According to a book of interviews (Conversations with Ian McEwan, 2010, edited by Ryan Roberts), novelist Ian McEwan has been putting down English scholars for decades. This is funny because McEwan isn’t the kind of author who believes school is for fools. His characters are usually upper-middle-class intellectuals, composers, doctors, newspaper editors—well-schooled people. And he has big support in universities. Scholars research, rehash and teach his books in classrooms throughout the English-studying world. They’ve helped make him one of the most lauded living authors.
All the same, he thinks the humanities run on a ridiculous model. For example, in a 2005 interview with sculptor Antony Gormley, McEwan says, “One has to be wary of the delicious, seductive joys of pessimism. In art it can turn into an empty mannerism. And in the universities, in the humanities, all intellectuals are required to be card-carrying pessimists. You have to go to the sciences today to find any real sense of wonder, any real joy in the intellectual life” (141). That’s harsh—and maybe a bit true.
We hear a lot about the crisis in the humanities, that people aren’t paying attention to the good work going on in the departments of English or African American studies or history. Those scholars feel ignored while theoretical physicists get lots of press for discovering New Secrets of the Universe (cover of Newsweek, issue for May 28, which I just saw on a news stand). Why aren’t the latest studies in contemporary Asian American literature splashed across mainstream magazine covers? The latest speculative theories in cosmology probably don’t have as big an impact on our civic and social lives as the ways immigrants and their children view themselves. Is it that the universe is more universal? Stars are prettier than the ins and outs of race? All this makes me want to unpack McEwan’s “pessimism” warning.
For McEwan, studying the arts in higher education has become more about fighting than it needs to be. That may be accurate, but we should also remember the humanities depend on productive clashes in ways hard sciences don’t. I defended my dissertation a year ago in a humanities department, and as often happens when I see academics gather to talk about art criticism, the event—a big conference table surrounded by professors and grad students—reminded me of sailing in rough seas. It wasn’t a hurricane, but it did turn into an exciting little storm. Claims and counterclaims swelled and collided. One senior professor argued against another on the fundamental value of Derridian deconstruction versus consilient approaches. Another accused me of reducing combat painting and choreography to text. These were big issues, as if they were asking, “Does this two-year project have any value at all anywhere?” I turned my rhetorical rudder into the swells, cited memorized notes to keep headway and reefed my sails tightly so my opponents wouldn’t get hold and tear them. Afterward they shook my hand, called me “doctor,” and met me at a bar to drink beer and shoot pool. The next day I began using the ocean of notes I had taken at the defense to fix the little holes my committee pointed out and publish a better final product, one that floated.
My dissertation had a multidisciplinary bent, art criticism borrowing insights from psychology, biology and medical science. As a result I sat in the audience for plenty of defenses on topics ranging from sodomy in Medieval French literature to the neuroscience of children who stutter. The mood among young scientists in their defenses shocked me at first because everyone was so calm. Nobody challenged any basic theoretical underpinnings. That had all been sorted out earlier. At this stage, professors seemed most interested in making sure the methods were sound, saying things like, “How did you control for the child’s blinking during this phase of the study? Did you consider another way to decide which p-waves were outliers?”
Humanities scholars are trained more in attacking and defending philosophical positions than they are in cooperating toward accumulating a body of knowledge. By contrast, most scientists in a given field agree with each other on the fundamentals. They want to do studies and repeat them. They believe accumulating data matters, and eventually looking at everyone’s data lets them come up with some narrative for how the body of evidence fits. There’s a sense that most everyone in the department is on the same team, trudging together carefully into the unknowns of speech pathology or cellular biology. (Of course in science we see plenty of outsize egos, mistakes and snubs—but the model seems to yield lower average blood pressures.)
McEwan seems annoyed at the philosophical disagreements so often voiced among humanities scholars. I think that’s where his word “pessimism” comes from. There’s little feeling that we’re building on each other’s work. We’re attacking, deconstructing, building on ashes instead of standing on the shoulders of giants. If we don’t watch out, that feeling of pessimism can saturate our reception of the books we read and the sculptures we see. In that environment, showing unabashed enthusiasm for an aesthetic experience puts our hearts in a vulnerable position, open to attack from those who disagree. Maintaining inquisitive distance from the novels we love lets our interlocutors trash our claims without trashing us. As McEwan says, pessimism can feel “seductive” and “delicious.” We can use a novel to point out injustices and declare “we’re doomed” without really feeling terrible about it (141). The next scholar can do the same in another direction.
The way McEwan sees it, pessimistic disinterest teaches people to close ourselves off from a novel’s most important quality, “its peculiar ability to get inside minds and show us the mechanics of misunderstanding, so you can be on both sides of the dispute.” He goes on: “we have evolved a literary form that I think is unequalled in its ability to get inside the nature of a misunderstanding” (85). Feeling close to the characters—feeling so close we’re in their heads—is key not only to finding a kind of joy in watching them flounder though their predicament, but also to learning something about people.
What I love about McEwan, besides his fantastic facility with a sentence, is his openness to lots of ways to understand people. As I’ve hinted, he samples from across the spectrum. Asking himself how a writer should represent time, he says things like, “Biological thought has made it possible to rub the emotional against the scientific in a small scene like that”(102). I find that idea beautiful, sampling across disciplines, rubbing one against the other, seeing what resonates.