by ALEX CARNEVALE
Like Socrates, perhaps love is the only subject on which I am really expert?
Iris Murdoch, July 1976
She was an only child. She thought of her little family as "a perfect trinity of love."
The first sentence she ever copied down was, "The snowdrop hangs its head down. Why?"
She wrote, "Jesus: my first (and last?) Jewish boy." She was the best student in her class; a mother of a friend called her a Botticelli angel. After she died, Harold Bloom wrote that there were no more first rate writers left in Britain. A variation of this escaped his mouth whenever anyone died, so that someone else might say it of him.
Hitler invaded the Rhineland; her Jewish and Indian classmates would go on hikes together, four at a time. Iris' closest friend was the school's headmistress. Auden came to visit her boarding school. According to her, he was "young and beautiful, with his golden hair."
Her first boyfriend was in training to be a dentist; they bonded over Virgil. She had her first drink at seventeen. She said, "the experience comes back to me surrounded by a halo of the purest and most intense joy."
Her first real boyfriend was David Hicks, three years her elder. He sent her C.S. Lewis' Allegory of Love, even now known as a strong move. As she grew into a charming young woman, many desired Iris, women as well as men. All the boys she knew at Oxford left to die in the war.
There she was the pet pupil of Eduard Fraenkel, who recognized her talent immediately and would spend countless hours talking to her. He would later call her the only truly educated person of her generation. Others were forced to agree. A classmate described her as having "a lioness' face — very square, very strong, very gentle."
Her first real love was a guy named Frank Thompson. Even as she dated someone closer to home, she believed she would marry Frank. A self-described "left intellectual," he was captured and executed by Bulgarians, with a volume of poetry by Catullus in his front pocket.
In 1980, she had a dream that she, Frank and her husband John Bayley were living together happily. She wrote, "A dream about Frank. I was with Frank and he told me he loved me. (As he did on that day in autumn 1938 in New College.) I was very moved but not sure what I felt (as then). He went away and then I realised I loved him. (As I really did come to love him later.) In the dream, realising I loved him I felt great joy at the thought that I could tell him now, and I sent for him. He appeared at the top of a steep slope, dressed as a soldier, with a black cap on. As I climbed up the slope towards him I felt sudden dismay, thinking I cannot marry him, I am married already. Then I thought, it is all right, I can be married to both him and John. We met and were all somehow very happy and yet awkward too."
Iris was a prolific letter writer: "When I was younger, I remember I loved writing long letters to all sorts of people — a kind of exhibitionism I daresay." She often wanted her boyfriends to send her pictures of themselves, under the guise that "I hate to not know what my friends look like."
She visited Paris and met Sartre. He signed a copy of Being and Nothingness over to her. She was starting to feel like a philosopher again.
She became engaged to a man who showed little to no interest in her work, and confessed "doubts & terrors" towards the prospect of their marriage. In Prague, he left her for a girl named Molly. Even after they dissolved their arrangement by postal mail, Iris still gave him money.
She spoke only French to Raymond Queneau. They went on hikes together. He told her about his analysis. He introduced her to the work of William Faulkner. He never liked to talk about his work, except with her. Queneau described Iris as "Irishwoman. Big. Blonde. Common-sensical. A little bun. A perked cap. A decided walk, somewhat heavy, military. Beautiful eyes. Charming smile. She loves Kierkegaard. Is interested in the problems of blacks. Likes Colossus of Maroussi. She is weary. Her work interests her sufficiently. She skis."
She thought he "had a very beautiful head."
When she returned to England, she took up with Donald MacKinnon, in almost full view of his suffering wife. She became more and more depressed. She went to visit the widowed mother of Frank Thompson, which did not help matters. The old woman gave Iris the volume of Catullus that had been returned to her.
She came to Cambridge, where she met Wittgenstein. She thought of him as a handsome but disturbing figure, with "a trampish sort of appearance." They never connected, but Cambridge was full of romantic possibilities. She took up with a number of men, but none of them for very long. Later she would write, "that business of falling in love with A, then with B, then with C (all madly) seems a bit sickening."
To break the pattern, she considered a relationship with Wittgenstein's protege, a woman named Elizabeth Anscombe. The relationship was never consummated, but Iris fantasized about kissing the back of her neck, and the emotional side was very real.
She took a post teaching at St. Ann's College, where she became the resident expert on moral and political philosophy. Her circle of friends, largely the ethnic misfits of the school, grew and grew. (In The Black Prince she wrote that "most friendship exists in a state of frozen and undeveloping hostility.") Her skill involved paying her friends exactly the amount of attention they required, but not so much that they lost their desire for being with her. Once, she offhandedly remarked to one of her students that didn't she agree "that any worthwhile person ought to have at least some Jewish blood?"
Iris became engaged to another man, but cheated on him with the philosopher Michael Oakeshott. A friend described them both as "addicted to love at first sight." She did not like to ask things of her boyfriends, and she generally hated if they made any demands on her. She contrived an exception to this rule by taking up with a frail Jewish philosopher whose debilitating heart ailment was aggravated by sex. He died.
As a consequence, her next relationship was with the writer Elias Canetti. He was very different from her other boyfriends. Their three year affair was kept secret from all close to them; she was neither the first nor the last of his mistresses. Canetti was the king of flattery, an expert manipulator. He would often read a writer's entire oeuvre before meeting them so he would know what to say. Behind their backs, he could be extremely cruel. Iris' friends suspected that Elias was the sort of literary intellectual monster she feared becoming.
Among other things, Iris found him to be the best sexual partner she had ever had. She wrote, "He holds me savagely between his knees & grasps my hair and forces my head back. His power. He subjugates me completely. Only a complete intellectual and moral ascendancy could hold me." She compared him to Zeus. "He takes me quickly, suddenly... When we are satisfied, we do not lie together, but contemplate each other with a sort of amused hostility." Her next boyfriend did not like Canetti, and was nothing like him.
Even though I never knew her, I still miss her.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about the life of Lee Krasner. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.
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