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1While the recent months have seen us retreat to this or that ‘tiny corner in the house’, they have showcased in retrospect the warmth and benefit of exchanging in presentia about a beloved author. ‘Iris Murdoch and the Ethical Imagination’, a two-day symposium organized in Amiens by the SEAC and research group CORPUS (EA 4295) on October 10 and 11, has proved such an occasion. It purported to celebrate Dame Iris Murdoch’s continued influence in literary and philosophical studies, and, moreover, to do so in a country which she knew and loved when alive. For it was in Caen, in January 1978, that she gave a speech entitled ‘Art Is Imitation of Nature’ that broached the delicate issue of reconnecting art to such notions as truth and goodness against a Platonic tradition of defiance. This speech—which heralds her reflective pastiche of the Platonic dialogue, Art and Eros, staged two years later—foregrounded her own notion that art is both magic and mimesis. Art imitates nature in that it does not shy away from the messy, the accidental or the contingent in our immanent experience. Yet in so doing, art helps us face ourselves both as disunified selves, accidental beings, and as the powerful creators of signs, images, stories which assign value to every transient, accidental slice of life. In that respect, Murdoch’s speech precedes that of another Wittgenstein pupil, French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, who made a similar claim in 1979: that postmodern tales, while renouncing the « grand » clarifying narratives of old, should not renounce storytelling. Like Murdoch, Lyotard advised to focus the narrative effort on what he called the localised experience, and she the ‘whole mystery of human individuality’ (Existentialists and Mystics, 254). Les grands esprits se rencontrent.

2To go beyond what may sound a chauvinistic gambit, this legacy now appears as a universal, and furthermore a live heritage—one that fuels new perspectives in thought-crafting and fiction-writing, well into the 21st century. As a researcher of ethics, Murdoch explored the fate of man in a (to her) post-God world, where goodness could still shape man as a moral agent, and where literature could still fuel man’s moral imagination. Her definition of goodness as a matter of acuity, perception of or attention to others, echoes Martha Nussbaum’s emphasis on the necessity of empathy; it marks her out as a contributor to the ongoing debate about the importance and definition of the ethics of care. Murdoch, who began to write in the aftermath of World War II, was haunted by the emotional vulnerability, whether embraced or endured, to which the individual may be exposed even as he or she struggles with self-awareness. Yet in her novels, Murdoch balances this vulnerability with other human devices, that in turn reflect upon her craftsmanship as a novelist: her characters are myth-makers, enchanters, seducers, decipherers and ‘word children’ bent on explaining the unexplainable through the art of storytelling. Most of them are caught between Agape and Eros, between the wish to salvage their autonomy and the need to have it validated by the Other, thereby encroaching upon the Other’s own ‘absurd irreducible uniqueness’ (Sartre, The Romantic Rationalist, 75). For imagination to be ethical, a step away from appropriation, fiction needs to achieve a deeply moral form even as it accounts for the contingency of life.

3This subtle, complex agenda gave Iris Murdoch a distinctive position in the literary canon. Critics have acknowledged the multifaceted nature of her work, which borrows from numerous genres, and have now and then fostered impossible debates as to the precise ratio of romance or realism, Gothic or fantasy, the Renaissance carnivalesque or postmodern self-consciousness in her novels. Her meditation on the double form accessible to fiction, that of the ‘crystalline’ fable or ‘journalistic’ mimesis, continues to provoke and intrigue. One statement that recurs through Murdoch’s interviews and conferences is that a novel is allowed to be ambiguous, an ambiguity made richly diverse by her successors in the field. While Murdoch would not have seen herself as a model, her influence has been acknowledged by a number of contemporary novelists: to quote only a few, A.S. Byatt, who, in her tribute to Murdoch’s hundredth birthday, stated that in reading The Bell ‘[her] idea of the possible novels in English shifted in [her] head’,1 and whose study, Degrees of Freedom (1965), contributed to establishing Murdoch’s reputation; Ian McEwan, an entranced reader of Murdoch in his teens (McEwan in Leader 36), who shares Murdoch’s conception of ‘fiction as a deeply moral form’ (Head 2007, 9) and her meditation on ‘the impact of contingency on imagined lives’ (12); Alan Hollinghurst, who sees affinities with Murdoch’s evocation of sexual ambivalence (Hollinghurst 2017); Zadie Smith, whose meditation on artistic imagination and ethical insight resonates with Murdoch’s own. In The Cambridge Companion to Modern British Fiction, Dominic Head also highlights the relevance of Murdoch’s ethical inquiries for the post-war novel, more specifically the works of Angus Wilson, Margaret Drabble, Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro and Martin Amis (Head 2002, 251). Other lines of descent have been suggested with the works of A.N. Wilson, Candia McWilliam, Marina Warner (Sage in Conradi 595), Colm Tóibín or Patrick Gale (Turner in Rowe 121).

4The symposium was successful in tracing out some of these connections, while offering a deeper perspective into Murdoch’s contribution to the contemporary ethics of care, or the attention she devolved to the natural world, in connection with current concerns with animal and environmental vulnerability, and the contributions of non-human forces ‘to counter the narcissistic reflex of human language and thought’ (Bennett xvi). Word children, virtuous dogs and contemporary students’ response to her work were among the topics that fuelled the debates well into the evening and its promise of a rewarding ficelle picarde. Many thanks were given and are here renewed to those who made this journey possible, from the SEAC and its president, Catherine Bernard, to the Maison Européenne des Sciences de l’Homme et de la Société for funding part of the event. To our colleagues in the CURAPP research group, we owe a state-of-the-art viewpoint on Murdoch and moral philosophy. The conference was also made possible thanks to the help and support of the director of the Iris Murdoch Research Centre, Miles Leeson; it benefited from the presence and talk of Iris Murdoch’s biographer, Peter Conradi (our mediator into Murdochian studies long ago), and Anne Rowe, who kindly agreed to share her unique work on the Murdoch archives with us. Their concourse was paramount to our re-examining Iris Murdoch’s work at close quarters—all for the best.

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Bennett, Jane, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham: Duke UP, 2010.

Byatt, A.S., Degrees of Freedom: The Novels of Iris Murdoch, London: Chatto and Windus, 1965.

Conradi, Peter J., Iris Murdoch: A Life, London: HarperCollins, 2001.

Head, Dominic, ‘A Broken Truth: Murdoch and Morality’, The Cambridge Companion to Modern British Fiction, 1950-2000, Cambridge: CUP, 2002, 251–259.

Head, Dominic, Ian McEwan, Manchester: Manchester UP, 2007.

Hollinghurst, Alan, Webchat, The Guardian 27 September 2017.

McEwan, Ian, ‘Mother Tongue’ (2001), On Modern British Fiction, ed. Zachary Leader, Oxford: OUP, 2002, 34–43.

Murdoch, Iris, Existentialists and Mystics. Writings on Philosophy and Literature, London: Chatto & Windus, 1997.

Murdoch, Iris, Sartre, The Romantic Rationalist, London: Fontana Collins, 1967.

Nussbaum, Martha, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, Cambridge: CUP, 1986.

Nussbaum, Martha, Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature, Oxford: OUP, 1990.

Rowe, Anne, Iris Murdoch: A Reassessment, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2006.

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Camille Fort et Marie Laniel, « Introduction »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 59 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2020, consulté le 01 février 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Camille Fort

Camille Fort is a Professor at the University of Picardie. Her research focuses both on contemporary British literature and translation theory (with a focus on translation as an affect-driven, affect-producing practice). She is co-editor of Des mots aux actes, a published and online journal associated to SEPTET (Société des Pratiques et Théories en Traduction), and has recently translated a selection of George Herbert’s poems (L’Âme paraphrasée, ELLUG, 2019). Among other publications, her essay on William Golding, Dérives de la Parole (L’Harmattan 2004) was awarded the Prix de la Recherche SAES/AFEA. She has published several articles on Iris Murdoch and translated Murdoch’s play Acastos into French (L’Arche, 2000).

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Marie Laniel

Marie Laniel is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Picardie. Her research focuses on Victorian subtexts in the works of E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf (with a special interest in Thomas Carlyle, Alfred Tennyson, John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold and Leslie Stephen). She has published several articles on this topic. She has also contributed to ‘Only Connect’: E.M. Forster’s Legacies in British Fiction (Peter Lang, 2017) and Beyond the Victorian and Modernist Divide: Remapping the Turn-of-the-Century Break in Literature, Culture and the Visual Arts (Routledge, 2018). She is co-editor of two online journals, L’Atelier and Polysèmes. With Philippe Birgy, Nicolas Boileau, Adèle Cassigneul, Elsa Cavalié and Xavier Giudicelli, she recently co-authored a book on Howards End (Atlande, 2019).

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