Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Advent Women 6

In intellectual disciplines and in the enjoyment of art and nature we discover value in our ability to forget self, to be realistic, to perceive justly. We use our imagination not to escape the world but to join it, and this exhilarates us because of the distance between our ordinary dulled consciousness and an apprehension of the real... The difficulty is to keep the attention fixed upon the real situation and to prevent it from returning surreptitiously to the self with consolations of self-pity, resentment, fantasy and despair... It is a task to come to see the world as it is.
Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good

I remember reading an interview with a philosopher many years ago, perhaps Barthes or Foucault, and they mentioned reading The Dialectic of Enlightenment - a very passionately written and hypnotic work. Their comment was though that it did not significantly affect them because by the time they had read it they were beyond the age of "intellectual discoveries". 

The phrase stayed with me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it disturbed me that you reached an age where you no longer made "intellectual discoveries" and secondly because I understood what he meant by it and it's a good phrase. Because there are some things you read which affect you profoundly - that significantly change the way you think. It may be an odd conjugation of life events and current affairs, a girlfriend or a city, or a teacher - but certain books in the right circumstances change you, form you even. It turns out he was right as well about getting beyond the age. It's not that you don't keep learning or expanding how you see the world, but the really dramatic formational intellectual moments, I suspect, run parallel to our emotional development and experience of the world. When the mind is least formed on subjects it has the greatest potential for growth and change. Be careful what you read in your early twenties...

Anyway I only thought of this because reading the above book reminded me so much of Don Mackinnon, who I found very formative in my early twenties. Turns out he taught Murdoch yonks ago. Clearly they both liked Cezanne. Speaking of Mackinnon, I was told once by someone who knew him, how his wife had once come home, gone upstairs and found his trousers on the bed. She ran downstairs ready to call the police because she thought her husband had finally lost the plot and gone out without his trousers. Eventually he turned up at home and it turns out he'd bought himself a new pair of trousers. "Nice anecdote" I hear you cry! But it does kind of suggest that actually Mackinnon just wore the same pair of trousers every day without fail for years. Which is a bit odd. I guess they didn't have H&M in those days.

Well I thought I'd put in Iris today since she fits very well with Weil and Rose. The same emphasis on attention and acceptance, the same intellectual curiosity, here in relation to art. What is beginning to strike me about all these female writers (which I'm choosing more or less at random) is their ability to stick with difficulty and a certain sense of renunciation, in a way which is not so evident in male writing. 

Anyway I liked Murdoch's essays because they are really about transcendence, even though she is reticent or even hostile towards God. Secularizing Plato doesn't work but she does describe the task of the philosopher and writer really very well. People are often averse to these concepts today. Culturally speaking it's very easy to be lazy, to accept the dominant mythologies, to listen only to familiar music, to give up on morality and to stop believing in better and worse. The people who criticise these things equally often end up sounding like snobs, conservatives and hypocrites. Especially if their defense is based on formality: the opera is the right place to go, getting married is the right thing to do. Murdoch is pointing to a realism, which requires us make the effort to see the world as it is; that achieving depth - in relationships, in appreciation of art, in discerning the right thing to do - is a task. It is difficult. That's why her primary enemies in the essay are scientists (who think everything can be explained simply by cause and effect [determinism]) and existentialists (who believe it's all about an abstract 'will' that has freedom to do whatever, whenever rather than learning to see the world truthfully). The frailties of our egos and wandering attentions will always distract us from this task, but the pursuit of perfection remains the goal of the soul. Humankind cannot bear very much reality but 'the humble man (sic), because he sees himself as nothing, can see other things as they are'.

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