Iris Theoretical Essays

Iris Theoretical Essays-58
Art “holds the mirror up to nature.” Of course this reflection or “imitation”” does not mean slavish or photographic copying.But it is important to hold on to the idea that art is about the world, it exists for us standing out against a background of our ordinary knowledge.

Art “holds the mirror up to nature.” Of course this reflection or “imitation”” does not mean slavish or photographic copying.But it is important to hold on to the idea that art is about the world, it exists for us standing out against a background of our ordinary knowledge.

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Because self-knowledge is the most difficult of the arts of living, because understanding ourselves is a prerequisite for understanding anybody else, and because we can hardly fathom the reality of another without first plumbing our own depths, art is what makes us not only human but humane.

That is what the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) — one of the most lucid and luminous minds of the twentieth century — explored in a long, deep, immensely insightful 1977 conversation with the British broadcaster and philosopher Bryan Mc Gee, which aired on Mc Gee’s television series Literary writing is an art, an aspect of an art form.

We enjoy art, even simple art, because it disturbs us in deep often incomprehensible ways; and this is one reason why it is good for us when it is good and bad for us when it is bad.

Art is mimesis and good art is, to use another Platonic term, anamnesis, “memory” of what we did not know we knew…

How far reshaping involves offences against truth is a problem any artist must face.

A deep motive for making literature or art of any sort is the desire to defeat the formlessness of the world and cheer oneself up by constructing forms out of what might otherwise seem a mass of senseless rubble.A literary presence if it is too bossy, like Lawrence’s, may be damaging; when for instance one favoured character is the author’s spokesman.Bad writing is almost always full of the fumes of personality.Most of the time we fail to see the big wide real world at all because we are blinded by obsession, anxiety, envy, resentment, fear.We make a small personal world in which we remain enclosed.Great art is liberating, it enables us to see and take pleasure in what is not ourselves.Literature stirs and satisfies our curiosity, it interests us in other people and other scenes, and helps us to be tolerant and generous. And even mediocre art can tell us something, for instance about how other people live.We want a writer to write well and to have something interesting to say.Perhaps we should distinguish a recognisable style from a personal presence.In a sentiment bridging William James’s landmark assertion that “a purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity” and Tolstoy’s insistence that “emotional infectiousness” is what separates good art from the bad, Murdoch considers the central animating force of art: Literature could be called a disciplined technique for arousing certain emotions.(Of course there are other such techniques.) I would include the arousing of emotion in the definition of art, although not every occasion of experiencing art is an emotional occasion.

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