Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

The Ethics of Otherness in Ian McEwan's Saturday*

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

The Ethics of Otherness in Ian McEwan's Saturday*

Article excerpt

Since the 1980s, Ian McEwan' s literary oeuvre has displayed a growing concern with the relation between literature and ethics, becoming progressively more involved with public and historical issues, and turning attention to the moral possibilities of the novel itself.1 When discussing McEwan' s literary ethics, critics generally base themselves on a common humanist conception that sees in literature an important exploration of human nature with potential to enrich the readers' knowledge of themselves and of others.2 The author's own comments on the ethics of fiction have contributed to this understanding, as he describes his writings in terms of an inquiry into the human mind that is achieved by stepping "inside the consciousness of others" (Ridley vii). However, I believe that Saturday (2005) represents a moral turn that goes against McEwan' s own declared liberal-humanist views and diverges from the common critical interpretation of his literary ethics. Instead, the novel seems to resonate with Emmanuel Levinas' s ethics of Otherness, with its emphasis on the self as infinitely responsible toward the ever-strange and incomprehensible Other.

McEwan has often asserted that "showing the possibility of what it is like to be someone else" is the main achievement of fiction, as it elicits our empathy for other human beings and so makes us aware that "other people are as alive as [we] are"(Kellaway). In a conversation with David Lynn, McEwan similarly stated that the importance of the novel lies in its "mapping out of other minds and the invitation to the reader to step into those other minds" (51). 3 These ideas, which are in accordance with liberal-humanist ethics, or else express a version of Martha Nussbaum's literary ethics,4 focus on the moral aspect of the novel in soliciting our imaginative understanding of other human beings.5 The ethical vision expressed in Saturday, by contrast, seems to be based on the impenetrability of the Other, on the inability to step into another's mind.

Set in London on Saturday, February 15, 2003, the day of the protest march against the invasion of Iraq, the largest in British history, Saturday follows neurosurgeon Henry Perowne as he moves through this one challenging and disturbing day. The seemingly episodic plot is defined by two violent encounters with Baxter, an aggressive criminal, narrated through Perowne7 s perspective in the present tense.

The critical reception of the novel was very mixed. Many readings condemned McEwan for producing a contemporary update of the common Western fable of the privileged male hero (Henry Perowne) faced with violent opponents (Baxter, the young thug, and his mates), threatened by them (first after the car accident and then in the violent break-in to Perowne' s house), but at last overcoming his opponents, thus restoring order and stability (along with the hero's wealth and social supremacy).6 This kind of reading usually involves a denunciation of the novel's simplistic endorsement of Perowne' s liberalbourgeois perspective and of its affirmation of an oppressive SelfOther relation in which the socially inferior rival (Baxter) is violently defeated by the dominant, intellectually superior protagonist.7

By contrast, I contend that the novel actually sets out to challenge the oppositional scheme of Self-Other: the underprivileged antagonist is presented not as an affirming foil, but rather as a singular, enigmatic Other who has the power to shake the protagonist's indifferent subjectivity. This is, I believe, the ethical focus of the novel, which should be understood in light of Emmanuel Lévinas' s conception of the responsibility and obligation due to the most different and incomprehensible 'Other.' Indeed, the novel is permeated with shades of Lévinas' s post- World War II thinking, in which he posits a neohumanism based on the "traumatism of astonishment" (Totality 73) - on the experience of shock that arises from the encounter with " something absolutely foreign" (Totality 73) in the Other human being. …

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