Tuesday, April 28, 2015

# 95 Under the Net – Iris Murdoch

A lesson from the tiger beetle: stop and "think"

The gleam of the hustler
Roderick: revolutionary materialist, Trekkie

Let’s imagine we are at one of those raucous, intellectual cocktail parties where certain stimulating conversations pierce one’s cerebral cocoon, to bury and linger for years, periodically calling out to be resolved somehow. Suddenly, in the middle of the room, a glittering gauntlet is thrown down:

“Can you name a living American philosopher?”


The centathlete was about to blurt out, “Rick Roderick,” a charismatic professor from his college days. A self-described revolutionary materialist, Roderick idiosyncratically engaged the classroom, and even participated in a national “superstar” lecturer video series. In parsing Plato, Nietzche or Kierkegaard, he would draw analogies to Blade Runner, Neuromancer and Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. He was unpredictable in thought and deed: he cut short certain classes in order to make it home in time for Star Trek reruns; and he mentioned how as a younger man he had injected psychedelics into his optic nerve for ostensibly faster and more intense results (the benefits have been debunked by various scientist friends in conversation). An authentic provocateur who was ultimately denied tenure at Duke University, he wanted people to think critically and flourish.

But Rick Roderick died in 2002 in his early 50’s of heart disease, so while his name was not mentioned at our party, it is set down here. His insights and legacy are preserved at www.rickroderick.org and at this fine site, which feature his lectures, interviews, and more...

Then, in this odoriferous salon, one luminary—hey, it’s actor and model Lauren Hutton!—proclaims that Camille Paglia, the author, columnist and professor, is “the greatest thinker of our time.” Paglia, an adept, compulsive self-promoter, has echoed Hutton's assessment

Another shadow utters, “Noam Chomsky is America’s greatest intellectual.” It’s Chris Hedges, the celebrated journalist and activist. He’s seconded by two rock ‘n’ rollers: Zack de la Rocha and Tom Morello of Rage against the Machine. They assert, “Noam Chomsky books are the ones most prominently featured on the 'Rage' tour bus.”

Paglia and Chomsky were generally welcomed, although the centathlete may have detected scattered, derisive coughing when the former was announced.  Someone muttered that Paglia had a crush on Madonna, dressed it up as post-feminist aesthetic, and has been essentially recycling the work she published 25 years ago… 

In any case, Philosophy Now recently asked accredited philosophers the following: “Please name the five living philosophers you consider the most interesting or important.”

For those disinclined to click through for the results, Saul Kripke came out on top. Unsurprisingly, the centathlete had not heard of this esteemed thinker, who has on at least one occasion contemplated the importance of first-hand experience in a genuine moral life.

This ground has also been trod by another philosopher, neither American nor living, one Iris Murdoch. She published on metaphysics and morals, and taught at St. Anne’s College at Oxford University.

Murdoch is known to pedestrians on account of her novels, such as her first, Under the Net from 1954, not her Neoplatonic endeavors. Cinema furthered her celebrity through the posthumous 2001 biopic Iris. Early in that movie, the young Iris, played by Kate Winslet, says her first novel is about, “How to be free, how to be good, how to love.” For the centathlete, that statement expressed the theme of Richard Eyre’s film, rather than that of Murdoch’s Under the Net. We’re concerned here, allegedly, with the novel.

Under the Net is a funny, picaresque romp whose star is Jake Donaghue, a bumbling, harmless boozer and author. His antagonist is Hugo Belfounder; their love interests are two sisters, Anna and Sadie Quentin. Murdoch liked her pairs for drama and dialectics. She included a nested, platonic dialogue between Tamarus and Annandine--the centathlete thought of “timorous and anodyne" and how those adjectives might fit Jake and Hugo, respectively.

But Murdoch didn't get too heavy. "My novels are not 'philosophical novels,'" she told The Paris Review.  In Under the Net, thought and philosophy emerge sporadically and immediately attract our appreciation, like the spray from a surfacing whale. At one point, Jake describes how, in meeting Anna, “...in the intense equilibrium of the meeting we both experienced almost a moment of contemplation.”

Jake does manage to reflect on various occasions. For example, he tells us, “In my experience the spider is the smallest creature whose gaze can be felt.” This was no idle observation: 36 years after Under the Net was published, Murdoch confessed, "I’m very interested in spiders. I like spiders. Spiders are my friends, and I have read books about spiders."

Donahue's claim can be tested first-hand by readers of all ages inclined to creep around a porch, backyard or park. The centathlete succumbed to the contemporary preference to ask a specialist, and sent a Facebook message to a coleopterist friend. She answered:
“Most of the beetles I studied are basically hidden until you find them and then are killed shortly after to become a specimen, so there's very little time for gazing. One exception is the tiger beetle. They are super hard to catch. They can go 5.5 mph, so if they were our size that'd be equivalent to about 450 mph. Anyway, you definitely get the sense they are watching you and messing with you as they continually elude capture.”
Though concerned with a different branch of arthropods, Miss Murdoch, it seems, was on to something as she sat beside a spider. Regarding the defiant, elusive tiger beetle, this video shows it is too speedy for eyesight to be its sole information gatherer. The creature doesn’t run continuously full-bore; it practices stop-and-start running, which lets it periodically register and process what lies ahead before advancing. For those of us racing, often thoughtlessly, through our workdays and posting impetuously on social media, this behavior seems worth emulating. Jake himself writes, “All one can do is first reflect and then act.”

However, reflection, when overwrought, can misguide us. Hugo tells Jake, “You’re always expecting something,” a critique that goes a long way toward explaining the hero’s recurring disappointment in his quest for meaning. He should expect less, and he ultimately concludes, “One must just blunder on. Truth lies in blundering on.”

At one point, when Jake is over thinking things, he says he undergoes, a “dérèglement de tous les sens.” This is a reference to Arthur Rimbaud’s credo: the poet must make himself a seer through a rational derangement of all the senses. The quotation is a comic step from the ridiculous to the sublime, as Jake was prompted to the Frenchman during a rambling monologue that included ferry and train smells on his way to Paris.

Sadly, Iris Murdoch suffered a form of derangement. Her struggle with Alzheimer’s was played out sensitively by Judi Dench in Iris. Such performances have helped make Dench the second-most admired English woman today and certainly more well-known than any American philosopher.

The centathlete was reminded of his late relative Y., who similarly capitulated. Long ago, Y. secured job interviews for an unformed centathlete who had studied Liberal Arts and was rather uncertain about how to identify and pursue a line of work. One of those interviews resulted in a job and a career began. We look back and recognize how many people helped us on our way, and some acts become in hindsight even more magnanimous and pivotal. Much gratitude and respect owed to Y, and much love: the centathlete relished conversations with him over three decades.

Y. was an erudite, successful and portly man with a mordant sense of humor. He did not suffer those he perceived as fools and consequently could seem imperious. He would offhandedly praise or, more frequently, dismiss select works by his rough contemporaries: Vidal, Mailer, Capote, Cheever, Updike and others. During the Mad Men era, Y. was a senior executive at J. Walter Thompson and other public relations agencies; his duties included traveling the world buying and launching satellite offices. He helped people whom he liked, and he liked many, to advance their careers through heightened introductions.

Y. was a member of The Princeton Club in Manhattan by affinity, not schooling: he’d actually attended Brooklyn College. He dined regularly at the club, where he preferred shrimp cocktail for his belly and sundry cocktails for his significant intellect. His eyes sparkled with both mischief and the calculating regard of someone who has used and hustled others—the same gleam one sees in many photos of Vidal, Mailer and Capote.

The last two conversations with Y. stand out in part because his Alzheimer’s arose during the time between. During the last call, after Y. had been moved to a facility, Y. repeated how glad he was for the call and he asked about the centathlete’s grandmother’s well-being. Other topics were beyond his reach; no literature was discussed. The voice was thin and trebly, and all mischief had been flushed out by the disease or the medication. The man was nearly gone.

Several years earlier, the previous chat was lengthy, probably an hour long. Y. asked the centathlete for help in writing a philosophical novel in a sort of Ayn Rand style. It would be a book about ideas, aliens and atheism, Y. said—he was a devout, vocal non-believer dating back to his college days. The clincher of this book, Y. emphasized with relish several times, would be that, “in the end the bad guys win.” Mischief and calculation emanated from the phone.

Y.’s cynical stance would have placed him at odds with Iris Murdoch. “She had such a sweet nature,” said her widower, John Bayley. Indeed, Under the Net advocates hope. The novelist herself said more broadly, "A readable novel is a gift to humanity. It provides an innocent occupation. Any novel takes people away from their troubles and the television set; it may even stir them to reflect about human life, characters, morals."

A noble, generous thinker and a larger-than-life person, Iris Murdoch inspired much admiration, and some damning praise. A.N. Wilson wrote, “[Murdoch] had all the qualities of greatness except greatness. She seemed like a great woman when one was in her presence, and her novels have a compelling quality of almost-greatness.”

We might rise to Murdoch’s defense by observing that if one’s few detractors are especially eloquent, then one has done something right.

In an earlier interview with The Guardian, Bayley said about his remarkable, prolific wife, “I used to think the attitude she took to her books rather splendid: she'd be in the middle of a novel and she'd say, “Oh I don't think this one is much good, but better luck next time!” She was like a gambler, you know, there was always another roll of the dice.'”

The centathlete relates to the gambler’s mentality: some posts outshine others. In this running of the centathlon, 29 rolls are now completed and the pace has lagged, but we keep going...