Elegy for Iris
by John Bayley
St. Martin’s, 275 pp., $22.95
Not Iris Murdoch. When an interview appeared about three years ago revealing that she was mentally degenerating (“I’m in a bad place, a very quiet place” was, I think, what she said), there must have been others besides myself who reacted with that thought. True, she was in her seventies, her mother had had Alzheimer’s, obituaries for her generation were appearing daily. But it seemed that that particular mind and imagination could not be struck down: dulled perhaps, but not cruelly reduced. But the brain scan, her husband John Bayley was told, showed “an area of atrophy” at the top of the brain. Just a piece of tissue that no longer worked.
She herself had touched on the dread we have of losing our mind and identity. In An Accidental Man, written twenty-eight years ago, her character Ludwig says,
“I would give my life, I think, more willingly than I would give my mind.”
“Yes,” said Matthew. “‘For who would lose, though full of pain, this intellectual being…’ One can face suffering and one cannot imagine death. But the destruction or perversion of one’s personality, could one face that?”
Of course when we look ahead with this dread, we forget that when the personality is lost, there is nothing left to “face” the loss with. The present-day Iris Murdoch as described in John Bayley’s memoir does not know what she has lost—only that there is something frighteningly missing.
The reason for that reaction of protest—that Murdoch, of all people, should be afflicted—is not just that hers was a mind that invented a wildly fertile and fantastic world in her twenty-six novels. These are adored by some (count me in), belittled by others who feel they may eventually be sidelined into a minor category along with those of, say, Lawrence Durrell and Ouida. The protest is also on behalf of Murdoch’s philosophical writings, and the extraordinary fact that she wove into them the imagination and intuition that went into the novels. In Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, or The Sovereignty of Good, you might find sentences to think about for a long time afterward: “It is difficult to suffer well, without resentment, false consolation, untruthful flight”; or, “True morality is a sort of unesoteric mysticism, having its source in an austere and unconsoled love of the Good.” Then, on the other hand, she equally weaves these moral perceptions into the very structure of the novels. “Jealousy is a dreadful thing, Jessica,” says Willy in The Nice and the Good:
It is the most natural to us of the really wicked passions and it goes deep and envenoms the soul. It must be resisted with every honest cunning and with the deliberate thinking of generous thoughts, however abstract and empty these may seem in comparison with that wicked strength….
(After that they go to bed, and when Jessica asks, “What are we doing?” he says, “This is sacrilege, my Jessica. A very important …