A Severed Head

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I’ve enjoyed reading this book. My copy came with an introduction by Miranda Syemour but I found myself disagreeing with her. I didn’t think Martin, the main character, moves from hazy view of relationship to lucidity towards the end of the book. There’s definitely truth in this personal voyage that’s externalized with more certainty in the pursuit that Martin makes towards the end of the book. But my impression is that there’s *perceived* certainty and that makes all the difference.

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This was my first Murdoch and so I was taken by her writing and by her description of London’s fog and of the dreary weather that accompanies the novel.
My impression is that A Severed Head is a story that mocks psychoanalysis and ridicules the pursuit of the self’s happiness, this “do whatever makes you happy”. I couldn’t have imagined a different ending which I took to be more sarcastic than serious in tone.

The story
The story opens on an adulterous couple, Martin Lynch-Gibbons, mid 30s, married to Antonia, and Georgie Hands, a 26-year old student within the apartment of the latter that’s filled with gifts offered by Martin. Georgie wants their relation to be out in the open and Martin hesitates. The characters of the novel, upon hindsight, are all introduced in this scene:
Palmer Anderson, the American psychoanalyst who treats Antonia, and who’s half-sister, Honor Klein, a Jewish anthropologist, will be visiting, Alexander, Martin’s brother to whom Martin leaves his mistresses and Rosemary, Martin’s sister who seems prim but whom Martin suspects of leading a liberal life.
Back home to his unsuspecting wife, Martin is stunned by the revelation of Antonia that she is actually in love with her psycho-analyst whom she has been seeing for a while. So much is Martin in disbelief that he tells his wife to abandon her “ridiculous” idea of leaving him and to go to bed with Palmer instead, to which she replies, I already have.

 

That’s the frame of the novel; within a dozen of pages the stability of the couple is shattered and Martin will remain until the end of the book in search of an apartment to settle himself.
The story is told exclusively from the viewpoint of Martin and Martin never exteriorizes his feelings; he’s actually understanding without being forgiving:

I had been cheated of some moment of violence, of some special though perhaps fruitless movement of will and power; and for this at least I would never forgive them.

His understanding of the various changes that happen around him is unsettling, guided, or possibly mesmerized, by his friend and ex-wife’s lover, Palmer Anderson, who explains to Martin:

I know Antonia very well, Martin. Better in some ways than you do. That’s not your fault but my profession. I know *you* better in some ways than you do.

The longevity of the Palmer-Antonia couple seems to depend, almost exclusively, on their gravitation around Martin, in an effort to nurse Martin, who expresses -more than once throughout the book- his longing to his deceased mother, whose features Martin finds within his brother, Alexander.
These referrals to psychoanalytic textbook cases and this omniscience of the psychoanalyst do not shed the least bit of light on the actions of the characters. In fact, it seems to me that throughout the book, the characters react to their basic urges and provide ad hoc justifications of them. This makes them ever evasive to the reader.
To illustrate, in an attempt to explain one of the deplorable acts that Martin commits, he writes three letters to his victim, none of which overlaps with the other, sends the second and wishes he wrote a fourth letter.

This constant rationalization of basic urges finds its contrast in Martin’s unique act that reflects some kind of willpower, possibly fueled by an early admonishment from Honor Klein:

Could imply, could imply! She said. Where logic breaks down anything can imply anything. It seems to me now that you do not really want your wife back after all

The state of debauchery in which the characters find themselves throughout the book is more comical than explicit and though I found myself frequently laughing at the revelations coming from the characters, the book nevertheless felt serious in the way that it treats the frivolity of emotions in adults who, lacking any sort of moral compass, seem more like children responding to basic needs or, though not very inviting to the reader, close to juvenile dreamers.

Habemus Papam

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Habemus Papam, latin for “We have a Pope” is Nanni Moretti’s last work and my first encounter with his.
It opens on an atmosphere of expectation appropriately registered in the grandeur of wide-angles. With this kind of movies the frame of discussion is delicate, not because the subject matter is inaccessible, but because of the context it carries, and all the symbolism it is laden with, tinting each person’s perspective in significantly varying manners.
Having said that, the scene that follows the procession of the marching cardinals admonishing, to a succession of saints’ names, to “pray for us”is quite funny and disturbing to me. I hope the comical part is universally shared, though it is the apparent futility of such recitals, that presages the succeeding events.
This extended scene of the cardinals in procession to the Conclave to elect the Pope is splendidly cinematographic; it is one of those techniques that perfectly befits movies. To assist to this “Saint X, pray for us”for one minute,  and then as an alternating echo fading in and out over a journalist’s commentary for around 4 minutes, is captivating and I hope would not elicit a “fhemna” or “uff” from my fellow compadres. I love such long, focused, sequences (wish I knew the technical term); though they do appear extended, in fact they feel compact, for they carry a lot; those static images compel us to think and ask questions in a matter of minutes, that, in a novel for instance, would require hundreds of pages and digressions, and so, I hope to see more of them in current films.
As anyone who was brought up in the Christian faith or in a Christian environment, at one point, we have certainly asked ourselves the purpose of such repetitions. For the annoyingly inquisitive, I am almost certain, such questions induce some skepticism. There are quite a few esoteric numbers in the Christian faith: 3, for obvious reasons, 5 (on average) the number of times one must repeat “Our Father” and “Ave Maria”after repenting, 7, the number of Churches one must visit on the Thursday of the Holy Week, 9, the Neuvaine, and, last, 10 times reciting “Ave Maria” for one part of the Rosary (imagine that a full one will require 50 “Ave Maria”!).
What adds humor to this scene, though it could pass unnoticed, is when the orator recites: “All the saints and the prophets”and the procession to echo in unison: “pray for us”and then the saints’ names are recited again! This is typical in a Catholic or a Catholic-affiliated mass or ceremony.
This persistence in prayer bothers me; it is a material ritualization of an abstraction. It solidifies a parasitic relation between an earthly institution and its mortal members; and I insist on this term, mortal, for the Church, in turning the faithfuls to parroting machinists, cares only about their mortal facet.
Why would a faithful incessantly, monotonously, and meaninglessly recite to a Creator whom the Church teaches is all ears and love for His creation? Why would a faithful invoke so many mediators, when the faithful has an open line with the Creator?
Should a Christian, or more precisely, a Catholic, go back to the Source, the Scriptures, one need only pray “Our Father”and that is it. It is clearly stated.
This interminable repetitiveness from a mass of people to the cries of an orator confirms a cultural colonialism Christendom is responsible of; it clearly reflects the pagan infiltrations to the Christian prayers, turned rituals, that helped spread the new religion, increase its base, establish a hierarchy, thereby metamorphosing what should have been a metaphysical religion into an earthly institution.  As such, it is not without intent that the opening scenes of the film unfold to a succession of wide-angle shots of the Vatican and the Conclave.
To conclude, I go back to the movie, to which I’m grateful for this digression in thought, without it being restricted to the initiated, “Habemus Papam” has its own twists,  is rich in symbolism (I think of the elected Pope in the train), does not take the cheap turn of parody or irony, and delivers a powerful message, accentuated, in my opinion, before the end credits.