iris murdoch’s london: necessity and contigency in urban topography

from chapter two of Iris Murdoch’s Under The Net:

There are some parts of London which are necessary and others which are contingent. Everywhere west of Earls Court is contingent, except for a few places along the river. I hate contingency. I want everything in my life to have a sufficient reason. Dave lived west of Earls Court, and this was another thing I had against him. He lived off the Goldhawk Road, in one of those reddish black buildings which for some reason are called mansions. It was in such contexts, in my dark London childhood, that I first learnt the word, and it has ruined many pieces of prose for me since, including some Biblical ones. I think that Dave doesn’t mind much about his surroundings. Being a philosopher, he is professionally concerned with the central knot of being (though he would hate to hear me use this phrase), and not with the loose ends that most of us have to play with. Also, since he is Jewish he can feel himself to be a part of History without making any special effort. I envy him that. For myself, I find I have to work harder and harder every year to keep in with History. So Dave can afford to have a contingent address. I wasn’t sure that I could.


Dave’s mansions are tall, but they are overhung by a huge modern hospital, with white walls, which stands next to them. A place of simplicity and justification, which I pass with a frisson. Now as I came up the dark stained-glass staircase to Dave’s flat I heard a hum of voices. This displeased me. Dave knows far too many people. His life is a continual tour de force of intimacy. I myself would think it immoral to be intimate with more than four people at any given time. But Dave seems to be on intimate terms with more than a hundred. He has a large and clinging acquaintance among artists and intellectuals, and he knows many left-wing political people too, including oddities such as Lefty Todd, the leader of the New Independent Socialist Party, and others of even greater eccentricity. Then there are his pupils, and the friends of his pupils, and the ever-growing horde of his ex-pupils. No one whom Dave has taught seems ever to lose touch with him. I find this, in a way, hard to understand, since as I have indicated Dave was never able to communicate anything to me when we talked about philosophy. But perhaps I am too much the incorrigible artist, as he once exclaimed. This reminds me to add that Dave disapproves of the way I live, and is always urging me to take a regular job.


Dave does extra-mural work for the University, and collects about him many youths who have a part-time interest in truth. Dave’s pupils adore him, but there is a permanent fight on between him and them. They aspire like sunflowers. They are all natural metaphysicians, or so Dave says in a tone of disgust. This seems to me a wonderful thing to be, but it inspires in Dave a passion of opposition. To Dave’s pupils the world is a mystery; a mystery to which it should be reasonably possible to discover a key. The key would be something of the sort that could be contained in a book of some eight hundred pages. To find the key would not necessarily be a simple matter, but Dave’s pupils feel sure that the dedication of between four and ten hours a week, excluding University vacations, should suffice to find it. They do not conceive that the matter should be either more simple or more complex than that. They are prepared within certain limits to alter their views. Many of them arrive as theosophists and depart as Critical Realists or Bradleians. It is remarkable how Dave’s criticism seems so often to be purely catalytic in its action. He blazes upon them with the destructive fury of the sun, but instead of shrivelling up their metaphysical pretensions, achieves merely their metamorphosis from one rich stage into another. This curious fact makes me think that perhaps after all Dave is, in spite of himself, a good teacher. Occasionally he succeeds in converting some peculiarly receptive youth to his own brand of linguistic analysis; after which as often as not the youth loses interest in philosophy altogether. To watch Dave at work on these young men is like watching someone prune a rose bush. It is all the strongest and most luxuriant shoots which have to come off. Then later perhaps there will be blossoms; but not philosophical ones, Dave trusts. His great aim is to dissuade the young from philosophy. He always warns me off it with particular earnestness.


I hesitated at the door. I hate entering a crowded room and feeling a whole gallery of faces focused upon me. I felt tempted to go away again; but at last, making an inward gesture of detachment, I went in. The room was full of young men, all talking at once and drinking cups of tea, but I needn’thave troubled about the faces, as no one paid any attention to my entry except Dave himself. He was sitting in a corner a little apart from the mike, and raised his hand when he saw me with the dignified gesture of a patriarch greeting the appearance of an expected sign. Not that Dave is a patriarchal Hebrew to look at. He is fattish and baldish with merry brown eyes and podgy hands, a slightly guttural voice and an imperfect command of English. Finn was sitting near him on the floor with his back to the wall and his legs stretched out like the victim of an accident.


I made my way past several beardless youths, stepped over Finn, and shook hands with Dave. I gave Finn a friendly kick and seated myself on the edge of the table. A youth handed me a cup of tea automatically, talking back over his shoulder as he did so. Ought brings you back to is in the end. Yes, but what sort of is?

“through this shaft of nothings we drive onward with that miraculous vitality”—iris murdoch

All work and all love, the search for wealth and fame, the search for truth, like itself, are made up of moments which pass and become nothing.  Yet through this shaft of nothings we drive onward with that miraculous vitality that creates our precarious habitations in the past and future.  So we live; a spirit that broods and hovers over the continual death of time, the lost meaning, the unrecaptured moment, the unremembered face, until the final chop that end  all our moments and plunges that spirit back into the void from which it came.

—Iris Murdoch, Under The Net. London: Chatto & Windus, 1954, p. 275