Iris Murdoch on Causality, Chance, and How Love Gives Meaning to Human Existence
“Everything that is important and valuable and good belongs with the little piece of us which is not mechanical.”
By Maria Popova
In the mid-1960s, a rebellious twenty-something sculptor named Rachel Brown became infatuated with her RCA thesis supervisor — the great Irish novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999). An intense emotional relationship developed between the two women, but Murdoch considered it a friendship while Brown yearned for more and grew increasingly forlorn. She eventually married and became Rachel Fenner, but her depression — perhaps predictably — only deepened.
In the spring of 1967, about to go into therapy seeking relief from her lovesickness, Fenner reached out to Murdoch for solace. In a letter found in Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch, 1934–1995 (public library) — which also gave us her intensely beautiful love letters — Murdoch offers a brief and brilliant meditation on causality, chance, how love gives meaning to existence, and why every aspect of it, including the difficult and seemingly unbearable, is essential to our human wholeness.
She writes on May 28, 1967:
Causality and chance … are the same things looked at two ways. Of course we are rather mechanical, and psychoanalysis can offer us some useful generalities about ourselves. But everything that is important and valuable and good belongs with the little piece of us which is not mechanical and no one who is not bemused by philosophy or a youthful mood really doubts the existence of this piece.
I think the sage who saw us as naturally reaching out towards the good had got something. We know, in the best part of ourselves, to use Platonic language, that great art is good, that work is often good and love often good. And if we have any certainties in the human condition these are they, and much more evident certainties than semi-philosophical stuff about all is flux. Of course much is flux, perhaps most is flux — but there is the other small thing and by this and in this one lives — I think almost involuntarily. (It’s very bad really to believe that certain aspects of love in one’s life are meaningless or worthless.)
In an earlier letter to Fenner, Murdoch had articulated the kernel of the same truth:
Love is better than no love, though it can hurt so much.
Cognizant of the paradox of trying to move the heart through the intellect, Murdoch sends a short note to Fenner the following day, May 29:
Rachel, just a PS to send love. I fear my metaphysical letter won’t have been exactly cheering. One is very chemical really, and if one is depressed, words, such words anyway, may seem pretty empty. Though actually you seem to me to be elated as much as depressed at present. These winds blow to and fro when one is young and when one is an artist.
Fenner went on to become an acclaimed sculptor, painter, and environmental artist.
Living on Paper is a magnificent read in its entirety, brimming with Murdoch’s bewitchingly articulated wisdom on life, literature, and love. Complement this particular portion with philosopher Alain Badiou on how chance and causality conspire in why we fall and stay in love, then revisit Murdoch’s love letters.
Published February 24, 2016