Friday, April 28, 2006

An Extract from Ian McEwan's Saturday

One of the many strands of arguments in Ian McEwan's magnificent new novel Saturday is the debate surrounding reductionism and rationality. The novel is primarily about the consciousness of the central character Henry Perowne as he spends a day in his life around London (although far from a typical day) doing various things and being a professional reductionist (he is a neuro-surgeon) he tries to explain each and everything he observes and thinks about, in terms of matter inside the brain. Initially I thought McEwan was making fun of this position but after reading the whole book, I think he shows great sympathy and understanding of his protagonist's worldview. And I was extremely gratified to read some of those passages because I too think that there are no mysteries, only problems in the world, all meant to solved. And like Perowne, this is a matter of faith with me!!

This passage appears towards the end of the book as Perowne looks inside the brain of his patient and muses :

For all the recent advances, it's still not know how this well-protected one kilogram or so of cells actually encodes information, how it holds experiences, memories, dreams and intentions. He doesn't doubt that in years to come, the coding mechanism will be known, though it might not be in his lifetime. Just like the digital codes of replicating life held within DNA, the brain's fundamental secret will be laid open one day. But even when it has, the wonder will remain, that mere wet stuff can make this bright inward cinema of thought, of sight and sound and touch bound into a vivid illusion of an instantaneous present, with a self, another brightly wrought illusion hovering like a ghost at its centre. Could it ever be explained, how matter becomes conscious? He can't begin to imagine a satisfactory account, but he knows it will come, the secret will be revealed -- over decades, as long as the scientists and institutions remain in place, the explanations will refine themselves into an irrefutable truth about consciousness. It's already happening, the work is being done in laboratories not far from this theatre, and the journey will be completed, Henry's certain of it. That's the only kind of faith he has. There's a grandeur in this view of life.


rain in june said...

i like mcewans books. you should read amsterdam.very subtle yet powerful play of emotions.

Alok said...

thanks rain! Atonement is the only other McEwan book I have read. His other books are on my to-read list too.

btw, you have got a nice name for yourself :)