Friday, May 24, 2013


[Several things I've read recently, and a few conversations pursuant thereto, have put me in mind of a talk I gave for a graduate seminar course in contemporary British fiction at UNB a couple of years ago. Perhaps you'll enjoy reading it, though you'll definitely get more out of it if you've read McEwan's Saturday, which was not a novel I much enjoyed, as a work of art, but is nevertheless intellectually impressive.]

Given Ian McEwan's avid interest in science and this book's particular focus on the functions and pathologies of the human brain, I thought it would be fitting to examine it through the lens of a couple of key scientific concepts.

The first of these is “patternicity,” a term coined by psychologist Michael Shermer.


Basically, this is the innate human tendency to, as Shermer puts it, “find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise.” According to Shermer, “our brains are belief engines: evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature.” We do this because it has survival value; when things are in fact connected, we gain crucial knowledge of our environment.

The downside is that our instincts for pattern-recognition often lead us to forge erroneous links between things that are best left unconnected. Shermer provides a few examples of false patterns: “UFOlogists see a face on Mars. Religionists see the Virgin Mary on the side of a building. Paranormalists hear dead people speaking to them through a radio receiver. Conspiracy theorists think 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration.” He encapsulates all this with a nifty aphorism: “people believe weird things because of our evolved need to believe nonweird things.” If the distal cause of these misconceptions is embedded in our DNA, the proximal causes, or “priming effects” in Shermer's terminology, are rooted in the specific cultural milieu of the individual.

So, if you're doing your duty as a pattern-perceiving hominid, you've likely guessed that I'm next going to talk about Henry Perowne's early-hours plane-spotting episode, which begins on page 13. Strikingly, Henry “doesn't immediately understand what he sees, though he thinks he does.” First, he mistakes the streaking flame for a meteor. Then, realizing the trajectory's all wrong, he corrects this misreading with another one: it's a comet. Then, with the help of a bit of auditory stimulus, he realizes that it is, in fact, a plane.

This bird-plane-superman process happens very rapidly; on page 14, the narrator says “Only three or four seconds have passed since he saw this fire in the sky and changed his mind about it twice.” Once he knows what it is, his imagination is “set free” and patternicity kicks into overdrive. On Page 16, Henry imagines “The fight to the death in the cockpit, a posse of brave passengers assembling before a last-hope charge against the fanatics.” Etc. He sees a pattern because it's human nature to see one. He sees the particular pattern he sees because of the priming effect of 9/11. Henry clearly isn't a marginal conspiracy theory wackjob in thinking this way, as the media, throughout the day that follows, repeatedly report things that accord more with what one expects or wants to be found, than with the actual facts of the case: fundamentalist Islamic pilots, Koran in the flight deck, etc.


Before I say anything further about how patternicity relates to Saturday, I'd like to briefly explain a related concept: Theory of Mind. This sounds pretty highfalutin, but psychologist Martin Doherty explains that it is, essentially, the practice of making “inferences about the psychological states of others.” This is something that virtually all (neurotypical) humans do as a matter of course.

In How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker situates Theory of Mind within what he calls the practice of “intuitive psychology” and, like Doherty, says it's something everyone does instinctively:

We mortals can't read other people's minds directly. But we make good guesses from what they say, what we read between the lines, what they show in their face and eyes, and what best explains their behavior. It is our species' most remarkable talent.”

And it is a talent that becomes manifest in human beings, typically, by the age of four, regardless of what culture they come from, as research conducted by Doherty and others has shown.

Saturday is rife with examples of Perowne practising Theory of Mind in trying to anticipate, interpret and understand the words and deeds of other people. The two Baxter episodes are the most obvious—and the most fraught, because Baxter, whose “face is never still” (222) is far from neurotypical—but think also of the brief moment, which you can find on page 141, when Henry, stuck in traffic, looks over at a TV screen in a storefront, where he sees a close-up of Tony Blair's face and tries to determine, by reading Blair's features, if he's being honest.

Here, the narrator comments on Theory of Mind explicitly:

For all the difficulties, the instinctive countermeasures, we go on watching closely, trying to read a face, trying to measure intentions. Friend or foe? It's an ancient preoccupation. And even if, down through the generations, we are only right slightly more than half the time, it's still worth doing.”

Which is a neat recapitulation of Shermer's argument for the evolutionary benefit of patternicity.

When I started thinking about how to approach this presentation, I had the idea of using McEwan's interest in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology as a foil to Barthes' “Death of the Author.” I was motivated in part, I have to admit, by my disagreement with Barthes' thesis and my distaste for the dogmatism with which he propounds it. The reading experience has long been for me, fundamentally, a matter of communication between the person who wrote the text and the person who's reading it, an extension and refinement of the face-to-face storytelling that is such a big part of daily life.

Far from limiting the possibilities of the text, as Barthes says, this conception of writer-reader intimacy enriches it for me. If anything, Barthes' view seems to me mistily naive, a kind of nostalgia for the innocence of the child's reading experience, uncluttered by awareness of the publishing industry, book prizes, celebrity gossip, etc. It seems to me exactly the sort of theory that might be espoused by a writer who lived with his mother most of his life...

I came to see McEwan, particularly in Saturday, as an ally. The more I read about him and his book, the more I saw a rejection of critical theories such as Barthes'. Not only does McEwan favour peer-reviewed science over abstract theory and intuition, but he falls very much on the side of the things against which Barthes rails in the conclusion of “The Death of the Author”: i.e., “reason, science, law.” As opposed to the surrealism and automatic writing championed by Barthes, McEwan favours prose and plot that are the quintessence of tidy, disciplined, sequential order.

Moreover, in Henry Perowne McEwan has created a protagonist who, we learn through various profiles and interviews, lives in McEwan's house, plays McEwan's squash game and prepares the same fish stew served to Dr. Neil Kitchen in Mr. Ian McEwan's dining room. Henry also has a mother, Lily, who, like McEwan's mother, Rose, has vascular dementia. McEwan has gone so far as to say that “Henry is probably closer to me than any of my (characters).”

We sometimes catch McEwan using Henry as a mouthpiece for his creator's views. Henry, for instance, has no truck with fairy tales and magic realism. At the bottom of page 67, McEwan/Perowne opines that “the supernatural was the recourse of an insufficient imagination, a dereliction of duty, a childish evasion of the difficulties and wonders of the real, of the demanding re-enactment of the plausible.”

In the New Yorker profile by Daniel Zalewski, McEwan says, in what seems like a broadside against one of the other books on our reading list [Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus]: “It's enough to try and make some plausible version of what we've got, rather than have characters sprout wings and fly out the window.”

McEwan's use of free indirect discourse in the narration of Saturday further blurs the line between himself and Perowne.

So, armed with all of this good, hard evidence, it isn't so great a leap to say, if not Henry Perowne = Ian McEwan, then at least that the author is alive and well in Saturday. It's certainly a leap that John Banville was willing to make. His review of Saturday, in the New York Review of Books, is literary criticism as Patternicity and Theory of Mind par excellence. Consider some of the things Banvillle says:

Few passages catch the flavor of this extraordinary book as well as the one in which, apparently without a trace of authorial irony, Perowne is made to recall an epiphanic moment on a fishing trip when his eye lit on his beloved car”

The hard-fought match between Perowne and his American-born rival is meant, we assume, to illustrate the competitive, indeed warlike, nature of the human male, and to show us that McEwan is not entirely Mr. Nice Guy.”
This fight seems meant to be a further display of McEwan's tough-mindedness, but is merely as tedious as any other overheard squabble between youth and age.”
The awful possibility arises that Perowne's ignorance may be intended as a running gag; if so, it is the only instance of humor in the book, if humor is the word.”
Note all of the iterations of intention and meaning in these quotations. Banville—or his editor—appears to know he can't get away with saying these things with absolute certainty, but the cumulative impression is that he's pretty darn sure what's going on in McEwan's mind. Towards the end of the review he elaborates on why Saturday is a “dismayingly bad book,” which is deeply rooted in Banville's theory of McEwan's mind:
It happens occasionally that a novelist will lose his sense of artistic proportion, especially when he has done a great deal of research and preparation. I have read all those books, he thinks, I have made all these notes, so how can I possibly go wrong? Or he devises a program, a manifesto, which he believes will carry him free above the demands of mere art—no deskbound scribbler he, no dabbler in dreams, but a man of action, a match for any scientist or soldier. ”
Banville concludes by saying that Saturday's “arrogance” gives it “the feel of a neoliberal polemic gone badly wrong; if Tony Blair—who makes a fleeting personal appearance in the book, oozing insincerity—were to appoint a committee to produce a "novel for our time," the result would surely be something like this.”

If reading Barthes made me run to McEwan as an ally in the cause of the live author, reading Banville made me long for a bit of Barthes's scribocidal hemlock—in much the same way that Henry, when talking politics with the unflaggingly self-assured Jay Strauss, finds himself drifting towards the anti-war side of the Iraq debate, I found myself drifting towards Barthes.

It's precisely this sort of drift from fixed positions that Banville's patternicity, primed by McEwan as best-selling outspoken celebrity author, has to edit out in order to make his reading of Saturday hold up. If the presence of the author in this book is to be detected, it is not so much in isolated, offhand statements made by Perowne, as it is in the overall pattern of speculation, error, doubt, backtracking, correction and revision that is the hallmark of a devotee to reason and science.

Molly Clark Hillard's essay on Saturday, in part a response to Banville's reading, is salutary. In it, she observes that McEwan's “novel ... turns upon reading and reading again, that apparently requires re-reading to amend misprision. ... [Hillard] would remind us of our own capacity for misprision, for taking the newspaper interview for the novel, the man for his text, the narrator for the protagonist.

Hillard cites several instances of misprision in Saturday, many of which I would say are the product of patternicity, and focuses in particular on the “Dover Beach” scene as a case of multi-layered misreading. I'd like to conclude by looking at that scene as a reification of patternicity.

On page 220, the narrator says that Henry “only half remembers” the poem that Daisy is reciting. This is likely true, since—as Banville points out, missing the irony, as usual—what English schoolchild of Henry's generation can have escaped exposure to “Dover Beach” altogether? But because he is primed by the context to believe that Daisy is the author of the poem, Henry shoehorns it into his memory of reading her work, even while he recognizes that the “wilfully archaic” tone of the poem is unusual in Daisy's work.

In the first reading of the poem, Henry commits speaker-as-author fallacy, an irony apparently lost on Banville. Primed by the unexpected revelation of Daisy's pregnancy, he deduces that the poem must be about her, her lover and the child they're expecting, set against the backdrop of the Iraq war, as he accidentally substitutes “desert” for Arnold's “ignorant.” He does this even though the poem is not supposed to be a new work of Daisy's, but is included in the Van Dykes of her book and therefore almost certainly predates her pregnancy, which is only in its first trimester.

On page 221, at Baxter's insistence, Daisy “reads” the poem again and Henry realizes that he “missed first time the mention of the cliffs of England” and this time sees the poem not through the eyes of its “author” but rather through those of its auditor, Baxter. Strikingly, Henry imagines Baxter “standing alone, elbows propped against the sill” of an “open window.”

This brings us back to Perowne “standing alone” at his window, watching the flaming plane streak by. On page 126, we learn that Henry has come to regard the story of the Russian cargo plane “as his own,” much as he comes to see “Dover Beach” as, first, Daisy's story and, second, Baxter's, before he is finally disabused of these erroneous perceptions and learns that the poem is Arnold's—the “truth” of which he mangles further by wondering about Arnold's surname.

Saturday is loaded with instances of miscommunication, misunderstanding and misidentification. As Ruth Scurr puts it succinctly in her review of Saturday: “free people with choices are sure to mess up.” If the book's author intends a moral lesson, it is nothing so crude as what Banville posits, but perhaps something along the lines of: because we are human, we will err, but by revisiting our assumptions, interrogating our beliefs and rereading people, events and texts carefully, we might make fewer and less grievous mistakes. As Mark Lawson put it in a review for The Guardian:

Saturday ... is subtle enough to be taken as a warning against either intervention or against isolationism. Is the foreign policy of Henry's government exposing him to danger, or is his moneyed, bouillabaisse-eating existence a self-delusion in a threatening world? As in the best political novels, the evidence and arguments are distributed with careful ambiguity.

Pace John Banville, it's awfully hard to imagine Tony Blair's stamp of approval on a book in which he is made to look foolish – by mistaking Perowne for someone he isn't, and yet carrying on boldly as though he had the right guy all along.


Banville, John. “A Day in the Life.” New York Review of Books 52/9 (May 26, 2005). (May 26, 2007).

Barthes, Roland. Trans. Richard Howard. “The Death of the Author.”

Doherty, Martin J. Theory of Mind: How Children Understand Others' Thoughts and Feelings. New York: Psychology Press, 2009.

Fray, Peter. “The Enduring Talent of Ian McEwan.” The Age. January 29, 2005.

Hillard, Molly Clark. ““When Desert Armies Stand Ready to Fight”: Re-Reading McEwan’s Saturday and Arnold’s “Dover Beach.”” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas, (6:1), 2008 Jan, 181-206.

Lawson, Mark. “Against the Flow.” The Guardian. January 22, 2005.

McEwan, Ian. Saturday. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2006.

Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. New York: Norton, 1997.

Scurr, Ruth. “Happiness on a Knife-edge.” The Times. January 29, 2005.

Shermer, Michael. “Patternicity: Finding Meaningful Patterns in Meaningless Noise.” Scientific American. November 25, 2008.

Weich, Dave. “Ian McEwan, Reinventing Himself Still.” April 1, 2004.

Zalewski, Daniel. “The Background Hum: Ian McEwan's Art of Unease.” The New Yorker, February 23, 2009.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Wall of Miracles

So here's a cool thing that happened recently. Through expat poet Suzanne Steele, I heard about a call for submissions for a project at the University of Exeter, where Suzanne is a PhD candidate. The project is called The Wall of Miracles:

A unique collection of original nature poetry printed onto handmade cards the size of luggage tags from writers around the world will be exhibited on a wall outside Reed Hall on the University of Exeter’s Streatham Campus. The Wall of Miracles poetry installation makes use of a particularly beautiful section of masonry near Reed Hall, hanging poem cards about animals and nature by string to the wall. 

The organizers of the WoM chose my poem, "Doe," which I think is pretty darn cool.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Wee update

Been a while since I posted anything, largely because my computer decided it no longer wanted to connect to the internet and I had to get a new one more willing to do my bidding.

I returned home on the 6th from the Irving Layton symposium at Ottawa U, where I gave a talk on Layton's improbable relationship with Black Mountain. I recorded said talk and will be uploading it once I get it off my defective PC and load it on to my shiny new MacBook (a purchase I could ill afford, but I just couldn't face the prospect of continuing to use the invective-inducing Beta-grade software known as Windows).

Anyway, the symposium was very stimulating. Kind of fun to take part in such a thing as a non-academic interloper, if only for the sociology of it all.

More anon.