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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

A Severed Head (1961) by Iris Murdoch

A Severed Head (1961)
by Iris Murdoch

   Sex is a major theme in 20th century literature.  From the battles over literary obscenity, to the ongoing proliferation of online pornography, controversies over sexually explicit literary content and the line between "obscene" and non-obscene content remain relevant today.  Discussions over sexual content in literature are also deeply related to the larger issues of both women's rights and LGBT rights.  It is unfortunate that many of the literary pioneers in the area of the depiction of sex in literature are also typical white males, excluding them from that wider discussion.  It is unfortunate because writers like D.H. Lawrence are important pioneers in this area, and because they were actually read, not just by white men but by the entire audience for literature at that time and later.

  Iris Murdoch sits on that cusp of being both included and excluded from that post 60s, feminist and gender studies informed discussion.  She herself was bisexual but her characters were not.  She wrote about sex in interesting ways, but her characters were the kind of upper class, white, English types that were becoming deeply unfashionable in the mid to late 20th century.  

  This is the first book in the 1001 Books project that adopts the casual attitude towards sex, intimacy and relationships that would dominate the discussion during the sexual revolution.   Martin Lynch-Gibbon is a wealthy 41 year old, married to an older woman, and childless.  He has a 26 year old mistress, and his wife is in ongoing therapy with his best friend.  Within the first 20 pages, his wife announces that she is having an affair with the therapist and that she wants a divorce.  She is unaware of the 26 year old mistress.   Lynch is despondent at the prospect of losing his wife, but handles the news with "maturity."  The therapist's half sister is introduced, the title of A Severed Head refers to her work as an anthropologist specializing in "savage tribes."

   By the mid 1970s, this plot would be the stuff of romantic comedies, but in 1961 it must have come as a shock, and serves as a testament to Murdoch's sophisticated treatment of human sexuality.

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