une affinité entre le déploiement de l’imagination éthique et l’art de la fiction. L’émancipation d’une héroïne envoûtée est relevée comme un motif distinctif du roman.

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  • 1 This involves an opening beyond the self, what Murdoch has called ‘opening our eyes’, as in the obs (...)
  • 2 Danièle Haase-Dubosc, Ravie et enlevée: de l'enlèvement des femmes comme stratégie matrimoniale au (...)

1Can we argue that there has been an ethical turn in the writing or reading of fiction? Or that there has been a literary turn in the consideration of the ethical imperative? To the second question we can answer yes, that in reaction to the technicality of analytic philosophy and the reductionist positivism of neural cognitivism, a literary turn is evidence of a desire to breathe some air into the inquiry.1 To the first question, that of an ethical turn in the writing or reading of fiction, I would answer no, arguing there has been no shift to a foregrounding of the ethical, because the writing and reading of fiction have for centuries been engaged with the claims of the moral and the demands of the ethical, at least since the writing of La Princesse de Clèves.2

2It is not easy to distinguish strictly between the terms, the moral, the ethical. We can however make use of their imperfect overlap in order to chart how together they have to do with the social practice of prose fiction, its reading and writing, since the ‘rise of the novel’ (Watt 2001). If we read Lévinas, the term is the ethical, the issue that of the force of alter-obligation, the imperative which presses on each subject endowed with a power of agency, determining what she or he must do in deference to the other who is beyond, but who might be subjected to one’s own imperious designs (Lévinas 1990). The realm of the ethical is here stringently intersubjective, directly demanding, potentially discomforting. In this ethical perspective, (my) action is assessed in terms of the law following from the precedence of the other. In terms of method, while it is difficult not to start out from the self (my action, what I do), this is immediately followed by the inversion of priorities, so that my action is made submissive to the polarity of the other, to whom I defer. Emmanuel Lévinas is not however a novelist, he is a very singular philosopher, a thinker beyond or marginal to metaphysics.

  • 3 S.B. Sagare, ‘An Interview with Iris Murdoch’ (1987), in Modern Fiction Studies 47.3 (2001): ‘Let m (...)

3The resonance and scope of the moral point to a perspective which is also philosophical, but more recognizably ordinary, at least in those times and places of peace and of prevailing liberal decency (Sagare and Murdoch, 2001).3 While the scope of the moral can be descriptive, it is also tentatively prescriptive, in a way that connects more easily with the social order of everyday conventions, in terms of which words and deeds are to be assessed, are the objects of public censure and, in some cases, of legal reproof. The sphere of the moral—and we must attend to the subtle interplay in 20th-century English, and in the novels and philosophy of Iris Murdoch, between the cognate terms: morals, morality, the moral—is thus the concomitant of the social. Society here does exist, more so than in the starkly intersubjective confrontation of the Levinassian ethical. Society makes moral demands. And while in a liberal society (Mill 2010), the force of the moral is largely an affair of prevailing climate and opinion, we know that climates can change. We know that an explicitly intimidatory authority can be activated and forcibly imposed. It can even alas prove to be popular and consensual.

  • 4 For the prescriptive argument, as formulated by Patrick Devlin, High Court judge, see The Enforceme (...)

4Those novels of realist representation within the ‘great tradition’ (Leavis 1948) explore the realm of the moral, the agency located at the juncture between the spheres of privacy and of the social. And insofar as the practice of fiction involves publication and reading, the social criterion of morality can hold writers and readers to account: law cases about Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Last Exit to Brooklyn hinged on the reading of literature and its impingement on the public sphere of morals.4 The private is never exclusively private. That, we might argue, is the basic premise of a realist art of fiction, its writing, publication and reception.

  • 5 Among contributions to the Amiens conference, see in particular, Mathilde La Cassagnère, ‘On Dogs a (...)

5The ethical thus points to a principled reflection on the rules of engagement with others in the world. The latter term, habitually used to codify the exceptionality of the lethal engagement of warfare, is here adopted in relation to the engagements in a manifestly pacified civil sphere. Whether, in relation to the world of ordinary living or to the art of the novel, we should call this the realm of the ethical (inviting a rigorous ‘thinness’ of description) or of the moral (with its looser ‘thick description’ (Ryle 1968), is a matter impossible to decide. Both terms have to do with the tenor of engagement with others, with our care for the planet that is the precarious bearer of our existence. This last-mentioned preoccupation is a more recent and critical extension of the scope of the ethical. And it has profoundly unsettling implications for the practice of the bourgeois realist novel.5

6Neither the world of ordinary living nor the art of the novel can be comprehended from the perspective proper to warfare, whose rules of engagement are the blatant inversion of the ethical deference to the other. Certainly, there is no world of ordinary living that is sustainable through the general application of the rules of warfare. Let us say that the art of fiction deals with the delicate two-way interrogation of the ethical by the moral and the moral by the ethical. It is therefore, ideally, an art of civil society relation and engagement. It takes seriously the conflicting claims of these three orders—the intersubjective, the social, the sphere of reflexive self-consideration—while adopting the postulate that warfare is not the truth in the last instance of our engagement with others or with the universe.

  • 6 S.B. Sagare (711): ‘Religion is everywhere, and I think this is good, but one can certainly be reli (...)
  • 7 I am drawing here on remarks by Peter Conradi at the Amiens conference. The Unicorn (1963) is Murdo (...)

7The ethical imagination is not however the sole perspective through which to approach the fiction of Iris Murdoch. It seems to exclude the perspective of the sacred, which is not however to be conflated with the perspective of the divine or the transcendent (Sagare and Murdoch, 2001).6 The return of the sacred is now an effect of our belated coming down to earth (Latour 2017), of a crisis that is rapidly shifting the perspectives for the reading of Murdoch, pointing to an Anglo-Irish vein of wildness that is constantly there.7 The reading offered here is based on an occasional reading of Murdoch’s novels, set against the intertextual reference afforded by certain novelists who preceded her (George Eliot, Henry James) and certain writers of the 21st century one happens to be reading. It is, I admit, flatly ethical and moral: an accommodation of her novels within the practice of the realist art of fiction, to which she partly and imperfectly belongs. For the reader, it involves the postulate that prose fiction offers an access to forms of possible experience and life that are comprehensible and plausible, not the stuff of heroic fantasy and dreams.

8This is how Iris Murdoch establishes her fictional universe in The Bell, foregrounding the dilemma facing the heroine:

Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason. The absent Paul, haunting her with letters and telephone bells and imagined footsteps on the stairs had begun to be the greater torment. Dora suffered from guilt, and with guilt came fear. She decided at last that the persecution of his presence was to be preferred to the persecution of his absence. (Murdoch 2004, 1)

9Two options are opposed here: leave/stay. They appear mutually exclusive, a dilemma so elementary as to figure in the opening sentence of Murdoch’s novel and the words of a song by The Clash, ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ (1981). Going and leaving seem the contrary directions possible for the course of Dora Greenfield’s life. However the narrator points out that the two options carry the same quantum of fear: the effect in both cases is the heroine’s continued exposure to the ominous power of a man, Paul Greenfield, ‘an art historian connected with the Courtauld Institute’ (1). Reference to ‘the persecution of his absence’ as reason to choose instead ‘the persecution of his presence’ conveys something of the faculty of a moral agent to make an apparently perverse choice—to remain in the thralls of a persecutor—even as the notation indicates the rational-utilitarian justification behind the perverse decision to stay: the estimation that the ‘persecution of his absence’ ensures an even ‘greater torment’ than ‘the persecution of his presence’. If we ask how or why this is the case, we have to draw on our own ethical imagination, its capacity to envisage subtle refinements of possible ‘persecution’ by way of our observation and practice of the rules of civil engagement.

10Here the novelist’s ethical imagination offers an antithetical slant on the Levinassian absolute of deference: what is disclosed in the opening sentence is the force of an exclusive subjugation through marriage. This in no sense invalidates the principled radicality of the Levinassian rule of alter-obligation, which can all the more be cherished as an absolute insofar as the evidence adduced from the thickness of description making up the fabric of a novel such as The Bell points less to the deference to the other than to the abuse of charm: voice, bodily power, cultural authority as the effective instruments of enthrallment. The Bell, like other novels by Murdoch, offers a thickness in the description of unethical capture which Lévinas cannot offer through the argumentation of philosophical prose. We are warned, from the beginning: ‘That Paul was a violent man had been clear to Dora from the start. Indeed, it was one of the things which had attracted her to him. He had a sort of virile authority which her boyish contemporaries would never have’ (5).

11And while it is possible to insert Levinassian maxims into the dialogues of a realist fiction, it is not possible to imagine the unfolding of a strictly Levinassian narrative. Precisely to the degree that such an ethic is unflinchingly absolute, it is impossible to envisage its figurative emplotment, its novelistic mise en intrigue. On the contrary, it is a pure suspension of intrigue and of alienating enthrallment and, as such, implacably anti-mimetic. The temporality of narrative fiction is, by contrast, peopled with episodes of captivation and rapture: the devil has most of the good tunes. The ethical imagination, as deployed in the art of fiction, not in a work of philosophical ethics—and notably deployed by way of the reader’s reception and response—has therefore little choice but to focus on the serial abuses of power and domination on the part of the characters whose action is represented. And the ethical imagination will also have to deploy a reflexive interrogation of the exorbitant powers of narrative voice, in particular the ‘unreliable’ power, confiscatory and epistemologically uncertain, of a self-serving first-person narration (Booth 1961, 395). In first-person narration, the devil is the solo performer of the tune’s melodic line. Were it not for the novel’s supplementary peritext (a Forward informing us of the death ‘in childbed’ of ‘Mrs Richard F. Shiller’ (6), Dolores Haze (Lolita) would be accessible to the reader solely through the voice of Humbert.

12The Bell, by contrast, is a standard example of third-person narration, its opening and closing paragraphs focused on a heroine, Dora Greenfield. Her husband is at no time granted any authority of voice in the narration. This is a crucial condition in the novel’s thickness of description and its fairly secure ethical authority. The reader of the first paragraph of Murdoch’s novel is thus in familiar and, yes, ominous territory: the world inhabited by Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch or Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady. Not ‘the comedy of remarriage’ explored by Stanley Cavell (1981); certainly not the world of Jane Austen, which closes with the heroine’s felicitous resolution of the dilemma of choice between a series of possible husbands. James, Eliot, Murdoch in The Bell start out from the fact of marriage, which has become a destiny. The dilemma is thus clarified. How, for instance, will Dorothea Brooke reappraise the gift of her selfhood to a man whose intellectual or moral grandeur turn out to be a sham? Here is what happens when Dorothea seeks to comfort Casaubon, who has just been informed that he is dangerously ill:

Mr. Casaubon kept his hands behind him and allowed her pliant arm to cling with difficulty against his rigid arm.
There was something horrible to Dorothea in the sensation which this unresponsive hardness inflicted on her. That is a strong word, but not too strong: it is in these acts called trivialities that the seeds of joy are forever wasted, until men and women look round with haggard faces at the devastation their own waste has made, and say, the earth bears no harvest of sweetness—calling their denial knowledge. (Eliot 398–399)

13For ‘remarriage’ to emerge as a possibility in Middlemarch, Casaubon would have to respond in a manner entirely out of character to Dorothea’s ‘[passing] her hand through his arm’. He does not. George Eliot dramatises the gestures of irreversible estrangement, presenting a spectacle of desolation: ‘the devastation their own waste has made’. The indication that ‘the earth bears no harvest of sweetness’ is an invalidation of any possible renewal, as acute as anything in the theatre of Strindberg or the cinema of Bergman. We note that the ethical imagination of the novelist is a capacity to figure landscapes, here of desolation, as the expressive analogue of moral conditions.

  • 8 For James’s reservations about Flaubert’s art, see his essay on La Tentation de Saint Antoine (1874 (...)

14In Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, written by a novelist more attentive to the lesson of Eliot than to the lesson of Flaubert,8 the dilemma for Isabel Archer is to decide where to go, once she no longer harbours illusions concerning the designs of her husband: to the continental immensity of America, with Caspar Goodwood, or back to the frigid interior of Osmond’s Italian palazzo: ‘Ah, she had been immensely under the charm! It had not passed away; it was still there; she still knew perfectly what it was that made Osmond delightful when he chose to be. He had wished to be when he made love to her, and as she had wished to be charmed it was not wonderful he had succeeded’ (James 1995, 357).

15Murdoch writes in a different space-time of contingency: a middle-class social milieu in the England of the 1950s: London, the British Museum, the universities, a place of retreat reachable by train from London. What is shared by the three fictions is the tonality of fear that is the concomitant of unfreedom, an unfreedom the inversion (in The Bell from the incipit) of an earlier infatuation. And from this starting point, the narrative is a presentation of the drastic narrowing of options:

When Dora first escaped from Knightsbridge and from the routine of evening bickering with Paul she felt intense relief. But she soon realized she had no other life to escape into. She became vaguely dependent on Noel Spens [. . .] ; she lived in an atmosphere of factitious and self-conscious frivolity, picturing herself as an irresponsible Bohemian. That she had deeply hurt Paul she tried not to remember. Memory was something for which Dora had little use. But she was too conventional a person not to feel painfully guilty and embarrassed at her situation. (7)

  • 9 Samuel Beckett, ‘The Capital of the Ruins’ (1946), The Complete Short Prose 1929–1989, ed. S.E. Gon (...)

16Knowing one ‘had no other life to escape into’ is perhaps the essence of the moral imagination, a fact to be focused on as the predicament of selfhood, from which the ethical opening to other lives might offer relief and enlargement. The narrator displays only moderate sympathy for the heroine: Dora is both associated with ‘the frivolous’ and said to be ‘too conventional’ in her sense of guilt and embarrassment. Such narratorial condescension is not found in either Eliot or in James. But then Isabel and Dorothea Brooke are unquestionably ladylike, whereas Dora ‘came of a lower middle-class London family’ (1). The structural solidity of Murdoch’s novel depends however on the adoption of the conventions of third-person narrative voice that is focused on the heroine, exploring her sense of fear and embarrassment. This allows for the gradual emergence of an empathy with Dora, beginning with the description of her train journey to Imber, burdened down with Paul’s precious suitcase, which she forgets. Dora Greenfield is certainly less sublime than the heroines of Eliot or James. The ethical imagination cannot (or need not) here conjure up any comparable landscape figuring ‘the devastation their own waste has made’. We may wonder why. Is it because the mid-century very literal devastation of bombing, evoked by Beckett in his description of St. Lo (Beckett 1995), or presented in the opening aerial view of Berlin in Wilder’s film A Foreign Affair (1948), implies that from now on a sense of ‘the devastation their own [collective] waste has made’ can no longer be offered as the sublimely desolate figuring of the private condition of an unhappy marriage, in a time and place when marriage bonds are less binding, less fatal than for Isabel Archer?9 Murdoch’s narrator presses more lightly than those of Eliot or James on Dora’s plight, taking less seriously the hesitations of a heroine cut out for the ‘factitious’ bohemian world of Noel Spens. And far less seriously than the insistently male voices of the narrators in The Sea, The Sea or in The Black Knight take their own precious plight. But the comparison is an epistemologically impossible one. The egotistical sublime of Charles Arrowby, the infatuation of Bradley Pearson are disclosed to the reader solely through their own words. For Dora, there is a way out, in the direction of the ordinary. The search for an alternative is what had animated the retreat to Imber, a place whose common rule and piety had seemed an answer to the condescension of the narrator in the opening scene of the novel. If by the end of The Bell, in the aftermath of the community’s collapse, we ask whether there is open to Dora a world holding out the promise of an escape from ‘an atmosphere of factitious and self-conscious frivolity’ and that is not a regressive capitulation to her husband’s power to confine and to arouse fear, it would seem to lie in the banality of ordinary living.

17In her novels, Murdoch complicates the question of the narratorial presentation of a gendered relation of power, as habitually played out between a novelist who is a man and his fictional heroine, Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, Isabel Archer and Milly Theale for James. This is not only because Dora Greenfield at times recalls Dorothea Brooke, while also reminding us of the more frivolous Rosamond. It is the effect of Murdoch’s rare capacity to focus on masculine infatuation and rapture, doing so in first-person narratives where the reader has access to the object of the infatuation primarily through the voice of the enraptured male: Charles Arrowby in The Sea, the Sea, Bradley Pearson in The Black Prince. This is not the case in The Bell, a third-person narrative centred on Dora Greenfield, though not exclusively, since she is a figure among others in what is also a symposium novel of the community of Imber. We could imagine a very different, first-person relation of the drama and of her ordeal, voiced by Paul Greenfield. What might the reader have grasped of the ‘violent man’ or the ‘torment’ and ‘fear’ felt by Dora, from a first-person account by Paul?

18The ethical imperative, as woven into the poetics of narrative fiction, means that rapturous confinement, the confiscation of another life, must be represented in all its desiring intensity. The first-person voicing of this intensity thus creates an epistemological and ethical ambiguity which precludes the invocation of any sententious thumb-rule. To offset the presentation of the force of the desiring intensity, the latter must, however obliquely, be correlated with the figuring of the spoliation of another’s selfhood, through the devastation wrought. Such a balancing is most effectively secured through third-person narration: Casaubon and Dorothea, Osmond and Isabel Archer, Paul and Dora in The Bell, the co-presence of the characters, their unequal engagement, orchestrated by a narratorial instance that is beyond them.

19In the case of first-person narration, the reader can no longer rely on the ballast of narrational exteriority. It is impossible to decide with any certainty the actual reference of the musings of Charles Arrowby or of Bradley Pearson. In The Black Prince, the unreliability of the first-person kernel narrative is both compensated for and foregrounded through the paratextual framing of the core narrative within a series of covering texts, which distance the reader from the unstable, possibly mad, voice of Pearson’s infatuation. The narratological affinities between Lolita and The Black Prince have been noted (Baldanza 88–89). If we argue that Lolita is to be read by way of the ethical imagination of the reader, this is not because Humbert Humbert is eventually vanquished by his rival, not because he gets what he deserves. No moral maxim, general or trivial, can be animated (haunted) by the singularity of what was once contingently possible, in the order of good or in the order of evil. And by contingent singularity, we refer to the novel’s mimesis of the actual life of Dolores Haze, a singular, non-recursive possibility in time, entirely apart from the designs of Humbert Humbert. This is what has been destroyed through the infatuation and violation. If Lolita reads as a work of the ethical imagination, pointing to a condition beyond predation and male designs, it is because Nabokov weaves into the texture of the writing a contingency of being in time, which the sexual exploitation has defaced:

Unless it can be proven to me—to me as I am now, today, with my heart and my beard, and my putrefaction—that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art. (Nabokov 1977, 258)

20And because the ethical imagination can only be deployed through the investigation of what takes place in the engagement with others, who can potentially be drawn into the compass of power and rapture, the fiction must take seriously both the presentational requirement of the other’s exteriority and the poverty involved in any formulation of the ethical in terms of a general sententiousness. It must take up the challenge of voice and of charm, it must take on the self-serving apologia of Humbert Humbert (or that of Bradley Pearson or Charles Arrowby), in its occlusion of access to the voice and fate of the other. The ethical imagination animating the writing and reading of a first-person fiction must take seriously the cunning that is at work in the speaker’s confession of designs, for self and upon others.

21Compared to some of Murdoch’s later works, the task for the reader is more straightforward in The Bell. Dora Greenfield is ultimately extricated from the dilemma, fear of leaving, fear of staying. At the end, she haphazardly self-extricates, through the simple option of taking a step beyond, a walk on the marginally wilder side, beyond the restrictive frame of the dilemma posed in the opening paragraph. The novel’s ending performs her disengagement, thus opening out on her contingent, moderately unrestricted freedom: ‘Dora was to leave by a later train which would take her, with only one change, to Bath. She telephoned Sally to expect her late the following evening’ (323). The closing paragraph thus breaks out of the dilemma of the fiction’s opening sentence, taking Dora out of the marital engagement which had left no option, outside the two modalities of the same fear, other than a retreat to the security of a religious community. Of the bell ringing for Nones, heard by Dora, we are told: ‘Already for her it rang from another world. Tonight she would be telling the whole story to Sally’ (329).

22The entire narrativethe journey by train, the diffident participation in the routines of the community at Imber, the shift in tone, away from sober realism and into a vein that is comic and sometimes grotesque—all contribute to the disengagement of Dora Greenfield, no longer subject to the authority of another: that of Paul Greenfield or the communal rule of Imber, whose world collapses in a manner that is very Church-of-England, and for this reason has echoes of an Alec Guinness comedy of the 1950s. Dora Greenfield is both expelled and propelled beyond the illusion of Imber, which has proved an ineffectual community of the well-intentioned. In the end she is thrown into being, albeit a less dramatic and a more mundane mode of being than the Heideggerian plight. Dora, in the last paragraph of the novel, is a young woman faced with having to live on what she can earn on the basis of her education and the limited social capital of her ‘lower-middle class London family’ (1). But the fact is that (unlike Isabel Archer) she can escape her fate, through the simple option of walking away. A young woman in a liberal civil society, as represented in the fiction, is not subject to the imperious law of a prescriptive fate.

23This I take to be evidence that 1) the ethical imagination, consubstantial with, not additional to, the art of the novel, addresses conditions of confinement which bristle with the sense of fear, hence the gothic component in the fiction of Murdoch, and in most realist fiction; 2) the art of fiction, as a poetic (in the Aristotelean sense) project, has preferentially been the mimesis of the thwarted agency characteristic of the confinement of heroines.

24The implication is that the art of fiction has been deployed as an enduring engagement with the confinement of women (the emblematic motif of prose fiction and of the modern ethical imagination), and with the conditions therefore of their possible non-confinement, their emancipation. The term, designating the overcoming of servitude, must be used here. It is required for the qualification of the plight of Isabel Archer or Dorothea Brooke. It qualifies the narrative trajectory of Dora Greenwood. And it is of particular importance to our understanding of what it is that the art of fiction engages with and what it might perform, through the focus on the dilemmas arising from a heroine’s fear and from the challenge of her self-extrication. The year 2020 is not 1958, the year of publication of The Bell. However, the book still makes demands on us in the here-and-now of our ethical imagining, as nurtured through a readerly engagement that is always time-specific. Such engagement is both gender specific and potentially beyond gender (gender blithe), pointing to the erasure of its divisive demarcations and assignations, but only on condition that there is a performative opening up, through the reading of the fiction, to the dismantling, both morally necessary and morally possible, of the gendered play of power, to which the reader’s deployment of the ethical imagination, in response to the author’s imaginative investment and venturing, can contribute.

25The Bell rehearses various possible answers to the question of the adjustment between the demands of ‘reality’ and the aspirations within us. For James Tayper Pace:

Ideals are dreams. They come between us and reality—when what we need most is just precisely to see reality. And that is something outside us. Where perfection is, reality is. And where do we look for perfection? Not in some imaginary concoction out of our idea of our own character but in something so external and so remote that we can get only now and then a distant hint of it. (133)

26In contrast, it is later suggested by Michael Meade that ‘The chief requirement of the good life [. . .] is that one should have some conception of one’s capacities’ (206).

27The challenge involved in the definition of the good and the real is broached from two directions, which in the book prove divergent and non-congruous rather than complementary. The two lessons delivered in the context of the ‘weekly talk’ (133) before the Imber community point outwards—to the externality of ‘reality’—and inwards, to the realm of one’s ‘capacities’ that must find expression in projects which are concomitant. However, The Bell does not crystallise in the harmonious chiming of these two orders, the objective order of ‘reality’, the subjective order of ‘capacity’. Such harmony would be magical or miraculous. The match between the subjective and the objective is more difficult to achieve than either the sterile balance of fears, evoked in the incipit, or Dora’s successful breaking out into the extension of contingent freedom at the end.

28The questions what is capacity?, what is reality? are topics of general philosophy, moral and metaphysical. The relation between the real and the true, at the heart of medieval scholastic philosophy, would be taken up in a 20th century scholastic revival, in the work of Etienne Gilson or Jacques Maritain (Michel 2018). Their neo-Thomist intention was to secure the overcoming of subjectivism and open-ended contingency, by way of the rooting of the real in an order of the true. The Bell voices a medievalist aspiration, to be effected through the displacement from the metropolitan sphere of marital unhappiness to the communal life of Imber, where the quest for beauty and truth are to be honoured through the forms of ritual action: prayer, sacrament, the common table of the refectory, congruent with a solidly buttressed philosophy of truth and reality, beyond the longings of the self.

  • 10 W.B. Yeats, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ and ‘Byzantium’ (Yeats 239 and 298).

29But Dora ultimately leaves the community and Imber quickly collapses. The Thomist convergence of the real and the true remains only that, an admirable aspiration, pursued by those who go on retreat to Imber, whom Murdoch shows to be, some of the time or a lot of the time, at best a coterie of the vain and the candid, human, all too human. As a poet, Yeats could get round the difficulty of the antithesis between subjective desire and the order of the true. He could do so through the orchestration of the dialogue between soul and self, the alternate celebration of the ‘dying generations’, the world of ‘the young in one another’s arms’, and the eternity of ‘the golden bird’.10 For a novelist such as Murdoch, not a poet, not here a philosopher, the ethical imagination cannot detach the ideal types of the good and the beautiful and the true from the actual conditions of their possible apprehension in time, that is from the inescapable modality of narrative mimesis.

  • 11 S.B. Sagare, Iris Murdoch (700). In response to the question ‘Do you think of yourself as a novelis (...)

30This means that as a novelist11 Murdoch challenges the reader who might try to square her art of fiction with her work in philosophical conceptualisation, in terms of the truth claims of the latter. In her 1977 essay, The Fire & the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists, we remark the clarity of the writing, lucid, never trivial in the way the prose of her fiction must at times be trivial, in its attention to the mundane. The essay is a presentation of the Platonic order of truth, to which the figure of the artist appears superfluous and disruptive.

  • 12 This leaves the issue of Murdoch’s subsequent statement of her strong reservations about Derrida’s (...)

It is now perhaps possible to see deeper reasons for Plato’s hostility to writing and to the practice of imitation, including mimetic art. One is struck by the similarity of the venomous description of the sophist to the descriptions of the artist which are found elsewhere. If falsehood has to be possible then a whole art of deceiving can exist (264d). The ideal of knowledge is to see face to face, not (eikasia) in a glass darkly. However, truth involves speech and thought is mental speech, so thought is already symbolism rather than perception: a necessary evil. (On the ambiguity of necessary evils, and the problems of the Sophist in general, see Jacques Derrida’s brilliant essay La Pharmacie de Platon. (Murdoch 1977, 31)12

31If the figure of the artist is ideally superfluous and if, Murdoch says, Plato and Kant combine ‘a great sense of human possibility with a great sense of human worthlessness’ (Murdoch 1977, 20), her philosopher’s sense of an unchanging reality, of the beauty of what is true, cannot occlude the novelist’s awareness that knowledge is in time and is never face to face, that it is by way of words, that are always already there.

32In 1977 Murdoch could thus acknowledge the unavoidable co-presence of the pharmakon, of writing as the condition of speech, which claims to say true. She thus points to the inevitable vitiation of the intended saying of truth, to the botching or clouding of any aspired to disclosure of the real. The novelist’s imagination is thus attuned to the possible fiasco of there being two bells, the old and the new, one too many for a miracle. Murdoch thus points in a direction other than that of a neo-Thomist reconstruction of the philosophical equivalent of a cathedral such as Amiens. She cannot not acknowledge the Derridean law of having to make do with the disparity between intentions and effects. The spectacular parasitage or queering of pure intention is the kernel emplotment of The Bell.

33As to the sense of ‘reality’ that one takes away from Murdoch, at the risk of drawing her enterprise too closely into the orbit of the Jamesian art of fiction, I would argue that The Bell conforms to James’s anti-romance definition of the real as representing ‘the things we cannot possibly not know, sooner or later, in one way of another’ (James 1984, 1062–1063). The maxim indicates an externality of reference, an intractable factuality that is the stuff of experience beyond the compass of our subjective designs. The real is that which we belatedly come to know, in the way that we now come to know the externality of our sustaining planetary condition, brought home to us with a vengeance.

34The ethical imagination offers meagre consolation. It is however an imperative. It enables us to assess both third-person and first-person narratives, preserving a readerly distance from the charms of the latter. As in the case of the musings of the first-person narrator in Michel Houellebecq’s novel Sérotonine (2018), which affords no readerly access to the female characters, who are exclusively evoked in the narrative through the (mostly misogynist, occasionally fleur bleue, always self-pitying) diffraction of the narratorial voice. Or the confined claustral voice of the narrator in Nelly Arcan’s fiction Putain (Arcan 2019). The reader’s ethical imagination has to take up the challenge of the hors champ: it must read beyond and against the occlusion of the lives subject to the confiscatory force of voice as insistent, exclusive presence. And it must acknowledge the fact that art has to continue in its duplicitous enterprise of consolation and charm.

35Having remarked that Plato is himself a poet, that it is therefore a simplification to argue that Plato categorically banished them, Murdoch evokes the ‘consolation of art’, in words close to those of Nabokov.

Plato feared the consolation of art. . . Art will mediate and adorn, and develop magical structures to conceal the absence of God or his distance. We live now amid the collapse of many such structures [. . .] Sophistry and magic break down at intervals, but they never go away and there is no end to their collusion with art and to the consolidations which, perhaps fortunately for the human race, they can provide, and art, like writing and like Eros, goes on existing for better and for worse. (Murdoch 1977, 88–89)

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1 This involves an opening beyond the self, what Murdoch has called ‘opening our eyes’, as in the observation of the kestrel, mentioned in The Sovereignty of Good, foregrounded by A.E. Denham in her article ‘Envisioning the Good: Iris Murdoch’s Moral Psychology’, Modern Fiction Studies 47.3 (2001): 624–625. The gesture is, literally, a turning: ‘I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment, everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. And of course this is something which we may also do deliberately: give attention to nature in order to clear our minds of selfish care’ (‘Sovereignty’ 369).

2 Danièle Haase-Dubosc, Ravie et enlevée: de l'enlèvement des femmes comme stratégie matrimoniale au xviie siècle, Albin Michel, 1999, for an analysis of the emergence of the motif of discretionary wedlock and the power to choose, as a theme in the novel and as a social aspiration in 17th century France.

3 S.B. Sagare, ‘An Interview with Iris Murdoch’ (1987), in Modern Fiction Studies 47.3 (2001): ‘Let me put it this way: in England whether you belong to the Labor Party or to the Conservative Party you are liberal—that is you are democratic; that’s all really it means now in that sense. So that all well-intentioned people, using a vague phrase, would be liberal—that is they would want a free society and that people should not be interfered with in certain ways’ (708–709).

4 For the prescriptive argument, as formulated by Patrick Devlin, High Court judge, see The Enforcement of Morals (1965), Indianapolis: Amagi, 2009.

5 Among contributions to the Amiens conference, see in particular, Mathilde La Cassagnère, ‘On Dogs and Good: Iris Murdoch’s Animal Imagination’.

6 S.B. Sagare (711): ‘Religion is everywhere, and I think this is good, but one can certainly be religious without believing in the Judaeo-Christian God who is thought of as a person’.

7 I am drawing here on remarks by Peter Conradi at the Amiens conference. The Unicorn (1963) is Murdoch’s most explicit drawing on the Anglo-Irish Big House novel. Irish connections are pointed to by Peter Conradi in Iris Murdoch, A Life (2002).

8 For James’s reservations about Flaubert’s art, see his essay on La Tentation de Saint Antoine (1874), Literary Criticism 2 (1984): 289–346.

9 Samuel Beckett, ‘The Capital of the Ruins’ (1946), The Complete Short Prose 1929–1989, ed. S.E. Gontarski, Grove Press, 1997. For a study of the climate of experimental, non-realist fiction in French and English, see Andrew Hodgson, The Post-War Experimental Novel, British and French Fiction 1945–75, London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.

10 W.B. Yeats, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ and ‘Byzantium’ (Yeats 239 and 298).

11 S.B. Sagare, Iris Murdoch (700). In response to the question ‘Do you think of yourself as a novelist or a philosophical novelist?’, Murdoch answers ‘Not a philosophical novelist, no, certainly not—just as a novelist. Philosophy, as I said earlier, is quite a different matter’.

12 This leaves the issue of Murdoch’s subsequent statement of her strong reservations about Derrida’s enterprise (Murdoch 1992). For a considered assessment of the issues involved, see Ian Hacking’s review essay ‘Plato’s Friend’, London Review of Books 14.24, 17 December 1992, last accessed at on 10 July 2020.

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Cornelius Crowley, « Iris Murdoch and the Chime of More than One Bell: Ethical Imagination and Attention to Voices »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 59 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2020, consulté le 05 février 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Cornelius Crowley

Cornelius Crowley (EA 370 CREA) is a professor of British studies in Université Paris Nanterre. Among recent publications: ‘Foucault traducteur, Foucault traduit’, in Claire Wrobel (dir.), Traduction et philosophie, Editions Panthéon-Assas, 2018; ‘A British Grammar of Belief and Unbelief’, in ‘Croyances contemporaines: regards croisés sur le monde anglophone’, Babel 13, Frédéric Armao (dir.), Université de Toulon, 2017 (261–282); ‘The Persistence of British Euroscepticism and the Geopolitics of a Post-Imperial Britain’, in Karine Tournier-Sol/Chris Gifford (dir.), The UK Challenge to Europeanization: The Persistence of British Euroscepticism, Palgrave-Macmillan, 2015. He has maintained an interest in Henry James and the art of fiction since his doctorate in U.C.D., Dublin.

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