Monday, November 01, 2010

Black Dogs by Ian McEwan

There is no doubt that Ian McEwan is a great storyteller who won’t hesitate to tell rather bleak and creepy stories in order to make points about the human condition in general and contemporary life in particular. At least for this reader, there are times when the creepiness of the story trumps the profundity of his psychological analysis (The Comfort of Strangers jumps to mind), but in the rather foreboding tale, Black Dogs, the reverse is true. While on the surface the story is one of the long unraveling of a genuine love relationship between two people of different temperaments, I think McEwan is really trying to raise and discuss intelligently a split within the human psyche.

The surface story is one of two young lovers who, shortly after the end of World War II, quit their government jobs in England, declare their allegiance to the Communist Party (which they could not have done while still employed by the state), and set off to discover for themselves post-war Italy and France. Bernard and June Tremaine, convinced that the end of the war will also signal the end of capitalism and the beginning of a mass movement towards socialism, decide to hike and walk the towns and countryside of France and Italy as a honeymoon present to each other before returning home to help in building the new world.

Their tale is told by their son-in-law, Jeremy, who is living in the Europe of the 1980s and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Having lost his own parents in a road accident when he is only eight, he has an eye on the parents of his friends, fascinated by intact families and by what makes some marriages click while others fray and unravel. Jeremy finds himself deeply attracted to both Bernard and June, though they have long lived apart.
Rationalist and mystic, commissar and yogi, joiner and abstainer, scientist and intuitionist, Bernard and June are the extremities, the twin poles along whose slippery axis my own unbelief slithers and never comes to rest. In Bernard’s company, I always sensed there was an element missing from his account of the world, and that it was June who held the key. The assurance of his skepticism, his invincible atheism, made me wary; it was too arrogant, too much was closed off, too much denied. In conversations with June, I found myself thinking like Bernard; I felt stifled by her expressions of faith, and bothered by the unstated assumption of all believers that they are good because they believe what they believe, that faith is virtue and, by extension, unbelief is unworthy, or at best pitiable.
The deep division between June and Bernard, as well as their abiding love for each other, fascinates Jeremy, and he sets out to write the memoirs of June via interviews conducted on her deathbed.

It is important to remember that McEwan, himself, is no friend of the great religions of the world. A defender of his compatriot Christopher Hitchens, and at least somewhat sympathetic to a group of intellectuals sometimes dubbed The Evangelical Atheists (e.g., biologist Richard Dawkins, neuroscientist Sam Harris, and philosopher Daniel Dennett), McEwan understands clearly the dangers of religious fundamentalism. However, he is suspicious of the wholesale dismissal of all that gets called spiritual and of exaggerated claims by some scientists that the lens of science has already (or will very soon) see things as they are in themselves and forever render as both absurd and unnecessary talk of a spiritual realm.

The black dogs of the title are no doubt metaphors for wild, irrational evil in the world, but June faces them also as living, breathing, attacking beasts that she encounters on a hiking trail in Italy. She has been momentarily separated from Bernard, who is straggling behind, literally on his knees in the dirt studying some biological life-form that is new to him. And while, once the two are reunited, he is all sympathetic concern towards his young bride and the frightful experience she has just had, this event and their reactions to it set the stage for their inevitable turning away from one another. June, having survived this ordeal without the help of her husband, learns from it that she has courage, that she can if necessary stand alone, “That’s a significant discovery for a woman, or it was in my day.” Over the course of years as they return to London and begin a family, Bernard devotes himself to parliamentary politics and to what June sees as “faith in abstract principals according to which committed intellectuals think to engineer social change.” June turns inward and to the practical and immediate. They buy a small, unimproved vacation property in France to which she retreats. She studies the mystics, studies wild flowers, returns to London less and less often.

Jeremy serves as a kind of mediator between these two loving and yet incompatible people, able to listen to both, partly because he finds parts of himself in both of their worldviews, and yet is himself unable to synthesize and make compatible the disparate sides.
As the family outsider, I was both beguiled and skeptical. Turning points are the inventions of storytellers and dramatists, a necessary mechanism when a life is reduced to, traduced by a plot, when a morality must be distilled from a sequence of actions, when an audience must be sent home with something unforgettable to mark a character’s growth. Seeing the light, the moment of truth, the turning point—surely we borrow these from Hollywood or the Bible to make retroactive sense of an overcrowded memory. June’s ‘black dogs.’ Sitting here at the bedside notebook in my lap, privileged with a glimpse of her void, sharing in the vertigo, I found these almost nonexistent animals too comforting.
No doubt Jeremy serves a special purpose in this little novel; his is the voice that allows McEwan to continue the inward struggle between cool (even cold) rationality and a sense of something different, something more, something not to be named or neatly cordoned off. Gifted writer and intellectual that he is, McEwan does not in the end attempt a reconciliation, a convenient blending of the alleged contradictories. He is willing simply to present them, describe them, and leave them in suspension—not to be homogenized.
Bernard and June often talked to me about ideas that could never sit side by side. Bernard for example, was certain that there was no direction, no patterning in human affairs or fates other than that which was imposed by human minds. June could not accept this; life had a purpose and it was in our interests to open ourselves to it. Nor will it do to suggest that both these views are correct. To believe everything, to make no choices, amounts to much the same thing, to my mind, as believing in nothing at all.

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