EXISTENTIALISTS AND MYSTICS by Iris Murdoch

EXISTENTIALISTS AND MYSTICS

Writings on Philosophy and Literature
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 Gathered here are essays by philosopher-novelist Murdoch, whose cool, clear thoughts on goodness and beauty offer sanctuary to all weary refugees from moral relativism. The selections, edited by Conradi (Humanities/Kingston Univ., England) and vibrantly introduced by George Steiner, span the years between 1950 and 1986, and include academic papers, radio talks, book reviews, lectures, a BBC interview, and one long essay, ``The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists,'' issued as a book in 1977. Murdoch, a professional philosopher (Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, 1993) and author of more than 25 novels, reflects here on the moral dimensions of literature and the contrasting ethical visions of Platonic, existential, and British analytic philosophy. The existentialists of the title represent a style of moral decision-making, best illustrated by Jean-Paul Sartre, that centers on self-conscious free will; decisions within a mystical consciousness, like Plato's, flow naturally out of moral ideas, like goodness and beauty, that have enduringly focused its attention. Murdoch appreciates Sartre for employing fiction so successfully in his philosophic demonstration of self-determination, but her sympathies lie finally with Platonists and mystics, whose attentive gaze on reality reveals transcendent value. Literature (which can embody philosophic ideas) and philosophy (which is more sensual and metaphorical, and so more literary, than it lets on) are both means of extending the same gaze. Murdoch has her blind spots. Behind her dismissive remarks on literary theory and fantasy lies the long tradition of critical reflection on philosophy and art inaugurated by the early German Romantics, Schlegel, Schelling, and Novalis--arguably the ancestors of deconstructive thought today--whose names never occur in these essays. Her case for the moral truthfulness of literature needs the challenge of this less overtly moralistic tradition in esthetics. Murdoch smooths the rocky path between ethics and art, but apart from the eternal Plato, many of the choices of representative philosophers in these aging essays--Sartre, Stuart Hampshire, Gilbert Ryle, among others--now seem quaintly dated.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-7139-9225-5
Page count: 576pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 1997




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