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Iris Murdoch and the Natural World

Anti-Nausea: Iris Murdoch and the Natural Goodness of the Natural World

L’anti-nausée : Iris Murdoch et la bonté naturelle du monde naturel
Frances White


Cet article examine l’importance que Iris Murdoch accorde à la valeur intrinsèque du monde naturel, et il s’appuie pour cela sur sa philosophie, sa fiction et ses critiques de livres, mais également ses journaux intimes et ses poèmes non publiés. Murdoch rejette la conception sartrienne de la contingence comme source d’un sentiment d’horreur, et, comme le prouvent les entrées de son journal, elle partage avec Virginia Woolf une même conception de la nature,. L’article conclut que Murdoch était de plus en plus préoccupée par la précarité de la planète au xxie siècle et était, depuis longtemps, consciente de la menace que représente la crise écologique actuelle.

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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 (Murdoch, 1970, 41).

  • 1 The journals and poetry notebooks are held in the Iris Murdoch Collections at Kingston University A (...)
  • 2 Following my book about Iris Murdoch’s early life, Becoming Iris Murdoch (Kingston University Press (...)

1In September 2016 fourteen volumes of Iris Murdoch’s journals and thirteen files and notebooks of her poetry were donated to the Iris Murdoch Archive at Kingston University by Audi Bayley, Iris Murdoch’s friend and John Bayley’s second wife. They are currently in the process of being transcribed.1 These journals and poems are adding depth and texture to our understanding of Murdoch’s moral thought and to our apprehension of her feelings, personality and priorities. The overtly biographical perspective of my own critical approach to Murdoch’s work makes them of particular value in my research.2 In this essay I draw on these new resources as well as on her fiction and philosophy to illuminate Murdoch’s sense of the innate worth and preciousness of the world we inhabit and the connection she makes between attention to nature and virtue.

2An entry in an early journal written on 4 June 1945 when Murdoch was twenty-five notes that she finds in herself, ‘An animism—embracing cats, buses, stones. . . A tenderness for all things. Such as my mother has’ (KUAS202/1/3, 13). This tenderness towards the non-human, and towards the inanimate world as well as animals, increased throughout Murdoch’s life and caused her pain as well as joy. Fourteen years later on 7 January 1959, she writes in her journal: ‘Sometimes it feels more like being utterly possessed by some sort of blind love, love of everything, the birds, the trees, the logs in the fire, the pieces of coke. And such a feeling can’t help somehow being sad’ (KUAS202/1/9, 34–5). Later journal entries record on 1 May 1986, ‘My friends, the apple tree and the birch tree, are at last a little hazy with green’ (KUAS202/1/14, 74), and on 1 August 1993, ‘My friends, my friends, I say to the teacups and spoons’ (KUAS202/1/15, 15). This poignantly personal sense of animism permeates Murdoch’s work, both philosophical and literary. In Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals she cites with approval Wittgenstein’s statement in the Tractatus, ‘Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is (6.44)’ (Murdoch 1992, 31), and in her twenty-first novel, The Philosopher’s Pupil she creates Gabriel McCaffrey, a character who has a sort of animism whereby everything, not only the flies which had to be caught and let out of windows, the wood lice which had to be tenderly liberated into the garden, the spiders which were to be respected in their corners, but also the knives and forks and spoons and cups and plates and jugs, and shoes, and poor socks that had no partners, and buttons which might become uncherished and lost, all had a life of their own, and friendliness and rights. All these became an extension of her existence (Murdoch 2000b, 61).

3Murdoch is thus vividly aware of living in the world and sharing it with everything else that is in it, natural or manufactured. She is intensely conscious that human beings are only one element in life on the planet and of how various and interconnected diverse forms of life are. Another journal entry on 9 June 1981 exclaims: ‘Don’t spiders and hawks see different worlds! But spiders and hawks are part of my world too’ (KUAS202/1/14, 6).

4Murdoch’s first work, published a year before her début novel, was Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953). She pinpoints the image of viscosity which dominates Sartre’s text La Nausée as his ‘fundamental symbol’ and enquires, with Gabriel Marcel, why Sartre finds ‘the contingent overabundance of the world nauseating rather than glorious?’ (Murdoch 1987, 59). The matter recurs in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, in which Murdoch first remarks ‘Gabriel Marcel attacked Sartre for finding contingency an occasion for horror rather than for grace’ (Murdoch 1992, 266), before adding later on, ‘Sartre’s Nausée expresses the horror of those who can no longer love or attend to or even really see the contingent, and fear it as a threat to their imaginary freedom and self-regarding “authenticity”’ (Murdoch 1992, 377). Briefly enchanted by Sartre and existentialism in her youth, Murdoch soon threw off his influence. As Zeynep Yilmaz Kurt observes in her work on ‘“Deep Ecology” and Representation of the Non-Human in Iris Murdoch’s Late Fiction’ (2020), ‘Murdoch criticizes existential philosophy [. . .] for its materiality as it limits man’s moral choice to such precepts as “freedom, will, power” while distancing him from nature at the same time’ (Kurt 6). Murdoch’s quarrel with existentialism goes beyond her criticism of it for being egocentrically based, focusing on the supposed freedom of the will of the solipsistic individual, to a critique of this philosophical stance for being anthropocentric.

5Murdoch and Sartre are poles apart in their relationship with the world around them. This is seen clearly when one contrasts the ‘curious sickly horror’ (Murdoch 1987, 39) which overcomes Roquentin in La Nausée when he picks up a pebble on the seashore with the love for stones evinced by many of Murdoch’s fictional characters and indeed herself—she collected stones from all the beaches she visited and kept many in her home. Sartre’s protagonist recalls

I remember better what I felt the other day on the sea-shore when I was holding that pebble. It was a sort of sweet disgust. How unpleasant it was! And it came from the pebble, I’m sure of that, it passed from the pebble into my hands. Yes, that’s it, that’s exactly it: a sort of nausea in the hands. (Sartre 22)

6In Murdoch’s fiction stones are connected to spiritual and theological thought and experience. In her early work The Nice and the Good (1968) she gives her character Theodore Gray a Sartrean apprehension of stones whilst sitting on a Dorset beach:

Uncle Theo’s left hand [. . .] fingered the mauve and white pebbles of the beach. These stones [. . .] were a nightmare to Theo. Their multiplicity and randomness appalled him. The intention of God could reach only a little way into the opacity of matter, and where it failed to penetrate there was just jumble and desolation. So Theo saw it, and what was for the twins a treasury of lovable individuals [. . .] was for Theo an expanse of abomination where the spirit had never come. Does nature suffer here, in her extremities, Theo wondered, or is all dead here? Jumble and desolation. Yet was it not all jumble and desolation, was it not all an expanse of senseless random matter, and he himself as meaningless as these stones, since in real truth there was no God? (Murdoch 2000a, 132–133)

7Yet the twins, who are figures of goodness in the novel, are clear that ‘[t]here’s something special about every stone’ (Murdoch 2000a, 12). And when Murdoch revisits this theme in her late novel Nuns and Soldiers (1980), the ex-nun Anne Cavidge who has lost her faith finds a glimpse of the divine in the uniqueness of the stones on a Cumbrian beach:

The wet stones were almost black. The dry stones were an absolute grey in which even the brightest sunshine could kindle no hint of any other colour. Anne picked up a stone. They were so similar, yet so dissimilar, like counters in a game played by some god. The shapes, very like, were never exactly the same. Each one, if carefully examined, revealed some tiny significant individuating mark, a shallow depression or chipped end, a short almost invisible line. Anne said to herself, what do my thoughts matter, what do their details matter, what does it matter whether Jesus Christ redeemed the world or not, it doesn’t matter, our minds can’t grasp such things, it’s all too obscure, too vague, the whole matrix shifts and we shift with it. What does anything matter except helping one or two people who are nearby, doing what’s obvious. We can see so little of the great game. Look at these stones. My Lord and my God. She said aloud, ‘My God.’ (Murdoch 2001b, 110)

8Murdoch, herself an atheist just as Sartre was, nonetheless thus holds open a space—in which the sheer factual existence of the non-human plays a crucial part—for wonder and for the potential for faith.

  • 3 Iris Murdoch uses the word ‘thinginess’ in Sartre, Romantic Rationalist (1987), 143.

9The stone is just one example of Murdoch’s perception of Sartre’s ‘obsessive and hypnotic world-picture’ of ‘our surroundings, things, experienced as senseless and awful’ (Murdoch 1989, 10). Despite admiring much about Sartre’s writing, Murdoch firmly rejects his ‘celebration of the horror of the contingent’ (Murdoch 1989, 12). In her own work, both as philosopher and as novelist, she embraces and celebrates the contingent, the ‘thinginess’ of the world, the non-human.3 On 4 April 1982 she wrote to the painter Harry Weinberger, ‘how nice objects are—I’m glad we live in a thingy world’ (KUAS80/7/19) and as Julia Jordan observes in her essay ‘A Thingy World: Iris Murdoch’s Stuff’ (2012), Murdoch’s ‘exemplary characters [. . .] exercise a recognition and appreciation of the alterity of things, of their ontological integrity and separateness’ (Jordan 365). Such characters pay, as Murdoch herself did, true attention to the world beyond the self.

10Vision and attention are seminal concepts in Murdoch’s moral psychology, which aim at combating solipsism and the ‘fat relentless ego’ (Murdoch 1970, 52). She believes that in paying attention to the world outside the self, the natural world, the world of art, and—pre-eminently—the world of other people, we learn unselfing and we progress in that pilgrimage towards the Good that Murdoch considers to be part of the human task. Her characters who are furthest along this endless journey, towards a perfection which will never be fully achieved pay this kind of selfless attention to the natural world as well as to the people around them. James Arrowby in The Sea, The Sea (1978) and Jenkin Riderhood in The Book and the Brotherhood (1987) are striking examples whom Murdoch contrasts with her more self-absorbed characters in these novels, Charles Arrowby and Gerard Hernshaw. Thus, James’s attentive knowledge of the sea birds at Shruff End shows up Charles’s egocentric indifference to the natural world around him: ‘“Are there gannets?” “I don’t know what gannets look like.” James was silent, shocked’ (Murdoch 1999, 175). And, ‘while Gerard walked wrapped in the great dark cloak of his thoughts, Jenkin walked through a great collection or exhibition of little events or encounters’, which include trees, dogs, and even rubbish tips as well as other people (Murdoch 1987, 131).

11Murdoch finds virtue in people who engage with the natural world, writing in her journal on 28 April 1987 the word ‘Good’ after Audi Villers, ‘asked what she had most enjoyed, on the day when we also went to Perugia, said: “Seeing that pigeon drinking at the fountain”’ (KUAS202/1/14, 89). Murdoch herself habitually rescued creatures. One of the earliest entries in her first journal from 22 August 1939 is:

A wren flew into the scene-painting room to-day & Hugh & I caught it in The Spanish Ladye’s [sic] silver net, & let it fly out of the window. Poor little thing, it was so afraid, & kept hurting itself on the walls. (KUAS202/1/1, 34)

12Over forty years later on 31 August 1981 she records: ‘A swallow in the house. I caught him against the round window and released him. Such a light frail airy little body between my careful hands. (Like a butterfly.)’ (KUAS202/1/14, 9). Her husband John shared her propensity. Murdoch records his rescuing a toad, on 5 April 1985 (KUAS202/1/14, 63), and a bullfinch, on 22 June 1992 (KUAS202/1/14, 150-151). She notes with affection on 17 October 1993 that he has a ‘pet spider’ (KUAS202/1/15, 21) and on 26 February 1994, a ‘pet pigeon’ (KUAS202/1/15, 33). Their shared love of nature bound them to each other. They revelled in the large garden at Cedar Lodge in Steeple Aston where they lived for thirty years and both grieved deeply when they left it to live in North Oxford. Many journal entries chronicle their passionate attention to nature and their enjoyment of, and compassion for, the smallest of creatures. Thus, on 13 May 1982 Murdoch writes:

Yesterday we found a queen hornet which had crawled out of the woodpile by the kitchen door. We took her outside on a piece of cardboard and looked at her closely. She stared back with her huge eyes, waving her feelers. We put her on the ground & she crawled away among the plants. I hope she is alright. (KUAS202/1/14, 21)

13And on 25 May 1984 she further records:

Last night a strange scene in the garden. Just before twilight, very vivid darkish evening light (after a sunny day), we saw from the window the deer, or one of the deer (not sure how many there are) daintily walking and feeding in the longer grass of the lawn. Such a pretty graceful brown animal. We watched for a while, the deer lifted her head, then there appeared, like an entry of dandyish quarrelsome youths in a theatre, three large fox cubs, who stood insolently, displaying the tawny frills of fur round their necks, just under the yew tree by the new lawn. They approached the deer who lowered her head menacingly, ran at a cub who approached her and drove him away. Then the three began to run around, one always appearing behind her, while she kept turning aggressively. This game, I think the cubs just playing, went on for some time, until the deer suddenly raced away. The fox cubs stayed and played on the lawn where we watched them for a long time till it got dark. It was like something out of a Book of Hours, the colours were so vivid. (KUAS202/1/14, 50–51)

14These episodes fed Murdoch’s novelistic imagination as well as giving her private pleasure. On 12 August 1991, she records that John ‘called me to see a huge dragon fly perched on the little plum tree—striped orange head, long thin light blue & brown striped body, 3 inches . . . It stayed for a long time, washing its paws, and drawing them over its head’ (KUAS202/1/14, 135–6). John’s compassion and Murdoch’s attention to the dragon-fly find echoes in The Sea, The Sea, where Charles recalls his cousin James ‘opening a window [. . .] to let out a fly which he had carefully caught with a tumbler and a sheet of paper which I think he kept handy for this purpose’ (Murdoch 1999, 173), and further, ‘he was looking at another fly which was perched on his finger [. . .] washing its front paws, then [. . .] vigorously drawing its paws over its head [. . .] James and the fly looked at each other’ (Murdoch 1999, 179).

  • 4 Iris Murdoch’s memory of these lines was not fully accurate as what she actually wrote was “There l (...)

15Murdoch responds to writers who engage with the natural world. In her journals, she writes from memory on 12 August 1982 Gerard Manley Hopkins’s line, ‘There lives the dearest freshness deep down things’ (KUAS202/1/14, 23) and on 2 February 1994, again from memory, Emily Dickinson’s linesWhen winds take Forests in their paws—The universe is still’ (KUAS202/1/15, 31).4 In Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals she includes quotations from Francis Kilvert’s Diary, the last of which is this, from 7 January 1872:

The road was very still. No one seemed to be passing and the birds sang late and joyfully in the calm mild evening as if they thought it must be spring. A white mist gathered in the valley and hung low along the winding course of the river mingled with the rushing of the brooks, the distant voices of children at play came floating at intervals across the river and near at hand a pheasant screeched now and then and clapped its wings or changed his roost from tree to tree like a man turning in bed before he falls asleep. (Murdoch 1992, 485)

16She adds this commentary:

Kilvert spent his days walking all over his territory, visiting everyone, noticing everything (people, animals, birds, flowers) and describing it all in simple humble extremely readable detail. [. . .] There is a serene light and a natural kindly selfless love of people and of nature in what he writes. (Murdoch 1992, 485)

17In Murdoch’s journals, we find the same ‘simple humble extremely readable detail’ and ‘natural kindly selfless love of people and of nature’ in what she writes.

  • 5 Frances White, ‘Despite herself: the resisted influence of Virginia Woolf on Iris Murdoch’s fiction (...)

18Comparison may be made with another diarist, Virginia Woolf. Having previously written about surprising and significant connections between Murdoch and Woolf,5 I was interested to find further parallels in Kelly Sultzbach’s study of Ecocriticism in the Modernist Imagination (2016). Sultzbach resists claiming Woolf as a ‘nature writer’ (Sultzbach 10). I would likewise be suspicious of averring that Murdoch is consciously aligned to any ecological or ecocritical camp. Yet the anti-anthropocentric stance both writers take is revelatory of their characteristic values and Murdoch’s name could be interchanged for Woolf’s in this insight from Sultzbach: ‘As Woolf crafts her prose, it manifests the interrelated existence of humans and nature, creating an ecophenomenological representation of an embodied existence intertwined with a more-than-human sensory world’ (Sultzbach 84). Furthermore, Sultzbach’s contention that ‘Woolf’s personal diaries and nonfiction essays provide insight into her embodied renderings of the environment and its impact on her fiction’ perfectly expresses our new experience of reading Murdoch’s journals (Sultzbach 86). Again, Sultzbach could be writing about Murdoch when she observes of Woolf:

Her diaries are replete with keen observations about the weather, which plant species are in bloom, and the habits of local birds. These passages are often the most lyrical sections of the entries. As she notes whom she has seen during the day or what she has done, the prose is often perfunctory; it seems to be rushed through like a list of chores in comparison with the way she lingers over her natural observations. (Sultzbach 86)

19Murdoch’s own deep attention to the non-human world is similarly manifest throughout her journals. Transcribing them I am struck by her perpetual recording of changes in the weather and the seasons, the arrival and departure each year of birds—swallows, cuckoos, field fares—and plants—snowdrops, daffodils, roses, asparagus—comparing dates from one year to another. She faithfully observes the seasonal rhythm of the English weather writing on 14 October 1981, ‘First frosts have come. How I love the procession of the year. Imagine being without it in some Godforsaken place like California’ (KUAS202/1/14, 9). These elements in her journals are mirrored in her novels with their precise attention to the seasons and the weather and their detailed descriptions of the natural world.

20Murdoch brings the art of writing very close to the art of painting. She loved painting and thought painters morally good because of the attention they pay to the world outside them in the act of looking. She can write as if working on a large canvas in the vivid seascapes which recur throughout The Sea, The Sea from the opening lines:

The sea which lies before me as I write glows rather than sparkles in the bland May sunshine. With the tide turning, it leans quietly against the land, almost unflicked by ripples or by foam. Near to the horizon it is a luxurious purple, spotted with regular lines of emerald green. At the horizon it is indigo. Near to the shore, where my view is framed by rising heaps of humpy yellow rock, there is a band of lighter green, icy and pure, less radiant, opaque however, not transparent. We are in the north, and the bright sunshine cannot penetrate the sea. Where the gentle water taps the rocks there is still a surface skin of colour. The cloudless sky is very pale at the indigo horizon which it lightly pencils in with silver. Its blue gains towards the zenith and vibrates there. (Murdoch 1999, 1)

21Such passages are full of line and colour, observed in intricate and loving detail as are her descriptions of Les Alpilles in Nuns and Soldiers. Her artist-character, Tim Reede, grows morally by paying attention to the natural world here as he attempts to draw the wild landscape which both fascinates and frightens him. Tim draws—‘the fig tree, the spear-leaved willows, the old tortured glaring olive trees [. . .] an ash tree [. . .] a rock formation’ (Murdoch 2001b, 153 and 155)—with pencil: Murdoch draws these natural things for her reader with words. For both character and author, seeing is paramount, it is vital to look, to truly see the natural world. In other novels Murdoch offers minute observations of flowers and insects. ‘In my experience the spider is the smallest creature whose gaze can be felt’, says Jake Donaghue in her début novel Under the Net (Murdoch 2002, 52), and in A Fairly Honourable Defeat, Morgan Browne is given a close-up encounter with the English wild flora abounding in a deserted railway embankment:

She stood staring up at the sloping walls of grass and flowers on either side of her. She began to see more detail, more and different flowers hidden in the grassy jungle. Flowers which the scientific farmer had long banished from his fields lingered here in secret, dazing with their variety the drunken bees who crawled laboriously among the stems, buzzing as they walked with sheer exhausted joy. Small wild rose bushes scattered the slope with circles of papery luminous pink. Deeper pink of willow herb and white of flowering nettle and purple of self-heal, trailed over by bryony and latticed by stiff networks of radiant blue vetch. Their names came back to Morgan from very far away, out of childhood, out of distant classroom innocence. Tufted vetch, wood vetch, wood bitter vetch. And wild mint with its woolly flowers of creamy blotting-papery rose. She plucked a leaf and crushed and smelt the cool quick odour on her hand. (Murdoch 2001a, 176–177)

22Here Murdoch’s writing is more like fine embroidery than drawing and calls upon all the reader’s senses. It is tactile, it evokes the sound of insects and the scent of herbs. Murdoch immerses her reader as well as her character in the natural world. In her recent book, Iris Murdoch, in the Writers and Their Work series, Anne Rowe draws attention to this synaesthetic element in Murdoch’s writing, observing that ‘the sensuous dimension of her novels has been oddly neglected, and critics have rarely commented on how far readers arrive at meaning not only through logic but also through an invasion of the senses’ (Rowe 2019, 78): such an invasion of the senses is exemplified by this passage.

  • 6 Iris Murdoch, ‘Poems for Wallace Robson’ (with an Introduction by Frances White and Preface by Hugh (...)

23The seminal importance of nature to Murdoch in art and life is made apparent both by her poetry, very little of which is as yet published, and by her late journals. First, the poems. Apart from a few which have recently appeared in the Iris Murdoch Review,6 there are only two volumes of Murdoch’s poetry in print, Poems by Iris Murdoch edited by Yozo Muroya and Paul Hullah and A Year of Birds with wood engravings by Reynolds Stone. It is striking how high a proportion of her poems have the natural world as their focus, the very title of the second volume making the point succinctly. In the Red Notebook entitled ‘Poems 25 March 1995’ which appears to be Murdoch’s last drafts of these poems, all but one were chosen by her to offer Muroya and Hullah for their collection, and many of them concern nature, as their titles indicate: ‘The Brown Horse’, ‘Fox’, ‘Gunnera’, ‘Edible Funghi’, ‘The Unpruned Pear Tree’, ‘John sees a Stork at Zamorra’ (in which poem she enshrines her husband’s captivation by the unexpected appearance of a bird, just as she records his tenderness to small creatures in her journals) and ‘Motorist and Dead Bird’. The editors note this feature of her work in their Critical Introduction to the anthology:

Significantly, in the poems she has written over the last ten years, Iris Murdoch has maintained her interest in the power of the natural image. ‘The Unpruned Pear Tree’ and the use of stereotypical Romantic images of the ‘moon’, ‘lark’ and ‘nightingale’ in the very fine tale of a lovers’ suicide pact, ‘A Merciful Solution’ [. . .] reaffirm this ongoing fascination with the mysterious power of nature. (Murdoch 1997, 42)

  • 7 Grateful acknowledgement is made of kind permission given to quote from ‘Macaw in the Snow’, KUAS20 (...)

24One nature poem in this notebook which Murdoch (or the editors) did not choose to include (probably because, unlike the other poems in this collection, it had not been previously published) is titled ‘Macaw in the Snow’ (KUAS202/3/13, unpaginated).7

25As with all Murdoch’s poems, multiple drafts of ‘Macaw in the Snow’ occur throughout the notebooks and as she has written ‘Rewrite!’ at the top of this late draft, it would seem she was still not satisfied with it. Yet this poem, which recalls the parrot Gray in The Book and the Brotherhood is poignant in its sense of human guilt for, and empathy with, the bird’s loss of freedom. In the poem, Murdoch is standing outside the window of a Gloucester Road pet shop in a snowfall. She closely observes the macaw which eyes her and somersaults before spreading out ‘a long amazing azure wing’. She feels a relationship with the bird whose ‘witty eyes [. . .] speak a gently badinage’ despite the fact that there is ‘no room to fly’ in his ‘gritty cage’ (also described as ‘cosy’ and ‘dim’). Murdoch envisions the parrot in his natural environment of ‘sun-leaf-heat and river-steam’ where ‘gaily you were assail’ and this brings her to ‘tears for your captive state’. She concludes the poem with an apology to the captured bird in a cold foreign country ‘Dear bright macaw in exile oh/Please pardon us the cage, the snow’. The macaw is not romanticised, it is a ‘clown’, a ‘fool’ whose antics amuse her, but at the heart of the poem—in a short punchy central stanza set between two longer descriptive stanzas—is Murdoch’s amazed apprehension ‘that our two spirits can identify/Simply by quiet gaze’, as she and the wild creature mutually eye each other. The word ‘gaze’ here links the thought in this poem to Murdoch’s moral philosophy. In The Sovereignty of Good, she highlights the word ‘attention’ borrowed from Simone Weil which Murdoch uses ‘to express the idea of a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality’ and believes ‘to be the characteristic and proper mark of the active moral agent’ (Murdoch, 1970, 34). It is in just this morally active way that the narrator of this poem looks at and truly sees another living creature in all its ‘individual reality’. ‘Macaw in the Snow’ thus reiterates Murdoch’s strong perception of human beings and animals as relatable, deeply connected, all being interlinked parts of the natural world inhabited together, which she articulates in ‘The Brown Horse’, ‘Love comes again, again,/And thus identity’ and ‘Parts of the world we/Are the parts of parts’ (Murdoch 1997, 78).

26In her late sad increasingly confused journals, Murdoch turns—indeed one might say clings—to the natural world as an anchor in her mental turmoil as she descends into the darkness of Alzheimer’s disease. Missing their large country garden, the Bayleys frequented Wytham Woods, walks in which are recounted some twenty-three times in the last two volumes, from 14 May 1989, ‘A walk in Wytham Woods, sunshine, bluebells, cowslips, rose campion, first cuckoo. Also bugles, intensely blue and everywhere’ (KUAS202/1/14, 110), to 14 October 1995 not long before the journal entries peter out on 8 June 1996. She notes each walk, the seasonal flowers, birds, hares and deer, but it is the sense of the presence of the trees, of silence and of solitude which predominates in most entries. On 18 May 1989, ‘Walk in the “great crowd” at Wytham. Huge wonderful presences of trees. Vista of tree trunks, green, light beyond green. Empty, no one. Intensely beautiful and frightening and magical’ (KUAS202/1/14, 111); on 22 June 1989, ‘Last night, midsummer, walked in Wytham Woods, about 8.30-9 p.m. met no one. Silence. A few birds. Saw deer crossing our path. In the Great Wood, among those trees, we were at one point lost. Fear of . . .’ (KUAS202/1/14, 112); on her 71st birthday, 15 July 1990, ‘Evening walk with Puss in Wytham Woods. Hot sunny evening. Trees, bracken, motionless, so dark, so green, so beautiful, so sinister. No one there.’ (KUAS202/1/14, 123) and, on 10 September 1994, ‘Wytham Woods. The trees are at their most beautiful. Silence, no one. Magic of trees. Walked quietly, Green. Walked to the Dancing Floor. [In left margin] I have never seen the woods so wonderful’ (KUAS202/1/15, 41). These woods seem to enter her spirit in an ambiguous mixture of awe and delight commingled with isolation and fear. As her illness progressed Murdoch increasingly makes only short journal entries mostly about the weather, birds, animals and flowers. In the final year of the journals she writes movingly on 21 February 1996, ‘I feel exhausted. Grief. No, I am listening to the birds singing in the garden’ (KUAS202/1/15, 63). It is a testament both to Murdoch’s resolute courage in facing her condition and to the power of the natural world to lift her out of her physical and emotional distress that she calls thus on directed attention to birdsong in the garden as a conduit of consolation and solace.

27Aside from her personal distress, Murdoch also evinces a growing ecological anxiety in her journals which also makes its way into her fiction and philosophy. On 30 May 1971 she records, ‘Fewer cuckoos this year. Worrying’ (KUAS202/1/11, 105) and on 4 June 1978, ‘Fewer swallows, sad’ (KUAS202/1/13, 7). By 21 May 1992 she is writing, ‘Where are the young birds? Perhaps the birds we see are the last birds’ (KUAS202/1/14, 132). Murdoch’s delighted apprehension of the world is stated in staccato shorthand in her journal thus on 12 May 1986, ‘Amazingness of flowers. Planet’ (KUAS202/1/14, 75), given fuller expression in A Fairly Honourable Defeat, ‘People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us’ (Murdoch 2001a, 177). But this delight is held in tension with fear for the future of this planet. In the same novel, the Jaquesian Leonard Browne says pessimistically:

they’ll always have wars, wars upon wars upon wars, until this globe’s got nothing on it but old bones and plastic bags and a seething mass of spiders. Spiders will survive longest. And plastic is indestructible. That’s what this planet is like. What a planet. (Murdoch 2001a, 98)

28And the cynical Julius King says of biochemical research, ‘These little games will end civilization and probably end human life on this paltry planet in the not too distant future’ (Murdoch 2001a, 210). Seventeen years later in The Book and the Brotherhood, Levquist asks his old pupil, ‘What do you make of it all, Hernshaw, our poor planet? Will it survive? I doubt it’ (Murdoch 1987, 24–25). Ecology and kindness to animals come into the book that David Crimond has written in this novel but no more explanation is offered.

  • 8 For a recent discussion of many aspects of this complex and elusive text, see Reading Iris Murdoch’ (...)

29During these years, Murdoch was painfully working her Gifford lectures given in 1982 into Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals published a decade later.8 In her magnum opus she demonstrates awareness of ecological fragility:

Think how our idea of our home planet has altered, both as we look back over hundreds of years, and over scores of years; Earth, now, as a travelling spaceship, seen from the outside, vulnerable, lonely, precious. (Murdoch 1992, 47)

30She speaks of ‘our new consciousness as inhabitants of this planet in this time’ (Murdoch 1992, 203) and says that ‘What perhaps we should, however, in our great technological era and on our smaller and more vulnerable planet, be afraid of might be described as a sort of plausible amoralistic determinism’ (Murdoch 1992, 198). She praises Schopenhauer for including animals in his philosophy, observing that ‘this endearing, and among philosophers rare, emphasis’ connects with ‘his Hindu and Buddhist perception of the whole cosmos as bound together and worthy of respect in all its parts’ (Murdoch 1992, 65). Like Murdoch herself, Schopenhauer is ‘tenderly aware of the animals (and the plants) and loves and venerates nature’ and she thinks that ‘through this veneration of all things we may be, perhaps, in a sense, saved’ (Murdoch 1992, 70). But she is fearful for the future, speaking of the need for attention to be taught, saying that children should ‘be encouraged to contemplate works of nature’ (Murdoch 1992, 3) and that

[r]everence for life and being, for otherness, is something which can be taught or suggested very early. ‘Don’t kill the poor spider, put him out in the garden.’ Even a use of ‘him’ or ‘her’ instead of ‘it’ may help. (Murdoch 1992, 337)

31Trying to offer comfort in the view that ‘Modern “green” politics, ecology, care for wildlife, is a welcome extension of utilitarianism in the direction of everything’ (Murdoch 1992, 299) and in the people who devote ‘their idealism to the relief of suffering and the prevention of damage. Help the poor, help the hungry, protect wildlife, save the countryside, save the planet, save whales’, Murdoch seems to be whistling in the dark (Murdoch 1992, 369). The year this book was published, she writes cryptically in her journal on 3 November 1992, ‘The earth itself as victim’ (KUAS202/1/15, 3) and notes on 11 December that she is ‘Working on Brian Medlin’s Human Nature, Human Survival (KUAS202/1/15, 5), and, curiously, ‘2111 arrival of alien planet which will destroy this one’ (KUAS202/1/15, 6). Her review of the Australian philosopher Medlin’s book indicates the impact his work and their conversations and correspondence had on Murdoch’s thinking. A greater urgency is felt in the tone of this review which opens thus:

Brian Medlin’s passionate monograph, Human Nature, Human Survival, tells us to take seriously, to believe in, the possible destruction of the human race in the not too distant future. He reminds us of our wanton destruction in the recent past, and in the present, of flora and fauna and humans. [. . .] A celestial spectator might well conclude that the planet was not possessed of reason and was swarming with evil and should be quietly exterminated. Medlin is suggesting to us that extermination may be nearer than we imagine, brought about by our selfish ways and lack of rationality. We have to change. (Murdoch 2014, 199)

32Following his lead Murdoch asks, ‘What will our poor ailing planet be like in the next century?’ (Murdoch 2014, 208) and urges ‘We have to stop destroying our planet’ (Murdoch 2014, 201). She concludes, ‘We have to change ourselves if we are to change the world. Time passes and we must think about the ecological disaster which is by now increasingly visible’ (Murdoch 2014, 208).

33Murdoch loved the world in all its multiplicity and contingency. She loved the non-human: animals, birds, insects, plants, things. Kurt indeed makes the bold claim that Murdoch’s ‘exceptional handling of the non-human, in fact, allies her work with the philosophy of “Deep Ecology”, which perceives whole nature as an interconnected entity, however with no superior position granted to human beings’ (Kurt 2020, 1). Certainly, had she lived into the twenty-first century I think Murdoch’s philosophy and fiction would have become increasingly overtly concerned with ecological matters. That she was flagging them up well before it became acknowledged that the planet is in a dire state is an example of the prescience manifested in her works alongside her constant celebration of the natural goodness of the natural world.

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Dooley, Gillian and Graham Nerlich, eds., Never Mind about the Bourgeoisie: The Correspondence between Iris Murdoch and Brian Medlin 1976–1995, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2014.

Jordan, Julia, ‘“A Thingy World”: Iris Murdoch’s Stuff’, Modern Language Review 107.2 (2012): 364–378.

Kurt, Zeynep Yilmaz, ‘“Deep Ecology” and Representation of the Non-Human in Iris Murdoch’s Late Fiction’, Interactions (2020), last accessed at on 24 May 2020.

Murdoch, Iris, A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970), London: Vintage, 2001a.

Murdoch, Iris, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992), London: Chatto & Windus, 1992.

Murdoch, Iris, Nuns and Soldiers (1980), London: Vintage, 2001b.

Murdoch, Iris, Poems, edited by Yozo Muroya and Paul Hullah, Okayama: University Education Press, 1997.

Murdoch, Iris, Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953), London: Penguin, 1987.

Murdoch, Iris, The Book and the Brotherhood, London: Chatto & Windus 1987.

Murdoch, Iris, The Nice and the Good (1968), London: Vintage, 2000a.

Murdoch, Iris, The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983), London: Vintage, 2000b.

Murdoch, Iris, The Sea, The Sea (1978), London: Vintage, 1999.

Murdoch, Iris, The Sovereignty of Good (1970), London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Murdoch, Iris, Under the Net (1954), London: Vintage, 2002.

Murdoch, Iris, Poetry journal, ‘Poems 25 March 1995’, KUAS202/3/13, from the Iris Murdoch Collections at Kingston University Archives.

Murdoch, Iris, Journal 1, August to September 1939, KUAS202/1/1, from the Iris Murdoch Collections at Kingston University Archives.

Murdoch, Iris, Journal 3, June 1945 to May 1947, KUAS202/1/3, from the Iris Murdoch Collections at Kingston University Archives.

Murdoch, Iris, Journal 9, March 1954 to February 1964, KUAS202/1/19, from the Iris Murdoch Collections at Kingston University Archives.

Murdoch, Iris, Journal 14, January 1981 to August 1992, KUAS202/1/14, from the Iris Murdoch Collections at Kingston University Archives.

Murdoch, Iris, Journal 15, August 1992 to June 1996, KUAS202/1/15, from the Iris Murdoch Collections at Kingston University Archives.

Muroya, Yozo and Paul Hullah, eds., Poems by Iris Murdoch, Okayama: University Education Press, 1997.

Rowe, Anne, Iris Murdoch, Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2019.

Sultzbach, Kelly, Ecocriticism in the Modernist Imagination, Cambridge, CUP, 2016.

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1 The journals and poetry notebooks are held in the Iris Murdoch Collections at Kingston University Archives, reference number KUAS202/1 for the journals and KUAS202/3 for the poetry notebooks.

2 Following my book about Iris Murdoch’s early life, Becoming Iris Murdoch (Kingston University Press, 2014) I am working on a sequel about her later years, Unbecoming Iris Murdoch (Kingston University Press, forthcoming).

3 Iris Murdoch uses the word ‘thinginess’ in Sartre, Romantic Rationalist (1987), 143.

4 Iris Murdoch’s memory of these lines was not fully accurate as what she actually wrote was “There lives a deeper freshness deep down things” for the Hopkins line and “When winds shake forests with their paws / The universe is still” for the Dickinson line.

5 Frances White, ‘Despite herself: the resisted influence of Virginia Woolf on Iris Murdoch’s fiction’, in Iris Murdoch Connected, Mark Luprecht, ed., Tennessee Studies in Literature Series, University of Tennessee Press, 2014.

6 Iris Murdoch, ‘Poems for Wallace Robson’ (with an Introduction by Frances White and Preface by Hugh Robson, Iris Murdoch Review 5 (2014) : 8–16.

7 Grateful acknowledgement is made of kind permission given to quote from ‘Macaw in the Snow’, KUAS202/3/13, from the Iris Murdoch Collections at Kingston University Archives.

8 For a recent discussion of many aspects of this complex and elusive text, see Reading Iris Murdoch’s Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, Nora Hämäläinen and Gillian Dooley eds. (Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

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Frances White, « Anti-Nausea: Iris Murdoch and the Natural Goodness of the Natural World »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 59 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2020, consulté le 28 novembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Frances White

Frances White is Visiting Research Fellow and Deputy Director of the Iris Murdoch Research Centre at the University of Chichester, editor of the Iris Murdoch Review and Writer in Residence at Kingston University Writing School. She has a BA in English Language and Literature from the University of Oxford (1981), an MA in Librarianship and Information Services from Loughborough University (1987) and gained her PhD from Kingston University, London, in 2010 with a thesis entitled: ‘Past Forgiving?: the Concept and Experience of Remorse in the Writings of Iris Murdoch’. She has published widely on Iris Murdoch and also on other writers, Barbara Pym, Stevie Smith, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, Hannah Arendt and John Bayley. Her prize-winning biography Becoming Iris Murdoch was published by Kingston University Press in 2014 and she is currently working on the sequel Unbecoming Iris Murdoch (Kingston University Press, forthcoming 2021).

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