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  • Matters of Care and Control: Surveillance, Omniscience, and Narrative Power in The Abbess of Crewe and Loitering with Intent

Early in Loitering with Intent, Fleur Talbot expresses a “need to know the utmost” (26), a need that troubles many of Muriel Spark’s characters with variously comic and tragic consequences. Although Fleur tends to be regarded as a positive presence in the novel, urges to excess knowledge (and its links to power) are usually disparaged by Spark and her critics. According to Ruth Whittaker, such impulses tend to belong to “manipulators of various kinds: blackmailers, teachers, film-makers, poseurs and con men” (168). Judy Sproxton calls the desire to know everything the “antithesis of Christianity” (147), while Ian Gregson thinks it demonstrates “how unwilling human beings are to accept merely human status [and] how ready they are to aspire to God-like judgment and control” (106)—how eager they are to “dominate others” (108).

So, while Dorothea Walker insists that Fleur is a “moral mythmaker” (75), mythmaking is elsewhere seen as both immoral and dangerous. Decades ago, David Lodge figured Spark’s achievement in terms of an original manipulation of omniscience, a manipulation, he argues, that is closely linked to Spark’s Catholicism. Spark [End Page 574] doesn’t accept Sartre’s position that a limited, human perspective is the (only) perspective from which “good” fiction can be delivered, but her assertion of the legitimacy of omniscience is layered and, I’d like to argue, often contradictory. For Spark, omniscience remains a narratologically and ethically viable possibility; it’s just that some efforts at omniscient understanding are “at God’s side” (Walker 75), while others do the work of evil.

What I want to suggest is that Spark’s engagement with the poetics and politics of excess knowledge goes beyond a simple celebration and/or condemnation of the basic concept of omniscience; instead, she attempts to differentiate between different manifestations of the information gathering enterprise. Crudely, Spark is at pains to differentiate between “spying on” and “watching over” individuals. The former belongs to decidedly worldly blackmailers and con men, the latter to divine care and eternal order. Some mythmakers are moral, some satanic.

This, at least, is the critical orthodoxy surrounding Spark’s fiction. Here, I would like to contest this divide and demonstrate the several similarities between Fleur’s apparently moral urge to omniscience and the more obviously immoral (or perhaps amoral) urges of Sir Quentin in Loitering with Intent and Alexandra in The Abbess of Crewe. Specifically, I approach these novels in terms of contemporary theories of surveillance and narrative in an effort to show how different modes of information gathering and information processing might work to illuminate various aspects of Spark’s (and her characters’) storytelling strategies. I use Michel Foucault’s notion of the panopticon and the various theories of observation, power, and discipline that flow from it as a starting point to read my way through the various plots and procedures that constitute these two novels.

The Abbess of Crewe and Panoptic Power: On Seeing and Being Seen

In Surveillance Society, David Lyon claims Foucault’s panopticon is “caught in the opposing gravitational fields of Christianity and the Enlightenment” (18). The panopticon, as a term if not a concept, begins in Jeremy Bentham’s prisons, structures that, according to Foucault, involve polarized notions of visibility and privacy divided in terms of the power of the state. For Foucault, “each individual subjected to discipline was totally seen without ever seeing, whilst the agents of discipline see everything without being seen” (Discipline 202). The prison guards in the tower see and know every action of the prisoners, but the prisoners see neither each other (they are [End Page 575] divided by walls) nor their observers, who are elevated and hidden behind blinds and dark glass. The subordinated subject, then, knows nothing of the wider system in which s/he is situated, while those in a position of dominance are at once outside the system and privy to its most intimate workings. This, quite clearly, is surveillance as a mode of discipline and power.

Lyon positions the panopticon between Christianity and the Enlightenment because both...


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