The Hungarian philosopher György Lukács called the novel “the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God.” Other forces played more obviously into the form’s rise to literary preeminence—the consolidation of a middle class; advances in printing technology—but the link between the emergence of the novel and the decline of religiosity is strong. Three hundred years ago, reading novels (as opposed to the classics, or Shakespeare) was widely seen as vulgar, indicative of a deficient mind. So was not believing in a divine creator. Today, at least among the sort of people who tend to read literary magazines, both these thing are more likely to be regarded as signs of intellectual and moral refinement. For the critic James Wood, this is no coincidence: the novel is “the slayer of religions,” a form that swept away Biblical certitudes and replaced them with fictional narratives that move “in the shadow of doubt,” asking readers for a belief that is fundamentally and irreligiously metaphorical.
One author who would agree wholeheartedly with Wood is England’s Ian McEwan, who asserted in 2013 that the novel is a product of the Enlightenment that “has always been a secular and skeptical form.” McEwan is a committed nonbeliever, so committed that he qualifies as a junior member of the intellectual movement-cum-publishing-ploy known as New Atheism, which emerged in the wake of 9/11. Christopher Hitchens dedicated his God Is Not Great to McEwan, and McEwan blurbed Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, calling it “lucid and wise, truly magisterial.” The critics Arthur Bradley and Andrew Tate, in their 2010 study The New Atheist Novel, write of McEwan “it is tempting to say that—if his fiction did not exist—Dawkins and company would have had to invent it, so completely does it vindicate their worldview.” McEwan’s protagonists are universally, as Edward says in On Chesil Beach, “grateful to live in a time when religion has generally faded into insignificance.” Ostensibly, this view is never seriously challenged, the gratitude never corroded.
And yet, things aren’t so simple. McEwan aligns strongly with the New Atheism through his celebration and exaltation of capital-R Reason. In the New Atheist framing, post-Enlightenment science embodies the apogee of the human capacity for reason, while religion constitutes a troublesome soup of everything that is unreason. McEwan’s literary vocation coalesces with his scientific rationalism via the moral role he proclaims for the novel—a role he frames in explicitly neuroscientific terms. As he describes it, “we are innately moral beings, at the most basic, wired-in neurological level.” This morality stems from the fact that “our imagination permits us to understand what it is like to be someone else” (psychologists call this Theory of Mind). From this, McEwan says, it follows that fiction is “a deeply moral form, in that it is the perfect medium for entering the mind of another.”
Within the history of English letters, McEwan’s vision of the novel as a “deeply moral form” and force for social good recalls George Eliot and Iris Murdoch—with the special quality of its being underpinned and animated by all the things contemporary rationalists and atheists love: evolution, neuroscience and a morality rooted in our selfish genes, rather than in God. To listen to only McEwan’s interviews, it all seems very straightforward: novels make us nicer people. Good novels can ultimately achieve the same thing as antibiotics, vaccines, nitrogen fertilizer or any other other scientific success—they can aid the species.
A neat and altogether edifying thesis. However, examining the evolution of McEwan’s craft across the three novels which make up the central phase of his career—Enduring Love, Atonement and Saturday—we find his work telling a different story. McEwan certainly wants novels to be good for us. But a profound nervousness runs throughout his oeuvre, a suspicion that fiction-writing is infected with the original sin of fabulation. Albert Camus called fiction “the lie through which we tell the truth.” But to hard-headed rationalists like McEwan, lying is what priests do, and what the committed rationalist strives to avoid. All of reason is about excavating truth; the rest just gets in the way. Across the three novels constituting the central phase of his career—in probably his three best-known and most enduring works—there runs a deep worry: Do the imaginative capacities that give us literature in fact share more with the religious impulse than the faculty of reason? Is the novel quite the atheistic form he would like it to be?
McEwan wasn’t always the staid rationalist he is today. After graduating from university, he followed the hippie trail to Afghanistan, where he glimpsed “moments on tops of mountains with mescaline thinking the whole thing seems to be speaking to me.” In his early thirties he “dickered around the edge” of New Age thinking, something in evidence in the introduction to his 1982 oratorio Or Shall We Die?, where McEwan speaks of “that deep intuitive sense … that there is a spiritual dimension to our existence.” This seeker’s instinct pervades his early fiction, where we see a mystically tinged interpretation of quantum mechanics influence the magical-realist experiment of The Child in Time (1987). Similarly, with 1992’s Black Dogs, the validity of spirituality remains open for debate. The protagonist’s in-laws oppose each other as “rationalist and mystic,” and he sees them as “the twin poles along whose slippery axis my own unbelief slithers and never comes to rest.” This slithering unbelief was, at the time, also McEwan’s own. After publishing Black Dogs, he told an interviewer that even though his “spiritual dimension” was “out of focus,” a mere “ill-defined dissatisfaction,” he had “never been convinced that rational explanations are enough.”
Soon enough, McEwan was more than convinced. In the mid-Nineties, he began exchanging e-mails with Dawkins, and his conversion to card-carrying rationalist gathered pace. Around this time, he also begins to be explicit about his moral conception of the novel: Homo sapiens are primates that, over millennia, evolved deep-set pro-social features, including the capacity for empathy. Empathy is fundamentally an act of imagination (we imagine our way into the mind of another), and an act of imagination on the scale of a good novel can send a tsunami of it washing through the brain. Novel-reading (and writing) can be a form of moral education.
Enduring Love (1997) is the first of McEwan’s novels to be published in the wake of both his conversion to staunch atheism, and his arrival at this understanding of novel writing in explicitly neuromoral terms. The novel centers on the relationship between Joe, a popular-science writer, and Clarissa, a Keats scholar. In the schema of the novel, the couple embody the so-called “two cultures” debate: Joe embodies science, and Clarissa the arts. In turn, science is equated with reasoning—Joe, in Clarissa’s assessment, advocates a neo-Darwinism which is “rationalism gone berserk”—and the arts are equated with feeling: Clarissa, in Joe’s assessment, “thought that her emotions were the appropriate guide” to life. The plot of Enduring Love is fueled by a third character, Jed. Jed unwaveringly believes that Joe is madly in love with him, and that the two men are destined to be together. Joe and Clarissa’s differing assessments of the danger posed by Jed’s increasingly bold stalking—Joe thinks he is genuinely menacing; Clarissa thinks he is harmless and misunderstood—drive the novel.
The intriguing thing about Enduring Love is that, ultimately, Joe is right: Jed is a violent stalker, and Clarissa should have listened to him. The rationalist perceives it all clearly. And at the root of all the novel’s problems is a phenomenon whose very mention sees the rationalist’s “gut tighten”: narrative. Narrative gives Jed his deluded romantic vision, and narrative obscures the truth from Clarissa, who sympathizes with Jed instead of hard-headedly analyzing his behavior. Most significantly, even Joe himself can’t escape the intoxications of narrative. He tries his hardest. To read Enduring Love is to be privy to one man’s heroic effort to achieve perpetual cognitive control in the service of perfect rationality. But as his life becomes more fraught, the reader sees Joe becoming increasingly drawn towards the explanations and consolations of narrative, of speculation and conjecture. One way to summarize Enduring Love would be as the story of a man whose meticulous understanding of how the brain works can only partly save him from how the brain works. In trying to remain supremely rational, Joe develops a deep mistrust of his own phenomenological life, lamenting the way our basic irrationalism dooms the species to live “in a mist of half-shared, unreliable perception.”
Put simply, in McEwan’s tale, fiction is on the wrong side of the argument. Our pervasive craving for the narrative substance that is the raw material of fiction makes us at best credulous, and at worst deluded and dangerous. If everyone in Enduring Love followed Joe in aspiring to perfect rationality, the real danger posed by Jed might have been spotted much earlier. However, a species-wide ascent to such perfect rationality would also be the end of fiction. Joe’s is an account of a man attempting to police his own phenomenology, but what he is battling— his brain’s appetite for the emotional titillation of the narrative imagination— is precisely the thing which, in readers, McEwan relies upon to sell books.
Meanwhile, hovering over the fraught role of narrative in Enduring Love is McEwan’s neuromoral vision for his fiction as a vehicle for empathy. Clarissa, the literature lover, is by her own admission “completely wrong” about Jed, and Joe is right—and not because he sat down and read a stack of novels. He doesn’t even like novels. Jed’s problem, meanwhile, does not seem to be that no one is drawing on our ancient primate capacities and imagining themselves into his mind. There is no sign of the imagination coming to the rescue and making everyone nice and empathic. The imagination nearly creates a tragedy, and it is cold, hard reason that (just about) rides to the rescue.
This dynamic reveals the even deeper worry animating the work of the proud atheist McEwan: if literature partakes of a basic irrationalism, does it not share more with the Bible than a biology textbook? Throughout the novel, the storytelling urge aligns closely with the religious urge. The “Jesus freak” Jed is the figure most intoxicated by his private narrative—a narrative that resembles the plot of a million tawdry romance novels (a shared glance blossoming into secret, transgressive desire). Clarissa, meanwhile, echoes Jed in criticizing Joe’s overreliance on reason. Her remark regarding a Keats anecdote—that “it isn’t true, but it tells the truth”—sounds, to Joe, like oxymoronic obfuscation. However, it is an effective summation of how we might describe poetry—and also how many modern-day believers regard their holy books. Joe’s blanket aversion to narrative is forced to loop in both the fictional and the religious story: he appears to be just as irked that the curators of London Library “really believe that literature was the greatest intellectual achievement of our civilization” as he does by the persistence of religious superstition. Everywhere it might have a say, narrative fiction is part of the problem.
The contradictions continue with McEwan’s next novel, Atonement (2001). In 1935, the precocious thirteen-year-old Briony, who is just beginning to experiment with fiction, realizes that “only in a story could you enter … different minds and show how they had an equal value”— a crucial psychic act, because, as Briony is coming to realize, “the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you” is the cause of most human suffering. Sound familiar? Shortly after describing her artistic manifesto, Briony commits the moral crime upon which the novel rests, when she wrongly identifies Robbie, the secret lover of her older sister Cecilia, as a rapist. Robbie goes to jail, and he and Cecilia are not reunited until after the Second World War. Except that in fact they are never reunited at all. In an audacious metafictional twist, the postscript reveals that the whole of the novel has been written by the elderly Briony. Both Robbie and Cecilia actually died in the carnage of the War, and the preceding account has been Briony’s attempt to atone for ruining their love, decades prior.
While promoting Atonement, McEwan echoed his protagonist in saying of fiction that the “penetration into other consciousnesses lies at the heart of its moral quest.” Which is bizarre, when we see that, in the novel itself, the character who alights upon this moral quest destroys the lives of everyone around her with her writerly egotism. She lies about the perpetrator of a rape to get attention and approval, and a half-century of tragedy follows. In the novel’s closing twist, Briony thinks her “godly power of creation” makes up for her preadolescent recklessness, but the reader sees that her power is in fact not godly at all, but self-deluding, even vile. “I gave them happiness,” Briony declares. But the reader is acutely aware that she didn’t; that she gave them suffering, and then gave herself an imagined and narrated version of their happiness—a version with which she has just duped us for three hundred pages.
As with Enduring Love, this irrational, fabulating literary urge is presented as residing next door to the religious one: Briony remarks on how the novelist is “also God … there is nothing outside her.” Her descent into imaginative moral corrective is presented as a sort of extremist expression of the narrative mindset, a megalomaniacal fabulation which is the cousin of religious delusion. The older Briony might curse her younger self as a girl who “couldn’t tell real life from the stories in her head”—but by the end, there is the dismaying sense that this remains a rather fitting description of her older self.
Atonement was published in the same month that nineteen members of al-Qaeda hijacked four planes and murdered thousands of civilians. In the wake of the event—and in spite of the deep ambivalence about the moral value of narrative storytelling dramatized so acutely in his previous two bestselling novels—McEwan described his moral vision in bolder terms than ever, now extending the novel’s scope to that of a potential panacea for terrorism. In a widely read front-page reaction piece published in the Guardian, McEwan wrote that “if the hijackers had been able to imagine themselves into the thoughts and feelings of the passengers, they would have been unable to proceed.” The parallel with his wider literary vision is clear; a trite interpretation would have McEwan suggesting that if only the nineteen hijackers had been exposed to some Henry James on the eve of the attacks, they might have lost their jihadic nerve. Whatever the anxieties of his fiction, publicly, McEwan was continuing to frame the novel at large as a cross-cultural source of moral imagination. Whatever the doubts of Atonement, its creator wanted to believe.
Saturday, the last of McEwan’s novels I will examine, does its best to resolve these contradictions. Published in 2005, it is the novel where McEwan seems to try hardest to overcome his unshakable doubts about the nobility of his craft. Saturday revives Enduring Love’s dramatization of the epistemological tensions between the (neuro)scientific and the literary modes, this time embodying them in the neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, and his daughter Daisy, a poet. Like Enduring Love’s Joe, Perowne is a paragon of scientism, who can reflect coolly on the “intracellular events” taking place in his brain while remaining baffled by others’ preoccupation with “sophisticated fairy stories” such as Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary. Again like Joe, Perowne believes himself to be living proof that people can live “without stories,” but he too is riddled with the blind spots of perception, perennially at the mercy of his evolved somatic and emotional reality.
In the climactic scene of Saturday, a character name Baxter (with whom Perowne has had an earlier run-in) breaks in to the Perowne family home, holds them at knifepoint and threatens to rape Daisy. Apparently stalling for time, Baxter—drunk, and suffering from advanced Huntington’s disease—demands that Daisy read one of her poems. From memory, Daisy recites Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” Contrary to W. H. Auden’s famous assertion that “poetry makes nothing happen,” Baxter is so moved by the poem that he no longer wants to rape Daisy. Tragedy is averted. It is a daring scene, one which John Banville described as descending to “a level of bathos that is hard to credit.”
Almost all readings of Saturday, both popular and critical, see this scene as affirming the power of literature, and thus of McEwan’s neuro-moral vision: a great poem can literally avert a rape. In this reading, although narrative and the novel are harshly interrogated with Enduring Love and Atonement, they are redeemed by Saturday, where in a moment of great peril the scientist can’t do anything, but poetry can. Perowne’s literary philistinism is shown to be deeply foolish, as literary language displays its real-world power. Shortly afterwards, Perowne pays it forward by operating on Baxter’s brain and forestalling his Huntington’s. Thus the parallel is drawn: whether poetry or a scalpel, both can act on our gray matter to make the world a more compassionate place.
However, a closer reading reveals that even while staging such a bold scene of literary redemption, McEwan’s doubts persist. For one, what changes Baxter’s mind is a deception: the poem wasn’t written by Daisy, and if the potential rapist knew this, we suspect that the words would not have the impact they do. What saves Daisy is not so much poetry as the so-called biographical fallacy. Baxter doesn’t praise the poem’s language or tone; he remarks wondrously, “You wrote that. You wrote that”—which isn’t true. This might be empathy, but it is also delusion.
More critically, Saturday leaves just enough of a suggestion that Baxter’s drastic mood swing might have nothing to do with the redemptive powers of literature. By this stage in the scene, Baxter is verging on the manic: he is “twitching,” “licking his lips,” “shifting weight rapidly from one foot to the other.” He has also downed a large quantity of neat gin. Watching the scene, Perowne comments on Baxter’s “degenerating mind.” Later, he remarks, “who knows what spooky uncontrollable emotions were driving him.” It isn’t made explicit, but there is more than a hint that Baxter’s “transformation from lord of terror to amazed admirer” might have less to do with Matthew Arnold’s poetic brilliance, and more to do with the fact that “the wasting in his caudate nucleus” means “his emotions are wild and his judgment is going.”
What Saturday’s climactic scene displays is the unpredictability of the literary response, the fundamentally non-rational way in which literature operates on the brain. And once again, this non-rational footing places literature next door to religion. The presence of Arnold’s “Dover Beach” in Saturday is instructive: Arnold was a prominent Victorian cultural critic who sought to fill the void left by the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of “The Sea of Faith” with culture. He wanted to replace the gospel with the canon. McEwan proclaims to want to do something of the same—basking in a sense of empathy caused by evolved brain circuitry was once dubbed loving thy neighbor—but he doesn’t quite trust his own mission. It might have been poetry that rescued Daisy, or it might have been a mix of irrationality, creeping madness and blind chance. Earlier in the novel, when Perowne declares to his daughter that evolutionary theory represents the best possible creation myth partly because it is simple fact, Daisy replies “now that’s genuine old-time religion, when you say it happens to be demonstrably true.” Once again, the representative of literature in the novel is no simple atheist. Once again, it is the man who doesn’t understand fiction who can most easily reject God.
Ultimately, Saturday tentatively flips the scheme of Enduring Love on its head. This time, the narrative, irrationalist mode is just about the one which prevents violent disaster. The novel does reveal “a morality, an ethics down among the enzymes and amino acids”—and shows it to be one which literature can access. However, the revelatory power of the written word still relies on the unpredictability of human brains, the slipperiness of the artistic reaction. Poetry’s power in Saturday appears as less a powerful Arnoldian hymn and more a lucky cry in the dark. While Saturdayproposes a faith in literature’s ability to stoke empathy, it is a delicate faith, a faith always struggling to forgive itself for relying on the fabulated. The doubts and second-guessings of Atonement die hard.
What gnaws at McEwan’s novels is the suspicion that literary mind gives us both Mrs. Dalloway and apocalyptic narrative interpretations of the Qur’an. However artful a neuroscientific framing he gives it, McEwan knows that fiction will always take off from what Enduring Love’s Joe calls “those realms of feeling that defy the responsibility of logic.”
Is it revealing that Richard Dawkins “read[s] novels for entertainment rather than for edification,” and has “never quite understood why you would read fiction to understand the human condition”? Or that throughout the many hours of Sam Harris’s podcast I have listened to, I can’t recall him once mentioning a work of fiction? Or flip it around: Is it revealing that the novelist Philip Pullman dilutes his outspoken godlessness with a belief in panpsychism inspired by William Blake’s poetic beatitude? Or that David Foster Wallace believed “there is actually no such thing as atheism”?
These tendencies tell us something, and McEwan’s literary angst poses a very serious question: At bottom, is the novelist more priest than scientist? Is trusting in fiction really any more sensible or rational than trusting in religious myth? Wood might believe in fiction’s secular spirit, but he also explores how “the difference between literary belief and religious belief” was “an excruciation” for Melville, Gogol, Flaubert and others. The confusion continues to this day. Just as the most convincing atheist of them all, Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, is trapped inside a deeply Christian novel, the most rationalist novelist of our time keeps writing books that can’t help but ponder their own unreason.
Strange as it might sound, McEwan’s repeatedly declared moral manifesto for the novel ends up representing a sort of faith. He knows—and his books know—that the notion of storytelling as inherently virtuous is nothing like a scientific axiom. Biblical narratives gave us the bloodbath of the Inquisition; the 9/11 bombers really did believe those tales of 72 virgins. Equally, Hitler liked Don Quixote, and Pol Pot adored French poetry—it didn’t turn either of them into notable empaths. Point being: millions have been taken in by stories which have very little to do with compassionately understanding other minds. Again and again, McEwan’s novels dramatize the dangers of our irrational, narrative-drunk brains, and show how stories can make them veer from empathy toward something worse. But, having exorcised his doubts on the page, in the end, McEwan trusts fiction to do its mercurial work—trusts that in the final analysis it will produce more empathy than harmful irrationality. In McEwan’s hands, the novel may look—in Lukács’s phrase—like “the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God.” But, as Nietzsche saw, banishing God isn’t nearly so easy as some of us might like. McEwan’s writing has lost God—but there persists in it a difficult, conflicted, secular sort of faith.