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Discipleship and Influence

Post-Existentialist Moments: Murdoch and Highsmith

Après l’existentialisme : Murdoch et Highsmith
Sabina Lovibond

Résumés

« Roquentin est platoniste de nature », remarque Iris Murdoch à propos du héros de La nausée de Sartre, qui ne supporte pas la vulgaire contingence des choses existantes. Cet état pathologique de détachement répondrait peut-être à un simple changement d’attitude, ou on peut également en tirer un idéal éthique de détachement comme celui de la « décréation » de Simone Weil. Pourtant, à côté de ce « platonisme calme », on découvre aussi un « platonisme fâché ». La contemporaine de Murdoch, Patricia Highsmith — elle-même fortement influencée par la pensée existentialiste — médite sur ce thème dans son roman (polar) Strangers on a Train, où les principes de l’ordre et de la permanence se heurtent à la singularité psychopathologique d’un homme convaincu qu’il vaut mieux tuer que de « mourir comme des moutons ». Highsmith semble indiquer encore une espèce de « détachement moral ». Mais Murdoch ne se laisse pas séduire par « l’acte gratuit » transcendant : sa résistance active à cette idée va ensuite former sa philosophie mûre.

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  • 1 Iris MURDOCH, 1919–99; Patricia HIGHSMITH, 1921–95.
  • 2 Thanks to Pamela Osborn for this information, which is based on correspondence held at the Iris Mur (...)
  • 3 Murdoch 1970, 52: ‘In this respect moral philosophy has [in the past] shared some aims with religio (...)

1What motive, or what excuse, can there be for any comparative discussion of two such mutually alien minds as Iris Murdoch and Patricia Highsmith? True, they are almost exact contemporaries1 and even seem to have been slightly acquainted through Murdoch’s friend Brigid Brophy.2 But it is difficult to imagine a moral perfectionist like Murdoch, for whom the proper aim of ethics is to help us lead a better life,3 finding much common ground with the celebrated crime writer—a somewhat nihilistic figure who, according to her biographer Andrew Wilson, ‘experienced a thrilling frisson when she encountered—at a safe distance, of course—amorality or violence’, and who ‘loathed organised religion and thought life was fundamentally meaningless’ (Wilson 2003, 224, 431).

  • 4 In their prompt receptiveness to this influence, Murdoch and Highsmith alike were pioneers. Some co (...)

2The remarks I have to offer are not concerned with any personal relation between these two women or with their possible opinion of one another. I am interested, rather, in their role as mediators of the existentialist sensibility and mode of thought by which both of them had been shaped intellectually before they began to publish in the early 1950s.4 Particularly striking—or so I will suggest—is the parting of ways that occurs in the aftermath of this shared moment of discovery. In order to keep things reasonably succinct, but also because I am less well versed in Highsmith than in Murdoch, I will draw mainly upon the evidence of just one Highsmith text—her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950) (Highsmith 1999).

  • 5 The offending sentence is: ‘I was alone, but I walked like a band of soldiers descending on a town’ (...)

3I will begin, though, with some input from Murdoch, whose Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953) (Murdoch 1989) strikes me as perhaps her most underappreciated work. Reflecting on Sartre’s own first novel, Nausea (1938) (Sartre 1965), she says of its hero: ‘Roquentin is a Platonist by nature’ (Murdoch 1989, 45). This is a reference to the superior value—and ontological status—attributed in the writings of Plato to abstract objects, the ‘forms’ or paradigms in which particular, temporally existing things participate. The ‘nausea’ that afflicts Roquentin stems from his sense of the gross contingency of his own individual being and that of the stuff surrounding him, which he perceives (when the mood is on him) as too inchoate and anarchic even to be captured properly in words (‘Things have broken free from their names. They are there, grotesque, stubborn, gigantic’ [Sartre 1965, 180]). This perception is associated with a definite subjective experience of disgust, induced for example by physical contact (a pebble held in the hand; the body of a woman he has ‘had to fuck [. . .] but it was really out of politeness’ [Sartre 1965, 22, 88]), or by self-loathing for having yielded to the expressive temptation of a simile (in his journal a couple of days earlier), an error which leaves him wanting to ‘clean [himself] up with abstract thoughts, as transparent as water’.5 The haphazard sociability of ordinary language is not good enough for Roquentin, who aspires, by contrast, to the condition of a melody or a geometrical figure—something that ‘does not exist’ (in time), but achieves determinate being through definition, notation, or (in the case of music) the recording of a performance.

  • 6 Sartre does not seem quite clear which of these alternatives he intends; perhaps, for his purposes, (...)
  • 7 Actually, ‘Some of These Days’—recorded in the 1920s—turns out to have been composed by Shelton Bro (...)

4One piece of recorded music takes on a special, quasi-metaphysical significance in Sartre’s narrative, since it has the power to make Roquentin’s nausea disappear. This is a jazz number, ‘Some of These Days’, which he has heard many times at the café he frequents (Sartre 1965, 37, 38, 60, 246–253). This song, and particularly its vocal line, represents to Roquentin an ontological ‘hardness’ that can serve as antidote to the clammy ‘repletion’ of the material world, on display for example in his local park (‘my ears were buzzing with existence, my very flesh was throbbing and opening, abandoning itself to the universal burgeoning, it was repulsive’ [Sartre 1965, 190]). While the record is playing, it discloses—in true Platonist fashion—something ‘beyond’ or ‘behind’ existence, something ‘slim’, ‘young and firm’ (Sartre 1965, 248, 249): the melody itself (or its unchanging recorded avatar),6 as distinct from the sweaty humanity that generated these things at a given moment in time. There is also a hint that in respect of being ontologically ‘saved’ (Sartre 1965, 251), those who are last shall be first, and conversely: that is, the bearers of abject social identities (the ‘Negress’ who sings ‘Some of These Days’, the ‘Jew’ who composed it)7 are in better shape than the solid citizens whose portraits Roquentin loves to hate in his local museum, or who claim to find emotional solace in Chopin’s Preludes (Sartre 1965, 246).

  • 8 From ‘The Image of Mind’, 1951.
  • 9 Under the Net (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960; first published 1954), 253. (This is the account given (...)

5Murdoch effortlessly recognizes Roquentin as a Platonist because she is one herself, as her subsequent philosophical development makes clear. But whereas she accepts from classical Platonism the ideal of transcendence of one’s own particularity—a transcendence fostered, as in Simone Weil, by appreciation of the beauty of the world as an image of obedience or order (see Murdoch 1993, 477)—the inner life of Roquentin seems to be informed, rather, by an ‘angry Platonism’ with which Murdoch is already inclined to take issue. It is not just that his refusal of bourgeois values is too abstract to achieve the status of ideological critique, though this is true. It is that, even in terms of (relatively) pure phenomenology, the kind of squeamish alienation represented by Roquentin—or, to put it more neutrally, his ‘philosophical detachment’ (Murdoch 1989, 53)—looks ethically dubious. ‘Sartre lives in a café and eschews intimate bonds’, as Murdoch observes elsewhere (Murdoch 1999, 129):8 the consciousness most vividly portrayed in his (early) writings is one that shudders at the ‘contingent over-abundance of the world’, or at the ‘messy stuff of [. . .] moment-to-moment experience’ (Murdoch 1989, 49). That squeamishness about contingency and plurality has declared itself to Murdoch as a problem—and has been to some extent processed and incorporated, negatively, into her philosophical scheme—by the time of Under the Net, with its memorable finale involving a litter of multi-coloured kittens (‘just one of the wonders of the world’ [Murdoch 1960, 253]).9 And as her long-term concerns take shape she remains sensitive to the dangers of a ‘puritanical’ Platonism, and mindful too of a tension between inclusive perception and formal discipline—between, as it were, Shakespearian and Platonist imperatives. She becomes, if anything, more insistent in her later work on the inner life as a scene of disorder in which philosophy ought ultimately to acquiesce. ‘Of course the mind is like a ragbag, full of amazing incoherent oddments’ of which our appreciation can only be blunted by imaginary efforts at tidying-up (Murdoch 1993, 237–238). ‘The individual is contingent, full of private stuff and accidental rubble, and must be accepted as such, not thought of as an embryonic rational agent, or in terms of some social theory’ (Murdoch 1993, 368). So, from its specific origins in the symptomatic reading—and critique—of existentialist ‘nausea’, this conviction gradually emerges as part of a broader defence of liberal-individualist values against the perceived threat of ‘structuralism’. (Or indeed of Marxism, the likely target of that remark about the appeal to an ‘embryonic rational agent’)

6Meanwhile, in Strangers on a Train, Patricia Highsmith has imagined another kind of existential crisis. This novel turns on the idea of a ‘perfect crime’ whereby each of two accomplices carries out a murder on behalf of the other. Both murders ought to be undetectable, since the two men are otherwise unacquainted and (in theory) can deny ever having met—though for certain weird psychosexual reasons, which take up much of the narrative, things are in practice not so straightforward.

  • 10 The text owned (but lost) by Guy is mentioned at 3, 28, 83, 164, 210, 216. In the film of Strangers (...)

7One of Highsmith’s two central characters, Guy Haines, is an architect by profession and is himself portrayed as a natural Platonist. He is actually making an effort to read Plato on the fateful journey, and the philosopher is referenced quite frequently in the novel—not just in connection with the physical book present on the train (though Highsmith is determined not to let this slip our minds), but also, indirectly, through what we learn about Guy’s professional values. For him the creation of a building is a ‘spiritual act’: he has a ‘distinctive, uncompromising style noted for a rigorous simplicity’; his work expresses the isolation of ‘spirit’ from ‘flesh’; the masterpiece of his career to date is even described as the ‘American Parthenon’ (Highsmith 1999, 100, 200, 233, 249).10

8But Highsmith’s other principal character, the man who seizes upon a few indiscreet remarks by Guy about his unhappy marriage and uses them to generate full-scale ethical mayhem, also looks like an unwitting victim of the ‘angry’ Platonism represented by Sartre’s Roquentin. Charles Bruno is a hopeless alcoholic, a classic ‘repressed homosexual’ and mother’s boy, and (as we gradually discover) a fantasist and psychopath. But again, there is a metaphysical tinge to some of his more alarming states of mind: he appears, like Roquentin, to be unreconciled to the contingency and brute presence of the material world, and this non-acceptance rises at times almost to the level of outrage, especially at the female body.

  • 11 See also 126: on rereading Crime and Punishment in 1947, Highsmith writes in her diary that Dostoye (...)

9Sartre leaves us in no doubt that Roquentin has ‘issues’ with female flesh in particular. The patronne of the Rendez-vous des Cheminots (his current friend-with-benefits) ‘disgusts [him] slightly, she is too white and besides she smells like a new-born baby’; at the local pork-butcher’s, ‘a fat blonde [bends] forward, showing her bosom, and [picks] up [a] piece of dead flesh between her fingers’; his former lover Anny’ doesn’t look like a little girl any more’, but is ‘fat, she has a big bosom’ (Sartre 1965, 88, 110, 194). Highsmith’s Bruno is not endowed with this kind of jaded heterosexual knowingness, but an analogous disgust is captured in the scene where he carries out his side of the (imagined) contract by killing Guy’s estranged wife Miriam, despite the ordeal of encountering her ‘sticky-warm flesh’, the appalling thought of her ‘wet mouth on his hand’ (if she were to succeed in biting him), and even her perfume with its repellent ‘sweetness like a steamy bathroom’ (Highsmith 1999, 67, 69, 70). These feelings on Bruno’s part are linked with a characteristically ‘existentialist’ longing for transcendence of the ordinariness of ordinary life. He has an ‘amorphous desire to perform an act that would give [his life] meaning’, a desire to which the acte gratuit of the double murder offers fulfilment: ‘He and Guy would not die like sheep now’ (Highsmith 1999, 153). The term acte gratuit seems appropriate here since Highsmith, as we learn from Wilson, was steeped in the relevant philosophical tradition—from Dostoevsky to Sartre and Camus—and ‘regarded the criminal as the perfect example of the twentieth-century existentialist hero, a man she believed was “active, free in spirit”’ (Wilson 2003, 5).11

  • 12 This is the key point of difference between Highsmith’s novel and Hitchcock’s film, in which Guy ex (...)
  • 13 Guy’s role in the action is to kill Bruno’s father, a man known to him only by description.
  • 14 Wilson (2003, 224): ‘The writer and journalist Roger Clarke, who met Highsmith in 1982, believes th (...)

10Strangers on a Train can be read as an account of how Guy’s Platonism crumbles under pressure as he succumbs to Bruno’s invasion and appropriation of his life, eventually giving way to the demand for a reciprocal act of killing.12 His principles of order, purity and permanence fade from view and yield to the more ‘Presocratic’ conviction that ‘everything has its opposite close beside it’ (Highsmith 1999, 191). Bruno is perhaps merely Guy’s own ‘cast-off self’; if ‘a murderer looks like anybody’, that may be because—as Bruno claims at the outset—‘all kinds of people can murder’; Guy can thus suspect himself in hindsight of having ‘enjoyed his crime in some way, derived some primal satisfaction from it’ (Highsmith 1999, 165, 255, 21, 224).13 And though Highsmith represents Guy as failing, in the end, to emancipate himself from the ‘law of conscience’—or from that of organized society, to which he ultimately surrenders with relief, like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment—the outlook expressed in this early work is hardly that of a citizen of the kingdom of ends: we are already in the presence of a writer who will turn moral ‘blankness’14 to artistic advantage through a ‘distinctive, measured, emotionless style, which maintains the same pace and detached perspective no matter what she is describing’ (Nicol 2010, 508).

11The idea of ‘detachment’ is beginning to display a certain complexity which merits further investigation. Returning to the case of Roquentin (in his most characteristically ‘nauseous’ moments), it is tempting to say that what Sartre has set before us here is a state of mind for which the very existence of the world of contingent ‘stuff’—of the non-self, and hence by implication of the self too—is perceived as an affront. (How can I, the seat of consciousness, tolerate all this brute otherness? But then since I too am a contingently existing object, I am part of the problem, part of the sum total of offensively unmotivated Dasein.) And we can then read Murdoch as progressing, through her encounter with this Sartrian construct, towards the view that the ‘philosophical detachment’ of Roquentin is a pathological condition which is to be remedied (if at all) by consenting to our inescapable immanence—our inclusion, in any case not uniformly horrible, among the ‘things’.

12As already mentioned, however, Murdoch’s emancipation from existentialism also owes much to her discovery of Simone Weil—a thinker with a quite different conception of ‘detachment’ and of the moral interest contained in it. For Weil, our task is in effect to reach a place where the possibility of a tantrum in the face of contingent phenomena will be definitively superseded.

  • 15 Weil, incidentally, may for her own part be said to respond with composure to the problem of ‘unmot (...)

The extinction of desire (Buddhism)—or detachment—or amor fati—or desire for the absolute good—these all amount to the same [. . .]. To detach our desire from all good things and to wait. Experience proves that this waiting is satisfied [. . .] . [Independent reality] is only perceptible through total detachment [. . .]. Attachment is a manufacturer of illusions and whoever wants reality ought to be detached. (Miles 2005, 278–279)15

13What captivates Murdoch in this ascetic ideal is the suggestion of some moral high ground from which one could look down on ‘philosophical detachment’ in the manner of Roquentin and feel that the man is expressing an essentially narcissistic vexation, a complaint about the difficulty of arriving on his own account at the ontological ‘hardness’ represented by the beautiful voice that sings ‘Some of These Days’. And, in fact, we are invited to believe that that difficulty will yield to the appropriately narcissistic solution offered by Roquentin’s resolve, at the end of the novel, to become a writer—that is, to overcome the ‘nauseating’ contingency of his individual existence by converting it into the abstraction of a text. From the standpoint of a Christian, or post-Christian, mysticism like that of Weil or Murdoch, this is all sounding brass and tinkling cymbals: certainly not an instance of the ‘extinction of desire’ for the good things of this world.

  • 16 Ibid., 23 (emphasis added). A particular object—often, but not necessarily, a person: objects of ae (...)

14Students of Murdoch will be aware that by the time of the essays which make up The Sovereignty of Good—that is, by the mid-1960s—she has arrived at a moral philosophy into which the thought of Weil has been fully assimilated. Existentialist ‘detachment’ is now seen in the longer perspective of a post-Kantian tradition which portrays its ideal moral agent as ‘free, independent, lonely, powerful, responsible, brave’; and for which the idea of the good ‘remains indefinable and empty so that human choice may fill it’ (Murdoch 1970, 80, emphasis added). This is precisely the view that Murdoch disputes: ‘Freedom [properly understood, she argues] is not the sudden jumping of the isolated will in and out of an impersonal logical complex, it is a function of the progressive attempt to see a particular object clearly’ (Murdoch 1970, 23, emphasis added).16 And while we can continue, in one sense, to picture the attitude of the virtuous person as ‘detached’, the relevant detachment will not be from their ordinary human context—precisely not from this, since they will be attentive to the particular needs and claims of those close to them. Rather, it will reflect the achievement of a certain distancing of personal interest, as indicated by Murdoch’s concluding statement that

Goodness is connected with the acceptance of real death and real chance and real transience [. . .] . The acceptance of death is an acceptance of our own nothingness which is an automatic spur to our concern with what is not ourselves [. . .]. Simone Weil tells us that the exposure of the soul to God condemns the selfish part of it not to suffering but to death. (Murdoch 1970, 103–104)

  • 17 The novel even shows us an example, in Guy’s ‘spiritual’ approach to his work as an architect, of h (...)
  • 18 As Nicol puts it (2010, 508): ‘Tom has to hit Dickie, clumsily and savagely, eight more times with (...)

15Highsmith, on the other hand—in stark contrast to the path traced by Murdoch—continues to channel ‘detachment’ in the sense of affective remoteness. Strangers on a Train probably represents a transitional phase in that it does, as we know, allow a hearing to the desire for transcendence.17 Just as Roquentin takes ‘Some of These Days’ as evidence that his imaginary ‘Jew’ and ‘Negress’ have ‘cleansed themselves of the sin of existing’, and as the ground of a timid hope that rather than merely undergoing your contingent presence in the world, you can justify it (at any rate ‘a little’ [Sartre 1965, 251]), so Charles Bruno sees the act of murder as a means of escape from the usual fate of dying ‘like sheep’. But this bit of existentialist metaphysics seems to fall into abeyance with the advent of the mature Highsmith voice or style (‘distinctive, measured, emotionless’): what remains is a feeling for the uncanny quality of our insertion into a material context, a context which can force itself upon us—as if to demand respect or submission—just when we have set ourselves to perform some decisive act. An example would be Tom Ripley’s murder of Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr Ripley (1955) (Highsmith 1976), with its Dostoyevskian reminder of the stubborn—and unforeseen—refusal of ‘things’ to comply with human plans.18 We accompany Ripley on his morally vacant adventure (which involves killing another man in order to assume his identity and take his money) without progressing, in the aftermath, towards any new moral insight—certainly without any suggestion that individual existence admits of being ‘justified’, artistically or otherwise. For Slavoj Žižek, this moral vacancy is itself an aspect or side-effect of recoil from the embodied (human) condition, and from its associated social constraints and possibilities:

  • 19 In Žižek’s text, the sentences I have quoted occur in close proximity but in a different order: I h (...)

Highsmith’s Ripley is disconnected from the realities of the flesh, disgusted at biological life’s cycle of generation and corruption [. . .]. One way to read [him] is as an angelic figure, living in a universe which as yet knows nothing of Law or its transgression [. . .]. This is why Ripley feels no remorse after his murders: he is not yet integrated into the symbolic order. (Žižek 2003)19

16If so, it would seem that Highsmith’s imaginative journey has carried her in the space of a few years right through the ‘nausea’ of Roquentin—or of Bruno—and out the other side, as if beyond all memory of Platonism.

  • 20 ‘I think as soon as philosophy gets into a work of literature it becomes a plaything for the writer (...)

17Of course, it is important to remember that in the case of Murdoch we are concerned with an intellectual development that finds both artistic and explicitly philosophical expression—but without seeking to integrate the two into a single didactic package.20 Still, she undoubtedly remains open to the influence of an existentialist-Platonist conception of the recalcitrance of ‘matter’, and in dialogue with that conception. Her comments, for example, on Sartre’s Age of Reason (1945) bring out the continuity of attitude between Roquentin and his more socially connected successor in the later novel: ‘The flesh symbolises the absolute loss of freedom, and references to its inertness, flabbiness, stickiness, heaviness form a continual accompaniment to the narrative. Mathieu’s distress presents itself to us not as a spiritual involvement with Marcelle, but as a sheer horror of her pregnancy’ (Murdoch 1989, 61). The criticism hits home, and is bound to have a distancing effect. Yet Murdoch is also well able to enter into fastidious distaste for the life of the body; she deploys this kind of perception quite sympathetically at certain points in her own writing, as when Bradley Pearson in The Black Prince contemplates the marital bedroom of his friends the Baffins with its feminine clutter, ‘weary banality’ and implicit ‘reminder of death’ (Murdoch 1975, 38). Again, she inherits from Sartre—who goes so far as to locate Nausea in ‘Bouville’, the town of mud—a feeling for the sinister aspect of viscous or semi-liquid substances: the stuff surrounding her fictional characters can drag them down without warning into ‘immanence’, most strikingly through the literal dragging action of mud or quicksand. One thinks of Mor and Rain Carter in The Sandcastle, for whom a somewhat illicit afternoon out ends with Rain’s car coming to grief on a river-bank; or of Effingham Cooper in The Unicorn, narrowly escaping death in a peat bog; or of the actual death of Kitty Jopling in A Word Child, not instantaneous but resulting from a fall into the icy muck of the Thames. In all these episodes Murdoch dwells with some intensity on the experience of floundering, losing one’s grip, being unable to make the longed-for upward movement. And the anarchic world of ‘stuff’ can also assert itself through moments of crisis and violence, leading perhaps to an impression of sudden cosmic insight—as when Tamar in The Book and the Brotherhood accidentally smashes Duncan’s teapot and thus discloses to him ‘the infinite wretchedness of the whole of creation’ (Murdoch 1988, 186).

  • 21 I engage more fully with this compelling paper in ‘Iris Murdoch and the Ambiguity of Freedom’, in L (...)

18Nor do I want to suggest that such motifs are just a lingering imaginative residue of the philosophy that inspired them, lacking any internal relation to that philosophy. Richard Moran has called into question the ‘familiar story’ according to which Murdoch’s encounter with Sartre was ‘a youthful indiscretion, or an adventure we can admire and learn from, but a decidedly wrong turn nonetheless’. To the contrary, he argues, ‘we reach a better appreciation of many of the distinctive features of her thought about action, vision, and the ideals of life by seeing them as responses to and creative elaborations of characteristic Existentialist ideas’ (Moran 2012, 183).21 Of central importance here is Murdoch’s reception and reworking of the idea of a freedom that is ‘both finite and unbounded’ (Moran 2012, 190)—‘finite’ in that human beings necessarily find themselves in a determinate situation which frames their choices, but ‘unbounded’ in that this fact does not in itself determine what attitude or posture they will adopt from moment to moment. (‘Situatedness’ is an inescapable predicament, yet we still have to orient ourselves in one way or another in any given situation; even passivity represents, at least implicitly, a choice for which one is answerable.) Certainly, Murdoch postulates a current orthodoxy that she will make it her business to challenge: ‘behaviourist, existentialist, and utilitarian in a sense which unites these three conceptions’ (Murdoch 1970, 8–9). And we can agree that this way of proceeding is dialectically effective, not least by reason of a certain intellectual shock value. Who knew that there was any unifying principle here? But we should not overlook the enabling presence of Sartre (or indeed of Kierkegaard, says Moran) behind some of what we regard as her most striking contributions to ethics—especially her emphasis on our ability to opt (inwardly, privately, and perhaps not without a struggle) for one moral orientation rather than another, so that ‘at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over’ (Murdoch 1970, 37).

19The task undertaken in this paper was to make a start on the juxtaposition of themes from two writers—Iris Murdoch and Patricia Highsmith—who are marked, despite their vast emotional differences, by a common philosophical culture: not just in the sense of familiarity with some standard ‘great works’, but by virtue of their alertness to a more historically specific atmosphere. I must now conclude with some remarks on what we can learn from this exercise. I believe the main point that emerges from it is precisely the one just touched on: that is, it concerns the singularity of Murdoch’s achievement in remodelling the Sartrian notion of a pre-reflective background to choice, and in showing how this can be made serviceable, despite appearances, to a realist moral philosophy.

20We know from the case of Roquentin that the dawning awareness of our Geworfenheit—our utterly accidental existence as natural creatures—can prompt an indignant and ‘nauseous’ reaction. But this awareness, if experienced to the full, is also a source of moral demands. In fact, at the time of her most attentive reading of Sartre, Murdoch takes care to avoid attributing to him the ‘error of imagining that freedom consists in an immediate act of will’. Instead, she tells us, ‘True choice [. . .] consists [for him] in the more long term attempt to assume our own being by a purifying reflection. Liberty is not just the “lighting up” of our own contingency, it is its comprehension and interiorisation’. Accordingly, it ‘lies at the level of a total understanding’ (Murdoch 1989, 124, emphasis in original)—even if any such ‘total understanding’ is to be understood not as an attainable goal but as a quasi-Kantian regulative idea.

21Murdoch remains faithful, after her own fashion, to this view. But she redirects it towards a more familiar, and more ‘edifying’, ideal—the quest for better habits of attention, and hence for better resources with which to combat our natural egoism. This is the quest in which she wants us to picture ourselves as engaged when we practise familiar forms of ‘unselfing’, like the benign change of consciousness brought about by ‘what is popularly called beauty’ (Murdoch 1970, 84) (the hovering kestrel that distracts me from my current batch of personal obsessions). The importance of such changes, and hence of our efforts—if any—to shape our own consciousness in the relevant way, lies in the influence they exert on ‘our ability to act well “when the time comes”’ (Murdoch 1970, 56).

  • 22 For example, in the context just mentioned, where she quotes the New Testament (Philippians 4:8).
  • 23 In its more fiercely secular version, the ‘work of attention’ will presumably be directed by social (...)

22However, moral improvement does not just happen of itself: a hovering kestrel can easily be ignored. Contrary to the deterministic message suggested, in the abstract, by certain utterances of Sartre (‘Willed deliberation is always faked. . . When I deliberate the die is already cast’ (Murdoch 1989, 123, quoting Being and Nothingness: ellipsis in original quotation), it is up to us to monitor the quality of our ‘habitual objects of attention’ (Murdoch 1970, 56). And while the project of ‘purifying reflexion’, as interpreted by Murdoch, will be infused with an idealistic—not to say religious22—content in which Sartre would probably have taken zero interest, the injunction to do better (morally better) as a being with an active inner life, continually engaged in the ‘work of attention’ and in building up ambient ‘structures of value’ (Murdoch 1970, 37),23 is nevertheless one that draws a kind of confidence from the background supplied by his philosophy.

  • 24 For discussion of the café incident, see LesDoeuff 2007, 70–74; Moi 1994, 127-133.

23Murdoch, then, learns some enduring lessons from the existentialist tradition. But her style of learning is eclectic and critical. In particular, and despite some shrewd passages of psychological commentary, she never provides a receptive audience for ‘angry Platonism’ or for existentialist heroics: the idea of the criminal as ‘free spirit’, which runs deep within the creative process of Patricia Highsmith, has nothing to say to her. In fact, Murdoch’s brief remarks about Mathieu and Marcelle in The Age of Reason clearly introduce the theme of conflict between female physicality and the aspiration of the (male) subject to transcendence, and may leave us, nowadays, with a sense of some interesting roads not taken. We seem at this point to be on the threshold of an explicit denunciation of the structural machismo of existentialism in its bearing on everyday life, as exemplified by Sartre’s less-than-sympathetic study of ‘bad faith’ in the woman who pretends not to notice when a man takes her hand in a café. But that must await the work of second-wave feminist writers such as Michèle Le Doeuff and Toril Moi;24 at the moment of Sartre: Romantic Rationalist in the early 1950s, it is an idea whose time has not yet come.

24If we take the specific point of view of progressive sexual politics as it has unfolded since the start of Murdoch’s career, we may feel that—setting aside the cause of (male) gay liberation, to which she remained loyal—her relation to the march of events was at best tangential. Yet she deserves credit for refusing to be beguiled by the ‘romantic’, or self-dramatizing, quality of the Sartrian project—by our supposed quest for the ‘impossible totality of a stabilised freedom’, from which she thinks Sartre falls back upon a ‘deliberately unpractical ideal of rationality’ (Murdoch 1989, 111). In particular, she sets an example of resistance to the fascination of the acte gratuit—an idea that has proved questionable on grounds that extend beyond the metaphysical. For the ‘romance’ of existentialism, the excitement generated by a conscious pride in one’s own sovereign will, may indeed be felt to cut across the demands of social order and potentially to flout those demands. This is not just a matter of their reception by Highsmith and a few other moral eccentrics, but reflects a spirit of transgression which philosophy has from time to time been inclined to celebrate.

  • 25 That is, it pertains to their sexual politics. They argue that ‘The common denominator [in sexual k (...)

25Again, it is within second-wave feminism that the implications of this part of the existentialist picture are most clearly visible. Thus, we learn from Deborah Cameron and Elizabeth Frazer in The Lust to Kill that Sartre and Beauvoir were ‘perennially interested in murder. They had been persuaded of its peculiar philosophical significance by the surrealists and by André Gide, who convinced them that “in every person there lurks . . . an indestructible kernel of darkness”’ (Cameron and Frazer 1987, 59, quoting Beauvoir). These writers are operating within a very different problematic from that of Murdoch: their stake in the critique of such views is as much political as it is theoretical.25 Yet at this point in their discussion they are engaged, just as Murdoch is, in the rational processing of twentieth-century (post-Freudian) psychological pessimism and its consequences for human self-understanding. It is in this context—with Freud as her witness to the proposition that ‘Objectivity and unselfishness are not natural to human beings’—that Murdoch is about to urge the recall of moral philosophy to its role as an ally against the ‘fat relentless ego’ (Murdoch 1970, 51, 52). Murdoch and her implied reader, in fact, inhabit the same world as Highsmith and hers: a world in which we are obliged to come to terms with that ‘indestructible kernel of darkness’ identified by existentialist thought. It is a recognition which may be accomplished in more than one way. ‘Detachment’, as we have seen, can help us here—but to say this much is not yet to determine whether the thing from which we need to detach ourselves is the ‘selfish part of the soul’ (Weil, Murdoch) or the entire, grisly human spectacle.

  • 26 I am very grateful to the organizers of the conference on ‘Iris Murdoch and the Ethical Imagination (...)

26The present discussion cannot really claim any credit as a contribution to the Murdochian project of moral improvement. It has simply tried to show something of the versatility of existentialism, at the imaginary as well as at the intellectual level: its power to induce reflection, or reverie, both of a (morally) ‘purifying’ and of a homicidal character. Each of these lines of development has proved to be open to a vigorous creative mind in its response to the existentialist impulse.26

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Bibliographie

Cameron, Deborah and Elizabeth Frazer, The Lust to Kill: A Feminist Investigation of Sexual Murder, Cambridge: Polity, 1987.

Highsmith, Patricia, The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

Highsmith, Patricia, Strangers on a Train (1950), London: Vintage, 1999.

Kaufmann, Walter, ‘The Reception of Existentialism in the United States’, Salmagundi 10.11 (1969-70): 69–96.

Le Doeuff, Michèle, Hipparchia’s Choice: An Essay Concerning Women, Philosophy, Etc. (1991), 2nd ed., New York: Columbia, 2007.

Lovibond, Sabina, ‘Iris Murdoch and the Ambiguity of Freedom’, Essays on Ethics and Feminism, Oxford: OUP, 2015, 242–258.

Magee, Bryan, Talking Philosophy: Dialogues with Fifteen Leading Philosophers, Oxford: OUP, 2001.

Miles, Siân, ed., Simone Weil: An Anthology, London: Penguin, 2005.

Moi, Toril, Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman, Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

Moran, Richard, ‘Iris Murdoch and Existentialism’, ed. Justin Broackes, Iris Murdoch, Philosopher, Oxford: OUP, 2012, 181196.

Murdoch, Iris, Under the Net (1954), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960.

Murdoch, Iris, The Sovereignty of Good, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970.

Murdoch, Iris, The Black Prince (1973), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.

Murdoch, Iris, The Book and the Brotherhood (1987), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988.

Murdoch, Iris, Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953), London: Vintage, 1989.

Murdoch, Iris, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993.

Murdoch, Iris, Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature, ed. Peter J. Conradi, London: Penguin, 1999.

Nicol, Bran, ‘Patricia Highsmith’, A Companion to Crime Fiction, ed. Charles J. Rzepka and Lee Horsley, Oxford: Blackwell, 2010.

Sartre, Jean-Paul, Nausea (1938), trans. Robert Baldick, Harmondsdworth: Penguin, 1965.

Wilson, Andrew, Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, London: Bloomsbury, 2003.

Žižek, Slavoj, ‘Not a Desire to Have Him, but to Be Like Him’ (review of Wilson 2003), London Review of Books 25.16, 21 August 2003, 1314.

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Notes

1 Iris MURDOCH, 1919–99; Patricia HIGHSMITH, 1921–95.

2 Thanks to Pamela Osborn for this information, which is based on correspondence held at the Iris Murdoch Archive at Kingston University.

3 Murdoch 1970, 52: ‘In this respect moral philosophy has [in the past] shared some aims with religion.’

4 In their prompt receptiveness to this influence, Murdoch and Highsmith alike were pioneers. Some context for the role of Highsmith is provided by Walter Kaufmann’s observation that ‘it was only after 1945 that existentialism really impinged on the American consciousness’ (Kaufmann 1969-70, 71). But in both writers, previous study paved the way for a well-informed individual response to the post-war ‘conjuncture’.

5 The offending sentence is: ‘I was alone, but I walked like a band of soldiers descending on a town’ (Sartre 1965, 85). ‘Transparent as water’ is likewise, however, a poetic image which appears to have crept in by the back door.

6 Sartre does not seem quite clear which of these alternatives he intends; perhaps, for his purposes, it makes no difference.

7 Actually, ‘Some of These Days’—recorded in the 1920s—turns out to have been composed by Shelton Brooks (not Jewish, but a black Canadian) and sung by Sophie Tucker (not black, but a Jewish Ukrainian-American). Sartre probably did not have these facts at his fingertips but, in any case, he does not take responsibility for Roquentin’s vision of how the song came into being: ‘It happened like that. Like that or some other way, it doesn’t matter’ (Sartre 1965, 250).

8 From ‘The Image of Mind’, 1951.

9 Under the Net (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960; first published 1954), 253. (This is the account given by the narrator when he finds himself unable to explain the finer points of Mendelian genetics.)

10 The text owned (but lost) by Guy is mentioned at 3, 28, 83, 164, 210, 216. In the film of Strangers on a Train (directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1951)—along with more radical changes to the plot—Guy’s volume of Plato is replaced in the role of significant lost object by an engraved cigarette lighter.

11 See also 126: on rereading Crime and Punishment in 1947, Highsmith writes in her diary that Dostoyevsky is her ‘master’. (Admittedly, she says the same thing a couple of years later about Kierkegaard: 158.)

12 This is the key point of difference between Highsmith’s novel and Hitchcock’s film, in which Guy extricates himself from the nightmarish attentions of Bruno without becoming a murderer.

13 Guy’s role in the action is to kill Bruno’s father, a man known to him only by description.

14 Wilson (2003, 224): ‘The writer and journalist Roger Clarke, who met Highsmith in 1982, believes that “the amorality [in her work] is genuine [. . .] I think Pat really was amoral. There was this strange blankness about her.”’

15 Weil, incidentally, may for her own part be said to respond with composure to the problem of ‘unmotivated Dasein’. ‘To love a stranger as oneself’, she writes, ‘implies the reverse: to love oneself as a stranger’ (Miles 2005, 290).

16 Ibid., 23 (emphasis added). A particular object—often, but not necessarily, a person: objects of aesthetic interest, whether natural or constructed, may also call for selfless effort on the part of the observer. However, Murdoch’s alternative account of moral agency does in fact deploy a thought-experiment concerning the attitude of one person towards another: this is the famous ‘mother-in-law’ narrative (ibid., 17–34) in which we are invited to agree that genuine—and potentially successful—effort to correct one’s own moral failings (here, jealousy and snobbery) may take place entirely in private. (Murdoch reminds us that there can be disciplined, truth-directed activity without the drama of action.)

17 The novel even shows us an example, in Guy’s ‘spiritual’ approach to his work as an architect, of how this desire might be gratified legitimately—but it is the lawless approach that takes centre stage.

18 As Nicol puts it (2010, 508): ‘Tom has to hit Dickie, clumsily and savagely, eight more times with the oar before the victim loses consciousness [. . .]. The scene gives the reader an appalling sense of how messy and complicated real murder must be.’ See Highsmith 1976, 90–95.

19 In Žižek’s text, the sentences I have quoted occur in close proximity but in a different order: I have rearranged them, I hope without prejudice to the thought, to aid the flow of the present paragraph.

20 ‘I think as soon as philosophy gets into a work of literature it becomes a plaything for the writer, and rightly so. There is no strictness about ideas and arguments, the rules are different and truth is differently conveyed’, she says in a discussion recorded in the 1970s (Magee 2001, 242).

21 I engage more fully with this compelling paper in ‘Iris Murdoch and the Ambiguity of Freedom’, in Lovibond (2015), 242–258.

22 For example, in the context just mentioned, where she quotes the New Testament (Philippians 4:8).

23 In its more fiercely secular version, the ‘work of attention’ will presumably be directed by social phenomena to which the leverage of political agency can be applied.

24 For discussion of the café incident, see LesDoeuff 2007, 70–74; Moi 1994, 127-133.

25 That is, it pertains to their sexual politics. They argue that ‘The common denominator [in sexual killing] is not misogyny [since some victims are male], it is a shared construction of masculine sexuality, or even more broadly, masculinity in general. It is under the banner of masculinity that all the main themes of sexual killing come together: misogyny, transcendence, sadistic sexuality, the basic ingredients of the lust to kill’ (167).

26 I am very grateful to the organizers of the conference on ‘Iris Murdoch and the Ethical Imagination: Legacies and Innovations’ (Université de Picardie Jules Verne, October 2019), at which a shorter version of this paper was presented; and to the editor of this journal for providing helpful comments on the penultimate draft.

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Sabina Lovibond, « Post-Existentialist Moments: Murdoch and Highsmith »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 59 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2020, consulté le 28 novembre 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ebc/9703; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ebc.9703

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Auteur

Sabina Lovibond

Sabina Lovibond is an Emeritus Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford, where she taught philosophy from 1982 to 2011. She is the author of Realism and Imagination in Ethics (Blackwell, 1983), Ethical Formation (Harvard UP, 2002), Iris Murdoch, Gender and Philosophy (Routledge, 2011), and Essays on Ethics and Feminism (Oxford UP, 2015); and the co-editor of Ethics: A Feminist Reader (with Elizabeth Frazer and Jennifer Hornsby, Blackwell, 1992) and of Essays for David Wiggins: Identity, Truth and Value (with S.G. Williams, Blackwell, 1996). Her work has been mainly in ethics and feminist theory, but with some continuing influence from ancient philosophy and from the later philosophy of Wittgenstein.

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