Ian McEwan’s Saturday: Page 65-77

Terrorism, Empathy, Materialism in Ian McEwan’s Saturday

Ng Lay Sion, Osaka University

1. Plot Review (page 65-77)
Ian McEwan’s Saturday reveals the minute-by-minute thoughts of a British neurosurgeon called Henry Perowne on 15th February, 2003. Historically, on that Saturday, London had a huge popular demonstration against the Iraq War. Alerted by this tension, Perowne was awoken at 3:30a.m to the sight of a plane seemingly on fire, descending upon London. Immediately flashing back to 9/11, Perowne comes to assume that it is a terrorist attack and waits for the news to be revealed. However, when he discovers that it is an innocent incident, he shows a sign of disappointment. Prior to that, he had been pondering the value of magical realism in literature, claiming that he is “unmoved” by those “sophisticated fairy stories” such as Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary (67). He further dismissed Daisy’s notion of “people can’t ‘live’ without stories” by claiming that he himself was living proof (69). In order to welcome Daisy’s coming home and celebrate her successful career as a poet, Perowne decides to drive over to the fishmonger’s even though the biggest demonstration will be held on London streets. While gazing at the crowds on the streets, Perowne recalls the story of Taleb, an Iraqi professor of ancient history, which has changed his perception towards Iraq (73). While walking to his car garage, Perowe passes a street cleaner who urges him to ponder the notion of egalitarianism and the system of consumer capitalism that is dominating current society (74). Eventually, Perowne chooses to “think small”—limits his vision—instead of “thinking big,” sticking to his privileged position/prosperity through enjoying the “joy of possession” and security that is provided by his silver Mercedes (35). Following these plots in the story, there are a few themes that are worth exploring: the fear of terrorism in the modern age, the notion of empathy and materialism to name a few. A clearer analysis will be shown in the following.

2. London and the Fear of Terrorism

 Saturday explores the problem of insomnia through the narration of Henry Perowne and a view of London in that “[a] city of its nature cultivates insomniacs” (17). It is clear that Perowne’s insomnia is caused by the fear of terrorism since the first thought that appears in his mind when he sees a burning aircraft is a terrorist attack. According to Sleep Review, “Terror brings the saliency of death into our awareness”; “One tends not to be reminded of death on a daily basis, but terrorism every day drives home the idea that one can die at any moment” (“Anxiety” 2015). Furthermore, as Jacques Derrida suggests, “the power of terror lies not in what has happened but in the eruption of fear for what might happen” (Gauthier emphasis 8; Borradori 2003: 97). It is the constant fear of “what might happen next” that overwhelms Perowne – that it even overshadows the power of Eros:
…But how quickly he’s drifted from the erotic to Saddam…Sleepless in the early hours, you make a nest out of your own fears – there must have been survival advantage in dreaming up bad outcomes and scheming to avoid them. This trick of dark imagining is one legacy of natural selection in a dangerous world. This past hour he’s been in a state of wild unreason, in a folly of overinterpretation. (39)
This constant fear of “waiting for terror” incites the irrationality and anxiety inside Perowne, resulting in his obsession with news reports and apocalyptic thinking. Paradoxically, apocalyptic thinking also serves as a defense mechanism for Perowne to overcome the fear of terrorism. Through imagining a dystopian situation, Perowne comes to reduce the uncontrollability and “otherness” or foreignness of terror. This might be the reason that urges Perowne to actually “look forward” to seeing terrorist attacks. Looking out of his window, all Perowne wanted to see was “London waiting for its bomb” and the broadcast of terrorist news on TV. This subversive state of Perowne can be linked to a norm called “cultural trauma” (Alexander et al, 2004). According to Alexander, “cultural trauma occurs when members of a collective feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in a fundamental and irrevocable way” (1; italic mine). What is important about this notion is the emphasis that “trauma is a socially mediated attribution,” that “events are not inherently traumatic” (8). Thus, it is through the spreading of social media that terrorism has become a culture as intangible as the air we breathe: “Now we breathe a different air”; “International terror, security cordons, preparations for war – these represent the steady state, the weather. Emerging into adult consciousness, this is the world he finds” (32; italic mine).


3. Arts and Empathic Understanding

 It is suggested that an effective way to cope with this cultural trauma is to cultivate an empathic connection between oneself (West/represented by Perowne) and the Other (non-Western). In doing so, the fear that is derived from the sense of “foreignness” inside oneself can be dissolved. As Spivak claims, “Unless we are trained into imagining the other, a necessary, impossible, and interminable task, nothing we do through politico-legal calculation will last” (83). In the novel, Perowne develops an emphatic connection with Taleb, an Iraqi professor of ancient history. While providing professional treatment for his patient, Taleb, Perowne also spends time listening to his experiences in an Iraqi jail under Saddam Hussein, which results in a change of his conception of the Iraq war: “if he hadn’t met and admired the professor, he might have thought differently, less ambivalently, about the coming war” (73). In this sense, Perowne sees his patients “more than the technical task ahead of him” (Macnaughton 73); that he is responsive to what others are thinking.

 In “Literature and the ‘Good Doctor,’” MacNaughton points out McEwan’s interest in the notion of empathy—that he identifies the ability to empathize as being a moral virtue (71-2). However, Perowne seems to be unresponsive to literature, as his poet daughter accuses him for having “poor taste and insensitivity” when it comes to literature (6). Is Perowne really unresponsive to literature? Indeed, he claims that he is “unmoved” by masterpieces such as Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary due to the “sophisticated fairy stories” (67). For Perowne, he feels that his experience of life through his work has given him more than literature can give: “He thinks he has seen enough death, fear, courage and suffering to supply half a dozen literatures” (6). Nevertheless, he spends time to finish those books recommended by Daisy because of his love and admiration for his poet daughter. In other words, Perowne thinks that he should read literature but it is not a “must” for him since he can live without it: “The notion of Daisy’s, that people can’t “live” without stories, is simply not true. He is living proof” (68). Unlike fiction, Perowne seems to be able to develop an empathic connection through music: “fiction is too humanly flawed, too sprawling and hit-and-miss human ingenuity, of the impossible dazzlingly achieved. Perhaps only music has such purity. Above all others he admires Bach, especially the keyboard music” (68). This preference of music over fiction can be understood through the explanation below:
“Empathy is essential to all the arts but is achieved differently in each. Because most instrumental music is not mimetic, empathy or resonance is not based on a story (as it is in literature and drama) but on a connection to a mood, an emotional quality.” (Knowles and Cole 230)
Thus, it is relevant to claim that Perowne is more likely to develop an empathic connection through the form of music than literature, as Perowne once confesses to himself, “when the music thrills him, and in a state of exaltation he feels his pride in his son – inseparable from his pleasure to pain. It’s difficult to breathe. At the heart of the blues is not melancholy, but a strange and worldly joy” (28). This “joy” seems not only to derive from a sense of freedom but also an empathic connection towards his son.


4. Commodity Fetishism and Thinking Small

However, other than his family members and his patients, it seems that Perowne attempts to avoid connection with the public sphere. As Anna Beck points out , Perowne’s avoidance of keeping contact with the outside world is supported by his choice of choosing which transportation he will take on that Saturday morning (117). Instead of taking the subway, which will be more convenient since there will be a big demonstration held on the streets, Perowne chooses to drive his silver Mercedes. It is supposed that by driving his car, Perowne is able to cut off the connection between him and the others such as the “junkies” and “beggars” (77). Also, the city becomes a mere “visual spectacle” when he is sitting inside his car (GUST 1999; qtd. in Beck 117). This setting allows Perowne to see the outside world from a hidden/private position, thus giving him a sense of voyeuristic pleasure: “Shamelessly, he always enjoys the city from inside his car where the air is filtered and hi-fi music confers pathos on the humblest details” (76). Since the air of terror is filtered and the chaotic noise on the streets is camouflaged by hi-fi music, Perowne feels no fear or “terror.” Rather, he feels extremely safe.

While driving, Perowne develops “a gentle, swooning joy of possession” and “love” towards his silver Mercedes, “an inanimate object” (76). Moreover, Perowne claims that “the car gives him vague satisfaction when he’s driving it; the rest of the time it rarely crosses his mind. As its makers intended and promised, it’s become part of him” (76). This clinging to material objects is associated with what Karl Marx calls “commodity fetishism,” in which it “transforms the subjective, abstract aspects of economic value into objective, real things that people believe have intrinsic value” (Wikipedia). This explains why Perowne claims that the car has become “part of him,” as if he were transformed into an object-like person while the car has become a person-like object.

Perowne’s clinging to material objects can also be traced back to his middle class upbringing and his medical career, which has taken him “from the obscure London suburb Perivale to fashionable Fitzrovia” (Ryle 30). As Ryle commends, “generically, this[Satuday] is an upward-mobility story, within the historical ambit of post-1945 British welfare capitalism” (30). This setting of Perowne as a member of the privileged class reminds us of the description below:
We have extraordinary privileges in terms of our access to machines and knowledge and, you know, fresh orange juice and coffee, and shelter and warmth. And we have running in parallel an extraordinary set of anxieties and guilt and genuine concern for the, you know, future shape of the planet. (Weekend Edition Saturday 2005)
This explains why Perowne would feel sorry for owning an expensive Mercedes: “For months he drove it apologetically”; it is only after a month that “he’s no longer embarrassed by it” (75). Supposedly, inside Perowne there lies both the idea of egalitarian and capitalism. However, Perowne dismisses the revolutionary projects that have sought to construct an equal society (Ryle 31). Whether it is Egalitarian ideologies or bourgeois capitalism that dominates the society, Perowne remains skeptical but insists upon the idea of “thinking small”:
“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. No more big ideas. The world must improve, of at all, by tiny steps” (74).
Holding on to the idea of “thinking small,” Perowne comes to think that those—such as the street cleaner—who fail to advance should have themselves to blame: “The streets need to be clean. Let the unlucky enlist” (74). Eventually, it is this philosophy of “thinking small” that encourages Perowne to become a devoted materialist (when he decides to buy a car, he persuades himself to think that “If he didn’t own it…someone else would” so that he does not feel guilty for buying it (75)).


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“Anxiety-related Insomia Depletes Vital Resources.” Sleep Review: The Journal of Sleep Specialist. 14 January 2015. Web. 6 June 2017.

Beck, Anna. “Subjective Spaces – Spatial Subjectivities: Movement and Mobility in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and Ian McEwan’s Saturday.” Spatial Practices, no. 17, 2013, pp. 107-124 , 227, Research Library.

Gauthier, Tim. “‘SELECTIVE IN YOUR MERCIES’: PRIVILEGE, VULNERABILITY, AND THE LIMITS OF EMPTHY IN IAN McEWAN’S SATURDAY.” College Literature, vol. 40, no. 2, 2013, pp. 7-30, Research Library.

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Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Terror: A Speech After 9/11.” Boundary 2, vol. 31, no.2, 2004, pp. 81-111. Print.


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