Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Selective Mercies

In the third section of Ian McEwan's Saturday, Henry visits a fish market in Marylebone to select the ingredients for the dinner he is planning to prepare for his family that evening. As he surveys the creatures--both dead and alive--on sale before him, he contemplates the reasons why he is comfortable ordering lobster in a restaurant, but not purchasing a live one to prepare himself at home. He concludes these reflections with the following:

"The trick, as always, the key to human success and domination, is to be selective in your mercies. For all the discerning talk, it's the close at hand, the visible that exerts the overpowering force. And what you don't see...That's why in gentle Marylebone the world seems so entirely at peace." (128)

As a neurosurgeon, what Henry Perowne sees is very different from what many other people might. A quick visual assessment of a person he sees even from a distance can present him with enough information for a diagnosis of what is amiss deep within that person's brain (or even his or her genetic code). Although Henry can see Baxter's suffering--past, present, and future--he is unable to recognize much of the man in front of him. He recognizes enough of Baxter's humanity to diagnose him and know to use that information against him, but not enough to sympathize with the pride he has insulted and the desperation he has aggravated.

Henry's mercy is selective, as is his vision. He has mercy on Baxter as a neurological problem, but not as a person. By almost any worldly standard, Henry Perowne is a successful man--a well-regarded professional with a good career, a beautiful home, and a loving family. His life is a happy one, but happy in part because he is selective in his mercies--he allows himself to be affected only by what he sees, and sees only what he wants to.

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