IRIS: What words define, what words cannot explain; a film about Iris Murdoch, writing, Alzheimer’s disease and the undying love of a good man. Pt2

Love is the only language everyone understands.– Kate Winslet as young Iris Murdoch

iris-posterAccording to the online Oxford Living English Dictionary the word “genius” is defined as: “An exceptionally intelligent person or one with exceptional skill in a particular area of activity.” This is the second definition. I chose not to use the first, because of the phrase “natural ability,” because to me it insinuates that the manifestation of genius does not require effort.  I believe it does and it must. If we are discussing a female genius it’s extremely important to acknowledge that effort, especially in the case of Iris Murdoch.

The word genius (from the Roman for “guardian spirit”) has lost much of its import because of overuse and misuse. I like what Miles Davis said when asked about Charlie Parker’s excesses. He said something to the effect that Charlie Parker was a genius and all geniuses are greedy: greedy for love, greedy for sex, greedy for life, greedy for everything. This too was Iris Murdoch.

It’s a novelist’s privilege to see how odd everyone is. – young Iris Murdoch in IRIS (2001)

Murdoch’s marriage to fellow author and academician, John Bayley has been a source of curiosity and speculation, because of its unconventional nature. Yet, how could a marriage between two geeky eccentrics be anything but unconventional especially when the husband is virtually asexual by reason of his ambivalence about the matter, and his wife’s sexual wanderlust knows no bounds? The unfortunate aspect of this is that feelings are bound to get hurt as trust is constantly tested. In the film IRIS, Bayley confronts Murdoch’s fluid sexuality when he shows up to for a prearranged meeting with Iris at an Oxford café only to find Iris seated with a woman with whom she obviously has an intimate relationship. On another occasion, Bayley returns home to find Murdoch at it with a mutual male friend. These entanglements apparently happened often and at length, yet the Murdoch/Bayley marriage endured. It is clear in the film, as it was in life, that Iris Murdoch and John Bayley believed in the power of love, most specifically their love for each other and the marriage that love consecrated.

 We need to believe in something divine without the need for God – Judi Dench as Iris

 Clearly, the love of words of language is also at the core of Iris Murdoch. One of my favorite scenes in the film is an older Iris, before she’s  completely stricken with the debilities of Alzheimer’s disease, seated at home at her writing desk, writing in a wonderfully big sturdy (probably expensive) lined notebook in long hand with a fountain pen. When I saw this I almost cried with delight. I could smell the paper as the ink, real ink scratched across it, here was Iris like a sculptor carving out sentences — a truly tactile, sensate, visceral activity (like sex) everything about her coalesced for me in that one scene.

Unfortunately, as Alzheimer’s overtakes Iris Murdoch her genius is buried inside her without a means of escape or expression. The writing comes to an abrupt and resounding halt. When her last novel, Jason’s Dilemma, published two years before her official diagnosis in 1997, arrives in the mail Iris Murdoch (Judi Dench) has no idea what the book is, despite the attempts of her delighted husband to explain to her that it is indeed her novel.

(courtesy of

This is the novel she is writing in the scene I described a couple paragraphs ago. It is a novel written when Dame Iris was experiencing the effects of Alzheimer’s on her vocabulary and speech, making the language of this particular novel much simpler than any of the twenty-five she’d written before. Thus, this novel’s legacy is not only literary, but it has served as a tool for scientists researching the disease. murdoch-jasons-dilemma

She’s in her own world now, perhaps what she always wanted. –Jim Broadbent as John Bayley in IRIS (2001)

At night Bayley reads to Iris from a children’s book to quiet her down – it works – and as he reads to her he reminds her that she used to write wonderful things. I have to say there are many scenes that had me grabbing for the Kleenex and this is one of them. Yes, IRIS does get a little sappy in spots, but the message is never lost, about how love can live through anything and can give us the will to live through anything. Without Bayley’s love for not just Iris the woman, but for Iris the genius, I don’t believe that that genius could have flourished and had it not the world would be a lesser place indeed.

John Bayley and Dame Iris (courtesy of