Sunday, January 27, 2008

Ian McEwan as the Mental Archaeologist

It is surely no mere coincidence that McEwan's protagonist, Henry Perowne, makes his living dissecting, examining, and repairing the human brain. As a neurosurgeon, Perowne, on an almost daily basis, has access to the chemical and physical nuances of the human brain, as he lays bare the object responsible for the functioning of every man's conscious existence. With his novel, Saturday, McEwan performs an almost identical task, offering his readers a glimpse into Henry Perowne's every mental process with his sometimes embarrassingly intimate account of a single day in this man's life.

McEwan acknowledges this comparison, these professional mirror images, with Perowne's recollection of a tour he and his colleagues took of Emperor Nero's abandoned palace during a neurosurgery symposium in Rome. Buried by the rubble of history, the palace is an underground affair, only partially open to the public. McEwan writes,

The palace lay undiscovered for five hundred years under rubble until the early Renaissance...A curator pointed out a jagged hole far above them in an immense domed ceiling. This was where fifteenth-century robbers dug through to steal gold leaf. Later Raphael and Michelangelo had themselves lowered down on ropes; marvelling, they copied the designs and paintings their smoking torches revealed. Their own work was profoundly influenced by these incursions. Through his translator, Signor Veltroni offered an image he thought might appeal to his guests; the artists had drilled through this skull of brick to discover the mind of ancient Rome. (McEwan, 249)

Though in the next paragraph Perowne laments the inaccuracy of the comparison, noting that his efforts expose only the brain and not the mind, McEwan's likening of himself to the Renaissance masters is clear. By writing such a novel, he has exposed the elements of human consciousness. Later, in surgery, Perowne acknowledges the limitations of sciences in understanding "how this well-protected one kilogram or so of cells actually encodes information, how it holds experiences, memories, dreams and intentions." (McEwan, 262) For McEwan, who is less of a neurologist and more of a mental archaeologist, the every detail of a day in this "kilogram of cells" operation becomes the stuff of literature, an examination of the human experience.

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