Review of Altorf’s Iris Murdoch and the Art of Imagining

The new issue of Literature and Theology (Vol. 23, No. 3) includes a review (written by David Jasper, University of Glasgow) of Marije Altorf’s Iris Murdoch and the Art of Imagining (Continuum 2008). You can access the review by clicking here. Here is how it begins:

MARIJE ALTORF‘s book on Iris Murdoch is elegant in its brevity, cultivating a style that celebrates the art of imagining and it is as suggestive and ultimately elusive as her subject, whose work as a philosopher and a novelist Altorf illuminates through intelligent conversation, witty analysis and careful interpretation. Iris Murdoch was one of an early generation of Oxford women philosophers, together with Elizabeth Anscombe, Mary Midgley, Mary Warnock and others, who entered as professionals, the male dominated university library which, only 10 years before, Virginia Woolf had stood outside and cursed. Yet, for all her fame (which remains largely as a novelist and, latterly, a tragic victim of the fragility of the human condition), Murdoch is still something of an outsider, especially in her philosophical work, her interests from the start, in her work on Sartre and existentialism, being odd for their time—idiosyncratic.

Is it because she insists upon the art of imagining in all her thinking, and upon the central role of art and literature in her moral philosophy? Indeed, the central question of her philosophy might necessarily presuppose an exercise of the imagination: ‘How can we make ourselves morally better?’ It suggests in its possible working through, her unswerving respect for the great novelists of the 19th century (Tolstoy above all), in whose tradition she follows as a novelist herself, and the background to which remains in her abidingly ambivalent relationship with ‘religion’, a background, that is, that suffers not so much from the death of God, as from the disappearance of God—a condition that is, in the end, much more difficult to cope with.

Altorf ‘s shrewd, mature conversations with, and readings of, Murdoch’s work as a philosopher shed light on Murdoch’s genuine complexity as a writer and thinker.

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