Ruminations on the Literary Form, Literature, and Murdoch’s A Severed Head

As a graduate of literature, I am aware that any serious study of literature must grapple with the question of literary form. Otherwise, one cannot grasp a literary text’s content firmly, since this content cannot but be aesthetically expressed through its form – that is through its language, figures of speech, narrative strategies, etc. On the other hand, to thwart the danger of a parochial formalism, one must firmly recognize that this form is itself caught up in the contradictions of the socio-historical sphere.

One way of missing this dialectical relationship between form and its extra-textual backdrop is mentioned above – that familiar formalism that confines one’s literary inquiry to the text-in-itself. Another would be to disregard form altogether in favour of simply interpreting representations of class, gender, race, among others, found in the literary text as manifestations of how the text constructs these socio-political categories.

Back in the university, I remember some lethargic faculty teaching Marxist literary criticism simply as a matter of searching for manifestations of the class struggle or ideology in the text’s content. Mutatis mutandis, the same goes for gender, race, and so on when you jump to other literary schools. The problem with this method, however, is the fact that without placing these representations of various social categories within the limits set by the form then you are free to impute any meaning to the text.

Last week I wrote a comment that is somewhat related to this frame of mind in one of the feature stories of the Philippine Collegian, the official student publication of the University of the Philippines Diliman: “Yes, Luna Sicat’s Mga Prodigal may be a brilliant novel from the way it is praised in this book review. But how is this so? It’s convenient to deploy nice descriptions like a “para-omnipresent point-of-view, ever-shifting narrative, flexible diction, and the seemingly dry tonalities” and so on, but how are these deployed in the novel? How is Mga Prodigal comparable to Inheritance Loss aside from the general observation that both share the view that the personal is political? Many many many other novels treat history as “the confluence of public events and private lives.” What makes Mga Prodigal “a cut above the rest”? Show don’t tell seems to be the most appropriate recommendation for this piece. Or else we fall into the all-too-easy recourse to hollow sophistication. All sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Actually, much of what I have written in this blog also falls for this trap. Of course, this is already a given because this virtual repository of my writings is not devoted to rigorous literary criticism, the kind of which I dabbled in as an undergraduate literature student (like my paper on Rosario Cruz Lucero’s short stories for instance). Rather, most of what find its way in this blog includes whimsical interests and more modest considerations of literary texts based on a more impressionistic approach.

These are some of my reflections after reading Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head, a novel that I found to be very funny but also found difficult to write about in terms of more profound observations. Looking for comments on this comic story of adulterous entanglements all I could come up with is the formulaic observation about the way women are denigrated as subordinates of men and mere sex objects under the present social order.

In A Severed Head we have a protagonist who happily kept a mistress outside his legal wife who he assumes to be innocent. When his wife announces that she’s become involved with her psychoanalyst, his ideal world dissolves. From being the master of two women, he has fallen to the status of a cuckold. The wife seeks a divorce as his relationship with his mistress fall into pieces. Then his brother comes into the picture and takes his mistress away from him.

But it turns out that his brother did this only to make his wife jealous because they have been having an illicit connection all along and her relationship with the psychoanalyst served simply as a filler to get over this more protracted love affair. It would take more effort to elaborate the manner in which the patriarchal system is inscribed in the novel. And it would take an even more serious attempt to consider the way this is intricately embedded in the novel’s language and narrative scheme.

But it should suffice to refer to Karl Marx and Frederick Engel’s famous rebuke of the degradation of women under the capitalist system in the Communist Manifesto: “Our bourgeois, not content with having the wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each other’s wives. Bourgeois marriage is in reality a system of wives in common…”

That Iris Murdoch could take this commonplace occurrence and make a hilarious satire that fleshes out the minutiae involved in such affairs shows us the skill required of the literary craft. I guess it’s time I read more of her novels.

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