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An Occasion for Unselfing: Iris Murdoch on Imperfection as Integral to Goodness and How the Beauty of Nature and Art Leavens Our Most Unselfish Impulses

“The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion. Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself… to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.”

An Occasion for Unselfing: Iris Murdoch on Imperfection as Integral to Goodness and How the Beauty of Nature and Art Leavens Our Most Unselfish Impulses

To recognize that there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives is to step outside the self, beyond its particular conceptions of beauty — which includes, of course, moral beauty — and walking beside it with humble, nonjudgmental curiosity about the myriad other selves afoot on their own paths, propelled by their own ideals of the Good.

Such recognition requires what the great moral philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) termed unselfing — a difficult, triumphant act for which, Murdoch argues in her 1970 masterpiece The Sovereignty of Good (public library), nature and art uniquely train us.

Dame Iris Murdoch by Ida Kar (National Portrait Gallery)

A century and a half after Emerson observed that “the question of Beauty takes us out of surfaces, to thinking of the foundations of things,” Murdoch defines what we commonly call beauty as “an occasion for ‘unselfing’” — an occasion most readily experienced in our communion with nature and our contemplation of art. She writes:

Beauty is the convenient and traditional name of something which art and nature share, and which gives a fairly clear sense to the idea of quality of experience and change of consciousness. I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. And of course this is something which we may also do deliberately: give attention to nature in order to clear our minds of selfish care.

Art from Trees at Night, 1926. (Available as a print.)

Oliver Sacks would come to echo the sentiment decades later in his observation that meeting nature on its own terms and timescales broadens our perspective by effecting “a detachment from the timescale, the urgencies, of daily life.” But this unselfing, Murdoch cautions, cannot come by through a straining of the will, for the will is a clenching of the very self which true beauty decondition; rather, it comes as a gladsome relaxing of the spirit, of our essential nature, into the shared pulse of existence:

A self-directed enjoyment of nature seems to me to be something forced. More naturally, as well as more properly, we take a self-forgetful pleasure in the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones and trees.

Art by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1926 edition of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. (Available as a print.)

This “self-forgetful pleasure” calls to mind Jeanette Winterson’s wonderfully paradoxical notion of active surrender as the crucible of our joy in art and the fulcrum for art’s transforms power over the self. But while there is a distinct difference between how nature and art each effect unselfing, Murdoch argues that what separates great art from the bad and the mediocre is precisely this capacity for stripping down the self rather than inflating the ego — a notion evocative of Tolstoy’s insistence that “a real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist.” Murdoch writes of this dissolution of the self in the presence of great art:

The experience of art is more easily degraded than the experience of nature. A great deal of art, perhaps most art, actually is self-consoling fantasy, and even great art cannot guarantee the quality of its consumer’s consciousness. However, great art exists and is sometimes properly experienced and even a shallow experience of what is great can have its effect. Art, and by “art” from now on I mean good art, not fantasy art, affords us a pure delight in the independent existence of what is excellent. Both in its genesis and its enjoyment it is a thing totally opposed to selfish obsession. It invigorates our best faculties and, to use Platonic language, inspires love in the highest part of the soul. It is able to do this partly by virtue of something which it shares with nature: a perfection of form which invites unpossessive contemplation and resists absorption into the selfish dream life of the consciousness.

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse: The Astronomy of Walt Whitman. (Available as a print.)

And yet, Murdoch argues, any real understanding of goodness is necessarily an embrace of imperfection — something philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in many ways Murdoch’s only worthy intellectual heir, would argue brilliantly a generation later in her incisive case for the intelligence of emotions. Murdoch writes:

The concept of Good… is a concept which is not easy to understand partly because it has so many false doubles, jumped-up intermediaries invented by human selfishness to make the difficult task of virtue look easier and more attractive: History, God, Lucifer, Ideas of power, freedom, purpose, reward, even judgment are irrelevant. Mystics of all kinds have usually known this and have attempted by extremities of language to portray the nakedness and aloneness of Good, its absolute for-nothingness. One might say that true morality is a sort of unesoteric mysticism, having its source in an austere and unconsoled love of the Good. When Plato wants to explain Good he uses the image of the sun. The moral pilgrim emerges from the cave and begins to see the real world in the light of the sun, and last of all is able to look at the sun itself.


We may also speak seriously of ordinary things, people, works of art, as being good, although we are also well aware of their imperfections. Good lives as it were on both sides of the barrier and we can combine the aspiration to complete goodness with a realistic sense of achievement within our limitations.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

With an eye to the legacy of the Romantics, who married nature and art in their model of happiness and transcendence, Murdoch returns to the notion of unselfing and the beautiful tessellation of possibility and limitation that defines our nature:

The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion. Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself, to see and to respond to the real world in the light of a virtuous consciousness. This is the non-metaphysical meaning of the idea of transcendence to which philosophers have so constantly resorted in their explanations of goodness. “Good is a transcendent reality” means that virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is. It is an empirical fact about human nature that this attempt cannot be entirely successful.

The Sovereignty of Good is an immensely insightful read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with Robinson Jeffers on nature and moral beauty and Oliver Sacks on the healing power of gardens, then revisit Murdoch on art as a force of resistance to tyranny, the key to great storytelling, and her uncommonly beautiful love letters.


Ursula K. Le Guin’s Playful and Profound Letter-Poem to Children About the Power of Books and Why We Read

“…for every book contains a world.”

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Playful and Profound Letter-Poem to Children About the Power of Books and Why We Read

When asked in the Proust Questionnaire about his idea of perfect happiness, David Bowie answered simply: “Reading.” But the question of why we read unlatches as many responses as there are flavors of human happiness. Some memorable and poetic answers have come from Hermann Hesse, Rebecca Solnit, Neil Gaiman, C.S. Lewis, and Proust himself.

A thoroughly original and most delightful one comes from the irreplaceable Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) in her contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — which, as far as I am aware, was her last published piece of original writing at the time the book alighted on the world.

Written in verse, in the voice of an aged dragon — “second cousin once removed” of Smaug, Tolkien’s iconic antagonist from The Hobbit — and illustrated by her longtime friend and collaborator Charles Vess, the letter-poem emanates Le Guin’s signature warm wisdom, syncopating the playful and the profound.

Original art by Charles Vess for Ursula K. Le Guin’s contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, edited by Maria Popova and Claudia Zoe Bedrick.

Dear Reader,

Most dragons don’t know how to read. They hiss and fume and guard their hoard. A tasty knight is what they need
For dinner (they spit out the sword),
Then go to sleep on heaps of treasure. They’ve no use for the written word.
But I learned early to take pleasure
In reading tales and poetry,
And soon I knew that I preferred
Reading a book to fighting knights.
I lived on apple pie and tea,
Which a kind lady made for me,
And all my days and half my nights
Were spent in reading story-books,
A life more thrilling than it looks.
Now that I’m old and cannot see
To read, the lady’s youngest child
Comes every day to read to me,
A cheerful child named Valentine.
We’re both as happy as can be
Among the treasures I have piled
In heaps around my apple tree.
No other dragon watches curled
Around such riches as are mine,
My Word-hoard, my dear Library:
For every book contains a world!

       Yours truly,
       Bedraug (Smaug’s Second Cousin Once Removed)

For more tastes of A Velocity of Being — a labor of love eight years in the making, with all proceeds benefiting our local public library system (lest we forget, Le Guin herself passionately championed the sacredness of public libraries) — savor select letters by Alain de Botton, Jacqueline Woodson, and Jane Goodall, then revisit Le Guin on literature as the operating instructions for life, writing as falling in love, the power of storytelling to transform and redeem, and her timeless hymn to time.


Every Atom Belonging to Me as Good Belongs to You: Whitman’s Immortal Words, Illustrated in Stunning Cyanotype

A charitable celebration of art, science, our shared belonging.

Every Atom Belonging to Me as Good Belongs to You: Whitman’s Immortal Words, Illustrated in Stunning Cyanotype

“Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” Walt Whitman wrote in one of his profoundest verses, in a golden age of science and social change, yet an era at least as divisive as ours. The sentiment became a focal point for Figuring and inspiration for The Astronomy of Walt Whitman — the special pop-up edition of The Universe in Verse, taking place on Governors Island on October 26, 2019.

In the generous spirit of the show — an immense labor of love, with everyone involved donating their time and talent to the celebration of art, science, and community — artist Lia Halloran has painted a stunning cyanotype incarnation of Whitman’s ennobling words, which we are making available as a high-quality art print and framed wall art, with 100% of proceeds benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory at Pioneer Works.

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse: The Astronomy of Walt Whitman. Available as a high-quality art print and framed wall art.

Lia is also donating the original painting to an auction benefiting Fulcrum Arts — a wonderful LA-based nonprofit at the nexus of art, science, and social change, advancing the equitable representation of women, people of color, and LGBTQ artists.

A limited number of prints will be available at the Governors Island gathering on Saturday — join us for an unusual, magical, and unrepeatable experience that widens our news-constricted perspective and invites us to unforget our shared belonging through the lucidity of science and the luminosity of poetry.


The Shape of Music: Maurice Sendak’s Insightful Forgotten Meditation on Fantasy, Feeling, and the Key to Great Storytelling

“Fantasy and feeling lie deeper than words… and both demand a more profound, more biological expression, the primitive expression of music.”

The Shape of Music: Maurice Sendak’s Insightful Forgotten Meditation on Fantasy, Feeling, and the Key to Great Storytelling

“A rough sound was polished until it became a smoother sound, which was polished until it became music,” the poet Mark Strand wrote in his ode to the enchantment of music. The trailblazing philosopher Susanne Langer considered music “a laboratory for feeling and time.” Perhaps because we experience music with our whole selves, with sinew and spirit alike, it is impossible to consider it merely as a sound. Like light, it seems to be both particle and wave; a vessel, a form, a space for working out who we are and what we long for — an essential language for our inner storytelling, which is the narrative pillar of our identity. In consequence, the most powerful and enchanting storytelling, be it a fairy tale or a novel or a biography, has a certain symphonic quality that lends it its power and enchantment.

That is what Maurice Sendak (June 10, 1928–May 8, 2012) — one of the world’s most beloved storytellers — argued shortly after he revolutionized the literature of the imagination with his 1963 classic Where the Wild Things Are, in a beautiful essay titled “The Shape of Music,” originally published in a special 1964 children’s literature issue of the San Francisco Examiner and included a year later in Evelyn Rose Robinson’s excellent anthology Readings About Children’s Literature (public library).

Art by Maurice Sendak from Where the Wild Things Are.

Sendak writes:

Vivify, quicken, and vitalize — of these three synonyms, quicken, I think, best suggests the genuine spirit of animation, the breathing to life, the surging swing into action, that I consider an essential quality in pictures for children’s books. To quicken means, for the illustrator, the task first of deeply comprehending the nature of his text and then giving life to that comprehension in his own medium, the picture.

The conventional techniques of graphic animation are related to this intention only in that they provide an instrument with which the artist can begin his work. Sequential scenes that tell a story in pictures, as in the comic strip, are an example of one technique of animation. In terms of technique, it is no difficult matter for an artist to simulate action, but it is something else to quicken, to create an inner life that draws breath from the artist’s deepest perception.

Art by Maurice Sendak from Kenny’s Window — his forgotten first children’s book.

In a sentiment evocative of Italo Calvino’s insistence on the art of quickness as essential to the magic of storytelling, Sendak adds:

The word quicken has other, more subjective associations or me. It suggests something musical, something rhythmic and impulsive. It suggests a beat — a heart beat, a musical beat, the beginning of a dance. This association proclaims music as one source from which my own pictures take life. To conceive musically for me means to quicken the life of the illustrated book.

In Sendak’s creative process, music — actual music, not merely the notion of musicality — becomes a kind of Rorschach test as ideas begin to take shape under its clarifying force:

All of my pictures are created against a background of music. More often than not, my instinctive choice of composer or musical form for the day has the galvanizing effect of making me conscious of my direction. I find something uncanny in the way a musical phrase, a sensuous vocal line, or a patch of Wagnerian color will clarify an entire approach or style for a new work. A favorite occupation of mine is sitting in front of the record player as though possessed by a dybbuk [demonic spirit from Jewish mythology], and allowing the music to provoke an automatic, stream-of-consciousness kind of drawing.

One of Sendak’s little-known and lovely posters and covers celebrating libraries and reading.

Sometimes, Sendak notes, these associative flights of musically propelled fancy become a kind of personal time machine, unlatching “childhood fantasies that are reactivated by the music and explored uninhibitedly by the pen.” Reflecting on “music’s peculiar power of releasing fantasy,” he recalls the centrality of music in his early memories — “the restless, ceaseless sound of impromptu humming, the din of unconscious music-making” that are a fixture of childhood’s make-believe — and wrests from it a universality:

All children seem to know what the mysterious, the-riding-fiercely-across-the-plains (accompanied by hearty, staccato thigh slaps), and the plaintive conventionally sound like; and I have no doubt that this kind of musical contribution is necessary to the enrichment of the going fantasy. The spontaneous breaking into song and dance seems so natural and instinctive a part of childhood. It is perhaps the medium through which children best express the inexpressible; fantasy and feeling lie deeper than words — beyond the words yet available to a child — and both demand a more profound, more biological expression, the primitive expression of music.

Signed original drawing by Sendak from the front end paper of his extremely rare 1967 illustrated edition of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence.

This musical quality, Sendak observes, is not only the chief animating force of his own work but also what he looks for in the work of artists he admires — artists who “achieve the authentic liveliness that is the essence of the picture book, a movement that is never still,” which children recognize and savor as native to their own experience. He points to André François and Tomi Ungerer

The sympathy I feel between the visual and the musical accounts for my liking to think of myself as setting a text to pictures, much as a composer sets a poem to music, and I have found that telling a story by means of related, sequential pictures allows me to “compose” with assurance and freedom. I do not, however, equate the musical approach to sequential drawings.

Sendak elevates William Blake — whose classic Songs of Innocence and of Experience he would come to illustrate in a rare gem of a book three years later, and who would would go on to be his greatest lifelong influence — as the highest master of quickening by means of musicality. (Blake’s particular musicality calls to my mind Aldous Huxley’s notion of music as a conduit to “the blessedness lying at the heart of things.”)

One of Sendak’s rare 1967 illustrations for Blake’s Songs of Innocence.

With an eye to “Blake’s incomparable genius,” Sendak writes:

How beautifully his Songs of Innocence and of Experience could be set to music, and how beautifully Blake did set them. The intensely personal images seem the very embodiment of his mystical poetry. His ingenious and wonderfully ornamental interweavings of illustrations, lettering and color visually animate the spirit of the poetry and create a lyrical vision of otherworldliness. And it is all expressed with an economy only the masters achieved.

Reflecting on the most resonant expression of this musical analogy in his own work, Sendak points to his lovely collaborations with the poet Ruth Krauss — so enchanting partly due to Krauss’s particularly uncommon originality, and partly due to poetry’s general quickening quality — and writes:

Her lovely and original poetry has a flexibility that allowed me the maximum of space to execute my fantasy variations on a Kraussian theme, and perhaps the last page from I’ll Be You and You Be Me is the simplest expression of my devotion to the matter of music.

Art by Maurice Sendak for I’ll Be You and You Be Me by Ruth Krauss (1954)

Complement with German philosopher Josef Pieper’s lyrical reflection on the source of music’s supreme power, then revisit Sendak’s symphonic illustrations for the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, his darkest yet most hopeful children’s book, and his wonderful conversation with Studs Terkel about creativity, storytelling, and the eternal child in each of us.

Photograph of Maurice Sendak by Sam Falk


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