This one’s gonna be short, ‘cos it’s a short section.
A fifth of the way in, and the big protest today was only mentioned…once. One could be forgiven for not remembering there’s a protest on at all.
It takes four pages for Perowne to rise from his bed and go to the bathroom. He thinks of Darwin and Daisy:
There is grandeur in this view of life. […] Darwin of course, from last night’s read in the bath, in the final paragraph of his great work Perowne has never actually read. […] Those five hundred pages deserved only one conclusion: endless and beautiful forms of life, such as you see in a common hedgerow, including exalted beings like ourselves, arose from physical laws, from war of nature, famine, and death. This is the grandeur. And a bracing kind of consolation in the brief privilege of consciousness. (p. 53-54)
Did Richard Dawkins break into McEwan’s house one day and vandalize the manuscript? Anyhoo…
Once, on a walk by a river—Eskdale in low reddish sunlight, with a dusting of snow—his daughter quoted to him an opening verse by her favourite poet. Apparently, not many young women loved Philip Larkin the way she did. (p. 54)
I can’t tell good poetry from a hole in the ground, so I’ll defer to Ellis Sharp with this one:
True enough: 18 year old girls [Daisy’s not 18, BTW] probably prefer Snow Patrol to Philip Larkin. But probably not many anti-war protesters were into Larkin either, one suspects, bearing in mind Larkins’ racism, sexism and miserabilist verse which yearns for a fantasy pre-First World War England, mocks and stereotypes the ghastly vulgar working classes and has a gloomy fixation on the inevitability of death (written in his younger days – ironically when he grew old his poetry dried up and he retreated into booze and singing jolly racist chants with his charmless alcoholic lover). As Tom Paulin somewhere remarks, underneath the Larkin monument runs a stinking sewer. But McEwan himself evidently likes Larkin, whose verse is the only copyright material cited in ‘Saturday’.
So…authorial intrusion? I don’t read poetry, so I don’t know what Daisy would or wouldn’t respond to in Larkin’s work. Anyway, the flashback continues:
“If I were called in / To construct a religion / I should make use of water.” She said she liked that laconic “called in”—as if he would be, if anyone ever is. They stopped to drink coffee from a flask, and Perowne, tracing a line of lichen with a finger, said that if he ever got the call, he’d make use of evolution. What better creation myth? An unimaginable sweep of time, numberless generations spawning by infinitesimal steps complex living beauty out of inert matter, driven on by the blind furies of random mutation, natural selection and environmental change, with the tragedy of forms continually dying, and lately the wonder of minds emerging and with them morality, love, art, cities—and the unprecedented bonus of this story happening to be demonstrably true. (p. 54)
The good doctor has just demonstrated that he has no clue how creation myths work. With these stories, their literal truth (or, more likely, untruth) is unimportant. Creation myths exist not as a blow-by-blow factual account of how everything got started but as a symbolic, metaphorical way of outlining how a culture and a people understand the world and their place in it.
Here’s the kicker. Perowne should know this. Everything I just said up there came from Wikipedia. I just spent two seconds on Wikipedia and I now have a better understanding of how creation myths work than a famous brain surgeon. And my command of literature is worse than his. That’s just sad. Daisy’s right; this man needs to read more books, and quick.
There’s something later about how Perowne sits to urinate and ooh look how progressive he is, but it pales in comparison to what came before. I just hope that was Perowne being Perowne and doesn’t represent McEwan’s actual feelings on the matter, because I sure expect better from a Booker Prize-winning novelist.