10 December 2020By Heather RobbinsBlog

My doctoral thesis on erotic spaces in the early and middle fiction of Iris Murdoch was inspired by my first encounter with the author’s writing in A Severed Head in 2015. In that novel, which Raymond Queneau has described as a ‘matrimonial […] chassés-croisés’, lovers, like the dance movement Queneau alludes to, exchange partners and locations periodically in response to the whims of their egos, their emplacement within a nexus of social relations, and their access to private space. Reading A Severed Head made me curious about Iris Murdoch’s spatial imagination in the way that it organises erotic relations by establishing an intricate cartography of desire. Pursuing this point of interest in my MA dissertation at Durham University, I explored the development of erotic space in Murdoch’s text as well as two other mid-20th-century novels by James Baldwin and Stephen Vizinczey.

By the time I started my PhD at the University of Auckland in 2019, I had detected the significance of two influential cultural currents on Murdoch’s novels from 1954–1978: the ‘spatial turn’ and the sexual revolution. The ‘spatial turn’, which was coined by Michel Foucault in 1967, refers to the period’s shift in emphasis from temporality to spatiality in cultural and literary studies in Europe. Aspects of the sexual revolution (particularly the various medical, legal, and socio-political advancements of the time), which collectively began to transform the public construal of and discourse around sexual relations in the West, inform my project. Examples of the influence of these changes in the period’s cultural consciousness are found across Murdoch’s oeuvre. For example, the simulation of total environments in The Bell and The Sea, The Sea precipitates spatial hegemonies through the frequent exchange and entrapment of erotic partners. In A Severed Head, An Unofficial Rose, and The Red and the Green, the ownership of private property among women remains associated with their autonomous expressions of desire. The Flight from the Enchanter and The Italian Girl, in contrast, bring to the fore issues of erotic exploitation as a result of forced displacement or illegal immigration. In these texts and the others included in my study, I meditate on the sites of lovers’ meeting. These spaces, which I term ‘erotic spaces’, are explored from phenomenological, socioeconomic, philosophical, haptic, and artistic perspectives across the chapters of my thesis.

Prior work on spatiality and eroticism studies has provided me with a functional framework to situate my exploration of erotic relations in the fictionalised environments of Murdoch’s novels. The writings of Gaston Bachelard, Georges Perec, Henry Lefebvre, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty offer theoretical grounding to facilitate my exploration of interior locales and urban cityscapes in the author’s texts. On the other hand, the works of Anne Carson, Georges Bataille, Murray S. Davis, and Roland Barthes set up a critical foundation and present a working vocabulary for my exploration of erotic desire across Murdoch’s plotlines. To acutely understand how Murdoch creatively envisioned inhabited space, the practice of living together, and the dynamics of social relations among cliques, in addition to her literary production, her letters, journals, travelling diaries, and books from her personal library are invaluable to my research. I will access these resources housed at the Iris Murdoch Archive at Kingston University with the aid of the Barbara Stevens Heusel Research Fund for Early Career Researchers in 2021. My project also takes an interest in reassessing the concept of eros as it appears in Murdoch’s moral philosophy, especially in relation to its earlier formulations by Plato, Sartre, and Elias Canetti. Furthermore, I aim to situate the place of desire in Murdoch’s perspective on ethical praxis in everyday life in response to the ideas of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Simone Weil. Any findings emerging from this pursuit could offer fresh insights into the author’s contributions towards both analytical and continental philosophy.






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