Posted on December 10, 2013
This conversation between James Atlas and Iris Murdoch, part of a collaboration between 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center and The Paris Review, was recorded live at 92Y on February 22, 1990. We are able to share this recording thanks to a generous gift in memory of Christopher Lightfoot Walker, longtime friend of the Poetry Center and The Paris Review. Here is an excerpt from the full interview that ran in The Paris Review as The Art of Fiction No. 117 in the summer of 1990.
You once wrote, “A great artist is, in respect of his work, a good man and in the true sense a free man.” I wonder if you could interpret that?
The important phrase is “in respect to his work,” because obviously great artists can lead less than perfect lives. Take Dante for instance. Or Shakespeare. We know very little about Shakespeare’s life. You could name almost anybody who has written a great or good novel and see that their lives are imperfect. You can be unselfish and truthful in your art, and a monster at home. To write a good book you have to have certain qualities. Great art is connected with courage and truthfulness. There is a conception of truth, a lack of illusion, an ability to overcome selfish obsessions, which goes with good art, and the artist has got to have that particular sort of moral stamina. Good art, whatever its style, has qualities of hardness, firmness, realism, clarity, detachment, justice, truth. It is the work of a free, unfettered, uncorrupted imagination. Whereas bad art is the soft, messy self-indulgent work of an enslaved fantasy. Pornography is at one end of that scale, great art at the other end.
The reading of great books, the contemplation of great art, is somehow very good for one. There’s a truthfulness of great art that one sees in the great nineteenth-century novels. It is very difficult to attain, to create something which is not a fantasy. I’d want to make a distinction between fantasy and imagination, not the same as Coleridge’s, but a distinction between the expression of immediate selfish feelings and the elimination of yourself in a work of art. The most obvious case of the former would be the novel where the writer is the hero and is always succeeding. He doesn’t succeed at first, but he’s very brave, and all the girls like him, and so on. That tends to spoil the work. I think some of D. H. Lawrence’s work is spoiled by too much Lawrence. What is important is an ability to have an image of perfection and to expel fantasy and the sort of lesser, egoistic cravings and the kind of imagery and immediate expressions that might go with them, and to be prepared to think and to wait. It’s difficult, as I say, to make this into any sort of program, to overcome egoism and fantasy.