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John Donne's Compass

I just finished reading Iris Murdoch’s novel A Severed Head.


Obviously, it’s a love story.



Iris Murdoch is one of my favorite people. She was a brilliant philosopher, and her novels entertain us while retaining their connection to her unique worldview. Her book, A Severed Head, provided me with opportunities to further reflect on the metaphysics of love and the domain of extreme love specifically—which I recently wrote about and conveyed musically.


I’ve encountered several characters in Murdoch’s fictional work who clearly embody aspects of her philosophy. And I want to keep one such philosophical lens most in focus—voiced via Georgie in the present novel:

Georgie: “Anyone who is good at setting people free is also good at enslaving them, if we are to believe Plato.” - Iris Murdoch

To connect a few dots between this sentiment of Plato and our current cast of characters, it is necessary to remember that a philosopher is one who seeks perfect love. This includes both love within oneself and the love of all. One participates in psychagogia (soul-leading) in order to direct the passionately-hunting love-impulse towards more and more perfect objects of attentive desire.

“[Plato’s] Phaedrus thematizes leading and being led as central to the philosophical life and to erotic pursuit of the realities.” - Jill Gordon

The most perfect love-object for Eros is the Good, and philosophers, similarly, lead lovers towards this possible-but-distant perfection. As one’s love becomes more bonocentric, one becomes increasingly free. And so, a masterful philosopher is one who is exceptionally good at setting people free—and, by the same token, may be equally good at enslaving them.


Freedom and enslavement, remember, are not defined by the presence or absence of a plethora of choices—which is in fact measured as liberty. Enslavement would, in this case, be a state of selfhood that results from having one’s capacity for love taken over by idolatrous ends—objects of love which ontologically usurp the Good and existentially maim the lover. Freedom, then, would be a state of selfhood that results from loving more perfectly and bringing about the most perfect love in others. Ideally, this freedom unfolds in a circular motion of mutual uplifting.


In A Severed Head, the craft mastress constructs an over-the-top romantic escapade which highlights several important features of extreme love.


In this short fever-dream of a book, everyone falls head over heels for just about everyone else. Rather than delicately juxtaposing—as Emily Brontë did in Wuthering Heights, the extreme love of Catherine and Heathcliff with her more tame and utilitarian relationship with Edgar—Murdoch depicts a web of highly suggestible and itinerantly limerent lovers. Let’s look at some examples of characters narrating their experiences of overpowering, absolutely-certain-this-time-for-sure love.


The primary narrator is Martin, a man in his 40s who, throughout the book, is ostensibly in love with his wife, his mistress, his wife’s therapist, and his wife’s therapist’s sister. He is not a very likable guy. In fact, he physically assaults nearly all of the characters mentioned above, and is gleefully manipulative all the while.


The thing which makes Martin and the others relatable and sympathetic is their ultimate powerlessness. Every lover has at one time felt one’s control evaporate—sometimes as an undesirable tyranny and other times as a desirable self-transcendence.


Even when Martin acts brutishly, it has the aura of a childhood rebellion whose origin is an explosive externalization of the simmering autonomy-drive. We can’t help but feel sorry for him, being so indiscriminately carried about by turbulent gusts of desire.

Martin: “I had never felt so certain of any path upon which I had set my feet… Extreme love, once it is recognized, has the stamp of the indubitable. I knew to perfection both my condition and what I must instantly do about it.” - Iris Murdoch

He is written with a Don Quixote-like superlative overconfidence. I think we are supposed to laugh cathartically and then realize that we have similarly engaged in our own faithful leaps of questionable certainty.

Martin: “I didn't know that there were so many varieties of torment. I've been sampling a few new ones.” - Iris Murdoch

I think, overall, Martin is in the limerent category of extreme love (or something similar which I previously discussed, such as Obsessive Love Disorder). We could also speculate about certain “comorbidities” such as narcissism, attachment issues, or codependency. At times, his attitude towards his beloved (“Limerent Object” or “LO” if you prefer) is actually reverential. Romantic poets might hyperbolically describe their lovers as incarnate goddesses, but there is a significant line between this and the frantic fantasy that one’s beloved is actually divine. The former has a place within the healthier, more positive varieties of extreme love; the latter, which we see embodied in Martin, is indicative of something more maladaptive.

Martin: “Extreme love is fed by everything. So it was that the shock of Georgie's decision, once the immediate pain had been suffered, opened as it were a channel down which my desires with an increased violence ran in the direction of Honor. The thing seemed intended; and in that perspective Georgie's action, though hideously upsetting and painful, counted chiefly as a clearing of the decks. I was, it seemed, to be deprived of consolation. I was to be stripped, shaved and prepared as a destined victim; and I awaited Honor as one awaits, without hope, the searing presence of a god.” - Iris Murdoch

He’s not alone, of course. All of the story’s characters have their own run-ins with the “dangerous hunter”, Eros, who mythically depicts the actual spectrum of love which includes a comfortable middle and incendiary extremes. Similar features of extreme love—sudden emotional intensity, profound motivational reorientation, seemingly unstoppable desire—have also historically been symbolized by the love potion.



Murdoch, through her characters, paints love triangles and love polygons which simultaneously display the experience of inner clarity about one’s love, and the outward skepticism which surrounds and judges those in extreme love.

Antonia: “You see, it’s not a matter of being a bit in love… It’s a matter of being very desperately and deeply in love. Perhaps we ought to have told you sooner, only it was so improbable, such an extreme love. But now we’re certain.” - Iris Murdoch

But even if we see, with the privilege of distance, that Martin and the others are experiencing something irrationally extreme, obsessive, destructive, and all-consuming, that doesn’t mean their internally-felt experiences have nothing to teach us as we pursue the more beautiful areas of love. Quite the contrary. I find this story so compelling because the characters’ descriptions of their amorous states highlight how the beneficial and detrimental forms of extreme love can share much in common—especially when one attempts to subjectively understand an ongoing, evolving relationship. Destructive love can morph into something beautiful, or vice versa.


With Martin’s seemingly unmatched love for Honor (his wife’s therapist’s sister), he goes well beyond what might be considered a healthy reverence for one’s partner. In the following passage, he describes it more like a haunting or a divine encounter.

Martin: “Now afterwards my thought of her, focused, was a round pain to the periphery of which the torn fragments of my being adhered like rags of flesh. I could indeed hardly put a name to my state, so unlike was it to anything which I had experienced previously when in love. It seemed as if this condition had with those no common feature. Yet I could not think what else to call it if it was not love which so brought me to my knees… I felt equally that I was cursed for life, like men who have slept with temple prostitutes and, visited by a goddess, cannot touch a woman after.” - Iris Murdoch

These could almost have been the words of Heathcliff describing his love for the departed Catherine. Love evokes a ruthlessly unforgiving arrow of time—an unrecoverability felt most acutely by those who must live after losing an amigeist or twin flame connection (as in, those varieties of the extreme love phenomenon which tend to nurture individual wholeness and universal goodness).

Martin: “To lose somebody is to lose not only their person but all those modes and manifestations into which their person has flowed outwards; so that in losing a beloved one may find so many things, pictures, poems, melodies, places lost too: Dante, Avignon, a song of Shakespeare's, the Cornish sea. The room was Antonia. It breathed the rich emphasis of her personality.”- Iris Murdoch

Note that, in keeping with the novel’s lightheartedness, Martin is describing two different women in the two prior quotes. He never fully introspects on his uncanny and statistically enviable ability to find one soulmate after another. He does, however, reflect on the intense love affairs of the others in this story. He speculates, for example, that Palmer (his wife’s therapist and lover) is fanatically gripped by obsessive desire, and is attempting to disentangle himself by redirecting his passions with a love of equal or greater magnitude.

Martin: “At times I attached importance to the idea that Palmer had, through his relation to Antonia, been trying to free himself from a burdensome obsession.” - Iris Murdoch

Here, again, I think we are seeing bits of Iris herself coming through in her stories. Intense love, obsession, and the power of “enchantment” were formative elements of her own life.

“While thriving on a complicated love life, she occasionally felt uneasy about the emotional entanglements into which she was so easily drawn... Many letters…demonstrate Murdoch’s own obsessive desire for, or obsessive interest in, certain people at various points in her life. David Hicks, an Oxford contemporary, is replaced by Raymond Queneau, the French experimental writer, who is followed by the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott, the author Elias Canetti and the writer and activist Brigid Brophy as individuals with whom she cultivated intense and passionate liaisons… Such real-life experience undoubtedly flows into her portrayal of obsessive desire in her fiction." - Avril Horner & Anne Rowe

In her life, she attempted to confront her own capacity to be profoundly and sometimes abruptly transformed by love—as well as the capacity of others to be specially suited for taking advantage of people with her disposition. So, in large part, the characters in A Severed Head can be read as self-effacing parodies. Likewise, since she struggled with herself as a woman enchanted, her stories abound with male enchanters inspired by the real people with whom her path fatefully crossed.

“A brilliant, volatile and possessive man, Canetti had a huge influence on Murdoch, both intellectually and emotionally, and for many years she was in thrall to him. Through her relationship with him she learnt much about power and obsession and she drew on his character and her feelings for him when creating the many male enchanter figures who haunt her novels… The power invested in the cruel enchanter Mischa Fox in fact reflects Murdoch’s own tortuous affair with Canetti, by whom she was now emotionally and sexually enthralled… Mischa is skilled at creating his own myth with which the other characters are all too ready to collude as they weave their own masochistic fantasies around him. He thrives on such adoration and is made powerful by it… Canetti was to inspire other incarnations of the male enchanter figure such as Julius King in A Fairly Honourable Defeat, Gerald Scottow in The Unicorn and Charles Arrowby in The Sea, The Sea.” - Avril Horner & Anne Rowe

Other commenters have chosen to blur the line between enchanter and enchanted—suggesting, perhaps, that Murdoch herself had qualities which she projected onto the men in her novels.

“Martha Nussbaum…has claimed that Murdoch was unable to live up to her own definitions of moral goodness and that she was self-absorbed, controlling and predatory.” - Avril Horner & Anne Rowe


Wherever the locus of control may have been in Murdoch’s real or fictional relationships, I think she would agree that it is the displacement of the Good (or the related “death of God”) which causes us to divinize each other and ourselves. This kind of love, which lacks reference to the Good as first principle, is metaphysically myopic and prone to pathology.

“God was (or is) a single perfect transcendent non-representable and necessarily real object of attention; and I shall go on to suggest that moral philosophy should attempt to retain a central concept which has all these characteristics.” - Iris Murdoch

Murdoch’s philosophical fiction warns of dark regions so that we may avoid them. And we may instead direct our attention towards amigeist, ecstasy, and other forms of extremely good and transformative love—which, nonetheless, share borders with love’s extreme dangers.



Now let us turn back to the connection between love and the philosophical optimism which I’ve discussed previously. This is less about “hoping for the best” and more about a metaphysical belief in the possibility of perfected value—in other words, the Good.


Extreme love is a nonlinear, perilously-irreversible bifurcation in the figuration or disfiguration of the Good, and ourselves.


If love were allowed to live out its ideal path, then our actuality would become the perfect image of the absolute Good. With the Good as our central “object of attention”, our particular participation in the art of loving becomes the beating heart of all moral challenges. John Donne has given us the symbol of a drafting compass to describe the way in which lovers might find themselves inevitably connected, and thereby mutually bound by the ethical duty to love each other and reality into states of increasing perfection.


“Our two souls therefore, which are one,

   Though I must go, endure not yet

A breach, but an expansion,

   Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so

   As stiff twin compasses are two;

Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show

   To move, but doth, if the other do…

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,

   Like th' other foot, obliquely run;

Thy firmness makes my circle just,

   And makes me end where I begun.” - John Donne


I’d like to suggest that the subjective experience of extreme love has this compass-like certainty about it. One feels confident that a connection exists as surely and as absolutely as that which exists between a compass’s pair of legs. Further, beyond the surface of the experience, I’d like to encourage: the ontological view that compass-like soul-bonds are real; the epistemic claim that we have the ability to access objectively true or false data on what kind of extreme love we are experiencing; and the ethical claim that perfect participation in love is spiritually obligatory.


The abstract existence of a perfect circle speaks to the emergent wholeness of the compass, or the relationship, which is qualitatively different from its elements. A single pen walks an unsteady circumference. The unity of the compass engenders previously unavailable possibilities. The compass, firmly drawing that circumference with reference to an unchanging center, is both a recollection of what has been and a premonition of what will be. The availability of perfect circularity is a symbolic beacon for lovers-in-progress; rotation is the symbol of our incomplete but relentless attempts at apotheosis.

“The idea of rotation is the keystone of most transcendent symbols: of the mediaeval Rota; of the Wheel of Buddhist transformations; of the zodiacal cycle; of the myth of the Gemini; and of the Opus of the alchemists. The idea of the world as a labyrinth or of life as a pilgrimage leads to the idea of the ‘centre’ as a symbol of the absolute goal of Man—Paradise regained… Pictorially, this central point is sometimes identified with the geometric centre of the symbolic circle.”- J.E. Cirlot

Love is replete with circularity: it may be seen as the practice of reciprocal benevolence; the (theoretically) endless bond of marriage is symbolized by a ring; practically, love may renew life’s cycle itself with the birth of new generations; and lastly because it is, like the two hands famously depicted by Escher, a mutual revelation of selfhood.

“To meet you, I must risk myself as I am. The naked human is challenged. It would be safer reflecting alone than confronting you. And even the favorite dictum of reflective psychology…’Know thyself,’ will be insufficient… Not ‘Know thyself’ through reflection, but ‘Reveal thyself,’ which is the same as the commandment to love, since nowhere are we more revealed than in our loving.” - James Hillman


If “thy firmness makes my circle just” it also follows that the hedonic mode is incompatible with love, although contemporary thought often says just the opposite. Pleasure and happiness, sought as standalone goals, will convince lovers that if a relationship lacks these qualities, it is terminally defective. This might be stated visually as follows: the desire to draw whatever one wants should not be impeded.


This apparently precious optionality is contrasted with the firmness of connection between a pair of compasses—which, by reducing liberty but magnifying freedom, places lovers in the eudaimonic mode. The circle they obediently draw together results in fullness of being, primarily, and may, as Iris Murdoch wrote, secondarily create happiness.

“As for ‘happiness’, mon dieu, I have dropped that word from my vocabulary. A sort of force and integritas is what I yearn towards, and the felicitas, a sort of by-product, scarcely enters my head now!” - Iris Murdoch

Love can lead to integritasan integrity, fullness, or wholeness of selfhood. Perhaps this is the only reasonable expectation we can place on Eros. If this patterning of reality with integritas is love’s primary product, rather than a comparatively banal felicitas (happiness, good fortune), then we should expect extreme love to be connected with the unmatchable torment they call “self-discovery”.


I believe this kind of love exists. I believe it is extreme in a way which distinguishes it from typical romantic, friendly, or familial love. And I believe, dangerous as love is, that it is also indispensable for those who wish to make the universe more beautiful through this quintessentially moral action.


Extreme love is an experience of the utmost urgency. Linked together, my path reveals yours as yours reveals mine until, at last, we complete the perfect circle.

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