Maria Popova, whose Brain Pickings is one of my favorite blogs, recently wrote about Iris Murdoch’s musings about literature. What Popova surfaces coincides so well with the book that I’m currently writing (Does Literature Make Us Better People? A 2500-Year-Old Debate) that I use today’s post just to marvel at some of Murdoch’s observations.
For instance, there’s this one about how literature helps give form to life’s shapelessness—and how it comes to us naturally because we are by nature storytellers:
Literary modes are very natural to us, very close to ordinary life and to the way we live as reflective beings. Not all literature is fiction, but the greater part of it is or involves fiction, invention, masks, playing roles, pretending, imagining, story-telling. When we return home and “tell our day,” we are artfully shaping material into story form. (These stories are very often funny, incidentally.) So in a way as word-users we all exist in a literary atmosphere, we live and breathe literature, we are all literary artists, we are constantly employing language to make interesting forms out of experience which perhaps originally seemed dull or incoherent. How far reshaping involves offences against truth is a problem any artist must face. A deep motive for making literature or art of any sort is the desire to defeat the formlessness of the world and cheer oneself up by constructing forms out of what might otherwise seem a mass of senseless rubble.
The issue of whether “reshaping involves offenses against truth” is a big one. Plato accuses poets of being liars, creating an imitation of an imitation of an imitation, but Aristotle is more in agreement with Murdoch, arguing that, poets look to the “law of probability and necessity” when they have their characters speak or act. “It is this universality,” Aristotle writes, “at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages.”
About literature’s relationship to truth, Murdoch writes,
A poem, play or novel usually appears as a closed pattern. But it is also open in so far as it refers to a reality beyond itself, and such a reference raises… questions about truth… Art is truth as well as form, it is representational as well as autonomous. Of course the communication may be indirect, but the ambiguity of the great writer creates spaces which we can explore and enjoy because they are openings on to the real world and not formal language games or narrow crevices of personal fantasy; and we do not get tired of great writers, because what is true is interesting…
Beauty in art is the formal imaginative exhibition of something true….Training in an art is largely training in how to discover a touchstone of truth…
Some of the theorists whose ideas I explore in my book insist on literature’s truth-telling mission. These include Samuel Johnson (who lauds Shakespeare on this score), Percy Shelley, Friedrich Engels, and W. E. B. Du Bois. Although Engels wrote political pamphlets himself, he wants artists to stay away from politics and just tell the truth. He, Shelley, and Du Bois all believe that progressive aims will be fulfilled through such truth-telling because the arc of history bends towards truth and justice. Therefore, they don’t want artists to sacrifice their art to an agenda. Murdoch thinks along the same lines:
A citizen has a duty to society, and a writer might sometimes feel he ought to write persuasive newspaper articles or pamphlets, but this would be a different activity. The artist’s duty is to art, to truth-telling in his own medium, the writer’s duty is to produce the best literary work of which he is capable, and he must find out how this can be done.
A propaganda play which is indifferent to art is likely to be a misleading statement even if it is inspired by good principles….Any society contains propaganda, but it is important to distinguish this from art and to preserve the purity and independence of the practice of art.
Because truth is so important to the advancement of society, artistic freedom is absolutely vital—which explains why democracies are so much more vibrant, not to mention economically successful, than autocracies. Murdoch writes,
A good society contains many different artists doing many different things. A bad society coerces artists because it knows that they can reveal all kinds of truths.
Murdoch elaborates on what a bad society would not want to see. Her distinction between fantasy and imagination is important. Fantasy (by which she does not mean the genre of fantasy but shallow wish fulfillment) is preferred by autocracies because it feeds our smallness:
Good art is good for people precisely because it is not fantasy but imagination. It breaks the grip of our own dull fantasy life and stirs us to the effort of true vision. Most of the time we fail to see the big wide real world at all because we are blinded by obsession, anxiety, envy, resentment, fear. We make a small personal world in which we remain enclosed. Great art is liberating, it enables us to see and take pleasure in what is not ourselves. Literature stirs and satisfies our curiosity, it interests us in other people and other scenes, and helps us to be tolerant and generous.
Sounding somewhat like Shelley, but also Wayne Booth and Martha Nussbaum, Murdoch says that great literature encourages tolerance:
I would like to say that all great artists are tolerant in their art, but perhaps this cannot be argued. Was Dante tolerant? I think most great writers have a sort of calm merciful vision because they can see how different people are and why they are different. Tolerance is connected with being able to imagine centers of reality which are remote from oneself. There is a breath of tolerance and generosity and intelligent kindness which blows out of Homer and Shakespeare and the great novelists. The great artist sees the vast interesting collection of what is other than himself and does not picture the world in his own image.
It is any surprise, then, that she says “[t]here is always more bad art around than good art, and more people like bad art than like good art.” That’s because good art challenges us rather than feeds what we already think. Great literature is hard.
But it’s also the biggest game in town.