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.

The argument of Against Dryness is so concentrated that it is not easy to follow. Miss Murdoch announces her theme in the first paragraph: ‘We have been left with far too shallow and flimsy an idea of human personality’—and she examines the picture of human personality offered by modern philosophy. This she sees as ‘the joining of a materialistic behaviourism with a dramatic view of the individual as a solitary will.’ Hume’s ‘materialistic behaviourism’ she sees as combining with the notion of ‘the individual as solitary will’ stemming from Kant. These two views of human nature support each other and create the typical modern personality as it conceives itself:

‘He is morally speaking monarch of all he surveys and totally responsible for his actions. Nothing transcends him. . . His rationality exposes itself in awareness of the facts, whether about the world or about himself. The virtue which is fundamental to him is sincerity.’

Miss Murdoch sees a similar portrait of human personality emerging from Sartre’s philosophy. ‘Again, the individual is pictured as solitary and totally free. There is no transcendent reality, there are no degrees of freedom’. ‘The ordinary traditional picture of personality’ is rejected. ‘Again the only real virtue is sincerity’. Changing to a Marxist stance she sees this as ‘the essence of the liberal theory of personality’—one which finds its political expression in the idea of the Welfare State, seen as ‘the reward of empiricism in politics’—essentially a behaviourism set in motion by a diluted utilitarian ethic: ‘happiness equals freedom equals personality’.

In this situation, Miss Murdoch argues ‘we have suffered a general loss of concepts, the loss of a moral and political vocabulary.’ And her catalogue of loss is well worth quoting:

‘We no longer use a spread-out substantial picture of the manifold virtues of man and society. We no longer see man against a background of values, of realities, which transcend him. We picture man as brave, naked will surrounded by an easily comprehended empirical world. For the hard idea of truth we have substituted a facile idea of sincerity . . . We have never had . . . a satisfactory liberal theory of personality, a theory of man as free and separate and related to a rich and complicated world from which, as a moral being, he has much to learn.’

Miss Murdoch turns to literature to see what it has to offer in terms of a total picture of human personality. She finds that 20th century literature shares in the general impoverishment of personality. It is rather like 18th century literature: ‘an era of rationalistic allegories and moral tales. . . the era when the idea of human nature was unitary and single’. In contrast, the 19th century novel ‘was not concerned with “the human condition”, it was concerned with real, various individuals struggling in society’.