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The Limits Of Empathetic Imagination In Saturday English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 5639 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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While Atonement is the most acute of McEwans novels in its exploration of ethics, particularly the ethical impact of storytelling, the novels that succeeded it also foreground the problem of (authorial) moral responsibility and empathetic understanding. Though set against an entirely different backdrop, that of terrorism and the looming war in Iraq, Saturday (2005), McEwan’s a-day-in-the-life novel, further examines the limits of empathetic engagement and identification, personified by the novel’s protagonist, Henry Perowne, an accomplished, liberal-minded, and down-to-earth middle-aged neurosurgeon.

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Standing wide awake at the window of his bedroom in the small hours of the morning of Saturday, 15 February 2003, having been inexplicably drawn from his bed, Perowne (himself an imaginary, invented being and thus part of the literary project) reflects on the role of fiction in contemporary culture and concludes that he does not “want to be a spectator of other lives, of imaginary lives, […] and [that] it interests him less to have the world reinvented. He wants it explained. The times are strange enough. Why make things up?” [1] This passage sets the tone and frames the ‘policy’ of the novel, anchoring it in a world that presents us with such appalling spectacles as that of 9/11, a world in which the dream of a peaceful order has shattered, as destruction, terrorism, and war make the headlines of the new millennium, and trauma permeates the contemporary collective consciousness. All of a sudden, Perowne ponders, “the nineties are looking like an innocent decade,” [2] and this state of the world lends legitimacy to Perowne’s query about the power of narratives to act as reliable sources of knowledge.

Nevertheless, Perowne’s lack of interest in having the world reinvented also betrays an imaginative inability, and his unwillingness to imagine outside the bounds of his own experience has serious consequences in the novel. He is indisputably right that literature cannot furnish absolute answers or totalising explanations of the world. What it can still do, as McEwan suggests by orchestrating the culminating scene of the novel, where his protagonist is taught a lesson on the storyteller’s power over the mind of the reader/listener, is shape the chaos of human experience, articulate the moral confusion of our lives by communicating ideas through the unique mediation between storyteller and reader, and, in the words of the American critic Kenneth Burke, provide us with “equipment for living.” [3] 

Perowne’s philistine reflections before the window, triggered by his glimpse of an apparently burning cargo plane from his bedroom window, mistaken, out of an excess of rationalism, for a meteor or a comet travelling across the London sky, establish him from the outset as an individual with a narrow view of the world and limited vicarious sympathy. At the sight of the plane ablaze, Perowne is not moved by any feelings of compassion for the passengers, but merely witnesses the scene “from the outside, from afar,” [4] as a spectator of other lives, reminiscing about his unease during his post 9/11 travels, when “[l]ike most passengers, outwardly subdued by the monotony of air travel, he often lets his thoughts range across the possibilities while sitting, strapped down and docile, in front of a packaged meal” [5] and “[p]lastic fork in hand, he often wonders how it might go.” [6] If in Atonement most of the key events in the first part of the novel are glimpsed through a window, a mirror, dim light, or heat haze, and the narrator of Enduring Love spends much time looking out the window for his mad stalker, in Saturday, McEwan also makes Henry watch the plane scene (and other subsequent events) through his bedroom window, a framework that symbolically (and literally) encloses his vision, further filtered by the low light before dawn, thus adding to the impression of the protagonist’s limited perception. Moreover, Henry is convinced of the accuracy of his vision, which, we are told, “seems to have sharpened” [7] ; and, a few pages later, we learn that “he doesn’t immediately understand what he sees, though he thinks he does.” [8] Besides blurring Henry’s vision, the window places a physical and metaphorical screen between the world and the hero, faced with dangers still abstract and distant, but soon to turn concrete and personal.

Even though reviews of Saturday were almost all favourable (Peter Kemp states in The Sunday Times that “written with superb exactness, complex, suspenseful, reflective, and humane, this novel about an expert on the human brain by an expert on the human mind reinforces his [McEwan’s] status as the supreme novelist of his generation,” [9] and Mark Lawson in The Guardian praises “the global dimension” that McEwan gives to “the textures of everyday life” and deems the novel “subtle enough to be taken as a warning against either intervention or against isolationism” [10] ), a few reviewers have assumed that Henry’s self-serving stories are identical to those to which the novel subscribes. John Banville, for instance, dismisses Saturday as “a dismayingly bad book,” [11] mainly because he takes the protagonist’s self-indulgence as being favoured by the author of the novel. In a similarly scathing review, Jennifer Szalai argues that McEwan “has written a profoundly flawed book,” “a narrative shuffled along by a hyperrational protagonist,” [12] also mistaking Perwone’s tendency to rationalise events for the author’s outlook. And in yet another negative review, Keith Gessen calls the novel “a product of liberal guilt−the idea that things are more real and more painful elsewhere and that our actions don’t have much to do with them,” and the novelist one who, “like the surgeon, […] does not make it his business to reach outside the bounds of his particular task” of creating “carefully structured novels in which characters receive their comeuppance” and that of being “the consummate professional novelist” he has become. [13] 

What these critics fail to acknowledge when they ground their understandings of the novel on the author’s implicit acceptance of his hero’s parochialism is the skilfulness of McEwan’s employment of free indirect speech, which combines features of third-person with first-person direct speech and takes us into the protagonist’s mind in a manner evocative of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and James Joyce’s Ulysses (novels with which Saturday also shares the one-day time frame). By all means, McEwan depicts the particulars of Henry Perowne’s everyday existence rather warmly at times, not concealing from the reader that he finds Perowne agreeable enough (he confesses in an interview that, although he does not identify with his hero’s mindset and surely does not share his loathing for literature, he gave Henry Perowne a few of the details of his own existence: his house, his fish stew recipe, the squash games, attributes of his wife and children, his relationship with his mother, etc. [14] ).

Nevertheless, the split focalised narrative (half internal, half external) used by McEwan throughout the novel calls not only for our understanding for and familiarity with Henry’s feelings, but also for our detachment from and questioning of them. Our possible fondness of Henry is only the effect of our identification with his restless urge for self-justification and hypothesis-testing (he is characterised in the novel as “an habitual observer of his own moods,” [15] prone to musings about his mental processes), and not of our endorsement of his mindset. If his reflections strike a chord with us, it is because they lay bare a human being haunted by the impulse of justifying his life. If McEwan has chosen Perowne as a focaliser-protagonist for his novel, it is not out of appreciation for his ways, but to expose the human beings’ habit of telling self-persuasive stories about their lives that account for the people they have come to be.

Set in central London, the novel is tied into the British reality, though it makes a claim to cosmopolitanism from the outset by drawing on a passage from Saul Bellow’s Herzog which acts as its epigraph. In the passage, Bellow’s protagonist raises the universal question of “what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organised power. Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanisation. After the late failure of radical hopes.” [16] As Hezog concludes, it means living “in a society that was no community and devalued the person,” “made the self negligible,” and “permitted savagery and barbarism in its own great cities.” [17] It also means becoming more liberal, and benefiting from “the beautiful supermachinery” [18] of scientific breakthroughs. But above all, it means assuming responsibility for being “a child of this mass and a brother to all the rest.” [19] The burden of these rights and responsibilities subjugates both Bellow’s and McEwan’s protagonists. Herzog has frequent visions of being crushed and is anguished “[b]ecause he let the entire world press upon him.” [20] Likewise, Henry Perowne is distressed by the persistent infringement of public events upon private life, and sceptical about the possibility “to enjoy an hour’s recreation without this invasion, this infection from the public domain.” [21] Yet, as Saturday evinces, cutting oneself off from the world is both unwise and hazardous.

Confronted by the chaos of the external world, Perowne, like Herzog, moves towards unburdening himself. He takes refuge in nostalgia for earlier, simpler times, when people could indulge in an attitude of credulity:

How restful it must once have been, in another age, to be prosperous and believe that an all-knowing supernatural force had allotted people to their stations in life. And not see how the belief served your own prosperity−a form of anosognosia, a useful psychiatric term for a lack of awareness of one’s own condition. Now we think we do see, how do things stand? After the ruinous experiments of the lately deceased century, after so much vile behaviour, so many deaths, a queasy agnosticism has settled around these matters of justice and redistributed wealth. [22] 

He also seeks shelter in the small, simple, private pleasures of life: in a game of squash with his co-worker; in music−Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Coltrane, and Miles Davis, artists to whom he attributes “a ruthless, nearly inhuman element of self-enclosed perfection” [23] ; in the works of Rothko, Parker, Hodgkin, and Einstein, betraying his penchant for the abstract; in cooking his favourite recipe of fish stew; in the “biological hyperspace” [24] of love-making with his wife; in his son Theo’s playing his latest song; in performing neurosurgery, which gives him “the pleasure of knowing precisely what he’s doing” [25] and allows him to live in a “pure present,” in “a dream of absorption that has dissolved all sense of time” [26] ; in Darwin’s Origin of Species. He is not totally devoid of aesthetic sense, but his preferences reveal his taste for perfection, harmony, faultless mechanisms (such as the brain), for attaining “a coherent world, everything fitting at last.” [27] 

While running his errands around London in his comfortable cream-upholstered silver Mercedes S 500 (“a sensuous part of what he regards as his overgenerous share of the world’s goods” [28] ), “shamelessly […] enjoy[ing] the city from inside […] where the air is filtered and hi-fi music confers pathos on the humblest details,” [29] secluding himself within a bubble of unreality and blocking whatever is not desired out of his world picture, he nevertheless seeks his moral compass by making an effort to deal with the complexity of living in a modern city, but fails to reach a truly empathetic understanding of the people around him, his endeavour being partly hindered by his lack of appreciation of artistic genius and his tendency to understand other people through neurological knowledge and rational observation rather than imaginative compassion.

Theo, his more artistic son, is much more perceptive and can intuit the threat in his father’s encounter with Baxter (a street tough whom Perowne diagnoses as suffering from the neurodegenerative disease−Huntington’s chorea, and with whom he has a hostile confrontation because of a minor car accident that occurs while he is driving to meet a colleague for their weekly squash match). He reminds his father: “You humiliated him. You should watch that. […] These street guys can be proud.” [30] 

His daughter Daisy, an aspiring poet, does not keep secret her belief that he is “a coarse, unredeemable materialist […] lack[ing] an imagination.” [31] She does her best to refine his literary understanding by recommending classic novels like Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary to him, but literature, in Perowne’s opinion, possesses only a referential function, and Daisy’s reading lists do nothing more than convince him that “fiction is too humanly flawed, too sprawling and hit-and-miss to inspire uncomplicated wonder at the magnificence of human ingenuity, of the impossible dazzlingly achieved,” [32] lacking the purity and abstraction of music, painting, and science. He relegates fiction writing to the field of fantasising, regarding it as merely an undertaking through which “a whole life could be contained by a few hundred pages−bottled like homemade chutney.” [33] 

Against the study of literature, he pits his rationalist outlook of life, and what he believes to be the supremacy of scientific discovery. His explanation is that “[a] man who attempts to ease the miseries of failing minds by repairing brains is bound to respect the material world, its limits, and what it can sustain-consciousness, no less… [H]e knows it for a quotidian fact, the mind is what the brain, mere matter, performs.” [34] To his mind, science is the grand narrative that maintains stability; therefore, he relies on his scientific knowledge to make sense of the world out of its chaos in an attempt to alleviate his anxiety, but his scientific reasoning narrows his perspective and makes him susceptible to a deficit of empathy. Noticing from the window two teenage girls quarrelling in the square, he can only read the scene from a medical viewpoint, describing one of them as having “amphetamine-driven formication” or “exogenous opioid-induced histamine reaction.” [35] 

His profession as a neurosurgeon serves as a metaphor for a world suffering from a terminal disease which needs curing. McEwan’s accurate descriptions of Perowne’s consummate skill in neurosurgery evoke the power that science has to explain, relieve, and cure serious maladies. Surgery can even have unexpected powers as it facilitated his encounter with his wife Rosalind when he was a young intern. Yet science cannot secure total success: his mother suffers from vascular dementia which gradually degenerates her mental faculties, and Baxter’s Huntington’s disease is a neurological condition that is only granted a short remission through surgery. Science does not hold all the answers, and it inevitably comes into conflict with other ‘truths,’ such as those valued by art and religion.

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Nonetheless, Perowne debunks religious faith as being, like literature, merely “a problem, or an idea, of reference. An excess of the subjective, the ordering of the world in line with your need, an inability to contemplate your own unimportance.” [36] He is a “professional reductionist” who believes that bad luck is stencilled in “invisible folds and kinks of character, written in code, at the level of molecules,” [37] and that no social justice can make amends for misery. His feelings about politics and ethics are ambivalent: reflecting on the march against the 2003 invasion of Iraq upon which he comes across on the street during his errands in the city and from which he chooses to turn away, he becomes aware of his inability to “feel, as the marchers themselves probably can, that they have an exclusive hold on moral discernment.” [38] Daisy intuits his double standard, blaming her father of equivocation: “You’re saying let the war go ahead, and in five years if it works out you’re for it, and if doesn’t, you’re not responsible.” [39] His hesitations are those of a cultivated man who is aware of the risks of both action and non-involvement. He is worried about the fate of Iraqis through his friendship with a former patient, an exiled Iraqi professor, and also takes seriously his children’s concerns about the war, but, as Andrew Foley points out in his critical essay, in spite of his “concern about the state of the world,” Perowne remains dissociated from the dangers and tribulations of contemporary reality, as if he lacked “a genuine sense of imaginative empathy for those less fortunate than himself.” [40] 

Safe within the walls of his comfortable apartment in Fitzrovia, he feels insulated from the violence that suffuses the world beyond his window. He looks down on the square with god-like detachment, noting with surgical precision the anxieties of the people who “often drift into the square to act out their dramas.” [41] From this vantage point, he believes that he can shield himself and his family from such traumatic incidents as those of 9/11, which he perceives as external. He is distrustful of the young academics from Daisy’s college who “like to dramatise modern life as a sequence of calamities,” [42] for whom, he argues, “happiness is a harder nut to crack,” [43] as they find “the idea of progress old-fashioned and ridiculous,” [44] and prefers to celebrate the evident advance in the lives of the greater number of people:

The street is fine, and the city, grand achievement of the living and all the dead who’ve ever lived here, is fine too, and robust. It won’t easily allow itself to be destroyed. It’s too good to let go. Life in it has steadily improved over the centuries for most people, despite the junkies and beggars now. The air is better, and the salmon are leaping in the Thames, and otters are returning. At every level, material, medical, intellectual, sensual, for most people it has improved. [45] 

Nevertheless, despite his contentment with his privileged upper middle class life and confidence in scientific progress, Henry Perowne’s experiences a state of anxiety, fuelled, on the one hand, by his disengagement with the fates of other people, and, on the other, by living in a world replete with incidents of violence, his false sense of security being shaken as soon as he is out on the streets: “He feels culpable somehow, but helpless too. These are contradictory terms, but not quite, and it’s the degree of their overlap, their manner of expressing the same thing from different angles, which he needs to comprehend. Culpable in his helplessness. Helplessly culpable.” [46] 

His anxiety parallels a general, collective one, manifested through the close focus on London, which, in spite of its apparent robustness and glitter, is portrayed as a vulnerable, fear-ridden city, under the constant menace of terrorist attacks (thus anticipating the London bombings that took place in July 2005, only a couple of months after the novel’s release). This latent violence threatens to destabilise the order of Perowne’s comfortable life, which is exposed as precarious, and throw him out of his almost complacent contentment.

When he eventually realises that the fiery object he sees in the sky is, in fact, the wing of an airplane, Perowne is horrified, the scene evoking images of large-scale catastrophes, as he starts to imagine details of the victims’ last moments on board, “the screaming in the cabin partly muffled by that deadening acoustic, the fumbling in bags for phones and last words, the airline staff in their terror clinging to remembered fragments of procedure.” [47] The plane incident reminds him of Schrödinger’s Cat, which, “hidden from view in a covered box, is either still alive, or has just been killed by a randomly activated hammer hitting a vial of poison. Until the observer lifts the cover from the box, both possibilities, alive cat and dead cat, exist side by side, in parallel universes, equally real” [48] ; nevertheless, he dismisses the experiment as just “another example of a problem of reference,” [49] and rather cynically concludes that “whatever the passengers’ destination, whether they are frightened and safe, or dead, they will have arrived by now.” [50] 

Theo manages to control his anxiety about world affairs by embracing the philosophy of ‘small thinking,’ concentrating on the immediate pleasures of having a new girlfriend, making a new song, or taking a snowboarding trip: “When we go on about the big things, the political situation, global warming, world poverty, it all looks really terrible, with nothing getting better, nothing to look forward to. But when I think small, closer in […] then it looks great. ” [51] Perowne’s mother is protected from worry by her old age and senile dementia. Yet, as Richard Rorty argues in his review of the novel, McEwan does not urge his readers to think small, but reminds them that they are prone to do so. [52] As a responsible and sensible adult, Henry Perowne has no other option than to extend his empathic participation in the world’s moral tangle. Empathy becomes more and more onerous, forcing him to see things from the perspective of his mother, his children, his Iraqi patient, and even fish. As he goes to the fishmonger, he reflects on the potential feelings of the fish he plans to cook for dinner, and reasons that “[t]his is the growing complication of the modern condition, the expanding circle of moral sympathy. Not only distant peoples are our brothers and sisters, but foxes too, and laboratory mice, and now the fish.” [53] The solution to human success, he concludes, lies in sympathetic selectiveness. [54] (In an interview, McEwan describes this selective compassion as an inevitable compartmentalisation, necessary if one is to cope with life in a world where one can come across suffering anywhere: “We can be desperately, genuinely concerned about the misery created by the tsunami in the middle of the Indian Ocean, then twenty minutes later we’re having a nice time drinking a glass of wine with a friend. These things go in boxes.” [55] )

But his selectiveness also extends to human beings, and it is precisely this failure to empathise imaginatively with other people that will turn out to be a potential source of conflict for Perowne. Without delay, he is thrown out of his smugness by the fender bender and its consequences. It is only when he must face violence that his attitude of self-contentment is challenged. By diagnosing Baxter with Huntington’s disease, “biological determinism in its purest form,” [56] Perowne manages to escape unharmed from the encounter, yet humiliates Baxter by revealing this weakness in front of his cronies, which eventually will cause the ruffian to seek revenge by following Henry home, holding his family hostage with a knife, and threatening to rape his daughter. It is this random event, this sudden intrusion of the contingent into Henry’s safe and smug existence−his clash with Baxter−that allows the author to bring fates into collision and call into question the self’s ability to deal compassionately with the other.

At first, Perowne attempts to settle this potentially traumatic encounter by adopting the attitude that has come to his rescue so far: detaching himself from the incident, and thus shunning a close moral self-scrutiny:

It’s been a tough week, a disturbed night, a hard game. Without looking, he finds the button that secures the car. The door locks are activated in rapid sequence, little resonating clunks, four semiquavers that lull him further. An ancient evolutionary dilemma: the need to sleep, the fear of being eaten. Resolved at last by central locking. [57] 

McEwan includes other scenes symptomatic of Henry’s failure of empathy in the novel, highlighting his protagonist’s unpreparedness to summon the empathic understanding granted to those who can read a scene from multiple perspectives. Thus, for instance, he persuades himself that it is advisable to turn off the TV and turn away from other people’s misery.

The idea of imaginative empathy, according to which a cognitive practice capacitates moral sense, expanded upon in the first subchapter, is in line with the attitudes McEwan endows both Briony Tallis and Henry Perowne. Whereas Briony’s fault lies in an excess of imagination that goads her to fictionalise life at the expense of reality, Perowne suffers from a deficit of artistic imagination, counterbalanced by a glut of rationality. Both modes of behaviour have harmful consequences because the proponents of both ways of operating in the world view reality through tinted glasses that prevent them from acknowledging the individuality (and as a result achieving a greater understanding) of other people.

Like Atonement, Saturday asks questions about the various competing ways of viewing the world, and Henry’s scientific reasoning is exposed as inadequate at the end of the novel. When Baxter and his accomplices invade Henry’s home and threaten his wife and children, it becomes plain that the goings-on transcend his shaky and self-serving explanatory systems. It is literature (his daughter’s reading of a stanza from Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” [ 

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