Tag Archives: Ian McEwan

Originality in science and the arts, a 2010 RLS lecture

3 Aug

I’ve only recently discovered the amazing back catalogue of literary lectures on the RSL website and the first that I have listened to is a talk from 2010, in which Ian McEwan discusses the idea of originality in the sciences and the arts.

I found it hugely thought-provoking; I had never really thought about the fact that originality which we have come to view as a prerequisite or in some cases, even synonymous with quality was not always the case.  Indeed, it is a relatively recent (as in 350 years or so) phenomenon.  Today, we praise a novel that we consider ‘new’ or ‘ambitious’, in some way different and original to the those before it.  But is everything ever really ‘original’?  Or is everything simply a result of past influences and existing structures, whether one is constrained by them or actively rebelling against them?  Here it is worth remembering Newton’s quote: If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

McEwan was well-placed to talk about originality in science as many of his novels have taken science as a subject (Enduring Love was about a science writer; Saturday was about a brain surgeon and global warming was a central theme in his novel, Solar).  He introduced the topic of originality in science by detailing the relationship between Darwin and Wallace, both founders of the theory of natural selection, however it is clear Darwin is the most famous for this.  He has become synonymous with the theory and has gone down in history as a result – but should originality matter in science?  It seems like it shouldn’t as scientific discoveries are essentially finding out truths, more about the world in which we inhabit.  Would it have mattered if someone other than Newton had discovered the laws of gravity?  Objectively, it shouldn’t but there is a need in science, as in the arts, to mark things as one’s own.  Darwin is the name that goes down in history, the first one who is viewed as the thinker of original thought, not poor overlooked Wallace.

Scientific discoveries are all about progress and some would argue that in the arts, this is not the case.  However, McEwan argues that this is the case and each piece of art needs in some way to reveal something new, introduce new standards, ways of thinking.  Just imagine if the novel, a form made popular in the early nineteenth century, was available to Shakespeare – how different would his work be then?

Originality as a concept probably became more prevalent after the Romantic period which focused on the free expression of the artist.  A symptom, therefore, was probably the novel which often documented the feelings and expressions of a protagonist and focused on the individual.  Today, a cult of personality clearly exists with artists; many are revered for their talent and sometimes this interest in the individual overtakes interest in their art.  Past examples of this include artists like Picasso and Byron, whose private lives and characters have fascinated many.

However, in the past, this was not necessarily the case.  Shakespeare, for example, was admired but was not treated any differently for his genius and therefore we actually know very little about his life because no one felt the need to document it.  Bach, the eminent composer, was also treated normally whereas Chopin was a figure of awe and reverence.

It seems then that this quest for originality was not always so, and in some cases it seems rather redundant.  Striving for something that is unique in a world where we are inherently influenced and constrained in some cases by institutional values.  It seems plausible that it could be indicative of the more egotistic society in which we live where we view ourselves as people that can make a difference, despite our relative insignificance in the world.  I found this lecture fascinating and it made me question why I want to write- is it to be able to possess a work of art?  To prove myself as unique and special when I know I’m really not?  Perhaps I’m even influenced by a narcissistic desire to be revered and adored?  Very, very interesting and insightful stuff and still available to listen to on the RSL website.


Just finished reading…

17 Jul

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan


I’d read Atonement by McEwan before (I still can’t make myself watch the film even though I know it’s meant to be amazing) which I absolutely loved.  I tried to read Enduring Love but my sister studied it at school (and didn’t like it) and the copy that lies in our bookshelf is dotted with her notes scribbled in biro and sections covered in neon highlighter which I found far too distracting so I soon gave up.  When I worked at Waterstone’s while at school, all the booksellers got given a copy of McEwan’s novel ‘On Chesil Beach’ which I also loved.  There is something utterly compelling about the way he writes; he sets the scene so vividly and is able to build tension with an amazing level of skill.  It is perhaps the subtlety he employs when writing that is most engaging, drawing the reader in to the world he has created convincingly.

I had read in an interview that McEwan’s earlier work tended to be darker, earning him the nickname Ian McAbre.  This is definitely the case with ‘The Comfort of Strangers’ which explores themes of domestic violence, repressed homosexuality, extreme sadism and masochism.  Not for the faint-hearted.

The story follows a modern couple (Colin and Mary) on holiday in an unnamed city (but most likely Venice) who meet a strange couple (Robert and Caroline).  I guess the title alludes to the fact that after Colin and Mary meet this couple, they become more passionate themselves – spending time with the strange couple seems to ignite some lost passion in Colin and Mary who lock themselves in their hotel room for days afterwards.

All through the novella, McEwan expertly builds a sense of suspense and the story reaches its climax right at the end, which is both chilling and disturbing.  What I especially liked was that McEwan took care to exhibit Robert and Caroline’s motivations – we learn at the beginning of a childhood incident involving Robert and his sisters and his relationship with his father, which helps the reader understand how he has come to form his outmoded opinions on men and women.  Caroline is portrayed as a weak figure when Mary first sees her – a broken, fragile woman trapped in a loveless marriage.  But by the end, we learn of Caroline’s motivations, her desire to be hurt and punished, and her part in the final scene which makes the whole story even more distressing.

The sinister themes are inescapable in the novella and form much of the tension; however, McEwan’s superb illustration of the perils of a long term relationship should not be overlooked.  His poetic prose never fails to amaze me.  He illustrates the lack of passion, over-familiarity and even the sometimes parasitic nature of relationships beautifully by examining Colin and Mary’s relationship.  The quotation below seems to capture this:

This was no longer a great passion. The pleasure was in its unhurried friendliness, the familiarity of its rituals and procedures, the secure, precision-fit of limbs and bodies, comfortable, like a cast returned to its mold. 

I’ve since found out that this has been made into a film starring Rupert Everett as Colin, Natasha Richardson as Mary, Christopher Walken (perennially taking the ‘creepy’ guy roles) and Helen Mirren as Caroline.  In my mind, I have clear ideas of these characters, none of which match the actors cast so I’ll probably give this a miss.. plus the end scene would just be weird to watch…