What Would Henry Perowne Make of My PhD???

April 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

“In Daisy’s final term he went to an open day at her college.  The young lecturers there like to dramatise modern life as a sequence of calamities.  It’s their style, their way of being clever.  It wouldn’t be cool or professional to count the eradication of smallpox as part of the modern condition…[For] the professors in the academy, for the humanities generally, misery is more amenable to analysis: happiness is a harder nut to crack.” (77-78)


Henry Perowne, the central character in Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005), thus gives voice to a provocative – and deeply compelling – strain of thought that has lurked, more or less prominently, in the background of many of the texts we’ve mulled over together.  Like Thomas Kurton in Richard Powers’s Generosity (2009), Perowne embeds a powerful critique of the literary – or, more accurately, particular deployments thereof – in a resolutely “literary” work. (I cast the word in scare quotes to remind us that McEwan resides in the upper echelons of contemporary literary respectability, among those writers whose output is more or less instantly canonized.) We might also recognize this sort of critique from our nonfictional materials; in The Scientific Life (2008), Steven Shapin gently urges his reader to think twice before joining the ranks of those that would unilaterally lament the changing landscape of 21st century academia.

It goes without saying that McEwan, Powers, and Shapin are not out to deliver uncomplicated polemics decrying the traditions within which they work.  Henry Perowne’s failure to engage with poetry – that form which “balances itself on the pinprick of a moment” (129) – reads like a rather damning diagnosis of the neurosurgeon’s inability to be fully present in the present.  What’s more, this failure seems at least partly a product of Perowne’s historical position, situated as he is in an era of media bombardment and crushing overwork.  Earlier, Henry complains that his daughter Daisy’s “reading lists have persuaded 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” (67).  Here, again, McEwan urges his reader not to accept Perowne’s quibbles unquestioningly, but to wonder at the latter’s lack of reflexivity; if fiction is “too humanly flawed,” it is surely the privileged index of mankind’s experience.  Henry’s behavior – and psychic turmoil – render McEwan’s irony blindingly apparent. 

Nevertheless, Perowne’s words are hauntingly suggestive for this 21st century graduate student of literature.  If Henry is, surely, not to be believed in some puerile abandonment of the critical faculty, I am not at all sure that he’s straightforwardly wrong.  Put another way, does Perowne’s diagnosis of Daisy’s intellectual milieu raise valid questions about the gestalt of contemporary humanities scholarship?  Could we, at once, remain committed to the ideological and methodological underpinnings of our mode of inquiry and ask ourselves and each other searching questions about the relationship our work has to the world around us?  Are Henry’s objections to some (surely somewhat caricatured) strain of galloping negativity well-founded, and if so, how could we possibly begin to internalize them? 

– Killian C Quigley


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