From Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature

By Iris Murdoch




  • Has an artful intention, the language is being used in a characteristically elaborate manner
  • Has a personal voice
  • Is playful, entertaining, mystical, illusory
  • Leaves space for the reader, must move the reader emotionally
  • Art is close dangerous play with unconscious forces.  We enjoy art, even simple art, because it disturbs us in deep often incomprehensible ways
  • Struggles with complex problems of aesthetic form
  • Has a unity, or struggles for a form – 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.
  • Mimesis – It shows us the world – one of the pleasures in art is the recognition of what we vaguely knew was there but never saw before
  • Anamnesis – memory of what we did not know we knew
  • If nothing sensuous is present, no art is present



Why do we write literature?


  • Matthew Arnold:  “More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us.  Without poetry, our science will appear incomplete; most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.”
  • Matthew Arnold:  “Then comes the question as to the subject-matter which criticism should most seek.  Here, in general, its course is determined for it by the idea which is the law of its being; the idea of a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world…”
  • Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve:  “…the idea of a classic implies in itself something which has sequence and solidity, which forms a whole and makes a tradition, something which has ‘composition,’ is handed on to posterity and lasts.”  “A true classic…has enriched the human mind…has discovered some unequivocal moral truth…has seized some eternal passion in that heart…”
  • 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
  • Provides “notions of truth” – literature is truth seeking
  • Sharpens one’s sensibilities – increases one’s powers of understanding and one’s capacity for empathy with other people
  • 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.  Tolerance is connected with being able to imagine centers of reality which are remote from oneself.  Our personal growth is enhanced as we learn our own place in the universe and as we learn about other cultures
  • Literature should be dulce el utile – delightful and instructive. 
  • One of the purposes is to improve morality – to produce good citizens (think critically, make sound decisions, build pride in national language and cultural heritage)
  • To prepare good workers – teach skills and and behaviors
  • To create an elite
  •  To promote equity – works about women, minorities


Plato and Literature  (What would he have thought of Reality TV?)


  • Plato was notoriously hostile to art—fearful of the irrational emotional power of the arts, their power to tell attractive lies or subversive truths.
  • Plato favored strict censorship and wanted to banish the dramatists from the ideal state.
  • Plato believed that art was the celebrations of unworthy things or distortions of good things.
  • Pornography is the extreme instance of the use of private art to stimulate private fantasies


The poets mislead us by portraying the gods as undignified and immoral.  Poets and also writers pf children’s stories, should help us to respect religion, to admire good people, and to see that crime does not pay.  Music and the theatre should encourage stoical calmness, not boisterous uncontrolled emotion.


When artists imitate what is bad they are adding to the sum of badness in the world; and it is easier to copy a bad man than a good man, because the bad man is various and entertaining and extreme, while the good man is quiet and always the same. 


It may be said that Plato is a Puritan and this is a puritanical aesthetic.  Plato is of course a Puritan; and doubtless had mixed feelings about the great artist inside himself.


The theatre is the great home of vulgarity: coarse buffoonery, histrionic emotion, slanderous ridicule such as Aristophanes directed against Socrates.  Good taste is outraged by trendy showmanship, horrible naturalistic sound effects, and the raucous participation of the audience.


Marxist view of art – Is it the artist’s task to serve society?  What responsibility does the artist have to society?  Can he or she be reckless?


  • Art has the specific role—to be an instrument of social revolution  (Charles Dickens)
  • Propaganda


What are the most important events of the last 100 years that have caused our language to change?


Loss of organized religion

Freud, Marx, Darwin


WWI, WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq

Multi-culturalism  (Loss of social hierarchy makes judgment more tentative)

Civil Rights Movement

Women’s Movement