When Iris Murdoch Met Jean-Paul Sartre
Phenomenology and Existentialism
As WWII entered its final year, Iris Murdoch and her best-friend Philippa Bosanquet (or Pip, as she was to Iris), were in the middle of a “quadrilateral tale” that, Iris reflected, “would make rather a good psychological novel.” The pair had met at Oxford University in 1942, in the final year of their degrees, and after graduating both were sent to London by the War Office.
Now they were living together in a single-roomed whitewashed attic flat above a warehouse in London’s Westminster. They were regularly forced to take shelter in the bath as German “doodlebugs” fell from the skies. The cause of the love-drama had been Iris. She had switched her affections from Michael Foot—a dashing intelligence officer—to Tommy Balogh—a Hungarian economist emigre.
Pip, who had been dating Tommy at the time was unimpressed; and Michael, who had been in love with Iris, was heartbroken. Pip and Michael saved the day by falling in love with each other, but Pip found it hard to forgive Iris’s behavior. And Iris found it hard to forgive herself, especially after Tommy abandoned her when things got serious.
When an opportunity arose to escape the mess she had made, Iris seized it. She left London on 1 September 1945 for a posting with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). It was her first trip abroad, and she was to be part of an international effort to help the millions who had been displaced by the war to find their way home—a task rendered impossible in many cases as “home” no longer existed.
On her way to she stopped off in newly liberated Brussels where she heard the “pop-star” philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre address a crowded gallery and declare that “Existentialism is a Humanism.” She was immediately drawn in. It was, she later said, “a time of sheer frenzy.” She was in search of a new start, and of “Ultimate Human Beings.”
On 25 October, a few weeks before her posting arrived, Iris joined a crowd at Salle Giroux, an avant-garde art gallery on Boulevard du Régent, not far from Parc de Bruxelles, to hear France’s great “pop star” novelist–philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre arrived in a newly liberated Belgium excusing himself—he had not prepared anything. But once introduced by writer Charles Bernard, he proceeded, for a full two hours, to hold the overheated room enthralled.
Sartre had transformed morality for a newly liberated Europe by cutting it free from human nature and a transcendent reality.
When Sartre delivered the same lecture four days later in Paris, at Club Maintenant, too many attended. “Heat, fainting spells, police,” reported Combat, the once clandestine newspaper of the French resistance. In Brussels, Iris did not faint. She was there, a pale blue cloth notebook in hand (price 78 francs), as Sartre set out an existentialist revolutionary manifesto. His words may have recalled to her an undergraduate lecture by refugee philosopher Fritz Heinemann, who had coined the word “Existenzphilosophie” to capture a current of Western thought a decade before Sartre took his place in that tradition.
But, hearing it spoken of again, translated from Heinemann’s stuttering English in a half-empty lecture room in New College to a packed gallery in post-war Belgium, in the language of la Résistance, it must have seemed brand new.
“Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards,” Sartre announced. For man, “existence comes before essence.” With this slogan Sartre meant to create a form of secularism that went beyond the “philosophic atheism of the 18th century.” He wanted to remove not just God but the very idea of human nature. Man is not “a kind of moss or fungus or a cauliflower,” Sartre urged the audience. Not a turnip, certainly.
“Only existentialism,” he told them, humiliated after over four years of Nazi occupation, “is compatible with the dignity of man.” Sartre promised to make each of them, defeated as they were, a monarch—or demigod—declaring: “If God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it. That being is man.”
It is not hard to imagine how “ruthlessly gorgeously lucid” Sartre’s talk might have seemed to Iris. Her faith in the Communist Party had provided an orientation throughout her twenties. But Tommy Balogh had worn away at her certainty while they were together, making it his mission to “talk her out of it.” Sartre held out the promise that she could reinvent an authentic self, could start again. It is “the first principle of existentialism,” Sartre told his rapt audience, that “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.” The world into which we are born is value-less. There is nothing I am or that I am destined to become. My humanity places no limits or form on my existence. Each individual creates value through his choices and actions, through his own will.
We must therefore always ask ourselves: would I through my choices legislate for all mankind?
It may have struck Iris that Sartre was offering a version of Kant’s categorical imperative, but radically altered from the one she, Philippa and Mary had encountered in Heinz Cassirer’s front room in Summertown. Sartre had transformed morality for a newly liberated Europe by cutting it free from human nature and a transcendent reality. The norm of man is not, as Elizabeth thought, to be found in the form of life of the species.
Rather than seeking to align ourselves to some external measure of goodness and value, each of us, individually, is the source of an image of the human as we believe it should be. When each individual chooses for himself, Sartre explained, “he chooses for all men.” In choosing he “creates himself as he wills to be,” and so endorses “an image of man such as he believes he ought to be.” We must therefore always ask ourselves: would I through my choices legislate for all mankind?
With no external standard from reality, nature or God against which to evaluate our creations, responsibility becomes ours and ours alone. For Sartre this depth of responsibility elicits pure anguish. Given this, we must not act unquestioningly, performing our life as if we had some predestined essence; to do so is mauvaise foi, bad faith. If there is any kind of objective value at all, Sartre urges, it is authenticity. (Fresh memories of collaboration and resistance perhaps rippled through the audience.)
Peering through his thick round glasses, Sartre struck home with one more blasphemous flourish. “Dostoevsky once wrote: ‘If God did not exist, everything would be permitted;’ and that, for existentialism, is the starting point.” These words would reverberate through Iris’s life—if God does not exist, how can the Good?
As Sartre neared the end of his lecture, Iris must have heard the cry of a lone heckler. The Jesuit philosopher Roger Troisfontaines had turned up at Salle Giroux to make his protest: “Une philosophie née au café! Milieu frelaté!” he shouted from the floor, an echo of fellow Jesuit Martin D’Arcy’s Park Town reaction to Language, Truth and Logic. Born in a café, cut off from tradition and scholarship, here was a debased philosophy to corrupt the youth.
If any woman could realize Sartre’s picture of self-defining “man,” Iris might have fancied her chances. She was exuberantly bright, ambitious, serious and with an Oxford First; perhaps she already knew that gazing out from under her fringe was someone with the power to seduce almost anyone. After the lecture she pushed to the front so she could hear Sartre and his circle’s plans. The next day, she turned up at a select séance with a copy of the first volume of Les chemins de la liberté in hand. Sartre inscribed it ‘à Miss Iris Murdoch en sincère hommage.’
In the days that followed, she sat in cafés, a Sartriste, cigarette in hand, filling the pages of her expensive cloth notebook. On the first leaf, she carefully copied out a quote from Simone de Beauvoir’s essay Pyrrhus et Cinéas; then follow nine pages of notes on Sartre’s lecture; then detailed remarks on some wider-flung parts of Sartre’s philosophy; the remainder of the notebook is occupied with L’être et lenéant. On the last leaf: FIN. “It’s the real thing,” she later wrote to her Oxford friend, David Hicks; “so exciting, & so sobering, to meet at last—after turning away in despair from the shallow stupid milk & water ‘ethics’ of English moralists,” “just what English philosophy needs to have injected into its veins, to expel the loathsome humors of Ross & Pritchard [sic].”
These words would reverberate through Iris’s life—if God does not exist, how can the Good?
Iris’s UNRRA papers came through in December: she was to be Communications Officer in Innsbruck in the French quarter of Allied-occupied Austria. She left for Innsbruck before Christmas, with a clear image of her future self and the first steps towards it already taken. The copy of Pierrot Mon Ami by Raymond Queneau that had arrived in Seaforth in the final months of the war held the key to one part of that future: Iris hoped to become its English translator, and the bookseller Ernest Collet of Horizon was angling for the rights on her behalf.
The other part lay with David Hicks. Like everyone else, David had been a little in love with Iris in 1938, describing her as a “fairytale princess.” In the excitement of post-war euphoria, he proposed to her during a week of leave in London. “It was a tornado. Ten days that positively shook the world.” She planned their future together on paper. “Europe, & long talks in cafés & dancing together & getting drunk together, & long evenings at home too, writing things, & criticizing each others’ [sic] things, & quarreling, & having crazy friends & crazy new ideas, & reading books & seeing pictures, & new cities, & making love, & a little later having splendid children & bringing them up beautifully.”
By the time Iris (now picturing her future self as Mrs Hicks) reached Innsbruck, almost all British troops had returned home. Even those who had had to wait for the atom bombs for their liberation were back among loved ones, attempting to recover their health and wits. But the situation elsewhere in Europe was quite other—as Bertha Bracey had warned in her Chatham House lecture, Europe was now teeming with “displaced persons,” uprooted, traumatized and hungry, the background of their lives obliterated. A kaleidoscope pattern that would not resolve.
In the early days of the Allied occupation of Austria, there were an estimated 700,000 displaced persons and refugees in the country and all in need of food, clothing, accommodation, fuel and medical treatment. Many were stateless. There were thousands of unaccompanied children.
Iris was to live in the requisitioned Mariabrunn Hotel and commute by téléphérique, a mountain railway down through the snowfields. At its steepest section, the incline reached a 48-degree gradient. Climbing back up for lunch, her body slanted heavenwards. A great thaw had left behind green mountains and “an admirable river.” Living in the French Zone entitled Iris to US Army rations and gave her access to luxuries like grapefruit and condensed milk, echoes from her prewar childhood. This struck her as “immoral.”
Cigarettes were international currency and a thriving black market saw Red Cross parcels exchanged for anything from motor cars to women, though more often for blankets or medicine for children. Some of those parcels arrived from the Oxford Committee for Park Town Famine Relief, collected and packaged by the newly founded organization dreamt up on Boars Hill and physically realized in a small shop on Broad Street.
Excerpted from Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life by Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman. Copyright © 2022. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.