Salvation by Words: Iris Murdoch on Language as a Vehicle of Truth and Art as a Force of Resistance to Tyranny
By Maria Popova
“To create today is to create dangerously,” Albert Camus wrote in the late 1950s as he contemplated the role of the artist as a voice of resistance. “In our age,” W.H. Auden observed around the same time across the Atlantic, “the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act.” This unmerciful reality of human culture has shocked and staggered every artist who has endeavored to effect progress and lift her society up with the fulcrum of her art, but it is a fundamental fact of every age and every society. Half a century after Camus and Auden, Chinua Achebe distilled its discomfiting essence in his forgotten conversation with James Baldwin:
Those who tell you “Do not put too much politics in your art” are not being honest. If you look very carefully you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.
Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) — a rare philosopher with a poet’s pen, and one of the most incisive minds of the past century — explores the role of art as a force of resistance to tyranny and vehicle of cultural change in an arresting address she delivered to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in the spring of 1972, later included in the altogether revelatory posthumous collection Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (public library).
Two decades after the Soviet communist government forced Boris Pasternak to relinquish his Nobel Prize in Literature, Murdoch writes:
Tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify. The good artist is a vehicle of truth, he formulates ideas which would otherwise remain vague and focuses attention upon facts which can then no longer be ignored. The tyrant persecutes the artist by silencing him or by attempting to degrade or buy him. This has always been so.
In consonance with Baldwin’s assertion that “a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven,” Murdoch adds:
At regular intervals in history the artist has tended to be a revolutionary or at least an instrument of change in so far as he has tended to be a sensitive and independent thinker with a job that is a little outside established society.
In a sentiment that calls to mind the maelstrom of vicious opprobrium hurled at E.E. Cummings for his visionary defiance of tradition, which revolutionized literature, Murdoch considers how art often catalyzes ideological and cultural revolutions by first revolutionizing the art-form itself:
A motive for change in art has always been the artist’s own sense of truth. Artists constantly react against their tradition, finding it pompous and starchy and out of touch… Traditional art is seen as far too grand, and is then seen as a half-truth.
Murdoch counts among the “multifarious enemies of art” not only the deliberate assaults of political agendas and ideologies, but the half-conscious lacerations of our technology — that prosthetic extension of human intention, the unforeseen consequences and byproducts of which invariably eclipse its original intended uses. In a passage of sundering pertinence to our present political pseudo-reality, reinforced by the gorge of incessant newsfeeds, she writes:
A technological society, quite automatically and without any malign intent, upsets the artist by taking over and transforming the idea of craft, and by endlessly reproducing objects which are not art objects but sometimes resemble them. Technology steals the artist’s public by inventing sub-artistic forms of entertainment and by offering a great counterinterest and a rival way of grasping the world.
Today technology further disturbs the artist and his client not only by actually threatening the world, but by making its wretchedness apparent upon the television screen. The desire to attack art, to neglect it or to harness it or to transform it out of recognition, is a natural and in a way respectable reaction to this display.
In a lovely parallel to Kurt Gödel’s landmark incompleteness theorem, demonstrating the existence of certain mathematical truths which mathematical logical simply cannot prove, Murdoch extols incompleteness as the hallmark of art — not its weakness but its supreme strength:
Great art, especially literature, but the other arts too, carries a built-in self-critical recognition of its incompleteness. It accepts and celebrates jumble, and the bafflement of the mind by the world. The incomplete pseudo-object, the work of art, is a lucid commentary upon itself… Art makes a place for precision in the midst of chaos by inventing a language in which contingent details can be lovingly noticed and obvious truths stated with simple authority. The incompleteness of the pseudo-object need not affect the lucidity of the mode of talk which it bodies forth; in fact, the two aspects of the matter ideally support each other. In this sense all good art is its own intimate critic, celebrating in simple and truthful utterance the broken nature of its formal complexity. All good tragedy is anti-tragedy. King Lear. Lear wants to enact the false tragic, the solemn, the complete. Shakespeare forces him to enact the true tragic, the absurd, the incomplete.
Great art, then,… inspires truthfulness and humility.
Much as the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay had ranked an art other than her own as the greatest — “Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is,” she exulted in one of literature’s most splendid passages about the power of music — Murdoch concedes the superior power of art at the expense of her own primary vocation:
Great art is able to display and discuss the central area of our reality, our actual consciousness, in a more exact way than science or even philosophy can.
A decade and a half before Toni Morrison delivered her spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech on the power of language and a quarter century before Susan Sontag’s poignant address on “the conscience of words,” Murdoch writes:
There is no doubt which art is the most practically important for our survival and our salvation, and that is literature. Words constitute the ultimate texture and stuff of our moral being, since they are the most refined and delicate and detailed, as well as the most universally used and understood, of the symbolisms whereby we express ourselves into existence. We became spiritual animals when we became verbal animals. The fundamental distinctions can only be made in words. Words are spirit.
In a sentiment of grave poignancy amid our dispiriting and decivilizing atmosphere of “alternative facts,” Murdoch adds:
The quality of a civilisation depends upon its ability to discern and reveal truth, and this depends upon the scope and purity of its language.
Any dictator attempts to degrade the language because this is a way to mystify. And many of the quasi-automatic operations of capitalist industrial society tend also toward mystification and the blunting of verbal precision.
With an eye to C.P. Snow’s famed 1959 lecture “The Two Cultures” — a watershed case for the necessity of desegregating science and the humanities, of bridging investigation with imaginative experience — Murdoch exhorts:
We must not be tempted to leave lucidity and exactness to the scientist. Whenever we write we ought to write as well as we can… in order to defend our language and render subtle and clear that stuff which is the deepest texture of our spirit.
There are not two cultures. There is only one culture and words are its basis; words are where we live as human beings and as moral and spiritual agents.
Her closing words are part manifesto and part benediction — a meta-testament to the mobilizing, spiritualizing power of great writing:
Both art and philosophy constantly re-create themselves by returning to the deep and obvious and ordinary things of human existence and making there a place for cool speech and wit and serious unforced reflection. Long may this central area remain to us, the homeland of freedom and of art. The great artist, like the great saint, calms us by a kind of unassuming simple lucidity, he speaks with the voice that we hear in Homer and in Shakespeare and in the Gospels. This is the human language of which, whenever we write, as artists or as word-users of any other kind, we should endeavour to be worthy.
Existentialists and Mystics — which also gave us Murdoch on storytelling and the key to great writing — is a timelessly incisive read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with Toni Morrison on the power of language, then revisit Murdoch on causality, chance, and how love gives meaning to our existence and her almost unbearably beautiful love letters.
Published February 12, 2019