Iris Murdoch’s Pocket History of the Five Phases of Freedom, in Literature and Life

“Freedom is our ability to rise out of history and grasp a universal idea of order which we then apply to the sensible world.”

Iris Murdoch’s Pocket History of the Five Phases of Freedom, in Literature and Life

“Nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom,” James Baldwin wrote in one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. Across the Atlantic, however, he wrote the following: Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) was aiming her uncommonly penetrating intellect at the history of art — and literary art in particular, with its pinnacle in the novel — as an instrument of freedom.

In her classic on the sublime and the good — which includes the finest definition of love, and was later included in the posthumous Murdoch anthology Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (public library) — freedom emerges as a primary lens on the beautiful, the sublime, and the good.

In literature — in this the common record of human thought and feeling, in this sandbox in which we play out our reckonings with the most urgent and eternal questions of existence — we can find a history of freedom, of our ideas about what it means to be free, inseparable from our ideas about love, inseparable from what Murdoch calls “the tragic freedom implied by love” — tragic because it is rooted in the fundamental and fundamentally discomposing fact that “others are, to an extent we never cease discovering, different from ourselves.”

One of Aubrey Beardsley’s radical 1893 illustrations for SaloméOscar Wilde. Available as a printed copy.

Murdoch examines how freedom and love are interrelated in the face-to-face and reconciliation of difference.

In the context of infinitely extensible imaginative understanding of two irreducibly different individuals, freedom can be exercised by a confrontation with each other. This is love, which is an imaginative recognition and respect for the otherness.

Looking back on the history of literature since antiquity, she derives a kind of pocket history of freedom — of our ideas about it — in five roughly chronological phases:

  1. TRAGIC FREEDOM : I am referring to this concept as freedom. It is freedom that allows you to use your imagination in a conflict with dissimilar beings. It is thought to have been invented by the Greeks. Drama is the form of tragedy.
  2. MELIVAL FREEDOM: The individual is viewed as an entity within the partially described hierarchy of theological reality. Literary forms include religious stories, allegories and morality plays.
  3. KANTIAN FREEDOM is a property of the Enlightenment. Individuals are seen as non-historical rational beings moving toward complete agreement with all rational beings. Literature can be described as rationalistic tales, alchemies and novels of idea.
  4. HEGELIAN FRIVIDITY: This was largely a result of the 19th century. This individual is considered a member of an entire historical society. His importance comes from that role. True novels are the literary form (Balzac and George Eliot; Dickens).
  5. ROMANTIC FREEDOM – This is a characteristic that has been largely inherited from the twentieth and twenty century, but it also had roots in earlier times. Individuals are seen as being independent and having some degree of importance. Kantian freedom is evident in Hegelian freedom and Romantic freedom. Hegel makes the Kingdom of Ends into a historical society; while the Romantic concludes from the unhistorical emptiness of Kant’s other rational beings that in fact one may as well assume that one is alone. (This is only one way to think about existentialism. Angst is the modern form of Achtung [Kant’s notion of the experience of respect for moral law]We fear the law but not its absence. The literary form is the neurotic modern novel… The novel fails to be tragic because, in almost every case, it succumbs to one of the two great enemies of Love, convention and neurosis. Neurosis took over the novel of nineteenth-century. The modern novel is a victim to its own conventions. Convention is more deadly than either the twentieth-century or nineteenth-century novels.
Illustration by Italian artist Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

To that I add, in the 21st century we invented selfing as our greatest enemy. As we approach the end of this century, we are seeing a liturgical landscape with more memoirs than novels. This landscape is one in which the light from the empathic or speculative imagination has been replaced by the recursive self reference of the humanego. We are seeing this play out in varying degrees in all the arts, from photography to poetry, and we are participating in it, as creators or celebrators, forgetting somehow that the way to be interesting is to be interested — in something other than oneself; that to be an artist is to be wide-eyed with wonder at the world beyond one’s own skin and experience, and to transmute this wonder into quickenings of beauty and meaning, which grant us, in Murdoch’s lovely term, “an occasion for unselfing.”

It is both the greatest test of art, and the most important frontier of freedom.

Memoir is literature’s selfie. The memoir is, at its best, the sub-art and skill of skilled selfing. Its worst state hovers somewhere between self-helping and self-vicdication. Our culture, literature, and art have all forgotten one thing: we are not less free than the self. We are also nowhere less capable of Love — for love, as Murdoch herself put it in her superb definition, is “the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.”

Dame Iris Murdoch (National Portrait Gallery) by Ida Kar

Although Murdoch never lived to see this pandemic of selfing, in art and life, she furnished us with the antidote to it: the willingness to rise beyond ourselves — beyond our selves, which include our personal position in spacetime and our personal experience of the events unfolding in it — so that we may see a fuller picture of reality:

Freedom means our ability rise above history and to grasp a universal concept of order, which we then apply in the real world.

Complement this fragment of Existentialists and Mystics — which also gave us Murdoch on truth and the meaning of goodness, art as a force of resistance, and the key to great storytelling — with Erich Fromm on the paradox of freedom and Alan Watts on its most elusive meaning, then revisit the philosopher of mind Amélie Rorty on the seven layers of identity in literature and life.

Giving = Being Loving

Since a decade and a half I’ve been writing for hundreds of hours each month, spending thousands of dollars every month. MarginalianThe magazine, which bore for fifteen years the unsettling name Brain Pickings. Thanks to the support of readers, it has been free from ads and still exists. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Donations are a great way to make your life better. It makes a huge difference to support this cause.

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