Iris Murdoch and the Romantic Novel
This article began as a review of A Severed Head, and got mixed up with my re-reading of a short essay that Irish Murdoch wrote just over a year ago for Encounter, called Against Dryness. I have always thought of Iris Murdoch as a romantic novelist. Yet Against Dryness is rather specifically an attack on romanticism. Romanticism, it is sometimes said, has turned increasingly upon itself and offers self-sufficient images and symbols as a consolation for the loss of the real world which had been the exclusive concern of the 19th century novel. This is not Miss Murdoch’s story but she implicitly assumes it. The specific tendency which Miss Murdoch isolates as ‘dryness’ is that which makes the 20th century novel look more and more like a symbolist poem, opaque in language, constructed around internal symbols and using people as if they were images. I believe that Irish Murdoch’s novels are basically of this kind, and want to defend them against the self-structures implied in Against Dryness. If Against Dryness is directed against A Severed Head, then the polemic seems mis-directed. A Severed Head strikes me as the romantic or symbolist novel run badly to gristle. It fails not because it is ‘dry’ in her sense, but because its symbolism has collapsed into a private fantasy.
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