Iris Murdoch said that good art, whatever its style, has the qualities of hardness, firmness, detachment, realism, clarity, justice, and truth.
She also went on to mention that the above can only be the product of a mind that is free, unfettered, with an uncorrupted imagination.
In all, that’s one statement. Often, when we look at quotes — which we all do too much, then re-quote them — we tend to forget to investigate the meaning.
The first part mentions the results that should be achieved when the second part of the quote is in place.
Originally, Iris Murdoch said this in a conversation about writing.
I could be a smart-arse, and go search around on Google, find out where she said this, to whom, and if I wanted, I could find out why she said this at the specific time in her life. What was happening to her that made her think these things?
Then, I’d quote her, and look like a real smarty-pants who knows his stuff, because I wouldn’t mention that I had no idea at first, but ten minutes later I’d Googled the hell out of a quote and picked up lots of cut-and-paste ideas that add weight to my quote.
You may then think, ‘wow! this guy’s like hot shite off a cold shovel, he knows his stuff.”
And if you did, then I’d feel smug. That would be my achievement. I’d have this false idea that I went into the specifics of something that I don’t know jack-shite about. Iris Murdoch’s life.
I’ve had this quote written on a piece of paper, pinned to my cork board in front of my desk for at least two years: it’s there for me to ponder, meditate on, ask questions about and of.
To think deeply about stuff helps me dig deeper into my own motives and desires about writing.
The internet offers immediate cookie-cutter answers. You can find plot-generators, names for characters, trends, who buys what, and someone is working hard on software that will write a whole book for you — all you need do is plonk your name on the front of an auto-generated book cover, and he-presto, you’re an author. Does the word “smug” come to mind?
I found the above quote after reading one of Iris Murdoch’s stories, “The Flight from the Enchanter”. It’s about a young nineteen-year-old girl. It’s Friday afternoon, she’s bored, and she’s a dreamer; she decides that at finishing school there is nothing to learn about the world outside.
The girl decides, on the spot, that she’s going to quit school and go and find out what’s happening in the real world. She packs up her books, walks across the classroom, and exits.
Before she leaves the school premises, she enters the library. She steals a book, “Collected Poems”, by Robert Browning.
She thinks about two things that she’s always wanted to do ever since she entered the school.
One, carve her name on the wooden bust by Gringlin Gibbons. It stands in the common-room.
“There was something solemn and florid about this work which made Annette itch for a blade.”
She entered the common-room to do the deed. Then discovered that she had mislaid her pocket knife. Passing up on a bit of vandalism, she decided that she’d definitely carry out her second wish; to swing on the chandelier in the dining-room.
As Annette Cockeyne swung happily from the chandelier, listening to the tinkling sounds of the crystals, Miss Walpole, the headmistress, entered the dining room.
Annette loosened her grip and fell to the floor with a thump.
A conversation ensues between the headmistress and Annette Cockeyne. The headmistress asks her what on earth she’s up to. Annette leads in with her statement that she’s leaving the school, has learnt all she can, and wishes to go out and find an education in the real world. The school of life.
“As to your having learnt all that you can learn here,” Said Miss Walpole, “that is clearly untrue. Your style of entertainment is distinctly continental, and as I had occasion to remark the other day, you still go upstairs on all fours like a dog.”
The conversation continues until Miss Walpole bids Annette goodbye, but adds some advice to send Annette on her way into the big bad world.
“Remember that the secret to all learning is patience and curiosity is not the same thing as a thirst for knowledge. Also remember that I am always here.”
Iris Murdoch’s story of Annette Cockeyne sits on my bookshelves, next to a row of short stories and novels. Wedged in-between the books of Joyce Carol Oates, Kate O’Brian, Julia O’Faolin, Maggie O’Farrell, Flannery O’Connor…and supported on the other side by Murikami and Nabokov.
I have many books. They pique my curiosity. I often feel like one of my cats as I wander along the shelves browsing, stopping, opening, reading a line or two, then closing and sliding the thick wads of paper back into place.
Ever since I wrote down the quote by Iris Murdoch, the one about striving for a mind that is free and unfettered by corrupt thoughts, I stop at Iris Murdoch’s book, “The Flight from the Enchanter”, and open it. Firstly, my curiosity drives me to read, just a little more, there is something enchanting within its pages that make me want to keep reading the same passages over and over again.
I love that growing feeling of curiosity that leads to a solid decision to sit quietly and learn something.
To read fiction, or non fiction will feed the mind with ideas, not sound-bites of thought. You are digging into a deeper mine of gold than that found through the funnel of search engines.
A book is a connection between you and someone from the past. A common-room where minds meet and exchange ideas.
Some books make you want to carve names in the wood, and others make you want to swing from the chandeliers.
To bolster my mind with the well crafted thoughts of somebody who also valued critical thinking as the real tool of learning. The mind that questions. Just like Annette Cockeyne who sat in class, fed up with listening to her Italian teacher reading from the Inferno. How she felt for the Minotaur who was given a bad deal in life. It wasn’t the Minotaur’s fault that it had been born a monster then sent to Dante’s Hell to suffer.
To question something, however loudly the masses chant that, ‘it’s right, it’s good, we must all think and believe this or that thing. Or else, you’ll be cancelled, sent to coventry, ostracised and finally cast into the flames of hell,’ is better than clicking the like-button.
Clarity of thought can only be won through labour of the mind. Google can’t help you there, but it’ll give you the impression that you are knowledgeable as you cut and paste, swipe a file, and quote a nifty sound-bite from around the web.
We’re all at it. We are tired and worn down after years of the incessant drive to funnel us all into a specific school of thought; the fragmented bits and pieces of information that pile up into nothing more than utterance. Today, if you can utter, you are smart.
Really, it’s up to you and I to free our thoughts from the narrow corporate landscape of internet, invented scarcities that create fear, and to think with clarity, definitely detachment from the crowd, to seek real justice, and discover that as humanity there is a common truth when the articulation of thought is not driven by profits, and focus group control, but by living and discovering that our planet offers plenty for all when sharing is a common thought.
Like Annette, we should do a couple of fun things just so that we can stick our rebellious fingers up into the sky, at the corporates, and the drivers and winners, swing from the chandeliers without fear of falling, carve our names into the spot where we stand and proclaim “no more of this nonsense.”
Look along the shelves, pick up the thoughts and ideas of all those people who figured it out before we were born, find hidden knowledge in Annette’s library, write and articulate in an attempt to reclaim your mind and thoughts, dig deep and find that below the surface of Googled titbits, you’ll discover a chasm that leads to a goldmine not found within the funnels of the internet.
The ability to think is a labour of the mind. Stick two fingers up to the world and begin a walk along the bookshelves among greater thinkers than we.
(All quotes from “The Flight From the Enchanter”, Iris Murdoch. Vintage.)
(Iris Murdoch, interview quotes).
On Writing your stories and where to find a good story idea