Rorty on the Lessons of McEwan’s Saturday

Richard Rorty reviews Ian McEwan’s Saturday in Dissent.

The tragedy of the modern West is that it exhausted its strength before being able to achieve its ideals. The spiritual life of secularist Westerners centered on hope for the realization of those ideals. As that hope diminishes, their life becomes smaller and meaner. Hope is restricted to little, private things—and is increasingly being replaced by fear.

This change is the topic of Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, One of the characters—Theo, the eighteen-year-old son of Henry Perowne, the middle-aged neurosurgeon who is the novel’s protagonist—says to his father,

When we go on about the big things, the political situation, global warming, world poverty, it all looks really terrible, with nothing getting better, nothing to look forward to. But when I think small, closer in—you know, a girl I’ve just met, or this song we are doing with Chas, or snowboarding next month, then it looks great. So this is going to be my motto—think small.

John Banville, who, in the New York Review of Books, finds the novel a distressing failure, says that this “might also be the motto of McEwan’s book.” But thinking small is not the novel’s motto; it is its subject. McEwan is not urging us to think small. He is reminding us that we are increasingly tempted to do so. Banville is off the mark yet again when he says that “the politics of the book is banal.” The book does not have a politics. It is about our inability to have one—to sketch a credible agenda for large-scale change.