Sunday, 27 February 2011

Saturday, Ian Mcewan: benign dissociation

What a strange novel Saturday is.

But the line I loved it for is an encapsulation of a facet of indifference I've been trying to characterise for a long time: 'benign dissociation'. The neurosurgeon Henry Perowne has just operated on his own assailant, Baxter. In carrying out the operation, Perowne overcomes his personal terror and shock at Baxter's appearance at his house, hours earlier, and attains a mental state of indifference that is tantamount to peace.

I've long been searching for a way of understanding the idea of indifference, that takes it away from its connotations of sadism, depression, or stoicism. This is it: benign dissociation.

Perowne decides that he does not have the power of life and death over Baxter, whom he could easily have killed during the operation. Perowne knows that Baxter suffers from Huntingdon's Chorea, and will face his own prison sentence in the future. Perowne does not have to act to avenge his family's honour; it is written in Baxter's genes.

What is disturbing about Saturday is that it functions so clearly as an allegory for the West's stance on Islamic fundamentalism. Perowne can afford his benign indifference, not because Baxter cannot terrorize him -- he can -- but because the world order decrees that Perowne's kind, with their rationalizing lack of poetic sensibility, will eventually triumph. The mind's secrets will eventually be laid bare, and it will be through empirical science and not mystical art. Theocracies will falter as their medievalist exponents are gradually overcome by the people's demand for democracy and freedom.

What saves Saturday from being a diatribe is that McEwan builds in traps to Perowne's own smug forecasting. During Baxter's attack on Perowne's family, his pregnant daughter Daisy, an impassioned and successful poet in her own right, saves herself from assault by reading a Matthew Arnold poem. It is not her father's actions that save her, but her coded conversation with an older poet, her grandfather Grammaticus, who indicates that she should recite. Baxter is mesmerized by the recitation, believing it to be one of Daisy's own poems. His mood is altered: forgetting his desire to rape Daisy in front of her family, he wants only the book of her poems.

Dover Beach intertwines the joyful known and plenitude of the lovers' present with the sad unknown of a future that can only end badly for humans. McEwan seems to imply that the predictive power of poetry can summon known unknowns far better than can the little moment-by-moment activity of the scientist, unwilling to accept anything until it is tested. What is commonly dismissed in the artist as 'getting it out of proportion' is brought back into McEwan's novel as a threatening remainder of anxiety.

Perowne's long saturday begins with unnamed anxieties -- a plane, its engine on fire, flying overhead in the early morning sky. It ends in regained peace -- Baxter under surveillance, and hoist by his own genetic petard. Yet McEwan, in painting a picture of a man who wants to believe that all is well, and under his control, leaves us with the sense that Perowne has learnt nothing, and that the worst is yet to come.

1 comment:

Homeless said...

How insightful, I had never seen Saturday as a representation of Western and Eastern values. I had always thought it as a mere allorgy of the triumph of brains over brawn and how in society it is important that we supress thuggery. Anyway, nice blog :)