Petrol stations will be abuzz this week with romantics procuring flowers, chocolates and saucy greeting cards after filling up the tank. Whatever this St Valentine’s Day ritual represents, it’s certainly not love. So suggests the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, who set a high bar for the virtue.
The Dublin-born writer, who died 25 years ago this month, envisaged love as something both highly demanding and devilishly complex.
“Murdoch thinks that love is a way of knowing reality, so there is a close connection for her between love and truth,” says philosopher and historian Clare Mac Cumhaill.
A lifelong romantic as well as a moralist, Murdoch saw love as part of a process called “unselfing” in which “fat relentless ego” was suppressed. “Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real,” she wrote.
For her, a crucial moral consideration was what to pay attention to. The message has increased significance in an era when most of us can’t stay off our screens for 30 seconds.
“We have some faltering and limited control over the direction of our gaze and attention. We can try and direct our attention to things that help us along the way and to things that are good – simple things like learning a foreign language or caring for pot plants can take us outside of ourselves,” says Mac Cumhaill.
“In a famous passage, Murdoch writes about seeing a kestrel hovering in the sky. She is ruminating on some damage done to her prestige. She sees the kestrel and the cloud of self-absorption disperses. The kestrel wipes it away. This is the quality of consciousness that she thinks should characterise our moral lives: consciousness that is unclouded by selfish desire, fantasy and prejudice.”
Did Murdoch believe “unselfing” was something you should do in a romantic affair? It runs counter to the transactional view of relationships that is common today.
“Some readers of Murdoch have worried that the emphasis on ‘unselfing’ perhaps glorifies a harmful feminine ideal of submissiveness and self-sacrifice… There is an adjacent concern that in fact the kind of unselfish attention Murdoch urges is precisely orthogonal to the kind of self-assertive awareness needed to galvanise social movements,” she says.
“But in my view, we can read Murdoch as helping to foreground not the individual – submissive, assertive, selfish or otherwise – but a special kind of unique and mystical relation between two individuals, an I-you relation, where each is, to the extent that each can be, truly present to the other. These kinds of relations need not be romantic, but where they are they couldn’t be further from transactional.”
Murdoch had a complicated personal life, as captured in the Oscar-winning movie Iris. During her marriage, she had numerous lovers – both men and women – before Alzheimer’s disease took hold.
By all accounts, she practised what she preached in terms of “unselfing”. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum once recalled meeting Murdoch for lunch and coming under her “very intense gaze”: “She fixed me with her eyes and went on, eating pâté absent-mindedly with her fingers… I had no doubt… that Murdoch could have described me, after an hour, far more precisely than any lover of mine after some years.”
Mac Cumhaill, a Dubliner now based at Durham University, says Murdoch “spent whole afternoons every day for decades composing letters to friends, lovers, students, fans, thousands of which are now in her archive. Each one is brimming with character and intensity: Lots of exclamation marks and capitals and underlined phrases. I have not read one that is cliched in any way.
“Of course, she was a great novelist, but it takes a very huge kind of sympathetic imagination to write in such a fresh way to so very many different people and with such genuine interest. We don’t tend to think of love as diligent but there is a sense in which Murdochian love must be. It takes time and effort. I think for most of the recipients these letters must have been among their most precious things.”
Mac Cumhaill has been involved in recent years in promoting the writer’s work, helping to unveil a plaque in 2019 at Murdoch’s former home in Blessington Street, Phibsborough. With fellow academic Rachael Wiseman, Mac Cumhaill co-authored Metaphysical Animals, which explores the fascinating relationship between Murdoch and three other trailblazing women philosophers who became known as “the Oxford quartet”.
Many people learning about “unselfing” would likely conclude that Murdoch’s philosophy of love is “naively optimistic”, says Mac Cumhaill. “But Murdoch’s general picture of our predicament sees us as all vulnerable – much of what goes on in the world is contingent; our lives are short; we are bound to suffer. Art and morality are our garrison against what is otherwise pointless and formless. And for Murdoch the essence of them both is, you guessed: love.”
Murdoch scholars continue to debate what constitutes unselfing but one thing is clear: to love someone you need to put in serious effort. The flip side is that it takes hard work for you to be loved. So if this Valentine’s Day, or at any other time in your life, you find yourself face to face with someone giving you egoless, “unselfish attention” you can count yourself very, very lucky.