Sunday, July 20, 2008

Philosophy of Mind in Ian McEwan's Saturday

I liked Ian McEwan's Saturday partly because of its focus on the mind-body relation. The main character, Dr. Perowne, is a materialist -- there's nothing more to a mind than a brain.

Perowne regards three persons through this reductionist lens:

1. Perowne's alcoholic father-in-law, a complicated poet whose foibles grow predictably from the effects of alcohol on the brain;

2. Perowne's mother, who suffers from dementia; the sections about her are the most profound in the book, focusing on the pathos and tragic affront when a good and caring person is deleted by brute, neural wiring malfunctions; and

3. Baxter, the intelligent thug; the issue here is the conflict between, on the one hand, our natural moral indignation at the heinous crimes of a free person and, on the other hand, the picture of the criminal as an unfree victim of his own gnarled neural wiring. (Shades here of philosopher Wifrid Sellars' contrast between the Manifest Image [our common, everyday sense of ourselves and others as free and responsible persons] and the Scientific Image [in which those persons dissolve into amoral atom-swarms].)

Here's an ambiguous quotation in connection with that last point:

“Who could ever reckon up the damage done to love and friendship and all hopes of happiness by a surfeit or depletion of this or that neurotransmitter? And who will ever find a morality, an ethics down among the enzymes and amino acids when the general taste is for looking in the other direction?”

I've earlier quoted a nice philosophy-of-mind passage from McEwan's Atonement. Here's a phil-of-mind quotation from Saturday, this time on philosopher Jerry Fodor's notion of 'Mentalese', an innate representational medium with syntactic structure in which the mind does its thinking or representing (I believe Fodor developed the idea under Chomsky's influence):

“This is the pre-verbal language that linguists call Mentalese. Hardly a language, more a matrix of shifting patterns, consolidating and compressing meaning in fractions of a second, and blending it inseparably with its distinctive emotional hue. … So that when a flash of red streaks in across his left peripheral vision … it already has the quality of an idea … unexpected and dangerous, but entirely his, and not of the world beyond himself.”

The main weakness of the novel is its plot, which seems implausible and jury-rigged in places, as if McEwan had notebooks full of good passages and riffs that he was itching to publish and just threw together any old narrative in which to embed them. The book is marred also by some smug political musings that are espoused by Dr. Perowne and that resemble some of McEwan's own political views. (I suspect that a lot of the recent, blogosphere animus against McEwan stems from disapproval of his politics. But who knows?)

Regardless, while it isn't as good as Atonement, there's some great writing in Saturday.

Here are some interesting reviews of Saturday, one of them by the late Richard Rorty.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comment on my review of "Best of Enemies". In answer to your question, the book suggests that German propaganda around WW1 was far inferior to our own and despite the Kaiser's blustering, much of the message did not get across. Indeed, the German message was compromised for their admiration for Britain, its empire and its way of life.

Your review of Saturday is interesting - I've not read it yet. As I understand it the concept of "mind" is still very much open for debate, and studies of Alzhiemer's patients are proving interesting as to the intrinsic location of personality and "mind"

Anonymous said...

Thanks for bringing Thomas Bernhard's The Loser to my attention in your recent comment. Having looked him up I can see this is another rich seam to mine.

John Mutford said...

I recently picked up this book at a used book sale. I merely skimmed your thoughts as I was afraid of spoliers, but when I get a chance to read it, I'll come back.

In the meantime, I was doing a round-up for the 2nd Canadian Book Challenge as the next update is just around the corner. Any progress or books you may have reviewed that I missed?

praymont said...

Hi John -- I haven't posted a review yet, but will contact you when I put one up.

Anonymous said...

A very interesting assessment, Paul. I must admit that I find McEwan blows hot and cold and, while I liked Saturday well enough at the time (not as much as Atonement, more than On Chesil Beach), your focus on the mind-body relation has given me the urge to look at it again in a new light.

Apparently McEwan's next novel will be about scientists tackling global warming. Not sure what to make of that.

praymont said...

Hi, John. Thanks for the tip on the next McEwan book. I agree that Saturday is a middling achievement. I was just intrigued that McEwan, like David Lodge, has worked some philosophy-of-mind issues into his fiction.