Iris Murdoch and the Pleasures of Dispossession

The protagonist and narrator of Iris Murdoch’s first novel, Under the Net, is a writer and translator who couch-surfs in London while pursuing a Bertie Wooster-like succession of amorous misadventures. This fellow—Jake Donaghue—spends a lot of time thinking about and wrangling his small number of possessions. His clothes and manuscripts, mostly. Because he has no fixed lodging, he has to keep track of where his stuff’s at, who’s got it. There are a lot of things worth talking about in Under the Net: the character obviously based on the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, the comic-aesthete voice of the narrator, the mysterious Irish sidekick, the hilarious scene in which Jake encounters a man he thinks he will have to fight and instead they spend the afternoon getting drunk and betting on racehorses, the movie-star dog who is kidnapped, held hostage, and ultimately adopted by his hostage-takers, the socialist intellectual with whom Jake gets drunk and goes skinny-dipping in the Thames… But the thing I want to talk about is Murdoch’s delicious portrayal of one bag life.

As I read about Jake dropping off his papers at a temporary location to pick them up later, retrieving them, settling in to do something with them, depositing them temporarily while he dashes hectically about London, planning to meet them at destinations to which they will arrive by separate routes, I was reminded of my own experiments in dispossession. For most of last year, I had the privilege of not owning very many things, and though I had to reacquire a few things for the duration of my lease in Boston (so as not to be that guy who lives in a bare apartment), I can’t wait to return to the blessed state of dispossession in the fall.

Now, I know the objections automatically raised to anyone praising a minimal baggage train: yes, my ability to live out of one bag was premised on having enough wealth and other structural advantages to rest in the knowledge that should I lose my small number of things, I could replace them. The one bag life in Murdoch’s novel is also premised on all kinds of unearned advantage: without his wealthy friends and upper-class education, Jake Donaghue’s life of easeful indigence would be impossible. Granting all that—that in praising one bag living I am not glorifying the possessionlessness of need and poverty, but describing the pleasures of possessing few things because you can afford to; that in describing dispossession I am describing the dispossession of oneself—let me take up my theme.

Owning lots of things is not, on balance, very nice. There are pleasures associated with it—the pleasures of collecting, of organizing a beautiful living space, of showing off for other people if that’s your thing—but beneath any such pleasure is the attenuation of presence known as ownership. To stake your claim to property is jealously to extend the boundaries of self beyond the sanctuary of body and consciousness into the world. It makes you worry. It just does.

When I got rid of my stuff a year ago—mostly books, but also furniture, clothes, kitchen things, bathroom things, and all the unseen things one stuffs into cabinets to use once or twice a year—I felt markedly more alive, as if slivers of soul had been returned to me from where they were scattered among my things. I found it easier to read, to concentrate on a book; easier to examine the contents of my consciousness and organize how I wanted to spend my day; easier to focus on the face of a friend when they told me a story. And most of all, I found it easier to relax into the enjoyment of a nice place and a nice moment, when I happened upon one. I didn’t think of a couch or a park or the steps of a glorious building as mine to have, but only as mine to use. I had, so to speak, rediscovered the use value of the things around me because dispossession made me less concerned with exchange value.

Here is a passage from Under the Net in which Jake Donaghue experiences the utter relaxation which I have only known in a state of dispossession. Note, for context, that these are not his chambers, his vermouth, or his cigarettes, this is a place he’s been asked to house-sit:

I went back to the sitting-room and poured myself out a long drink of Italian vermouth and soda water, to which I added some ice from the fridge. I took a cigarette from a little Sèvres casket that perched on gilded feet. Then I sank gently into a deep armchair and let my sense of time be stilled into a long regular undulation which seemed to pass through my body like a sigh. It was a hot day. The windows opened upon the distant intermittent murmur of London. My head was empty and my limbs were leaden with content. After a long time I reached out for some of my manuscripts and began to sort them.

This passage reminds me of the intensely bodily aestheticism of Anita Brookner’s novel, Latecomers, which is also about dispossessed people (though their dispossession is at a deeper level than mine last year or Jake Donaghue’s in Under the Net: it’s a dispossession of family and roots and a home, because they were refugees from Germany as children). Latecomers opens like this:

Hartmann, a voluptuary, lowered a spoonful of brown sugar crystals into his coffee cup, then placed a square of bitter chocolate on his tongue, and, while it was dissolving, lit his first cigarette. The ensuing melange of tastes and aromas pleased him profoundly, as did the blue tracery of smoke above the white linen tablecloth, the spray of yellow carnations in the silver vase, and his manicured hand on which the wedding ring fitted loosely…

Do you see how the alert relaxation of Hartmann and Donaghue is the same? I believe that this mood or mental state or whatever it is, is predicated on the ability to detach yourself from things; to, in a sense, experience yourself as a thing among things rather than a thing with a unique claim over other things. (And that, unlike my bit about use value and exchange value, is not a very Marxist claim to make.) The dispossession that is pleasurable is to be dispossessed from things but still allowed to use them. Sometimes I think this is the only respectful and attentive way to be in relation to things: to be using them while not owning them.

I suppose what I am getting at, rather vaguely, is some kind of connection between dispossession and contemplation. As you can probably tell from the quality of my gesticulation at this connection, I am not sure about the reasons for it, just convinced that it exists, that the connection is a real thing.

I’ll leave you with another stab at this theme from a very different book, André Gide’s The Immoralist. This passage is a useful contrast to the other two I quoted, a contrast which reveals, I think, the different relation to things that a sense of ownership entails:

A glass of curaçao had spilled on the rug. Albert’s muddy shoes, shamelessly resting on a couch, were staining the upholstery. And the dust we were all breathing was made up of the dreadful erosion of things… I was seized by a furious impulse to push all my guests out of the house. Furniture, fabrics, engravings, everything lost its value for me at the first blemish — things stained, things infected by disease and somehow marked by mortality. I longed to protect everything, to put it all under lock and key for myself alone. How lucky Ménalque is, I thought, owning nothing! It’s because I want to save things that I suffer. What does it all really matter?

Iris Murdoch, looking pretty focused.