What Love Really Means: Iris Murdoch on Unselfing, the Symmetry Between Art and Morality, and How We Unblind Ourselves to Each Other’s Realities

“Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.”

What Love Really Means: Iris Murdoch on Unselfing, the Symmetry Between Art and Morality, and How We Unblind Ourselves to Each Other’s Realities

Decades into his long life, the poet Robert Graves defined love as “a recognition of another person’s integrity and truth in a way that… makes both of you light up when you recognize the quality in the other.” A generation later, the poetic playwright Tom Stoppard defined it as “knowledge of each other… knowledge of self, the real him, the real her, in extremis, the mask slipped from the face.” This unmasked fact is the antidote to the most dangerous fiction the Romantics bequeathed us — their model of love as union between lover and beloved, a kind of fusion of selves, with its connotation of mutual completion rather than mutual recognition of and rejoicing in two parallel completenesses.

Such gladsome recognition of the other’s otherness is the foundation of love and the foundation of morality — both requiring not a bridging of selves but an unselfing, both vulnerable to same fundamental misconception that fissures the very foundation upon which they rest. When stripped away from its counterscientific and mystical aspects, almost every contemplative, religious and spiritual tradition has an ethic of love at its core. A dangerous manipulation of love by the self is also central to nearly every tradition, particularly the West.

Most commonly known as the Golden Rule, it mistakes the reality of the self for the only reality, taking one’s own wishes, desires, and longings as universal and presuming that the other shares those precisely — negating the sovereign reality of the other, negating the possibility that a very different person might want something very different done unto them.

This is the remedy to self-deprecating. There are many beautiful life types, with their own unique longings and visions. Nothing reminds us of this more readily than art, with its invitation to step into the intimate realities of other lives — the word “empathy,” after all, originated in the imaginative act of projecting oneself into a work of art — and no one has irradiated that reminder more luminously than the uncommon philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999).

Dame Iris Murdoch (National Portrait Gallery) by Ida Kar

She was a classic long before 1970. The Sovereignty Of Good, with its lovely conception of art as “an occasion for unselfing,” Murdoch began developing these ideas in an essay titled “The Sublime and the Good,” originally published in the Chicago Review1960, and included later in the alluring posthumous collection Existentialists and Mystics – Writings on Philosophy and Literature.

She wrote:

Art and morals are… one. Both have the same essence. Both of their essences are love. The perception of others is love. It is the difficult realization that someone else is real. The discovery of reality is what love, art, and morals are.

In the same era when, across the Atlantic, Alan Watts was cautioning that “Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others” as he was introducing Eastern teachings in the West, Murdoch builds on the parallels between art and morality through the multiple dimensions of love — the personal and the political, the individual and the communal:

Social convention and neurosis are both enemies to art and morals. One may fail to see the individual… because we are ourselves sunk in a social whole which we allow uncritically to determine our reactions, or because we see each other exclusively as so determined. Sometimes we might not be able to see an individual due to our inability to perceive their reality or independence. Fantasy, the enemy of art, is the enemy of true imagination: Love, an exercise of the imagination… The exercise of overcoming one’s self, of the expulsion of fantasy and convention… is indeed exhilarating. If we do it correctly, which is rare, it can also be painful.

“Real isn’t how you are made… It’s a thing that happens to you.” Maurice Sendak’s little-known 1960 illustrations for The Velveteen Rabbit.

In a sentiment that calls to mind James Baldwin’s reflection on love and his haunting observation that “nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom,” Murdoch adds:

One of the most tragic aspects of love is that it allows us to indefinitely expand our ability to envision other people. Tragic, because there is no prefabricated harmony, and others are, to an extent we never cease discovering, different from ourselves… Freedom is exercised in the confrontation by each other, in the context of an infinitely extensible work of imaginative understanding, of two irreducibly dissimilar individuals. The imaginative acceptance of and the respect for this otherness is what we call love.

Complement this fragment of Existentialists and Mystics — which also gave us Murdoch on art as a force of resistance and the key to great storytelling — with her almost unbearably beautiful love letters, then revisit Tolstoy on love and morality.

Giving = Being Loving

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