Iris Murdoch: what the writer and philosopher can teach us about friendship


Brian Harris / Alamy Stock Photo

Cathy Mason, University of CambridgeMaking friends might come easier to some people than others, but in general, we all use the same criteria for forming relationships. We are drawn to people who share our interests, or who we simply like and admire.

Once we make friends, we tend to hold them in high esteem. We speak positively about our friends, sometimes ignoring or downplaying their negative qualities. For many people, this positive outlook is the core of friendship – being a “good” friend is a matter of thinking and feeling positively about them, as well as acting in caring ways towards them.

This type of friendship is what I’ll call “knowledge-free” – it involves no requirement to really know or understand the other person. On the flip side, this view of friendship suggests that having negative beliefs about your friends (even if those beliefs are warranted) makes you a worse friend.

As an ethicist who has researched friendship and virtue, this view of friendship just doesn’t seem right to me. It doesn’t capture all of what we want from friendship. I have studied the work of British-Irish novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch – and I suggest that her writings provide us with a fuller view of friendship.

Murdoch occupied a rare niche in 20th century philosophy, as a woman working in a fairly male-dominated field. She was also a Platonist interested in the reality of “the Good” in an era when such metaphysical theorising was deeply unpopular. A highly successful novelist, Murdoch’s many books explore the trials and tribulations of intimate relationships.

Love is knowledge

Much of Murdoch’s philosophical work examines the moral significance of love (which I take to be part of friendship). She regarded love as a central part of our moral life that had been unjustly ignored in the moral philosophy of her era, in favour of an endless focus on the function of moral language.

Unlike the view of friendship I described earlier, Murdoch’s conception of love is not “knowledge-free”. Instead, she suggests that understanding the other person is an integral part of love (and therefore of friendship, which plausibly involves love).

Take the following passages:

Love is the perception of individuals. … Love … is the discovery of reality. (The Sublime and The Good, 1959)

Love is knowledge of the individual. (The Sovereignty of Good, 1970)

You can see in these quotes Murdoch’s view of love is knowledge of the other person, or seeing them as they really are –- it involves understanding them as a person, both their positive and negative qualities.

Notably, Murdoch thinks that really knowing or understanding another person is a difficult task: “It is a task to come to see the world as it is”. According to the Freudian psychology Murdoch subscribes to in The Sovereignty of Good, humans are prone to “fantasy” – refusing to face the truth because it can damage our fragile egos.

So while we may have a natural, selfish tendency to believe reassuring fantasies about the goodness of other people (especially our friends), true friendship requires us to be patient, kind and accepting of their negative qualities too.

Loving attention

Being a good friend to others thus involves what Murdoch calls “loving attention”: regarding them in a patient, caring way, and always trying to do justice to who they really are.

In a Murdochian view of friendship, being a good friend involves knowing or understanding our friends more fully. Think about the way a friendship develops: One might initially know a few facts about a friend’s interests, such as that they enjoy classical music. Over time, a good friend would not simply know that their friend enjoys classical music, but exactly what kind of music they like, what it is that they like about it, and the importance that it has in their life. This deepening understanding of the other person naturally leads to a more fulfilling friendship.

Murdochian friendship therefore rules out the idea that being a good friend requires having positive – but false – beliefs about one’s friends. If friendship involves true knowledge of another person, it can’t require us to have untrue beliefs about them.

How might this relate to the other things we usually expect of friends, such as that they treat us well, and help us when we need it? Once we truly, lovingly see and understand another person, the right way to behave towards them will follow naturally. We won’t have to ask ourselves things like “should I bother helping my friend who is in need?”, because seeing their need will itself compel us to act rightly.

Think about Iris Murdoch the next time a friend of yours does or says something you disagree with. Instead of ignoring their flaw or mistake, try to accept it as part of their whole – it may even strengthen your friendship.The Conversation

Cathy Mason, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in Philosophy, University of Cambridge

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How poetry can help us understand the urgency of the climate crisis


Chursina Viktoriia/Shutterstock

Christina Thatcher, Cardiff Metropolitan UniversityI discovered Ellen Bass’ poem, Birdsong from My Patio, during the first UK lockdown. My garden hedge was stuffed with sparrows who seemed to always be singing. I expected to see and hear them in this poem too and, at first, I did: “I’ve never heard this much song, trills pure as crystal bells”. However, images of “acid rain”, “pesticides”, “contaminated insects” and “thin-shelled eggs” moved swiftly in. Instead of feeling joyous, I left the poem reeling. What have we done to our birds? What have we done to our world?

Climate change is widely recognised as the biggest threat of the 21st century. As it worsens, we can expect increased storms, heatwaves, droughts and other extreme weather events, which threaten the survival of much on this planet. Politicians have congregated in Glasgow at COP26 to discuss how they can work together to slow down and reverse some of this damage.

People following the conference will likely know a fair bit about climate change but, as poet Jorie Graham suggests, they may not “feel” it. Environmental activists have begun asking for help communicating the impact of the climate crisis to both politicians and the public. In other words: help people empathise with the impact of climate change so they will feel compelled to combat it.

In an interview for the Guardian, poet Roger Robinson said that “poems are empathy machines”. And research backs this up. One recent paper, for example, found that poetry can increase empathy in readers and, therefore, can be an effective tool in conveying these urgent messages and changing behaviours.

Feeling the damage

By using things like imagery, metaphor, narrative and even white space, poetry has the power to make abstract or diffuse issues, like climate change, more real to readers. A poem can act as a witness to phenomena like global warming or highlight how climate change impacts particular animals or plants. For instance, Gillian Clarke’s sonnet Glacier witnesses the melting of Greenland’s glacier and calls for science to fix what has happened since:

The century of waste
has burned a hole in the sky over the Pole.

Two elephants.
The decline of elephants is mourned in Matthew Olzmann’s Letter to Someone Living Fifty Years from Now.
Craig Morrison/Shutterstock

Poems can also act as visions of the future in order to highlight changes we can make in the present. For instance, Matthew Olzmann’s Letter to Someone Living Fifty Years from Now speaks of how someone living in the desolate future will think we hated our planet:

Most likely, you think we hated the elephant,
the golden toad, the thylacine and all variations
of whale harpooned or hacked into extinction.

It must seem like we sought to leave you nothing
but benzene, mercury, the stomachs
of seagulls rippled with jet fuel and plastic.

Olzmann highlights how our actions sit in stark contrast to how we actually feel about these animals and the natural world. These are things we take joy in, that we say we love, but that we treat with such disregard. Jane Hirshfield’s Let Them Not Say similarly speaks of how history will look upon us and calls for change before it is too late:

Let them not say:    they did nothing.
We did not-enough.

Both Olzmann and Hirshfield’s poems reveal a bleak vision of the future which, in turn, can inspire empathy and action in readers now.

Resistance and hope

There are also poems of resistance that push against the capitalist systems which some argue continue to fuel the climate crisis. This can be seen in David Sergeant’s Language of Change, which is written from the perspective of late capitalism as it decides whether to continue to destroy the planet or change its ways.

A protester holds up a poster in front of chimneys pumping out smoke.
In David Sergeant’s Language of Change, he calls for resistance against polluting companies.
Joe Seer/Shutterstock

There are those poems too which attempt to reconcile despair and hope and the way we, as humans, have both loved and let down our world. Evening by Dorianne Laux is a powerful example of this as it notes the beauty and possibility that breaks through the darkness of this dying planet:

We know we are doomed,
done for, damned, and still
the light reaches us, falls
on our shoulders even now

Like most other people, I have been aware of the climate crisis for years and have followed advice on how I can help. However, it wasn’t until I read Birdsong from My Patio that I felt the full emotional impact of climate change, followed by an urgent desire to take action on a larger scale. Since reading this poem (and many more after it), I have researched ways to mitigate the effects of climate change on my beloved birds, donated to environmental campaigns and have started writing my own ecopoetry.

And I am not alone. Research suggests that empathy which leads to this kind of action could be one of the key solutions to climate change. So pick up a poem, buy a (second-hand) book. The world will thank you.The Conversation

Christina Thatcher, Creative Writing Lecturer, Cardiff Metropolitan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr: Senegalese novelist’s win is a landmark for African literature


Mohamed Mbougar Sarr on a TV show after winning the Prix Goncourt.
Photo by Eric Fougere/Corbis via Getty Images

Caroline D. Laurent, American University of Paris (AUP)The Prix Goncourt – the oldest and most prestigious literary prize in France – has been awarded to 31-year-old Mohamed Mbougar Sarr from Senegal. He’s the youngest winner since 1976 and the first from sub-Saharan Africa. Critics have been raving about The Most Secret Memory of Men, his novel about a young Senegalese writer living in Paris. The jury made a unanimous decision to award Mbougar Sarr the prize after just one round of voting, calling his work “a hymn to literature”. The prize will bring him literary fame and huge book sales, says Caroline D. Laurent, a specialist in Francophone African literature in France. We asked her more.


Who is Mohamed Mbougar Sarr?

Author of the 2021 Prix Goncourt-winning novel The Most Secret Memory of Men (La Plus Secrète Mémoire des Hommes) Mbougar Sarr is a young Senegalese author who grew up outside Dakar and moved to Paris to continue his studies. At just 31, he has already published three other novels, his first in 2015: Encircled Earth (Terre Ceinte), Silence of the Choir (Silence du Chœur) and Pure Men (De Purs Hommes).

Starting his studies in Senegal, he began his doctorate at the prestigious School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris, working on poet and Senegal’s first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor. Writing got in the way and prevented him from ever finishing and graduating. He now lives in Beauvais, a city north of Paris.

What is the novel about?

The Most Secret Memory of Men plays with reality and fiction. It tells the story of a young Senegalese author, Diégane Latyr Faye, who lives in Paris. In high school in Senegal he had come across mentions of a mysterious novel published in 1938 by a Senegalese author called T.C. Elimane, The Labyrinth of the Inhuman. Unable to find a copy, he had put his quest aside, considering it to be one of the many lost books of literature. But, by chance a few years later, he meets a Senegalese writer, Siga D, who gives him a copy of the book. The reading (and numerous re-readings) of what he considers to be a masterpiece revives his desire to find out what happened to the mysterious T.C. Elimane.

Why does the book matter?

The Most Secret Memory of Men is a novel about writing and literature. It is full of literary references – like to celebrated Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño and prolific Polish author Witold Gombrowicz. But it’s the obscure references that are probably the most interesting: the fictional T.C. Elimane’s book and his fate echoes that of real-life Malian author Yambo Ouologuem – who Mbougar Sarr’s own novel is dedicated to.

Winner of the 1968 Prix Renaudot for Bound to Violence (Le Devoir de Violence), Ouologuem sparked controversy after a 1972 article in the Times Literary Supplement claimed he had plagiarised several authors, including Graham Greene and André Schwarz-Bart. He returned to Mali and never published again. Just as the narrator of Mbougar Sarr’s novel, Diégane Latyr Faye, is his alter ego, T.C. Elimane is Ouologuem’s.




Read more:
Damon Galgut’s Booker-winning novel probes white South Africa and the land issue


As much as it is about writing, The Most Secret Memory of Men is also about reading. The work is polyphonic (with many narrators besides Faye), it is transcultural (set in Europe, Africa and South America) and it mixes different literary genres (letters, articles, conversations), encouraging many different types of readings. Some may focus on the historical events depicted – the novel alludes to colonialism, the World Wars, Nazism and the Holocaust, the dictatorship in Argentina and recent Senegalese demonstrations against state corruption. Others may focus on the mysterious elements that recall some features of magical realism. Or on the literary references, both African and global, that punctuate the text. Or all of the above.

A book cover with a brown and black illustration of an African man with turquoise written words in old-fashioned italics behind him.

Philippe Rey

It needs to be read for what it is – a great novel – and not because of the origin or the skin colour of its author. This is exactly why T.C. Elimane disappeared: hurt by some reviews, he felt misunderstood because his work was read through the lens of the work of others, notably that of French poet Arthur Rimbaud (he was called a “Rimbaud nègre” or black Rimbaud).

Why does this Prix Goncourt win matter?

For these reasons, winning the Prix Goncourt should be viewed as African literature finally being recognised for its literary qualities. One should focus on this (late) recognition and perhaps question why, faced with the many great novels by African writers, Mbougar Sarr’s win is so rare. The Most Secret Memory of Men is quite subversively brilliant in denouncing, through literature, the literary capture of African writers by former colonial powers.




Read more:
Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah: an introduction to the man and his writing


Jointly published by two small publishing houses, Philippe Rey in France and Jimsaan in Senegal, the novel is truly transnational. The recognition of these publishing houses on two continents will, hopefully, enhance and help rebalance African countries’ role in publishing and distributing the works of their authors. Mohamed Mbougar Sarr is not only denouncing colonial and neocolonial practices, but also encouraging new ways of publishing and reaching readers.

The Most Secret Memory of Men is a powerful text not only because of its writing, its themes, and what it says about the place of African literature in the world, but also because of how it opens up future possibilities for Francophone authors.The Conversation

Caroline D. Laurent, Assistant Professor, American University of Paris (AUP)

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Booker Prize: Damon Galgut’s The Promise is a reminder of South Africa’s continued and difficult journey to a better future


Daniel Conway, University of WestminsterThis article may contain spoilers.

Damon Galgut, a white South African playwright and novelist, has won the 2021 Booker Prize for his novel The Promise, a satirical portrait of a white family living in Pretoria in post-apartheid South Africa. The story is a very personal one for Galgut, who grew up in Pretoria and witnessed late apartheid and its demise.

The novel follows the decline of four generations of the Swart family over 40 years and starts at the end of apartheid. It focuses on the pledge made by a dying family member to bequeath the family’s property to their black domestic worker. This promise goes ignored by future generations of the family. And it becomes an allegory for the broken promises made to black South Africans at the dawn of the country’s non-racial democracy in 1994.

As an academic who has focused on South African society and history, I first came across a photo of Galgut when I was researching the End Conscription Campaign – a white anti-apartheid movement formed in 1983 that aimed to abolish compulsory military service.

Like all white men at the time, Galgut was legally obliged to serve for two years in the South African army enforcing apartheid rule. Galgut was featured as “National Serviceman of the Month” in a 1983 edition of the apartheid military’s propaganda magazine, Paratus. This is a broader subject he has explored in his 1991 novel, The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs.

A troubled history

The majority of white South Africans are descended from Dutch settlers and speak Afrikaans. During apartheid, racial separation was legally enforced and many white people saw themselves as a superior race. Whites were given the best jobs and education – creating a wealthy white elite. After a lengthy Liberation Struggle with widespread protests and leading to a violent State of Emergency in the 1980s, Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and negotiations began.

The African National Congress has been in power in South Africa ever since the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994. But under the leadership of President Jacob Zuma (2009-2018), the party badly let down the country – with a decade of endemic corruption.

Today, more than 25 years since the first democratic elections, white South Africans continue to dominate the economy, higher education and much of the media. And white South Africans continue to wield significant political power.

At the same time, many in the country’s white community have ignored their role in ongoing racial inequality and are resistant to meaningful social, economic and political change. Large numbers of white families have emigrated or retreated to fortified luxury compounds within the country – and continue to profit from systems of structural racism. It is maybe no surprise, then, that white supremacist movements in South Africa are thriving.

White resistance

As I discovered in my research, many white liberals who once opposed apartheid have become reactionary critics in the new South Africa.

Politician and former journalist, Helen Zille, for example, who served as the national leader (2007–2015) of the Democratic Alliance – South Africa’s official opposition party – has gone from being a liberal anti-apartheid and anti-conscription campaigner in the 1980s, to controversially describing South Africa as ‘a modern constitutional democracy’, imposed, ‘on what is largely a traditional, African feudal society’ and reproducing culture war discourses for a South African audience in her latest book #Stay Woke: Go Broke.

Despite Zille, who is also the former mayor of Cape Town and premier of the Western Cape, being publicly called out, suspended and investigated by her own party for numerous tweets that defended colonialism, claiming it was “not all bad”, she remains the party’s Federal Chairperson and played a leading role in the recent provincial and municipal elections.

Farm land and a sunset.
Aerial view of farmland east of Pretoria, South Africa, where the novel is set.
Salt Rock Digital/Shutterstock

Research has also found that many white people who lived through apartheid minimise the suffering and racism of the time. It has even been claimed by some that white “suffering” post-apartheid could be worse than the experiences of black people during apartheid.

But while racism is still deeply embedded, with South Africa’s simmering social and class divisions continuing to play out, there are some signs of racial reconciliation. Just as during the traumatic years of apartheid, intelligent and humane cultural critics, artists, academics and activists, continue to be deeply committed to achieving meaningful change.

Indeed, with the success of The Promise, Damon Galgut joins a distinguished line of South African authors. Those such as Herman Charles Bosman, Andre Brink, Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee, all of whom grappled with the complex dynamics of the country’s white community in their writing. And in this way, Galgut’s Booker win serves a crucial purpose in illuminating, questioning and exploring the country’s continued difficult journey to a better future.The Conversation

Daniel Conway, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Studies, University of Westminster

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.