Review of Ian McEwan’s “Enduring Love”
In the summer of 1850, the Englishman Alfred Tennyson galloped past the opposition and was appointed Poet Laureate. He was not an obvious choice, but his triumph was made nigh inevitable by the smashing success of his new poem: In Memoriam. Written as a tribute to a college friend, Arthur Hallam, who had died some twenty years before, Tennyson’s verses were to inspire and comfort his countrymen and women for many a decade. Indeed, when her consort Albert died suddenly in 1860, Queen Victoria told the poet that his work had helped her in her grief more than any other, save only the Bible.
Yet, paradoxically, the chief source of Tennyson’s power to help and inspire and to offer solace came from one of the more disreputable and controversial productions of the early Victorian era. I refer to the notorious, anonymously authored, evolutionary tract Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). With reason, this work (which now we know to have been written by the Scottish publisher Robert Chambers) upset the staid and sensible and decent, for it argued with relish that all of life including us humans is the product of a long, slow process of evolution. Tennyson, however, used it to his own ends. Sensitive to science (his tutor at Cambridge had been William Whewell), around 1840 when he was earlier working on his poem, Tennyson found his desolation at Hallam’s death and at existence’s apparent meaninglessness to be reflected in the uniformitarian geology of Charles Lyell. Lyell had argued that nature is going nowhere, just simply bound by unbroken, stern laws, and that there is no end in prospect, nor any progress in view. Life comes and life goes without meaning as expressed in the following famous passage:
Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;
So careful of the type? but no.
From scaped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.’
Given Nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ — this is the source of this famous phrase — nothing seems to make any sense. Not only individuals are pointless mortals, but so also are groups. We are born, we live, and then we die — usually painfully. Nothing makes sense or has meaning. There are just endless Lyellian cycles. Then, towards the end of the 1840s Tennyson read Chambers, or at least he read a very detailed review of Chambers’s Vestiges. Chambers argued for an organic evolution which was unambiguously progressionist, that is to say moving up from simple forms up to humans, and then perhaps beyond. Inspired by this, Tennyson picked up pen and finished his poem. He argued in the final lines that perhaps there is meaning after all, despite a Lyellian uniformitarianism: that life is progressing upwards, and that perhaps will go on beyond the human form that we have at present. Could it not be that Hallam represented some anticipation of the more-developed life to come, cut short as it were in its prime? There is therefore hope for us all and a meaning for the life of Hallam.
A soul shall strike from out the vast
And strike his being into bounds,
And moved thro’ life of lower phase,
Result in man, be born and think,
And act and love, a closer link
Betwixt us and the crowning race
Whereof the man, that with me trod
This planet, was a noble type
Appearing ere the times were ripe,
That friend of mine who lives in God.
[Note how (‘And moved thro’ life of lower phase’) Tennyson picks up on the recapitulatory nature of Vestiges’ s evolution that individual development (ontogeny) mimics evolutionary development (phylogeny).]
A century and a half later, it is tempting to smile somewhat at the use that the poet made of his scientific sources. Perhaps, however apart from applauding Tennyson for picking up on evolution some ten years before Darwin published the Origin we might stop and ask if a poet (or any creative writer) has the power and perspective to pick up on scientific ideas, throwing new light upon them and exploring their implications in ways that would never occur to the scientists themselves. Or indeed to others who (like those of us writing or reading this column) are interested in the broader implications of science.
I have been thinking much about this point recently. I have been thinking much more positively about this point recently since I read Enduring Love by the British novelist Ian McEwan (who last year went on to win the Booker Prize for his novel Amsterdam.) The earlier work, published in 1997, draws heavily on contemporary evolutionary ideas, particularly on the so-called sociobiological ideas of writers like the Harvard entomologist and student of social behaviour, Edward O. Wilson. I simply have to say that, since reading Enduring Love, I have been quite won over to the view that the creative artist can tell us things about science that the rest of us simply would not grasp: certainly would not grasp in such an interesting and fruitful manner.
The story McEwan tells is as follows. A science writer Joe Rose is having a picnic somewhere in the English countryside with his common-law wife Clarissa. They see a hot-air balloon in trouble and Joe rushes over to try to help. A number of other people are doing likewise. These other would-be helpers include a young man Jed Parry and a doctor in his early forties John Logan, as well as two others. Unfortunately, the balloon starts to rise up with a small child in the bottom of the basket. All let go except for Logan, who is carried high into the air at the end of a rope. Finally, he falls several hundred feet and is killed.
The story takes off from here because the young man Jed takes an immediate and obsessively erotic interest in Joe. It turns out that Jed is suffering from a psychological syndrome — De Clerambault’s syndrome— which manifests itself by the sufferer falling for another person in an immediate and obsessive way, convinced that this love-object person has an affection which is returned. Although this conviction is a complete delusion, nothing will deter the sufferer from his or her belief. (At the end of the book, McEwan gives a discussion of the syndrome. I should say that the syndrome really exists.) The plot of the novel simply involves Jed’s obsession for Joe and the consequences therefrom. At first, Jed phones Joe. Then, Jed starts sending letters and hanging around outside Joe’s house. Initially, Joe just brushes this off and does not tell Clarissa. Then, when Joe does let on, he has already started to build suspicion in her mind. Does Jed’s passion really exist, or is Joe making this all up? Then, when Clarissa is finally convinced that the passion is genuine, she wonders whether or not it was caused in some sense by Joe, or whether it just appeared from nowhere?
Eventually, what happens is that Jed gets more and more obsessional and hires a gunman who tries to shoot Joe in the restaurant: ‘if I cannot have your love, then no one will.’ The police are unsympathetic to the idea that this attack might have been brought about by Jed. Hence, Joe (who fears that Jed will try again) goes out and (through an old acquaintance) buys a gun for himself. Jed meanwhile has captured Clarissa in their apartment. Joe arrives back. Jed threatens to commit suicide before them, and Joe shoots him in the arm, thus preventing the fatality from happening. Clarissa now is so upset by the whole occurrence that she leaves Joe. Hitherto, they had had a happy and satisfying relationship, but she feels that she can no longer have the faith in Joe that she once had.
Underneath the main story is a sub-theme about John Logan, the doctor. Joe is upset because John’s death leaves a widow and two small children. He goes to visit the wife. She, however, is desperately upset because there is evidence that Logan (when he went chasing after the balloon) was not where he was supposed to be. She feared that he was about to have a picnic with some unknown woman. (A head scarf was left in Logans car when he went running over to the balloon.) Eventually, at the end of the story, thanks to the other people who were there at the site of the tragedy, we learn that in fact Logan was entirely innocent. He had been giving a lift to two hitch hikers: a fifty year old professor of mathematics and his mistress. These two had good reason to keep their presence at the site anonymous. Logan therefore had not been involved in an extra-marital tryst when he died. He was helping others as he was to help the child in the balloon, even unto his own death. This latter is an act of ultimate sacrifice, which right at the end of the books suggests that Joe and Clarissa come back together: their love rekindled by Logan’s selfless action, something which conquers the malignant, evil obsession which so consumes Jed.
Prima facie none of this is particularly evolutionary, but there are many references throughout the book to science (remember Joe is a science writer). Moreover, at the end of the book, McEwan openly refers to his debt to the writings of evolutionists including those of Edward O. Wilson and others. At the beginning of the book, the topic of evolutionary biology is introduced most directly in the context of discussion of the ideas discussed and generated by Joe in the pursuit of his profession. This in itself is used to point to the fact that evolution will be important: there are many comments about how (today) scientists are thinking deeply not only about evolution, but about the evolution of social behaviour. There is related talk of how human beings are themselves products of evolution, and how they work together for evolutionary ends.
In fact, right at the beginning we are introduced to this idea of cooperation. Joe and the others are holding onto the balloon and then let go, with the exception of Logan. Why is it, Joe wonders, that they behaved as they did? They were willing to help, yes, but they were not so willing to give up their lives. Hence, with the exception of Logan, out of what one might describe as ‘selfishness’ they let go. ‘Hanging a few feet above the Chilterns escarpment, our crew enacted morality’ ancient, irresolvable dilemma: us, or me [14-15]. But, apparently, there is a paradox here because Logan did not let go. Could this be a denial of sociobiology (that branch of evolution dealing with social behaviour)? The modern evolutionist thinks that we all act for selfish ends. We are, in Richard Dawkins’s memorable phrase, driven by ‘selfish genes;’ however, the sociobiological dilemma is solved when it appears that Logan had a mistress. Surely, therefore, Logan was showing off in front of this mistress and so in some way was trying to promote himself? His act was directed towards his own self advancement. The fact that it was to prove fatal was just a contingent, unfortunate consequence. Logan was rather like a peacock displaying his tail, with the intention of attracting the peahen. This is true even though sometimes the long tail proves fatal when pursued by a predator.
All of this seems to be just a teaser for what is to come later, although as we shall see this point is going to be woven skillfully into the climax of the novel. The main use of sociobiology by McEwan seems to be over Joe’s actions: whether or not the way in which he is behaving is in some sense biological or not. At one level, it is suggested that our understanding of the whole of nature is a sham brought about by our genes acting to make us efficient reproducers. In a way, even the obsession of Jed is explained as being something which is normal or natural from a biological point of view: abhorrent of course, but no less and no more an illusion than the illusion of others. In particular, it is argued, very much in line with the arguments of Edward O. Wilson (given in On Human Nature, one of the books referenced by McEwan), that Jed’s religious obsession is on a par with anybody’s religious beliefs:
“While I was waiting for the kettle I looked at a radio talk I was going to record that afternoon. I remember it well because I used the material later for the first chapter of a book. Might there be a genetic basis to religious belief, or was it merely refreshing to think so? If faith conferred selective advantage, there were any number of possible means, and nothing could be proven. Suppose religion gave status, especially to its priest caste – plenty of social advantage in that. What if it bestowed strength in adversity, the poser of consolation, the chance of surviving the disaster that might crush a godless man. Perhaps it gave believers passionate conviction, the brute strength of single-mindedness.
“Possibly it worked on groups as well as on individuals, bringing cohesion and identity, and a sense that you and your fellows were right, even – or especially – when you were wrong. With God on our side. Uplifted by a crazed unity, armed with horrible certainty, you descend on the neighbouring tribe, beat and rape it senseless and come away burning with righteousness and drunk with the very v ctory your gods had promised. Repeat fifty thousand times over the millennia, and the complex set of genes controlling for groundless conviction could get a strong distribution. I floated in and out of these preoccupations. The kettle boiled and I made the tea.” 
In other words, the suggestion is that life is a kind of illusion. We are all caught in evolution’s fancy. At some level, there seems to be a basic theme that everything is — not so much unreal — but a kind of dream-world brought on by natural selection. This happens because natural selection is interested in only reproduction rather than in us getting to the objective truth. However, McEwan is more skilled than this. He has a more sophisticated underlying theme. Again he builds on the ideas of the sociobiologists: although it is true that we humans are caught in illusion, perhaps in some sense we humans (uniquely) are able to break loose from this false consciousness. We can transcend our purely biological nature: through such things as science and the like, we can start to discover how life truly and really is, rather than how it just appears to us. At some later point in the novel, just after Joe has bought the revolver he is going to use eventually to shoot Jed, he is returning to London. Overcome with fear, he feels an immediate need to defecate. He goes in into the woods and scrapes out a hole.
“I left him waiting in the front seat while I took some paper and went back into the trees, and used my heel to scrape a shallow trench. While I crouched there with my pants around my ankles, I tried to soothe myself by parting the crackly old leaves and scooping up a handful of soil. Some people find their long perspectives in the stars and galaxies; I prefer the earthbound scale of the biological. I brought my palm close to my face and peered. In the rich black crumbly mulch I saw two black ants, a springtail, and a dark red worm-like creature with a score of pale brown legs. These were the rumbling giants of this lower world, for not far below the threshold of visibility was the seething world of the roundworms – the scavengers and the predators who fed on them, and even these were giants relative to the inhabitants of the microscopic realm, the parasitic fungi and the bacteria – perhaps ten million of them in this handful of soil. The blind compulsion of these organisms to consume and excrete made possible the richness of the soil, and therefore the plants, the trees, and the creatures that lived among them, whose number had once included ourselves. What I thought might calm me was the reminder that, for all our concerns, we were still part of this natural dependency – for the animals that we ate grazed the plants which, like our vegetables and fruits, were nourished by the soil formed by these organisms. But even as I squatted to enrich the forest floor, I could not believe in the primary significance of these grand cycles. Just beyond the oxygen-exhaling trees stood my poison-exuding vehicle, inside which was my gun, and thirty-miles down teeming roads was the enormous city on whose northern side was my apartment where a madman was waiting, a de Clerambault, my de Clerambault, and my threatened loved one. What, in this description, was necessary to the carbon cycle, or the fixing of nitrogen? We were no longer in the great chain. It was our own complexity that had expelled us from the Garden. We were in a mess of our own unmaking. I stood and buckled my belt and then, with the diligence of a household cat, kicked the soil back into my trench.” [206-207]
Now why is this relevant? What McEwan suggests is that Joe, through his knowledge and love of science, has managed in some sense to transcend his purely biological nature. But the paradox seems to be that, inasmuch and because he has transcended his biological nature, Joe only makes things worse: for himself, for Jed, and particularly for the relationship between himself and Clarissa. This comes because Joe has been able to see through Jed, to see the way that his mind is working and that he has got an illness, and because Joe wants to control the situation. Unfortunately, if anything things become worse. The police do not believe him. Clarissa is mad and hurt by him. (At one point, Joe goes through Clarissa’s mail trying to find evidence that she is turning against him because of other relationships. She finds out with predictable emotional consequences.) And, expectedly, Joe’s going out and finding a gun to shoot Jed, rather than leaving it to others, upsets everyone. In the ‘Dear Joe’ letter that Clarissa writes, saying that she is leaving him, she makes it very clear that it is precisely because Joe would not stay at the half-world of illusion that things have soured between them. He would not leave things at the familiar level, but insisted on digging down to find the truth whatever that might be. As a result, their relationship must come to an end.
Apparently, McEwan is offering a very depressing novel: if we try to break out of our biological nature, then precisely because of our biology, this is only to lead to great unhappiness. As Wilson suggests, there are very good biological reasons for our illusory world. Better by far for us to remain down at the animal level. But McEwan is too skilled a novelist to leave things at this level. Finally, he comes back tying in both his main story and his sub theme. He picks up again on the beginning passage about the men hanging onto the balloon and about only Logan staying true to the course. Now we know that it was untrue that Logan’s apparent altruism was bogus and that he was selfishly trying to impress his mistress. There was no mistress. Or rather, the scarf belonged to the mistress of someone else. Logan’s behaviour was therefore purely disinterested. He went over to help the boy in the balloon in distress purely for noble reasons.
In other words, Logan rose above his own biological selfishness. In the words of the professor who was being given a lift by Logan: ‘He was a terribly brave man…. It’s the kind of courage the rest of us can only dream about’ . So, in the end, what we see is that Logan has managed to transcend his biological nature, just as Joe transcended his nature. Yet, whereas Joe’s move seems to have plunged us into despair and destruction, Logan’s selflessness — his break from his biological nature — pushes us up to a higher level. And, as I have said, it is suggested at the end that this can be enough to overcome the harm that Joe has done, and that in the future Joe and Clarissa will come back together and — their love maturing and becoming less inward — have a family.
Thanks to Ian McEwan’s novel, we see that there are different kinds or levels of love. There is the conventional, everyday love of Joe and Clarissa meaningful, worthwhile, but in respects inward and fallible. There is the unhealthy, totally false eroticism of Jed, perhaps a parody of emotions to which we are all prey. There is carnal, selfish love of the professor and his student. There is the distrustful, jealous love of Logan’s wife. And there is the saintly, healing, disinterested love of John Logan himself. This is the enduring love of which Saint Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 13. This is a love which sociobiology not only allows but which it argues is the true mark of our distinctive human nature.
All in all, a fascinating work showing that the insights of science and the insights of religion can complement and reinforce, not oppose and destroy. Read it and see if you agree!