The existentialist novel is the natural heir and outcome of Western nineteenth-century thought and is the child of the Romantic movement. It crystallises at a time when confidence in society and in the things which make it so solid, confidence in religion, reason and work, is beginning to wane. Existentialism, or to use an even more general term, voluntarism, philosophy which emphasises and values will-power, is of course an offspring of the thought of Immanuel Kant. It is also a natural mode of being of the capitalist era. It is attractive, and indeed to most of us still natural, because it suggests individualism, self-reliance, private conscience, and what we ordinarily think of as political freedom, in that important sense where freedom means not doing what is right but doing what is desired. The beginnings of capitalism and the age of science both produced and needed free-moving independent people. Protestantism pictures such people as endowed with freedom of conscience, no longer slaves of authority. Only what is freely chosen is genuinely valuable. Political theory too has begun to tell us that we are individuals with rights and should obey the laws out of self-interest and not out of awe. Yet with all this talk of freedom, the individual in the nineteenth century was rarely lonely because he was held secure by God and Reason and Society, powers in which he believed and in which he knew other people believed. So that there was in nineteenth-century thinking a kind of contradiction or paradox: the contradiction which thinkers such as Nietzsche were so anxious to expose. People were supposed to be solitary and self-reliant but really they were not. Industrial conditions made the poorer people into sheep. Social betterment inspired the bolder spirits. Reason held out vistas of improvement, and science preached optimism. God consoled everybody. Politics took its important but on the whole limited place. Politics looked after rational self-interest while Religion and Society looked after private conscience. In England the philosophy of the age was utilitarianism, a modest, humane, and unmetaphysical doctrine.
Change the scene to the twentieth century and much of what Nietzsche wished to happen has happened, though not quite as he intended. God, Reason, Society, Improvement and the Soul are being quietly wheeled off. The individual is more genuinely frightened and alone. The nineteenth-century man used his will to choose and get things which were felt to be valuable independently of his will, for instance because they were approved of by religion or society. Twentieth-century man... finds his religious and metaphysical background so impoverished that he is in some danger of being left with nothing of inherent value except will-power itself. It is true that now increasingly technological divertissements are available to make sheep once more of those who have emerged from the industrial cave. But these are superficial remedies. The deep confidence has gone. The voluntarist or existentialist novel is the document of this anxious modern consciousness.
We know this novel and its hero well. The story of the lonely brave man, defiant without optimism, proud without pretension, always an exposer of shams, whose mode of being is a deep criticism of society. He is an adventurer. He is godless. He does not suffer from guilt. He thinks of himself as free. He may have faults, he may be self-assertive or even violent, but he has sincerity and courage, and for this we forgive him. (D H Lawrence, E Hemingway, A Camus, J-P Sartre, K Amis ...) Kant and Protestantism pictured man as divided between his fallen nature and a separate spiritual world. His good will was the tension which connected him to this higher realm. The indubitable claims of duty were the proof that this other world was real. For the modern existentialist descendant of this line of thought, this spiritual elsewhere has ceased to exist. Duty speaks less sternly and a good deal less clearly. Yet man is divided still. His will, that adventurous instrument which makes him so different from sticks and stones and billiard balls and greengrocers and bank managers, his will is separate from the rest of his being and uncontaminated. He might do anything.
Best known as the author of twenty-six novels, Iris Murdoch was also an accomplished essayist and critic who taught philosophy for many years at Oxford University. She wrote several works of philosophy. This excerpt is from her essay ‘Existentialists and Mystics’.