Medlin and Murdoch: a meeting of minds on paper

Although poles apart geographically and politically, Adelaide’s radical philosopher Brian Medlin and English novelist Iris Murdoch enjoyed a long and lively correspondence.

Dr Gillian Dooley, Special Collections librarian at Flinders University, and Graham Nerlich, Professor Emeritus of philosophy at the University of Adelaide, have co-edited Never Mind about the Bourgeoisie, a remarkable collection of the letters exchanged by Medlin and Murdoch over a period of nearly 20 years, from 1976 to 1995.

Medlin was appointed as Foundation Professor of Philosophy at Flinders in 1966, and during his tenure became a public figure as a champion of left-wing politics and a leader of the anti-Vietnam movement. Murdoch, herself a philosopher as well as a highly successful novelist, was politically more conservative. Nevertheless, says Dr Dooley, the two, who first became friendly when Medlin was studying in Oxford at New College in 1961, maintained a strong respect and affection for each other.

When Iris Murdoch came to Australia in 1967, she visited Medlin at the newly founded Flinders University. It was the last time they met face-to-face.

Along with erudite discussions of philosophy, the letters from Medlin contain numerous anecdotal and analytical excursions into flora and fauna, cricket, bushwalking, Australian and world events, the monarchy, poetry, literary criticism (including the “plague” of postmodernism) as well as accounts of his own perpetual run-ins with bureaucracy and his struggles with illness.

Dr Dooley said Medlin usually avoided the potentially fractious arena of politics, but Murdoch, who drifted further to the right as she aged, frequently tried to draw out his opinions and to get him to explain his rationale.

Dr Dooley said one of the most extensive discussions of the correspondence revolves around Australian slang, with dissertations by Medlin on the shades of meaning of words such as “bastard,” “grouse” and “crook”.

“Murdoch was looking for tips for an Australian character in a novel – it turned out to be The Green Knight – and it just unleashed a wonderful flood of material on the Australian vernacular,” Dr Dooley said.

“It’s an absolutely delightful exchange.”

Dr Dooley said the collection was unusually complete and contains virtually all the letters from both correspondents, thanks to Professor Medlin retaining copies of his outgoing letters on his computer.

As its major appendix, the book contains Iris Murdoch’s review of Medlin’s 1992 Human Nature, Human Survival, a book based on a lecture he presented at Flinders for the University’s 25th anniversary.

Commissioned by the Age, Murdoch submitted a hand-written, closely argued review of 4,000 words rather than the 800 requested, and the task of editing it down was given to Medlin himself.

“It was a little bit irregular, but he said he was careful to keep all her arguments intact,” Dr Dooley said.

Never Mind about the Bourgeoisie (Cambridge Scholars Publishing) will have its official launch at the annual Brian Medlin Memorial Lecture at Flinders in June.

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