Iris Murdoch, A Severed Head

A Severed HeadA Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This strange 1961 novel—which succeeded The Bell, a far more conventionally realist novel, in Murdoch’s oeuvre—seems to have a cult following, as indicated by recent recommendations by Susan Scarf Merrell in The New York Times and Gabe Habash in The Millions. As Habash points out, A Severed Head begins as a traditional English realist novel before metamorphosing into something much more surreal and inexplicable.

The novel’s initial set-up is that the novel’s narrator, the middle-aged professional wine merchant and amateur military historian Martin Lynch-Gibbon, is cheating on Antonia, his older, glamorous, and somewhat bohemian wife of 11 years (“[h]er father was…something of a minor poet and a remote relation of Virginia Woolf”), with a younger graduate student named Georgie Hands.

But Antonia is in turn having an affair with her psychoanalyst, the charismatic American Palmer Anderson, who has practiced in the U.S. and Japan before coming to London. Also involved in the plot are Anderson’s half-sister, Honor Klein, a severe and intimidating Cambridge anthropologist, and Martin’s brother, the sculptor Alexander, who “always took his girls away.” I’ll let Habash recount the rest of the plot, from his essay in The Millions:

Here’s a summary of the novel’s amorous transactions. First, Antonia predictably finds out about Martin-Georgie. But then Martin, after assaulting and slapping Honor (Palmer’s sister) in a basement, realizes he’s in love with her. Then Martin discovers the incestuous relationship between Honor and Palmer. Antonia and Martin make up, but then Alexander (Martin’s brother) announces he’s marrying Georgie. Finally, after Georgie attempts suicide, Antonia tells Martin she’s been sleeping with Alexander for years.

There’s more, actually—Habash mentions the suicide attempt and the battery, but not the abortion and the homoerotic yearning; and he also leaves out, as I will, the novel’s conclusion. But that paragraph should be enough to give you the flavor of Murdoch’s plotting.

In such a short novel, conducted largely in dialogue with interspersed narrative reflections by Martin on the meaning of the events, all these rapid couplings, which increase in implausibility until the climactic revelation near the middle of the novel of Palmer and Honor’s incest, will have an air of farce. Martin relates that Georgie once told him he “had the face of someone laughing at something tragic”—an expression this novel seems guaranteed to provoke in the reader.

On the one hand, A Severed Head is consistent with Murdoch’s philosophy of fiction. In a famous essay written between The Bell and A Severed Head, “The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited,” Murdoch proposes that novelists should reject fashionable Romanticism and modernism, with their overwhelming and distorting emphasis on subjectivity, and restore a classical ethic of objective character-creation to fiction:

The great novelist is not afraid of the contingent; yet his acceptance of the contingent does not land him in banality. In respect of this quality, and of others, the writer with whom we are most tempted to compare this novelist is Shakespeare. […] The persons whom I have here in mind, and whom I have called the great novelists, are of course Scott, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Tolstoy, especially Tolstoy—one could add other names, but these suffice to make the point. […] In calling these novelists the great ones I do not exclude other types of greatness—though it is part of my thesis that this is probably the greatest sort of greatness. It is true that we find in the nineteenth century other remarkable novelists (DostoevskyMelville, Emily Brontë, Hawthorne) to whom we would not want to deny a first place, and to whom the title ‘Romantic,’ in my sense, could more readily be applied: writers who give the impression of externalizing a personal conflict in a tightly conceived self-contained myth…

For Murdoch, this realistic writing practice is worthwhile in itself because it promotes the morality of treating other people as autonomous agents rather than projections of the self in a flux of contingency, à la not only the writers she names above but also, crucially, Sartre, subject of one of her early studies. But realism is also needed, she argues, to restore the novel to its traditional political function, since the 18th century, of grounding liberalism in authentic human passion; otherwise, the liberal creed is likely to seem too dry, thin, and complacent in the face of its more appealingly metaphysical communist and fascist rivals of the middle 20th century. She resonantly concludes:

A novel must be a house fit for free characters to live in; and to combine form with a respect for reality with all its odd contingent ways is the highest art of prose.

But A Severed Head, the novel she was composing alongside this essay, is far more in the Brontë/Hawthorne Romantic mode she demotes than the Shakespeare/Tolstoy realist mode she exalts. (Or, so as not to oversimplify the canon, we might say it descends from the Shakespeare of Titus Andronicus, the Tolstoy of The Kreutzer Sonata, rather than from the authors of King Lear and Anna Karenina.)

The novel’s torrid erotic exchanges are almost mathematically formulaic: each main male character loves each main female character at once or in turn, and vice versa, and the two main males themselves have a scarcely concealed desire for each other. Like good liberals, the characters speak of wanting to be free frequently, but they mill in the very circumscribed round of the plot.

In addition, given that we have a psychoanalyst and an anthropologist as antagonists, there is a powerful sense that our characters are enacting the fatal dances of the world’s mythologies, which did not, as Jane Austen did, shy from the shameless depiction of adultery, incest, and more, and whose immemorial libidinal energies cannot be repressed by the reasonable worldview of modern Londoners like the gentleman historian Martin or the economics student Georgie.

Finally, the novel’s prose itself tends to smother its characters’ freedom under a dense and obtrusive weave of repeating motifs, from the titular imagery of decollation to the insistent Orientalist idiom (more of which below) to recurring images of sickly but enchanted enclosure, such as Georgie’s cramped apartment (“the room had a glitter…as of some half-descried treasure cavern”), the room where Honor flourishes her samurai sword (“the room [was] a cave of warm dim luminosity”), the cellar where Martin abuses Honor (“[a]n electric light, unshaded but dim, showed the bleak musty cavern that was Palmer’s cellar”), and even the smothering London fog outside (“[t]he great London night contracted about me into a cold brown kernel, where the damp curled and crept, diminishing, and already too opaque to return an echo”).

Granted, we can read the whole novel as a parody of Romantic/modernist subjectivism and totalitarianism, a warning about the dim cavern they would force us into in the name of liberation, and a satire avant la lettre of the sexual revolution. Under the flawed tutelage of psychoanalysis and anthropology, with their arguments for a brutal, sadistic, archaic substrate to human consciousness, an undercurrent we should free ourselves from civilizational restraint by submitting ourselves to, our characters abuse one another and traduce one another’s irreplaceable individuality. As Georgie wisely observes early on:

‘As for setting people free, I don’t trust these professional liberators. Anyone who is good at setting people free is also good at enslaving them, if we are to believe Plato. The trouble with you, Martin, is that you are always looking for a master.’

Putting myth and desire in place of the three-dimensional individual, Martin and his rivals and lovers rob one another of individuality, as he comes close to understanding several times:

What I really wanted most just then was to put Georgie in cold storage. It is unfortunate that other human beings cannot be conveniently immobilised. Do what I might, Georgie would go on thinking, would go on acting, during my absence and my silence.

If we take this to be A Severed Head‘s ultimate meaning, then it is ideologically consistent with the anti-Romanticism of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Tolstoy, even if the novel is too short and over-written to allow the characters to seem like more than pieces on a game board.

On the other hand, Murdoch so consistently depicts the novel’s two antagonists, the brother/sister couple of Palmer and Honor, in terms of myth—describing them again and again as demon, witch, Medusa, dragon, deity, and more—that we never believe they possess a merely quotidian reality. They do seem to have invaded modern London from some other and eerier dimension. You can argue that this is because Martin, our narrator, is caught in the grip of a delusion, but Murdoch gives us no viewpoint outside of his from which to judge, and Antonia and Georgie are each equally bewitched by the pair.

Furthermore, as a fantasia on themes from psychoanalysis and anthropology, A Severed Head has a persistent Orientalist motif, all of it attached to Palmer, who spent time in Japan and whose profession was at the time stereotypically Jewish, and Honor, who is a Jewish anthropologist. The pair have mythical status, and power over the other, more normal characters, precisely because they are figured as archaic outsiders to the west, to Christianity, to England. Their Americanness, never emphasized compared to their Jewishness, association with Japan, or time spent in non-western cultures, is a cover for their more radical foreignness to England, a foreignness irresistibly seductive in foggy London and stodgy Cambridge but also as destructive as pre-modern, pre-moral mythology with its incestuous amours and intimate slaughters. (Martin’s affinity to them might be explained by his Anglo-Irish and Welsh background; Murdoch—herself of Irish descent—is possibly playing with tropes of the Celtic fringe.)

Murdoch’s descriptions particularly relay the Orientalist theme, even to the point of exhaustion: on only one page, set in Palmer’s boudoir, we encounter “rosy Persian rugs upon the white Indian carpet,” “a cream-coloured embroidered robe of Chinese silk,” and a likening of the psychoanalyst to “some casual yet powerful emperor upon a Byzantine mosaic”—and that’s without again mentioning the famous scene where Honor wields a samurai sword before an entranced Martin or Martin’s emphasis on Honor’s “sallow Jewish mask,” “curving Jewish mouth,” or “waxen Jewish face”:

Only the curve of her nostril and the curve of her mouth hinted, with a Jewish strength, a possible Jewish refinement.

As in Dracula, the courtship rituals of the traditional English domestic novel are bent to horror by an incursion from the occult east. Martin, Antonia, and Georgie are enthralled by the Jewish magi in an update of the anti-Semitic fin-de-siècle Svengali topos. Consequently, they come to inhabit a very different type of novel, one controlled by the mythic rather than the social—and surrealist rather than realist in mode, to repeat Habash’s formulation.

Murdoch is half-parodying these racial ideas and their literary implications, and her characters are utterly self-conscious about the narrative’s two levels, the realistic and the mythic, as when Honor Klein utters the title phrase by way of remarking on her own status as archetype rather than character in Martin’s drama:

‘Your love for me does not inhabit the real world. Yes, it is love, I do not deny it. But not every love has a course to run, smooth or otherwise, and this love has no course at all. Because of what I am and because of what you saw I am a terrible object of fascination for you. I am a severed head such as primitive tribes and old alchemists used to use, anointing it with oil and putting a morsel of gold upon its tongue to make it utter prophecies. And who knows but that long acquaintance with a severed head might not lead to strange knowledge. For such knowledge one would have paid enough. But that is remote from love and remote from ordinary life. As real people we do not exist for each other.’

This passage echoes an earlier conversation between Martin and Alexander—who had sculpted a head of Antonia, which both men behold in his studio. Martin envies Alexander his practice of art, since it gives him access to reality, while Alexander objects that morality itself can do this without the aid of art:

‘But I’ve never wanted to do an imaginary realistic head before.’ He moved the lamp slowly and the oblique light made dark lines between the strips of clay [on the sculpture of Antonia’s head].

‘Why don’t modern sculptors do them?’ I asked.

‘I don’t know,’ said Alexander. ‘We don’t believe in human nature in the old Greek way any more. There is nothing between schematised symbols and caricature. What I want here is some sort of impossible liberation. Never mind. I shall go on playing with it and interrogating it and perhaps it will tell me something.’

‘I envy you,’ I said. ‘You have a technique for discovering more about what is real.’

‘So have you,’ said Alexander. ‘It is called morality.’

Perhaps the very narrative we’re reading is Martin’s attempt at a sculpture, both imaginary and realistic, made to realize the three-dimensional human nature of the people in his life, and it does end with the prospect of his discovering what real life with Honor would be like, the impossible liberation of real freedom and obligation to others.

But Murdoch also revels in the disruption to English realism that Anderson and Klein offer; her plot is an implicit tribute to what Martin’s nightmare narrative otherwise designates Oriental barbarism, whether Jewish or Japanese, even as it also makes the rather traditional English warning, of a Jane Austen or George Eliot type, about turning other people into myths—severed heads—rather than fellow free individuals. It seems that she herself cannot decide between “schematised symbols and caricature,” on the one hand, and realism on the other.

I find a similar imbalance in A Severed Head as in Lolita, another novel of the era about mythical forbidden love that also (and somewhat contradictorily) makes an ethical point about the importance of treating other people as ends rather than means. Murdoch, like Nabokov, seems to want it both ways—scandal and morality, myth and reality—but she produces only an intricately-composed, beautifully-written duck/rabbit illusion (it’s surreally immoral! it’s realistically moral!) rather than a work capacious enough to hold its contraries in sustaining tension. And A Severed Head is so compressed that it does not even offer Lolita‘s compensating narrative pleasures of picaresque adventure and social satire.

But I certainly praise A Severed Head for its intricacy, its intelligence, its bravery, its refusal to take the form of the novel or the ethics that form communicates for granted. If it sometimes feels like a curio from a vanished age rather than a work with enough integrity to be read for pleasure beyond its own time, it still offers a model to the contemporary novelist of imaginative boldness and philosophical seriousness.

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