BEYOND REALISM: IAN MCEWAN'S ATONEMENT AS A POSTMODERNIST QUEST FOR MEANING.
But when another generation had passed, Rabbi Israel Salanter was called upon to perform the task. He sat down in his golden chair in his castle and said, "I cannot light the fire. I cannot speak the prayers. I do not know the place in the forest. But we can tell the story of how it was once done, and that must be sufficient. And sufficient it was. Gershom G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941)
IN "The Absence of Atonement in Atonement" Charles Pastoor defines the book as an "utterly bleak work of fiction that foregrounds its own bleakness" (212). Pastoor wonders "why McEwan wrote such a beautiful novel so completely and utterly devoid of hope" (211), contrasting the author's belief "in the possibility of secular transcendence through art" (212) with his refusal to allow his characters a form of salvation. The result is a novel that draws the reader "to the darkest place possible, a place where all our efforts at atonement come to naught, where words are ultimately powerless where neither love nor art nor science nor self-sacrifice can effect redemption" (213).
These critical statements are cleverly argued, but drifting towards a nihilistic interpretation of McEwan's book may actually amount to a disempowering reading strategy. Far from pivoting solely on Briony's initial failure to respond to the complexity of the surrounding world and subsequent attempts to redress her mistake, McEwan's novel is a daring combination of immersive realism and metafictional deconstruction. (1) As J. Hillis Miller remarks, apropos of Atonement, "I know that the characters are Active, but they seem like real people to me" (92). Due to the empathic reading it engenders, this historiographic metafiction triggers what Miller defines as "Reader's Trauma" (96), eloquently inviting certain assumptions about the narrated world that are ultimately revealed as "grotesquely mistaken" (96). This "traumatic" final twist is central to the book's investigation of the act of meaning-making, at the heart of the human condition.
McEwan confronts his readers with painful forms of awareness, starting from the inevitably constructed and potentially deceiving nature of our perceptions, inferences, and projections--what Walter Pater defined as "each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world" (248). These epistemological concerns--which are rooted in impressionist and modernist literature--combine in Atonement with an ontological reflection on the physical existence, needs, and vulnerabilities of human beings. The novel also conveys a postmodernist investigation into memory and trauma, guilt and atonement, and fiction and history, questioning the ethical import of narratives, and the legitimacy of addressing past events through storytelling.
Although past mistakes and suffering cannot be undone, as Atonement clarifies, the ethical import of McEwan's "performative" novel--which can be termed as a novel of responsibility (Ascari) in relation both to its plot and to its functioning as a textual machine--can be assessed only in relation to the reader's increased awareness of the complexity it engenders. As J. Hillis Miller comments while describing his own response to the book:
In spite of Atonement's infelicity as atonement...it has worked as a felicitous speech act to generate in my imagination an alternative fictive world or several wavering confusingly interchangeable ones. It has brought about in me all sorts of emotions, including the traumatic ones I have stressed in my reading...(104)
What we find at the core of this multidimensional book is actually the reader, whose suspension of disbelief is painfully experienced, given the subject matter, and no less painfully shattered in the end. Far from creating a world where words are ultimately powerless, McEwan's novel both invokes and transcends realism, confronting us with major ethical and representational issues.
Atonement is emblematic of a mature kind of metafiction, which David K. O'Hara describes as "an affirmation of narrative ethics" (74). Focusing on Briony's "move from solipsism...to responsibility" (77), the critic explores her attempt to discard her original "greedy illusion-making" (79) and achieve a "meaningful relation to the world" (89). What may seem paradoxical is the fact that in order to achieve this relatedness one needs to develop an inner narrative that goes beyond realism, for "the ethical imagination needs poetic license to access, as fully and as empathetically as possible, the world of the Other" (91). By authoring her novel, Briony learns "to repeal the primacy of her subjectivity and to imagine empathetically other, uncertain possibilities of experience" (93-94). As we can see, Atonement is very much about experiencing the Other, both in real life, through interpersonal relations, and through the acts of writing and reading.
MCEWAN'S text is divided into four sections, the first three of which are presented as the latest draft of a novel that has been written and rewritten by Briony Tallis in the course of her maturation both as an author and as an individual. The authorial status of Briony is clarified at the end of Part Three, which is signed "BT London 1999" (349). The fourth section of the book ("London, 1999"), on the other hand, is akin to a journal entry in which Briony recounts her seventy-seventh birthday. The final sentence--"But now I must sleep" (372)--symbolically brings Briony's life story to a closure, for the aging writer suffers from vascular dementia and will soon be deprived of language, memory, and identity.
Briony's novel ultimately originates from a mistake she makes at the age of thirteen, when she identifies Robbie as the rapist who assailed Lola. This mistake, in turn, results from a story she had been nurturing during the previous hours, when she came to consider Robbie as a "maniac" (119), appropriating a definition that had been initially coined by Lola. Various factors concur to strengthen Briony's prejudice, ranging from Robbie's letter to Cecilia (which she read instead of simply delivering it) to the sexual encounter between Robbie and Cecilia in the library (which she witnessed from the shadows) and possibly her own attraction for Robbie, who had been the object of her childish infatuation.
Briony's obsession with order mingles with her fundamental self-centeredness, as symbolized by the animals of her toy farm, neatly ranged on the windowsill of her bedroom, all facing towards her. Briony is, moreover, experiencing the volatile condition of a child who is on the verge of puberty, thus prey to simultaneous curiosity and fear of sex. Due to this explosive concoction, Briony utters an accusation whose flimsiness she will realize only at a later stage, striving to expiate her guilt throughout her life. While Briony's unreliable testimony leads to loss and disruption, her subsequent attempt to make sense of events is presented as a form of self-therapy.
Briony's mistake is not rooted in a happily unbound childish imagination, but rather in the turbulent zone between childhood and adolescence, as clarified by a pivotal scene. When Briony realizes that her play will not be given on the night of Leon's arrival, she retires, angry and dejected, to a corner of the park and takes revenge by thrashing the nettle that grows round the little temple on the island in the middle of the lake. By destroying this stinging, useless weed, Briony is punishing both Lola and her twin brothers, who are responsible for her failure. Yet, this revenge also amounts to self-punishment, for Briony is now aware of her own immaturity.
Briony's savage ritual reminds us of L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between (1953), one of the novels McEwan consciously embedded in his pervasively intertextual narrative (Ingersoll 241-58). In a psychologically climactic moment, on the eve of his thirteenth birthday, Leo furiously destroys a poisonous plant that grows near the outhouses where Ted and Marian have their sexual encounters (225). The dangerous beauty and strength of the atropa belladonna symbolize the contradictory emotions--from sexual attraction and love to jealousy--that the boy is confusedly experiencing on the verge of adolescence. Both Leo's and Briony's rituals will ultimately prove self-destructive. Leo will end up being deeply traumatized by the death of Ted, consequent to the discovery of his affair with Marian; Briony's imaginative revenge against Lola will likewise backlash, for it is on the nearby bridge--and in this aggressive mood--that Briony will receive Robbie's letter into her hands, an act leading to her fatal mistake.
What Briony is mourning while wreaking havoc on the surrounding nature is her loss of control over things, which is, paradoxically, due to her growing sense of reality. This coming-of-age novel renders a moment in the process of growing up when, in Freudian terms, the pleasure principle is superseded by the reality principle. (2) The Trials of Arabella is a wish-fulfilling fantasy in which Briony projects herself onto a heroine who achieves a happy ending, but Lola's entrance into Briony's life changes the rules of the game. Due to this rite of passage, Briony comes to regard as puerile both The Trials of Arabella and the fantasy she has developed while thrashing nettles, the idea that she is actually competing in the Olympics: "Her reverie, once rich in plausible details, had become a passing silliness before the hard mass of the actual....Briony had lost her godly power of creation" (my emphasis, 76).
The reality principle has prevailed over the pleasure principle: "she was back in the world, not one she could make, but the one that had made her" (76). However, despite having understood that reality is not shaped by the single individual, Briony does not regard herself as vanquished, but actually defies destiny, and this act of hubris is at the origin of her tragedy:
This was the challenge she was putting to existence--she would not stir, not for dinner, not even for her mother calling her in. She would simply wait on the bridge, calm and obstinate, until events, real events, not her own fantasies, rose to her challenge, and dispelled her insignificance. (77)
No longer content with creating a fantasy world that she can control, Briony needs to be at the center of real events, in order to assert her primacy. Her accusation against Robbie does not stem from her unbound imagination, but paradoxically from the closing of her imagination, from being forced to accept reality and yet insisting on a new unreality.
THE legal paradigm is central to Atonement, where words acquire a "performative" power, exerting an impact on the characters' lives. While the act of bearing witness rests on the truth-value of words, Briony's unreliable testimony will ultimately mold reality in its own shape, confining Robbie to prison. The first part of the book, leading up to Briony's crime, can be described as an atypical legal thriller, in which a hyperactive imagination, once constrained within the boundaries of the real, engenders a biased perception, a short-circuit that results in a miscarriage of justice.
After focusing on Robbie's war experience in Part Two, the novel shifts back to Briony's attempts to atone for what she did. This means for Briony completely refashioning herself, both as a person and as an artist. Briony's penitential strategy is two-pronged--learning to serve as well as to observe. It is through a circuitous, non-linear approach, a process of systematic self-denial, that Briony ultimately asserts herself, becoming a writer.
Briony's path towards redemption--a goal she will not necessarily attain, but which she actively pursues--entails what is termed in the book as "a stripping away of identity" (275). Instead of going to Cambridge, reinforcing her own self-importance, Briony becomes N. Tallis, which stands for Nurse Tallis, and devotes all her time to caring for others. While this choice curtails the time Briony can devote to writing, it is thanks to this process of self-chastisement that she is confronted with the extremes of suffering and the vulnerability of the body. Briony's consciousness of guilt and ensuing expiation through service entwine with her developing talent, teaching her to relate to the Other and discard ready-made answers. Briony's blooming as both a human being and a story-teller rests on her attempt to deconstruct the boundaries of her own ego, defeating the centripetal forces that characterized her narcissistic childhood self. This process fosters an ethical awareness of the complexity of reality and of human interactions.
The final version of Briony's confessional narrative bears the traces of its repeated metamorphoses, as shown by the letter with which literary critic Cyril Connolly rejects Two Figures by a Fountain, the manuscript young Briony sent him (311-15). This short story depicts from a variety of viewpoints the scene in which Cecilia and Robbie--whose unacknowledged sexual attraction turns into mutual embarrassment and irritation--fight for Uncle Clem's vase, ultimately breaking it. As a result, Cecilia dives into the fountain to retrieve the broken pieces, while Robbie is unable to act. Observing the scene from a window, Briony interprets it according to a stereotypical framework of masculine assertiveness and female meekness that warps its meaning, a misunderstanding that anticipates her biased rendering of Lola's rape.
Briony's first adult attempt to acknowledge what happened on a summer night of 1935 is a short story about multiple focalization that restricts its scope to the psychological premises of that traumatic event without coming to grips with it. It is only through a complex process of self-discovery that Briony becomes able to look the Medusa visage of trauma fully in its face without being turned into stone. The result is, surprisingly, a narrative whose relation to reality is as ambivalent as the testimony it is meant to undo. Far from being an unequivocal rendering of reality, the truth and only the truth, what old Briony calls "my forensic memoir" (370) is actually a combination of fact and fiction.
Insofar as it unveils Paul Marshall's crime, the novel cannot be published until the death of both him and Lola, since publication would lead to litigation, as warned by Briony's publisher. Robbie's reputation cannot be cleared yet. While the text's relation to reality makes Briony's act of atonement impossible in the London of 1999, her narrative acquires a hybrid character, co-mingling facts with fiction. When we see Briony paying visit to her sister and discovering that Robbie has come back from the front on a license, we take it for granted that this is still part of a memoir. Towards the end of the book, however, the lovers' meeting is revealed to be but another wish-fulfilling fantasy, for both Cecilia and Robbie actually died during the war without being reunited. What is the meaning of this? Why does a narrative that should purportedly render events faithfully, in the attempt to redress false testimony, veer towards romance?
The answer has to do with the role fictions play in our lives. Briony's guilt stems from an unconscious lie, from her inability to distinguish between reality and imagination. What Briony needs to learn, however, is not simply to tell the truth, but also to lie when this acquires an ethical function, when life requires one to do so. While Oscar Wilde associated the act of lying with aesthetics, in the attempt to proclaim an anti-realistic and amoral view of art, (3) McEwan, no less paradoxically, advocates an ethics of lying.
When Briony is told by Sister Drummond to sit by the bed of a wounded French soldier, a strange exchange takes place, for the delirious young soldier mistakes Briony for an English girl he once met in Millau. At first Briony tries to rectify his perception. Only when she realizes that part of his skull is missing and his brain is visible under the bandages does she surrender to his fantasy. Thus when he asks "Do you love me?" she can only reply "Yes" (309). After this redeeming lie, Briony ceases to be a de-individualized Nurse Tallis and tells the boy her first name (310), as if reconnecting with something within herself. We cannot fail to grasp the correspondence between this scene, in which Briony lies out of compassion--redressing her original destructive lie--and her subsequent choice to "lie" about Cecilia and Robbie, showing them as reunited within her novel, while the war separated them.
Uniting this couple in the alternative world of fiction clearly acquires a compensatory value, but for whom? Is this ritual addressed primarily to the star-crossed lovers, like burying them both in the same tomb? We can adopt such a view, but this rewriting of reality may be primarily addressed to Briony herself, whose vascular dementia is progressively depriving her of the use of her mind, and simultaneously to all of her readers, who are likewise confronted with finitude. This drift towards romance can be considered as Briony's final act of compassion, as implied in the epilogue, where the revelation that Robbie died at Bray Dunes and Cecilia was killed in London is followed by this comment:
What sense or hope or satisfaction could a reader draw from such an account? Who would want to believe that they never met again, never fulfilled their love? Who would want to believe that, except in the service of the bleakest realism? I couldn't do it to them. I'm too old, too frightened, too much in love with the shred of life I have remaining. I face an incoming tide of forgetting, and then oblivion. I no longer possess the courage of my pessimism. (371)
As Eliot wrote in the first of his Four Quartets (1943), "human kind/Cannot bear very much reality" (12). Fictions serve basic psychic needs and Briony has learned to serve rather than stick to any abstract principle. This leads us to Briony's final defense of the fictional world she has created, where the author is as omnipresent as God, the lawgiver, the maker of rules:
I like to think that it isn't weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end. I gave them happiness, but I was not so self-serving as to let them forgive me. Not quite, not yet. If I had the power to conjure them at my birthday celebration...Robbie and Cecilia, still alive, still in love, sitting side by side in the library, smiling at The Trials of Arabella? It's not impossible. (370-71)
Why is Briony unable to conjure Cecilia and Briony at her birthday celebration, turning her purportedly non-fictional epilogue into another piece of fiction? This passage registers an inner debate. It is the novelist herself who sets the limits of her imagination. Briony's mind cannot negotiate forgiveness (yet), but it can negotiate a white lie, which will heal her own psyche as she once healed the psyche of the dying soldier. This lie will ease Briony's drift to unconsciousness, making her last bit of life sweeter. And it will also heal her reader's mind, since all human beings are in need of compassion, the gift of a happy ending.
Concomitantly, the spell this multi-layered narrative casts at one level is exorcized at another level. As readers of McEwan's Atonement, we are simultaneously confronted with the possibility of a happy ending and with its denial. With a postmodernist sense of complexity, the book both invites our suspension of disbelief and prods our critical sense, never allowing us to sit comfortably, but always facing us with aporias and ambivalences. Far from being a nihilistic narrative statement, this can be regarded as an exploration of human resilience, of our unceasing ability to look for meaning in the face of events that seem to deny it and seem to plunge the individual into a sterile condition of despair.
IT WAS in the immediate aftermath of World War Two that Viktor Frankl published Man's Search for Meaning (1946), where he describes both his experiences in Nazi concentration camps and the basic principles of logotherapy, the therapeutic method Frankl devised also in response to his personal experience of deprivation and survival. Starting from the idea that "to find a meaning in one's life is the primary motivational force in man" (121), Frankl's approach to the human psyche does not focus, like Freud's, on the will to pleasure, but on the will to meaning. Frankl lays the emphasis on the uniqueness of each life path, inviting us to say yes to life, and conceiving what might be termed a philosophy of responsiveness:
Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. (131)
As we can see, unlike religion or ideology, logotherapy does not posit any ready-made answers to the existential problem, but invites each human being to find them in the circumstances of their own lives. Paradoxically, according to Frankl, it is only by forgetting themselves that humans can find themselves through what he calls the "self-transcendence of human existence":
being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself....The more one forgets himself--by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love--the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. (133)
We can apply these words to the years Briony spends serving as a nurse, for it is through self-transcendence that she manages to "actualize" herself, to borrow Frankl's terms. Destructive self-assertion is followed by constructive self-denial, which finally enables what Aristotle called Eudaimonia, the harmonious flowering of the self. What makes Briony's story so complex is the fact that this career rests on her simultaneous distancing from and reconnecting with her childhood self.
Having experienced the abuses of her imagination, Briony will have to learn its uses. This process is hinted at already in Part One by a flashforward metafictional section in which Briony's stance as a mature novelist is anticipated as follows:
Six decades later she would describe how at the age of thirteen she had written her way through a whole history of literature ...to arrive at an impartial psychological realism which she had discovered for herself, one special morning during a heat wave in 1935. (41)
As we know, the fountain scene in which Cecilia and Robbie fight for Uncle Clem's vase is the first nucleus of Briony's narrative (the above-mentioned Two Figures by a Fountain), but it will subsequently acquire an even deeper meaning for her through what Briony the old writer calls "self-mythologising" (41). It is only when seen from a distance that Briony's youthful response to a scene she also witnessed from afar comes to symbolize her incipient awareness of complexity:
There did not have to be a moral. She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive. It wasn't only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you. (40)
These words clearly resonate with those McEwan spoke in the first person on a different occasion, when he claimed that of all artistic forms the novel "is the most adept at showing us what it is like to be someone else," since
Within one novel you can live inside many different people's heads, in a way that you of course cannot do in normal life. I think that quality of penetration into other consciousnesses lies at the heart of its moral quest. Knowing, or sensing what it's like to be someone else I think is at the foundations of morality. (qtd in Bradley 23)
Coherently with this remission, Briony's multi-perspectival narrative describes the basic dynamic that makes people unbappy in every present, our inability to cross the boundary of our ego. Briony's adult rendering of her youthful outlook on the world translates into a cautionary tale, a form of experience for her readers. Being human is always in the plural, despite its being in the singular.
What McEwan advocates in this novel is the necessity to go beyond an ego-centric approach to the Other--as exemplified by Briony's fallible investigation, which actually rests on her unawareness of interpersonal complexity, and on unconscious motifs--in order to develop a deeper form of relatedness through empathy, a species of participant observation. In his seminal I and Thou (1923) Martin Buber encapsulates these two attitudes in the opposition between the I-IT and I-Thou forms of relation. (4) While in the I-It relation a subject experiences an object, be it a thing or a person, as distinct from oneself, the I-Thou relation is a meeting in which no boundary can be traced between perceiver and perceived, for this meeting acknowledges and engenders community. Buber is very clear in stating that "the I of the primary word I-Thou is a different / from that of the primary word I-IT." (3) The way in which the I approaches the Other also determines the quality of the I. What is at stake here is both one's outward and one's inward gaze. Objectifying others means objectifying oneself, for every boundary is twofold: "Every IT is bounded by others; It exists only through being bounded by others. But when Thou is spoken, there is no thing. Thou has no bounds" (4).
Buber's approach to the human is tinged with mysticism, since he conceives this meeting between I and Thou as a meeting with the eternal Thou, God. As a proclaimed atheist, McEwan appears to be at the opposite end of the metaphysical spectrum. A patron of Humanists UK, (5) McEwan has been labelled by Bradley and Tate as "The New Atheist novelist par excellence" (16) in an essay when they underline his affinity with the New Atheism movement, which gained momentum in the wake of 9/11. The two critics go to the extent of claiming that if his fiction did not already exist, "Dawkins and company would have had to invent it, so completely does it vindicate their world view" (16). Without questioning McEwan's commitment to atheism, other critics problematize the status of his fiction and essays, as shown by Johannes Wally's claim that
the concepts lying at the core of these texts might seem perplexing when related to what is often perceived as an atheist stance. They revolve around the notions of 'love' and 'empathy' and their inversion 'narcissism' and 'solipsism.' (100)
Although empathy does not inevitably evoke a spiritual approach to life, being easily explained in neuroscientific terms, Wally is not the only critic who questions attempts to cast McEwan into the unproblematically militant role of a New Atheist novelist. As M. M. Owen observes, a deep-seated worry runs across Enduring Love, Atonement, and Saturday, which the critic encapsulates in these questions: "Do the imaginative capacities that give us literature in fact share more with the religious impulse than the faculty of reason? Is the novel quite the atheistic form [McEwan] would like it to be?"
While science proclaims its materialist allegiance to truth, fabulating is dangerously close to the metaphysical. Can meaning derive from lying as well as from truth? From emotional fulfilment as well as from rational certainty? For, like mysticism, fiction is rooted in our emotional life, whose relation to the cognitive dimension has been reassessed by Martha Nussbaum in her scholarly investigation of the role emotions play in judgments and evaluations. Emotions are actually at the core of ethics. Are they entitled to play that role as fully as reason? Taking an evolutionary approach to the storytelling mode human beings activate while reading, dreaming, and fantasizing, Jonathan Gottschall describes fiction as "an ancient virtual reality technology" (59) that arguably works because of mirror neurons, also reminding us that "stories affect us physically, not just mentally" (61). Far from being parasitical on life, fictions are a form of experience, as McEwan acknowledged in the aftermath of 9/11:
This is the nature of empathy, to think oneself into the minds of others....If the hijackers had been able to imagine themselves into the thoughts and feelings of the passengers, they would have been unable to proceed....Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality. The hijackers used fanatical certainty, misplaced religious faith, and dehumanising hatred to purge themselves of the human instinct for empathy. Among their crimes was a failure of the imagination. (Guardian)
A TONEMENT is a philosophical novel about the instability of the human condition, about our ever-frustrated and ever-resurging quest for meaning and relatedness. Briony's lifelong attempt to come to terms with her guilt--stemming from her failure to empathize--is no more than a striving, an aspiration: "No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all" (371). These words sound both as a declaration of defeat and as an invitation to persevere. They qualify Atonement as predicated on the tension between polar opposites, eschewing any reassuringly univocal interpretation. As argued by Peter Mathews, "The Aristotelian principle of contradiction, so perfectly symmetrical in its logic, is brought into question throughout Atonement" (150). The novel is locked in an aporia.
This narrative choice resonates with McEwan's existential and ethical stances, with his rejection of binary reasoning--"I don't really believe in evil at all. I mean, I don't believe in God" (qtd. in Whitney)--and conversely his recognition of psychological and political complexities. The result is a narrative that invites unceasing questioning, working as an antidote against any "fundamentalist" attitude: "as I get older, I begin to feel that actually what we need more in the world is doubt; more skepticism, less crazed certainty" (qtd. in Whitney).
Due to its inherent ambiguity, Atonement is the most Jamesian of McEwan's novels, as shown by its intertextual connection with Henry James's The Golden Bowl (1904). This novel's central trope--a gilded crystal that hides an underlying crack--translates into the vase Uncle Clem was given during World War One by the grateful inhabitants of a small town he saved, before dying himself at the end of the conflict. Maria Margaronis explores the significance of this symbolic object while considering Atonement as a historical novel that depicts the troubled times of World War Two. The critic regards the vase as an objective correlative of the entire book, "the reification of a wartime past beyond the characters' experience" (148), and regards its final destruction at the hands of a maid as evocative of our progressive distancing from past events, of the frailty of memory and material evidence.
Like other historiographic metafictions that stem from a postmodernist age of suspicion, Atonement simultaneously constructs and deconstructs, weaving a spell and denouncing it as a fraud. Thus, the story of Briony's first guilty then penitent rewriting of reality can be read as an extended commentary on Part Two, a carefully researched and deceptively unproblematic realistic rendering of the retreat of Dunkirk as filtered through Robbie's perception. This is the core of a novel that in the eyes of Margaronis explores issues "of authenticity, exploitation and responsibility" (138), calling into question "not only what novelists do with their research and experience but their motives for doing it" (141).
Following in the footsteps of Natasha Alden, we can read Atonement within the framework of postmemory war fiction, as McEwan's attempt to come to terms with the experience of the previous generation, including of course his parents. This interpretative stance highlights the relation between Briony's guilt and the war itself, as shown by the reflections Robbie makes soon before dying: "But what was guilt these days? It was cheap. Everyone was guilty, and no one was. No one would be redeemed by a change of evidence....The witnesses were guilty too" (261).
As argued by George Letissier, the title of McEwan's novel "echoes many philosophical reflections that emerged in the aftermath of the Holocaust" (209). Although the camps are not explicitly mentioned in the book, this is the heart of darkness at the core of twentieth-century history, the past that the perpetrators wanted to erase and that we can only rewrite as a memorial duty despite the inanity of any attempt to comprehend it. We can regard Atonement as yet another effort to address the question Theodor Adorno famously posed in "Cultural Criticism and Society" (1951) when he claimed that "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" (34), a position the philosopher revised in Negative Dialectics (1966):
Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question of whether after Auschwitz you can go on living--especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living. His mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz; this is the drastic guilt of him who was spared. By way of atonement he will be plagued by dreams such as that he is no longer living at all, that he was sent to the ovens in 1944 and his whole existence since has been imaginary...(362-63)
These words implicitly invite us all to empathize with the "guilty" condition of survivors. They invite us all to become, by way of atonement, ghosts of our former selves, discarding the form of subjectivity that made Auschwitz possible. What this passage evokes is not a sterile form of mourning, but a process of self-fashioning akin to what Briony experiences. The whole of Atonement conveys the necessity and yet impossibility of atoning for the evil that manifested itself at the apex of modernity and at the core of European civilization. (6)
We should not forget that McEwan had already addressed twentieth-century European totalitarianisms, civil conflicts, and genocides in Black Dogs (1992), whose title evokes the novel's central trope for the resurgence of violence within civilization. A little play on words suffices to metamorphose the novel's black dogs into black gods, a term I take to encapsulate the dark side of belief, all those shades of faith that trigger violence and destruction. Two alternative views of life are juxtaposed through the main characters--Bernard and June, who embody the conflict between science and mysticism--without reaching a reassuring synthesis. What husband and wife have in common, however, despite their estrangement, is precisely "their capacity, their appetite, for belief" (13), which contrasts with the agnostic attitude of the narrator, who concludes: "Bernard and June are the extremities, the twin poles along whose slippery axis my own unbelief slithers and never comes to rest" (14).
As in Black Dogs, in Atonement McEwan again prevents his readers from achieving a reassuring balance, this time questioning the capital issue of realism in representation. Far from being self-sufficient and victorious in its fictional echoing of science, due to their mutual relation with truth, realism in Atonement ends up evoking--even invoking-its others, interrogating our relation with reality itself. What this novel ultimately investigates is the ethical status of fictions at large, of both novels and our imaginative attempts to make sense of things.
The condition of lawlessness and the impossibility of atonement Briony experiences as an atheist story-writer resonate with the existential condition her author and many other individuals experience in a Western world that is being progressively deprived of God as the ultimate source of authority and meaning. Far from being nihilistic, however, Atonement spells out an ethical imperative that consists in accepting a mission impossible. In the absence of a self-revealed, provident creator, rules have to be (re)defined in the here and now. In such a world there may be no atonement for the past, but the attempt is what makes us human.
(1) McEwan has recently explored another facet of this technique--or epistemological short-circuit--in Sweet Tooth (2012), where we are likewise presented with a fictional world that is ultimately revealed to be metafictional. While in Atonement the heroine turns out to be an auto-fictional author, what we have here is a first-person retrospective narrative that is defused of its confessional nature in the last chapter--a letter to the narrator by the author of the preceding chapters. Once again, our immersive experience is shown to be virtual already within the boundaries of the fictional world. Our belief that we had access to the consciousness of the heroine--Serena-is shown to have been an illusion, but the referential grounding of the fictional world is actually reinstated, since the author of what we now regard as an inset narrative is the narrator's lover, Tom Haley. Thus, in the end, Serena and the other characters are presented as real-life figures and suspension of disbelief is invoked once again. This complex structure acquires a meaning in relation to the subject matter of the book, whose heroine is an MI5 female agent. Deeply differing from Atonement in terms of tone, Sweet Tooth is a spy story that humorously investigates the complex overlaps between reality and its representations through ideology and strategy, duplicity and manipulation. In the eyes of Charles Pastoor. while Atonement is pervaded by the authorial agency of Briony, Sweet Tooth acknowledges the cooperative role of the reader in the meaning-making process: "Serena being the reader whose response will ultimately determine how the gaps Tom leaves [in his narrative] are to be filled by either rejecting or embracing the offer [of marriage] he makes" (306).
(2) The dialectics between these two aspects of our psychic life, which Freud contrasted in Two Principles of Mental Functioning (1911) is discussed in relation to the sphere of playing at the beginning of Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), where Freud explores the issue of trauma (4-12).
(3) In Wilde's "The Decay of Lying" (1889), lying becomes a trope for the artist's creative faculty, since "No great artist ever sees things as they really are" (988). Detaching creation from reality and presenting meaning as produced in the act of reading--as shown by the Preface to the 1891 edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray, where one reads "It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors" (17)-enabled Wilde to free the writer from any ethical responsibility.
(4) I wish to thank Roy David Frankel for introducing me to this book.
(5) See <https://humanism.org.uk/about/our-people/patrons/ian-mcewan/>
(6) As Gerd Bayer reminds us, Atonement invites us to ponder "whether any story about traumatic events that lingers on a positive outcome is not an act of betrayal committed on the victim at the hands of the somewhat voyeuristic onlooker" (222).
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Alden, Natasha. Reading behind the Lines: Postmemory in British War Fiction. Manchester and New York: Manchester UP, 2014.
Ascari, Maurizio. Literature of the Global Age: A Critical Study of Transcultural Narratives. Jefferson (NC) and London: McFarland, 2011.
Bayer, Gerd. "Trauma and the Literature of War." Trauma and Literature. Ed. Roger Kurtz. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2018. 213-25.
Bradley, Arthur and Andrew Tate. The New Atheist Novel: Fiction, Philosophy and Polemic After 9/11. London: Continuum, 2010.
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--. Black Dogs (1992). London: Vintage Books, 2010.
--. "Only love and then oblivion. Love was all they had to set against their murderers." The Guardian (15 September 2001). <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/sep/15/september11.politicsphilosophyandsociety2>
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Pastoor, Charles. "The Absence of Atonement in Atonement" Renascence 66.3 (Summer 2014): 203-15.
--. "Authorial Atonement in Ian McEwan's Atonement and Sweet Tooth." Christianity & Literature 68.2 (2019): 297-310.
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Wilde, Oscar. "The Decay of Lying" (1889). The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Introduction by Vyvyan Holland. London and Glasgow: Collins, 1966. 970-92.
--. Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Introduction by Vyvyan Holland. London and Glasgow: Collins, 1966. 17.
Maurizio Ascari teaches English Literature at the University of Bologna (Italy). His publications include books and essays on crime fiction (A Counter-History of Crime Fiction, 2007, obtained a nomination for the Edgar Awards), transcultural literature (Literature of the Global Age, 2011) and interart exchanges (Cinema and the Imagination in [Catherine Mansfield's Writing, 2014). He has also edited and translated works by Henry James, Katherine Mansfield, William Faulkner, Jack London, and William Wilkie Collins.
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|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2019|
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